Temper, Temper

I have anger issues.

Or rather, I have a single anger issue. It’s not an issue clouded in a dangerous red haze, that bursts from my forehead like the emotional descendant of Athena, explosively demanding TO SPEAK TO THE MANAGER!

No.

It’s the other kind of issue. My anger issue is that I am not terribly good at expressing my anger. Either I am emotionally involved – in which case my eyes invariably leak in a way that looks suspiciously like crying but is, in fact, just a watery expression of intense frustration – or I am not emotionally involved, in which case I would just rather not, thankyouverymuch. Here is how my (unemotional) anger tends to develop:

The idiot does something idiotic.

I try to ignore it.

The idiot continues to do the idiotic thing.

I consider the fact that perhaps the idiot doesn’t know any better and is, in fact, doing what they think is right. I continue to try to ignore them.

The idiot starts involving me directly and pre-emptively defends their idiotic position out of a (valid) fear of being judged.

I feel a twinge of pity that the idiot finds this idiocy a productive use of their time. I think about the many things the idiot could be doing instead, like reading, or going to the zoo, or taking a long walk. I feel a sort of remote concern about the life circumstances that have brought them to this point. I wonder about their parents and whether or not they have any friends. I take a long, slow breath and calmly explain my point of view to the idiot, while accepting that they clearly have their own view of the matter at hand. I tell them they don’t need to agree, they just need to try to at least understand that others feel differently.

The idiot does not understand. The idiot does not even try. The idiot simply gets louder, more annoying and more aggressive about their idiocy.

I start to feel a stirring of annoyance. Not because they are an idiot – after all, I’ve already concluded that they probably can’t help it; who chooses to be an idiot, after all? – I just really dislike loudness. Can’t we keep it to regular decibels? Is the hysteria really necessary? I regret not having bought ear plugs with my last amazon order. I ask them to keep it down, please. I ask them not to scream in my ear, because it happens to be quite disagreeable. Also, I am not hard of hearing and would really prefer for this discussion to come to an end with this still being the case.

The idiot ignores me and continues to shout, but is now approaching a sort of feverish level of rage, and so the shouting is louder and more unpleasant. Their face has turned an unflattering shade of puce and their hands are trembling with indignation.

Now I can feel that strange, unfurling of anger deep in my stomach. A small part of me is stirring, galvanised by the grating sound of unrestrained agitation. The idiot cannot tell, of course, because this part of me is well concealed beneath layers of decorum. I cut in while they’re taking a wheezing breath. I speak the idiot’s position back to them, to make sure I’ve grasped their (idiotic) point, and then make my argument as clearly and concisely as possible. Again.

The idiot is INFLAMED that I might understand their position and still argue against it. They escalate into a mad frenzy of spit-flinging fury. At this stage they are so psychotically furious their words have devolved into incoherence, and I can only lean back and watch the spittle fly.

Now I am angry. Actually angry. I can feel my entire body stiffen with adrenaline and blaze with a rage that has been slowly brought the boil…

…And I’m out. I’m sorry, but I really don’t believe there’s anything to be gained once the idiot is foaming at the mouth. I say something like, “Okay, let’s just leave it. We’re not getting anywhere with this.” Then I walk away, my veins pulsating with unreleased anger. I go for a walk. I let the cool air bring my temperature back down until it’s no longer the same as that of an exploding star. I read. I go to the zoo.

Sometimes I enjoy a flicker of satisfaction in imagining how it would feel to yell “YOU RUDE, INSUFFERABLE GODDAMN IMBECILE! CAN YOU PLEASE RUB THE TWO LONELY BRAIN CELLS THAT ARE FLOATING AROUND IN THAT THICK SKULL TOGETHER AND GET THEM TO START A SMALL SPARK OF UNDERSTANDING! THERE’S NO REASON TO BE SUCH A HEINOUS TOOLBAG, FOR GOD’S SAKE!”

But it never makes its way to the surface. It stays stuck in my throat like a spiny hairball. I swallow it down while I’m on my long walk. It sinks to the bottom of my stomach where it joins the rest of them; the many words of anger that are left unspoken. My anger issues.

Toast Seems to be The Hardest Word

I look at the brunch menu in my hand as if it is written in Sanskrit.

What is ‘endive’? 

Why ‘avocado bruschetta’ and not just regular bruschetta?

Why a ‘3-egg omelette’? Who needs three eggs in the morning? Isn’t that awfully inflexible? What happened to poached eggs and toast?

I flip the menu over and finally find what I was looking for; namely scrambled eggs on toast, goujons, french toast, and bacon butties. They are clustered together in a section marked disdainfully as only for ‘Under 12’s’.

Ridiculous, I think, flapping the menu in distress. Are omelettes now considered more mature than scrambled eggs? Does the way you like your eggs say something fundamental about you as a person? I have obviously missed the memo explaining that when you reach the age of 12 you have to put away childish things and scrambled eggs on toast.

I place the menu flat on the table as the waiter approaches and look up at his expressionless face.

“Hi! Could I order off the under 12’s menu please?”

He blinks slowly at me. His mouth gives the tiniest twitch, one corner of his mouth twisting ever so slightly downwards. I don’t know it yet, but this is actually the only bit of expression I will manage to elicit from him over the course of brunch.

“Yeeees.”

The tone is so flat it’s hard to know how he feels about this lapse in protocol.

“Oh great!” I beam. His face stays stony. “Can I… err… Can I get the scrambled eggs on toast then please?”

His eyes flick down to the notepad in his hand.

“Scrambled eggs,” he intones. I wondered whether he is repeating it to himself or asking me to make sure it’s correct. I decide I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference either way. This man had clearly never heard of inflections.

“Yep!” I say, just to be clear. I point at the menu item. “Scrambled eggs on toast!”

He moves on with the order, and I sit back, happy to have avoided the fate of the adult omelette. Honestly. Nobody needs three eggs in a single meal. Especially not considering my cholesterol levels.

Fifteen minutes later, my scrambled eggs appear.

…Only my scrambled eggs appear.

My (at least) three-egg serving of scrambled eggs has somehow been wrangled into a circular form in the middle of my plate. It looks like a giant flan gone horribly wrong. An inedible amount of watercress has been strewn across the plate with reckless abandon.  I say a quick prayer for any under-12 who has ever been faced with this monstrous portion of scrambled egg.

There is no sign of toast.

I silently accept the scrambled egg cake, eyeing it warily. I feel like I have suddenly been entered in an all-the-eggs-you-can-eat competition. I am unprepared. I tentatively tear into the quivering yellow creation with my fork. Three bites in, I decide I cannot continue without toast to break up the monotony of all that egg. I make my way over to the waiter, who is across the room standing next to the bar.

“Hi!” I smile. He turns towards me. He does not return the smile. He looks neither surprised nor annoyed to see me there. His face simply does not move at all.

I forge ahead.

“Can I please get some toast?”

There is a brief pause as the words float through the air, enter his ears, and swim around in his mind. He digests them, and then his lids lift just enough for his eyes to find mine.

“Bread.”

Again, question or statement? Hard to know. I hedge my bets.

“… Toast…?” I say hopefully.

He gives the smallest of nods and then walks stiffly away.

Five minutes later, as I am busy deconstructing the egg abnormality, he reemerges and approaches us with a wooden walk that might scream ‘I WOULD RATHER BE PICKING JAGGED SPLINTERS OUT FROM UNDER MY FINGERNAILS’ or else might just be his strangely inflexible natural gait. It really could be either. He bends slightly at the waist and puts down a plate containing two small circular slices of bread.

I stare at it, nonplussed.

“Thanks” I eventually mutter, more out of reflex than genuine gratitude. I am still staring at the bread. Our waiter receives my thanks without so much as a glimmer of acknowledgment, and immediately travels back to his spot beside the bar. His face – for a change – betrays nothing at all.

My mind ticks over as I butter the bread. I did ask for toast, I think to myself as my knife gouges the soft white crumb. Three times! Toast! Is toast an uncommon request now? Is this an unspoken rule like the adult omelettes? Am I that out of the loop? Is there some other way to ask for toast? Did he do it on purpose? Is he over there now, laughing at my futile attempts to get a regular, normal, single portion of scrambled eggs on toast?

I surreptitiously eye him up. He is standing stock still, staring at a light fixture, his face an impressive blank. No, I decide. This man is clearly not capable of such a stretch in emotional range.

Baffled, I eat my bread discs. I leave nothing but the watercress behind, and briefly wonder if it’s possible to overdose on scrambled eggs.

Then I pay and, because I’m a sucker, I tip him the standard 10%.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Staying Alive

The other day, while out walking with a friend, we took a detour on our way home and found ourselves in an old cemetery.

It was, as she put it, the sort of place Tom Riddle might show up to challenge you to a wand duel. The ground, bulging with overgrown roots, was uneven and covered over with long blades of grass that soaked us to the ankles. Most of the engravings on the oldest headstones were illegible; the inscriptions had been gently buffed to smoothness by the passing of time. Speckled with lichen and pushed by either weather or slowly shifting soil, the stones leaned drunkenly at different angles. We wandered between them, calling out unusual names to each other or pointing out particularly old dates. Some went back to the 1800’s.

We found a few sad ones; children, siblings, husbands who died in their thirties with wives who died in their seventies. We found a few interesting ones; a headstone marked the passing of a man named Lemon Booth who had died in 1910 (I pictured him as a kindly eccentric with a penchant for wearing yellow). We also found a slab of what we assume is a family crypt dug into the foundations of what used to be a church.

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Some people strongly dislike graveyards. They find them creepy, or depressing, or taboo in a way that makes their skin crawl. The thought of dead people underfoot gives them the heebiejeebies. Some people feel it’s almost sacrilegious to walk through a cemetery full of people you have no connection to, propelled by nothing but curiosity. Some think that cemeteries should only be for the broken-hearted. Some think that it should only ever be a private place for grieving and goodbyes.

I actually quite like them.

Not – obviously – during burials, when my heart feels like it’s being finely grated into ribbons of despair and deposited straight into the ground with the coffin… but after. Later. I find comfort in the fact that so it has been and so it will always be; humans losing loved ones and creating rituals to say goodbye, with something tangible to mark the passing of generally unremarkable people. That’s you, and me, and most people. We, the Wikipedia-entry-less.  We, the people who live important lives but on a private scale. We, the remarkable unremarkable. We live full, busy lives of friendships, and stories, and memories. We have favourite activities, and things we are most proud of, and quirks that are unique to us. We laugh and cry and develop habits and grieve and love and then, at some point, we die and leave it all behind.

Honestly, I hate the idea as much as the next person. Saying goodbye to loved ones has always been so hard, and although my grief stems from not wanting them to ever leave my life, a small part of it also comes from the sadness that comes with the thought of leaving my life. I grieve for myself, but I also grieve on their behalf, for their having to say goodbye to everything. I love this world, the colours in it, the smell of petrichor, the taste of freshly baked bread, the feeling of a badly-needed hug, the sound of a loved one laughing. I love this world, even with the really rubbish bits. Even with the tragedies. Even with the dangers. Even with the Trumps.

I like my unremarkable life. I like being alive.

They say you die twice. Once when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time. I always think of this as I read the names on headstones, shaping the consonants beneath my breath, taking a moment to wonder about the person behind the name, and the life that person left behind.

It comforts me to think that over a hundred years from now, someone might find the marker of my unremarkable life and say my name aloud, wondering about me…

Keeping me alive a little longer.

 

 

Hello

I carried a towering pile of items to the till and placed them on the belt.

“Hi!” said the cashier.

The friendly chirpiness in her voice was probably due to the fact that it was almost closing time, but that’s just a guess. I smiled and returned the greeting, and then focused all of my limited attention on placing the heavy items at the front of the pile so I could bag them the proper way.

Little known fact, but that’s actually what adulting is all about; trying not to smoosh the brie beneath tins of tomatoes. True fact.

The cashier made a comment about the weather, and my friend smiled and agreed while I expertly separated the items in order of weight. I dropped the cartons of milk into the bottom of the bag, followed by the tins of tomatoes and the packet of pasta. I eyed the brie and broccoli as the cashier scanned it through. I was determined to absolutely nail this bagging business.

As an unrelated aside – it’s amazing the things you can trick your mind into thinking are little victories when the going gets tough.

Five minutes later, everything was carefully bagged and paid for. The cashier handed me the receipt. She smiled warmly and said, “Have a good evening now!” to which I naturally replied…

“Hello.”

Not an ‘oh hello, didn’t see you there’ type of hello.

Not a nice, friendly, ‘Hello!!’

Just a flat, short, “Hello” in the same tone you would use if you were to automatically mutter, “Thanks” to a cashier who had just handed you a receipt.

…Which is what I was aiming for when my mind panicked and “Hello” popped out instead.

Cue an awkward pause as the cashier narrowed her eyes at me, probably trying to determine if I had some form of short-term amnesia. I grabbed the bag, turned on my heel and walked right out of the shop while screaming internally.

All this to say that today is my one year blogiversary. I know this because WordPress sent me a little notification to remind me. Thanks WordPress! One year on and I am still having awkward interactions with strangers. One year on and I am still embarrassing myself so you don’t have to. One year on and I am still waiting on that damn manual.

But in the meantime, I’ve got you guys to keep me company.

Hello!

 

Questionable Decisions

The delivery man called me a few minutes after ten o’clock.

“I’m on my way to ye now!” He said, his voice bubbling with confidence. “How do I find ye?”

I spun slowly on one foot, chewing my lip as I considered my geographical ignorance.

“It’s just…. through the village?” I said, my voice lilting upward at the end because I sincerely hadn’t a clue.

Frantically I attempted to chart the course in my mind, but it was just a hodgepodge of picture-book images in there; the post office, the church, the water pump. Was the church before or after the post office? Where was the water pump in relation to either of those? I stared blindly out the window at the rain as the delivery driver rattled down the country roads towards me.

“Alright,” he yelled over the sound of the rain. “I’ll stay on the phone. Now, I’m just at a turn that has me facin’ the post office-”

“Oh!” I shouted, like a contestant on a quiz show. If I’d had a buzzer I would have slammed my hand down. I knew this one! “Turn left there!”

I heard the click-click-click of the indicator snap on.

“Okay and now I’m passin’ a school-”

An image flashed in my brain and I cut in again.

“Yep! Just… if you just keep going past the school and past all the houses…”

“I’m passin’… another school it looks like-”

“Yep, keep going, past that…”

“An’ now I’m passin’ a house with a yella door-”

“Yep, yep keep going, you’ll reach a long stretch of nothing and then there’s a gate on the right that’s sort of at the end of the hedgerow…”

“Is it a long driveway? Have ye a blue door?”

“Yes!”

“Ah I’m here now so.”

“Great! Thanks! If you drive around to the back…”

“Okay will do.”

I raced to the back porch and pulled open the door as the white delivery van swung round the corner. I lifted one foot to step outside and saw that the path down the garden was almost flooded. I glanced mournfully down at my unicorn slippers, then up at the driver, hunched over, dragging a box out of the back of the van. Not wanting to get my unicorns wet, but also not wanting the driver to get soaked to the skin waiting for me to find a pair of shoes, I kicked off the slippers and hopped down the flagstones on my tiptoes.

When I reached the man, he was watching me warily.

“Did ye just-” He paused as he handed me the scanner. “Did I just see ye kick yer shoes off to come outside? In the rain? Where it’s wet?”

I made a mangled stab at signing my name with the tip of my finger, then handed him back the device. There was a moment of silence as we both looked down at my feet, now shiny from the rain.

“Yes,” I said, since there didn’t seem any point in denying it.

“Alright so!”

He smiled at me with a slight frown. It was a gentle smile, a kindly-but-concerned smile. The sort of amiable, uncertain smile you give people when you’re not quite sure they’re right in the head. I briefly wondered if there was anything I could say to defend my questionable decision.

Probably not.

He looked down at my feet again, raised his eyebrows in an expression that seemed to say, ‘Well I’ve seen it all now!’, then got back in his van and backed out of the driveway as I skipped back over the flagstones to my warm fluffy unicorn slippers.

 

2018

We are now in 2018. Welcome everybody! Grab a glass of bubbly! I’m glad we both made it. It’s so good to see you again!

I always start the new year with a niggling feeling like I just barely made it through a stargate and am now standing in a random field, swinging my arms, wondering what happens next. I swear I spend the first week of the year with a cloud above my head that says, ‘NOW WHAT?’ in bubble lettering.

Even though the passing of a year is fairly arbitrary.

Even though it makes no real difference.

Even though it should just be a continuation of what came before, and not some odd date on the calendar that feels like a new page, a clean slate, a blank wall of concrete staring you in the face when you have an unused can of spray paint in your hand.

It’s time to start over.

You know….

Again.

So here we are, in the future of the past which is now the present. I rang in the New Year in Spain, choking on grapes and crying with laughter. I spent the first day of 2018 exploring small towns with medieval walls, before chasing down chocolate con churros with a single-minded focus usually found in bloodhounds on a hunt.

Nothing gets between me and my churros.

Today, the world is glitteringly cold. The sky is a clear, pale blue and if you run outside in your socks (as I – very briefly – did), it feels as if your feet might stick to the ground, rooting you to the spot, freezing you to the flagstones. Everything has been delicately brushed with a thin coating of twinkling frost. In patches of sunlight the ice has melted away, retreating to the safety of the shade, revealing the bright, true green of the grass or the vibrant red of the few remaining autumn leaves.

I have no list for this year. No boxes to check. No impossible goals or overly ambitious aims. Instead I have a word that I’m hoping will propel me into the new year with all the fire and energy I felt I was lacking last year:

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Great things happened in 2017! I visited Mexico! I visited Bali! I swam with sea turtles! I got engaged! I got two enormous kittens with over-sized portions of personality! I planned an apartment overhaul that has turned us into nomads with capsule wardrobes that consist of jeans and more jeans (the toilet did eventually arrive by the way, for those of you who have spent the holidays on tenterhooks waiting for an update about our plumbing)!

I’m hoping that by the end of this month, we will be in apartment 2.0. I’m hoping that it will be the first of many great things in 2018. Part of making that happen, however, involves taking action and pulling on a blue boiler suit (size XL; I look like nothing so much as The Michelin Man in a cleanroom) and a respirator so I can continue the work I started yesterday*.

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So far, ‘action’ is turning out to be deeply uncomfortable…

If you have a word or a resolution, let me know – I find they rub off on me sometimes! Whether you do or you don’t, I wish you all the luck in this new year. I wish you personal successes and private accomplishments. I wish you joy, and love, and happiness. I wish you a minimum of tears (unless they’re from laughter – those are allowed), and I wish you pride in yourself, bravery in your actions, good company and great friends.

Now if you could all just wish me a bit of sunshine so that I don’t freeze and spend the first month of 2018 as a glittering but immobile garden gnome….

 

*I am in the middle of spray painting our kitchen cabinets, and it is both messier and slower than is truly ideal in minus degrees.

 

One Stranger, Two Viewpoints, Three Drinks

 

One STRANGERTwo viewpointsthree drinks

I had a pretty interesting but slightly infuriating conversation over the weekend.

It wasn’t really that infuriating at the time, because I had already had two vodka & cranberries and at that stage I’m content to slip easily into the role of Devil’s Advocate on any given subject. I don’t know about you, but I’m a happy drinker. After a drink, I just want to do two things: talk and dance. I don’t much mind where you want to take the conversation, I’m happy for you to take the lead as long as I have a white russian in hand.

Unfortunately at the weekend I didn’t have a white russian. Instead, I had just started on my third vodka and cranberry when this man engaged me in conversation. He began by asking me where I was from (of course), and then launched into a lyrical ode to his home county, which I won’t name here. He asked me what I knew of it, to which I replied, honestly, that absolutely nothing was coming to mind. No landmarks, no tourist hotspots, no holiday destinations. My mind was a total, freewheeling blank. He puffed out his chest and told me that actually, it was one of the most beautiful places in Ireland. I lifted a skeptical eyebrow and pulled my phone out of my pocket. Slowly and deliberately, I typed “Things To Do In _________” into my search bar, partly because I was curious as to what would come up, but mostly just to rile him. Which it did! Only not in the way I was expecting.

“THAT’S WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD!” He yelled over the music.

“Google?” I asked, confused.

“NO, EVERYTHING. GOOGLE. PHONES! I TELL YOU THAT _______ IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE AND THE FIRST THING YOU DO IS PULL OUT YOUR PHONE INSTEAD OF JUST BELIEVING ME!”

I bit back a laugh, because yes, I do tend to believe aggregated opinions of many different people over the sole (biased) opinion of one person. Is that bad? I opened my mouth to interject but he was off again.

“WE WERE BETTER OFF WITHOUT IT! DO YOU WATCH TV?”

“TV? Yeah, sometimes…” I mumbled, thrown off balance by the abrupt change in topic. I thought we were talking about phones?

“I BET YOU WATCH KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS!”

Okay. Look. As it happens, I have never actually watched Keeping Up With The Kardashians, but millions of people have. MILLIONS. I’m tired of this implication that people who watch the show are a zombified army of braindead shopaholics who speak solely in emojis and don’t understand basic grammar or syntax, particularly since it’s a disdainful accusation thrown almost exclusively at women. I know plenty of intelligent people who watch it regularly. There’s no reason to use this as an insult.

It’s not the first time I’ve had this said to me with a curled lip of disgust, as if what I watch on television somehow lowers my IQ. Not only does what I watch have no bearing on my intelligence, but it’s almost* enough to make me want to watch the show, just to spite them.

I chased ice cubes around my glass with my plastic straw and tilted my head.

“No…?”

“WELL ANYWAY,” he continued, “I KNEW A MAN WHO LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY AND HE WAS HAPPIER THAN ANY OF US PROBABLY.”

I breathed deeply and looked around me, considering my options. The dance floor was bathed in deep pink and purple lights. To my right, a blonde in a short skirt ran her hand down the arm of a laughing man with dreadlocks. I stabbed at the ice cubes, then took a drink.

“He lived without electricity? Is that what you said?”

I mean, I was in it now. Might as well let myself be pulled by the conversational current.

“YES! LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY. HAPPIEST MAN I KNEW. JUST HAD A RADIO THAT HE RAN WITH BATTERIES AND A PHONE.”

I eyed the ceiling and debated whether or not to point out that a man who has a radio and a phone is not entirely without the benefits of the modern age. I decided, with drunken magnanimity, to let it go.

“What did he do at night?” I asked, instead.

“LIT A CANDLE IN THE WINDOW!”

I laughed.

“You can’t read by candlelight! Have you tried it? You’d ruin your eyes!”

“HE DIDN’T READ HE WOULD JUST SIT ALONE WITH HIS THOUGHTS!”

I side-eyed him.

“That’s fine in the summer when it gets dark at a reasonable time, but what happens in the winter when it gets dark at 5pm?”

“HE LIKED IT THAT WAY, HE WAS A VERY HAPPY MAN! WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING ALONE WITH OUR THOUGHTS? I THINK MORE PEOPLE SHOULD DO THAT INSTEAD OF SITTING IN FRONT OF THE TV WATCHING KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS!”

There he goes again, I thought, with the Kardashians. What is the deal?

“That’s well and good if your thoughts are kind ones,” I pointed out. “But what if they’re not? Thirteen hours is a long time to be left alone with unkind thoughts-“

I barely had a chance to finish the sentence.

He leaned in, cutting across me to shout, “I BET YOU NEVER KNEW ANYBODY WHO LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY!”

My eyes narrowed. The vodka and cranberries I’d consumed were busy sketching out a pale pink outline of the sort of person this man thought I was, and it wasn’t particularly flattering. If I squinted the right way, I could see the exact stereotype this guy had pinned on me.

I took another sip of my drink and thought for a moment.

“I did actually.”

“WHO?”

I was starting to feel like Alice down the rabbit hole. Where was this conversation leading exactly? How far down where we going to go? I told myself to relax and let myself flow into the empty spaces left by the holes in his argument.

“The people in my grandparents’ village in Spain lived without electricity.”

I paused, thinking about the pueblo. It’s a dying village. Even when I went regularly, the inhabitants all seemed as ancient and weathered as the sun-split rocks down the hill. I thought about the women I had known with deeply lined faces and no dental care, sitting outside their houses in black shapeless tunics, leaning on canes and fanning themselves.

I thought of my great aunt pressing 100 pesetas into my hand with her bony fingers and shuffling next to me as we made our way to the bakery across the square, which doubled as the only place in the pueblo you could buy anything.

I thought of my great aunt’s house, where the ceiling sagged in the middle, looking like it might cave in at any moment. I thought of the way doors were always left open to cope with the heat, with a beaded curtain strung over the doorway, keeping out the burning sun but nothing else. Walking into the house was an assault on the senses. My nostrils would sting from the smell of cat urine, and I would blink furiously, my eyes taking a minute or two to adjust to the darkness. The reason for the smell was quickly apparent; stray cats would shoot out from under every piece of furniture the moment I took a step in any direction.

Yes, their lives were simple, but their lives were hard. They faced tragedies and difficulties I can barely imagine. My grandfather would tell me stories that would break your heart. They lived lives of quiet isolation and tight community not because they chose to eschew electricity and modern conveniences, but because they had no choice.

The man at the gig, meanwhile, had been surprised into a momentary silence at my assertion that I had, in fact, known someone who lived without electricity. I took the opportunity to squeeze in another sentence.

“They didn’t choose not to have electricity, though. They were very poor. They didn’t have the option.”

His eyes skated around the room as he considered what I had just said.

“BUT THEY WERE PROBABLY HAPPIER LIKE THAT!” He roared in my ear after a moment.

I felt an unfamiliar tingle of annoyance. Unlike me. I thought. It’s a Saturday night. Don’t let him harsh your mellow.

For some reason though, my thoughts flew to the woman who had lived opposite my grandparents. Alone and elderly, she had lived all her life in a tiny cottage draped in grapevines. I thought about how, after she had died, I would look through her window and see her kitchen table, still draped in an impeccably crocheted tablecloth. A small plate sat on the table that had once held a long-since disintegrated piece of toast, and a carefully balanced knife rested on the edge of the plate.

Untouched since her last meal, the room was a silent testimony of her existence. Every year I would crouch to look in through the window, and only two things ever changed; the number of stray cats using the furniture, and the thickness of the layer of dust. Over time, the colours slowly muted and the room took on a ghostly, grey air. When sunlight streamed in the dust particles glistened, making it look even more ethereal.

Had she been happy while she was alive?

As a child, I hadn’t liked her, and that’s putting it mildly. She seemed positively antediluvian, shrunken by age and circumstance. She had once engaged my parents in conversation about the stray cats that my grandmother often fed, and recounted how she had killed a great number of them by swinging them by their back legs and smashing their heads against a rock. Hearing her tell this story had the same effect on me as if she had admitted to being an axe-wielding maniac with a penchant for scalping children; after that I avoided her like the very plague.

Now, with time, I am more understanding. She was completely uneducated and lived in that same small pueblo her entire life. She had no family. The war she waged on the stray cats was ended by her death and, in a twist that shows life has a sense of humour, in her absence they took over her house and made it their own.

I thought of this wizened woman, and how different her life might have been in other circumstances. I thought of my great aunt. The more sober section of my mind struggled to steer my train of thought onto a straighter path. After all, this was a Saturday night chat at top volume with a stranger during a gig, not a cosy in-depth debate in a dark corner at a party. Not exactly the best time to argue the merits of education and how electricity contributes to a greater quality of life.

I leaned towards him so he could hear me clearly.

“I don’t think they would have chosen that life if they had had an alternative,” I said, watching his face.

“BUT YOUR GRANDPARENTS LEFT, RIGHT? BECAUSE MAYBE THEY WEREN’T HAPPY LIVING LIKE THAT. BUT THOSE PEOPLE DIDN’T LEAVE! BECAUSE IT’S A SIMPLER, HAPPIER LIFE!”

My grandparents left because they could, because my grandfather dragged them out of there through a combination of dogged hard work and compromise and connections.

My great aunt, who had been in a relationship with my grandmother’s brother, found out she was pregnant while he was away at war. Unfortunately he was killed in action, and so she had her son out of wedlock at a time when this was enough for society to shun you. The son was born with an intellectual disability. Thankfully my grandmother’s family treated them kindly and supported them despite the circumstances, but still, her life was difficult. It was complicated. She was poor and uneducated and had nobody by her side to make her life easier or more bearable. She went to mass every day and pulled wooden rosary beads between her skeletal fingers, her gaunt face a mask of peace as she prayed.

Do I think these difficult times in her life would have been greatly improved by having a light switch and a functioning fridge? Not necessarily. Some hardships can’t be softened with electric lighting and chilled goods. I do think, however, that electricity often reaches places at much the same time as other things like literacy, and education, and modern plumbing, and state aid. I think those would have made her life easier.

The pueblo had a school, and running water, and electricity in my childhood. The neihbour died. My great aunt died. My grandparents also died. The population continues to decline. In 2015 it had a population of 280 inhabitants.

Back at the gig, I threw my head back to dislodge these thoughts and tried to untangle myself from a conversation that was going nowhere fast.

“I agree that our addiction to our phones is bad but dude, I don’t agree we would be happier without electricity.” I waved an arm around me. “We wouldn’t be enjoying this without electricity!”

He nodded his head from side to side as if conceding the point, and then we were loudly (and thankfully) interrupted by a friend wandering over to say hello.

 

At Home on Sandymount Strand

 

 

 

 

Sandymount Strand (1)

I grew up next to the sea, near Sandymount Strand.

Sandymount Strand is a strip of coastline which used to just consist of a tarmac path and jagged  boulders leading down to the beach. A few years ago someone official got serious notions and put in streetlamps for the dog walkers and exercise machines for those who 1.) use the strand as a running track and 2.) have no shame*, which has actually improved the area quite a bit. When the tide comes all the way in, the sand disappears entirely, and the water crashes up against the rocks, flooding the gaps and trapping sea-borne debris. When the tide goes out, the sea is almost in line with the horizon; it retreats so far out that the beach looks like a desert.

It’s a very recognisable stretch of coastline, largely due to the 680ft Poolbeg chimney stacks** on the left, which rise up from behind the Dublin Bay Nature Reserve. Their jaunty red and white rings make them look like they were painted by a rabid Where’s Wally? fanatic, and I’m glad that they’re now protected structures because the skyline wouldn’t be the same without them.

The strand features in ‘Ulysses,’ if you’re ever brave enough to read it, and it’s a nice place to stare out at the edge of the world for a while and gather your thoughts. Although I’ve never been one of those people who pound the sand in brightly-coloured running shoes and would have to be dragged bodily into the water – since willingly setting foot in the sea around Ireland is not something I will ever do again*** (I only willingly venture into the sea when I’m abroad) – I’ve always loved it. I love how the landscape changes so radically with the weather.

I’ve seen a swathe of cloudless blue so bright it would hurt your eyes. I’ve seen rainbows. I’ve seen purple evening skies and clouds slung so low you could touch them if you stretched. I’ve seen flat, sneaking tides and wild waves that crash over the granite sea wall, ignoring the sandbags hurriedly placed to keep them at bay. I’ve sat on the sand, and on the rocks, and on the grass, and on the benches, and on the wall of what remains of the old sea baths. I’ve been caught out by the tide and had to wade shoeless back to land more than once.

Sandymount Strand has always been a part of my life. It’s played a million different roles as I’ve grown, and I’ve felt every possible emotion on that beach. At times it was an escape, and at other times a refuge. I have so many snapshots of memory and feeling that feature the strand, it’s almost an extension of my home. On that strand I shivered with friends while trying to light disposable barbecues. I prodded at dead jellyfish with pieces of driftwood, and picked through mounds of seashells for seaglass. I walked the dog so many times, in so many different kinds of weather, that I’m sure there isn’t a grain of sand she hasn’t sniffed.

I’ve walked down there to pick blackberries with only blank happiness on my mind, and I’ve run down there to cry until I thought my heart would burst. I’ve been kissed in a parked car there, looking out at the stars, drunk on love, and (on a different occasion, thankfully) puked out the passenger side of a car, just plain drunk, in more or less the same spot.

Dublin has a lot of beautiful areas, and honestly, Sandymount Strand probably isn’t on anybody’s Top Ten of things to see in the city. Places like Killiney Hill, the Phoenix Park, St. Stephen’s Green and Temple Bar would be more highly recommended than this capricious bit of coastline. Still, I love it. It has character.

Now that I live away from the strand, I miss it from time to time. I miss the wind whipping my hair into one mad scribble, and I miss coming home from a winter walk by the sea with my nose and cheeks red from the cold. I’ll have to make an effort to get back there more often.

In the meantime, one of my best friends gave me a print of it for our home, where it has pride of place in the living room. It reminds me that homes don’t always have to be houses.

Sometimes they’re simply a strip of shoreline with sand and saltwater spray.

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*I have yet to see a single person use these. I think most locals would rather die than be spotted using them in any kind of unironic manner.

**You can actually see them in the U2 video for In The Name of Love, although the video is black and white so you don’t get to see them in all their loony glory. You do get to see Bono with a mullet though, so that’s something.

***When I was about ten my parents entered me in a Sea Swim. Safe to say the traumatic memories still linger. I thought I was going to pass out and drown from the cold, and I emerged from the water a changed child, blue-tinged and with a thousand-yard gaze.

thoughts on death post header when do i get the manual

Thoughts On… Death

thoughts on death post header when do i get the manual

I remember my first dead body.

That makes me sound like a serial killer. Let me rephrase.

I remember seeing my first dead body.

It was my maternal grandmother’s – my Yaya’s – and she was lying in a coffin with white satin lining. It was propped up, almost standing to face those coming to pay their respects, and she was pale. Unnaturally pale. Much paler than I had ever seen her. Her expression was serious, her mouth turned down at the sides. There was no joy in her face at all, which was very unlike her. She was a woman who was always smiling, always laughing, always trying – like a stereotypical grandmother from a storybook – to feed you delicious food until you burst at the seams.

She was a woman who was always shuffling around the kitchen, or fanning herself with her abanico as she leaned back, out of breath from laughing, sighing “Ay!”

She was a woman who always took the time to pin a brooch to her breast and put lipstick on before going out, who always sprayed herself with perfume and made sure each blonde curl was in place, and who had a faith in God that stayed with her even after hope had been abandoned.

Now she lay, silent and still, in a box behind glass; an unsettlingly strange and wrinkled doll in a building of tears and heartbreak. She no longer looked like herself. She was missing that spark that made her her. This wasn’t my Yaya, this wasn’t the woman who would envelop me in her arms and kiss me over and over again until I wriggled away laughing. This was a husk. A shell. This was the discarded coccoon of a life well-lived, of a woman well-loved.

Death frightens me.

Life frightens me.

It frightens me how fragile we all are. It frightens me that we go through life as thin-skinned human popsicles made of nothing more than a pinch of star dust and earth, brought together and animated by an ember of life.

And when that ember is extinguished or extinguishes itself, leaving behind the curling smoke of memories and loss in its wake, it can be suffocating. The after-effects of the end of a life can feel like your heart is in a vice, and every thought of the person you loved and lost is a turn of the screw.

Death is something that enters into all our lives, and it visits more often the older we get. We like to ignore it, skirt around it, pretend it won’t touch us with its long, cold fingers, but it does. It will. It is unavoidable.

When it will come to us is largely unpredictable. It can slip in and out of our lives at any time. As we grow older, we become more aware of its presence; we look over our shoulder every so often and do things that we hope will make death pass over us, at least until we are old and infirm. We stop smoking, we exercise, we eat healthy food. We become more risk averse. We understand the full weight of life. If we’re lucky, we accumulate loved ones and experiences and hobbies and passions that we don’t want to say goodbye to, and so we shrink back when we feel death nearby.

Don’t pick me. Don’t pick us.

We support our friends in their times of grief. We cry with them, because we know the pain. We may not feel their loss, but we feel their suffering. We read terrible, tragic stories about strangers and feel sorrow, but also relief; glad that it didn’t happen to anyone we know, glad that it happened to someone else, somewhere else. No matter that their grief is just as profound, just as crushing as it would have been for us.

Death is busy elsewhere, and we have the audacity to feel safe in its absence.

There is a unique and precious freedom that comes before we learn about mortality. As children, we exhibit a recklessness that we lose around the same time we begin to comprehend the concept of consequences. Even though this is obviously an important part of growing up, I’m starting to think we could all do with adding back a little of our childhood bravery. I know I could. After all, we don’t know when death will come to call.

Is there anything to be gained by dreading it the way we do? Is there anything to be gained by pressing ourselves against the wall, hoping to make ourselves invisible?

I’m not suggesting we all go BASE jumping in the morning.

I’m not suggesting we start a diet consisting solely of donuts*.

I’m just wondering out loud whether we – I – should live a little less fearfully. There are things I haven’t done yet because a thin, reedy voice in the back of my head makes it its mission to spook me every time I think about them too hard. If I talk myself out of things I wish I had the courage to try, am I really living my life to the fullest? I can’t keep putting things off for an indeterminate ‘someday’ when I don’t know how many somedays I have left. I should make the somedays today.

And so should you.

I hope that when death comes for me, I have lived a long and full life. I hope that like my Yaya, I leave behind memories of love and laughter, good food and good company. I hope that like her I have time to say goodbye to those I love, and that I face it with courage and acceptance. I hope, but I don’t know.

So in the meantime, I’m going to try to live fearlessly… or at least, less fearfully.

Same same, but different.

 

 

*Although how delicious would that be?