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%.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life Lessons

 

There are certain people that come into your life at crucial moments and shape a part of you.

They smooth out a rough edge, or they shave off a section of your heart and cut another facet into your soul. They shape you. Some people add parts to you that you never knew you were missing, or cause you to grow a prickly coating to protect yourself from future encounters with nefarious people. People add and subtract from you as you go, making you more than or lesser than you were before coming into contact with them.

I went to the same school from the age of 4 to the age of 18. Junior school was one thing, but when I stepped into senior school I was 70% hormones and 30% terrified child. I wasn’t a particularly bad student, but I wasn’t a particularly good one either. I often said or did things that would get me into trouble… or at least, the sort of tame, mouthy things that get you into trouble in expensive private schools. I was late with my homework. I drew on my tests. I daydreamed, I sent notes in class, I got caught skipping P.E. I put no effort into anything, because I was afraid of trying hard and failing. It was easier and less embarrassing to not even bother; at least then the disappointment was purposeful.

There was one class in which I excelled however, and that was English.

My English teacher was not well liked. She never laughed with us. She didn’t drop by at lunch. She didn’t talk about her personal life. Her sense of humour was incredibly dry. Her comments were blunt and unadorned, and her criticism was often harsh and cutting. She demanded a lot from her students. Sometimes she demanded too much. Her punishments were always slightly more severe than those of the other teachers, and she was rarely lenient. She would give you a grade lower than what you felt you deserved, and then claim it was so that you always had something left to strive for.

And yet.

Of all the teachers at my school, of all the years that I walked in and out those doors, she was the only teacher that I felt ever really saw me.

I suppose the most likely reason for this is that I used my English homework as my emotional safety net. I would funnel myself and my heightened emotions into impassioned railings against the hopeless stupidity of Juliet or the bigoted hatred of Bob Ewell. I suspect that a lot of the time my homework gave more of an insight into my own feelings than those of the characters I was supposed to be critiquing.

Having said that, I never in my life mentioned anything personal. At school I was a happy-go-lucky, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl who never had anything ready or prepared and didn’t care. So I didn’t have my books. So? So I didn’t have my homework done. And? It was fine. I’d be fine. I was always fine!

The truth is I was struggling. I’d been struggling for a long time.

I remember one particular moment that knocked me off balance.

I had been getting in more trouble than usual. In our school, for every infraction you would get a “slip,” and once you reached three slips in a single semester, you were “on report.” Being on report essentially meant that for one week you had to get signed off by every teacher after every class, and at the end of each day your parents had to sign off to say they had seen the teachers’ notes and all the homework was done.

I wasn’t even halfway through the semester and I had accumulated seven slips.

Somehow this had escaped everyone’s notice until one day my English teacher asked if she could speak to me outside. In the middle of classtime, she pulled me out to the landing on the first floor and folded her arms.

“What is going on with you?”

I chewed the inside of my cheek and scuffed the toe of my chunky black shoe against the tile. I wasn’t sure what this was about but I knew it wasn’t good. I stayed silent.

“Quinn, you and I both know that you have seven slips at the moment.”

After a long pause, I nodded. I knew what was coming. I was going on report.

At the thought of this I started to feel a familiar panic course through me. I felt like my veins were on fire. I didn’t care about stupid pieces of paper, or having teachers sign me off. What I cared about – what terrified me – was the idea of my mother knowing. It’s hard to explain in isolation, but suffice to say I started to have a full-blown panic attack right there on the landing. I felt my eyes widen, and even though I shrugged and tucked my chin under so she couldn’t see my face, I couldn’t stop tears from just leaking out onto my cheeks. They streamed down and dripped from my jawline. As if removed from myself, I watched them splash against the tiles. I was numb. There was a ringing in my ears and I just wanted to leave, to hide in a bathroom cubicle and sink through the floor until I disappeared into nothingness.

My English teacher stood watching me for a moment, her arms still crossed.

“Okay.” She said.

I couldn’t speak because I felt as if I had swallowed my tongue. I was shivering so violently I figured she must notice, so I pulled my sleeves over my trembling fingers. I couldn’t think of anything to say because my mind had become a dense fog of fear. A small part of me somehow retained the ability to feel shame, and I did. I felt a red hot trickle of shame at what she must think of me, this overreacting, overly dramatic problem student who was having a nervous breakdown in the middle of the day over a few signatures.

“Okay.” She said again.

There was another pause as she contemplated me, and then she moved to stand right in front of me.  I watched her shoes stop in front of me.

“Look at me, Quinn. Look at me.”

I swiped at my eyes with my sleeve and reluctantly lifted my gaze.

“We both know you have seven slips at the moment-“

I was trying so hard to stem the tears that they pooled, turning her into a blurry collection of colours in front of me.

“Quinn. Listen to me. You have seven slips and you should be have already been on report not once, but twice. I should call your parents myself-“

I lost the battle and another wave of teardrops raced for the floor.

“But I know…” Her voice softened a bit. The most I’d ever heard in her years teaching me.

“I know that you don’t want me to do that. Am I right?”

My gaze dropped back to the floor as I nodded vigorously and gulped for air. Was I going to have to explain? Was she going to ask? Could she tell? What did she know? 

“You don’t want me to tell your parents.”

I took long, juddering breaths and tracked the lines of grout between the tiles.

“Quinn, listen to me. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to strike five of your slips from your record.”

I barely heard her I was so deep in my state of panic. She paused long enough for the words to sink in, and I slowly raised my head to look at her in disbelief.

“Yes. Look. You’re not trying. I know you and you can do better. You have to try, Quinn, and not just in my class. In all of your classes. To be clear, I’m not wiping your slate clean; I’m simply giving you a second chance. I am leaving two slips on your record, so if you get another this semester, you will go on report. Is that clear?”

I nodded.

“Alright.” She sighed, her arms still folded. “You’re excused, Quinn.”

I tugged at the sleeves of my jumper, still wordless, completely unable to believe that I had just received a stay of execution. Before she could change her mind, I went to duck past her into the corridor. She grabbed my elbow as I passed.

“I’ll be keeping an eye on you. Don’t let me down.”

I made a beeline for the bathroom where I locked myself in a cubicle, wrapped my hands like a boxer (if boxers used tissue paper) and silently cried my heart out, partly to release all the pent-up energy and partly from relief.

Ten minutes later I had splashed water on my face and managed to get my heart rate down. I returned to class with puffy eyes, and when I walked in my English teacher turned and looked at me as if the past twenty minutes had never happened.

“Back to your seat, Quinn,” She growled.

I somehow managed to avoid another slip that semester. I dodged that bullet. I tried harder, although not always as hard as I might have. I always tried my hardest in her class though, and she always kept an eye on me like she’d promised.

Once, before we reaching the Hamlet years, she stopped at my desk on her way into the classroom. I had my head bowed low over a book, and daisies I had picked at lunchtime were strewn across my desk.

“Sometimes you remind me so much of Ophelia,” she told me.

I asked her who that was, and she told me it was a Shakespearian character. I shrugged and went back to my book, but later I looked it up, and when I did and found a fragile girl who drowns herself in a lake, I was offended.

Now with the benefit of hindsight, I see it differently.

I was pretty fragile. I thought I was tough, but the truth is that I was brittle like porcelain and completely unaware of it.

I think of her often.

In the mathematics of my life, she added a lot. She made me more.

 

******************************************

 

DEPRESSING POSTSCRIPT: A couple of years after finishing school, I went back to tell her all of this. She was out sick, and I was going abroad, so I decided I would write a letter. I thought I might return again after my trip away and if she was still out, I could at least drop it off for her.

 A few weeks later, as I put the pen down on the seventh page of the long-winded novel of gratitude I had found myself writing, I got a message from my best friend to tell me my English teacher had been found dead.

I went to her funeral. I cried like she was my own blood.

She taught me one last painful lesson:

Don’t wait until it’s too late to say the things that matter.

 

 

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.

 

It’s Okay To Not Be Okay

It's Okay to Not be Okay

I don’t know if this post is for you. Maybe. I guess you won’t know either until you’re halfway through it. If it’s not for you, that just means it’s not for you today. It still might be for you three weeks from now, or next Summer. At some point, I think this post will be relevant to your life.

Unfortunately.

Even though it’s Monday, and I would have preferred to start the week with something lighthearted, I sat down to type and this poured out instead in a wave of emotion, so here we are.

I want to talk about unhappiness.

This is not an overt unhappiness with people crying at bus stops, or being unnecessarily mean as they cut in front of each other in queues. It’s not a screaming-at-service-staff-about-something-that’s-not-even-their-fault unhappiness, or even the kind of unhappiness that leads to dark undereye circles and terrible dreams. Instead, it’s an almost invisible cheese-wire thread weaving through people’s lives, slicing through their good days. It’s this weak but persistent undercurrent of…

you’re not good enough

you’re not funny enough

you’re not normal enough

you’re not popular enough

you’re not successful enough

you’re not loveable enough

you’re not doing enough

you’re not worthy enough

you’re not trying enough

you’re not happy enough

…..And here’s the thing about that.

It’s always been there. This Gregorian chant of insuffiency is an unfortunate symptom of the human condition. Thankfully, not always. It’s not constant for most people; it tends to chime in at brutally inconvenient times like when you feel so lonely you actually have a legitimate concern you might be invisible, or when you feel like your self-confidence has reached rock bottom and proceeded to dig, or when you have failed spectacularly at something in a public way and are desperately searching for the words to pretend that everything is fine.

It really picks its moments.

This repetitive, monotonous, doubting drone of voices has always been around me, and I just haven’t been paying attention. Now that I’m looking for it, I see it everywhere. I see it, and I recognise it, because guess what? I have it too. Everyone does. Trust me when I say that even the person you look up to the most has had days where they didn’t want to get out of bed.

We know this. We’re all aware of it. We’re alive, and sometimes life is a kick in the teeth. Even the luckiest person can’t avoid the most difficult parts of life forever. Even the cockiest person can’t ignore their inner fears at every waking moment. We’re human, and that means we are skin-draped skeletons walking around with an expiration date, and our short lives are vibrant pops of colour filled with emotion and adventure and love and heartbreak and passion and fury. We collect memories and experiences and feelings and struggles throughout our lives, ee mix them together as we grow, and whatever muddy concoction remains is the sum of our parts.

On some level we are all aware of this.

I think we are getting better as a society at articulating the stickier parts of life, the parts that slow us down, the parts we feel we’ll never move on from. I think it’s great that it’s slowly becoming less taboo to discuss negative feelings.

Have you noticed how we talk about them though?

When negative emotions come up, people have this habit of being unable to talk about them without attaching wholly unnecessary feelings of guilt and shame, like carabiner clips of dead weight. I do it too. I feel terrible, and then I feel terrible about feeling terrible.

Why?

It’s already exhausting to struggle through hard times. When life gets tough, your usual daytime stroll unexpectedly becomes a hike up a cold mountain in the dark, and most of the time it blindsides you and you’re entirely unprepared; you didn’t bring water, you don’t have emergency chocolate, there are no signposts, you’re pissed off because now everything is going to take that much longer, and you didn’t even bring a jumper.

It’s the worst.

Now imagine attaching two dumbells to your waist so you can drag them up that incline with you for no good reason.

Why?

I know that there’s an unease about what people will think. Everything is always supposed to be fine, right? Instagram should be comprised only of excessively highlighted people in beautiful clothes, eating photogenic food in perfect lighting. Twitter should be an oasis of sanity and witty, relatable comments from People Who Have Their Shit Together™. Human unavoidables such as misery, and fear, and unhappiness, and the sort of concerns that keep you up at night until five minutes before your alarm goes off don’t fit neatly into 1:1 ratio photographs or 140 character limits. They ruin the narrative. It’s not a comfortable thing to shine a light on dark thoughts.

And so any reference to these inescapable truths of life and humanity seems to be couched in remorse and embarrassment, and then wrapped in a shroud of shame. There’s usually an acknowledgement of heartbreak or depression or anxiety or failure, and then in the same breath it’s linked to a feeling of weakness or anguish. So not only are we not okay, but we’re not okay with not being okay. Sometimes it’s even followed by an apology, or a reassurance that it will soon change, or a determination to turn things around.

I see this happen not just in myself, or in people I know and love, but also people I don’t. Friends of friends who pop up on my facebook. Complete strangers that are retweeted on my timeline. I see it everywhere, this idea that not being okay is not okay.

So on this dreary Monday, let me just say this:

If you have been unknowingly looking for permission, or subconsciously searching for some sort of sign that you are allowed to take a moment for yourself to just wallow, or cry, or scream into a cushion, or punch a pillow, or go for a long walk with nothing but your thoughts, or anything that you had previously written off as an indulgence… I am giving you that permission.

This is that sign.

You don’t have to be okay all the time. You don’t have to be perfect, ever. You are human, and you are loved, and you have a unique life unlike anybody else’s, and you are wonderful. You have talents in you that you aren’t even aware of.

If you have recently felt less than, know that you are not alone, and you are not less than.

If you have recently made a mistake or done something you wish you could take back, know that we have all been there (more than once!), and that the discomfort you are feeling is what teaches us not to make the same mistake again.

If you are feeling lost, know that sometimes the road is winding, and can even loop back on itself. Familiar landmarks are not necessarily a signpost of stagnation; remember that even when you feel stuck, you are still moving forward.

If you have recently had your trust betrayed, know that you are not foolish for having being fooled. Trust is a precious and fragile thing, and you are not to blame for somebody else having broken it.

If you have recently experienced heartbreak, know that this is the price of having loved fiercely, and that it is worth it every time. Some heartbreaks will make you feel like you got scammed, that maybe it wasn’t worth the cost. It was. It always is.

If you have recently had failure, know that there will also be success. Try not to tip the scale by giving more weight to the failure than it deserves.

If you are melancholy, or depressed, or afraid, or worried, or anxious, or struggling, that’s okay. That’s okay. You don’t have to feel guilty about that. You don’t have to apologise for not being a presentation-worthy version of your best self at all times. You don’t have to feel bad about experiencing the exact same struggles as everybody else.

You just have to be you.

It’s okay to just be you, even when you’re not happy. Even when you’re not having the most photogenic of feelings. Even when life is roundhouse kicking you in the teeth repeatedly and you feel like self-defence is not an option because your arms have inexplicably turned into pool noodles. Even then.

This is not to say that you can stay there forever.

Eventually you will have to stop punching the pillow. You will probably have to drink some water, because non-stop crying is very dehydrating. You will have to get up off the floor, pull your shoulders back, and tell the frankly irritating buzz of self-doubt to shut the hell up. I am not giving you carte blanche to wallow forever in the Swamp of Sadness. We all know what happened to Artax (NSFL), and you, dear reader, are far too precious to me for an ending like that.

Eventually, you will slide back down the scale to relative normality, and the feelings will shift, and the path will be clear again… at least until the next time.

But right now, as you read this – whenever that may be – if you find yourself in a heap, or you just need a breather, or you’re losing it, or you’re feeling ashamed because you’re losing it, and you don’t have anybody else around who can deliver this message in a timely fashion when you need it most…

This post is for you.

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Thoughts On… Death

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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?

 

 

 

Life Skills Unlocked: Solving the Riddle of the Strong Smell of Cat Pee

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My kitchen smells like cat pee.

Considering I don’t own a cat (yet), this is not a sentence I expected to type. A kitchen can smell like many things – the toast we burned at the weekend, the flapjacks I made on Tuesday, the cacio e pepe spaghetti we ate last night – but I would have to say that cat pee is just not one of the typical kitchen aromas.

My face crunched into an expression of distaste, I ventured in nose-first. I sniffed the fridge.

Nothing.

I opened the fridge and cautiously sniffed. I could smell spring onions and cheese.

As you were,” I whispered, and closed the fridge door.

I crept forward. I sniffed the counter.

Nothing.

I sniffed around the hob, and past the hob to the area where cereal and bread sit together in a peaceful pile of carbohydrates. I could only smell bread. I continued my search. I opened the oven.

Nothing. Just the faint whiff of something that perhaps had baked a little past its burning point.

I sniffed the sink – nothing – and opened the cupboard beneath it. Nothing there either. Just the smell of caustic chemicals and brillo pads that should be used more frequently. I hovered over the drying rack, and stood on my tiptoes to sniff at the microwave.

Nothing.

I came to the washing machine.

This was definitely where the smell was strongest. The washing machine is probably about four years old at this point. I opened it and looked inside, looking for the source of this weird waft of ammonia. My wiggling, warped reflection stared back at me from the inside of the shiny steel drum.

I stood up straight and narrowed my eyes at the offending appliance. The strange smell was definitely coming from in or around the washing machine. Obviously a second opinion was required.

I pulled up Google on my phone and typed, ‘My washing machine smells like cat pee.’

813,000 results popped up.

“Oh good,” I said aloud to nobody in particular. “I’m not alone!”

Apparently, if you don’t run a hot 90°C (194°F for those of you across the pond) wash about once a week, bacteria starts to grow in and around the seal of your washing machine, leading to a distinct and unpleasant cat pee-like scent. So all those eco-friendly, non-shrinking 30°C (86°F – seriously guys get it together) washes you’ve been putting on? Great for your delicates, not so great for your washing machine.

I wrinkled my nose in disgust, both at the smell and at the fact that nobody ever mentioned this to me before. I thought I was saving the planet one lukewarm wash at a time! Nobody told me about the cat pee bacteria, or that I need to run a hot cycle every week!

I read on.

Google advised me to throw a cup of white vinegar – not too vigorously, you don’t want it all over the kitchen; the smell of white vinegar is only just preferable to the smell of cat pee – into the washing machine and run a hot cycle with nothing inside it. So I did that.

And then, with a suspicious side-eye, I did it again, because screw trying to be eco-friendly when your kitchen smells like feline urine.

Now only the faint scent of white vinegar and scrupulous cleaning remain.

So hopefully that’s the end of it!