“Relationships are Hard Work”

“Relationships are hard work.”

How many times would you say you’ve heard that phrase in your life? People say it to each other all the time; over coffee, over cocktails, in the middle of long, exasperated venting sessions and at the end of despairing exclamations. I’ve said it, and I’ve heard it, and every time there’s a nod of understanding and agreement, because it’s just vague enough to sound accurate.

Recently though, I’ve come to realise that the phrase isn’t specific enough to be true.

It’s a bit like when people say, “Well, sure we fight, but all couples fight.”

I always nod. They both sound pretty straightforward, but the truth is that actually they’re blanket statements broad enough to cover a multitude of realities, and I think we sometimes don’t realise that until far too late.

I was once in a really unhealthy relationship.

I remember the feeling of being stuck in the Swamp of Sadness that was my life at that point, the feeling of our relationship being an endless slog. It would be okay, and then slowly it would be less okay, and then not okay at all, and then terrible, and then there would be an explosive argument with tears and shouting and accusations and apologies…

And then we would be back to the start of the cycle and things would be okay again for a short while. You know, before it all went south – again – like it did every time. Everything felt difficult. If I tried to fix things or communicate why I was so unhappy I was “picking a fight” or ruining everything with my “complaining.” If I kept quiet in an attempt to keep the peace, then I had to swallow down so much resentment I almost choked on it, and everything was tainted by the knowledge that it was fake. All of it. Our smiles were fake, because they were smiles papering over the fact that things weren’t okay. Our memories were fake, because the thread of misery was there running through them all like the long, lit fuse of a bomb leading to inevitable destruction. I loved him, but it hurt, and it was hard, and I felt like I was pouring myself into a pit with no bottom, losing myself in suffocating darkness.

Every time I burst into frustrated tears, mired in this misery, I would say these two phrases over and over to myself like a mantra:

“Relationships are hard work.”

“All couples fight.”

These two phrases reassured me, they consoled me, they made me feel less alone… but they were so undefined. They were elastic phrases that stretched and stretched until I felt they covered my experiences. I know for a fact that they cover many more. 

Since then, there’s been a lot of life happening. I’ve been careful to keep my eyes wide open, and I still hear those phrases but now, for me, they have definitions.

Relationships are hard work. They’re hard work because they involve being less selfish, and always taking someone else into consideration. They’re hard work because they involve thoughtfulness and respect and kindness towards somebody else and as human beings we don’t always feel that way inclined. Sometimes we’re tired or grumpy or we’ve had a bad day or we’re in pain and we want to snap at anyone who looks at us sideways, and on those days it’s work to rise above it. They’re hard work because you have to do things for someone else, and sometimes they’re things you don’t want to do. They’re hard work because maybe they have a habit that drives you up the wall and back down the other side but you love them, so you work to ignore it. They’re hard work because all of your time is no longer your own and you have to learn to compromise. They’re hard work because life is full of unforeseen bumps in the road and sometimes you will have to carry the slack, and sometimes they will have to do the same. They’re hard work, but they’re not slavery. It’s not supposed to be constant misery. It’s not supposed to be something you put your all into without getting anything back.

Relationships are hard work but if you have it right, they’re hard work that you enjoy and get paid well for. 

It’s hard work that’s worth the effort. Your payment comes in the form of receiving the same effort from your partner; you’re repaid in support and respect and love and kindness and thoughtfulness. You’re repaid in knowing that someone has your back, that you’ve got a teammate in this Life Race and that you guys meet in the middle.

Which brings us to the second phrase.

“All couples fight.”

This is such a strange phrase. Let’s change it to, ‘All couples disagree.’ I think that’s a fair statement. All couples disagree. I think it’s also fair to say that all couples can get pretty heated when they’re disagreeing about something important to them, so I guess you could call that a fight.

I think that the word ‘fight’ has something more aggressive to it though. The word ‘fight’ makes me think of shouting, name-calling, throwing things and losing control, and if that’s the definition then no, I don’t think all couples fight. All couples can have disagreements, discussions, even arguments… but fights? Fights that are verbal altercations that end with one or both people crying, or someone having to apologise for having said something purposely hurtful out of anger? If this is something that happens regularly in your relationship, that’s a problem. If that’s what you mean when you say, “We fight, but all couples fight,” then you need to reassess. Not all couples fight dirty. Not all couples fight like that. That kind of unhappiness should only happen extremely rarely, if ever. The basic respect that you have for each other as people shouldn’t slip just because you have strong feelings about opposing views. You can be frustrated and angry and upset and still mindful of what you’re saying. 

If you’re angry and you lash out and say something that’s hurtful – even if it’s untrue – you’re not only hurting them. Once you’ve said something, you can never unsay it. They can never unhear it. You can apologise, but that doesn’t erase it. I really think that’s something more people could keep in mind. Sharp words hurt both of you. They chip away at what’s between you until there’s nothing left.

When I think about Past Me, I feel both sympathetic and annoyed.

I feel sympathy because she was so confused, and so miserable, and trying so hard in such futile ways. I feel sympathy because she didn’t know any better, and she was so, so in love. I feel sympathy because I know she did her best, even if her best was a disastrous emotional mess.

I feel annoyed because it took her so long to read the writing on the wall. It took her so painfully long to dig up the last scrap of her confidence from wherever it had been buried. It took her so long to realise that their relationship wasn’t a winding path, but a closed loop that wouldn’t – couldn’t – go anywhere. It took her so long to stop believing the nonsense.

Nonsense like, “relationships are hard work.”

Nonsense like, “all couples fight.”

 

DISCLAIMER: This is what I’ve learned from personal experience and that is none of this is to say I have it all figured out, because I don’t. I wish I did. If I had it all figured out I would be living on a private island somewhere with a small herd of pet alpacas and maybe a beehive so I could have a continuous supply of honey. I would never have any unpleasantness in my life, everything would be easy, every day would be sunny, and I would never have to consider the pros and cons of having cereal for dinner for the third day in a row.

Just People

When you’re a child, everything is very black or white.

You’re well-behaved, or you’re bold.

You’re bad, or you’re good.

The world is arranged into two halves and, with good parenting, you are steered towards the positive. “Yucky” things are smacked out of your hand, and the explanations of the world leave no room for nuance. You’re too young to understand the intricacies and complications of a lifetime. You’re told that bad people are bad, and that’s it. Nobody explains why, or how, or tempers it by telling you that these bad people have good qualities too.

Conversely, good people are held up as paragons and then, as you grow, you realise slowly that they are in fact… just people. Not heroes. Not knights in shining armour. Not infallible humans. Not perfect examples of personhood.

Just people.

It makes life a hell of a lot more complicated when you realise that souls aren’t as black as pitch, or as white and sweet as icing sugar. People are a mass of humanity as seen through the eyes of a dog; varying shades of grey in every direction.

Every so often though, you seem to encounter people who are determined to be a dark shade of charcoal grey for no reason at all. Even when it is entirely unnecessary. Even when the alternative would almost have been the easier – certainly the simpler – choice. They complicate what is straightforward. In a world full of cronuts and compliments, they go out of their way to sour every interaction with casual dishonesty and ugly disregard for the people around them.

Why?

Life is hard enough. Each of us at one point or another will spend time wading through our personal Swamps of Sadness. There is grief enough, and heartbreak enough, and struggles enough to fill each person’s cup many times over. There is personal difficulty and overwhelming disappointment. There are insecurities and fears and concerns in other people’s lives that we can know nothing about. Each person carries these weighty issues around, and sometimes thin, delicate cracks of pressure appear on our façades. Of course, we hurriedly papier-mâché over these lightning bolt fractures. Nobody wants to look like the one damaged item on the lot.

Nobody stops to consider that none of us are in pristine condition. Not one. We are all of us dinged, battered, scraped, burnt out or splintered by life in one way or another. We walk around with our private stories tucked tight inside our chests, right up against the breastbone.

And we gently bump up against each other.

Sometimes we bump up against jagged people.

They snag on our scars. They press slowly and deliberately against tender bruises. Their serrated edges cut away at stitches, reopening old wounds. It feels threatening. It hurts. And when this happens it can be very hard not to revert to childhood programming.

It can be very hard to remember that people aren’t pure, undiluted “bad.”

I try to keep that fixed in my mind. They’re not bad people. They’re not pointlessly cruel. Their morals might be so flexible as to seem backwards, but their life experiences have led them to this point, in the same way that my life experiences have led me to mine. They might seem as cold and hard and cutting as steel, but they too have their own private story buried away next to the heart I sometimes suspect they might not have.

They are not entirely bad.

They’re just… people.

 

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So, Touching

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I am a tactile creature.

Not so much with people, but with things. I like to touch soft fabrics, and run my fingers through deep pile carpet. I like to trace the grain on solid wood, and press my hands against granite stone so hard the imprint is left on my palms. I love searching the seabed, trying to find beaded seashells and tide-smoothed driftwood and coarse-edged coral. I like the slippery coolness of glass, the feel of a salty breeze on my skin, the springy tension of needles on a pine cone. My fingertips explore the world around me. it’s not always enough for me to just look at things; I have to feel them.

I suppose I don’t seem overly tactual when I first meet new people. I didn’t grow up in a cuddling kind of household; I still feel a bit awkward hugging people that aren’t my closest friends. It feels uncomfortably intimate, and I’m never quite sure how to arrange my limbs so that they fit against the angles of a stranger’s body. I overthink it, debating whether or not to stick my hand out or just hug-tackle the person before they have a chance to decide for themselves. When I touch strangers, I always feel like I’m intruding, rudely popping their personal space bubble with my clumsy presence.

If I care about you, it’s different.

If I care about you, I like to sit shoulder to shoulder with you. I like looping my arm around your waist while we belt out lyrics to terrible songs. I like sitting against walls, thighs touching, talking about life. I will hold your hand on the way to the shop. I will throw an arm around your shoulders and pull you close. I will hug you hard and long, because I missed you, or I hate saying goodbye, or I’m happy for you, or just because. I will hesitate for a split second before doing any of the above because it doesn’t come naturally, then do it anyway because I want to be close to you.

But if I love you.

If I love you, I can’t keep my hands to myself. I want to run my fingers through your hair, and trace the outline of your lips. I want to hook my arms around your neck and stretch against you, tucking my head into your shoulder and disappearing into a feeling of warmth and quiet thoughts and soft exhalations. I want to rake my nails lightly down your back.  I want to slip under your clothes and feel the difference in texture between the cotton of your t-shirt and the warmth of your skin. I want to lace my fingers through yours, and kiss a trail down your throat, and place the heel of my hand in the hollow of your shoulder. I want to lean against you, and rest my forearm on your thigh, and be acutely, painfully aware of your arm around me. I want to slip a finger through one of your belt loops, and tug at the rough denim. I want to sit between your thighs and feel the safe, solid weight of your body against my spine. I want to outline the features of your face until I recognise them blindfolded.

The chasm between the stiff discomfort I feel with casual physical interaction and the greedy, bottomless hunger for touch I feel when it comes to those I love has always bewildered me. I assume it has to do with feeling vulnerable, and feeling safe, and the mix of both of those things making it possible for me to express myself. Maybe I’m wrong in thinking that I am not a physically affectionate person. Maybe I am an intensely physically afffectionate person and it just happens to generally be constrained by a straightjacket of apprehension, unease and the usual social anxiety.

Physics says that our electrons never actually come into contact. Our electrons repel each other, keeping us apart from anything we reach for. On an atomic level, I suppose I am never actually touching anything, only following its form.

My fingertips will always hover an infinitesimal distance from yours.

Wedding Daze

Wedding daze

I love a good wedding, and I was at a great wedding on Saturday.

The bride, my cousin – who is stunning on a bad day – looked so beautiful she actually glowed. I’ve read about people “glowing” before and always thought it was hyperbole, but I can’t think of any other word to describe her when the fact is that she legitimately had a honey aura going on.

Although we’re cousins, we look nothing alike. She is the blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked, high-cheekboned, glamorous blonde to my hazel-eyed, dressed-in-the-dark, sallow-skinned brunette. As teenagers we would lie side by side on her bed, talking about boys and secrets and friends and life. Even though she’s a little younger than me, I’ve always looked up to her. She’s ambitious and determined, beautiful, strong-minded and incredibly talented. It doesn’t seem fair that one person managed to get all of those attributes, but here we are.

As a clear and timely example, let me tell you about her veil. If you tuned in (along with 2 billion others) to watch the last English royal wedding, you’ll have seen Carrickmacross lace before. It was all over Kate Middleton’s dress. Carrickmacross lace originates in County Monaghan, and involves a painstaking process of handstitching fabric to lace before cutting away the excess material. Consider that for a moment, and then consider the fact that my cousin decided – with all the ambition and determination and talent I outlined above – that she would make her own veil for her wedding day.

As you do.

I can’t imagine the patience it must have taken to make. If it had been me, I would have thrown it out the window after the first couple of months. Tulle and lace, needles and thread would all have gone sailing out onto the lawn in an unwittingly graceful show of frustration. My cousin being who she is though, she stuck with it; she found a teacher, learned the technique, and over many, many, many months… made her own veil.

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the veil

Even the most hamfisted, chronically unimpressed heathen would have to admit she did good. She did better than good. I mean, look at that. I don’t know anybody else on this earth who would take on that task on top of wedding planning and a full time job being the country’s best art teacher.

But that’s my cousin for you!

The day went off without a hitch. Everything was perfect. The cherry blossoms at the church, the incredible food, the heartfelt speeches from the wedding party, the cake that her mother made for the reception… In terms of talent and creativity, it’s a case of like mother, like daughter. As they say in the country, “She didn’t lick it off a stone!”

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the cake

So we danced, and we drank, and we toasted, and we talked, and we sang (not well), and we enjoyed ourselves. My cousin and her kind, loving gentleman of a husband (!) celebrated getting hitched and we were lucky enough to be witnesses.

After the meal, as I leaned back in my chair and wondered if I would ever need to eat again, I thought about growing up, and falling in love, and how complicated it is sometimes, and how simple it can seem from afar. It’s like an impressionist painting; from a distance it’s easy to think it’s a distinct scene painted in three or four colours, but once you really get up close and examine it, it’s so much messier than that. Every person lives in their own bubble, feeling things you can never know unless they tell you. Everybody has their own secret inner life, with their most personal dreams and hopes and memories and fears. It’s terrifying to trust someone enough to tell them all of that. It’s hard to let other people into your bubble.

And yet… we do it. We risk it. We feel passion, and loss, and love, and pain. We trust in people, even when we’ve been hurt before. We’re honest with people, even when we’re afraid they’ll throw it back in our faces. Over and over, we put our hearts on the line and we tell people the truth about how we feel, and sometimes it’s a disaster, and sometimes it’s magical. People have been doing this in all countries, in all cultures, again and again, over and over, since the dawn of time.

I can’t decide if it’s beautiful, or boneheaded.

Here’s what I do know though…

Life is hard sometimes. Nobody makes it through unscathed. With that in mind, it’s pretty amazing to find someone who you know has your back. I know that my cousin has found a guy who will go to bat for her everytime. If life was a zombie apocalypse, they would both be in the Winchester with her husband watching the door while my cousin came up with an elaborately detailed yet highly effective plan to get them to safety. They’ve got it on lock.

In the end, that’s what we all want, I guess. Somebody who will make the good stuff better and the bad stuff less bad. Somebody who you know is on your team, no matter the highs or the lows. Somebody who will keep the zombies of life distracted while you map out an escape plan using paperclips and toothpicks.

And vice versa.

 

 

 

 

 

What Not To Do: Facebook Messenger Edition

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Over the weekend, after reading a message that had just come through on my phone, I let out a small huff. It was the kind of huff that acts as a tiny, audible exclamation point; the kind that tells you something has been noted that doesn’t deserve the energy or attention of actual words.

Across the table from me, my friend raised an questioning eyebrow, and I turned my phone so she could see the screen.

“Why does my ex-boyfriend always show up as active on Facebook messenger?”

She leaned forward to examine my ex-boyfriend’s smiling face and shrugged.

“Hmmm. Are you still friends with him on Facebook?”

“No!” She may as well have asked if I regularly abseil down the side of my building instead of taking the stairs. The very idea was so ridiculous that it made me laugh. “Definitely not!”

“You must be,” she insisted. “Otherwise he wouldn’t show up.”

“He’s not. There’s no way,” I assured her. “He just always shows up there for no reason.”

She didn’t believe me, so together we checked my Facebook page.

Definitely not friends.

“You SEE?” I said triumphantly. “And yet, he always shows up there in the ‘active now’ list. I don’t get it. There are so many other people I’d rather see there. Why don’t they free up that slot for somebody else?”

We both stared at the screen, puzzled.

“Maybe if I block him, he’ll be replaced?”

My friend shook her head, baffled. “I don’t know. That’s very strange. I’m pretty sure people who you aren’t friends with shouldn’t show up at all…”

I took my phone back and idly scrolled and tapped, searching through Facebook messenger.

“Where’s the block button? Why is this so counterintuitive? Where- Oh, found it.”

I had reached a screen with a long list of all my active contacts and, next to their names, a little hand. For the briefest split second, I wondered at the decision to make the block button an ambiguous hand emoji. Was it a hand block, like, ‘HALT in the name of Caesar!’ or was it a ‘Bye, Felipe’? Without giving it too much thought, I pressed it with a little sigh of relief-

… Which was immediately followed by a despairing, “Ohhhh no!”

My friend, jolted by my reaction, tensed. “What?!”

I turned the phone so she could see the message that had immediately popped up on my screen:

‘You have sent *ex-boyfriend* a wave!’

There was a frozen moment as we absorbed this new information; a beat of silence as we both internalised what had just happened.

Then we locked eyes, and we burst out laughing. We laughed so hard I dropped the phone. We laughed so hard actual tears were streaming down our cheeks.

She finally managed to gasp out, “What? HOW?”

“I just … I pressed … the hand emoji!” I was laughing so hard the words squeaked out of me in bursts.

“But… but what did you think it meant?!”

“I thought it meant, like, “BYE!” or maybe “See you later!””

This sent her into fresh hysterics.

Whenever the laughter started to subside she would lift her head and give a stiff little wave of her hand, and we’d go back to giggling so hard we almost fell off our chairs.

My phone pinged to alert me of a notification, and I wiped my eyes enough to see a message from my ex-boyfriend appear on the screen.

“Hmm.” It read.

Then, immediately afterwards, “Typo?”

Still laughing, I typed a simple “Yes.” I finally located the block button (not actually an ambiguous emoji, as it turns out) and firmly pressed it. Then I folded my arms on the table, lay my head on my forearms and laughed until my sides hurt.

Once we could speak in sentences again (rather than trying to communicate in a pitch only audible to dogs), we leaned back in our chairs and wiped the tears of laughter from our cheeks.

I sighed.

“At least he recognised I would never actually have contacted him on purpose,” I said, looking for the silver lining to my cloud of idiocy.

“True, true,” said my friend, nodding sagely, “And now you know that waves are a thing. And you know how to send one. And you know how to block people. And at least now he’s actually blocked, so he won’t show up anymore! You can just pretend this never happened!”

We reached for my phone and looked at my Messenger.

An incredulous laugh bubbled out of me as I looked at the screen. Guess who was first in line in the ‘Active Now’ list?

Unfriended.

Blocked.

Still showing up.

Facebook Messenger must have a sense of humour.

 

Life Skills Unlocked: Proper Etiquette

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Something happened last weekend that blew my mind:

I realised that I have been eating incorrectly my entire life.

But Quinn, I hear you say, if you have been managing to successfully manoeuvre food from your plate to your mouth for the past three decades, how can you possibly say you have been eating incorrectly?

Well I’m glad you asked.

When I was a small child, mealtimes were incredibly stressful affairs. There were a few reasons for this – including the fact that I went on a self-imposed hunger-strike for about two years at the age of six for reasons unknown – but one of the main reasons was that my mother was an absolute stickler for etiquette. The rules for eating were harsh and exacting, and failure to comply led to frequent explosions of anger (on her part) and tears (on ours). Fork in left hand, knife in right. Cut your food. Swap hands. Turn the fork over and bring your food to your mouth with your right hand, tines pointing up. Do not pick up your food until you have put down your knife. Do not ever lift your fork from the plate with the tines pointing down. Hold it like a spoon when you move it from plate to mouth. I mean sure, it sounds simple now but when you’re a tiny child, all that fork-fiddling is very tricky to master.

…Skip along to last weekend, when I absent-mindedly asked Scrubs why he eats with the tines pointing down when it’s 1. wrong and 2. clearly more difficult.

He blinked at me.

“It’s proper etiquette.”

No. No, I said. You’re supposed to do this whole fork-knife-swapping rigmarole. Those are the rules.

He leaned back in his chair and tilted his head. “No, that’s wrong,” he said. “Proper etiquette dictates you eat with your fork pointing downwards.”

I grumbled, and then – as with all bones of contention – I turned to Google to assure me that I had not suffered through gruelling lessons in table manners for nothing, and this is when I learned two galling and frankly disturbing truths:

  1. There is no globally-accepted etiquette for the use of eating utensils.
  2. I have been eating incorrectly for my entire life.

For those of you thinking, “But that’s how I learned to use my knife and fork!” Well, yes. Let me explain. Back in the day, when the British were still enjoying being an empire, this was the proper way to eat using a knife and fork. Some of them sailed to America, settled there, and brought their old-timey etiquette with them to their high society functions in the New World.

Then, for reasons unknown, back in Europe etiquette changed. Someone, somewhere, decided it was too easy to scoop food up with the tines pointing upward and they were wasting too much time swapping hands, so they changed things. Suddenly the polite thing to do was to eat with your fork in your left hand at all times, tines facing down.

Bounce along a few generations, and you have my grandfather, piloting a Boeing across the ocean to New York, where he evidently picked up some new-fangled ideas about proper eating-utensil protocol and then rigorously enforced them at home, bringing us to my mother, who in turn taught us the table manners she had learned as a child.

And here I thought everyone else was just doing it wrong.

When I think about it now, it all makes sense to me. My grandfather – my Yayo – was born in a tiny village riddled with small, crooked houses on unpaved, dusty streets. When I visited as a child, the houses were still small and crooked, and the streets were still unpaved and dusty. It always seemed trapped in a time warp. Women sat outside their front doors on wooden stools dressed entirely in black, as if in mourning for a life that had passed them by. Their faces were nut-brown from the sun and deeply lined. I didn’t know this then but many of those lines were testaments to hardship. Many of those lines were evidence of unimaginable grief.

My Yayo signed up for the military as soon as he was able, and eventually worked his way up from dogsbody to mechanic to air force pilot. Later, he became a commercial pilot, at a time when flying was new and exotic. Short-haul flights became long-haul flights, and before long he was flying from Madrid to New York City.

Imagine the impression New York City’s glitziest five-star hotels must have made on a man who had come from a village in which traveling by donkey was the norm. He probably soaked up the etiquette there as gospel. After all, where would he learn more about high society than New York in the 1950s? At a time when pilots were highly admired and airline travel was considered a glamorous luxury, he learned a lot and he learned it fast. Then he traveled home, arms laden with clothes and jewellery and trinkets, and taught his growing family everything he knew.

And now here I am, with excellent training in American knife and fork etiquette.

… In Europe.

While I admire his efforts, I do wish somebody had mentioned it to me sooner. It is somewhat startling to realise that I have been eating ‘wrong’ at multiple formal occasions for my entire life so far. I suppose I should probably relearn my table manners; I imagine it will be a little easier now that I have adult levels of dexterity in my hands.

Still, after thinking about it, my foreign table manners make me feel very proud of my Yayo and his ambition for a better life. Maybe I’ll still use American etiquette every so often; a private, silent tribute to one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.

grandfather yayo airline pilot when do i get the manual

 

 

 

Thoughts On… The Ring Thing

So it turns out that when you get engaged, you wear a ring.

Who knew, right?* It’s a whole thing. There’s the proposal, and all the things that come with that (champagne… lots of champagne), and then there’s the ring. Usually a shiny ring. Usually a shiny ring with a sparkly rock perched on top so that you can blind your enemies with some carefully-angled light reflection. While I was aware of all of this in a vague, theoretical sense, I hadn’t really thought about it.

Like… ever.

Of course I’ve been around other engaged people, and I’m not completely socially inept, so I have taken part in the customary, “Congratulations! Oooh your ring is amazing!” routine. My congratulations are always sincere – I am a secret sap and melt internally during retellings of funny/sweet/charming/odd/downright peculiar proposals – but if I’m honest, my interest in the ring itself has always been extremely limited. My brain sees the new bit of jewellery and registers ‘beautiful silver-coloured ring with sparkly stone’ and literally nothing else. This may sound borderline sacriligeous, but by and large they all look the same to me. More importantly, they mean the same thing; this person (who I love) is getting married (to someone they love)… and that’s lovely!

But amigos, you have no idea.

Or rather, maybe you do have some idea, but I had NO idea.

The ring thing is an actual rabbithole. It’s Ringception. You think all you need to do is pick a ring. You think it’s simple. You think there’s only one layer… but you’re wrong. You’re so wrong. There are many layers, and once you’ve jumped in there is no Edith Piaf singing Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien to kick you back to sanity.

The first time I looked at rings, I felt the same icy panic that usually closes over me in the men’s shoe department. They all look the same. I know they’re not the same – I know there are differences – but God help me, I cannot point them out. I start to feel a strange, itemised kind of colourblindness; each ring I look at blurs into a muddy amalgamation of every ring I’ve seen before it. It turns out they are not just beautiful silver-coloured sparkly diamond rings. They are rose gold, or yellow gold, or platinum, or white gold, but if they’re white gold then they can be 14 karat, or 18 karat, and can I tell the difference?

No. No I cannot.

Then there are the diamonds (you can use any stone, but diamonds are most common); they can be round, or square, or oval, or pear, or princess, or cushion, or marquise, or emerald, or asscher, or a dozen other “cuts,” and that’s without going deeper into facet cuts and table depths and mathematical formulas for making the diamond a blinding weapon of refraction. I avoid mathematics whenever possible so as you can imagine this is not an area I am particularly interested in. When it comes to one round cut diamond or another round cut diamond, can I tell the difference?

No. No I cannot.

And then, after all that, you have the settings. Do you want it in a bezel setting? Halo setting? Tension setting? Prong setting? How many prongs? Four? Six? Square-placed or compass? Talon or rounded? Cathedral or Tiffany?

It’s endless.

When I started reading online about all of this, I kept coming across forums full of men planning to propose. There are threads out there in the wilderness of the world wide web crammed full of adorably encouraging strangers virtually psyching each other up and advising each other to “Check out her pinterest so you have an idea of what rings she likes.”

Psssh! I scoffed. Like there are people out there pinning their ideal engagement rings to their pinterest boards. Pinterest is for food! Everybody knows that!

Alas, further googling forces me to admit that I was wrong; these people exist. They are legion. There are many, many people out there who are extremely prepared for any potential proposal that might pop up. In this, as in so many other things, it turns out I am that one suddenly cramming for a test I didn’t even know I had to study for, while other people have been carefully compiling binders of detailed notes** for years.

Quelle surprise.

Still, there are a few things here that are bring me a measure of serenity when I start to feel like I am falling into a vertically-placed, asscher-cut hall of mirrors.

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You could fall in and never come out

 

  1. This is the most first world of first world problems.
  2. Parts of this process have allowed me to say shake my head vigorously and say truly outrageous things like, “NOT THOSE PRONGS!” which is not something I ever thought I would have an opinion about, let alone say out loud.
  3. I don’t really care. I mean I care in so much as I do not want to wear an uncomfortable, heart-shaped eyesore for the rest of my days, but I don’t care. I would have said yes without any ring. I would marry Scrubs with a rubber band around my finger. He is the best.***

So that’s where I’m at. I’ve read more than I ever thought I would need to know about engagement rings. I’ve made some tentative decisions (I’ve decided against heart-shaped diamonds as a general rule). I will no doubt update you when I receive the final product so you can say “Oooh your ring is amazing!” in keeping with the well-established custom.

… Even if it does just look like a beautiful silver-coloured ring with sparkly stone.

*When we got engaged there was a provisional ring (rose gold, with rose quartz and little diamonds for the curious), with the plan being to find The One Ring To Rule Them All at a later stage, together. Hence, Ringception.

**Pinterest boards.

***I realise I am biased. He is though.

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Wise Men Say…

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There is one teeny, tiny thing I neglected to mention in all of my rambling about Mexico.

I got engaged. We got engaged! There was an engagement?

Basically, what I’m saying is that there was a very happily accepted proposal, and I know that makes it sound a little like a business deal, but in actual fact it was both completely unexpected and eerily perfect, and not at all like a business deal.

More like a movie.

Or a telenovela.

I don’t talk about Scrubs much here because Scrubs is quite a private person, but we have been together for… a while. A long while. About eight years now. That sounds like a veritable eon, but it really doesn’t feel like it. The other day we were out having dinner and across the way from us a couple were sitting, sipping cocktails, having an awkward first date.

“Yeah, so I play the oboe,” the girl said.

“Oh right. That’s interesting.” Said the boy, sounding not at all interested.

“It’s quite time-consuming.” Brief pause as the boy digested this bit of information. She forged ahead. “I also play hockey.”

“Oh?” Said the boy. “Like, on grass?”

“Yeah, on astroturf. Sometimes we play on gravel though.”

Scrubs and I locked eyes over our potato wedges.

“Thank God we never had to do that whole thing,” whispered Scrubs, sounding like we narrowly avoided death by immolation or radioactive waste. I nodded in grave agreement.

It’s true that we never had that awkward first date. Timing, or kismet, or any number of factors combined to create a moment in which we simply connected like magnets. At the time that my world collided with his, I had passed through phases of singledom; I had been sad and lonely, then disappointed and bored, and (eventually) made it to the promised land of consummate enjoyment. After a rough patch of heartbreak I had finally discovered my happy place. I had found my groove, and I was making the most of it; everything was fun, and light-hearted, and there was a lot of dancing to bad music (there is still a lot of dancing to bad music but these days it’s mostly in the comfort of my own home). Then, that one night, our little world bubbles bumped into each other for no more than five minutes.

“I know you! Or … I know someone that knows you?”

“Yeah! I was on foreign exchange with someone you know!”

“I have to go, but we should meet up sometime?”

“Yeah, for sure!”

…and that was it. It sounds ridiculous and impossible even to my own ears, but I still vividly remember sitting in my taxi home, tipsily thinking about him and feeling absolutely infuriated. I remember having this clear gut instinct of, “This guy is going to be Something Serious with a capital S, and just when I was starting to have so much fun! Why did Something Serious have to come along now? Why couldn’t I have had a bit longer to enjoy my groove?”

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Just like this, except that Scrubs is younger and better looking… And I’m not a man.

Worth it, though.

We never really went on a first date. We simply met up to hang out one day and then just… were. I found a new groove, a better groove than I’d ever even dared to hope for, and we’ve continued on like that up to now.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting the proposal at all. It blindsided me to such an extent that I didn’t really have a serious think about what it truly meant until afterwards. I think I was in shock for the first couple of days. It took me a minute.

One night I lay in the dark, staring at the ceiling, and thought long and hard about it. I realised that even though I’d always felt like we were in it for the long-haul, this was actually a Big Deal; this was an official, public, no-screwing-around, it’s-you-and-me-against-the-world type promise. I know that may seem obvious. It is obvious. I mean, that’s really the whole proposal question when you think about it. I needed a moment for it to sink in though. I needed a moment to turn it over in my mind and examine it from every angle. Now not only am I an adult, but I’m an adult with a fiancé! I still can’t say it out loud without turning red.

Nothing has changed. We are the same as we were before. Nothing has changed, and yet something has. Before, I knew that we loved each other and now, I KNOW it.

… But I already knew it, so what’s the difference?

I can’t tell. There is a difference but it’s something so tiny and sharp that I can barely figure out what it is. Something so miniscule it’s invisible but I can feel it, so I know it’s there.

I could write a long, long post here about Scrubs. I could write about the many reasons why I love him, and how he makes me a better person, and all the ways he makes me smile. I could write about how I still feel the same about him now as I did that night that he threw me off my groove and knocked me right into a different (and completely unexpected) lane.

I could write about all of this and more, but as I said before, he’s a private person. He would hate that.

So I didn’t write about it.

Not in so many words.

Falling Half in Love with Strangers

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I love being able to express myself in writing.

It feels more accurate somehow than speaking words. Talking for me can sometimes feel like playing tennis with a colander; I mean, it’s possible, I can do it, but it’s not ideal. The ball goes over the net, but just about. It goes where I want it to go… more or less. I can’t be sure it’ll hit it’s mark, but I can hope. Later, I’ll go home and think about how I could have done it some other, better way.

Writing is different.

Writing is a tennis racket. When I’m writing, I have the time to think about what I’m trying to say, and then mentally flip through millions of words looking for the one that slots into my sentence like that Tetris block you’ve been waiting five minutes for; the one that gives you a combo and wipes the screen clean. Finding the right word feels satisfying, and I’m always on the lookout for new words to add to my vocabulary. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve probably noticed this already (like with Hygge and Sonder). I collect words.

Sometimes I find myself reaching into other languages for words that describe feelings or situations that there’s no term for in English. I’m bilingual – Spanish/English – and there are times when I can feel a Spanish word trying to force itself into an English sentence because there’s no English equivalent.

… And yet, even with two entire languages to pick words from (and a smattering of others), I still sometimes find myself searching for a word that doesn’t exist.

I am on the lookout for a particular word.

I want a word for the feeling I get when I connect with a total stranger for a few minutes or hours, and then never see them again. It’s an ability to suddenly feel profound, intense affection for someone I don’t know. It’s not physical attraction, necessarily. It can happen with men or women. It is a non-discriminatory feeling that happens without warning, without rhyme or reason. I want a word that explains how I can feel instantly and powerfully attached to somebody and then, in a perverse way, almost hope never to see them again.

Is there a word for that?

There are a handful of people I’ve met over the years who I still think about from time to time, because even if I only spent a few hours with them, in those hours I was invested. I wanted to know everything about them. I fell a little bit platonically in love with them and their stranger-ness. I felt something that I don’t have a word for, and I hate that. I felt a nameless, wordless bond.

If you’re thinking, ‘Quinn, what are you on about?‘ … here’s an early example.

About half a lifetime ago I was in Vienna, Austria, with barely any German and friends who had succumbed to sickness. I wandered out into the city by myself, and walked the cobbled streets alone with only a crumpled paper map for orientation. These were the days before smartphones, and everything was just a little more complicated. In the square behind a large cathedral, I pulled out my map and tried to trace my finger down the streets I had walked earlier. A voice interrupted my thoughts in harsh German and I turned to find a long line of horse and carriages parked along the kerb. One of the carriage drivers, dressed smartly in a black felt hat and waistcoat, was observing me with amusement.

“Lost?” He asked.

I nodded and trotted towards him. After all, if anyone knew the streets of Vienna it had to be the carriage drivers. He nodded his head at the padded bench beside him and helped me up into the driver’s seat. Up close I realised he was young, with bright blue eyes and a friendly, shy smile. He had a small gold hoop in one ear. I was alone and bored and lost, so I flattened the map against my thighs with the palms of my hands and explained in broken German where I had come from and what I was doing there. I told him I had no plans for the evening, and was just looking for landmarks to visit that wouldn’t require too much walking.

He nodded as I spoke, and pointed out a few different landmarks. Every few minutes a carriage would depart from the front of the line and our carriage would jostle as he coaxed his horses forward.

And then it happened. That wordless, nameless thing.

There is an entirely regular level of healthy interest that we as humans have in each other. When you meet someone for the first time, often there are a number of things you want to know about the person. A lot of adult conversations start with “What do you do?” or “Where do you live?” or “How do you know Martin/Julia/Alex/Sam?”

The wordless, nameless thing I feel skips the superficial curiosities of that regular level of interest. I lock onto people. My curiosity spontaneously mutates from a lukewarm, detached interest to a many-tendrilled absorption in the person in front of me. Once this happens, my curiosity extends into private, hidden corners; darkest secrets and earliest memories and family histories and relationships and hobbies.  I want to know what they do to feel better when they’re feeling low. I want to know their favourite food. I want to know when they last cried, and why. I want to know how they get on with their siblings (if they have any), whether they like to dance or prefer to sit by the bar, what age they realised the truth about Santa Claus, and how. I want to know what drives them, and I want to know what led to their presence next to me in that particular moment, out of the 7 billion other people in the world.

If that sounds extremely intense… I realise that. Don’t worry, I don’t interrogate people like I’m trying to solve a crime. I do gently question them though. Max, my friendly carriage driver, told me about how carriage-driving was a family tradition. He told me about the routes he usually took. He told me about how long he had been doing the job, and his worst experience with a passenger. He told me about his horses and his family. He pointed out his favourite spot in Vienna and his favourite coffee shop. We talked for about 45 minutes, and then a middle-aged French couple approached him for a carriage ride and I realised we had reached the top of the queue. Blushing, I stammered an apology and stood to jump down, but Max shook his head and gently motioned for me to stay seated.

“You come?”

I had just watched money change hands and realised that a carriage ride cost about €80. As a broke teenager, I had absolutely no discretionary funds for carriage rides around the city. I told Max as much, and he shrugged.

“You are not passenger. You are co-driver.”

The carriage ride was about 45 minutes of magic. I had never been on a horse-drawn carriage before, but compared to the paying customers I definitely felt like I got the best seat in the house. Sitting up high on the driver’s bench with Max telling me about the landmarks and explaining their history, Vienna looked different. The evening sun threw a golden filter over the intricately carved stonework on the buildings. I glanced over my shoulder at the French couple; the woman’s head was nestled into the man’s shoulder, and the two of them were smiling at nothing in particular. I could see how Vienna might easily be as romantic as Paris.

In between landmarks I slid in more personal questions. I asked about Max’s parents, his ambitions, what he did in his free time. He gruffly answered every question, with a shy smile every now and then to show he didn’t begrudge me my curiosity. Every so often he would mutter a question of his own, his low voice hard to hear over the sound of trotting hooves.

By the time we circled back around to the church, night was falling. The streets were clearing, and some of the other carriage drivers were disappearing in the dusk as they turned in for the night. I hopped down from the carriage, checking my watch.

“I guess it’s time for you to go home,” I said, gesturing at the carriages trundling away.

“Ja.”

“Okay. Well. Vielen Dank Max. That was… amazing.”

Max accepted my thanks with a sharp nod.

“Where do you go now?” My curiosity again. “Where do the horses sleep?”

“Other side of river” he said, gesturing with his arm. “Over…”

I opened up my map again and he studied it for a moment before pointing at an area of Vienna I had never visited.

“You come?”

I looked up to find him looking at me with an inscrutable expression.

I looked down at the map. The area he was pointing to was pretty far away. How would I get home? Nobody knew where I was. Then again, I had no other plans, and I was stuck in this nameless, wordless feeling with Max, Austrian stranger.

I looked up at him with a smile. “Sure!”

He held out a hand and helped me back up into the carriage.

I pried further into his life on the carriage-ride to wherever we were going. He told me about his last girlfriend and how long they had been together and how it had ended. He told me about the food that brought back childhood memories for him, and how he had spent his birthday. At one point, clattering over cobblestones on a dimly lit, empty street, he nudged my thigh with his hand.

“What?”

“You want?”

His hand opened slightly, offering me the reins.

“Me? I can’t! Max, I’ll crash your carriage.”

He nodded insistently and put the reins in my hands.

“You feel?”

I did feel. There was a tension on the reins, a sort of pushing, pulling, rhythmic motion. It immediately gave me a feeling of both pure joy and total calm. I gripped the leather tight and felt focus and control wash over me. He let me drive the carriage down the streets of the city, guiding my hands when we needed to turn, or tugging when we needed to slow down. Eventually we reached our destination, and he slowed the horses to a stop and jumped down to lead them through a large door between townhouses.

I felt my eyes widen as we passed under the stone arch and through time straight into the 1800’s. A small stone courtyard paved in cobblestones housed four stables with glossy emerald wooden doors. Lit by half a dozen warm yellow lamps, I watched as a cat yawned and sat up on a hay bale to greet us. I hopped down, completely enchanted, as Max parked the carriage and led the horses to their stables. I gazed up at the baroque townhouses flanking the little courtyard, my mouth hanging open. When Max tapped my elbow to get my attention, I was startled back to the present.

“I come back. I shower.” He said, running his fingers along the brim of his black felt hat.

“Okay.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah, Max, go have your shower.”

“After, drinks?”

“Sure.”

He disappeared, undoing the buttons of his waistcoat as he went. I spun around and sat down on a hay bale to pet the cat. Fifteen minutes later a man emerged from a building to my right.

“Hey!” he shouted, and I looked up, startled.

How would I explain my presence? Was I even allowed to be here? I looked around for Max.

“Hey,” he said again, and stopped in front of me. My eyes slid over this man’s body, from his leather boots, past his ripped jeans, over his white and red motorcycle jacket. A red motorcycle helmet dangled from his hand, and he had very pale blonde hair cropped short. He had a cowlick at the front. I stared at his face, frozen in panic.

Then I saw the gold hoop earring. It was Max.

I started laughing.

Out of his work clothes, he looked like a completely different person. He looked much younger. I realised he was only a couple of years older than I was. Without the hat, his blue eyes looked impossibly big and it was much easier to read his expression. He was pink from his shower, and he flushed and rolled his eyes when I explained, through gasps of relieved laughter, that I hadn’t recognised him.

The rest of the night was idyllic. He refused to let me on his motorbike because he only had one helmet, but we walked together to an open-air bar by the river and sat at a picnic table drinking and laughing and asking each other questions until the night wound down and I realised I needed to get home. He offered to walk me, but I declined the offer. The whole evening I had been suspended in a bubble with Max, and now I felt like I was holding a pin, ready to burst it and step out into the real world again.

We walked to the bridge, and he took my hands with an earnest expression. He said that he always had breakfast in the corner cafe near the cathedral on Wednesdays. He said if I wanted to find him, I knew where he would be. He told me he hoped to see me again. Then he kissed me on the cheek and squeezed my hands before turning and walking away, motorcycle helmet swinging at his side.

I didn’t go to the cafe on Wednesday. Although part of me wanted to see Max again, a larger part of me felt that we had spent a perfect evening together, and that was enough. I had half fallen in love with a total stranger over the course of a few hours. I had learned so much about him. I knew more about Max than I knew about some of my friends.

I never saw him again.

Every once in a while, I wonder what Max is doing. I wonder if he still draws in his spare time. I wonder if he still drives the same carriage through the streets of Vienna, and whether that coffee shop is still there on that corner. I wonder if he still has a small gold hoop in his ear. I wonder if he has a family now, and whether he remembers an evening spent talking about life with a stranger from Ireland, who was lost and bored and open to the possibility of being kidnapped. I hope Max is well. I hope he is happy. I hope that his life has been untouched by tragedy.

A few memorable hours spent with a total stranger, and I still care about their wellbeing years later. I still send good wishes their way when I think of them, for whatever those are worth.

There really should be a word for that.

Thoughts On… Friendship

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“Understand that friends come and go,
But a precious few you should hold on.

Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle,
For as the older you get, the more you need the people
You knew when you were young.”

 

My best friend turned thirty yesterday.

She’s become something of a human pinball over the past decade, bouncing from London to Dublin to South America and back again. Her globetrotting has taken her to incredible places, where she’s done unforgettable things, and we’ve kept in touch through the wonder of the internet. We’ve known each other since we were very small, and after all these years all I can say is that I’m so proud to know her. I trust her with fears, hopes and secrets. She’s great for car chats, cinema trips and cocktails. She knows that the correct food for catch-ups is chocolate. She’s a badass with more of a sense of style in her little finger than I’ve accumulated in my entire life.

And she’s brave.

In a few days she moves to Dubai for a new adventure. I can’t wait to see her take on a new country, and I can’t wait to visit her once she’s settled in. It’s going to be amazing, and will hopefully lead to more success and love and laughter and great things in the next few years. When I think back at all the things we’ve done in our lives from sleepovers to summer camps, from movie nights to deep discussions in nightclub toilet cubicles… We’ve covered a lot of ground! There’s still so much out there for us to do though, and I think this is going to be the best time to do it. I think our thirties are going to be awesome!

Yesterday was her thirtieth birthday.

Here’s to another thirty!