Life Skills Unlocked: Reading for Enjoyment

“One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage thr.png

When I was a child, I would read books to teleport out of my life. One moment I would be lying in bed staring at the white ceiling, anxiety clawing at my throat, and the next I would be visiting prickly Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, or laughing at Dogmatix and his fondness for trees. My introduction to reading was a steady and consistent diet of Beatrix Potter, Goscinny and Uderzo, Hergé, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss and Enid Blyton. I read compulsively, almost obsessively.

As soon as I was able to read by myself, it became a fixation; whether we were out for a walk or it was after dark, I would have a book in my hand. I became adept at reading while also watching where I was going. I would fall asleep with my cheek pressed against the page.

My mother made us members of the public library and each week she would drive there and let me check out seven books, since that was the most that was allowed at the time. I still remember carrying my wobbly pile to the counter and watching the lady methodically stamp each one before handing them back to me with a smile. If I close my eyes I can still smell the ink and paper.

For a time, Enid Blyton was my crack; Wikipedia tells me Enid Blyton published 762 books and I’d say I’ve read the vast majority. My addiction was so intense that my mother actually forbade me to borrow any more of them. There were multiple trips to the library where I would have to engage in serious subterfuge to get my fix. I would pick out my books, wait patiently for my mother to go out of the room, and then rush the counter in a blind panic to get them stamped before she returned. I would hide them under my jumper or tuck them into the waistband of my highly fashionable corduroy trousers. I could carefully conceal two Enid Blytons (three if I was wearing a jacket). Of course, to avoid suspicion, I would have to then borrow four or five books just for show. When my mother inevitably wondered why I hadn’t checked out the usual seven, I would have to pretend I couldn’t find anything else that interested me.

In hindsight, I wonder what the librarian made of us…

After Enid Blyton I got hooked on Nina Bawden, R.L. Stine, Bill Watterson, K.A. Applegate, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Garth Nix and eventually just a broad scope of authors from all different genres. As I grew up, I continued to see books as an escape route to other worlds. Anytime I was feeling too much stress or anxiety or discomfort or worry, I would open a book and disappear into it head-first. It was like a wormhole to another life; a sort of body-swap, if you will. I would slip into the shoes of the main character and do what they were doing, feel what they were feeling. I was Sabriel learning to ring the bells, I was Lyra leaving Pantalaimon on the shore. When I finished a book I always felt bereft, like I’d been kicked out of a temporary home.

I think that all of my time spent inside stories – looking through the eyes of different characters and experiencing their adventures, loves, heartbreaks, successes and betrayals – has made me a more empathetic person. I think it taught me so much more about life than what I could ever learn from my own experiences. I won’t say reading makes someone a better person but I do think it makes them a more rounded one. Books have taught me so much more about people than I could ever have learned otherwise. It gave and still gives me insight into lives completely different to my own, motivations I could never share, and realities I could never imagine. In a way, reading other people’s blogs is an extension of that. Reading other people’s blog posts lets me share in their feelings and inhabit their world for a minute or two.

I have a clear and vivid memory of sitting on the windowsill in my 4th class classroom, reading during lunch hour, when a friend saw me and said, “Quinn, when you grow up you’re probably going to marry a book!” At the time I was upset by the comment because I wasn’t an overly sociable child and my interests were pretty much restricted to hanging upside-down from trees and reading. Sometimes I combined the two and hung upside-down from trees while reading. I remember wondering if that would be my life as an adult; just me and my books. I wondered if I would die crushed under a tower of heavy hardbacks that had just been a little too precariously placed.

Now that I am an adult, I am in a much better place. I live a happier, less stressful life. I no longer feel the need to body-swap with fictional characters. These days I read because I enjoy it, not because I need it. I no longer desperately try to make out words by the light of the moon (terrible for your eyes, by the way), or escape into stories like I’m using them as a hiding place. I’m glad to say that now that I am a bona fide grown-up, it’s not just me and my books, and my heavy hardbacks are tidily stacked on a sturdy bookcase where they pose no danger to anyone.

[Just a quick note to say that (astonishingly) I am getting closer to 1000 readers and if I do reach that number I will be doing a weird but fun little giveaway! 

… Well. Even if I don’t ever reach that number I’ll probably do the giveaway. Basically, I am planning a giveaway and writing it here so I don’t forget because although I’m excellent at compiling things I always slack on actually going to the post office! I mean, I have three things that I’ve been meaning to post out for about a month now, so might as well add this to the list. It’s happening! Don’t let me forget!]

Open Letter To The World

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Dear World,

WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

Sorry, that was abrupt. I really jumped right in there; no pleasantries, no small talk. I just feel that we don’t really have time to catch up right now. Judging by the activities of the past week, you seem to just be barrelling through all the conventions and tacit agreements we’ve had for the past generation. I mean, things hadn’t been perfect up until now, but this is too much. This is not okay.

World, I’m worried about you. I’m worried about all of us.

I see we’ve committed to the whole rotten-orange-as-leader-of-the-free-world thing, even though he is thoroughly awful (I mean… just… gross).  I’ve covered this already. It’s likely that in time the people who made it possible will realise that maybe it was less of the shot-in-the-air they intended it to be, and more of a shot in the foot. Still, as always, I just want what’s best for you. Now that we all find ourselves in the same leaky boat, there’s really no point in going back over it.

Although I would just like to quickly point out that we already have at least one delusional narcissist in charge of a country (North Korea), and I can’t say I ever read a news article about him and thought, ‘We could do with another one of those… but BIGGER!‘ Bigger is not always better, World. I know America likes to supersize everything, but upgrading a run-of-the-mill self-obsessed moron to President of the United States of America was a really bad idea. Like, tremendously bad. In one week this oversized, oversensitive caricature of a man has managed to throw you into total dissarray.

There have always been assholes. There will always be assholes. Assholes are a constant. The danger now is that not only are some assholes in positions of great power, but the common, everyday assholes feel legitimised. They feel like it’s okay to go on national television and speak hateful words that hang in the air like a scummy fog. World, this is not acceptable. We need to do something about this.

I know. I know what you’re going to say. Already, there are great people doing great things. There is resistance. There are people fighting to keep things balanced, and keep human rights protected, and keep things from sliding into a heap of chaos. This is true, but we need more. We need more great people. We need more resistance.

We need more love.

That sounds so cheesy, but too much has gone horribly wrong in the recent past to ignore the fact that what we need is a lot more love. Too many families are waking up unsure of what is going to happen next. Too many families are waking up to deaths, or deportation, or denial of entry. Division and hatred seems to be sprouting everywhere like an unwelcome, tenacious weed. We need love, and a lot of it. We need the industrial-strength, Gorilla-glue kind of love that links us not only to our friends and families but also to our neighbours next door, our fellow citizens, and total strangers from foreign lands.

World, do you remember the game Red Rover? We played it as children. We’d link arms  in a long line and then a player would try to run at us and break through. If they were successful in splitting the wall, they won a couple more players for their side…

I feel like we’re playing an Alice-in-Wonderland adult version of Red Rover.

The good and decent people are linking arms and putting their game faces on, and a few rogue elements are coming at us with a great deal of force, trying to split us up, trying to win people over to their side (don’t listen to them – the whole thing about them having cookies is a lie).

They say those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Frankly, not enough time has passed since World War Two that we can use ‘forgetting’ as an excuse.

World, link arms with me.

I’m ready for Red Rover; Global Edition.

Q.

If you’re feeling helpless and have any money to spare this month, please consider donating to ACLU or subscribing to The Washington Post or The New York Times, even if you’re not an American citizen.

Life’s Little Disappointments

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I am big into art and crafts.

I’m not into all crafts. I’m not even into useful crafts, but I really enjoy making new things with my own two hands. I go through phases of intense focus where I NEED to learn how to decorate cakes/use watercolours/pyrograph/découpage/make jam. Then, as soon as I’m good enough at it that I’m satisfied I could gift the results to some unsuspecting victim without having my skin fall off from the holy mortifying shame of it all… I lose interest. No sooner am I happy with the results of my jewellery-making than I’ve dropped all my beads and picked up some oil pastels, ready for my next challenge.

I’m like a tiny, fickle, Martha Stewart but without the multi-million dollar empire and the tax-evasion and the facial expression that implies she is perfectly capable of killing you with her own bare hands.*

For about two years now I’ve wanted to make a dreamcatcher. Yes, I’m talking about the tragically uncool, yarn-and-feather, possibly culturally-appropriative things that everyone used to have on their wall. They weren’t very useful for catching nightmares – or whatever it was they were supposed to do with your dreams – but they were a surefire sign that you were probably a girl growing up in the ’90s.

I have tried a couple of times to harness the power of the dreamcatcher, but every time I’ve just ended up with my fingers tangled in yarn. For about five glorious minutes, my creation looks like something spun by a drunk spider, and then it unravels completely, spilling beads across the floor. Every few months, I try. Every few months, I fail. You know what they say though; if at first you don’t succeed, just keep trying until you almost amputate your own finger by means of an accidental yarn tourniquet.

With this in mind, imagine how excited I was when I received an e-mail from Ikea telling me they were having an activity day during which there would be a craft class for how to make dreamcatchers. I was excited. I mean, I was really excited.

I put it in my calendar. I planned my weekend around it. I knew I wouldn’t have the car and Ikea is a trek away, so I plotted my route accordingly. When D-Day (Dreamcatcher Day) arrived, I set off on my adventure with high hopes. I took a bus to a place I had never been, and then walked to another bus stop where I took a second bus to a stop about half an hour from Ikea. I then walked (bounced, really) the rest of the way. I was going to CRUSH this! I would finally, finally, learn how to make a dreamcatcher. You know when cartoons think of money and dollar signs flash in their eyes? If I had been a cartoon in that moment, my eyes would just have been a series of potential dreamcatcher colour combinations.

I walked in the entrance to IKEA and looked around for my craft class. I was bang on time, so I knew it should be starting. It took me a couple of minutes, but eventually I found the sign for the dreamcatcher crafting crew. Once I realised I had found it, I stood, blinking, trying to comprehend what I was seeing.

The people making dreamcatchers were toddlers.

The “dreamcatchers” were big circles made of cardboard.

The “craft class” was actually just a sort of advanced childminding station.

Paralysed with disappointment, I watched as a dozen toddlers scribbled fiercely on their cardboard circles with fat, washable Crayola markers. A couple of IKEA employees moved from child to child, wiping snot and spit and encouraging them not to draw on the table. Tongues poked out in concentration as they pushed their markers back and forth, squiggling thick lines of colour all over the place.

When I could bring myself to move again, I glumly trudged to the homeware section and picked up a candle and a potted plant to soothe my soul.

Then I left, and got my two buses home.**

 

*Seriously. Does nobody else find her smile completely terrifying? I think it’s a combination of the smile and the wrinkle-free shirts. There’s just something very Patrick Bateman about her.

**To this day, I still have not mastered the art of the dreamcatcher.

Learning As I Go

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Adulting is hard.

When I was very small and found out that Santa was a huge secret, and that everyone around me was in on it, I accepted it with good grace. I thought, ‘That’s some good secret keeping! Good job, adults.‘ Then I watched my parents sort through taxes and insurance, bank accounts and mortgages and doctor visits, and I decided – I’m still not quite sure how – that this must be part of a different, separate adult conspiracy.

Clearly,‘ I thought, ‘this is We’ll-Tell-You-When-You’re-Older material.‘ Teachers never touched on this Very Important Serious Stuff between classes on soil erosion and the Irish civil war. Over time, I developed this notion that when people turned 18 they were invited to a place where they were given a crash course on Adulting. They would emerge on the other side knowing all these things that adults seem to just mysteriously know.

Imagine my disappointment when I realised that we’re completely on our own.

There is no Adulting Hogwarts. There is no manual.* We learn things by osmosis, mostly. A lot of things seem to happen due to a peculiar domino effect; one friend gets engaged, and then suddenly, before you know it, you have seven weddings to attend in the upcoming year. Or one friend moves abroad, and suddenly you have five far-flung addresses saved in your phone. Or one friend bought a house, and now it is completely normal to discuss where people bought their rugs/couches/lamps/sideboards and you hear the words “I really like that kind of tile” coming out of your mouth and floating in the air like a damning indictment of your age.

It’s frightening, honestly.

So here I am, officially an adult, e-mailing people about insurance and fumbling my way through taxback forms. I get my hair cut about once a year. I have never in my life been to a nail salon. I’m not even entirely sure what they do there or why cuticles are a bad thing. I’ve been meaning to go to the dentist for about two years now. I’ve had friends over for dinner parties (the first of which felt extremely mature until we consumed six bottles of wine between the six of us… and one person wasn’t drinking), but haven’t yet managed to come up with a way to consistently keep my room tidy. I am a Child-Adult collision. I listen to bluesy jazz in the evening to wind down, but dance to pop music when I’m home alone. I own a few very sensible pairs of boots, but my favourite shoes are holographic rainbow glitter high-tops. I have a drinks cabinet, but I also have a sweet drawer.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed an unwelcome amount of pressure to get engaged, and get married, and have a baby. Relatives who went straight from adolescence to adulthood without the twenty-something FIND YOURSELF phase we have today are getting antsy, warning me about my biological clock despite the fact that I hear absolutely no ticking of any kind (maybe it needs batteries?). They’re more bothered about the state of my uterus and what they see as my impending spinsterhood than I have ever been.

Now, friends have started to have children. Quite cute children, really; little chubby-cheeked, sweetly-named children with huge eyes and grabby hands. In order to give appropriate Welcome To The World gifts, I’ve had to knuckle down and learn more adulting stuff. I’ve had to learn about why people swaddle their babies like burritos, and how an Ergobaby is useful, and (shudder) what a Nosefrida** is. It’s been an education.

… And while I’m clicking ‘add to cart’ on all these things, and happily playing with the stuffed toys that I get to purchase for future babies, in a separate tab I am researching cat toys, or dog beds. I am not ready for a baby. Babies are HARD WORK. They don’t fool me with their gummy smiles and tiny adorable shoes. They cry! And they wear nappies! And they don’t let you sleep past 6.30am!

No thank you. Not yet.

So for the moment, I am happy to continue in the Slow Learner group, moving one adult-sized baby step at a time, to the tune of Gold Dust by DJ Fresh.***

*In some ways I guess you could say Google is our manual? I have no idea how people learned things in the age before Google. Imagine having to rely on your friends, family, and the encyclopedia Britannica for all of your life lessons. Just the thought alone is alarming!

**If you’ve never heard of it, don’t Google it.

***At the same time if anybody has suggestions on how to deal with concerned relatives please leave a comment below.