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.

 

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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.

 

 

Memories Are Made of This

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If touch is my drug, then memories are my kryptonite.

I am an overthinker. I have always been an overthinker. As a child, I remember adults telling me, “Don’t think so much!” and wondering how they could ask that of me. I could no more control my thoughts than the weather. They rushed over me in a continuous wave of questions and hypotheticals.

Over the years I learned to stem the tide of thoughts when they got too much for me. I learned to put them away. Today, my mind is a hoarder’s attic, stuffed to the brim with ominously unstable stacks of thoughts and emotions and worries and passions and dreams and experiences and fears and imagination and memories.

I don’t know what other people do with their memories. My brother has somehow managed to purge all of his childhood memories … or lose them. I’m not sure which. My own seem to be (much like my real life belongings) stored in a state of organised chaos. I revisit them often. I turn memories over and over in my mind until the jagged feelings that used to jut from them are worn away, leaving the recollection itself smooth as a pebble. Easy to handle. Almost comforting.

Sometimes I forget memories only to find them years later, untouched, unexamined. When this happens, I’m always surprised to find the feelings that came with them are still there, unblunted, in the corner of my mind. I prick my fingers on the sharp points, and the unexpected sting of it startles me. My mind makes an immediate jump to hyperspace and I start overthinking again.

  • How did I forget this?
  • Is it even real?
  • Do the other people in the memory remember this?
  • Is it important?
  • Why do I only remember this now?
  • How many times have I examined this memory?
  • How many more times will I examine it before the feelings disappear?

Then I worry that when I’m finished turning it over and over, it will become another pebble: a skimmed pebble. It will bounce twice or three times on the surface of my consciousness and then sink to the depths. I’ll forget it for good.

Something about this, something about memories, makes me profoundly sad. It’s not nostalgia. At least I don’t think it is. Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as:

“a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of

some past period or irrecoverable condition.”

I don’t long to go back. I don’t wish for a time-machine. It’s not the moment in the past I feel a strange yearning for, it’s the memory itself. I worry about my memories getting lost forever. I worry that I am altering them all the time until I can no longer trust which ones are true. I worry that I’ll smooth away all the edges and be left with flat, polished versions of every memory I’ve ever had. Easier to manage, yes, but also smaller. Diminished. Sanitised. Sterilised. Incapable of making me laugh or cry.

A forgotten memory found its way into my mind yesterday. It caught me so completely by surprise that a tear escaped and made a run for it down my cheek before I even had a chance to realise what I was thinking of. The instant rush of thoughts and feelings gave me a sentimental papercut. I sat, listening to music, pressing against the sharp ends the same way you use your tongue to press against a loose tooth. It hurt, but I didn’t stop. I couldn’t help it. The pain pleased me.

I examined the memory from every angle. I wondered if there was more to it that I had forgotten. I wondered who else remembered it. If they do, does it come tied to an emotion, or has time buffed away any inconvenient feelings?

If I am the only one who has kept it, does that make it more precious, or less?

Madrid Memories

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Madrid is my soul city.

I haven’t been there in about nine months now, and I’m starting to feel that familiar ache that comes over me when I go too long without visiting. Half of my extended family live in the city, and I have been faithfully flying over at a rate of at least twice a year for the past thirty years. Three years ago, my last remaining grandparent – my Yayo – passed away, and I worried that this would change things. I worried I might not feel as welcome in Madrid now that I no longer had somewhere to stay. I worried that the connection I felt with my family and the city might loosen or come undone now that we no longer had La Comida del Domingo (Sunday lunch) to bring us together each week.

I needn’t have worried.

I still have a place to stay. In fact, now I have places, plural. My aunts welcome me with open arms and comfortable rooms. They feed me and fuss over me and keep me up to date on their lives as if nothing has changed. I visit cousins who are more like older siblings, and walk the streets searching for churros just like I’ve done since I was a child.

I miss the apartment I grew up in, though.

The loss of that apartment and the loss of my Yayo are completely enmeshed in my mind. When I think of him, I think of him sitting in his chair by the window, watching the world pass by. I think of him flipping through the leather-bound photo albums I’d taken down by precariously balancing on the armchair next to the bookshelves. I think of him napping in his armchair and then pretending he had actually been watching mass on the TV, even though we both knew it was untrue. I think of him teaching me to make Arroz Con Leche in the kitchen, with military precision and instructions that bordered on orders. I think of sitting on the leather Chesterfield in the study, watching him write poetry about his childhood or my Yaya. I think of him combing back his hair in front of the bathroom mirror before leaving the house. I think of him sitting at the head of the long dining table at Christmas, proudly watching over his family as we laughed and chattered over wine and homemade food.

Somebody else owns the apartment now. A young family bought it and, as far as I can tell, renovated it from end to end. They closed off the balconies and changed the windows. Even when viewed only from the outside, it looks different to the place I once crawled, then toddled, and later walked through during different stages of my life. I am a really sentimental person, and I feel a bone-deep sense of sadness at the reminder that things change, and people die, and we can’t always hold onto the things and people and places that make us happiest.

Then again, they say ‘Good things fall apart so that better things can come together,’ and while I throw that phrase a highly skeptical side-eye, it’s true that without the sale of the apartment, we would have struggled to save up a deposit for our own place. It’s true that at the moment, as I sit at my own dining table, I can reach behind me and touch onyx figurines that used to sit on Yayo’s sideboard, and now sit on my own. I have reminders of him and of that apartment dotted around me; the onyx elephants, the silver Mexican plates, the vintage glass sweet jars and the art deco cutlery set.

Some days, I wish I could sit down and write Yayo a letter like I used to, complete with drawings and addressed to YAYO! (block capitals as standard), telling him about my life and my worries and my thoughts. After he passed away we found all the letters I had sent over the years stacked neatly in the drawer of his desk under lock and key. He had kept my cards, my letters, my childhood drawings of the apartment (complete with a very questionable grasp of perspective), and anything else I had sent tucked neatly between his pages of poetry and his bank account statements.

I’m not sure why I’m in such a melancholy mood today. Perhaps it’s due to the sun having disappeared, or just because I feel exhausted, or because I have a low-level headache happening at the moment that I’m about to bomb out of existence with some industrial strength ibuprofen. Lia is currently snoring away on the floor at my feet, somehow managing not to wake herself despite sounding like a anthropomorphised jet engine with sleep apnea.

Or maybe I just have Madrid withdrawals.

There’s only one remedy I know for Madrid withdrawals…..

 

Thoughts on… Ancient History

People have a way of looking back at their past and painting it in golden hues.

“Those were the best days of our lives” they say, as if that isn’t just the most depressing thing to utter about your present situation. “Those were the days!”

It’s hard not to get carried away by nostalgia sometimes. You remember people more fondly, events more kindly, and the minor details that might cast shadows on a memory tend to disappear in the light given off by the time that has elapsed in between. We all do it. I do it. I even do it with history that isn’t my own.

I have a fascination with ancient civilisations. The myths and legends and stories of the past capture my imagination like nothing else. When I was a child, it was Norse, Greek, and Celtic mythology. I loved Loki* and Sleipnir, his eight-legged horse. I loved Greek mythology because the gods and heroes were flawed, like people are, and didn’t always make good choices**. Celtic mythology is morose and tragic and almost everybody dies which, while not cheerful, is definitely compelling. You know there’s always a good bit at stake in a Celtic myth. It’s rare that someone doesn’t end up dashing their head off a rock a la Deirdre of the Sorrows or impaled by spears like Cú Chulainn. I also read about South American mythology and Egyptian mythology. I had a book that laid out all the old religions of the world, and I practically inhaled the stories.

From Roman and  Egyptian mythology, it was a small slide-step into reading about Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt, gladiators and sacred cats, gymnasiums and Isis temples.

There is something mind-boggling about the fact that thousands of years ago, people were living their lives much the way we live our lives now, only without selfies or social media. They had religion, they had beliefs and values and societies and political intrigue. Rome even had its own version of a tabloid journalist in the shape of Cicero. Life was much sketchier then considering the amount of poisonings and stabbings and decapitations and general mayhem that was happening on the regular, and of course a lot darker and dirtier without modern sanitation or electric light, but they had parties and luxury and in some ways more magic than we could ever have now. Not everything could be explained. Not all questions could be answered by Google. Instead they had oracles, and soothsayers, and Gods, and monsters, and legendary leaders, and plenty of entertaining drama to brighten their days, with or without the lightbulb.

Of course – of course – I’m doing that thing again, where I colour the past in a rosy glow while conveniently forgetting about things like the bubonic plague, or the fact that people were being burnt at the stake, or that women had no rights and were traded like cattle for social mobility… I mean, I would love to see the ancient city of Alexandria, but probably only from Cleopatra’s perspective. Maybe from the balcony of her onyx and marble palace, looking out at the Pharos? It sounds wonderful to be throwing parties were the floor is laid with roses until they’re knee deep and you have lights strung through the trees and you get to dress up like the goddess an awful lot of people already think you are.

Then again, I don’t think I’d like it half as much from the perspective of a sickly Egyptian slave, sweltering in the sun. Even Cleopatra, with all her wealth and power, felt forced into suicide after everything went pear-shaped on the back of her political maneuvers…

… So maybe there’s something to be said for the present after all.

After all, it’s not so bad to be lying on a sun lounger in a pool of water, typing away on a device that can teach me almost anything I could want to know, without any danger of someone poisoning my food. I’m also not at all concerned about the black death, and I have to concede that I am exceedingly grateful for modern plumbing.

And on that note, I’m off for a shower! Time to climb on board a metal tube (another wonder of the modern age) and fly through the air at hundreds of miles an hour to my country, which is half a world away!

Magic!

*Now I look back and realise he was the ‘IT’S JUST A PRANK BRO!’ OG. I mean that trick he played killing that guy with the sprig of mistletoe? Ice cold.

**Zeus I’m looking at you. Rape by swan is never okay.

Back to regular scheduled programming on Monday once I’m back in cloudy Ireland! Looking forward to catching up on blogs and comments!