Period Literature in An Emoji World

UnknownAs someone who’s in such transparent pursuit of the title “Writer”, it might come to you as quite a shock that I am not the greatest of readers. I would like to pretend that in the evening, after I get my son settled, I curl up with a cup of tea and a book and get lost in some literary world of adventure and romance but the disappointing reality is, I put on an episode of The Office or Only Fools and Horses (all of which I’ve seen before) and doze off to the antics of Michael Scott or Del Boy.  And while both of these are works of art in their own right, they’re not exactly the proud habits of any aspiring writer.

If, and when, I do take to a book, I generally choose a well-established classic; a piece of period literature that, despite having been written over a hundred of years ago, in a world seemingly foreign to our own, somehow still manages to resonate with a modern audience. Case in point: I am currently reading Wuthering Heights (1847) after having recently finished Agnes Grey (1850) – both by Brontë sisters.

The appeal of these works, at least to me, lies in the splendour of the language used.  While I enjoy “That’s what she said” jokes (The Office), cockney slang and the misuse of French phrases (Only Fools and Horses) as much as the next guy, I admit there is a refreshingly honest, and almost, exotic quality to the words of these works. Their elaborate descriptions and profound sense of imagery stand in such contrast to our own contemporary forms of communication that they become a true novelty in today’s world.

The image below – taken from the recent article The Deep Meaning of Emojis: What You Need to Know on How Social Media is Changing Communication – perfectly encapsulates exactly what I am talking about.

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Over the years, our communications appear to have been reduced to emojis.  Whether due to laziness, busyness or just sheer incompetence, we are continually dumbing down the English language. I too am guilty of this and you’ll find me frequently using “Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 20.13.09“.

This is not to diminish the comedic value of the emoji or the time-saving power of an abbreviation but simply to highlight why “reading books” is such an important part of our lives that cannot be replaced by these more modern means of consuming content. These books, particularly the ones which I am referring to, might seem like relics from a bygone era, totally irrelevant to the modern world, but I would argue that they are more powerful than ever.

The original inspiration for this piece came from a passage from Agnes Grey. I won’t go into the particulars as I’d just get even more sidetracked than I already am, but what struck me about this passage was its overwhelming relevance to today’s world. I could completely identify with – as could many – the underlying message. So, while there is a total disparity in terms of the context and the language used, the sentiments and principles still apply. We can “dress down” how we communicate but human nature remains the same. It is in this apparent duplexity that I believe the true greatness of these works lie.  They have the ability to absorb us into a world that’s not quite our own and yet ground us with these universal truths. The language may seem superfluous but it plays a huge part in that sense of escapism that we so often seek in reading.

In the past my writing has been characterised as “too wordy” and I recall one geography teacher, who shall remain nameless, commenting that “This isn’t an English exam”.  It seems it has always been in my nature to use more words than necessary and while I’m pretty sure these remarks were intended as insults, I have chosen to now interpret them as compliments (in your face Mrs. ****).

So, let us not abandon our beautiful language that we have spent centuries cultivating and perfecting; let us not allow terms like “selfie” and “twerk” to define our generation; let’s not allow ourselves to become reduced to emojis.  Sure, we could all save ourselves a lot of time and boil everything down to its simplest form but let us also err on the side of caution or before we know it, our communication could soon become no more than a small yellow face on a white screen.

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“You supposed to be a writer, girl” (in the voice of Whoopi Goldberg)

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If, when you wake up in the morning, you can think of nothing but writing, then you’re a writer.

I wish I could pretend I know this quotation from having read the book Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke but, in reality, the words echo in my mind in the husky tones of Whoopi Goldberg from Sister Act 2. You’ll recall at this point, the famous scene where she, as Sister Mary Clarence, applies this piece of advice in an attempt to encourage Rita (Lauyrn Hill) to pursue her interest in singing, which for some reason her slightly unhinged mother condemns. If you can’t quite remember this or, heaven forbid, have never seen the movie, I have kindly hyperlinked this piece of cinema gold for you.

*At this stage I should ask you to bear with me and reassure you that this is not a review of Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.*

While admittedly most mornings I can think of everything (breakfast, how tired I am, the meaning of life etc.) but writing, I believe the quotation is symbolic for a passion that goes beyond such a predetermined supposition.

On an average day, I find myself regularly narrating my life in my unfortunate Ballymena accent. I constantly ask myself “Could I write about this?” and while I almost never do, the occurrence of this thought leads me to believe there is an underlying, and unfulfilled, desire to write more.

According to Rainer I am, in fact, already writer though if someone asked me what I did, I would never have the nerve to respond with such a bold assertion. Sure, if you asked me what my dream job was, I would say “a writer” but even then I’m not so sure what this means. We all have our own preconceived notions of what a writer is or is supposed to be.  This generally involves an introverted type, hunched over a desk strewn with papers, looking completely immersed in their own words, oblivious to the chaos of the world that surrounds them.

While I, myself, share this idealistic vision, I have a developed a relationship with writing outside of this fantasy. It might best be described an ‘ease’ or sense of comfort – a feeling which I struggle to achieve in many other of the pursuits in my life. I have often felt limited in my abilities which people tend to shrug off with a “Don’t be silly” or “Of course you can do it” but to which I genuinely feel I cannot and I am not being silly. At the best of times, I struggle to explain how exactly I feel or what exactly I mean but with the aid of a pen, or more accurately a keyboard, I achieve a new sense of freedom and understanding.

Of course, I have been aware of this love of writing for sometime now but it is in recent times, as I have written more and been encouraged by others, that I now feel it is time to explore this passion further. I have been particularly spurred on by the words of my mother, who unlike Rita’s mother, happens to be a lot more supportive and, thankfully, a touch saner. She recently told me that she was proud of me and that this is what I was supposed to do and, if you’re lucky enough to know my mother you’ll know, she is always right.

And so, by writing this piece and making a formal declaration of my intention to write more, I suppose I am hoping that I might actually follow through with this. This is not in the unrealistic hope of being picked up by some paper or publisher but rather in the hope that one day I might be able to assert with confidence: “I am a writer.”

You should also note my copy of Letters to a Poet is in the post so I will never have to reference Sister Act 2 again.

All Who Wander Eventually Find Home

UnknownWorking with the homeless was a mixed bag. Between the devastation, frustration and seemingly endless feeling of getting nowhere, the entire experience was exhausting. I admit I couldn’t hack it and, after one year as a Support Worker and a further year and a half as a volunteer, I threw the towel in.

There are so many occasions I look back on with total fondness and others, in all honestly, that I can almost feel with heart palpitations. I saw things I didn’t want to see and remember things I wish I could forget. I realise now that, while I naively wanted to make a difference, I wasn’t cut out for it. My desire to do good was overpowered by my self-confessed soft nature.

Contrary to how this may have sounded so far, I in no way regret this experience and believe it has helped me grow as a person and, if nothing else, given me greater self-awareness. I can recall events where I might have played a small part in someone’s temporary happiness and feel an overwhelming sense of warmth and somewhat “purpose”.  It was, all in all, just too much. Lives that had such apparent potential seemed wasted, by no fault of their own, but by the cards life had dealt them. People seemed doomed to repeat the vicious cycles that had led them to their current unfortunate circumstances.  There were, of course, success stories but these seemed too few and far between to maintain my sense of hope.

I am taken back to this time in my life by the recent loss of a “service user” – a term which seems particularly cold and disconnected in this instance.  While I’m sure it is probably an unwritten rule not to admit to favouritism within these sorts of services, I admit I had my favourites. This is not to say these people were better or more deserving of our help but simply that I had a connection with these individuals for some reason or another. Anthony, or Tony as I knew him, was one such.

I remember my first time meeting him. It was within the first few days of joining The Welcome Organisation and I was on outreach duty that day. Being as friendly as he was, he took an immediate interest in me, “the new girl”. We went through the usual: my name and where I was from, both of which struck a chord with him. Like me, he hailed from North Antrim and, as many of us do, knew a lot of the same people. At the time it was unnerving for me but, when I look back on this event now, I have a new sense of clarity and appreciation for Tony’s soft-spoken and gentle-hearted ways.

My family had suffered two tragic losses in recent times and he knew of these. He looked at me differently. From that moment on, we had an unspoken bond.

Tony’s behaviour was sporadic and we would go months without hearing from him or knowing his whereabouts. He never relied on us in the way that others did and rarely asked for help. When “service users” telephoned the centre, it was standard practice that they would ask which staff were on that day and, from that, would choose who they wanted to speak to. If Tony called and I was there, we would talk.  I regret now that there weren’t more of these phone calls.

I’m not sure whether my association with his former life in Dunloy – a much happier time for Tony – made him particularly receptive towards me or if it was simply just the familiarity of a country accent living in Belfast, but we had a mutual understanding.

I have no interest in delving into the circumstances surrounding this tragic and unjust affair. I wanted selfishly to find some relief for myself and in writing this I have found comfort. All I can do now is pray for Tony and his family. My prayer is that this very lost soul is now finally at peace and that his family may have the reassurance they have always wanted – that Tony is safe and warm and loved.

It Ain’t All Roses and Hot Cups of Coffee

 

coffee and roses

Since you’ve had your baby, you’re likely to have experienced every emotion in high definition. When you cry, you could flood your entire living room; when you laugh, you’re on the verge of wetting yourself; and when you get angry, you can almost feel yourself turn green and your trousers start to shrink. Is it the raging hormones? The seemingly never-ending sleep deprivation? Perhaps, it’s just another symptom of your self-diagnosed cabin fever?

While these are all completely apt, I believe there’s another factor slowly driving us towards insanity in our new fragile state of “motherhood” and, thankfully, it’s something we can actually control. PRESSURE. The undying attempt to achieve perfection in every aspect of our lives, be it in our home life, career, or appearance.  This is, of course, not confined to motherhood but I can say, hand on heart, I’ve never quite felt the same level of strain as I do now. While this largely comes from within, there are external forces influencing and misshaping our thoughts and expectations everyday.

Whether it’s a trip to Tesco where you meet that Mother, sporting the latest trends from Topshop, casually strolling down the aisles with her equally fashionable child or it’s that Facebook friend with her perfectly decorated home sipping her, somehow still hot, cup of coffee. To all those who feel their lives gradually spiralling out of control, can I just say, the majority of us are right there with you.

Kudos to those mums who somehow have their shit perfectly together but this is not the bar to set yourself against. It’s fine if you didn’t have time to take your child to see Santa, bake cookies or wrap your presents in photographs of your children dressed as snowmen. I assure you, your children will grow up to be perfectly normal and well-balanced adults.

Thankfully, I am blessed enough to have a close network of “mummy friends” who, on a daily basis, send me images of their unwashed dishes and adorably unkempt children.  Without these women, I can safely say I might have more officially lost the plot (NB. I still have much plot to gain). We embrace the chaos of each others lives and remind each other that those other frills are exactly just that, “frills.”

Keeping your child healthy and happy, alongside maintaining a job and household, are in themselves phenomenal achievements. Neatly stacking your bookshelves and fluffing your cushions are not.

So, to those of you who maybe aren’t as fortunate as me and mummy friends, I say “you are doing great”. Your girls might be biting each other, your little boys might be dismantling your Christmas tree one bauble at a time, and you might still be two dress sizes bigger than you were, but your child is loved and so are you.

And to make you feel better, I’ve included some inspirational pictures of my life as it currently stands. My Christmas tree, missing the entire bottom row of baubles. Followed by my face, which is covered in adult acne. And finally my kitchen sink, which speaks for itself.

A Mother’s Covering Letter

mum's covering letter

I have recently began reflecting on my “career”, or what might better be characterised as a distinct lack thereof.  I am now a mother – a career that is interminable, underpaid, and largely overlooked. In today’s age, being a mother is simply not enough. While I might feel fulfilled in this role, unfortunately being a ‘stay at home mum’ is not a feasible option, at least not for me.  With this realisation comes the dreaded self-reevaluation: What experience do I have? Where do my skills lie? Having been immersed in only motherhood for the past six months, it is difficult to ascertain who I am outside of this remit.

When updating the almighty CV or creating that elusive covering letter, it seems unbelievable that my current role shouldn’t be specified as “Mother”. Surely, most of us would argue that we have experienced and developed more through parenting than any other stage of our lives.  Yes, I have a minimum of 5 GCSEs and experience using Microsoft packages, but how does this come even marginally close to the skills I’ve developed as a new mother?

On that note, I have included the following proposal.

Dear dubious employer,

In reference to ANY JOB

I have just had a baby. This has been the most difficult and extraordinary experience of my life. After months of discomfort and hours of even greater discomfort, I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Since that wonderful moment, I have cared for my son relentlessly. Through physical pain and heightened levels of anxiety, I have managed to love, nurture, and meet the every need of that child. A full-time job, I have never for one second quit and continue to grow and thrive in this new role without the hope of any monetary gain.

For the past six and half months, my life has revolved entirely around my son. My every waking moment (and several sleeping) has been dedicated to his wellbeing and happiness. I have learned to be more selfless than ever, sacrificing my own pleasure and putting his needs firmly before mine.

I have mastered the art of efficiency and can perform numerous tasks simultaneously. I can now hold, without dropping, an upset (and rather heavy) child while preparing a bottle, cooking dinner, and eating lunch.

My time management skills have similarly flourished and I am proud to say that I can feed, medicate, bathe and change my baby in record time. I owe this to my organised self who has the foresight and preparedness to inventory and stock every essential item accordingly.

I am an expert communicator, fluent in “gaa-gaa” and able to communicate through facial expressions alone.

I am a proud supervisor, responsible for a team of two (my partner and baby) who, everyday, are supported to the best of my ability in their own individual roles. There may be no ‘I’ in team, but there is certainly a ‘me’.

I have found more meaning in the word *‘patience’ than ever, allowing myself to be taken to boiling point and back without so much as flinching.

My capacity for empathy has grown to new levels as I notice myself increasingly able to relate to a frustrated, teething baby. I am more than happy to go to uncomfortable lengths, including hair pulling and face biting, to alleviate a pain which I can only imagine.

I have learned to deal effectively with setbacks on a daily basis. From nap refusals to seemingly senseless outbursts, I’ve grown to be thick-skinned and learned how to realign my expectations.

Ultimately, as a result of this role, I am now stronger than ever. Resolved to never give up, and handle every situation with openness and determination, I will give no less than 100% because in motherhood, there is no room for any less.

I *patiently await your response.

Yours sincerely,

A hopeful mother

Bless Me, Father, For I Have Sinned

BLESS ME

It has been one month since my last blog post and these are my sins…

If you’re Catholic, you should be fairly familiar with this paraphrase.  When I realised just how long it had been since I had written something, this religious statement – for reasons completely unknown – randomly popped into my head.  Perhaps I equate my neglect of writing as a sin; perhaps my subconscious is telling me that I’ve been particularly “bad” this month and ought to repent; or perhaps it was just a momentarily blip, attributable to nothing more than the random inner workings of my mind. Who knows?  Nonetheless, it popped.  It got me thinking about the entire confessional process.  While I’ve grown up with the practice and been a regular participant, in terms of its history and influences, I know little of it.  Even outside its religious connotations, I wonder about the paradigm itself – the idea of admitting to one’s wrong doings and repenting.

As a child, our sins are easily defined.  For instance, I remember the most popularly cited misdemeanors of my youth – fighting with my brothers and sisters, being disobedient to my parents, cursing, telling lies, not doing my homework etc.   As (bad) practice had it, you would regurgitate a handful of these “sins”, making sure to suitably vary these on each occasion (as though the Priest made a formal catalogue on every appearance), and using the most apologetic tone of voice you could muster up as a child, bare whatever soul it was you had to bare at this early stage of life.

Now, as I’ve matured (I use this term loosely), the boundary between wrong and right seems less certain.  While we can accept certain unanimous truths – that hurting others etc is wrong – the realities of right and wrong begin to haze as we face countless situations throughout our lives rife with ambiguity and complexity.  That line that was once so penetrating as a child begins to dissolve.  As we begin to assume our own mindsets and question the words of our elders and superiors, we learn to form our own opinions of what is wrong and vice versa, leaving the practice of Confession vulnerable.  It all becomes a lot more complicated than “not doing my homework”.  The more avid religious followers among us would probably argue that there’s nothing complicated about it. 

I myself have not formally confessed, so to speak, in years.  It’s remarkable when I consider my frequent attendance as a youth: when I was then so innocent to the ways of the world and generally unaware of the implications of “sin”.  To sin has been defined as “to miss the mark” and believe me, I miss the mark more now than I ever did.  Surely I should be a highly skilled confessor by now.  But if truth be told, the idea frightens me.  This led, not only, to the question of why I now refrain, but why we practice it in the first place.

Understandably, after all this time there is a level of reluctance on my part.   Like anything in life, once out of practice, we become vulnerable and uncomfortable, but perhaps especially in this instance.  During this process, we are completely exposed.  We are centre stage in, what is essentially, a role play with God.  We’re immediately transposed into a situation which is designed to bring out the worst in us: an admission of past grievances which we barely want to admit to ourselves, let alone a Priest… let alone God.

The whole process of Confession is inherently tied up in the concept of forgiveness.  Without the latter, the former would become redundant.  Pain without relief.  Even when you take religion out of the equation, the hope of forgiveness remains.  We all strive for forgiveness.  While I should probably quote the Bible at this stage, I feel compelled to quote Giles from Buffy The Vampire Slayer:

“To forgive is an act of compassion… It’s not done because people deserve it.  It’s done because they need it.”

This concept transcends religion of any kind.  Those without faith might argue that we use Confession selfishly – as a Get Out of Jail Free card – a way of “keeping in with” the big guy, but isn’t the entire process of forgiveness selfish?  We use it as a means to make ourselves feel better, to confirm that we’re “not that bad” and that “there’s hope for us yet”.  Perhaps Confession serves to heighten this process.  It gives us a sense of satisfaction that our repentance has been formally acknowledged and that we can now “go in peace”, free from the shackles of guilt and shame.  While religion looks to a higher power to exonerate us from our sins, forgiveness on earth asks those around us to grant us this privilege. Either we way, we want absolution.

We can, at any time, I believe make amends without the use of box.  If we are prepared to recognise and admit our wrongs, we’ve taken the most difficult step.  Whether it’s to a particular deity, a religious representative or a wronged party, confession is a fundamental part of our lives.  Without it there is no means of forgiveness, no cause for hope, no opportunity to move on.  Without it our guilt would only chew us up, leaving nothing but sinful scraps.

Alas, I digress. My sins are…

The Imagination Question

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In dedication to Joseph Brolly.

My nephew’s imagination astounds me. I’ve seen him turn cushions into cows, the shower into a barn and his baby brother into a bag of turf (it’s pretty obvious what this kid wants to be when he grows up). We play regularly but I have recently found myself stumped, almost embarrassed, by his level of creativity as a three year old.  Every game we play or scenario we fabricate is all down to my nephew and his imagination.  He sometimes asks, “Becky what can we play?” and to this question, I rarely have an original answer. If it’s not a preconceived game – jigsaws, tig, hide and seek – i’ve got nothing.  It seems his aspirations are already greater than mine.  He sees every day tools as tools to play out his imagination.  What we might use as a hairbrush or a spoon, he can conjure up something much more magical.  He sees the extraordinary in the ordinary.

This got me thinking: where did my imagination go? Surely, I had one once.  I can recall as a youngster running a chip shop with only lego and newspaper and saying Mass using my granny’s tea set and smarties.  It seems we are all born with the ability to be imaginative but at some point this capacity begins to slip away from us.  Do imaginations come with expiration dates; are they meant to last a certain amount of time and then fade away into obscurity as we grow older? Or is it a case of “use it or lose it”? 

“Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination.  But just as a muscle grows flabby with disuse, so the bright imagination of a child pales in later years if he ceases to exercise it.” – Walt Disney

It would appear that, just like any other skill, we must learn to foster our imaginations.  They can not be tossed to one side, unused, and picked up at a later date.  The problem with this is that it becomes the social norm to remove ourselves from our more imaginative tendencies as we begin to mature.  Obviously, there comes a point when building forts and befriending imaginary people aren’t conducive to real life.  At some stage, we all have to grow up. We are encouraged to keep our head out of the clouds and our feet on the ground, and rightly so, or who knows where we’d end up.  But does something special get lost in this process?

I recently read a piece from a fellow blogger on the perils of the imagination, taking the view that some of us are either blighted to have one or blessed to be without.  Those “unlucky” enough to have been cursed with one, spend most their lives in pursuit of perfection, desiring the unattainable.  They are doomed to a life of falseness and disappointment.  Perhaps, it’s a classic case of “the grass is always greener on the other side.”  What you have, you don’t want and vice versa. Interestingly though, many in the comment section of her blog stated that they daren’t trade in their imaginations for the world. 

Admittedly, the improper use of our imaginations can, on occasion, serve to undermine us. Consider the proverbial daydreamer.  They spend more time dreaming than doing and in the end can never fulfill their wildest imaginings as they are too busy well, imagining.  Similarly, if our imagination can lead us to places centred on notions of progression and goodness, it also has the potential to lead us down darker paths.  Ultimately, though I believe the world would be much worse off in its absence than in its abundance. 

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” – Albert Einstein

Some of life’s greatest achievers – Einstein, Disney, Picasso, Wilde, Newton – were all advocates of the imagination. While knowledge teaches us ‘what is’, the imagination reveals to us ‘what might be’.  Relying on our own knowledge can, therefore, only take us so far; we must allude to something greater in order to create greatness.  Take even just a peak back at history: any discovery, invention, or work of art were all borne of someone’s imagination.

The problem with so many of us is that we lack imagination.  I include myself in this.  We find ourselves bored and yet have more to occupy us than ever before. We have no idea what do with our lives because we find it difficult to conceive ideas beyond the “normal” or “practical”. We’re taught to make decisions rationally, to measure the pros and cons.  And while i’m not advocating abandoning reason, there is little encouragement to consider the more daring, adventurous routes in life – the routes that actually mean something to us.

If we don’t imagine or dare to dream, then what does our future hold?  Complacency? Stagnancy? Boredom?  The question is then, can we reacquaint ourselves with our once so active imaginations? While children have a lot to learn from their elders, it seems to me, we have a lot to learn from them.