Walking Without Music

Going for a walk to clear your head is not an uncommon suggestion.  With the wind in your hair, the rain on your face and the (very) occasional glimmer of sunshine on your skin, you are at one with the elements and at one with yourself; free to breathe in the fresh air and take in the sights and sounds of the outside world.

Sort of.

Chances are you noticed none of that shit. Bar the rain, of course. There’s no way you weren’t somehow shocked and disappointed that it decided to rain on you, despite the fact that it rains almost EVERY SINGLE DAY in this place.

I realise that I’m going to sound incredibly lazy when I say that I am not a fan of walking. I never have been. I view it as a necessary evil to get from A to B, not some kind of leisure activity in itself. But now that I have a child, I feel obliged to step outside every once in while – to ensure Caleb meets his minimum intake of vitamin D more than anything else. Sure, if the weather’s nice I’m much happier to take a stroll but that isn’t exactly a regular occurrence in drizzly old N.I. One day last week however, when quite possibly experiencing our entire summer, Caleb and I ventured out with little resignation.

Like most ‘walkers’ I insert the headphones, stick on shuffle, and head off totally unaware of what’s going on outside of the song playing. Listening to the music on my iTunes can only be described as a singular experience. During last week’s walk for instance I was greeted by a medley that ranged from The Last of the Mohicans theme song to Haddaway’s ‘What is Love?’ to Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ (my musical taste is admittedly slightly dated). This blend of genres and eras had the effect of creating a rather messy mixture of memories and emotions as opposed to providing some kind of cathartic walking experience akin to the likes of a Robert Frost Poem.

One song might remind you of a loved one who’s no longer with you. Another might bring back memories of an old flame you’d much rather forget. Or one might just painfully force you to remember the time poor Hawkeye lost his brother (The Last of the Mohicans reference). It all depends on the hand that ‘Shuffle’ has dealt you. In any case, if you’re anything like me, you end up feeling less like you’re on a head-clearing walk and more like you’re on some emotionally exhausting trip down memory lane.

This is not necessarily negative. The splendour of music lies in its ability to transport us to forgotten moments of the past; evoking our senses in a much more powerful way than any other medium. In my experience, it’s just simply not conducive to clearing your head. It’s what we do when we explicitly want to ‘feel’ something. Whether you want to wallow in your own self pity alongside Sinead O’Connor or psych yourself up to lyrics of ‘We Will Rock You’, music has the power to flick that emotional switch for you.

Isn’t the whole point of clearing your head though the exact opposite of this; being able to abandon the past, shut out the future and focus on the sheer wonder of the ‘now’. It wasn’t until I took out my headphones and replaced them with the ‘here’ and ‘now’ that I realised how much more relaxing a walk could be. Rather than feeling emotionally fucked by Jeff Buckley, I was free to observe the pleasant chirping of the birds, the occasional outburst of gibberish from my son and the warmth of the sunshine against my pasty skin. I was granted rare permission in the chaos of today’s world to fully focus on what is – not what was or might be.

This is not to say I will be shunning music from now on in favour of chanting ‘Om’ to some unknown deity but rather that when I feel the need to escape, I will do just that. I will put Prince (God rest his soul) on pause until the next emotionally drunken night with the girls and save the sweetness of Simon and Garfunkel for another time. But for those walks – the kind of walks you take when you really need one – I will resist the urge to get lost in the music and instead embrace the breeze, trace my footsteps, and watch the world. After all, sometimes all you need are a few drops of rain and a gust of wind to really clear your head.

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The Good, the Bad and the Unpredictable

UnknownMy mum came to visit me yesterday – seemingly only to listen to me give off for half an hour about how hard done by I was. Her parting words were: “The only thing you can predict is their unpredictability” (in reference to babies, of course). One year on from the birth of my son and this couldn’t be anymore accurate.

Caleb never ceases to surprise me. Because he turned one last week, I knew I’d have to write a post about him – it seemed only fair since I somehow managed to find the time to basically write one about Whoopi Goldberg a few weeks ago. I had originally planned on writing this post last week and it was going to be very sentimental and sweet as you could imagine. I was thinking of writing a little letter to him that he would read when he was older and say to himself, “Awe, look how great I was to my mummy”.  I never found the time though because the rascal wouldn’t give me peace.

And then there was yesterday. I’ll not even tell you what I thought of writing about yesterday. I had seen almost every hour the night before on account of Caleb’s crying, had broke out with very painful acne which rendered me housebound, and was subject to clingy moaning and grabbing all day.  Sitting down today to write – in the peace and quiet – having slept a good solid eight hours, I could now write the most beautiful sonnet about Caleb, likening his face to a most heavenly cherub, counting the ways in which I love him in true Shakespearian style.

Neither of these accounts, however, would serve as an accurate reflection of motherhood. It is not a blissful poem, just as it’s not some hellish nightmare. It is a wonderful combination of the two and all that’s in between. The point is, you can never quite predict what’s coming next.  The moment you feel like you’ve finally got the whole thing under control, you will inevitably lose it again.  That is one thing I will take with me from this whole  experience – you cannot get used to anything or become complacent because once you do, as sure as anything, they’ll turn around and throw the whole thing on its head.  Instead, you must learn to embrace the chaos.

I, myself, am only finally coming to terms with this. Caleb might have eaten three square meals and slept like a baby (excuse the pun) yesterday but today he will probably be throwing his food back at me and pulling my hair into the wee hours. Who knows? But isn’t that the beauty of it all?

So, one year on and where am I? In all honesty, I have incredibly mixed feelings. I watch with pride how my son is beginning to support himself while still pining for the days when I was all the support he needed. I miss how he used to helplessly roll around the floor but, at the same time, eagerly anticipate his very first step. I feel proud of myself for having got him this far and yet worry about what’s to come and whether I’ll be good enough. Time seems to have gone so fast since his arrival and yet it feels like he has always been here. Motherhood, it seems, is just one massive contradiction rife with good days, bad days and a complete lack of predicability.

We mothers spend a lot of our time giving advice we can’t take ourselves and, in true fashion, I am about to do the same. I will parcel up some small nugget of wisdom and pretend it has completely transformed my life when, in reality, I am still learning. I propose that instead of trying to pre-empt their every move and frustrating yourself when they don’t do as they did yesterday, we should welcome their little unpredictability ways.  Just as you’re finding your way in all of this, so are they. By allowing them to just be as they are and accepting that they’re going to have good and bad days, just like us, we will find for ourselves at least some predictability – that they’re going to be unpredictable.

P.S. Caleb, for when you do read this in years to come, you were great to your mummy and she cannot thank you enough for the beautiful chaos you have brought to her life.

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.

Bless Me, Father, For I Have Sinned

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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…

Cats: The Real Underdogs

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I don’t appreciate the question “Are you a dog or cat person?” I love them both and why society demands we choose between the two is beyond me.  There never seems to be any alternative propositions:  No one cares if you prefer goldfish to cats or hamsters to dogs.  Cats and Dogs have been pitted against each other and I believe this has been to the distinct disadvantage of our feline friends.

Cats. They started off on a good foot but something appears to have went wrong for them somewhere along the way (I am of course referring to domestic cats.  With the likes of Simba and Mufasa on their side, “big cats” are, on the whole, considered pretty likable).  The good foot I allude to dates back to Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians adored, revered…even worshiped the traditional house cat.  In fact, it is the Egyptians who are responsible for the domestication of the species.  Not only admired for their grace and poise, their ability to keep vermin at bay made the cat a popular figure in Egyptian culture, evidence of which can still be found today.

Since then, cats have remained an ideal choice of pet and yet, paradoxically, there exists an overall negative opinion of them.  This can range from their supposed indifference and snootiness to being downright evil.  The latter seems to have evolved from the Middle Ages when cats became associated with witches, illustrating just what hanging out with the wrong crowd can do for your reputation.  Was it their fault witches took a shining to them?  If anything, i’m thinking that if witches, callous and cruel by stereotype,  even liked them, then there must be something profoundly endearing about the creatures. Unfortunately, those Medieval folk didn’t share my rationale and the result of the affiliation was CATastrophic.  Cats were murdered en masse, the effect of which ironically extended beyond the species to the perpetrators:  It is thought that had this intolerance not existed, local rodent populations could have been kept down, lessening the spread of the plague epidemic.

Ridiculous superstitions have emerged throughout the centuries, seemingly as a result of this unfortunate association, further entrenching the negative perception of cats.  Let’s take a moment to review a few of these:

  • If a black cat crosses your path, evil and bad luck will fall upon you.
  • Cats suck the life out of newborn babies.
  • Coming across a cat at midnight is seeing Satan himself.
  • If you wake up in the morning and see cats playing, the whole day will be wasted.
  • If a cat leaves its house while a person in the same house is sick and cannot be coaxed   back inside, that person will die.
  • A cat sleeping with all four paws tucked under them means bad weather is coming.

While any (reasonable) individual would deem these beliefs absurd, the sentiment behind them – that cats are in someway evil or malicious – still lingers.  If you consider cats in pop culture, you’ll find the majority of them are, quite frankly, obnoxious, while their common counterparts (domestic dogs) are conveyed as trustworthy, loyal companions.  Take Disney’s  Lady and the Tramp and Cinderella.  The only cats to make an appearance in the former are Si and Am, two troublesome siamese cats whose only purpose in the film is to sabotage Lady, the lovable cocker spaniel.  The latter – Cinderella – firmly establishes the existing juxtaposition between cats and dogs: Bruno the dog represents Cinderella’s doting ally while Lucifer provides the sidekick to the villainous Lady Tremaine.  *Note that the cat is actually named after Satan.

Other popular examples might include Tom and Sylvester (the antagonists to Jerry and Tweety respectively), whose characteristics are ostensibly the same.  The two are depicted as ruthless miscreants, ceaselessly in pursuit of their prey.  They, importantly, never win and are always outwitted by their supposed inferiors, painting a picture of cats as, not only cruel, but unintelligent. 

Even when their characters aren’t in some way “bad”, many possess negative traits.  Sassy from Homeward Bound is shallow and conceited, while her partners in crime, Shadow and Chance (both dogs), are playful and loving; Top Cat, although the protagonist, is a no good gangster; and the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland is just an overall pain in the ass. There are of course exceptions, but I would argue that the image one conjures up as a result of these cultural depictions, is that of a villainous, mischievous cat either being stroked by an evil genius or at least wreaking havoc in a small town house.

Indirectly related to the issue of cat stereotyping, is that of the stereotypes surrounding people who like or own cats – namely women.  For some reason, we’re either crazy, single, or in some way slightly unhinged. I realise, that in writing this I will automatically be conceived as a “crazy cat lady”.  I do myself own two cats.  Having grown up with cats my entire life, I am obviously biased, but this bias is based on actual experience as opposed to myths and superstition.  I can in no way identify with the notion that cats are sly, crafty or vicious.  They might not be as jolly as their tail-wagging rivals, but they possess other attributes which are equally favourable such as intelligence, dignity and resilience.  And to those who would say they are indifferent and unaffectionate, I refute that profusely.  My cats cry when left alone, crawl beside me when there’s an opening, and, on occasion, follow me around just for company.  They are no less loving or loyal than dogs and their hearts always seem to be in the right place: for example in the past month, my cat Polka has brought to my doorstep four shrews and at least five birds; I haven’t the heart to tell her that I have absolutely no use for them.

The objective of this narrative was not to take away from dogs, but rather to “give to” cats.  And yes, while they are slowly becoming internet sensations, I believe there is still a sense of reluctance on the part of a lot people to accept them as caring pets. The following video is not intended to show the dog up – but more to highlight the actions of this one particularly brave cat.