smell ya later

April 6, 2015

I was thinking about smells this morning. It was a constant mystery to me as a child, and an ongoing source of curiosity, that other people’s houses smelled differently to mine, and to each other. Once I had noticed this, it became faintly worrying: what did my house smell like? Not all smells are created equal.

I felt that it would be okay if my house (and I) smelled like my school-friend S________’s house, because hers smelled like warmth and fresh baked buns.

But it wouldn’t be okay if it smelled like street-friend J________’s house, which had a strong odour of curry and dog. Not that I disliked curry or dog: I had never tasted curry, because it was Ireland and it was the eighties, and we were eating the same minced meat and potato-based dinners over and over, with not a spice in sight (unless you count Oxtail soup from a packet, or table salt). And we had a dog ourselves, that I liked well enough, but who was confined to the garden, and who in retrospect I neglected horribly. (No wonder he ran away.)

I was fifteen when I met the man who would later become my husband. His home had a sturdy, not unpleasant, but unidentifiable smell. It was the odour of six people all living together in a small space, all of whom thankfully had good hygiene habits, plus the regular smells of smoking, laundry, cooking and living. When he hugged me I would breathe deeply from his t-shirt, which smelled strongly of the home smell, and it became a smell that represented safety and love and really good fun. But then we grew up and got married and had our own home, and now he smells different. He smells like us and our home, which of course, neither of us can smell at all. I suspect our flat (and selves) smells like Yankee candles, fabric softener and smoked bacon. Occasional farts. A treat for any guest.

Around the same time that I met my husband, I began working in a small pub near my home, clearing glasses from tables and delivering drinks and toasted cheese sandwiches to cheerful patrons. It was a great job where the only real downside was the unwanted attention from older men who would slide their phone number over to you on a faded receipt from their purchase of vodka and red lemonade. The tips were great and kept me in bell-bottom jeans and cinema trips on a regular basis. The uniform was a black skirt and a white blouse. I would come home at 1am and hang up the work outfit which, provided I had managed not to spill beer on myself, was usually still looking pretty good. By morning it would have transformed into a yellowed, cigarette ash-stinking corpse of an outfit, which made my room smell like a chain-smoker’s breath.

Double my young life, and about the time when I was turning thirty, I worked in a prison for a few years. The prison had a strong and distinctive smell that I can only describe as soapy. Not good soap, full of fruit oil extracts and exfoliating sand from the beaches of the Dead Sea, but the bland, white kind that goes grey with use and eventually becomes full of dark cracks. I loved to be in the prison but when I left, I hated that soap stink lingering on my clothes. It smelled like misery and oppression. There was nothing for it but to wash them every time – something I resent as, as I’ve implied, I like to get several wears out of an outfit before laundering, lazy mare that I am. Thankfully the husband I have acquired has taken it upon himself to do all of our laundry, so I am regularly treated to the pleasant smell of freshly washed bed linen and knickers, and I live in the fantasy-world of which I presume new mothers dream, where soiled garments mindlessly dumped in wash baskets are silently, invisibly altered into ironed glory-gowns hanging in the wardrobe barely before you’ve had enough time to miss them.

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new year, new unicorn

January 5, 2015

Again, 2014, not a great year. All round, a difficult year. A lot of crying in 2014. A lot of anxiety. But I have sworn to reduce my complaining in 2015 so we won’t go there…until my resolution is starting to look lacklustre in a few days.

Still, it was a year with some significant highlights, which I will now present for your reading pleasure.

January:
Was thrilled to get a new job. Had a little birthday party and 17 people showed up. Explored Inverness and hunted the lake for Nessie. Sat in a bookshop with a massive fireplace in it. 

February:
Had 3 separate visits from friends from home. Saw Sleepless in Seattle at the cinema. Heard a theological lecture on the evils of meat consumption and drastically reduced meat intake. Had a long weekend in Ireland between old job and new, by myself, catching up with close friends. 

March:
Went home for a baptism. Enjoyed a prosecco-fuelled 40th birthday party with karaoke.

April:
I probably shouldn’t write in the highlights section of this blog post the details of how bad a month this was. However in the midst of all the many awfulnesses, a wonderful friend came for the weekend. That was great. 

May:
We once more travelled home for a baptism: this time our goddaughter’s. Then we came back and had a fabulously camp EUROVISION PARTY with friends from home.

June:
We had 3 dear friends come to stay for a long weekend of summertime fun.

July:
We travelled to Edinburgh to see a Manchester City football match, with some good Aberdonian buddies.

August:
We went to our first Scottish wedding. I don’t know how authentic a ‘Scottish’ experience it was as the people who got married were Irish and English. We also had dinner one night with Scottish neighbours in our building. That felt like a big win, seeing as how cold and unfriendly people in Aberdeen can be.

September:
Went on amazing honeymoon trip to Thailand.

October:
Had a great friend visit for a weekend, and then another pair of lovely friends another weekend, and the husband-unit got to organise a conference and meet his theological hero.

November:
Had thanksgiving dinner with American friends, and I watched my oldest friend get married back in Ireland to a fantastic man. Got to watch the Late Late Toy Show with my nieces and nephews.

December:
Christmas parties. A weekend in Edinburgh at the Christmas markets. Christmas Day with dear friends in Aberdeen and New Year with family in Ireland. Watched an Irish friend marry a beautiful woman from Venezuela and got to participate in their wedding service. Got some kick ass presents.

Hrm. That rather makes it look like a good year, doesn’t it? Good thing I don’t have a Facebook account, or people would get the wrong idea altogether.

 


how much is enough

November 15, 2014

So my plan to have a productive blogging month went right down the swanny when my work suddenly exploded with dozens of referrals in the last two weeks. But I don’t want to talk about that: I was working all day today and that’s quite enough of that for a Saturday. On the upside, I have a day off in reserve now, which will be enjoyed with indecent frivolity during next weekend’s three day off extravaganza of feasting and celebrating with American friends who are having a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving. This year I have turkey responsibility. I feel honoured. My gravy is gonna be good. Real good. I plan to prepare a vat of the stuff, to try to keep up with the most current advice of medical doctors to drink eight glasses a day for optimum health.

But enough about my vittles.

In September I went to Thailand. We were ten years’ married so we planned a big trip to celebrate it. Our original honeymoon was three miserable days in Paris in a terrible hotel with a broken bed. We were overwrought and tired as toddlers at the witching hour and argued the whole time. This was the do-over. We went to the travel agent, named our (relatively small) budget and enquired about a honeymooner’s resort in Corfu or something. The travel agent asked if we’d be willing to go far, far away to get more bang for our buck. The answer, clearly, was yes.

The flights were very long and terrible.

But then we arrived. And the hotel was very not terrible. ‘Hotel’ as a word can’t really do it justice, but ‘resort’ doesn’t do the job a whole lot better either – rather it was a beautiful cluster of private residences surrounding lush landscaped gardens, replete with water features and a spectacular outdoor pool, perched on the edge of a tropical beach. Yeah. It was something else, with coconut trees everywhere, alive with chipmunks and lizards below a blazing red sky; the songs of crickets ringing in our ears. It was late and humid and we were tired and smelly. We were greeted with lavender scented ice cold towels. Our bags were taken to our suite while the facilities of the resort were explained to us over cool drinks – library, gym, beach bar, restaurants. I was presented with a banana leaf bouquet. The room was an air-conditioned haven with an enormous, not-broken bed and several ways to shower and bathe. Everything was covered in flower petals. Everything smelled real good. Then there was the private outdoor pool and garden, just for us, and the 24 hour room service, and the sparkling wine with the complimentary all-day gourmet breakfast, and the beach, and the Thai massages, and the library full of books and movies for us to enjoy.

And we were not tired or angry and we did not argue or cry like the first time. It was bliss.

And still, unbelievably, I was not happy.

I felt like a Brontë character – an aristocratic tosser with literally every luxury and pleasure at my disposal, and still – I was not happy.

And I had a revelation. Not that I am a completely miserable and soulless fool who can’t be pleased no matter what – not that I am a pampered princess with standards that simply cannot be met – but that external circumstances don’t and can’t soothe my soul. My problems of disquiet and anxiety are not because of circumstances – they are something more fundamental. Arguably, something spiritual.

And I found this oddly comforting.

When you’ve had it all, however briefly, and you still haven’t garnered any satisfaction, the need to hunt out it all in an endless frenzied pursuit lessens – or at least is revealed for the fruitless search that it is. I’ve often thought that if I wasn’t a Christian I’d be a Nietzschian – a fatalistic hedonist hell-bent on pleasure and commitment to the self (true nature leaking out somewhat there). But now I’m not so sure. We had a lovely time – best holiday ever in fact – and it was a fitting way to mark ten years of something privileged and special – but you know, it just wasn’t all that.  


a good shake

November 2, 2014

Part of my job is visiting churches around the city, taking a little slot in the Sunday service to talk about my work. I like it and I don’t like it. Sometimes I am offered five minutes, squeezed in between the children’s address and the announcements. Sometimes, like today, I am virtually handed the whole service and asked to preach, pray and bless. The good bit is the curiosity of visiting different traditions and seeing how they do things, and (honestly, very rarely) being touched by the teaching or worship. It’s nice to make links and attract new volunteers for my charity. It also helps me to understand this place better, and I recognise how joined-up my life is becoming here when I meet people who ask me if I know so-and-so from x school or y church or z charity and it turns out that the answer is yes.

Then there are the parts I dislike. The husband unit is usually kind enough to accompany me to these services (repayment for all of those years of my tagging along with him) and, from time to time, the church I visit is so overcome to have a theology PhD student/ministry candidate  in their midst that they forget that I am the guest, and they spend my entire visit fawning over him, and I wonder why I am there. These are usually the churches that are unknowingly anti-women. Then there are the ones that are clearly and distinctively anti-women and they make a big song and dance about how whatever message I bring is not a sermon, but a ‘word’ or ‘announcement’, and I watch from the pulpit as they sweat with vague regret about having invited me in the first place. Then there are the bitter old dears who’ve been singing the same hymns for 60 years and don’t like the cut of my jib. It is essential that they say something to let me know that my work (with young offenders) is not their cup of tea. “Oh, I’d just like to give those thugs a good shake!” <insert tinkling wealthy old-lady laugh as she adjusts her poppy brooch> “Oh yes,” I reply, “A good shake is exactly what they need. Forget love, compassion and good humour. Roughing them up will solve their problems!”

They have absolutely no idea how violent they are.

But then there are days like today, you know, where post middle-aged people come with tears in their eyes and say how someone gave them a chance once and it changed everything, or the people who grip your arm and say they’re inspired. Whether the inspiration can last beyond the church doors I don’t know, but hey, time will tell.


a little hello

November 1, 2014

Autumn has breezed by. For the past three weekends the husband unit and I have been hosting friends from home. It’s been bliss.

This weekend we are hosting nobody.

It’s bliss.

One of my friends says that guests bless you twice: once when they arrive, and again when they leave. We planned some ‘us time’ (vom) to the tune of some early morning cinema and a gander about town. We saw Effie Gray, a fantastic period drama about a feisty, intelligent Perth-born woman (Perth Scotland, not Perth Australia) trapped in a sham marriage. I related strongly to her character. This is a cry for help.

Then we wandered down to the International Market by Union Terrace Gardens for some street food (here for one weekend only, so you gotta catch it while you can). As we approached, there were lots of people dotted about on the street, eating their lunches of bratwurst and paella. In silence. As we moved past these eerily quiet figures and further on in, people jostled about grumpily in the hubbub and we joined some long queues for a delicious bite, where people elbowed one another and harrumphed.

This is the kind of thing that drives me crazy about this place. It’s like they don’t know how to have a good time. In any other city there would be buzz, and music, and people laughing and enjoying themselves, pink-cheeked and jolly. There’s a kind of magic that lingers over winter street markets serving piping hot food in paper trays with plastic forks: here though, it just seemed a bit sad, as we ducked and dived between the smokers and the people with massive bags from Argos.

And that is my way of saying that this place is no better now than a year ago. But I am feeling better, because I am feeling more secure in my friendships here, and that really does make a place home.

We drove home via the beach and have nested up for the afternoon, with plans involving a bowl of home made guacamole and a bottle of Cava. I am feeling grateful today, which is the enemy of my usual companion, discontent.

I’ve thought a little about NaNoWriMo and for the first time truly considered giving it a go. I won’t though – not this year. I think a project like that takes preparation, and I am grossly unprepared. I may however, in the spirit of the thing, blog a little. Perhaps daily. I make no promises though. Watch this space.


the trouble with facticity

July 16, 2014

To the philosophers who got here via google looking up facticity for your essay: move along. This won’t help you.

To the regulars who check in here every day risking almost inevitable disappointment: thanks. I think about blogging a lot, and there are several half-written posts in my drafts folder, but as you know, I rarely can gather my thoughts together effectively.

We are approaching our one year Aberdeeniversary. I realised this a couple of weeks ago with a jolt of shock. Since then I have been telling this fact to everyone who will listen. They seem less amazed by this incredibly speedy passage of time than I am.

Speaking of time’s illusion of rushing speedily onward, the husband unit and I will be celebrating our ten year maritalversary  in two months’ time. Well. That escalated quickly.

We spent the first year of our marriage fighting and cursing the heavens for our horrific mistake. This came off the back of a tough couple of years with family problems and illness. Then, year two rocked up and a switch flicked and we settled into that marital bliss everyone else goes on about. It’s been good ever since (although I admit we did spend the last 24 hours arguing through snot and tears over something that we have been arguing about for the entire duration of our 16 year relationship).

I am hoping that a similar switch is going to flick in my relationship with Aberdeen (nuptial bliss + occasional fallout). I had really hoped that by now I would feel settled and established here: that I would know this city’s corners and sweet spots and how to wriggle myself into them. No such luck. I feel un-anchored and not in the unlimited-wide-open-ocean-anything-could-happen kind of way, but in the I-am-totally-lost way. Freed but limited. I miss my soul friends. I miss not being a foreigner. I miss the visual landscape of my homeplace and many other things besides. I thought the heartsickness would shift and melt and fade but it hasn’t. Part of the problem is my indulgence of the homesick feeling – I am flexing its muscle and making it stronger, maybe. But then I still have these unsolicited disappointments, where I wake up on a Saturday morning and think immediately of meeting a particular friend, or going to brunch with the husband unit in a particular favourite restaurant, and then I remember I can’t because I am not at home. And that there aren’t any friends like that here that I can call on, on a whim, and that there aren’t any brunch places, cos this isn’t that kind of city. And then I feel sad. And then I feel annoyed with myself for how pampered and self-indulgent I am, and that doesn’t cross over into a sensible ability to laugh at myself, but rather into self-loathing and despair.

And all the while God continues to show his hand in providential encounters: guess who is moving to Aberdeen and who is going to become my husband’s new PhD supervisor? Stanley Hauerwas, that’s who. He wrote Living Gently in a Violent World, a book that changed my life. And such is the university culture here that we are going to get not just to meet him and hear him teach but we will be part of the same community, probably even the same local church. The husband unit gets to be schooled by the master: the master that inspired him to study at this level in the first place. Wtf. So again I see another clear purpose in coming here, but I don’t know how to reconcile those wondrous kinds of coincidences with my general feeling of unhappiness. Of course these coincidences centre around the husband unit, but is my contentedness really so utterly centred on me? We all know the trope of the father (or mother for that matter) that works tirelessly at a crappy job for the needs of their family and it’s all worth it because their family is taken care of. Well, essentially that is my role here. Work to take care of my (two person) family. And I am just too selfish for it to be satisfying.

Is my problem that I am addicted to an idea of something that is just honestly unattainable? I used to think I didn’t want much (ha!), but now I see that I actually want so, so much, and that this reality was hidden to me because I had most of what I unconsciously wanted in advance. The appetite I have for the things I think I don’t have is a cavern. I am in existential crisis, man! Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche ain’t got nuthin’ on me, yo. I thought I had discerned what I wanted to do when I grew up: become a prison chaplain. I did a lot of hard work to make that happen. That’s just not possible here. The only prison for a massive radius is 30 miles north of Aberdeen and already has a chaplain. So I am doing something else and like everything else I’ve tried, it just hasn’t satisfied. So I find myself asking – how do I learn to be content? What needs to change, my circumstances or me, or both? What do I add in to my life, what do I take out, what is within my control and what isn’t? Or ought I to accept unhappiness as inevitable? Is everyone as troubled as me by this shit? A lot of the things that I took for granted were actually central to my happiness – a stable church community, close friends, quiet home, easy access to a rich social and cultural life. Those things are gone and can’t be forced here. They might happen at some stage but they are not happening now. That’s the trouble with facticity: the thrownness of our existence. Chucked hither and thither. Go with or resist?

Answers on a postcard plz. (No sympathy, thanks. Obscenely rude jokes an acceptable substitute.)

 


reflections on having a permanent job

May 24, 2014

For over six years in the midst of the Irish recession I struggled and strived when it came to work. Short, badly paid contracts, long bouts of unemployment, course after course, thousands of unanswered job applications. Occasional interviews where confused executives asked why such a well educated person was applying to be a secretary. Pleading with restaurant owners for a waitress position, only to be told I “would never stay”; dropping my CV into MacDonalds, Tesco and local cleaning companies. All to no avail. Crying, depression, despair, hopelessness. Anger.

Now, I have a secure job that almost certainly will, later, lead to another secure job, and instead of the job being the thing that I want it to be, it simply is the thing that it is.

Having a meaningful job, due to the not-having, became something that lost all proper perspective for me. It seemed so impossible and so out of reach. Others around me suffered the same fate but they floated to the back of my consciousness, while my employed and career-focused friends were right there at the fore, living lives of purpose and meaning and enjoying the fruits of their labours. It became the holy grail for me: the promised land. It became the answer to my sense of desperate unfulfilment.

And now, for the precise reason that I packed up and left the country of my birth, I have the elusive job, and suddenly it’s possible and within reach, and I am living the possibility and touching it, and it’s not the holy grail and nor is it fulfilling. It is a job, that is worthwhile, and I do it, and I feel tired after it, and I get the Sunday night dread, and we still count every penny each month to make the rent (while, admittedly, padding the fund for The Grand Summer Holiday – something not enjoyed in a few years).

Undoubtedly I am far less unhappy than before. But, you know, the job is being put back in its place. Where it should have remained all along, instead of becoming bloated with years of swollen anxieties about paying the bills and having worth as a human being.

It is terribly wrong when a person cannot find labour to fund their living. It is morally wrong when a society has been so ordered that their search becomes pointless. It corrodes a bit of that person: it really rots your interior life. I had times where I almost gave up looking and resigned myself to staying on the dole forever. Shortly before landing this job, I suggested to my husband that I simply stop looking. I felt I was approaching a nervous breakdown due to the unflagging disappointments and perhaps needed to allow myself to become a housewife. Have some children and keep a house. He said that was okay by him – he’d watched me suffer and fail for a long time. But then I remembered that we have moved to another country so that he can do something that requires someone else to be working. And so I kept seeking. And lo I did find. But as for those who have stopped seeking? I understand why. I do, and deeply. Looking for a job in the midst of a recession is like spending every waking hour scouring the floor, walls and ceiling of a pitch black tunnel for treasure, all the while knowing that there’s only enough treasure hidden in this tunnel for one tenth of those who are looking for it. It’s tedious, lonely and exhausting beyond compare. And you begin to despise yourself. What is wrong with me? you ask, over and over, year after year. Nothing, say your family and friends. You’re great! I’d give you a job if I had one!

As usual I am not sure what my point is. I wish I could wind my reflections into neat little packages, but I never can. I think I have said what I came here to say. It is good to have a job. It is bad to not have a job. But having a job is just having a job. It isn’t changing the world and it doesn’t address your deepest self, whose worth comes from somewhere else. So, you know. Remember that.