DANCE: NO ONE’S WATCHING

people-watchingI spend a lot of time in Dundrum Town Centre. I wish I could say I go for lots of nature walks instead, but the truth is, my car will drive itself there if I don’t focus on where I’m going. The powers behind the centre have been clever enough to include stores of necessity there, so that if I have errands to run and groceries to buy, I can do it all from one place and check if there’s another sale on in House of Fraser, with the obligatory ‘nip into’ Penneys, mar dheadh* for socks. My mother used to like to ‘nip into’ Clarendon Street Church whenever we went shopping in town, where we’d light a candle for someone who needed prayers. There is something honorable in that, regardless of your persuasion and when I pass by that church now, I like to nip in and just sit with myself for five minutes. I’m only occasionally in town however; Dundrum, probably every second day. I can’t help it, that’s the way my life rolls these days. I do resent paying for parking though. It’s one of those things I need to fix in myself, like my irritability with other drivers. Whenever I queue up to pay my €3 for parking, I am a-quiver with resentment towards the powers behind the centre. Haven’t you bled us dry enough? I think. Why should I have to pay in order to come in here and spend money? I’m going to have to deal with it, because it’s not good for me. I don’t like feeling resentment towards anyone. I’m a Law of Attraction girl, so I’m also aware that I’m only attracting bad vibes.

One day, whilst waiting to pay for parking, a large Asian family came towards my side of the queue. There were at least twelve of them, possibly four generations, and they were all in high spirits, making a lot of noise and generally ignoring the antics of the children in the party. One of these children, a boy of about ten, was vehemently shaking a two-litre bottle of Fanta Orange. I smirked inwardly, thinking about the violence of the pending explosion when they opened it and how it would serve them right for being so loud and happy. I checked myself then, for my thoughts. It’s where I’m standing, I reminded myself; the queue of resentment, you really must change Emer. I had been in good form after all, it was a lovely summer’s day and I was wearing a white crochet dress that actually fit me. My hair was freshly washed. I decided to smile at the child with the Fanta. He looked at me strangely, almost as if he had a sudden insight to what the immediate future held. Before I had time to register something was wrong, the bottle exploded – violently – all over me. Just me. I was the sole recipient. The elders went into a frenzy of apologies. Not a word of English between them, but I understood a mortified sorry when I heard it. Great Grandmother tried to dry me off with her hanky and there ensued a gentle battle between us, as I tried to fend off whatever might be lurking in it. Everything was orange. My hair, my white crochet dress, the floor around us. Getting the Asian family out of my life and far away was uppermost in my mind and when they finally fled the scene of destruction I was left alone to wallow in mortification. I prepared myself for humiliation – there wasn’t even a facial expression that I could muster up for passers by that would shrug it off. I was as orange as an Oompa Loompa. Defiantly I looked around to face the cringing music; see if anyone would even offer me a pitying smile.

No one had noticed. Not one person, save the man I passed on the way back to the car, and he only looked up because my flip-flops were making a squelchy sticking sound as I careered across the tarmac. No one bothered about me. Everyone was far too busy thinking about themselves. It was a powerful lesson for me. How much of an effort I put in sometimes and for what? People focus mostly on their own story, their own hair and their own set of complaints or achievements. I wish I could transplant the dawning sureness of that one true realization into the minds and hearts of the teenagers I teach: people won’t notice, they’re too busy wrapped up with themselves.
I could have been affected in any number of ways by the trauma of walking around living my life without my child those first few years. But I chose show business darling; you could fail of course, but you had better look dazzling all the while, and bounce back my dear, whatever you do. I think every secondary school in the country should employ one actor to teach students about the true meaning of resilience. To want something so badly your heart aches; to know you’re so right for the part; the way you crumble inside when it goes to someone else but you must smile and show humbleness and even joy for the person who stole the role from you. Hug, darling, kiss and look them sincerely in the eyes and carry the fuck on. When I went back out into the world, I dressed to kill (apparently), I put on my armour and I defied the world to take me on:
“What,” I would mentally say “can you possibly do to me now?”
My cross was heavy but it was an effective master. I learned to be confident simply because I knew I was untouchable. No one could do anything to me that could possibly put me in a worse place than I already was. So I went head first into whatever came along. Bring it.

Time passed and my sharp edges softened, worn down by the unconditional love that I carried constantly in the quietness of my heart. I could be laughing with you over a sandwich and at the same time wondering how this would be if he were with me. Thinking, he’d be two now, running around no doubt, pulling at me for something, begging to sit on my lap. I do that still. Not so much of course, over the years, you couldn’t maintain sanity; but I do think about the conversation I might have with my 29 year old son. I run the best and the worst scenarios. I choose the best, because folks, that’s my bag. I’m a glass full to the brim kind of chick. (Even if I’m a grumpy fecker sometimes.) Time passed and my confidence grew. I directed a show. A local drama teacher saw it and took me under her wing; she was no ordinary drama teacher, she was a legend and she picked me up and firmly placed me on a particular road, patted me off and sent me on my way. I set up my drama school – at first to support my directing career, but gradually, I came to understand that my joy came from watching the children blossom. Child after child came, some, wanting to be stars, many because they needed the confidence. They blended together, the extro and introverts in an awesome display of human balance; I see it every day, have seen it every day, all these years: the quiet teach the noisy, the loud ones need the calmness of the shy and so they find a way to bring them alongside. As the school grew, and I evolved as a teacher, I understood completely what my task was; I could see it and read it and take it apart and put it together again. And all because I had been broken myself, and the Polyfilla I used was stronger than my own blood.

Why do we do what we do? Why do we decide we’re being judged, or that we’re being loved? Why does the opinion of strangers matter, especially to the Under Fifty Year Olds (because, there is a joyous transformation that takes place at 50, a Great Shedding of Giving a Shit – albeit, in my case, with something to balance; a sense of What Have I Actually Done With My Life? But, another day, eh?) No one is watching you that closely. Everyone has their own story; they walk around with an inner dialogue that concerns – not you, stranger, and not you, friend, but their own life and the best and worst scenarios of each part of that. You can fling as much Fanta on yourself as you like, they won’t even look at you.

*Mar dheadh is an Irish expression, meaning ‘supposedly’ or ‘I’m saying this, but you know I don’t mean it.” It is one of the many Irish expressions that meld beautifully into our version of English. Pronounced ‘Marr yah’ or ‘Morr yah’, but I am happy to stand corrected.

Distraction

Distracted

On the way home from the hospital I asked my mother would she be disappointed if I started smoking again. We stopped at a shop and went home. I went for a lie down; naturally I hadn’t slept much, if at all over the four days. At one point, one of the nurses talked me into dropping the baby down to the nursery so I could get some sleep. It was a futile exercise, and I ended up padding down the corridor myself to find him. Later I told my mother I’d had a good look at all the other babies in there.

“And do you know what, Mam?”
“Let me guess; he was the best looking baby in the nursery?”
“But it’s true!”
And it was; I still see the beauty of him. I gaze on him now, in a trance-memory and I remember the series of precious moments. And ordinary moments: magnolia shower gel someone gave me; reading the Irish Times for probably the first time in my life; a visit from a bishop.
“I hope he gives you years of happiness.” The Bishop said and the baby began to cry.

There were a few of those unfair moments. They stung and they sting still. Although the worst of these moments has been exorcised since: leaving the hospital without my baby. I stood inside the door, while my mother went to find my father to bring the car over – perhaps it was raining. I stood there alone as a young couple walked out past me, lost in their own world and their brand new bundle of joy.
“Really?”
I began to speak to God differently. Up to this, my internal dialogue was riddled with guilt for not going to mass – or for enjoying the freedom of not having to go, now that I was too old to be told anything. But this moment was unnecessary I told Him (I give Him His capital letter here for clarity only; the day I changed the word ‘God’ to ‘Universe’ expanded my notions of what divinity really is and cynics be-damned.)
“Do You have to be so cruel?” I asked Him as they walked past me.
I once saw a ghost. Well, I more than once saw a ghost and I don’t rightly care what you think about that; see them I did. But one summer, I took a job as a temp in the office of the National Art Gallery. There wasn’t much work to do, I kept novels in my drawer and read them when the coast was clear. But I did enjoy the experience of working in a place like that. There was always someone coming through with a story; the Caravaggio had only recently been discovered and the buzz of that still hung in the air; curators and historians had, I discovered, their own cult following. There were three of us in the office and we all got on; if we’d had Facebook back then, or even email, we’d still be in touch I’m sure of it. Next to our office was the room where paintings by old masters were restored by people of exceptional ability. Every day I marvelled at the wonders of a world heretofore unknown. I loved everything about the place. Except the corridor where the stationery was kept and where the loo was. It was old fashioned in the extreme: a wooden, square seat about fifty paces from a door with no lock. That room was fine, provided nobody burst in on you; it was the corridor that was the problem, especially towards the end, near the stationery room. On my first day, after I returned with envelopes the other girls asked me if I’d sensed a ghost. Without a shadow of a doubt I told them. But she’s not in the loo, and she’s not in the stationery room. She’s very much stuck at the end of the corridor, near the window.
“She?” They asked. “How do you know?”
“I saw her.”
The other girls shivered. They’d sensed something but they had half assumed it was their imagination.
One Friday night, I talked about her with friends. I knew she was young, I sensed she was frightened but I certainly didn’t feel afraid of her. Someone suggested she didn’t know she was dead; apparently, a child had died in a fire in the Shelbourne Hotel years and years ago and she’d haunted a room until some exorcist came along and told her it was ok, she was actually dead and she should move along to a better place. And it worked. The child left and guests no longer complained of ghosts. I resolved to go in on Monday and mentally communicate with her, let her know it was ok to move on. When I got to the corridor, she was gone. Nary a sense of her. Everyone said it. She was gone, for sure.
Where do I go to with these tangents? Only to explain to you the sense of what it meant to me to walk past the ghost of myself twelve years later, To know, that Geoff and I were that couple and Aisling was that bundle of joy and as we passed her, she dissipated into the clear air, a trapped memory, off to a better place.
That lonely day, back home in my own bed, I tossed and turned. A mother without her baby. I heard him cry. I mean I actually heard him inside my head, like an echo. He needed me. I phoned the woman that would foster him for the next few weeks, while I cleared my head and made MY DECISION. Imagine that there are women that will do that? Angels walking around earth, minding the newborn babies of the Great Undecided. Families who fall in love and then say goodbye six weeks on, over and over again. I will never forget this kindness. I am forever bonded to this woman although the last time I saw her was the last time I saw my child. I told her what I knew: he liked to sleep on his tummy; she could expect him to wake up every two hours; that he was smiling already, did she notice that? It’s not wind. She listened and thanked me and told me I could visit if I wanted. I said I would love that. I put the phone down and slept the sleep of the partially relieved.
We had developed our relationship, that baby and me, over the nine months, and now I was alone. No little kicks to remind me he was there; no bump to rest my hand on, no intelligence that might hear my thoughts. It was like the sound suddenly cutting out in the middle of a beautiful film. I knew I had to just sit with it. I was held of course, by my family and I had close friends, but what comfort can you offer a mother without her child? There’s no way of knowing how long before the sound comes back. No point railing against it, there is nothing you can do. Just watch it in silence. Or find something else to do.

My two friends had to practically drag me along, but I did eventually go and sign up to help out in an amateur production of Grease. It was already well into rehearsals so there were no parts left – which, to be honest, was what convinced me in the end to turn up. I was assigned as the Props person, which seemed straightforward enough. I was given a list and I had to ‘beg, borrow or steal’ everything on it. My mother would brace herself for years after, as she sat in the audience, waiting for the curtains to open and see what bits of furniture from her house had made it into the current production.

But what a world I had stumbled into! The thrill of being backstage, play-acting with the rest of the crew, laughing as silently as you could so you didn’t disturb the performers on stage; I realize now that the crew I was working with were very badly behaved as that sort of thing goes, but it was amateur and it was the 80’s. People didn’t care so much and besides, stage crew was made up of people who were roped in at the last minute – perhaps they had even built the set and the entire production was beholden to them. In fact, I believe it was the Stage Manager who at one point lifted me up in the air and threatened to fling me out onto the stage in the middle of ‘Worse Things I Could Do’. For the laugh. I met my future husband in the wings of that very production. I whispered to him that I had planted his microphone in the picnic basket. He thought this was clever of me, and then enquired as to whether he might have a fresh burger the following night; the current three day old one was getting harder to chew on stage and he needed to have finished his mouthful before his song. He was playing Doody and his one solo song was the song ‘Mooning’. Everyone fell in love with Geoff when he sang that song, every gender, every age. Except me: I wasn’t ready to love anyone, although I did set my sights on him one night after the show.
“Geoff.” Was all I said to my friend.
“He’s going out with someone.” She said. And that was that. I looked around for the next best looking guy and so it went on until gradually over the next two years, my armour loosened and I stopped seeing all men as bastards. That’s a proper love story, and one for another day perhaps. Meanwhile, I had found my calling! This crazy world of show business had me in its grip. I threw myself into the joy of it all, but generally only backstage. I did my time on stage however, as some will attest to: I think I can dance, but it’s an illusion that I’m generally left to enjoy. That’s all well and good on the dance floor but on stage, in front of people…quite another. My director couldn’t afford to be fussy that year, it was slim pickings on the performer front, and so I was tolerated. The choreographer did pair me off with Geoff though, which kept me from twirling off stage (remember, I’m a tiny bit accident prone). We may have met backstage but it was while I was dancing with him that we began to find each other interesting.
The following year I was asked to direct the show. That’s such a lie; the following year, our musical society had fallen into disrepair and was being held together with sticky tape and chewing gum by a few dedicated soldiers. The obvious choice for director had burnt herself out, keeping it all going – at least that’s my guess as to why no one came forward to direct what was to be our phoenix from the ashes: The Sound of Music. Build it and they will come – or in our case, put on a show with lots of kids in it and they will come. I tended to plod along and blurt out loud the notions that were in my head at any given time. I’d had an idea for a while now that I might like to direct, and more, that I might be good at it. The chairman had no choice; our group never brought in professionals, we were unashamed of our status as an amateur company, and the whole purpose of our existence was to expose people to theatrical experiences they might otherwise never have. I felt sorry for him; I was flighty, some might say, a flibbertigibbet, a will-o-the-wisp, a clown! I had no experience whatsoever, save what I had picked up from the wings. But he let me do it. I got my chance because of him and the rest of that team. It was a beautiful distraction and it led me down many exciting paths, including my career. You might say, I had climbed every mountain until I found my dream…

Surprised by Joy

I’ve always been accident-prone. It was a label that I carried about with me from as early as I can remember. Just before my seventh birthday I remember wondering if I’d make it to my teens. Summer camp that year was difficult; I’d almost drowned; jumped head-first into the gym horse; walked into doors; the usual tripping up, falling over and choking on my lunch, and now, my calf, cut with glass – a scar I still have – that the nurse was patching together while my sisters explained to her that this was par for the course. I had been acting the eejit in some show-off display of tomfoolery and now I was paying the price. No one was laughing anymore and I was genuinely deeply concerned for my future. But what could I do? Danger hung over me like a dark cloud; my saving grace was that I forgot easily and so my childhood, while peppered with injuries, was still fun for the most part. How I never broke a bone is anyone’s guess. I was then, and remain to be, the person that causes other normal people to scan the room quickly for any obvious obstacles when I appear. When I start to tell a story, some quick thinking person will gently push my glass in towards the centre of the table and away from the edge, a safe distance from my waving arms.

Dramatic was another label; dramatic, accident-prone and free spirited; that was the diplomatic term for whatever I was. I’d like to say I grew out of it but I still fall down stairs and I’ve burned myself so many times that we keep the burn-aid next to the hob. My daughters can’t watch me chop vegetables.

“I didn’t ask to be this way!” I cried – only yesterday, as my husband sprayed something soothing on my wrist – although I’m proud to say, I didn’t drop the dish as I took it out of the oven. That’s progress right there. That’s maturity. My family sighs for me, sure what else can they do? Once the bleeding has stopped they’re rendered useless.  But yesterday that frustrated seven year old was back, biting her lower lip outside Newpark summer school; nothing has changed, I thought. I’m still a danger to myself every waking moment; if it’s not an allergic reaction to something, I’ll have pulled a muscle, or picked the iron up the wrong side. I don’t know; I just do it. Chaos follows me too, generally – whatever path I follow, it will never be straightforward. I’m a girl with stories.

What, you may ask, has this to do with the story of my pregnancy? Well, for a start, if anyone were going to get pregnant, it would be me. My husband Geoff says that the reason I’m so prone to accidents is because my mind and therefore, my attention is elsewhere. It’s true. The only reason I no longer fall down the stairs is because I count the steps as I walk. I find this is a very mindful way of moving safely. So, although I was appalled that I had gotten myself pregnant, I wasn’t exactly surprised. It wasn’t going to be regular straightforward pregnancy and it wasn’t even a straightforward birth. Of course it wasn’t. One minute I was sitting there watching the sun rise and the next the student nurse was reporting that the baby was distressed. I was wheeled off dramatically while my mother was out of the room and suddenly there were seven or eight people around me.
“You’re going to have to have a caesarean section,” a nurse told me.
“Ok.” I said politely, thinking “Typical.” And “FUUUUUUCK!” The words I heard were
“The baby’s distressed.”
“She’s three centimeters.”
“Emer, we’re prepping you for – “
“THE BABY’S COMING!”
“But she’s only –“
“She’s fully dilated, the BABY’S COMING NOW!!!”

I’d like to say I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect but I’m not. It happened just like that. Literally five minutes after a nurse told my mother I was going for ‘that test again’, the baby was born.
Safe.
A boy.
A boy!
Perfect.
Everything’s fine.
Well…

Two years later, Geoff and I had brought our tango of flirtation to a first date; he took me to (but now I’m showing off) Sardinia. Yes, an overnight stay on an Italian island where the most beautiful humans on earth reside. We sat people watching in the evening sun, before enjoying dinner in an empty restaurant served by the grumpy owner who seemed as put out by our leftovers as by our being there (after all, It was Italia 90, the World Cup and Italy was in the process of winning their match.) It turned out he was the most delightful of men; we sat drinking some kind of local hooch after the match, speaking some kind of pigeon Spanish-Italian with a smattering of mime. He offered us jobs the following summer and drove us to the airport as all the taxi drivers were drunk. I was impossibly happy in that moment but I thought it only fair to warn Geoff it couldn’t last.
“Trouble follows me,” I told him. “It will end badly. You should probably get out now, while you still can.”
He’s a handsome man, but that night I fell in love with his hands. I couldn’t look at anything else. After two years of unimaginable heartbreak, I’d assumed I would never be happy again. I wasn’t even expecting it.

I can still remember the first moment I realized that my baby boy wasn’t on my mind. I was in work, on the packing line, of all things, a Zig and Zag video. Our company had produced it and it was all hands on deck with the packaging. If you weren’t doing anything crucial you were in the studio shoving the paper sleeve of “Nothing to Do With Toast” into the video box. The moment took me by such surprise that I actually exclaimed out loud,
“Oh!”
“What?” Someone said.
“Nothing.” I said, all my actions slowing now as I realized he hadn’t been on my mind. I remembered the Wordsworth poem ‘Surprised by Joy.’ It had never made so much sense to me before. Wordsworth became real, a man, a broken hearted father, instead of some long dead Romantic that had no connection whatsoever to modern life. I can recite that poem with genuine understanding but I can never finish it without catching my voice. One half a second not thinking about my son. An instant of relief, even happiness. Zig and Zag were funny and we were most likely quoting them. I laughed and I forgot.

And here I was in an airport in Sardinia with a gorgeous kind man. The moments of happiness between remembering lasted longer these days, but they would never go away, I was sure of that.
“I’m trouble.” I told him earnestly.
“It’s okay to be happy.” He said. “You’re allowed to live happily ever after.”
I looked at him, and I believed him. He was right; it was okay.
I had no duty to sorrow.
I could enjoy life.
Was I punishing myself? I don’t think so.
Trouble didn’t have to hang over me anymore. With a thought, I could release it back to the wild.
Geoff literally opened the door of my cage; I stepped out knowing that while I’d never forget the trappings that had caused me pain, I was free now to get on with my life.
Dramatic? Moi? Accident prone, yes. Free spirited, sure… happy?
Most definitely forever after.

Surprised by Joy

By William Wordsworth

Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh! With whom
But thee, long buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind –
But how could I forget thee? – Through what
power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss? – That thought’s
return
Was the worse pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.