In recent days, news of a mass school shooting in Florida sent shockwaves around the world, putting America’s gun laws in the spotlight once again. At times like this, headlines scream numbers at us: 17 shot dead in Florida, 58 shot dead in Las Vegas, 20 shot dead in Sandy Hook.
It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around such figures. Tragedies like this are best understood, if that’s even possible, by zoning in on one single life. This was something journalist Gary Younge instinctively understood when he wrote his book on American gun culture, Another Day in the Death of America
Younge looked at the impact of gun crime through the lens of ten lives. The lives of ten children who were killed in ten separate shooting incidents throughout the United States. In one day. Every day, between seven children are killed by guns in the United States. It’s become so commonplace that their deaths barely make a blip in the media.
Bringing Them to Life
Younge picked a random day and traced the names of ten children who had been shot dead on that day. He then set about telling their stories. The story of their lives and the story of the day they died. They were all boys, aged from nine to nineteen. They lived in towns, cities and rural areas. Seven were black, two were Latinos and one was white.
Younge visited the cities and towns where the boys had lived. In all but two cases, he spoke to their friends and families. He looked at their social media profiles. He researched police reports into their death. And from this, he created vivid portraits of their lives, using symbols that represented who they were. A bottle of Hennessy brandy. A recording of a rap. A T-shirt.
A Troubled Society
On a wider level, Younge gets under the skin of a society where guns are rife, where social structures have broken down, where poverty is a weight that is almost impossible to shrug off. He speaks to community workers and quotes from a rich variety of literature, from novels to research from sociologists.
As you read Another Day in the Death of America, you can hear the guns go off in your head. You can feel Younge’s quiet outrage pulsing through the pages. With these ten tender portraits, Younge reclaims the lives of these boys, so that they are no longer defined by the terrible acts that ended their lives. He shows us that their lives mattered. But he also makes you feel the real impact of gun crime, more effectively than any screaming headline.
I always end up sitting in the wrong seat. When they were handing out the rulebook on how to master the art of seating, I was dossing down the back of the room. Some people are able to glide towards a seat as if they were born to do it it. I usually end up flailing.
For example, I never grasped the rule about women taking the inside seat. I was staying at a B&B once and the owner was getting a table ready for a couple who were due to come down. He was pushing the table away from the wall, because he maintained that the woman would want to sit on the inside seat, closest to the wall.
Lo and behold, the woman sat on the inside. I thought he had magical divining powers, but Husband shrugged.
‘Women always sit on the inside.’ he said.
Well, I don’t. When you take the inside seat, you’re always having to lean out to where the conversation is. And that’s not my style. I want to sit on the outside, at the beating heart of the conversation.
Seating Large Numbers
Then there’s the restaurant seat scramble. When a large group of people is going to a restaurant or pub, the most mild-mannered people become ruthless scrum-halves, in a bid to bag the prime seating, away from the table bore. I find myself paralysed. My feet won’t propel me forward, and I end up in no-man’s land. It’s possible that I’m the table bore they’re looking to avoid, but I flatter myself that this isn’t so.
Or there’s the peculiar hell inflicted on wedding guests, when the bride and groom places them at a table with an odd assortment of human beings, After a few hours at a wedding table, wading through the treacle of small talk, you start to think that a few hours in a holding cell would have been preferable.
Seating at Venues
When I go to the cinema or theatre, I’m careful to position myself at the centre of the row. If I sit at the edge, I’ll constantly have to be getting up for people. I fancy I leave enough seats on either side of me for groups to sit down. Yet these groups will insist on passing me to go to the seats on the other side, so I have to get up anyway. Leaving me to wonder what’s wrong with the seats on either side of me.
Then there’s the seating magnet at restaurants. This is the magnet that compels restaurant staff to place you and your partner a hair’s breadth away from the next table, despite the fact that the restaurant is almost deserted, and there are vast acres of space where you could eat your meal in private. Do they fear we may need to huddle together for warmth? Or do they feel the walk between tables would be too great?
We scramble for seating because we’re eager to conquer the space around us. Unfortunately, we have to share that space with other human beings, and this brings out the competitive urge in us. Hence the scramble for prime seating. I’m hoping there’s a catch-up class I can take so I can acquaint myself with that rulebook on the art of seating, so I can one day be that person who glides up to a seat as if born to it.
The voice was warm. It was a voice that invited you to stop, to help. It broke my stride as I made my way along the street. The voice belonged to a young man wearing a beanie hat, who said he was doing research about people’s favourite things to do in the town.
Thinking he was doing a project as part of a college course, I expounded on the delights of the restaurants. Picking up on his American accent, I said several of them served American food, because as a nation, we Irish were fond of all things American. Then I asked him what the research was for.
Turned out he wasn’t doing research. Turned out he was a missionary for a Christian church.
I didn’t turn tail and run. It would be hard to show that level of disrespect to a man of faith, even if he did have bad teeth. So I heard him out, extracted myself and went on my way.
Selling Your Wares
I couldn’t fault the friendliness of his manner, but as I walked away, my mouth was flooded with the sickly-sweet taste you experience when you realise you’ve been manipulated. He had presented himself as someone looking for help, when in fact he wanted to sell me something, in this case spiritual enlightenment.
It’s easy to come up with a retort in hindsight. I resolved that next time I meet a missionary, I’m going to ask them how long it will be before the Apocalypse comes. And if they say they don’t know. I’ll shake my head sadly and say, ‘You’re no good to me, so.’
Cruel, perhaps. But it’s better than being taken for a mug. Still, I don’t know if I’ll be using that retort. Because it’s likely that I’ll be walking faster from now on. When someone like that stops you on the street, it damages the chances that in the future, you’ll stop for someone who genuinely needs help. And that really does make me sad.
One Sunday, I found myself having lunch in a golf club. It’s not the sort of place I’d expect to find myself in. They’re usually places where the respectable burghers of a town congregate. But I had been invited by a friend whose family qualified as respectable burghers, with roots going back more than one generation.
Whereas I was a ‘blow-in,’ a word we use in Ireland to describe someone who has moved to a town from somewhere else. You can live in a town for thirty years or more and still be considered a blow-in. Having lived in this seaside town for a mere six years, I was definitely still a blow-in, the sweet grass of my native inland place still clinging to my skin.
The golf club was a comfortable, homely place, and despite my blow-in status, I was able to pass through its doors without incident. I sat at a table covered with a crisp linen tablecloth and enjoyed a tasty lunch of deep fried Brie, bantering with my friend and her three lively boys.
As our lunch came to an end, a woman approached the table and my friend greeted her by name. I knew of the woman, but hadn’t met her before. After the woman admired my friend’s three boys, she turned her attention to me.
‘And who is this?’ she asked.
My friend, a sunny-side-up kind of person, introduced me as ‘a great writer.’
‘Might I have your surname?’ she asked.
I gave her the required information, while red dots danced across my line of vision.
‘Derbhile was in Toastmasters (a public speaking organisation) with your daughter,’ said my sweet dove of a friend.
‘Oh, you’re one of those,’ she said.
‘That’s right,’ I said, grinning. ‘You have me now.’
Satisfied that she had the information she needed, she withdrew.
What’s In A Name
You may wonder why I bristled at the woman’s question. After all, a surname is hardly classified information. My surname is readily available on my official documents, business cards and social media profiles. But I knew why she was asking the question – so that she could slot me into the town’s hierarchy.
It’s human nature to try and define people, to assess how much like us they are. And some people will define you by your place of origin and family name. Such people love to recite a litany of names to each other, and to outline how those names are connected to each other. The problem is that they don’t look beyond the name, to the richness of the person’s story. Once they have placed you, they are satisfied.
Making a Connection
In a situation where we don’t know people, it’s often necessary to ask for a person’s name and where they’re from, to break the ice. But if we really want to connect with people, then couldn’t we use those questions as a springboard that will help you dive into a broader conversation. I’d rather know whether someone has an unhealthy penchant for Club Milks or likes swimming in a cold sea than what town they come from.
If the woman had asked how my friend and I had met, for example, she would still have received the information she wanted. I would have told her how we met in Toastmasters and how this had indirectly brought me to my new hometown. We would have made a connection, no matter how slight.
But afterwards, I remembered what my husband had told me about the woman, that she had arrived in the town as a young school teacher from a windswept coastal town on the other side of the country. Perhaps, all these years later, she was still a little anxious about her own blow-in status. Perhaps she was defining herself by the same narrow criteria. But when you broaden the criteria by which you connect with people, you can put down deeper roots.
I have heard rumours that many women regard a visit to a hairdresser as a pampering session, a treasured slice of that much-vaunted modern phenomenon, “me time.” They relish the chance to read magazines and drink a cup of tea without interruption. And they love to place their hair in the hands of a particular hairdresser, at a particular hair salon. Only this hairdresser can achieve the miracles they’re hoping for. And while this hairdresser is working her magic, the woman spills out her stories. The confession-box like set-up of a hair salon invites confidences.
Get the Job Done
I, on the other hand, regard going to the hairdresser as maintenance, one of the things you must do to count yourself as a civilised member of society. It’s a couple of rungs up from bills and going to the dentist on the pleasure scale, but it’s still an item to tick off the to-do list. I don’t take the proffered cups of tea, because of the stray hairs that end up floating on the surface. And I can’t really get the benefit out of the magazines, as the hairdresser positions my head in a way that makes them difficult for me to read. After the prescribed set of questions, taken straight from the Book of Hairdresser, I let myself go into a trance and trust their fingers to do the job.
And I’ve never felt the need to hitch myself to a particular hairdresser. I know what way I want my hair cut, and any skilled hairdresser can do it. But in the last couple of years, I did hitch my star to a particular hairdresser. She shaped my hair just the way I liked it. And our chat ventured a little beyond the Book of Hairdresser script. I shared details of family weddings. And she shared her love of hurling. She asked me how I got on at various family occasions. And I asked her how her little girl was settling into school.
And then one day … I went in and saw that she was attending to another lady, drying her hair.
‘Won’t be long,’ she said.
I relaxed when I heard that. Her efficiency was one of the things that drew me to her. And if she was drying the lady’s hair, she was sure to be winding up any minute. Besides, I’d have a chance to read the magazines properly and give myself a crash course on the latest instalments of Made in Chelsea, Geordie Shore and Towie. Five minutes went by. Ten. Fifteen. Hmm, I thought. Does drying usually take this long?
The other hairdresser came to my rescue and washed my hair.
‘Won’t be long,’ my hairdresser said again, as she continued to sculpt the other lady’s hair with her dryer.
My reading material ran out and I felt flames starting to leap inside me. The other lady kept up a constant stream of talk while her hair was being dried. She was clearly of the confession box mentality. I didn’t even have the compensation of eavesdropping on her talk, because the hairdryer acted as a noise machine, blotting her voice out.
At length, thirty-five minutes after I had entered the salon, my hairdresser approached me and started to cut my hair.
‘Sorry for keeping you,’ she said.
Fanning the Flames
It sounded like a line delivered straight from the Book of Hairdresser. Not an ounce of contrition did I hear. Then she started asking me about my sister’s wedding. Is that it? I thought. This was not enough to douse the flames. In as calm a voice as I could muster, I asked:
‘What time was that lady’s appointment scheduled for?’
She stepped back, as if my words were bullets. I could hear her swallow.
‘I’m afraid there isn’t anything we can do if appointments run over. It’s out of my hands.’
The flames were dancing now.
‘It’s just that you were at the drying stage. I thought that would be quick.’
‘This lady likes her hair dried a particular way. And I always get you in and out on time, don’t I?’
By this time, the air between us was thick with electricity. For now, I was going to have to climb down. I reassured her that yes, she was normally very quick. And when I was leaving, she apologised again, in a less scripted way. I decided that I had been a little bit fierce, and that she deserved the benefit of the doubt. So when it came time to tame my wild curls again, I went back to her.
A Chance at Redemption?
She was delighted and clearly surprised to see me. I was shown straight to the basin, and then straight to the chair for the haircut. Our flow of chat was easy. All was well. Until the drying stage. A woman came through the door and my hairdresser went to deal with her. Her query was quite detailed, and my hairdresser launched into a lengthy and quite technical explanation of how to resolve her problem. The word “balayage” was mentioned.
I read an article in my trashy magazine. Then another. Then another. Five minutes passed. Then ten. Finally, she came back and resumed drying my hair without a word. Taking the advice of my sister, who has United Nations levels of diplomacy, I opted for a more banterful approach to the situation.
‘Bit of a hair crisis, was there?’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ she replied.
She gave a brief description of the woman’s problem, throwing in the word balayage again for good measure. As I was leaving, she said:
‘See you in a few weeks, hopefully.’
But I think we both knew that this was the end of our harmonious relationship.
I have found a new hairdresser home now, which I am quite happy with. And I still see the lady whose hair required complicated drying around town. It’s easy for me to spot her. When you’re waiting as long as I was, you become very familiar with the back of someone’s head. And with a post-breakup pang, I spot the imprint of my old hairdresser.
On a winter’s night, as a light drizzle fell, a cyclist came upon a homeless man as swished through the city streets. He lay in a doorway near a string of fast-food outlets. As the cyclist bent over him, she saw that he had a stash of food beside him, still in his packaging.
He made no movement, but she could detect the rise and fall of breath. She gently shook his shoulder, trying to rouse him. Still there was no response. A knot of people gathered around her. Some of them approached the man and tried to rouse him, but appeared to have travelled to a place beyond sleep.
Alarmed, the cyclist called an ambulance, and the group stayed with the man until it came. As the ambulance approached, the man awoke, blinking in surprise to find lights in his face and a circle of strange faces around him.
Did He Want Help?
When I first heard this story, I saluted the cyclist’s civic conscience. But afterwards, a question formed in my mind. Had this homeless man wanted help? Or was he just happy to have found a perch for the night, his food within easy reach. Perhaps he was sleeping his first real sleep in many nights. And perhaps that sleep had taken him to a place of warmth and light, a place filled with the sound of children’s laughter.
Was he grateful for the intervention of these kind strangers? Or was it a painful reminder that without a home, he could no longer shut out the world, and that he had lost the power to decide what happened to him. I still salute the cyclist’s social conscience. I myself would have picked up my pace, propelled by embarrassment and fear. But I wonder if the homeless man saw it that way. I wonder if ultimately she did the wrong thing, even if it was for the right reasons.
The bus was almost full, but I managed to find a pair of seats near the front. I settled into the window seat and arranged my bags on the other seat. Then I fished out my iPod and untangled the headphones that were wrapped around it. For the next hour, the length of the journey to my mother’s house, I would cocoon myself in music and banish the outside world, letting myself be carried along by the rhythm of the bus.
Then behind me, I heard scuffles and shrieks. Feet pressed against the back of my seat. I swivelled my head. Three children were squashed into a seat for two: two girls aged about ten and a young boy of about five.
They waved at a man whose grew smaller and smaller as the bus inched out of the station. ‘Bye Daddy,’ shouted the boy and one of the girls. Then the man disappeared, and the little boy began to wail.
‘I want Daddy,’ he cried.
‘Be quiet, Jamie,’ said his sister. ‘We’re going home to mammy now.’
‘ I want to go back to Waterford,’ said the boy. ‘I want to go back to Daddy.’
The wails cut through my waves of sound. These weren’t the sounds of a child grandstanding for an audience. These were the sounds of a child in pain. A child who couldn’t understand why he was being shuttled from father to mother. A child who was watching his father disappear.
Unable to Reach Out
I happened to have a vibrating hamster in my bag, a whimsical present from my husband. I pictured myself showing the child that vibrating hamster. Kneeling against the back of my seat and giving the children a reassuring smile. Showing the boy how to make the hamster vibrate by pulling the string. Watching his tears turn to laughter. Pressing the hamster into his hand, a much more useful companion to him than it could be to me. Distracting him from his pain.
But I didn’t. Because I was a stranger, and children are quite rightly taught to fear strangers. Because of the fingers of suspicion that would point at me. Because my actions could be interpreted in a way I never intended, by the children and by other passengers on the bus.
The bus was quite full, full of people who looked as if they had plenty of experience of wiping away the tears of children. But maybe they held the same fear as me, because they didn’t reach out to those children either.
Creating a Different Culture
Is it possible that our efforts to keep children safe, we have put up barriers that prevent us from being kind to them? Barriers that mean a childcare worker can no longer hug a child in their care. That cause men to feel uneasy if they find themselves near a group of children playing in a park. That require people to jump through endless hoops if they want to offer their time and skills to help children.
It is quite right that the culture of covering up crimes against children is beginning to crumble. But are we replacing it with a culture of suspicion? Why don’t we strive instead to create a culture of common sense, of kindness, of balance? A culture that allows us to reach out to a child in distress without fear of pointed fingers.
I’m not a hoarder in the traditional sense. My wardrobe does not bulge with unworn clothes. My shelves are not cluttered with dust-friendly ornaments. And I’m not drowning in newspapers. My hoarding is of a more intangible nature – I hoard memories.
I see myself as a bag lady tramping the roads, weighed down by bags filled with memories, memories that are long past their sell-by date. Phone numbers I’ll never dial again. The names and ages of celebrity children. Addresses of places I’ll never visit. And more pernicious memories too. Rows that were never resolved. Words that should never have been said. I can feel the weight of those memories pressing down on my skull.
Balls of Memory
The animated film Inside Out takes you on a fascinating tour of a little girl’s brain. In the film, her memories are depicted as black balls sitting on shelves. The balls are about the size of bowling balls, and when her memories are considered redundant, the balls are simply rolled off the shelves.
Now I’ve decided to push some of my own memory balls off the shelf. But I’m going a step further. I’m taking them out of the bag and letting them smash onto the ground. The experience is oddly cleansing. The German word for table. Smash. My friend’s landline number, which I haven’t dialled in 20 years. Smash. The dinner that was three hours late. Smash. The row over disability rights campaigners falling out of windows. Smash.
My bags are starting to feel a great deal lighter as I shed my load. And the memories I want to keep have become more visible. Dancing with my nephew and singing the word “Cream.” Swishing down a ski slope in one long, glorious movement. The sunlight slanting through the church windows as we said our wedding vows. I will polish these memory balls to a bright sheen, and curate them with care.