Posted from I Am Not HQ
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It’s 5am, and I’m brushing my teeth before bed. I’m nowhere near sleepy but it’s a trick I like to try sometimes, in the hope that my brain will some day realise that brushing your teeth is something people do before they go to bed at night, and know it must be time to sleep. It’s never worked. I sometimes think that it will backfire and as I’m brushing my teeth before I go to work one morning, my brain will finally get the message and I’ll crumple peacefully to my bathroom floor. I only think this when it’s 5am and I haven’t slept well for a few days though.
I pause, and think back on all the times I’ve gone through the ritual of brushing my teeth before bed – knowing every time there’s a pretty good chance that I won’t doze off, that I’ll be awake and hungry within the hour and head to the kitchen for some sort of snack, before repeating the whole procedure over again. I think back on all the houses I’ve brushed my teeth in – two or three times a night – and how it’s taken me this long to recognise that while most people don’t end up doing it as often as I do, I should accept that the intention to sleep is more important than the worry I’m just wasting time.
I think that at the end of the day – in this case literally – context is as important as action. If I told someone, unprompted (though I can’t imagine how that conversation would even begin) that I brush my teeth two to three times a night between midnight and 6am, they might start throwing the phrase ‘obsessive compulsive’ around a bit. But the action has come to represent something in my head. An unfailing optimism that gets me through the worst of times. The thought that some time, maybe next time, things will be different.
When I travelled around the US last year, I had grand intentions of keeping a tour diary. Thanks to a combination of jetlag and sheer overwhelming enthusiasm for everything else I was doing, what I ended up with was more a tour scrapbook: ticket stubs, phone numbers, and hastily scrawled notes to myself, all stuffed in a CD wallet to be sorted through at a later date. It may make for an iconic photograph some day, but I’ve long since abandoned the idea that I’ll write in great detail about that time now. The memories are all worn down at the edges, and fit comfortably in their own space in my head. You need to remember the sharp corners too, if you’re going to tell an honest story.
What struck me most – so much so that I scribbled the question down on a scrap of paper towards the end of the trip – is that one question kept cropping up, over and over. In every state, in every city, girls would come up to me at the end of every show and ask a variation of the same question: ‘So, what does it feel like to be a strong female role model?’
I was… amused, is probably the best word for it, the first few times I was asked. I would grin and shrug ‘I don’t know, I’ll tell you if I ever am one’ – and not knowing what else I could possibly say on the point, change the subject. But after six or seven iterations of the same question, I started to wonder, not if they had a point, but what on earth was prompting the sentiment?
All the guitarists I admired, growing up, were men. Though I’m not sure it occurred to me to notice, to be honest. It didn’t matter to me what gender someone was, as long as I felt they had something to say. When I started playing tentative gigs in Dublin in the early 2000s though, I was often the only girl in a line-up of five or six bands. I hid my relationship with someone else in that band for years because back then, if you were in your boyfriend’s band, your boyfriend was the reason you were in the band. But surely this was years ago, I pondered from the comfort of the white sand beaches of California. Were girls so stuck in the assumption of a predominantly male industry, that they hadn’t noticed how many of their own kind were about now?
There are, when you get down to it, a wealth of women musicians. Interesting,smart and extraordinarily talented women, playing music that makes its way straight to the soles of your feet. The problem is, they aren’t in the mainstream. Bands like Metric, women like Amanda Palmer, even more established artists like Ani DiFranco have hard-earned respect in certain circles – and yet they just aren’t easily accessible in the mainstream market. And while I’m sure they’re not crying into their breakfast cereal about the fact, we should be sad for the girls who don’t know to seek them out.
Sadder still are the women that seem to have sacrificed some part of themselves to attain pop cult status. While the nineties held great potential, with Beyoncé belting out pop anthems about being a Survivor, it now looks like perhaps Kelly Roland was the feminist powerhouse behind the Destiny’s Child throne. These days it seems Beyoncé’s happier encouraging young girls to shake their ass, pout to camera and to believe that if someone likes them, they need to put a ring on their finger to prove it.
Pop music is, at its best, a tricky area to dissect. Because to criticise the women who do get up on stage, in very little clothing, and shake their maracas in every direction is a dangerous thing to do. It’s criticising someone for being sexual, and there’s nothing wrong with anyone – male or female – standing up and saying ‘I too, am a sexual creature’. It’s only human. But when it’s sexuality at the expense of message… I mean, do we really want or expect teenage girls to believe half of what they’re singing back at these pop starlets?
I hesitated for a long time, before writing this. I don’t want to be misconstrued. I’m not setting myself up to be any sort of example. I’m not standing on a soapbox – I’m… expressing sadness, really. And most importantly, I don’t want this post to appear to diminish the women who are out there, playing their hearts out on stage. It’s just that, when you get down to it, most of the ones who achieve massive mainstream success, aren’t really giving young girls anything great to aspire too.
Life is brutal. Love can be unkind. Pop music is, I think, the 4 minute equivalent of Sleepless in Seattle. If you examine it too closely, it’s a little creepy, and Meg Ryan is little more than a doe-eyed stalker… but it’s warm, and fuzzy and is a lot more comforting than curling up by an open fire and watching say, Schindler’s List. But there needs to be some balance. For every glistening, writhing woman with only tactically placed glitter to retain her modesty, there needs to be another standing tall with a Fender Strat, trying to sing about something honest.
So the next time someone asks me how I feel about being a strong female role model, I think my answer is going to have to be that, well, it saddens me. I’m a relative unknown in the music industry. People shouldn’t need to be pointing to me as a model of anything, let alone asking me how it feels. Because I feel that girls out there should be spoilt for choice. They should be inspired by an industry that tells them it’s not about how good your legs look in that skirt, it’s not about the size of your breasts, or about wanting people to desire you. It’s about being genuine, about having something to say, and it’s about knowing that when you say it, there’s a large audience of young girls out there who want, and maybe even need, to hear what all the fuss is about.
I grew up in a small, rain-polished town buried in the rich green depths of Ireland – which may sound slightly more romantic and mysterious than it felt at the time. I visited cities, as a child, but I’d no real understanding of them. The people I met on the street, the time I spent there, didn’t so much blur together as… average out. The average colour was concrete. The average person was taller than me. Their average speed was faster than I was walking. I didn’t resent the difference between me and the average city dweller, I just couldn’t keep up with them yet. So I put my head against my mother’s arm, and stared out the train window and dreamed of a time when I would walk faster and grow taller, and look out of one those endless glass windows, rather than trying to see inside them.
By the time I was 17, I’d struck out for brighter streets and milder weather. I found a tiny room of my own in a house full of people who’d lived in Dublin all their lives. My walls were lined with posters of friends’ bands, with photos of us standing on street corners and in bars, framed with tickets from shows we’d been to see in the weeks before. Looking back, it feels like I wanted to gain a better understanding of the city and was slowly piecing the clues together. At the end of long nights out, I would lie in my tiny bed and smile to myself. Because then I thought cities were as good as the best people who lived there. People who raised the bar for everyone else, who pushed up on the realms of possibilities. So if my friends were the best and the brightest, then surely I was living in the best city in the world. I was sure then that it was the people who shaped the city, and not the other way around.
Having visited more cities now than I had when I was 17, I know two things to be true. You don’t know a city until you’ve walked it’s dim and silent streets in the hours before sunrise. With no traffic to hide behind, no noise to drown out its sighs, Dublin before sunrise is possessed by a rare vulnerability. It yearns for people, for its history and a strong community. Whitehall in London at that same hour holds itself upright with a cold pride, as if it’s preparing itself for the inevitable onslaught, for the duty of providing strong streets for its citizens. By 5am, New York seems tired. With the strains of traffic bleeding through the buildings, it feels like the city is forever dragging itself to the next great event, reluctant and weary, and at the same time convinced it’s on the verge of something great.
Because the subtle truth of cities is that they impose their own personalities on their inhabitants. The buildings of Dublin cluster together for warmth. The narrow streets feel like they focus the worst of the rain but after a long day’s work, the gentlest hills guide you home. The streets of London don’t run in straight lines, but have unyielding curves and are nested in a fractal of alleyways. The people who live there push things out of sight and into their own side streets – to keep them safe, to keep them buried.
I found some old photographs recently. Photos of myself and my friends, the same photos I’d pinned to walls of different homes in different cities. And I was surprised by just how much each city had changed a little bit of me. Made me harder, made me happier, made my accent a little different. So for now, I live in the countryside, where the trees and the fields and the sky are open to endless possibilities. I stand quietly in the gentle summer sunshine, and watch the clouds roll over distant hills, and brush off the dust and concrete of the city’s endless sentences and wonder what it is I want to say next.
There’s a storm over our street tonight. The trees outside my window push back against the wind. Listening to their hushed and tired sounds, I think they’re trying to comfort each other.
A close friend of mine lost her cousin in a car crash last year. It’s difficult, being far from the people you love when you know they’re grieving. It doesn’t matter how many words you use, an email is nothing compared to the comfort of a hand on a shoulder, the physical transfer of sympathy or of strength. The post she wrote after the funeral is raw and warm and wonderful. Reading it, what struck me most was how the acknowledgement of strangers, even in the tiniest gestures, meant the world to her in difficult times. There was comfort in solidarity. In the knowledge that everyone suffers. That everyone aches and everyone understands.
Yet for all my newfound insights, I couldn’t post a word on the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre. The internet was already alive with good intentions. Messages of hope, of strength. It felt like there weren’t enough synonyms for goodwill to spare. As the weekend unfolded, I watched writers around the world add their voices to the fire. It was important, as it always will be, that they let the people grieving know: we suffer. We ache. We understand.
I wasn’t in New York, when the twin towers fell. I was walking along a quiet suburb in Dublin when the first text message came through from a friend in Manhattan. How much terror can you contain in 160 characters? I kept the message for weeks afterwards, because I was grateful for reminder that she hadn’t been injured.
So we debated last night, whether as a band we should stand up to be counted. Should we leave a message on our site – for the people still in New York, for the people who left New York, for the people who weren’t around to read the message themselves. But it felt like an intrusion. It felt – and I hope you’ll forgive me, I’m sure your intentions were good – fashionable. What on earth could we say? “Our friend sent us a text message. We’re sorry, we know you must have been sending text messages of your own.” So we stayed quiet, and watched other people say what we were all thinking.
I am and forever will be in awe of all writers. Of the good and the bad together. Writers are honest, with a will or a need to express. They string letters together like a lifeline. They want to reach out and pull people gasping to the surface. Yesterday, every message was suddenly a song and I like to think the people of New York felt strong and loved.
I’m not a writer, not in that way. I like to hold my thoughts close to myself. To wrap them in blankets to keep the edges intact, and the soft parts safe. So this isn’t so much a post of support as a gentle apology and an acknowledgement. I didn’t say my piece, but I thought it. I read the words of people who are closer to you than I am. Of people braver with their adjectives than I am. I honestly do hope your friends and family are safe. I hope they had the chance to send text messages of their own. And if we ever meet, I’ll put my hand on your shoulder. And you’ll know that I meant every word I never said.
I realised some time ago that I wanted to leave Facebook.
It wasn’t that my newsfeed was punctuated by sponsored posts, trying to sell me products I had no interest in. Facebook is a business (and I am aware I’m more valuable as a commodity than as a customer). It wasn’t the fact that the platform acted like my own personal problem child from the back seat every 80s vacation movie, needling me as people from my past drove by ‘Are you friends yet? Are you friends yet? … how about now?’ (No, problem child. No stray thread of curiosity could ever tempt me to unravel that knot of history.) It wasn’t the ever-evolving layout design, and the inevitable cacophony of ‘bring back the old Facebook!’ that erupted every other release cycle.
It was that spending time on Facebook made me feel somehow broken.
Like most hopeful insomniacs, I will occasionally succumb to the theory that if I can find a task repetitive enough, I may eventually lull myself to sleep. Which is how I would find myself scrolling through my newsfeed at 3am, trawling for updates, for photos, for new links — even for old links, that had entertained me well enough the last time they were an act in my web-based circus.
I count myself genuinely lucky to have met some smart, funny and fundamentally lovely people, and Facebook offered me a chance to sneak a peek into their stray thoughts, to glimpse the life of friends living thousands of miles distant. Instead of feeling connected though, I found myself feeling increasingly distant from the people I had previously wanted to hold closer, if only in the most virtual sense of the word possible.
The endless stream of happiness, of excitement, the snapshots of their most blissful afternoons and most tender moments all blurred together in a feeling of “What am I doing with my life? Shouldn’t I be doing better?” I wanted to broadcast success from those blue and white bannered rooftops. I wanted to people to enjoy the photos of my pup goofing around on a beach at sunset as much as I did. Uncharacteristically, I found myself yearning to be liked, in all senses of the word.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t be happy for each of the people involved. I adored seeing photos of my friends’ kids growing up. I loved hearing about the latest promotion, engagement, random encounter on a subway. It was just that, as I closed out that tab and returned to the dark, I found that happiness tainted by this sensation of being left behind. Instead of being excited to hear good news on any platform, I found myself horrified to be part of a generation that rolls its eyes and says “I remember when people had big news, they at least had the decency to choose their favourite twenty people and send a mass email”. Facebook was an open mouth, and it’s ceaseless proclamations of joy and prosperity twisted themselves into a snide comments on the quality of my own life.
There was no defining moment. No single event that made me want to walk away. There was just a day where I was done. I left one final message, and removed the shortcut from my browser.
I was surprised by how each new person exclaimed afterwards (usually over tea) ‘Good God, I wish I could do that! What’s it like?’ It’s been hard, it’s been mildly amusing — Facebook has clearly taken a personal interest in my well-being and is still trying to coax me back with emails and reminders. The answer, ultimately, is that it’s as much a relief as it is a disappointment. It’s breaking the seal on a mutually agreed upon and intrinsically false closeness, a pact that you’ve made with world in the hope of feeling that little bit more connected, that little bit warmer and so getting a good night’s sleep.
I logged back in to Facebook 24 hours after I ostensibly left, because a friend mentioned I should be pleased with just how much support my farewell status had garnered. Afterwards, I shut down my phone, and lay in the dark, and once again wondered what I was doing with my life, and shouldn’t I be doing better.
California winters have made me soft. On any given morning, I wake expecting to see sunlight bursting at the seams of my bedroom curtains. I frequently spend mild evenings on my back porch, waiting for the pups to romp themselves that bit closer to a good night’s sleep. Occasionally, I close my eyes and thinking how the sound of the freeway reminds me of the ocean.
But the Atlantic in February is wild and nips at your heels as you navigate the rocks by a west-facing shore. These rocks have been carved by a sharp wind and are stoic in the face of harsh winters ahead. The Atlantic sounds nothing like the quiet and relentless stream of traffic and the gulls laugh at my forgetfulness.
My feet have been cold since I landed here. I had forgotten what that’s like too. The gradual awareness of damp creeping up the back of your legs, as your jeans absorb the last of the afternoon’s rain. I hadn’t noticed at first. Too many joyful welcomes and firm handshakes, as I walked home through the town. It’s only when I reach my street that I realise how wet my clothes are.
It’s a short walk from the corner to my house. Behind me, other families are settling in for the evening. The sudden smell of peat burning on the cold night air makes me nostalgic for a childhood that wasn’t mine. It speaks to a long history of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, who know that warmth inside has always been more important than any cold outside. I wonder for a moment if Irish families are closer for so often being driven indoors to the fire, and if the same sharp wind makes them strong in the face of harsh winters ahead.