When I was in the middle of exams last year, one of the things that I remember the most vividly is the countless hours spent aimlessly gazing at the tree outside my bedroom window. I used to have friends come over to my room, both of us under the illusion that somehow doubling the presence of people within a room would also double our concentration levels. I’ve never been good at idioms, sayings, proverbs in any language I speak. Part of me likes to avoid speaking in cliché terms – I tend not to use them. On the other hand, there’s a real unawareness of what the vast majority of them even mean. But there was one saying (if it can be defined that – I’d consider it a nursery rhyme, even), last year, during exactly those kinds of tree-gazing days, that lodged itself into my brain and never quite left.
One for sorrow, two for joy. The rest didn’t matter – silver, gold, friendships or secrets never to be told. It was that first bit that was a constant jingle in my head, my automatic mental reflex whenever I spotted a black bird of any kind at all (I never was good at recognising birds), rather than just magpies. It came into my life when my friend Fran mentioned it, and it kept me company this year. This year – it feels hard to type that. A year. Time usually seems to slip through my fingers and makes me want to either jump at all of the opportunities in the world or sit in a corner, teary, wondering how it all went by so quickly. Every year, we all say it: the year’s gone by so quickly. Where did it go? What were we doing? How didn’t we notice, when it crept up on us and snatched us away from the months we thought were still well within our grasp? Somehow I don’t belong to this army of people I used to captain, the complainers of time long gone, those in disbelief at how one day it’s September, the next it’s Easter.
“Fear can save or kill. What counts is facing it”
Time seems to have taken on a whole different pace of its own, seasons shifting slowly, festivities failing to flurry past me. A year of firsts, of new friends, of realisations, of reconciliations. My year. The year I’d never had before.
I haven’t written in this blog for a long time, because I started writing most of what I used to write here on a Paperblanks journal. It’s still that same Monet one I bought with my first paycheck in Stuttgart (though it’s starting to become more and more lacking in the pages it has left), that long-ago handful of months in a strange, lonely existence. I wrote nearly daily as of January – after reading Cathy Retzenbrink’s second book, the wonderful and pocket-sized “A manual for heartache”, where she tells readers of her guidelines for a personal story that will unravel in the form of a journal, I logged my daily occurrences, from meals to phonecalls to bits of news.
It was strange initially – I was used to ranting in scrawling, vaguely manic writing, or neatly noting down things I was grateful for, and stopping to reflect on my daily existence in the most banal of terms was an odd thing to be doing. Sometimes, they’d read like children’s exercise books – “Today, I got up at 9am and I went for a swim and then I came back and I had a mushroom omelette and then I wrote two cover letters, and then I read 12 pages of my book and then I listened to Leonard Cohen: Live in Dublin and then I went to bed”. Other times, they’d be vaguely witty and take me straight back to days I could look back on with a bit more perspective. “Today, I lounged around until 11am, because I clearly don’t seem to think about my lingering applications that still need to be completed. I put off my run until 7pm, at which point I decided to clear out my room because I only did that three times this week”.
And of nearly all of those days, I can remember how many magpies I’d spotted if I’d spotted any on the day. I drew them on each page. One for sorrow and two for joy. Sometimes sorrow is masked as joy, other times joy shines out true and vibrant from my curly handwriting, words underlined, notebook corners bearing suns etched onto them. My 2018 self has come to realise there is a way to make two magpies out of one, and how to gain things from experiences we think we could easily lose ourselves in. This hasn’t just been a year of patiently typing up infinite motivational statements about legal careers and internships and please could I offer my services for free and would anyone like a professional translator, despite how long the days suffocated by those very moments felt.
When I write, sometimes I write about things in so much detail that I lose track of my original plan. Things get lost, others are overshadowed. So here is a list of magpies.
I showed my heart to the doctor / he said I’d just have to quit
– Leonard Cohen (One of us cannot be wrong)
My bank account being hacked. Grief. Losing touch with a close friend. Job rejections. The future. Unrequited love. Unwanted, embarassing love. Slammed doors. Tears on the phone. Accidentally watching Call me by your name in Italian. Arguments about the pettiest of things. Being left on read. Words blurted out to hurt someone, and succeeding. Not finishing Housekeeping. Broken printers and important emails. High waisted trousers that don’t fit. Earrings down the drain. Bus fines. Panadol. Endless Sundays. Hail ruining the garden. Heat killing the plants. Lost keys. I don’t want to talk to him, I want to pretend there’s nothing but our separation to come. Bitter, 99% cocoa chocolate. “You’re not invited”. Sliding under desks, off chairs, angry, let down, or sad. Going back to St Hilda’s and recognising nobody. Stranded in Stansted. No sun. No rain. No company. No talking. Cancelled flights. Delayed flights. Never feeling like I’m home. Holidays not happening. Tummy scans. Sleeping bags in the station. Missing child. The Italian election results. Hot, sweaty pillows. Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. Old photos missing important people. Pens running out taking notes. 50 pounds on tube fares. 5am in Chancery Lane and 7am in Croydon. Owens vs Owens. Tears on the Central Line. Broken phones. Unrecognisable places. Old piano needs tuning because I stopped playing it. Reading the one magpie pages. Shame. Lying to my best friends. Wandering hands on the bus. Phonecalls at 2am. Spinach smells like a memory I wanted to suppress. Twisted ankles. The magnolia blossom killed by frost didn’t flower this year.
Graduation. Getting into law school. Eating courgette fries in a bar in Farringdon. Watching Tosca in Bologna theatre and a seat freeing up in the second act, which meant I could sit next to Andrea. Making friends with Anna. Making friends with Lara. New Year’s Eve, fireworks so close the fizzling heat was dangerous. Red coat. Getting off the coach in New York and walking straight into the New York Public Library. 37 km on foot through Central Park, the Met, Fifth Avenue. Debating in UN Headquarters. Buying 64 dollars worth of books at the Strand. Chocolate-themed pubs. Nanoosh. Waking up to two acceptance emails for legal internships. Writing to a friend I lost touch with. Crying at Lady Bird. Crying at Call Me By Your Name. Listening to all of Gregory Alan Isakov’s albums in one night. Buying tickets to see Gregory Alan Isakov live. Reading Wendy Cope. The storm, seen from San Miniato. Courage! Climbing the Milan Dome. Snow in Florence. Pearl earrings I thought I’d lost. Acceptance. Homemade fishcakes on my brother’s birthday. Talking to students about how to combat prejudice with Amnesty. Queer Eye. Rainy afternoons. A tour of Westminster. Sharing secrets at 4am. Signing up to a 5k. Running along the seafront. Chiswick charity shops. Being asked by someone I shadowed whether I’d got a distinction in my law degree. Seven counts and justice for the complainant, you may all leave, thank you jury for your patience. Homemade tzaziki. Book acknowledgements. Deleting Snapchat. Sore legs because I walked too much. The church sale. Borgo Santa Croce at 10pm. C’è l’Aereonautica Militare in cielo! Second chances. Fear wrapped in trust. Sunset over all of town. Sunrise as we take off. Meeting people coincidentally on a plane. Artichoke cream, three jars worth, bought just for me. Another New Year’s Eve to come. Full moon. A moment alone, panting at the end of a run, on top of a hill, new roads behind me, filled with pride.
See how a single magpie is always outnumbered.
Much like being able to have faultless friends, or loving our bodies exactly as they are, or organising holidays where absolutely nothing goes wrong and nobody loses the map, I have finally come to realise there is no such thing as a perfect set of magpies. There is no sorrow nor despair that cannot be counteracted by a sprinkling of joy, no bathing in joy that can be completely, utterly spotless despite all of its glory. But there is the in-between – the spectrum of grey, the good things yet to come, the lessons learned, the moments that make us doubt whether it really is as fucking terrible as we think, whether we shouldn’t wait for things to develop further. There is no reason to pursue utopic views of joy, just as much as there is nothing to be gained from drowning in the one-magpie moments. That in-between – it can be enough.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
– Wild Geese, Mary Oliver