The Man with the Sax

The first thing I noticed was the saxophone in his hands. He entered the train with a blast of stifling warmth and I almost sighed aloud at the thought of another entertainer coming to interrupt our subway trip and beg for our money. That was before my eyes travelled to the cast on his arm. It was stained with a light patchy brown which was a far cry from the pink or blue most of us got when we broke a bone as a child. Then he started shouting.

‘Attention everyone!’ his voice was hoarse, an accent I didn’t recognise mixed with a New York twinge. He was from here now, but hadn’t always been.

When I realised he was addressing the train, my eyes travelled downwards, avoiding his eyes which were searching those seated in front of him. I noticed the dirty trousers he was wearing, the holes in the material of his shirt, the once sturdy, now scuffed boots on his feet. For the heat that was permeating the city, the clothes he was wearing looked ridiculous in a melee of shorts and summer dresses. They may have been made bearable by the train’s air conditioning…even more so if they were the only clothes he had.

Not really listening, as you don’t really listen to anyone who does this on a subway train, my brain seemed to click into motion as I wondered if this was his life. Spend three dollars to get into the subway network, then jump from train to train with an old sax and a battered money cup wearing old clothes and a beaten cast? Go home – did he have a home? Go somewhere, eat maybe, try to sleep, and then repeat. He looked middle aged and it hit me that this was probably all he had. I tried not to over-dramatise his life in my head, reminding myself I didn’t actually know any of this, but it was hard when it seemed so credible that this could be his life.

We’d seen subway buskers multiple times before, but not like this. The young male pole dancer, the mariachi band, but they all seemed younger somehow, more cheeky, less desperate. They were people you wanted to give a dollar to rather than needed to give a dollar to.

He seemed almost drunk as he lifted the sax to his mouth, stumbling with the movement of the carriage. And then he seemed to come together, pulled by the invisible string of his music. The sound was beautiful – melodic and sweet, but no one in the carriage relaxed. The music had a harmony of awkwardness that was impossible to ignore.

I couldn’t look at his swaying form any longer. Instead, I looked around me, at my fellow passengers.

They were all looking down.

The woman diagonally across was staring down at her phone, a harsh apathy plastered across her face. To the outsider she didn’t even register that there was other people on the train, no less the man with the sax in front of her. She was either unaware or numb to this.

Next to her was a slightly less evolved New Yorker, his face conflicted, portraying a slight hint of sympathy – but still looking down, unwilling to look at the performing man.

The passenger to his left had closed his eyes, pretending to sleep or else actually asleep. Either way he was uncomfortable with the man’s presence so chose to ignore it, or so used to it that he didn’t even bother to stay awake to watch the commonplace scene of desperation.

I wondered how you could reach this point where your sympathy disappeared. This man was desperate to the point of begging and none of us were even willing to treat him with so much dignity to even look him in the eye. I thought about the dollar bills in my purse. I didn’t need them. He did.

He finished with a shrill, unexpected shriek of his sax, and with that noise the music was gone and the shaken figure returned.

‘God bless you, God bless you,’ he said in his hoarse voice as he walked up and down the carriage with his crushed cup. Nobody looked at him, their eyes fixed on their phones, their laps, their feet.

I almost judged them for having been so desensitised as to ignore such a basic human need.

But I couldn’t judge them. Because I was looking down too.

Stars

I look to the sky and see nothing.

Except that’s not quite true. A moth flies across my field of vision, glinting a white light as its wings catch the startling floodlights of the city. The buildings around me soar up to scrape the darkness, the square windows glowing and sparkling in an almost convincing rendition of the stars. A dozen planes fly above me, the meteors of the city…but none of it comes close to the real darkness I saw just a week earlier.

The word darkness has connotations of loss, even death, of a sadness so deep that there seems no hoIMG_4772pe. But in a situation like the one I was in, in the countryside where it gets so dark that you can see nothing before you,when no lights or buildings are put there out of fear of the dark, we look up and discover what’s hiding in the night. And it’s something that’s worth the fear of the dark to find.

It’s dizzying looking up. Appreciating the night sky is almost cliche, but in reality, in the moment, when all there is is you and the sky, there’s nothing cliche about it. The demands and judgements of society, for just a moment, are hidden by a beauty so vast that it makes us forget that we’re supposed to be bored of the wonders of the stars.IMG_4771

As I stand there, surrounded by friends and happy thoughts I see not just one, or two, or three, but a total of ten shooting stars flash above me.

It’s a shared experience, it’s a single moment, it’s a small feeling of contentedness. It’s something which so many people have put into words that to do so again seems silly.  The stars mean a lot to a IMG_4862lot of people – they’re a reminder of a creator, of something bigger than themselves that’s in control. For others they’re something to be studied, to learn about. And for me – they’re a few things. They’re, typically for a Christian girl, a reminder of God and his power. Along with this, they’re also friendship. In that shared experience of looking up above with friends I feel like I bond so much more with those around me – watching the sky and seeing something naturally incredible together has brought me closer to so many people at so many special moments.

But now, in the city, as I gaze up at a starless sky, I feel oddly alone. I’m not, I’m surrounded by friends and by strangers. But there’s something in the lack of a reminder above me of a bigger plan, of something more than myself which hurts my perspective. We’re constantly building bigger and bigger, trying to make our own shooting stars – when really all we need to do is look up at the world that has been made for us, andIMG_5299 in that we can meet each other and God. But when you take that away, when you reach a point where you can’t actually see the stars – it leaves me unsure of where that leaves us, when all there is is us: alone, singular, and the centre of each of our own little worlds.

 

Open Windows

‘Ugh.’ I barely notice the complaint leaving my mouth, possibly because complaining is becoming like breathing at the moment. A wasp is buzzing on the wrong side of the window, and I barely have it in me to care anymore. I shift in my seat, wincing at the harsh lines of the chair tattooing itself onto my skin. A thin layer of sweat seems to cover me completely, and I pause in my gloom to consider the fact that I’m possibly the most disgusting human being in the world at this current moment. I look out the window to return the harsh glare the sun is sending my way, and mutter to myself again, attempting to conjure up the strength to deal with the wasp before it comes any closer to my done-with-summer self.

The wasp itself seems tired, the journey through the open window an exhausting adventure it regrets now as it bashes itself against the glass. I should deal with it before it stings me, I think, but considering this is the third time it’s happened today, it’s hard to find the motivation. Maybe I should just close the window?

I turn back to my book, remembering the darkness of winter. I remember candles, woolly jumpers…happier times, one could say.

IMG_3261The ever present mocking voice in my head chooses now to remind me that, actually, winter wasn’t all that great either – in fact, for most of it I was desperate for Summer to reappear.

Typically, now that it’s here, I’d rather it was anywhere else. I try and cast my mind back to winter, to re-embrace the rose tint that blurred my outlook.

Summer days start early, even though university is finished and I can sleep all I want. Habit tends to take over, and I wake up early (though I don’t get up early). My window is constantly open, and the summer air creeps in and wakes me with a maternal call. It’s the smell of freshly mown grass and summer mixed into a cocktail of warmth. It wakes me in a slow, contented start to the day – until the screech from somewhere far too near indicates that the baby birds who appear to be sharing a bed with me have decided they’re hungry.

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Points if you can see the baby starling that’s been my alarm clock recently

But I can still wake up slowly. All I really need to do today are the projects I’ve decided I want to work on. I’ll write, I’ll maybe go for a run, I’ll read some trashy books, some quality books, I’ll try and sort out my basic grammar knowledge (which is abysmal), I’ll message friends I’ve lost contact with during term time. I’ll organise, I’ll tidy, I’ll do all the things I can’t do when I’m drowning in uni.

But I don’t even need to think about uni. All I need to think about is what I’m doing now, in a way which is refreshing to an alarming degree – the previously constant worry about exams and assignments and lectures is a not unwelcome, but bewildering absence in my mind and my projects seem to be a way to keep it stimulated so that it has something to worry about.

If I get up early enough the sunshine has a slightly different glow to it, and the air has a different feel to it, like the day is just starting up, ready and waiting. There’s something about it that’s so refreshing: the commuters in the train seem a little less muted, the scenery around me doesn’t need a filter to be instagram worthy, the birds seem louder, happier. Even rain in the summer is beautiful – it sounds like it’s pattering down on a tent, reminding me of camp, of adventure, of other places.

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#nofilter

As I rise to greet the day, I realise I can wear what I want without really having to worry. Suddenly my hair is in fashion again – that messy beach look that I rock all year round is cool, my freckles are back, and I’m a little less pale than I normally am.

IMG_3325I turn to open the window wider. Open windows are surely the most wonderful part of summer. Driving with the windows down, letting the world breathe through into the house throughout the night, a cool breeze welcomed in when the heat is unbearable.

IMG_3079.JPGSummer in itself is a bit of an open window, I realise. Any other time of the year, the window remains closed and I’m left with one objective: to work on my degree, to pass, to succeed. During summer that’s not the case. I can drop everything and go to the beach. I can go away for a couple of weeks to do camps without worrying about missing things. I can visit friends who live far away. I can spend days writing. I can spend days reading. All these things are available to me in a way that they never are during term time…all because the window is suddenly open and I’m not confined to this one thing I have to do.

Summer is freedom and beauty. Summer is being away from the norm…but I get bored easily. There comes a day when summer becomes normal, when it becomes boring. When that comes, I’ll be wishing for the confines and boundaries of winter again. For schedule, for deadlines, for a closed window because there’s just too much air. I need focus, I need limits. IMG_3379

Nothing can stay perfect and free forever. But for a few months, before the wasps and spiders and moths decide to invade, an open window is exactly what I need.

 

 

My Little Jar of Happy Things

On my bookshelf sits a little, inconspicuous jar. It’s surrounded by beautiful books, make up brushes, box sets, study equipment and a little bit of mess. It’s quiet, it doesn’t shout out to anyone who sees it, other than it being a little bit hipster becauIMG_3166se of the blackboard sticker stuck on top. Even now, after having it for so long, it’s strange to me that such a little, seemingly meaningless jar can hold so much joy.

What this little jar is, in reality, is just a jar. But if you were to come and open it up, other than this being a bit of an invasion of privacy (what are you doing in my room anyway??), you would discover it’s basically fit to bursting with little bits of paper.

When I was in fifth or sixth year of high school (which is getting worryingly long ago now) I decided to write down little things that made me happy for a year and put them in a jar, to cheer me up wheneverIMG_3161 I was feeling down. And like most good ideas I have, I was sure it was probably going to be exciting for a month or so and then ultimately teeter out.

But as you can probably guess, it didn’t. Over the past 4/5 years, I’ve been writing down things that have made me happy and putting them in that jar. And this morning I looked back in that jar for the first time in a few months, and the warm feeling I felt in my stomach was enough to dispel the anxiety that has been rumbling away there for the past few days (exam problems, amiright).

IMG_3153What I didn’t realise when I first wrote down something like ‘I passed my prelims!’ was that I was about to start collecting little forgotten moments of joy in my life, moments that time extinguishes with bigger things and new challenges. Little moments of joy are, I think, what get us through life, and without them I don’t really know where I’d be. A good book on a cold night, making a new friend, laughing with my family – lots of tiny things that are forgotten within even a few weeks. But I wrote so many of them down, and now I might never forget them.

IMG_3146Looking back was honestly like reading a book of my last few years. I found excitement over being accepted into Glasgow Uni of all places, but then even more excitement about accepting my place at Strathclyde. I suddenly remembered the absolute horror of waiting for replies from unis, and the ultimate excitement in realising that yes – I was in, and four years of my life were now planned.

I found the excitement in friendships developing that I had thought would never happen – friendships which, even though I am incredibly thankful for, I do take for granted because they’ve become just like breathing to me. I forget that there was a time when I didn’t know these people, or that I was worried we wouldn’t still be friends when I got to this stage in my life – and the utter joy on those tiny bits of paper at the realisation that I was getting somewhere helps me to relive and re-appreciate the people in my life.

IMG_3155There are moments that I don’t remember, but bits of paper celebrating God’s provision and plan for my life, and though I don’t know why I was celebrating that at the time, it’s beautiful to see that God was working then, as He is now.

I found moments in Daniel and Nathan’s lives which were massive milestones tIMG_3147.JPGo me – the first time Daniel giggled at me, the first time Nathan smiled when I sung to him. Things that now happen every time I see them, but then were new and big and exciting.

And there are things I’ve taken out of the jar. Plans I had which were never going to happen, some friendships which naturally drifted apart, futures I saw for myself which I know now weren’t what was best for me – but instead of just putting them in the bin, I replace them with the lessons I’ve learned, with what I’ve been taught from the bad times, and what I have now that can go and be remembered in such a happy little jar.IMG_3151.JPG

I forget to look in it often when I am feeling down – typical really, but sometimes all I want is to feel a bit sad, and have a good cry. But on a morning like this morning, when all I feel is that studying is never going to end, that I’ll never reach where I want to be – it’s amazing to see the little things that used to make me happy that are now just life to me. It makes me wonder what, in a few years, I’ll be reading from today in my little jar and going…’Oh yeah, that was such a big deal to me back then? That’s normal now.’ There’s something so beautiful to me about the happy things in life becoming the normal things.

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Required Reading

The words on the page are staring at me.

I should have read them months ago, admittedly. My procrastination is catching up on me and I really can’t complain. When I chose to study English, reading hard books was kind of a given. But at the same time, the words on this page are rubbish and I’d really rather be reading some trashy romance novel which requires basically no effort for my eyes to skim over.

My eyes are scanning words but not taking anything in, and I sigh as I start at the top of the page again.

The words continue to stare.

I really need to read this, I think to myself. I have an exam in just over two weeks and I’m not going to be that person who doesn’t read the book I’m writing about. That really isn’t me. That’s why I’m sitting here, staring at these words.

Except thinking about what I’m trying to read isn’t actually reading it, is it?

I return to the top of the page. The words are staring at me.

I should really just suck it up and read it, but I can think of a million other things I’d rather be doing at the moment rather than reading. Ugh, I hate reading. No, that’s a lie, I love reading. I hate being forced to read stupid books that are supposedly masterpieces. The creative writing student in me is picking apart the flaws and the English student in me is picking up on all the great quotes for analysis. Darn you, joint honours.

Will this torture ever end, I wonder. Because the words are still just staring at me. Probably because all I’m doing is thinking rather than reading. I wish this book was Harry Potter, because I’d have no problem reading that. I’m hungry, and consider going downstairs for a snack. Probably not the best idea, actually, I’ve eaten enough today and want to have a good dinner tonight so I’ll just not do that…

Oh, I should really send that email, actually. Let’s do that – NO. I need to read.

The words stare at me. I stare at them.

I’m sure they mean something on this page. Someone spent hours putting them there, switching words, switching meanings, switching names. Editing editing editing. And here I am just staring at them, unable to get my mind to focus on how they link together sensibly. I feel slightly guilty, as well as confused. Someone out there thinks this book is good, right? It must be good. Maybe I don’t think it’s good because I’m not reading it. Yeah, that’s probably what it is.

Ok. Focus. I can do this. I’m good at reading. This is my third year of an English degree, I have to be good at reading.

I’m doing it. Yes, I’m actually doing it! Read a page, and another page. Man, I’m amazing. I could really go that snack now. I get up, the book abandoned. I read a total of five pages, I deserve a reward. Good job me.

Great, only another 250 to go.

 

 

A conversation with my younger self

I’m sitting in my car, already parked. I would get out, but a song is still blasting it’s way out of my speakers and I’m in the zone. I’m not going to leave this song unfinished, and I have time to sit for a while. It’s one of those small moments of peace that I cherish so much, a moment before the frantic rush that is my day continues. Sunlight is streaming through the window, a long gash which is splitting me from the passenger seat, and I’m completely alone.

At least, that’s what I think until the snort from the seat next to me proves me wrong.

With a jump, I turn and stare at whoever has somehow managed to sneak into my car without me noticing. She’s staring deliberately away from me, and her eyes seem to be held in a continual upwards roll. She’s got bushy hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, bright blue braces trying to push themselves out of her mouth, and barely blended concealer over what are obviously teenage spots. 1918831_1294463046731_6083115_n

The girl sitting next to me in the car is me at 13 years old, and I’m pretty alarmed to be having to share the front seat with her.

I pull out my phone, my fingers hovering over the dial button, wondering who I could call. I’m unsure of the solution, but she makes her derision clear as she snorts again. I turn to stare at her, shocked at the noises she’s letting herself make.

‘You caved. Of course you did.’ she says, uttering the first words of this bizarre experience.

‘I’m sorry?’ I reply, trying to get over the feeling that I’m listening to a 7 year old tape recording.

She nods towards my phone. ‘I can’t believe you let us actually gave up your sony ericsson for  that.’

I look down at my iPhone, suddenly realising. ‘Oh, well, I mean…it’s a good phone. Android wasn’t really cutting it for me any more.’

She rolls her eyes again. ‘And what is this awful sound you’re listening to?’

Something in me plunges to the floor. Even at this stage of my life I’m a little ashamed to admit what I was listening to, and I know exactly what my 13 year old self’s reaction to this will be. I don’t answer. She picks up the iPod and drops it, apparently in shock.

She closes her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose. She seems to take calming breaths. ‘Justin Bieber?’ she finally lets out. ‘You were listening to Justin Bieber? And enjoying it?’

‘I’m sorry – ‘ I say.

‘It’s too late!’ she exclaims. ‘What happened to thebandwithnoname, to Fall Out Boy, to My Chemical Romance!‘.

I remain silent. She knows what happened to them.

‘And let’s not even get started on what you look like. How much makeup are you wearing?’ she demands.

I decide my best tactic at the moment is to remain silent. I remember that at 13 makeup was the enemy. Concealer was a necessity, but only if it was from natural collection, and even then it must be used with a minimalistic attitude.

‘Okay,’ she seems to be consoling herself, ‘Okay, there must be something good here. What do you like…do?’

I smile, knowing this will please her. ‘I’m studying English with Journalism and Creative Writing.’

‘For real?’ she replies. ‘You’re serious?’

I nod, pleased to have found something that satisfies my younger self.

‘And you write actual, original stories?’

‘Yes,’ I say.

She seems to be building up to something, her excitement making her flap her hands. I have to dodge them, nervous about getting my face smacked. Finally, she lets out what she’s been building up to: ‘Oh my gosh, you could write the next Twilight!’

I sigh. Here we are. One of my biggest childhood regrets. Do I leave the topic? Do I broach it? I close my eyes, count to ten, and prepare myself for the coming battle.

‘Listen, about that – ‘

 

An Early Morning Ramble

I slam the door and then regret it, knowing I’ve not just broken but shattered the quiet that was both inside and out the house. It’s still dark out here, but I can see a faint gradient on the skyline, an ombre of different shades of dark navy. Through it I’m able to see the beginnings of something, of the sun rising on a new week.

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I’m holding toast in my hands, the 6:30am leaving time being too much for my body to handle – something had to be sacrificed, and breakfast was that something. The need for food overpowers the cold and my hands are left bare to the elements as I eat as quickly as I can. Cold captures them with alarming speed. I swap my toast between hands, giving each hand precious seconds in my warm-ish pockets. My mind flits to the book I’ve just finished: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, and I wonder if I can get frostbite on a morning as cold as this. I have to remind myself that I’m in Clarkston, not on the risky heights of Mount Everest.

In the weeks previously I’ve walked this path before the sun nears the world, silence and darkness making it so solitary that reaching the train station is like being reintroduced into society after months of retreat. I remember this feeling now, aware of the lack of humans around me. No cars pant past, no mothers or prams or dogs or teenagers run around me. I’m completely and utterly alone.

Unless you count the birds, which I do. Because welcoming in the day around me is birdsong. They call to each other and to me, singing and chirping and rejoicing. Unseen but not unheard. It’s all I can hear and as I finish my toast and lock my freezing hands in my jacket I feel glad that I’m here to witness this moment.

As I pass houses, lights switch on and off within them, but the people remain inside. The streetlights block out natural light and darkness alike and I wonder to myself what the world would look like without them. I want to switch them off but the birds remind me that focusing on that is wasting my time. The cold caresses my cheeks to pink and bites my hands to red. I put my hood up, appreciating the warmth that the fur lining provides.

When I reach the main road, I see my first cars of the day. They hum by me, the passing roar dimming the noise of the bird song. I hasten across the road and away from it, not wanting to lose the precious stories they have to tell. With them again, I wonder what they would be singing if I weren’t here. Have I somehow disturbed the natural sound of the birds with my lame attempt at getting up early? Or am I privy to a beautiful insight into their natural world that most people pass by in an attempt to doze in a cocoon of warmth?

I feel like I am in a IMG_1914special moment. I want to believe these birds trust me with this insight into their world. I have interrupted their routine, but they seem to have gladly welcomed me in as a passerby, an observer. As I walk closer to the station other birds join in, the magpies, the pigeons, all of them singing in a cacophony of noise that is so natural I wonder why I have never really heard it.

As I get closer to the train station, other noises creep in. The sound of the motorway sighing in my direction, a long breath of sadness at the start of a new week…‘the next train at platform 2 is the 7:08 train to Glasgow Central’…the builders at the new health centre hollering at each other to get started. The floodlights from the train station illuminate everything, except the birds, and I realise I can’t hear them anymore. I wonder absently if I can’t hear them because they aren’t there, or if I can’t hear them because the rest of the world is too loud now?

A week later, they’re still here.  In fact, every Monday morning I note their presence as the sun climbs closer to the horizon. It leaves me wondering what other beautiful, natural things I’m missing as the noise and busy world block them out. What’s being hidden from me? Is there something in the quietness of the world that reminds us that no we don’t need to be running around all the time? Maybe moments of quiet are important, essential even, to surviving on this world – whether that’s in the form of a 6:30am walk or in a book in the corner of the library. Or maybe I’m talking rubbish, most likely due to the fact I was out of my house at such a ridiculous hour in the morning.

The thing about the quiet though is that we can’t normally hear it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there to find.

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