This is not a sad story. This is a story about a life filled with good things and bad things but always, always, an open heart for the great things. That’s why I look up.
I was sitting at a table outside a grass-roofed restaurant in Malaysia when I realised I’d already had my perfect job.
It was July and hot, hot, hot. The table was bright with candles, the food was good and the sky was brimming with stars. It had been a day of of white beaches and blue seas and now we were sitting, my fella and I, at a big table with six or seven happy strangers we’d met up with. An evening you might write songs about, if you were that way inclined and hadn’t given up the guitar after one blister.
Reality, unfortunately, had a whole other score, and it didn’t sound half as sweet.
We were on a tiny, beautiful island and the boyfriend wasn’t very nice to me. We loved each other madly and irrationally, but had failed to find a kind way to be together. Neither of us was brave enough, either, to make the break from a very destructive relationship. My way to deal with it was to try to get closer to him; his was to stay away. I’d become a sad, frozen, fake-laughing-on-demand shade of myself.
(This truly wasn’t meant to be about my questionable decision-making in matters of the heart. And it all worked out fine, eventually.)
Anyway, we were all there to do some diving and the other diners were backpackers like us, travelling from there to here, free and easy, looking for the good life. Little planning was needed; an easy boat, plane or bus-ride would bring you to the next happy place. A whole sub-culture of aspirational living, which can be a great pleasure to dip into. The conversation at our table turned to the jobs people had left behind and what we’d do next, if – as we nearly believed – we could do anything.
So there I am, sitting under an inky sky, eating a feast that cost next to nothing, and I’m not saying very much because I’m trying to gauge his mood. But as this chat about dream jobs went on I suddenly realised I was different to everyone else because I’d already done it; I’d been an actor, which was the job I’d wished for all my life.
And now I was not.
I stopped acting when I came to the end point of wanting to tear my hair out. I felt that I had little or no control over the work, and had neither the energy nor the imagination to make my own. So I bought a red backpack and practiced carrying it once or twice before getting my passport stamped. (I wasn’t practicing so much as looking at myself in the mirror with it on. You know.)
The love affair began for me when I did speech and drama classes as a child. It was a revelation, something I was good at and enjoyed in equal measure. I trained to be an actor in Trinity College in Dublin. Doing that course was like finding my tribe for the first time after years of wandering alone. It was like breathing new air.
We worked hard, the eleven of us. And I loved it, just about every minute of it. When I left university I suppose I expected, without thinking about it, that my work would be an extension of college. Hard, fulfilling, exacting, exhilarating. Passionate. A search for truth and a way to tell the world important stories. But it wasn’t, most of the time. Not for me at any rate.
I loved the art, fervently. I loved the feeling that comes when you’re on stage, telling a story. I loved rehearsal; the immersion into another character, finding the truth and revealing it. I loved the effect it can have on an audience, and the potential to discuss things that society prefers to ignore. I even loved the moments before you go on; that crazy, terrified, excited feeling that comes as you listen to the audience take off their coats, switch off their phones, laugh and chat quietly as they wait for the magic. I went to see everything I could. I watched great actors and bad actors, and I loved it. I hungered for it. Theatre is about stepping into the huge, passionate well of human emotion, and that can bring you to gorgeous heights.
But. But. I was fundamentally unsuited to the business of it. A brave friend said, “if you were talking about your boyfriend, I’d tell you to leave him because he’s making you miserable”.
So I did, and we broke up, me and acting. It hurt like lemon juice being poured into the hole where your heart used to be.
I did my travelling and had a wonderful time, for the most part. A couple of years later I came home. I finally – to the great relief of those who love me – split up with the guy, which brought its own heartbreak. I got a job that I’ve done quite well for seven years, that has inspired me in totally different ways, and now I’ve just left that. (Question: Is leaving a theme of my life?) Once again I’m looking for a new direction and have caught myself giving the old red backpack sideways glances. A little gentle flirting with the idea of upping sticks again and pointing my feet in the direction of the wild.
What’s my dream, now?
What will quicken my pulse?
What will make my heart sing a glorious song?
Answers on the back of a postcard, please. In the meantime, here are some postcards from that very lovely island in Malaysia, which I hope never to return to.