When I was 6 years old I won a trip to Lapland.
I was excitable, greedy, boastful, self-centered, and everything else you forgive a 6 year old for being, purely because of the short number of years I had actually been alive, and limited amount of human experience I had been exposed to.
So naturally, I told my whole class. The next week was spent in a haze of bliss at being the centre of attention, my teacher Mrs. Egan squeezing lesson plan after lesson plan out of coaxing us all to write and elaborately decorate letters to be presented to The Real Santa on my impending journey.
This build up of excitement, coupled with disbelief at my luck, let alone travelling on a plane for the first time, all came to a ultimate standstill as I fell asleep ten minutes into the flight, as dead to the world as the three complimentary Freddo bars I’d managed to gobble down before take-off. Waking up to a Christmas cake of untouched snow racing up towards me from the ground as we landed, I think it finally dawned on me that I was in a different country, and further away from home than I had ever been before – a thought which scared me somewhat, and the next 3 hours of a bus trip were spent sitting gazing out of the window in silence.
These extreme and unruly emotions of excitement and irrational excess of everything became characteristic as I grew older, and it wasn’t until I learned to recognize the damaging potential of my overactive imagination that I began to try to reel it in, to appreciate and enjoy new experiences that previously had been lost in a blur of intense and frenzied feeling. I still struggle with reigning in unwanted emotions, making sure I recognize when I’ve splurged a little on my expression of them, but it’s gotten easier.
In later years, that excitable and jealous 6-year-old child has been known to make appearances at times when my guard has been let down. She comes out when I feel overwhelmed with the urge to eat an entire packet of biscuits, or add another bottle of beer to my already clinking shopping bag. She grabs greedily at the sale-rack in Topshop when there’s only one size 8 left. She sends half-finished song lyrics to a friend, mindlessly expecting the yet imperfect rhymes and wordplay to evoke the same excitement their potential has for her, making typos in nonsensical and long-winded sentences during 2am caffeine-fueled ramblings.
In a dream, I once led a child by the hand through what was a fairly average day for me at the time. She said nothing as we boarded the train to college, nothing as we passed the ducks in the river by the station, nothing as we were handed freebies by some chirpy club or society member in the hallway, and nothing as my stomach rumbled the whole way home later that evening. She merely followed, grasping my hand tightly, and observed wide-eyed the world around her; my world, taking in everything from my ability to navigate the turnstiles at the train, to my casual conversation with the barista as I ordered a coffee. She wore a familiar dark denim pinafore, with a bright orange long-sleeved shirt underneath, and it wasn’t until I woke up that I recognized the child as that six-year-old me being given a glimpse into her future.
It was confusing to think of my daily routine at twenty-one being carried out by a child, and yet, I thought as I traipsed back the familiar route the following day, I might as well have been six years old still, for all the understanding and purpose (or lack thereof) of the world that I had discovered since my ‘big win’, and that encounter with The Real Santa.
At that age, all that had mattered was what was happening then; who was eyeing my winners’ jumper enviously in the airport as we queued for boarding; who was next in line to ride the Santa’s sleigh at the shopping centre; what I’d order for dinner at the first foreign restaurant I’d probably ever set foot in at the time; how many sweets I could stuff in my mouth before my Mum noticed; the usual. The late nineties in Ireland was a good time to be a child; it was almost as if the economy of the country was growing alongside us, one extra lollipop and trip to the cinema at a time. I’m not saying we were rich, or anything – far from it, but as a child I was generally extremely lucky in that I wanted for nothing, except of course for the curse of what children who are used to being comfortable always desire: more.
My Mum’s noticeable and unusual efforts to record the experience in Lapland on our clumpy camcorder (already becoming outdated) were wasted on my childish antics and lack of consideration for those around me, as I threw snowballs and ate Pringles and waved foolishly from beside a small foreign man dressed as an elf. I didn’t appreciate exactly what was happening, and even though she notably made the effort to save these memories, the experience was lost on me. Even though looking back on those clips is exactly what she had in mind when she filmed them, her constant insistence that we ‘savour these moments’ is only finally being appreciated now, as I cringe at my ungrateful and downright bold responses to her.
But it’s in a child’s nature to be careless, to think only of themselves, and not be burdened with the responsibility for other people’s feelings. In a way I think there’s a certain balance that could be reached for a lot of people today between the selfish inner child and the conscious adult within them. There’s only so much thinking of others and trying to please them that you can do before you lose yourself completely, and forget what it is that you actually are and like about yourself.
Without fail, every Christmas since that trip, my mother stops in the decorating of the tree for a moment, gazes longingly at the Christmas decorations we brought home and sighs, as if the passing of time is the saddest thing in the world; as if her youngest daughter growing up was the worst thing that ever happened to her. And maybe it is. It’s a confusing emotion to observe, somewhere between nostalgia and regret, as if there was something that could have been done about it, as if it could have somehow been prevented. Believe me, if I could have stayed that energetic and self-absorbed child, I would have. But like those irrational and egotistical emotions, time is a thing we have no control over, and a 6-year-old child is certainly not going to be thinking of her mother’s feelings when she becomes a seven-year-old child, or any subsequent age after that. All we can do is keep going, keep being ourselves and knowing ourselves, dimly aware of our bodies and minds gradually changing and getting older, more capable (or incapable) of doing things; keeping on as we are, and maybe taking the odd video here and there to remind us of what we once were.
It’s all we can do.