Hilary Fannin: The one census question that gave me pause

Well of course I have ‘a long-lasting psychological or emotional condition’. Doesn’t everyone?

Census enumerator Ciaran Lynam in Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Census enumerator Ciaran Lynam in Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

I’m waiting for the census form to be picked up. I liked our enumerator; she emanated practicality, arriving on the doorstep on a balmy spring evening, clutching our daonáireamh, dressed in a pair of wellington boots and a thermal hat, while I was gadding about in the pale sunshine, entertaining stray thoughts of barbecuing the sausages.

“Expecting rain?” I scoffed.

“I always expect rain,” she replied pragmatically, as an abrupt spasm of hailstones battered the car roofs along our road and a rainbow unravelled over our suddenly sodden suburb.

Head of the house

I decided to appoint myself head of the household on census night, the rheumy-eyed cat being out on a vole-eating expedition (or maybe she had got the last bus in to town to go clubbing). It was all going swimmingly until question 16(f ). Question 16(f), you might need reminding, reads: “Do you have a long-lasting psychological or emotional condition?”

I halted, quill mid-air, candle flickering, moonlight peeping through the grubby windows.

What kind of question is that? Of course I have “a long-lasting psychological or emotional condition”. Don’t you? Doesn’t everyone? How could any of us have got this far without having a long-lasting psychological or emotional condition?

Speak for yourself, I hear you cry, your attention momentarily torn away from the pulped contents of your Nutribullet. (By the way, you know all that juicing is playing havoc with your metabolism, don’t you? Oh, you may be beach-ready now, brimful of liquefied kale and cilantro, plucked, scoured and polished in your high-neck, crop-top bikini, but come September you’ll be crawling over glass to get your hands on a battered sausage.)

Anyway, where was I?

I answered “no” to question 16(f). No, of course I don’t have a long-lasting emotional or psychological condition. Perish the thought. Me? I’m made of puppy-dog tails and titanium. Tough as nails. You won’t catch me squandering my precious time on psychological fripperies such as rage, hope, fear, love, envy, regret. No, sir, Mr 16(f). I’m proud to say I have the emotional capacity of an oven glove. I don’t have a memory – I have a wool wash.

Don’t go looking for me in the murky quagmire of a long-lasting whatever, mate. “Not on your Nellie”, as my spooky Kerry grandmother would say, holding her magnifying mirror over the inky print of the evening newspaper, reading with grim scepticism about Elvis’s comeback tour. “The boyo,” she would hiss, her untipped cigarette gripped between nicotine-yellow teeth.

Spiritual growth

I was thinking, however, that in this endlessly commemorative year, as a mark of our spiritual and emotional growth (evidenced by the increased preponderance of “Be Here Now” fridge magnets, which would seem to point to a national embrace of mindfulness), we might consider an alternative census next time around, a more abstract, sensitive, floppy tally of our lives and habits, a more poetic and haphazard account of our times. A “feeling” dipstick would be so much more fun to mull over 100 years from now than how long Mr and Mrs O’Semi-Dee and their children, Mortgage Arrears Annie and Sewage Mains Michael, spent commuting to and from school and work.

We could replace “Do you speak Irish?” with “Do you speak your truth?”, or substitute “Have you ceased your full-time education?” with “Have you really forgotten that every day is a school day?”. Or we could ask people how growing older feels on this squashy, meteorologically unpredictable island of gull and gannet, gombeen and grafter.

And while we’re on the subject of mindfulness fridge magnets, I feel that I should admit to having a mild obsession with what people choose to post on their white goods, and what it says about them. (Although if a fridge magnet ever again tells me to “Relax”, I’m going to whip it off the door and ask its mellow owner to calmly insert it where the sun don’t shine.)

As a mother of teenage children, I’m not entirely psychologically blind to the implicit message of the magnet decorating my own fridge door, which depicts Saturn bloodily chewing his way through his own son. But devouring parents are left in the ha’penny place when compared with one I spotted recently, a tile that is one of the most deeply confusing, mind- numbingly abstruse I’ve ever seen, one that brings fridge-magnet mindfulness to a whole new level: “We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”

Right. And there was I thinking I was here to empty the cat litter.

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