Brigid O’Dea: ‘These days, to live really is so startling’

After 17 months of gestation, we are leaving the wombs of our homes and learning once more the ways of this world

My nephew, Sonny, is growing up. He eats food now! His once spindly legs have fleshed out. His cheeks are full. His gummy mouth spreads into a plump chuckle when his dad chants ‘Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum’.

He listens intently when you read Goodnight Moon, eagerly following pictures of the comb and the brush and the bowl full of mush. He wriggles and rolls and reaches and becomes more loveable each day.

Watching my nephew and niece grow up has been one of the greatest joys of the past two years. Isabel, is now a true toddler, and has taken to the world with aplomb.

She knows every nursery rhyme, and is fearless on her tiny two feet. She lives overseas, but her fat kisses on the phone screen would soften the hardest of souls. Last week, she hugged the camera.


Both are thriving. But watching them grow into, and make sense of this world, has been a wondrous experience.

What a world to make sense of! The smell! The noise! The sights! The movement! There’s so much of it and it all moves so quickly!

Watching them makes sense of it all, I marvel. I'm reminded of a line Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter to TW Higginson in 1872: "To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations."

No wonder babies sleep and cry so much!

These days, to live really is so startling. After 17 months of gestation, we are leaving the wombs of our homes and learning once more the ways of this world. How do we talk? What do we wear? Someone is going to feed me, yes?

As I go about my daily walk, (the same route each day – up and down the Royal Canal, from Brendan Behan to Bernard Shaw), I find myself giving dogs on the path a two-metre breadth. I smile politely at their drooling faces, as I trip over their owners. I don't know what to pack in a bag any more. I pile in layers of jumpers but I can't remember what else goes in. I think I used to bring lip liner?

I go blank during conversations. On a recent Zoom call, a colleague showed me a book they were reading; and my mind emptied of replies. I looked at them instead. And kept looking.

“Did it not cross your mind to say ‘that looks interesting?’” a friend asked. “I forgot that one” I replied. Thankfully, the other party was more socially adept than I was and rescued me with a forgiving “and how are you?”.

I can’t remember directions anymore. I don’t know where shops are, or what busses to get, or what street name corresponds to what street. Although, this one, perhaps, is not so new. I’ve often gotten lost navigating between the Spire and Henry Street.

Water pellets

When I'm having a bad period of migraine, the world feels particularly startling. I find myself empathising with the elderly people standing in line for the tills of a Tesco Express. I want to tell everyone to stop pushing and rushing and speaking so loud. "Shush," I plead. And can someone turn down the lights!

But the world can startle you in wonderful ways. Recently, my niece discovered sprinklers and entered a state of near delirious shock at the sheer joy of the water pellets hitting her body. My nephew, on the other hand, is still startled by the absolute pleasure he derives from his mother’s milk.

Last week, I was sitting upon my usual patch of damp grass along the Royal Canal when a great black cormorant swooped in. The can drinkers, Saucy Cow-eaters and passers-by were all temporarily captivated by the bird and his winged dance.

The cormorant magnificently dove into the water before planting himself on the canal bank to dry off, where he shook out his lustrous wings and waved his wet feathers as the crowd watched on. The bird revelled in the crowd’s attention, diving back into the water to wet his wings again and begin the routine once more.

I’m not sure I’m re-entering the world with the same exuberance as the flashy cormorant. I feel more like the fluffy singlets clumsily following their mother along the water’s path. But they too are growing in confidence.

To live may be so startling, but it is very enjoyable to partake in.

“The World is not Conclusion . . .” Dickinson wrote ‘ . . .it beckons and it baffles.”