Life lessons we should all heed from the pen of Alice Taylor

West Cork writer Alice Taylor has a new book, called Tea for One, which is full of wonderful life lessons, says Ailin Quinlan
Life lessons we should all heed from the pen of Alice Taylor

Author Alice Taylor. Picture: Denis Boyle

AS you go through life, you’ll usually meet people who prove to be teachers to you.

At the time, you may not feel particularly lucky about this because the lesson being taught by such a mentor may not be a pleasant one.

For example, you may realise one day that there’s somebody in your life whom you’re helping out a bit on an increasingly regular basis.

Almost unnoticeably, the bit of helping out becomes a bit more helping out, and then a bit more again, and suddenly you find you’re constantly on the run and have no time to do your own things.

You’re suddenly over-committed; you’re running and racing. Over time you may notice that the little jobs, regular and new, have become simply expected of you and it’s all being received a bit casually.

You may begin to feel a bit taken for granted. But you’re not entirely sure what to do about it and you don’t want to rock the boat.

Inevitably, a shove comes which forces you to accept that the balance in the relationship has disappeared.

You yourself may experience, for example, a sudden need for assistance which is met by impatience, ungraciousness or unavailability from the person you helped so much.

Or, maybe, due to circumstances beyond your control, one day you are unavailable to help when needed and the response is sulky or cold.

There might be a comment, left unfinished, along the lines of “Well, okay, if it’s too inconvenient...”

You might feel guilty. You may become annoyed by this sensation of guilt. You may even go straight to feeling angry at being so taken for granted.

But there’s another way to look at all of this.

The person was a teacher.

Now you’ve learned something about your desire to please. You’re forced to realise that you have inadvertently given away some of your power and allowed yourself to be used. 

Maybe you haven’t respected your own boundaries. You end up feeling ashamed, angry or depressed by the lesson, but if you’re wise, you’ll heed it.

So life sends us teachers and sometimes, sadly, the world being the way it is, the lessons we have to learn can be harsh ones.

How lucky we are, then, when a gentle teacher happens along to teach us a warm and kindly lesson. The West Cork writer, Alice Taylor, though she would probably never acknowledge that she is such a mentor, is a gentle teacher whose lessons come from a long and full life well lived, and the unprecedented isolation caused by the Covid pandemic, when she discovered the challenges and the pleasures of living alone.

In her latest book, Tea For One, Taylor recalls an elderly lady who stayed with her and her family for some time. She was an extremely aristocratic person, very intelligent and impeccably well-spoken, who had, as Alice recalls, originated in a stately “rookery” somewhere in the West of Ireland.

Her old age was spent most enjoyably; wining, dining and playing bridge with a whole coterie of like-minded friends while the exotic whiff of cigar smoke and brandy wafted along the halls of Alice’s house.

Now, Alice recalls, this wise old owl, who once revealed that she had deliberately moved into a house full of small children because they kept her young, once advised her to never grow old. Becoming elderly, she commented, was “an appalling condition”.

Taylor, then a busy mother with a family of small children, who was also involved in running a guest house, post-office and shop and was married to a man whose workday began at 6am and often continued onto the small hours, somehow assimilated the wisdom of this old lady who knew so well how to savour life’s pleasures.

Now Taylor is remembering those lessons. 

She is careful, these days, to ensure that as she ages she takes her time, grasps the hand-rails, and steadies her pace. In the garden as she stoops to lift a heavy pot, she remembers to take it slowly and listen to the voice in her back.

She makes sure to stay busy, recalling how the old lady kept mentally alert; reading, doing crosswords, watching and listening to sports, watching both world events and what was happening in the community.

Taylor, too, has a gift for savouring the small things; she has learned to appreciate the making of good tea in a warmed teapot rather than dunking a tea-bag in a cup of not-quite-boiling water. The experience brought back, she says, the flavour of her mother’s perfectly made tea and as she poured it from the teapot, she writes, there was a rich amber glow to it that she had not seen during the tea-bag dunking years.

She rediscovered the beauty of an old navy jar with gold calligraphy that a friend once gave her and filled it with actual tea-leaves. A friend presented her with a ruby-rich red knitted tea-cosy. Tea-leaves and tea-pots are now back in Taylor’s life for good.

She has seen how cows have no concept of hurry and will refuse to engage with it unless they’re stampeded by rushing humans. How cows are full of awareness. How these large, slow-moving, grass-munching animals are in complete harmony with the unhurried pace of nature; with the sun as it rises above the horizon, with the birds who wake slowly first one, then a few others before the whole dawn chorus gradually comes into full song.

She found an old book called Ten Poems To Change Your Life, by Roger Housden, and read them. She has experimented with painting and learned more about the history of Innishannon, where she has lived most of her adult life.

She discovered the joys of The Proms on BBC Four. Taylor never had any knowledge of classical music, but as she points out, you don’t have to be an artist to enjoy a beautiful painting and you don’t have to be God to love breath-taking scenery.

This book has a lot of good, warm, wise lessons in it, though they’re not delivered as wisdom teachings.

Most of us don’t have time to bless ourselves in the days of working - either in the labour market or the home or in the chaos and busyness of modern child-rearing, managing teenagers and coping with the increasingly effects of social media, not to mention the keeping on top of a busy, chaotic modern household with everyone going different ways.

But when life calms down a bit - and it eventually will – don’t hang up your hat and slip on your slippers. Have a look at your garden, which is no longer required for muddy football matches, battered trampolines or the repair of old bangers, and see what you might do to make it more enjoyable to watch the sunset in.

Take pride in what you have made around you. Make more of it. Appreciate what you have done and maybe do a bit more of it.

And always, always be ready to try something new. As Tea For One demonstrates, you’ll never know what you might have inside you unless you give it the opportunity for an airing.

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