The President, My Father and Me

As I write, Michael D Higgins has been voted in for a second term as President of Ireland. I have encountered Michael D Higgins twice in my life. Once was on his first campaign trail, in a library during a book festival. And the other occasion was years before that, in a community hall deep in the Connemara countryside.

Higgins was invited to speak at a training weekend for people involved in community radio, as I was at the time. I spent most of that weekend indulging in debauchery, but carved out time to hear him speak at a debate about racism. And I was emboldened to ask him a question.

Black vs White

As a teenager, I watched the film Ben-Hur. As I watched the final chariot rate, I noticed that the horses drawing the chariot of Ben-Hur, the hero, were white. The horses drawing the chariot of Messala, Ben-Hur’s enemy were black. At a discussion around the dinner table, my father remarked on the symbolism of the colour choice. He observed that often, the word black was used to symbolise evil or disaster, while the word white symbolised purity and goodness. I was struck by this. It hadn’t occurred to me before that words could be used in this way.

 

Ben Hur Chariot Race
Black=bad and white=good in the film Ben-Hur. From Google Images

Now, in that room crowded with broadcasters wielding microphones, I asked Michael D Higgins why the words black and white were used in this way. I no longer remember his answer, but I remember his aura of serious thought, the weight he gave to the question. This was a question he considered worthy of his attention. Afterwards, my radio colleagues remarked on the intelligence of my question.

Acting as Ventriloquist

But it wasn’t my question. It was my father’s question. I took the credit for it at the time, then tucked the memory into a dusty corner of my mind. But the recent presidential election unlocked the memory. I told the story to some siblings, and as I recounted it, it hit me with force that this hadn’t been my question. I had just been acting as my father’s ventriloquist. He had been dead for just over a year when I asked the question. Since then, I have not been able to hear his voice, in that hall in Galway, his voice was loud and clear. And he would be tickled to know that he had put a question to the future President of Ireland.

 

The Words We Choose

At the moment, I’m doing a series of creative workshops with a group of people. We’re working on a writing project which will lead to the publication of a small book of poems. It’s an enjoyable experience, and the people are enthusiastic and attentive. Many words are used to describe the people I’m working with, and these words have evolved over time. The choice of words used to describe them is the cause of much debate. The organisation they attend for services is referred to as an intellectual disability association.

Disability Pic
What words should be used to describe people with disabilities?

When it comes to defining things that are delicate or that are hard to define, there are three approaches that people take.

Minimising the Impact

Some people like to name things in a way that reduces the emotional impact this may cause. These people would refer to my budding writers as having special needs. Their intention is to spare people’s feelings, but there is a danger that you could be seen to fudge the issue. What is so wrong with naming a thing for what it is? Also, some terms that seem kind are actually quite vague. What special needs do these people have? And doesn’t everyone have special needs?

No Names Needed

Other people go a step further and prefer to use no terminology at all. A well-known journalist was recently interviewed about his daughter, who has Down Syndrome. He was asked what words the family used to describe her condition. He said, ‘We just call her by her name.’

As a parent, he has more than earned the right to use whatever words he wants, or no words at all. But the reality is that his daughter has a condition and at some point, words need to be used to describe it. Besides, having Down Syndrome isn’t something that needs to be hidden. It’s just another aspect of a person, like their allegiance to a football team or their love of cheesy pop music.

Finding Comfort in Names

And then there are people who like things to be named, to be defined. They find comfort in having things named in a way that accurately describes them. They feel that words give shape to complex feelings, thoughts and concepts. But there is a danger that in seeking this comfort, they can define a person too rigidly by their condition.

For example, these are the people who are inclined to use a phrase like mentally retarded. It’s true that in its original sense, this phrase conveys the concept of a brain that is delayed in its function, so that it takes longer for the affected person to reach life’s milestones. But the connotations of this phrase now, of inferiority, of damage, means that its use is frowned upon.

Intellectual disability is the term that has come to replace it. The organisation I’m working for clearly deems it suitable as a way to describe people whose brains work differently. But ultimately, if we want to know which words are the right ones to describe the people I’m working with, we must let ourselves be guided by them, and by their loved ones.

As I said, this is a subject that attracts lively debate. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you approach the naming of delicate things, whether it relates to disability or to other sensitive situations.

 

Pictures of Post-Catholic Ireland

Last weekend, Ireland received a visitor whom some regarded as extra special and others regarded as controversial – the Pope. Much has been written about his visit, so there isn’t a great deal more I can say about it. But I do carry two pictures in my mind which I think neatly represent this country’s relationship with Catholicism.

In one picture, thousands of people stand before the Pope at a shrine in Knock, in the windblown West of Ireland. They clutch rosary beads and wave yellow and white papal flags. In unison, they chant responses while the pope leads them in the Angelus. Soft rain falls on them, but they are oblivious, their rapt faces focused on the small white figure standing in front of them.

Pope Visit to Knock
Crowds gather to see the Pope in Knock. Photo credit: The Irish Times

In the second picture, another crowd gathers at a garden in Dublin, singing and swaying to the strains of a popular band. In their hands, they hold coloured placards which proclaim truth and justice. They are standing in solidarity with people who have suffered abuse at the hands of the clergy.

Stand for Truth Protest
Stand for Truth Protest. Photo Credit: The Journal.ie

Creating a New Picture

These are the pictures of post-Catholic Ireland, a country with a strong kernel of faith, but a country which is also kicking down the walls of the institution that it clung to for so long. Seeing these two pictures, I was faced with the uncomfortable realisation that none of them quite fits me. I admire the faith and devotion of the people in the first picture and the integrity and compassion of the people in the second.

I don’t go to Mass anymore, and for many reasons, I think it would be hypocritical to go on calling myself a Catholic. But nor do I want to kick down the walls of the institution. What will be left for us when those walls are gone?

Those of us who fall into the uncomfortable vacuum between belief and disbelief, what I call the floundering faithful, may have to create a new picture for ourselves. It will be interesting to see what picture emerges in the coming years. I would like to think of it as a collage of different beliefs, resting

 

The Greenway Moral Code

Two years ago, a disused railway line in Waterford, South-East Ireland, came to life. With much fanfare, it was launched as the Waterford Greenway, a walking and cycling route that followed the route of the old railway line. The Greenway would take people through lush green countryside, under tunnels and bridges and small, pretty towns.

A Source of Passion

People took to the Greenway straight away. Since it was launched, hordes of people have walked and cycled along its paths. Much praise has been heaped upon it, for its undulating pathways, the soothing views, the ease of access. The Greenway gives people a chance to do many of the things that make us happy as humans: being in nature, exercise, a chance to do a an enjoyable activity with family and friends.

Waterford Greenway
Waterford Greenway: a beautiful route that is the subject of much debate.

But what I’ve also noticed when the topic of the Greenway comes up is how passionate people are about the correct way to use it. People fulminate about the cyclists who whiz along the route as if it were a stage in the Tour de France. They rage against the people who drop litter on the paths, or let their dogs roam free. One woman i know talks incessantly about cyclists who don’t ring their bells when they’re approaching pedestrians.

Walking on the Wrong Side

What’s more, people are not shy about letting these transgressors know that they are flouting the conventions of the Greenway, which are printed on signs dotted along the route. I know, because I was one of those transgressors. Yes, I confess that am a sinner.

I have been on the Greenway twice, once with my husband, once with family. On both occasions, we walked on the right-hand side of the path. The signs recommend walking on the left, but we felt that this would prevent us from spotting cyclists coming up noisily from behind. On a normal road, it is correct to walk on the right-hand side. And some would say it is correct to walk on the right-hand side of God.

On both occasions, passersby told us we should be walking on the left. One group was polite; the other was more forceful. And on both occasions, my hackles rose. Why were they taking it upon themselves to tell us which way to walk. After all, we weren’t blocking their route.

Why People Are Fierce About the Greenway

There are many other amenities in Co. Waterford which offer just as much richness of experience, but none of these inspire such strong devotion as the Greenway. Why do people have such a fiercely protective attitude to the Greenway? One reason that springs to mind is space. The Greenway has been successful beyond people’s wildest dreams and that means more people are sharing that space than anyone ever imagined. And people can be very territorial about the space they occupy.

A book I’ve been reading lately has revealed another possible reason for this fervour. In his book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis talks about a universal moral code that humans instinctively understand and know they must follow. The use of the Greenway feeds into people’s sense of right and wrong. There are no rangers on the route to enforce the conventions, as there would be in other countries. But people are regulating the Greenway themselves, because they believe it is vital to follow rules that will help preserve a resource they see as unique.

A Conflict of Codes

CS Lewis also helped me to understand my own strong reaction to the passersby who told us to walk on the left. The Greenway’s moral code is in conflict with my own moral code. I believe it is wrong to tell other people how to behave, or to judge how other people conduct themselves. And I believe people deserve the freedom to figure out for themselves what is right and wrong. The passersby felt I was flouting the Greenway moral code, and I felt their interference was unnecessary. I believe I would probably have come to my own conclusion about the right way to walk, just from watching how others used it.

But CS Lewis’s book has given me food for thought. Some things are bigger than we are, and I do want to continue enjoying the Greenway and its delights. So I’ve come up with a compromise. When I next go on the Greenway, I will walk on the left. But if I see anyone else walking on the right, I won’t tell them off.

 

Why Did She Say That?

I was sitting in a local café, the natural habitat of a writer, enjoying a cappuccino. The tables were close together, a pretty common feature in cafes these days. This afforded me the opportunity to hear every word that the two young women at the table next to me were saying.

One of the women, a golden, glowing creature, was wearing a top with lines of blue polka dots on a white background. And her friend took it upon herself to give Polka-Dot, as I’ll call her for handy reference, some fashion advice.

‘Don’t take this the wrong way now,’ she said, lowering her voice and leaning forward, ‘but that top looks a bit childish on you.’

Polka Dot
Why did she say the polka dots looked childish?

Why did she say that?

Did she really intend to steer Polka-Dot onto the path of fashion righteousness?

Was she feeling a certain smugness inside, at the thought that her fashion sense might be superior to Polka-Dot’s?

Or did she want to dim Polka-Dot’s lightbulb?

I believe there are certain people who prefer to keep their lightbulbs dim. In other words, they prefer to attract as little attention as possible. Which is fine, until they try to dim other people’s lightbulbs.

When they are in the company of a person who glows, as Polka-Dot did, they try to take away that lustre, so that they can then feel more comfortable. And they will often do it in kind, well-intentioned tones. It’s a force so deep inside them that they may not be aware of it, a dancing devil that wants to keep them and everyone else in the dark.

What Did Polka-Dot Think?

Polka-Dot seemed willing to consider that her friend’s intentions were good.

‘Yeah, I suppose,’ she said, smiling ruefully. ‘Think I got dressed with my eyes closed this morning.’

The conversational current moved the two friends past the danger zone, words tumbling out of their mouths, interspersed with frequent ripples of laughter. But every now and then, Polka-Dot looked dubiously at her top. And I felt sure that whatever her friend’s intentions, Poka-Dot had not left the house that morning thinking her top looked childish. Her friend had succeeded in dimming Polka-Dot’s lightbulb

 

Stepping Up To The Plate

This week was an anxious week in many Irish households, as State exams got underway for thousands of young people. Some might say the parents were even more anxious than they were. Many parents put their own lives on hold while the exams are happening, rescheduling work and cancelling social engagements. They pour all their efforts into creating an atmosphere conducive to study, filling the house with the young person’s favourite treats and removing all distractions.

 

teenager studying
Exam time is an anxious time for teenagers – and their parents.

Matters of State

A few years ago, one mother took her daughter’s wellbeing so seriously that she was willing to set matters of state aside. She was a senator in Ireland’s upper house and she was part of a committee responsible for selecting candidates who would oversee an enquiry into corruption. But she missed the meeting to decide who the candidates would be, so she could be there for her daughter, who was sitting her final State exams.

As a result, the government didn’t have a majority when it came to selecting the candidates, which lessened its chances of picking its desired candidate. The incident caused a storm in a teacup at the time. The senator claimed that she was not given enough notice about the meeting, so she couldn’t arrange backup for herself

But what struck me was that this woman had a husband. Why couldn’t he have stepped up to the plate? A couple of weeks later, he was asked that very question on a national radio show. I still remember how indignant he was. He repeated the host’s question in a tone that conveyed that he couldn’t believe he was being even asked the question. Given that the senator’s decision had had an impact on matters of state, the question was perfectly justified. But the only answer the husband gave was that the girl needed her mother.

My Attentive Parents

When state exams are happening, it’s natural to find yourself travelling back to your own experience. Both my parents were very attentive to me. I still remember the satisfying crunch of the turkey and coleslaw roll my mother got me at a local deli – a real novelty at the time.

But I also remember my father, on the morning of my first exam, handing me a neatly folded piece of paper with written instructions to guide me through the exams, which I carried into the exam hall. I don’t get worked up about exams, but if I had, my father would have been there with a reassuring arm and wise words. He was a husband who stepped up to the plate.

 

Artful Queue Dodgers

Recently, I had to go to a doctor’s surgery to collect something. Beside the desk, there was a sign asking people to stand back from the desk, so that people could have privacy while doing their business. As there was a woman at the desk, I obeyed the sign and stood in the doorway.

When she finished, I approached the desk, and an old woman came around me and reached the desk before I did, even though it was clear that I was next in line. She just had a quick question, she said, but the question required the receptionist to get up and look for a colleague who could answer it for her.

My item wasn’t ready, and while I waited for it to be printed, another older woman took the opportunity to ask her question, and the scrape and grind of the printer would have indicated that I was still being dealt with. Let’s just say that in both instances, it was lucky that I wasn’t discussing anything of a delicate nature.

Abusing the Privileges of Age

What is it about passing a certain age that causes some people to feel that signs and queues no longer apply to them? It’s as if a switch flips in their brain, and after a lifetime of caring, they decide they no longer care. In a way, this is commendable. It’s literating not to worry about what other people think. But you can take it too far.

Artful Queue Dodger
Some older people have mastered the art of queue dodging.

By and large, these artful queue dodgers get away with it. People let them go ahead, possibly because they don’t want to be seen to bawl out an old person in public. But also out of respect and out of kindness. And these queue dodgers trample on that kindness. They abuse the privileges that age brings. That’s what burns me about it.

There is a possibility that, if left to my own devices, I might actually let an older person go ahead of me. But don’t guilt or manipulate me into it. Otherwise, my walls will go up. Other people, far nicer than I am, have a more mellow attitude to it. ‘Can’t wait till I can get away with that,’ they quip. They speak as if the queue dodgers are children who don’t quite know what they’re doing. But they know exactly what they are doing.

To Dodge or to Wait

When I left the doctor’s surgery, I had to go to the chemist. As I arrived at the entrance, an old woman appeared. My dander was up by now and I thought, no way is this person going to get round me. So, I took ruthless advantage of my faster leg speed to get round her and reach the counter first.

And there was nobody there.

By the time the old woman arrived at the counter, there were two people there. One was attending to me and the second one attended to her. And she was finished before I was.

I realised that a stark choice lies before me. I can become an artful queue dodger myself, or I can learn to wait. By temperament, I fear I have the makings of a queue dodger. But I also wonder what the point of being alive for such a long time is if you haven’t learnt some of life’s lessons. If you haven’t learnt to be a little wiser, a little more patient, a little more tolerant.

I’m hoping that by the time I’m old enough to be a queue dodger, I’ll have learned that everything will happen in its own good time. And that I will have even gained enough grace to allow other people to go ahead of me.

 

Men Who Are Careful

In recent months, the media has been beaming its spotlight on men who do horrible things. The #MeToo and #IBelieveHer hashtags. Tales of Hollywood sleaze. High profile rape trials. The horrible deeds of men have been questioned like never before.

I’m not really into hashtags, bandwagons or campaigns. Instead, contrarian that I am, I’ve been turning my own spotlight on men who are careful.

Men who weigh up their words when they’re speaking to women

Men who hold open doors to let shoals of women through

Men who hoist children high on their shoulders so they can see a parade passing by

Men who leave room for women to speak

Men who make you laugh so much you can hardly breathe

Men who put an arm around a woman’s shoulder, and don’t let that arm stray any further

Men who tell you how beautiful you look, no matter what

Fathers who put their shoulders to the wheel

Men who cook succulent dinners

Men who see your lower lip trembling, then wipe away your tears.

Careful Men

These men are our fathers, our brothers, our other halves, our friends. The minefields they negotiate are just as difficult as ours. These are men whose deeds go beyond hashtags. These are men who choose to be careful with women. Let the actions of these men be a counterweight to the tales of sleaze. Let us raise these men up.

 

Does the Universe Give Out Parking Spaces?

I was going to a concert one night with a gloriously scatty woman. Knowing her propensity for lateness, I said I’d walk to the venue and meet her there. But she would not take no for an answer, so I diverted myself with an episode of Sex and the City while I waited for her to collect me.

Sure enough, her beep sounded in the street a full ten minutes after she was supposed to arrive. But since this woman is blessed with the luck of the gods, we still arrived at the venue with three minutes to spare. As she pulled in, she invoked the name of her dead mother to help her secure a parking space.

‘I always ask my mother to find me a space,’ she declared. ‘It never fails.’

And sure enough, a space appeared – just beside the entrance to the venue.

 

The Universe
A benevolent universe that supplies parking spaces.

Well, Does It?

Is the universe really that powerful? If we trust it, does it give us what we want? Or do good things happen because of decisions we make? These are the questions that ping-pong around my brain when I should be thinking of whether we need milk.

I love the idea of this woman’s mother acting as a sort of celestial valet, guiding the woman to the desired parking spot. Magical thinking, some scornful types might call it. Just the same, it’s a marvellous thought.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that the woman’s parking success was due to the timing of our arrival. We had arrived after most people had parked and settled themselves inside. And when they arrived, they probably assumed that such a premium parking space must be reserved for a musical VIP. Since it hadn’t, my gloriously scatty companion was able to snaffle it. Fortune favours the last-minuters.

Half Choice, Half Chance

In my experience, there’s no getting away from the fact that good things come through good decisions and hard work. But I do believe that if you make the right decision, and if you work hard enough, the universe may just give you a helping hand.

 

What Happens When You Park On A Double Yellow Line

At a one-day conference I attended recently, the MC told a story, as they do in their effort to fill the gaps. She told the crowd that in her determination to find the perfect dress for her brother’s wedding, she had parked on a double yellow line in front of her favourite clothes shop. She was heavily pregnant and due to be induced. The wedding was to take place a week after she gave birth.

I knew the clothing shop she was talking about, so I knew that there would only have been a narrow strip of footpath between her car and the buildings. As she spoke, and the crowd applauded her determination, I envisioned a few scenarios which I believe could have unfolded while she was in the shop.

Double Yellow Lines
Parking on double yellows: not a victimless crime.

The Scenarios

A blind man taps his way up to the car. His stick encounters the back tyre. He gauges the distance between car and wall and judges that there is not enough space between the car and the buildings. He taps his way around the car and steps out onto the road. Air currents swirled around his ankles, as cars whooshed past.

A woman approaches the car, pushing a three-wheeled buggy, the kind that can carry everything but the kitchen sink. The wheels jam in the space between the car and the wall. She can’t move forward. She has no choice but to go out on the road, inches from the cars.

An older woman comes up to the car, leaning on a crutch. She too finds that there isn’t enough room to pass. Out on the road, she holds her breath, hoping she’ll be able to move away quick enough if a car came up behind her.

A Victimless Crime?

People think that parking on a double yellow line is a victimless crime. I’ll only be two  minutes, they tell themselves. But a lot can happen in two minutes. And it only takes seconds to mow someone down.

If I were a driver, I might well be seduced by double yellow lines. Let’s face it – parking is a pain in the butt. And it takes extra minutes we may not feel we have. But we don’t live in bubbles. What we do does impact on other people.

How much extra time does it really take to find a parking spot? Maybe an extra couple of minutes. If you take those couple of minutes, it’ll mean one less obstacle for a stick user to negotiate. Nobody will have to hold their breath. And the buggy users, the MC’s fellow mothers-in-arms, won’t have to worry about the safety of their children.