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.

 

Ten Little Lives

In recent days, news of a mass school shooting in Florida sent shockwaves around the world, putting America’s gun laws in the spotlight once again. At times like this, headlines scream numbers at us: 17 shot dead in Florida, 58 shot dead in Las Vegas, 20 shot dead in Sandy Hook.

It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around such figures.  Tragedies like this are best understood, if that’s even possible, by zoning in on one single life. This was something journalist Gary Younge instinctively understood when he wrote his book on American gun culture, Another Day in the Death of America 

Younge looked at the impact of gun crime through the lens of ten lives. The lives of ten children who were killed in ten separate shooting incidents throughout the United States. In one day. Every day, between seven children are killed by guns in the United States. It’s become so commonplace that their deaths barely make a blip in the media.

Bringing Them to Life

Younge picked a random day and traced the names of ten children who had been shot dead on that day. He then set about telling their stories. The story of their lives and the story of the day they died. They were all boys, aged from nine to nineteen. They lived in towns, cities and rural areas. Seven were black, two were Latinos and one was white.

teenage boy
Tribute to young lives cut short.

Younge visited the cities and towns where the boys had lived. In all but two cases, he spoke to their friends and families. He looked at their social media profiles. He researched police reports into their death. And from this, he created vivid portraits of their lives, using symbols that represented who they were. A bottle of Hennessy brandy. A recording of a rap. A T-shirt.

A Troubled Society

On a wider level, Younge gets under the skin of a society where guns are rife, where social structures have broken down, where poverty is a weight that is almost impossible to shrug off. He speaks to community workers and quotes from a rich variety of literature, from novels to research from sociologists.

As you read Another Day in the Death of America, you can hear the guns go off in your head. You can feel Younge’s quiet outrage pulsing through the pages. With these ten tender portraits, Younge reclaims the lives of these boys, so that they are no longer defined by the terrible acts that ended their lives. He shows us that their lives mattered. But he also makes you feel the real impact of gun crime, more effectively than any screaming headline.

Stopping Strangers on the Street

The voice was warm. It was a voice that invited you to stop, to help. It broke my stride as I made my way along the street. The voice belonged to a young man wearing a beanie hat, who said he was doing research about people’s favourite things to do in the town.

 

Thinking he was doing a project as part of a college course, I expounded on the delights of the restaurants. Picking up on his American accent, I said several of them served American food, because as a nation, we Irish were fond of all things American. Then I asked him what the research was for.

Turned out he wasn’t doing research. Turned out he was a missionary for a Christian church.

Missionary
Street missionary: selling to strangers on the street.

I didn’t turn tail and run. It would be hard to show that level of disrespect to a man of faith, even if he did have bad teeth. So I heard him out, extracted myself and went on my way.

Selling Your Wares

I couldn’t fault the friendliness of his manner, but as I walked away, my mouth was flooded with the sickly-sweet taste you experience when you realise you’ve been manipulated. He had presented himself as someone looking for help, when in fact he wanted to sell me something, in this case spiritual enlightenment.

It’s easy to come up with a retort in hindsight. I resolved that next time I meet a missionary, I’m going to ask them how long it will be before the Apocalypse comes. And if they say they don’t know. I’ll shake my head sadly and say, ‘You’re no good to me, so.’

Cruel, perhaps. But it’s better than being taken for a mug. Still, I don’t know if I’ll be using that retort. Because it’s likely that I’ll be walking faster from now on. When someone like that stops you on the street, it damages the chances that in the future, you’ll stop for someone who genuinely needs help. And that really does make me sad.

 

Slotting People Into Place

One Sunday, I found myself having lunch in a golf club. It’s not the sort of place I’d expect to find myself in. They’re usually places where the respectable burghers of a town congregate. But I had been invited by a friend whose family qualified as respectable burghers, with roots going back more than one generation.

Whereas I was a ‘blow-in,’ a word we use in Ireland to describe someone who has moved to a town from somewhere else. You can live in a town for thirty years or more and still be considered a blow-in. Having lived in this seaside town for a mere six years, I was definitely still a blow-in, the sweet grass of my native inland place still clinging to my skin.

The golf club was a comfortable, homely place, and despite my blow-in status, I was able to pass through its doors without incident. I sat at a table covered with a crisp linen tablecloth and enjoyed a tasty lunch of deep fried Brie, bantering with my friend and her three lively boys.

posh table
Eating with the respectable burghers

An Encounter

As our lunch came to an end, a woman approached the table and my friend greeted her by name. I knew of the woman, but hadn’t met her before. After the woman admired my friend’s three boys, she turned her attention to me.

‘And who is this?’ she asked.

My friend, a sunny-side-up kind of person, introduced me as ‘a great writer.’

‘Might I have your surname?’ she asked.

I gave her the required information, while red dots danced across my line of vision.

‘Derbhile was in Toastmasters (a public speaking organisation) with your daughter,’ said my sweet dove of a friend.

‘Oh, you’re one of those,’ she said.

‘That’s right,’ I said, grinning. ‘You have me now.’

Satisfied that she had the information she needed, she withdrew.

What’s In A Name

You may wonder why I bristled at the woman’s question. After all, a surname is hardly classified information. My surname is readily available on my official documents, business cards and social media profiles. But I knew why she was asking the question – so that she could slot me into the town’s hierarchy.

It’s human nature to try and define people, to assess how much like us they are. And some people will define you by your place of origin and family name. Such people love to recite a litany of names to each other, and to outline how those names are connected to each other. The problem is that they don’t look beyond the name, to the richness of the person’s story. Once they have placed you, they are satisfied.

Making a Connection

In a situation where we don’t know people, it’s often necessary to ask for a person’s name and where they’re from, to break the ice. But if we really want to connect with people, then couldn’t we use those questions as a springboard that will help you dive into a broader conversation. I’d rather know whether someone has an unhealthy penchant for Club Milks or likes swimming in a cold sea than what town they come from.

 

If the woman had asked how my friend and I had met, for example, she would still have received the information she wanted. I would have told her how we met in Toastmasters and how this had indirectly brought me to my new hometown. We would have made a connection, no matter how slight.

But afterwards, I remembered what my husband had told me about the woman, that she had arrived in the town as a young school teacher from a windswept coastal town on the other side of the country. Perhaps, all these years later, she was still a little anxious about her own blow-in status. Perhaps she was defining herself by the same narrow criteria. But when you broaden the criteria by which you connect with people, you can put down deeper roots.