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 Naming of a Child

I’m back with my blog after a few weeks’ hiatus while I was gathering ideas, much as a squirrel gathers nuts for the winter.

When the latest Royal pregnancy was announced last week, bookies started taking bets on the name that would be bestowed upon the baby. Why such feverish interest in such a trivial matter as a baby name.

Naming a child is no trivial matter. A name brings a child into being. It gives them a shape, an identity, a history. Little wonder then that naming ceremonies form part of many of the world’s major religions. And in recent years, people with no fixed religion have begun to create their own rituals, with secular naming ceremonies.

Creating Naming Rituals

I was given the honour of presiding over the naming ceremony of a family member, the younger member of my own extended family. This ritual is often presided over by a secular celebrant, but as the ritual is so new, people are free to make their own rules. I was delighted to don druid’s garb and officially welcome this new and much treasured arrival into our clan.

Naming Ceremony
Me in druid garb at the naming ceremony

 

A secular naming ceremony is not so different from a christening, the naming ritual most of the gathering would have been familiar with. There were readings and a speech. Solemn promises were made. And two names were bestowed on the new arrival, names full of history and significance to both sides of the family. Old family names now brought back to life.

As I officially welcomed the child into the world and pronounced the names he had been given, the child made a sound, of delight, of recognition that a profound event had taken place, a ritual bordering on the sacred. A ritual that allowed the child to take his place in the world, with names that open the doorway to who he is.

 

The Seven Ages of Clothes Drying

You never think the day will come when you’ll see clothes-drying as an adventure sport. For most of your life, the drying of clothes was consigned to an outpost in the corner of the garden. Neat squares of clothes appeared at the foot of your bed and you’d bury your face in them, breathing in the smell of mother.

The only time you had to worry about drying was when spatters of rain came and you were called upon to dash out and bring in the clothes. You scooped up the plastic clothes basket and put it on your head, enjoying the novelty of a world divided into segments. Then with deft hands, your mother would convert the clothes into those sweet-smelling squares.

Then the time came for you to take care of your own drying, to create your own neat squares. The washing machine stared at you as you ate your dinner and the clothes horse stood guard over your living room, its plastic boughs laden with clothes. But the business of drying could carry on without interference from you, leaving you free to get on with the business of living.

Battling the Elements

It was only when you came to the house by the sea that the clothes-drying Olympics began. Now you battle against air laden with moisture, a changeable sky and a clothes line that shuns light and heat, a Bermuda Triangle of damp. You watch yourself in horror as you ask that existential question: Will I ever get those clothes dry?’ You ask it of everyone you meet, of the neighbourhood women, of business colleagues, of former booze buddies.  

Clothes-drying has become a race against the elements. There are days when the sun peeps out and dares you to dry the clothes. Your heart soaring with hope, you take the bait and pin them out on the clothesline. As soon as you decide you’ll leave them out just a little longer, a vengeful deity chucks a bucket of water down from the sky, forcing you to stage a rescue mission. On other days, the air is grey and still, and you decide to put out the clothes because at least it’s dry. Several hours later, you bring them in and they sag in your arms, dampness still clinging to them.

On other days, the clouds refuse to break and the rain falls in a relentless stream, but the clothes are reproaching you, so you unleash a seldom-deployed weapon: the tumble drier. You shovel the clothes into the drum, smug because you’ve managed to thwart the elements. When you take them out, the lingering smell of damp hits your nostrils. The elements have thwarted you.

The Drying Challenge

Hanging the clothes is a triathlon, with various punishing stages to endure, Bed sheets and towels take up great swathes of the clothesline, and finding room for the rest of the clothes becomes a test of spatial awareness. You pin the underwear on the spinning umbrella, playing Go Fish with the socks, wondering why there’s always one sock that refuses to find a mate. You bob up and down as you pin out the underwear: sock, knickers, sock, knickers.

Socks make a break for the border. No matter how hard you try to keep them in line, a few rebels always escape, and you find them strewn along the path. Pegs migrate indoors, buried in the folds of the clothes, and have to be deported back to the clothesline. Then there’s the high-wire act, as you start to run out of space. You balance on tiptoe, your head swimming, as you place clothes on the upper reaches of the line.

Mastering the Drying

At last, you learn to coax the clothes dry. You form a partnership with the elements, letting the air start the drying process and the wood finish it, as the clothes nestle cheek by jowl on a clotheshorse in front of the fire. You start to read the sky and heed the weatherman’s warnings. You view fabric softener as a luxury akin to vintage wine.

A line of clothes drying is now a sweet sight rather than a dreaded one. You and your husband sometimes pin them up together and meet in the middle. As you pin up the last sock, you feel his arms circle your waist. With quiet pride, you survey the line of clothes, flying the flag for the home you have created together.

Clothesline

The Ties of Friendship

Last Easter, I went back to my hometown for a good old catch-up, not just with my family, but with various friends. I rang one friend to arrange a coffee date. I would step off the bus and straight into a coffee shop for our chin wag. With another set of friends, I arranged a lunch to take place a couple of hours later, via our WhatsApp group.

Friends Drinking Coffee
Friendship: a commitment I freely choose.

I was to meet them on the Saturday, and both social arrangements had been made by the Tuesday. For some people, this would be the stuff of nightmares. ‘I hate to be tied,’ I hear such people say, as if an invite to have coffee at eleven on a Friday were a court summons. I have to say, this kind of talk saddens me, with its implication that friendship is a burden to be borne.

The Privileges of Friendship

I get a thrill when my phone pings with a message asking me to meet at eleven on a Friday, or with a reply that yes, my friend would love to meet me on a Friday. When I get a message like that, it tells me that someone is thinking of me, and that gives me a warm glow. I feel lucky that people think enough of me to want to make arrangements to meet me.

And I feel privileged to even have friends in the first place, because there are plenty of people who have none. Loneliness has become so endemic that the UK Government has appointed a Minister for Loneliness. We have never had more technology to communicate with, yet I wonder if this technology has turned us into tectonic plates, drifting further apart from each other.

Leaving Friendship to Chance

I could have left my arrangements to chance, turned up on the Saturday and sent messages to see who was around. Some people thrive on this. But I know that if I make concrete arrangements with my friends, they’re more likely to happen. Once I’ve made the arrangements, I can slot the rest of my schedule around them. For me, that’s freedom of a kind.

Yes, it’s a commitment. It means carving out time away from my work and family schedules. But it’s a commitment I freely choose to make. Rather than seeing the arrangements as an obligation, I see them as a beacon on the landscape, something warm and inviting to move towards. And I reap the reward for that effort in the form of laughter, support and a sense of belonging.

 

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.

 

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.

 

On Being An Aunt

We all know Jane Austen as a great writer. But to her family, she was Aunt Jane, and that was how she liked it. She thought it was far more important to be a brilliant aunt than a brilliant writer. And you know what? She’s dead right.

An Unlikely Aunt

I never thought of myself as aunt material. The sound of small children makes me want to put my fingers in my ears. In younger years, when they invaded my mother’s house, I barricaded myself in my room.

Even now, if there’s a baby sitting near me in a café, you will not find me cooing at it. Instead, I’ll be praying that it stays silent long enough for me to enjoy my brew in peace. And they’re conversation killers. Once they enter a room, they draw all the oxygen towards them.

When my sister announced that she was going to make me an aunt, I burst into tears. But when the baby arrived and she placed him in my arms, I fell in love. Even though he spewed all over me. As he grew, so did our relationship. With a little guidance, I got the hang of how to play with him. All you had to do was get down on the floor. Meet him at his level. Ask him what he was up to. And give him lots of cuddles.

Aunts Then and Now

In my own childhood, aunts didn’t get down on the floor. They patted you on the head and said, ‘Aren’t you after getting tall. We’ll have to put a pot on your head to stop you growing. What class are you in at school now? And who’s your teacher?’

Duty done, they disappeared to the kitchen to chat to your mother. Or they’d issue you with instructions, usually ending with the words: like a good little girl. Like, ‘Would you ever go in and get me my handbag, like a good little girl.’ When they re-emerged at the end of the visit, they palmed coins into your hand and told you to, ‘go and buy an ice-cream for yourself.’

The Aunt Template

But I did have an aunt template that I could follow. I had one aunt with no children, who happened to be my godmother. She filled my life with trips to the pantomime, excursions to castles and exotic food. She took me on shopping trips and I came home laden with clothes and books. She showed me that aunts could bring a little fairy dust into a child’s life.

Aunts can do the things that parents are too stressed to do. They don’t carry that weight of responsibility, and have full licence to act the maggot. I have perfected the art of blowing the perfect raspberry.

I roll down hills. I bump down stairs, bum first. I watch contraptions being built. When my nephew visits, I fill him with hot fat, sugar and caffeine, all the things he’s not allowed eat at home. I make myself slightly sick on the hurdy gurdies (fairground rides for non-Irish readers). And I give myself bum burn on the water slides.

Mad Aunt on Bumpers
Bumping around on the hurdie gurdies

A Thoroughly Modern Aunt

In the past, parents could rely on a council of elders to help them raise their children. But the modern aunt is not cast in that role. They give no instructions to do things like a good little girl. If I did, I doubt my nephews would listen. I’ve made far too many snorting sounds and danced too many crazy dances to ever be taken seriously. Still, it’s a privilege to watch them grow up from the sidelines. And it’s a privilege that I’ve been allowed a small role in shaping them as people.

I’m now an aunt twice over, and with the changing shape of our family, I’m expecting more additions to the brood in the coming years. And I hope to make auntship, as Jane Austen called it, an artform. The presence of these babies will be all-consuming, and my relationships with my siblings will go on the back burner.

But there will be new people in my life to fill the gap. And I know I need to have children in my life, to stop me going vinegary in my later years. And I won’t be the aunt who tells them how tall they’ve grown. I’ll be too busy rolling down hills and dancing silly dances, laughing all the while.

The Promise of Companionship

The man was sitting alone in the bar, at a big table, with several empty seats surrounding him. He shifted his papers and moved glasses away to make room for us, though it wasn’t necessary – the table was big enough for us all. He sat at one end, and we sat at the other. While our conversation flowed, he drank a pint and read his paper.

As he neared the end of his pint, a woman approached him. A scarf was knotted around her neck. As she enveloped him in a warm embrace, a curtain of brown hair brushed against the man’s shoulders.

‘It’s great to see you,’ she said in an American accented voice.

And then she was gone.

empty beer glass
The promise of companionship withdrawn

 

The man brought a second pint to the table and then settled down with his paper. He appeared content. Yet from across the table, we felt the rush of cold air her absence left, the promise of companionship dangled before the man, then snatched away.