On a winter’s night, as a light drizzle fell, a cyclist came upon a homeless man as swished through the city streets. He lay in a doorway near a string of fast-food outlets. As the cyclist bent over him, she saw that he had a stash of food beside him, still in his packaging.
He made no movement, but she could detect the rise and fall of breath. She gently shook his shoulder, trying to rouse him. Still there was no response. A knot of people gathered around her. Some of them approached the man and tried to rouse him, but appeared to have travelled to a place beyond sleep.
Alarmed, the cyclist called an ambulance, and the group stayed with the man until it came. As the ambulance approached, the man awoke, blinking in surprise to find lights in his face and a circle of strange faces around him.
Did He Want Help?
When I first heard this story, I saluted the cyclist’s civic conscience. But afterwards, a question formed in my mind. Had this homeless man wanted help? Or was he just happy to have found a perch for the night, his food within easy reach. Perhaps he was sleeping his first real sleep in many nights. And perhaps that sleep had taken him to a place of warmth and light, a place filled with the sound of children’s laughter.
Was he grateful for the intervention of these kind strangers? Or was it a painful reminder that without a home, he could no longer shut out the world, and that he had lost the power to decide what happened to him. I still salute the cyclist’s social conscience. I myself would have picked up my pace, propelled by embarrassment and fear. But I wonder if the homeless man saw it that way. I wonder if ultimately she did the wrong thing, even if it was for the right reasons.
Last week, a man opened fire at a church in Texas and killed 26 people. This was one of the biggest mass shootings in recent times. It’s hard to wrap your head around a figure like this.
Yet every day, up to ten children are shot in America. That’s the equivalent of a Texas shooting every 2.5 days.
In my first blog post, I talked about how you can gain an understanding of major issues through the prism of small stories. Journalist Gary Younge illustrates this point with devastating effect in his book Another Day in the Death of America.
Ten Deaths, One Day
An English journalist living in America, Younge was horrified when he came across this this statistic. He chose a random day, 23 November 2013, and set out to find out which children died on that day. When he tracked down the ten children, he told their stories, one chapter for each child. Ten stories, ten lives.
The children were aged between nine and nineteen. All of them were boys. Seven were black, two were Latino and one was white. Most died in urban areas, but one lived in a country town. One was shot when he opened his front door to his mother’s vengeful ex-boyfriend. Another was shot in a stairwell. And another was shot by his friend at a slumber party.
Little Lives, Big Issues
Younge examines their deaths in the wider context of a culture where guns are rife, a society where young men can slip easily through cracks, where children are brought up without any real community support or a strong family structure. Yet there is no moralism in these pages, no judgement. And because of that, you can feel the full impact of what it’s like to live in a society where the fabric is torn.
As all good journalists should, Younge draws on primary and secondary sources. He interviews community workers and experts and quotes from relevant books. But above all, he uses the testimony of family and friends, and the words of the children themselves, to paint portraits of these children. He does not make saints out of them, but uses small details to bring them to life. A bottle of Hennessy brandy. A used car. A poem to a Valentine. A rap video.
Deaths of children like these garner a few lines in a local news bulletin, but then they’re forgotten because these types of gun deaths so commonplace in America. Younge demonstrated that their lives counted. He encourages us to see beyond the circumstances of their deaths, and to remember the people they were.
Ireland is a dessert first nation. I’m convinced that somewhere in the small print of the the proclamation of the Republic, there is a clause enshrining the right of all Irish people to regular desserts. We Irish are shockingly sweet-toothed, worshipping at monuments of whipped cream, meringue and chocolate.
Ireland is a dessert first nation. I’m convinced that somewhere in the small print of the Proclamation of the Republic, there is a clause enshrining the right of all Irish people to regular desserts. We Irish are shockingly sweet-toothed, worshipping at monuments of whipped cream, meringue and chocolate.
Desserts of the Apocalypse
As I celebrate my birthday, I will confronted with many of these confections. The eyes of my companions will travel straight to the dessert menu. But I’ll feel my heart sink, as I find myself yet again confronted with the Four Desserts of the Apocalypse.
I refer to them this way not just because they’re heart attacks on a plate but because I’m quite tickled by the idea of the Apocalypse coming in the form of dessert. I picture people sinking into vats of sugar, cream and chocolate, and monsoon of meringues pelting down on us from the sky.
What are these four culprits? Banoffee pie, chocolate brownies, Pavlova and tiramisu. I realise many people are fans of these desserts, in which case, worry not. You’ll die happy.
Between Sweet and Savoury
A part of me envies other people their uncomplicated dessert tastes. You see, I inhabit a dessert no-man’s land between sweet and savoury. You might ask: why not have the cheese plate, that traditional sop to the savouries. But being the contrary soul that I am, the one time I don’t want cheese is after a meal. Frankly, I’m lazy, and hacking at bits of cheese with a knife seems too much like hard work.
What I’m after is a refreshing morsel to fill the tiny space left at the top of my belly after my delicious meal. The citrus tang of lemon or orange. The complex challenge of dark chocolate. Or the invigorating bite of raspberries, rhubarb or blackcurrant, the taste of life itself. Such tastes are hard to find. After providing inventive, richly satisfying starters and main courses, it seems as if restaurant chefs shrug and say, ‘Let them eat cake.’
I usually only encounter these tangy treats at high-end restaurants, where the desserts are punctuated with commas. Lemon posset, raspberry coulis, shortbread biscuits. In these sorts of restaurants, I find myself confronted with a problem that I call, ‘the dessert liqueur axis.’ Not only do their menus feature mouthwatering desserts, they also stock an extensive range of liqueurs, which are great at bringing your tongue back to life. To have both would be gluttony, so what to do?
Ordering a liqueur would give me an excuse to use the phrase ‘post-prandial,’ and I could imagine myself retiring with the gentlemen after dinner to discuss the South Sea bubble. But I think of my mother’s French coffees, with a perfect circle of cream floating on a beautifully balanced midnight mixture of coffee, brandy and sugar. And I know that not even the fanciest restaurant can compete. So dessert wins, and I order a zingy dish that makes my tongue sing.
The bus was almost full, but I managed to find a pair of seats near the front. I settled into the window seat and arranged my bags on the other seat. Then I fished out my iPod and untangled the headphones that were wrapped around it. For the next hour, the length of the journey to my mother’s house, I would cocoon myself in music and banish the outside world, letting myself be carried along by the rhythm of the bus.
Then behind me, I heard scuffles and shrieks. Feet pressed against the back of my seat. I swivelled my head. Three children were squashed into a seat for two: two girls aged about ten and a young boy of about five.
They waved at a man whose grew smaller and smaller as the bus inched out of the station. ‘Bye Daddy,’ shouted the boy and one of the girls. Then the man disappeared, and the little boy began to wail.
‘I want Daddy,’ he cried.
‘Be quiet, Jamie,’ said his sister. ‘We’re going home to mammy now.’
‘ I want to go back to Waterford,’ said the boy. ‘I want to go back to Daddy.’
The wails cut through my waves of sound. These weren’t the sounds of a child grandstanding for an audience. These were the sounds of a child in pain. A child who couldn’t understand why he was being shuttled from father to mother. A child who was watching his father disappear.
Unable to Reach Out
I happened to have a vibrating hamster in my bag, a whimsical present from my husband. I pictured myself showing the child that vibrating hamster. Kneeling against the back of my seat and giving the children a reassuring smile. Showing the boy how to make the hamster vibrate by pulling the string. Watching his tears turn to laughter. Pressing the hamster into his hand, a much more useful companion to him than it could be to me. Distracting him from his pain.
But I didn’t. Because I was a stranger, and children are quite rightly taught to fear strangers. Because of the fingers of suspicion that would point at me. Because my actions could be interpreted in a way I never intended, by the children and by other passengers on the bus.
The bus was quite full, full of people who looked as if they had plenty of experience of wiping away the tears of children. But maybe they held the same fear as me, because they didn’t reach out to those children either.
Creating a Different Culture
Is it possible that our efforts to keep children safe, we have put up barriers that prevent us from being kind to them? Barriers that mean a childcare worker can no longer hug a child in their care. That cause men to feel uneasy if they find themselves near a group of children playing in a park. That require people to jump through endless hoops if they want to offer their time and skills to help children.
It is quite right that the culture of covering up crimes against children is beginning to crumble. But are we replacing it with a culture of suspicion? Why don’t we strive instead to create a culture of common sense, of kindness, of balance? A culture that allows us to reach out to a child in distress without fear of pointed fingers.
We Irish love weather. We analyse it constantly, and no conversation is complete without reference to it. Most of the time our weather isn’t very dramatic. It’s just wet, and the wet won’t kill you. But our love of the weather means that when a big weather event happens, we go to town on it.
So last weekend, when the weather mavens started speaking in low, urgent tones about an “ex-hurricane,” “status red weather warnings” and “emergency meetings,” I paid them no heed. We may not have had a hurricane hit our shores in over 50 years, but we’ve had plenty of practise with storms. We would weather the storm, clean up and move on. We felt no need to name them or give them a colour scheme.
The day that the poetically named Storm Ophelia arrived was bright and clear, but the air was charged with a certain electricity. I call it Storm Excitement. It’s what drives people to plunge into the sea or ride waves when a hurricane’s a-brewing. We were infected with a milder dose of it, and headed for the promenade in the seaside town where I live.
The sky was blue, the sun was shining, but a high, whistling wind blew along the prom. It pushed and pulled at me and I hung onto Husband for ballast. The cafes on the seafront were boarded up in anticipation. We went to the slip and watched the waves begin to gather strength. The weather mavens were right. Storm Ophelia was going to be more than just your average storm.
Others in my circle were also infected with Storm Excitement. Messages flew back and forth, as we all urged each other to stay safe. It was a comfort to know that we were all weathering the storm together. But being Irish, we couldn’t resist a bit of humour. Pictures and clips abounded, depicting messianic news reporters, irate weather men, and a hand holding a pint of Guinness as the waters rose higher.
Then the power went off.
‘Never mind,’ Husband and I said to each other. ‘We’ll go down to bed and wait it out.’
A sense of calm descended on me as I slid under the covers, a sense that this was out of my hands and there was nothing I could do. Husband went to sleep and I realised there was nothing to distract me from writing. I brain-dumped onto the page until my navel was red-raw from gazing at it, and I felt cleansed.
Husband woke from his nap when the light went on and the machinery in the house started to hum. Our power was back, far sooner than we had anticipated. When the wind lost some of its rage, Husband ventured out to assess the damage. Only a few minor repairs would be needed. As we listened to the reports of three fatalities brought about by Ophelia, and of families without electricity and water, we felt we had been spared the worst.
And then the next morning, the news reporters gave the name of one of Ophelia’s victims, and we realised that we knew her.
She and her daughter had been regular fixtures in our hillwalking club. Memories flooded into our minds, of her leading a group of walkers along a beach, of us eating pizza at her house, of her looking out the window of my old flat as we watched a colourful parade go by. Most of all, we pictured her smiling face and heard her warm, friendly voice.
There will not be another storm Ophelia, When a storm or hurricane takes lives, its name is not used again, in case it evokes memories. The storm has passed now. We have weathered it and we will clean up after it. But for some people, it will not be possible to move on.
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.
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.
‘I loved that book you recommended to me,’ said my friend, as we picked over the spoils of our tea and scones. ‘I told the book club about it and it was our book of the month. They all loved it too.’
A warm glow spread through me, a glow that went deeper than tea and scones.
‘I told them a little friend of mine recommended it to me.’
Some of the glow seeped out of me. I’m on the small side, but I’m not especially small. So what prompted her to use the word little? Even though I’m on the cusp of middle age, I’m still young enough to be her daughter.
To her, I was little because I had not yet accumulated the years of life experience that she had. But I feel I’ve accumulated enough life experience to move beyond being described as little.
A group of us sat around a table on a sunny summer evening. The host was a great cook and produced tender steak, accompanied by a salad and floury potatoes. Salad does not usually delight my tastebuds, but this one was redeemed by the tomatoes, which tasted of sun. When I bit into them, they released jets of sweet juice.
‘Where did you get these tomatoes?’ I asked the host. ‘THey’re sensational.’
‘Oh, there’s a little man who sells them at the market.’ she said. ‘He’s there every Saturday. He’s marvellous.’
Is he really small, I itched to ask. Or is he a man with a little job?
First, there is the fear. It curls around me as I edge my way down the steps to the water. My brain plays showreel of images: a seal taking a bite of my belly, my body being dashed against the rocks, sucked down by a whirlpool of water. I push on towards the ladder, knowing that the images will evaporate once I hit the water.
Shock and Awe
Then comes the shock. As I lower myself down the ladder, rung by precarious rung, the water begins to bite. When I run out of rung, I push myself into the water and all the breath leaves my body. I keep pushing, out, out into the open sea. And surrender myself to awe, at the expanse of sky above me, at the expanse of sea all around me. And my body floating in it. I am privileged to be cradled by water, to float on the edge of vastness.
Then the thread snaps, and it’s time to go in. A sense of urgency returns as I make for the ladder, for the steps that blur into each other, with a handrail so low that it’s submerged by water. But now is the time for warmth, as life returns to my numbed limbs. I wrap myself in the blanket of my towelling robe. And I wrap myself in a blanket of banter.
Sea Swimming Community
I am surrounded by a community of people brought together by water: some to swim, some to dive and some just to watch. They bat remarks back and forth, about the water temperature, the weather, the state of the nature. Laughter breaks out often. No names are needed: the language of water is enough. This is not a place of worship, yet I fancy I can hear a whisper of the divine.
I’m not a hoarder in the traditional sense. My wardrobe does not bulge with unworn clothes. My shelves are not cluttered with dust-friendly ornaments. And I’m not drowning in newspapers. My hoarding is of a more intangible nature – I hoard memories.
I see myself as a bag lady tramping the roads, weighed down by bags filled with memories, memories that are long past their sell-by date. Phone numbers I’ll never dial again. The names and ages of celebrity children. Addresses of places I’ll never visit. And more pernicious memories too. Rows that were never resolved. Words that should never have been said. I can feel the weight of those memories pressing down on my skull.
Balls of Memory
The animated film Inside Out takes you on a fascinating tour of a little girl’s brain. In the film, her memories are depicted as black balls sitting on shelves. The balls are about the size of bowling balls, and when her memories are considered redundant, the balls are simply rolled off the shelves.
Now I’ve decided to push some of my own memory balls off the shelf. But I’m going a step further. I’m taking them out of the bag and letting them smash onto the ground. The experience is oddly cleansing. The German word for table. Smash. My friend’s landline number, which I haven’t dialled in 20 years. Smash. The dinner that was three hours late. Smash. The row over disability rights campaigners falling out of windows. Smash.
My bags are starting to feel a great deal lighter as I shed my load. And the memories I want to keep have become more visible. Dancing with my nephew and singing the word “Cream.” Swishing down a ski slope in one long, glorious movement. The sunlight slanting through the church windows as we said our wedding vows. I will polish these memory balls to a bright sheen, and curate them with care.
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.
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.