Facing Fluidity

Warning: this blog post may contain some chanting. 

Facing Fluidity… No, I’m not talking about my wine or gin consumption… Facing my fluids of an evening are the carrots that get me through the day.  Nor am I referring to that post-children caution for jumping on a trampoline (only women will understand that one).  I mean facing the fluidity of life.

I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhism over the last year (no mini cymbals needed, this is not the chanting part) and the most striking lesson I am taking from it – I would take more lessons but Buddhism and me is like trying to make a Type A personality become a spliff-soporific surfer dude…. It’s going to take time and a lot of mind-alteration – (See why mindfulness and meditation will take some time with me? That’s three different thought streams in one sentence – I don’t have the grammatical know-how to write my thoughts.) Anyway – the most striking Buddhism lesson learned is the idea of life being fluid. Of nothing being permanent….an idea that directly conflicts with how most of us in the West are brought up to view life. We are reared to seek permanence – a permanent job, a permanent home, a permanent relationship, a permanent waistline (and now with Botox, a permanent face.).

We strive to arrive. To reach that point where we can stop and relax (a little white lie that is told to us along with Santa and the Tooth Fairy, only meaner and it takes 4 decades rather than 1 to work out it’s a lie).  There is no point where we can stop and relax.  Life just keeps going…. On and on and on, with dramas and dullness, highs and lows, ins and outs. But still, we think life should reach a stage when we are ‘settled,’ when we finally have a grasp on what we are meant to be doing.  But reading my Buddhism at night trying to calm my manic heartbeat I realise that the panic I have felt most of the last 18 months is that very fear of fluidity, that loss of stability, that utter crashing, crushing disbelief that actually nothing in life is permanent.  As a chronic control freak, this has been rather seismic. My life has changed so much in the last couple of years – finding out my husband could no longer be married to a woman, realising I was a single parent just when I was emerging from the pressure of the baby years, losing my mum.  Both families I had come from – the one I was born into, and the one I created, had altered. Permanently. It doesn’t get more permanent than death and divorce.

And for a while, holding on to what I knew was the only thing I could do. I clung on to what had been by my white-knuckled fingertips, so terrified of the unknown abyss below me I could have hung on there for ever. But it was letting go that saved me. Letting go of the past, and embracing the now, and the future, and discovering that along with the fear is excitement.  Letting go and falling…. and realising that I am able to land.  That fluidity is an essential part of life, that permanence is a trap, and that instead of striving to arrive, we should actually just strive to thrive, wherever our life takes us.

So I find myself back at Malaga airport. I write this in Starbucks on my own as I wait for my pick up to take me to a writing retreat in the glory of the mountains of Andalucia.   And as the airport’s familiarity startles me, I remember.

I remember that I was here exactly a year ago, sitting in Starbucks on my own.  Bizarrely, I’m even sitting at the same table, with the same order: a spearmint green tea and a freshly squeezed orange juice.   But the fluidity of life, the fact that I am embracing instead of clinging means this time I am not crying.   As I sit in this seat, I can almost touch the shadow image of myself across the table.  The me that sat here last year is crying so hard, a kind lady comes over and touches her shoulder. She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, but her smile speaks the offer of love and support.  The me that sat here last year has just had to walk away from her children.  In a holiday booked before their dad left, we had agreed that I would take the girls for a few days, and then he would come out spend the last few days with them. So the me that sat here last year has just had to pack her bag and kiss them goodbye and walk down the path of the villa and close the gate on the family she is now banished from.  The me that sat here last year stood on the road for a few minutes listening to the squeals of laughter as their daddy threw her children in the pool, knowing that his decision meant that I was no longer part of that family.  The unfairness of that walk nearly broke me. Because of the actions of another person, I had to relinquish my children. The pain seared me hotter than the Spanish sun. So I sat at this airport exactly a year ago, at this very table, and I cried because the permanence of my life had been shattered, and I was incapable of understanding it’s fluidity.

But now I do. A full year later I sit at this table, and I am able to embrace the future. It still hurts me that my children and I are being forced apart for a week.  It will always hurt me that they don’t like only being with one parent at a time.  But the me that sat here last year crying, her knuckles white, hasn’t learnt to jump into the abyss yet. I have.  I don’t like, or enjoy, being a single parent. But given that that is the situation I am in, I will make the best of it. Last year, the me that sat here crying could only feel the pain of loss. This year, that pain in still there, but I can also embrace the gain.

(Warning: Chant coming.). If I have to be away from my girls for a week so that they get to spend quality time with their dad, then I am going to do something for me. I am about to spend a week in a stunning old hacienda, at a writing retreat where I can indulge my own headspace for days. I will also be embracing the fluidity of Spanish wine no doubt, and reading and yes, chanting. 

Facing fluidity is the only way we can strive to thrive. So as I stand up now to gather my bags, I look at the seat opposite me and I imagine resting my hand on the me that sat there a year ago crying, and I would whisper in her ear, my chant: “you will be ok… let go.”

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What is happiness?

I have a problem when I go to Donegal.  The sky is so vast, the colours so complex, the sea so mesmeric, and the landscape so wilder than I will ever be, that my camera just will not take the right picture.  I’ve tried cameras, I’ve tried iPhones, I’ve tried filters, I’ve tried wide angled lens, but sometimes I just end up putting the contraptions down and staring at the vista to take a mental snapshot that clicks in my mind and the image then is developed inside of me and imprints on my soul.

I like to take the photos on my phone anyway and post on Instagram and Facebook just to try and share the glory, but it never tells the real truth (do Instagram and Facebook EVER tell the real truth?)

And so with life… sometimes you just can’t put a frame around it… the truth is always bigger than the picture inside.

I’m reading a book on Happiness at the moment – not for myself, but for research for a new book. (Honestly….it’s for research. If I have learned anything over the last 46 wonderful, turbulent, life-affirming, life-whipping years, it’s that I don’t need a book to tell me what happiness is….. I’m very aware that happiness is an ice-cold sparkling G&T sitting in my garden swing chair as the evening sun melts; it’s sofa spaghetti on Saturday movie night with my girls, our legs entwined in harmony, our hands entwined in hostility as they grapple in the popcorn bowl; it’s a stolen moment to read a great book when nobody wants me; it’s a sweaty mum sandwich in my bed on a Sunday morning eating chocolate spread on toast and watching funny cats on youtube, hearing the giggles of my girls; it’s the exhilaration of writing a gut-happy sentence; it’s the buoyancy of walking away from a writing event knowing my dreams are coming true; it’s the thrill of the fear of a blank page; it’s any form of dark chocolate in any situation but particularly a Butler’s Salted Truffle at the end of a long hard day; it’s the end of a long, hard day; it’s finding out John Snow is alive in Game of Thrones; it’s every moment I spend with my friends; it’s sitting on the bench in my garden that I used to sit on with my mum, gazing in peaceful pain at the incredible blossom of the rhododendron my dad and I planted in her memory, and knowing beauty will always grow back; it’s knowing those moments when my tears of frustration and overwhelming exhaustion hit, they will be over at some point, and all of the above are always possible.) 

Isn’t it funny that ‘unhappiness’ is all about big words – grief, loss, abuse, rejection, fear – yet ‘happiness’ is the small things, the details, the bits of living in life?

So I’m reading this book and it’s all about how happiness is only within yourself. It’s not another person. It’s not about being thin. It’s not about everything we think happiness is, it’s only within ourselves. But like the Donegal landscape, you just can’t frame ‘happiness’ in a soundbite. Because, like the colours of the sky on a Donegal evening, it’s just too complex.

Happiness is definitely not relying on anyone else for your happiness.  Oh how I have learned that.  It’s not my mum, it’s not a husband, it’s not my children. Over the last year and a half, I have taught myself to have date nights with myself…. amid all the nights alone, I now allow myself the odd special one where I don’t give in to the wicked witch voice in my head telling me all the things I should be doing, and all the things I haven’t done. I leave dishes in the sink, I pull my bra off down my sleeve, I let out my belly and I seduce myself with wine and chocolate and I sing to myself as I walk around my garden smiling at the beauty of it all, and I read or I write or I shut down words completely and I wrap myself in the memory blanket I had made of my children’s clothes, and I snuggle with myself on the sofa and watch The Good Wife, and Game of Thrones, and First Dates.  

Busyness is the modern currency of kudos – we all list how busy we are, we complain how busy we are, we compete with how busy and manic our lives are, but I’ve decided that occasionally I’m going to bring in my own currency of slovenly laziness. Sometimes (not enough, not nearly nearly enough) I do nothing. It might be just a few moments in my swing chair in the sun, it might be a cheeky snooze on my kitchen sofa before I collect the girls, it might be a few minutes with a G&T on my garden bench but I am going to admit to them.   There. I just did. (Quick, quick Alana, reaffirm quickly just how busy you are.. running my own business, carving out a writing career, single mum, caring for dad, busy social life, entertaining, quick quick, list your busy-ness) but I am teaching myself to be a lazy arse too. Happiness is about both…. being busy and being lazy.

And like the book says, happiness is about finding peace within yourself but it is also very much about other people too. Making time for friends, engaging, being loved by good people, shared moments.

Only you – and some good people – can make you happy. Of course happiness is not reliant on another person – I know how UNhappy another person can make you – but it takes complexity and simplicity to make us happy. It takes peace and solitude AND love and friendship; it takes busyness and discipline and creative stimulation AND laziness and slobbyness and spontaneity; it takes date nights with yourself AND date nights with others.

As a single mum, time alone is the currency of sanity.  But like chocolate, too much of it has disastrous consequences. Time with enriching people is the currency of life. I am lucky. So lucky I have incredible and enriching people in my life.

Today I fly off with my girls on holiday – a eurocamp in Croatia. It’s going to be warm and beautiful and manic and loud. We’ll be sleeping in a  mobile home and eating breakfast on the balcony. I’m optimistically taking 3 books with me but suspect I won’t get a moment’s peace to read them.  I suspect the soundtrack to the week will be a constant loop of “Look at me!  Look at me!  Jump in the pool! Look at me!” And that’s what we need. A nourishing fun week together with none of the pressures of everyday life. I don’t get that much with the girls any more – good quality time. So it’s going to be glorious, if not exhausting.

The following week, I then fly to the Andalusian mountains for a writing retreat where silence is the order of the day.  I will be alone, and every day I’ll walk in beauty and write in solitude. I will miss the girls but welcome the head space.  In the evenings, the other writers and I will congregate for dinner to talk and share and suck up some company.

And that is happiness to me. A little bit of everything, happiness with myself, AND happiness with others. The little things that make up the vast picture that can never be captured in a photo frame or a sound bite. 

We’ll be heading to Donegal again in the summer and I know happiness is just looking at that sky and because of it’s beauty,  knowing that life will always be ok.

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The uniform of life

I’ve just laid out some new clothes on my eldest daughter’s bed.  Despite there being a threat of summer in the air, they are black; a black jacket, a black cardigan and black sandals. She is 10.

It seems 10 is the new 16, and black is the new orange, and goth is the new princess. She will wear colour (pink or purple) but no pattern, please. She will not wear dresses, skirts or jeans (yes that’s right… she won’t wear jeans). Just black leggings.   Only black leggings. I asked her what was going to happen when the weather improved and black leggings become too, well, black and leggingy.   So she pondered this for a while and then made a seasonal fashion concession “I’ll wear my denim shorts.”  (She doesn’t have to concede on T-shirts as that’s what she wears all winter as well.)

And so this is her uniform: black leggings, with whatever top is in order, with matching bows. Bows – BIG bows are the new thing… last year it was hairbands with flowers, this year it is bows and her whole class are obsessed. Last week I found myself screeching to a halt on a busy road because I saw a handmade bow stall and I stuck my arm out to the lady shouting – “give me whatever you have for a tenner!” while ignoring the honks of the cars queueing up behind me (seems her obsessions become my obsessions).

All her friends in the Black Leggings Brigade are the same.  Leggings, runners and tops, occasionally a fleece and hoody are allowed: the uniform for this current phase of childhood, and this union of like minds.  I remember, way back when, at the age of 3, she started defiantly stamping her fashion foot (Lelly Kelly clad of course). I dressed her in practical non-gendered clothes like blue and red trousers.  And then one day, she woke up with more than her milk teeth, and demanded that from that day forth, only pink would suffice, and she fluttered into her new role as a pink and pretty princess. It was all nature, no nurture.  But that phase changed with her height and her attitude and pink faded into purple, and a rainbow of other expressions of her ever changing self followed.  And in so many ways, the clothes we choose to wear, the uniform we create for ourselves is just that: a representation of our current phase of life.

I look back on my own phases, so many of them cringe worthy, and so many of them attempts to fit in to my surroundings, or my peers, or my aspirational ambitions (If I dress like a serious professional woman, I might eventually feel like one instead of a fraud). Often in my life, I would turn up in the wrong uniform.

Unlike my girls, who have a say in what they wear – and have no issue expressing that say! – I had none until I was well into my teens. I spent my first years as a blossoming girl, feeling like a wayward weed sprouting chaotically in the wrong place. I wore plastic national health glasses, invariably cellotaped together on one side as my dad would only pay to get them fixed when I had broken both legs.  I wore ghastly styles that were even ghastly by 1980’s standards, and home made clothe

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Yes….those are white knee length socks with moses sandals

s. In fact, my mum’s friend, being a better dressmaker than my mum, made clothes for her two daughters and then they were passed to me so most of the time I actually wore second-hand home-made clothes.  When I did start expressing myself, I was such a booky nerd, I had no idea about fashion (despite being an avid Jackie reader.)  I remember one day, about mid-1980’s, when drindle skirts had made a come back and I was going out with two friends. I had finally persuaded my mum to get me an (actual shop-bought!) drindle skirt but I didn’t have the know-how or budget to wear it properly with white ankle socks and tucked in blouse. So it looked like something my big sister would have worn (had I had a big sister, and a big sister who also had no fashion sense and perhaps was a missionary out in Africa).  As we three prepared to go out, my other two friends complimented each other and it went back and forth along the lines of:

“You look amazing. You are so much prettier than me,”

“Stop!  You are so much prettier than me. Your skirt is fab.”

“No, you look much better. Your skirt is gorgeous.”

And on it went until I must have coughed and they both glanced round from their mutual admiration frenzy and just one look at me ended the conversation. No-one even attempted to pretend my look made it into the conversation.  Then, when I was around 15, that excruciating phase of trying to stand out while trying to fit in, I went through a purple chapter.  Everything was purple. Even my eyes. Tongue-poking-out-my-mouth labours of applying 16 shades of purple eyeshadow just made me look like I’d been punched in both eyes, but still I persisted. And then there was the androgenous phase. Buttoned up shirts and bow-ties. I kid you not.

So from such auspicious beginnings, I suppose the only way to go was up, although I could document a few more really special moments in my fashion fiasco history, but honestly, it is only in the last few years that I have finally found myself in the mirror.

“Ah!” I say to my reflection, “you look on the outside, how I feel I am on the inside.”  At 46, I finally see who I am.  I have hit middle age, but I really feel I am only – finally – getting started. Middle age used to be the beginning of the end, but now, as I venture out of a highly damaging marriage, with a career of creativity blossoming around me, with the baby years behind me and three amazing girls to adventure with, and an army of friends who have battled to get me through, I feel I am just at the end of the beginning.  A whole new life is at my feet, and for once, I know what shoes to wear.

150 years ago, women’s life expectancy was 40.  Now it is 83.  That is an entire extra lifetime.  I intend to live it well.  And the uniform I chose to dress myself in armour?  As I preen, and pluck and dye and exfoliate and shed the wear of worry, I swing my scars like bling, flashing and defiant. I wear my character, built from adventure, pain, and love. I wrap myself in a luxurious cape of friendship. I accessorise with a defiant, reliant smile, and I clothe myself in hard-fought self-love.  Oh, yes, and a wardrobe of clothes I finally love.

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Growing grief and planting pain

Grief has moved in with me and follows me around the house like the dog.   He is a sullen shadow who drapes his arm around my shoulder and snuggles up to me at night. But he isn’t aggressive or chaotic or loud, but slow and droll and quiet.   I live with him, and we get along ok together, working silently together as we do the dishes, and hang out the washing, and make the beds.

My grief is deep and dense but not necessarily dark. Maybe I just haven’t reached that darkness yet, maybe I went so dark in the early aftermath of mum’s stroke, that I don’t need to go there again.   But what I have learned about grief is that it has to be lived. It cannot be ignored, or put aside or glossed over with sparkling gin and tonics. And it can’t be fixed. It just has to be lived. And so when my mum died, I drove Grief back with me to the house and gave him the spare key and a towel. He lives in the house and potters around me, and loiters in the sun stream as the new Spring rays pierce my windows with their sprinkling of promise.

Sometimes, I forget he is there, and I busy on with my life, the girls dancing around my introspection, their laughs and bickering filling the air with Future. And sometimes I feel the weight of his arm as he appears at my side and drapes my shoulder with his presence. And whispering me memories that will now only ever be Past. And I feel that weight all through my body.

But I know enough now to know I have to live with him. He has come to visit or stay, I don’t know which, but he is not there to dominate, just mingle.  And I find I can bear the weight.

But a harder weight to bear, harder than living with your own Grief, is watching that of others. For just over a year I have watched my girls grapple with their Grief and mourn the family they once had.  Their pain was unbearable to watch, and it took me a time to realise I couldn’t fix them. I could only wrap them with as much love as I could to soften the jabs of Grief’s elbows.

And so I watch my Dad, haunted by the hollowness of loss, and I know that all I can do is let him live it. I talk to him every day and plan lots of time together, but in the end, I know the silence of his house that for so long was filled with mum, her friends, the carers, is now hushed by the shuffle of Grief who wonders the rooms of a lifetime together looking for memories. 

I cannot fix their grief. I can’t fix my own. And now that I know that, I adjust to living with it.  And it is ok. 

IMG_5255Because we have found a way to make room for our new houseguest.  My dad arrived with flower pots for the girls, to water and watch as lipstick red tulips emerge to kiss the spring air. And together we have planted our pain into the soil, potting colour and growing our grief through the petals of nature. We have planted a bush for Mum, it’s buds tightly protecting the glory of it’s beauty that will emerge as the sun shines down on them in the next few weeks. My mum loved sitting in the garden with her face turned to the sun, just like those buds. That is my memory of us. Together, chatting, our smiles reflected in the sunshine. So my dad and I, and the girls have planted a little garden for her, with a water feature, a trickle of water playing a melody for my memories.  And over the coming weeks, months and years, it will mature and become a part of the garden, just like Grief will slowly change from being an uncomfortable houseguest, to part of who we are. And I now sit in the quiet of the setting sun, my face turned to the fading heat, my mum’s bloom yearning to open up with colour and potential, and Grief sits beside me.  But so does my mum. And they both drape their arms over my shoulders and I am ok.

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Hiking to happiness

Life is full of surprises.  I won’t say it’s like a box of chocolates because then I’d eat them all so quickly I’d have no chocolates left, and that can only mean one thing in that particular metaphor.   And I feel I’ve just got to the second layer…..

So I’d like to think of life a bit more like a good hike up a mountain. As in life, the path can be smooth, and the path can be rocky. The path can also at times be like a quagmire and sometimes you put your foot down and disappear down a bloody bog hole. (This has actually happened to me. Many years ago my pal and I joined the Wicklow Walkers and one day I literally disappeared in front of her eyes. She still laughs about it. I’m still getting 1000 year old bog out of my ear). So here you are hiking up this mountain of life, and the path can throw up any by sort of terrain at you.  But it is more than just the path you have to contend with – to a degree, you can always pick your path. You can side step and change course, you can choose to walk the well-trodden laid-down path, or scamper over untouched land.

But the sky, the view, the weather… They are beyond your control. And that’s the bit of life we often forget about, yet it’s often the most important.   The sky above can have fast moving clouds that change the light and the shadows and the view at whim. They can block out the sun, and the temperature drops so you stand in the wind and feel the chill of nature. Or they can clear and disappear and you are left basking in the glory of unfettered sunshine and blue skies. Moments later, a dark, dismal, threatening dump of blackness can seep across the brightness and there is nothing you can do but button up your jacket, pull the hood over your head and take shelter from the downpour.  An hour later, the skies can clear and you stride out again, smiling as the sun sweeps across the ground and the view is even better for having been lost for a while. The view made even more breathtaking by the rainbow that reminds us that the clouds always pass.   And that is often when you sit down and unpack the flask and drink tea and eat chocolate and appreciate what is around you.

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The view from Donegal’s Slieve League with my dad, and my girls last week

Yes in life, just as in one day, in one hour, sure in Ireland, just one minute can be a kaleidoscope of weather that changes every step you take. There are even those rare but strange moments when it rains on you in the sunshine.  And so, we climb this mountain of life, carefully choosing our paths, but always at the mercy of the changing skies that impact our view. Every so often we hopefully stop to look back down and admire how far we have come, and to take a breather and suck in the view (if we can see it through the mist). But no matter how carefully we tread, or enthusiastically we scamper over the ground, every so often a boulder can roll down that hill. The boulders of life can come at us at any time and they are often without warning. Some are easy to side-step, some we can try and jump over, and some just roll on over the top of us and flatten us out.   And sometimes we think it’s very unfair for those boulders to bowl us over.   Why should this boulder roll towards me? But they are as much a part of that mountain hike as the rainbow and the view.  They are all a part of life.

Yes, life is full of surprises. Great ones, funny ones, tragic ones, beautiful ones, heartbreaking ones, uplifting ones, absolutely shit ones.

I’ve had a few surprises in my life.   I’ve had the absolutely shit ones…. my mum’s stroke, and finding out my husband was no longer capable of being my husband anymore. I’ve had tragic ones….my mum dying and losing much-wanted pregnancies. I’ve had beautiful ones…. my girls, who still surprise me, every day. I’ve had uplifting ones… friendships and moments that glitter like the sun on the wet grass. I’ve had great ones…. a book deal and a job I love.   The boulders and the rainbows. The skies and the weather…. Life just keeps going on like a trek up a mountain.  And for a while the sky was heavy with cloud and crisis, and I’ve had to stop and sit down. Take cover.  But the skies are clearing and I’m ready to stand up again, and keep walking.

There are boulders that will knock us down, and rocks we have to climb over or step around, because they are blocking our path. There are potholes to climb out of and clouds that will take away the view and soak us to our bones. But there are also orchids hidden in rocks, views that sweep us away, sun that touches our faces, cups of tea at the summit, beauty and rainbows.  And that is what life is like. It’s an ongoing hike, with lots of views, and lots of paths and lots of beauty and lots of rain. And all we can do, all I have learnt to do, is keep putting one foot in front of the other, take in the views, admire the beauty, climb over boulders, and try and find a path that doesn’t send me over the cliff-edge.   

A bad surprise: learning to be a single parent. To realise that my life is forever changed by the actions of someone else, and that what was a challenging job in a marriage, is a nearly overwhelming one alone. I can’t get time alone with each of my girls, I can’t get refuge from the need, even, especially at 3am, I can’t get anyone else to take up the workload, I can’t stretch myself to meet all of the demands.

An uplifting surprise: I can figure out the jobs, one by one that daunted me. I can do things I didn’t think I could do. I can tie up my walking boots and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

A nice surprise: a phonecall from my brother. I was bogged down trying to think of a suitable way to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday, to give him something to focus on since mum died, a family time for me and my girls, my brother’s family and my dad to spend time together. But it was difficult to figure out what and where and get times between my girls being taken away by their dad, and other commitments. So then I get a phonecall. My brother has booked three flights for him, dad and me, and we are heading to Iceland, to camp on glaciers, hike up volcanoes, and take in views that are meant to be the best in the world.   To celebrate my dad’s birthday on the top of a mountain and to grieve my mum, and mourn the end of our family but to salute the one we still have and to be grateful, so fucking, absolutely grateful for the view.

Life is full of surprises. Like a hike up a mountain. And I have learned to just keep my eyes peeled and take it all in.

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When a bad day needs to be a good day

I am pretty open in this blog. I was open in my book.  But there is still a gap between openness and honesty. I share a lot, but I don’t share it all, and nor should I.   (Although sometimes I am so tempted to just put it all out there because I would love to stop having to protect people sometimes).  There is truth in my story that would make a great blog but for now I will keep it hidden. But I do write about my grief, and anger, and joy and struggles.  But I’ve noticed I’m a bit like an American movie adaptation – I always have to write in a happy ending. Even the down posts need to be uplifted at the end.

Part of this is my own positivity – and I am grateful every fucking day this last year that my over-riding belief system is one where I am responsible for my own happiness, and that I am capable of making things happen. Because there have been days this last year, and the last few years when that belief system has been tested to the limit.   Where I am literally pushed to the edge of the cliff and it is only my own sheer will power that keeps me clinging on by my fingertips.  (That, and my friends, Butler’s Salt truffles and a sparkling glass of Bombay Sapphire).

I fight to find my own voice in the crowded shouts of self-doubt and attacks from others, but I have found that amidst all the trauma of the last few years my voice has got stronger and stronger.  I have always tried to be kind. I have always strived to be fair. I have always chosen to be forgiving.  Those are the precious gifts my mum taught me. And I’m not going to be cute about it.. it has taken strength to be that way.   It has taken that will that I somehow have, that positivity, that self-belief, to keep those traits to the forefront when the days have been shit and people have hurt me. I am closing the gap between openness and honesty in this blog, but I am also determined to keep my own voice steady.   There are people and circumstances that will try to blow me over, that will try to undermine my strengths because it is my kindness and fairness and forgiveness that reflect back their lack of these things like a MirrorMirror on the Wall. They cannot stand my strength and so they try to weaken me. But I will not be weakened.  Not by you, not by this life.  I care less and less now about being seen as perfect, about protecting others, about being the good girl.  I care more and more about being open and honest about the shit days that don’t have an uplift at the end.

I seem to quote Nora Ephron a lot, but she speaks to me. I admire her strength of voice, her ‘I don’t care, I’ll say it how it is’ attitude, her self-belief in being honest. So here is my uplift at the end of this post. But it is more of a rally cry. It is who I am. Some days there is no uplift, just the loneliness and sadness and anger of a bad day. And that is life. But my saving grace, my life-saving trait, my fucking armour, is that I can always bring my own uplift to the table.

heroine

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Forget-Me-Not

It’s been a while since i’ve been able to write.   Literally.

I have not written a word since this last post. Not a diary entry. Not a blog post. Not a morning page. Not a line of my book. Not the best thing to admit as a new author!

In fact sitting down to write this has taken me days.  Today I have done every piece of DIY and cleaning I can find to avoid sitting down and facing a blank page (but no, still haven’t tackled the side yard.  I’d rather face my demons than that demonic disaster).

So finally here I am. A blank page. I will finally confront my thoughts.

It’s a month since my mum died.  I have written so much about her, in this blog, in my first book, in my diaries, in letters, in everything. So much came from her or was because of her, or was for her.

And maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to write. I’ve done lots of reading, lots of sorting and filing and to-do lists and work. I’ve done lots of sleeping and telly watching and talking. I’ve done lots of chocolate and wine and gin. But I haven’t been able to write. Because I don’t know what words will come out. I’m afraid of what words will come out. I’m ashamed that no words are there to come out. No thoughts. Just a blank space which won’t fill a blank page.   Or there are too many thoughts… too many everyday things that are taking up my time so that it’s not so much a blank space as a blanketed space, my grief smothered and muffled by the sheer weight of everything that is going on. The day after she died I was involved in a major car crash so I have had to find a new car, get intensive physio, dose up on pain killers. I’ve had to catch up on work, I have had to prepare for the final Separation meeting. I’ve had to get the girls to and from school and make a million meals.

I feel guilt that my life is going on. I feel relief that my life is going on. I have spent five years grieving for my mum while she was still alive, I don’t know how to grieve for her now that she’s gone.

I have tried to start several posts. But I couldn’t find my voice.  I had so much to write, I didn’t know what to write.

I started blogging a hundred years ago to write about the gruesome and the great aspects of parenting, as I entered a world of breast-feeding and breast-beating.

I wrote about the fun and the fright, of the unimagined joy and the unexpected desperation, of the happy and horrendous, of the just mind blowing eye of the storm that is raising children.

But then, suddenly the blog became about my sandwich years, as I entered the epicentre of the eye of the storm, when on top of the baby and the toddlers I found myself changing my mum’s nappy as well.  That went on for over five years.

The last few blogs have been pretty serious. It doesn’t get much more serious than losing a parent, losing a marriage and losing a husband.  I used to be carefree, and I  now I just look careless. That’s a lot of things to lose in one year.  It has been a gruelling, grim time, and the blog, (and my poor readers) have had to endure a lot of my outpourings of grief, anger, frustration, desperation and gin-fuelled delirium. 

So I am in a funny place..,… another phase to move this blog (and my life) into. And I need space to deal with my adjustment to a world in which my mum no longer lives.  A marriage can be left behind, a husband can be substituted, but a mum cannot.

And so, as I take my time, and find that space, I am going to go back to what was. I am going to write about the wonders of the wonderful and the wondering-what-the-hells? that is my life. I will write about my girls and my Girls (my friends) and my writing and my travels and my dad and my work. They are the wonders that makes my life full. And in doing so, of course I am still writing about my mum, because her parenting of me, and my parenting of the girls are so entwined, her words coming out of my mouth when I say really crap things like “Is there a flashing sign on the front on this house? Does it say the word Hotel anywhere on the napkins? No? Then why am I the only person to pick up dirty pants in this house?  And why when there are just four people, – that makes 8 socks per day – do I pick up at least 54 dirty ODD socks from the floor. Every day?”   And stuff like that.

After me being away so much in mum’s last weeks, they are back in my bed. And in giving comfort I am getting comfort, those little feet wrapped around mine, their skin suctioned to mine, each of us reaching out in the night.

But i feel a change coming on. Another change.  But a good change.

I got through the winter weather with box sets, and weathered the winter cold of separation with lit fires and glasses of wine.

But this last week, Spring has sprung out at me and made me jump, like my cat from the bushes when I walk by. The back door has been flung open, and I don’t yell “shut the door, you’re letting all the heat out!”  and as quickly as a winter night can fall, the spring evenings are suddenly bright and the girls want to play outside. I’ve been saying no because I haven’t dug up dog poo in at least 3 months but they go anyway, the pull of the widened sky a force greater than me.  I felt the sun on my face yesterday and for the first time since she died, I felt my mum’s hand on my cheek.

So I looked at the garden and knew it was time to re-engage.  I pulled up weeds, and picked up poo, and cut the long wet grass.  Later this week my dad will come down and together we will build a little serenity area and plant a tree for mum, a burst of colour that will keep me and the girlIMG_5096s company all summer long as we play in the garden.  And in winter I will look out at it and know that it’s promise of colour to come will keep me going. And I went to the shop and bought a paint called Forget-Me-Not. I didn’t buy it for it’s name, but because it’s the colour of my mum’s eyes.

Today I painted the bench my mum and I sat on for years, our faces turned to the sun. The bench we whiled away hours of chat and tea, the bench I sit in with my girls when we take a break from playing. And I painted it Forget-Me-Not and we will sit on it this summer, beside mum’s tree, with our faces turned to the sun. And on it I will write, and read, and watch my girls. And not forget.

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Love lives on

Hers were the arms that first held me, and mine were the arms that last held her, and in between those two embraces, there has been a lifetime of love.

I have said so much about my mum over the course of this blog, and in my book. (How ironic that I wrote a book about my experiences in my sandwich years, just as they ended. My mum died on the morning of the official launch date.)

She passed away in my arms, my brother and dad holding her hands ensuring she died as she loved living…. surrounded by her family.   It was a lovely moment and I feel privileged to have shared it with her.  Now is not the time to talk about my anger though, that in this day and age, wonderful, loving, vivacious, vibrant loving people like my mum should be allowed to die a long harrowing drawn out death, despite the fact she had passed the point of no recovery weeks before.   But I will write about it soon. I will write about it here, and in newspapers, because I will not want my children to watch me die like that.  No, that is for another day. This is just to mark a seismic event in my life that no words are seismic enough to convey. So instead I will write about her.

In between those two embraces there has been a life time of love.

a lifetime of laugher and kindness

a lifetime of chats and earl grey tea and dark chocolate treats

a lifetime of fights and slamming doors. But never silence.  There was never silence.

a lifetime of spending our time on each other, of phone calls and letters, of cuddles in bed, and faces turned to the sun.

A lifetime of moments and memories.

What has touched me so much was the sheer force of people telling me how lovely my mum was. From friends who remembered her from my school days to my good friends now. She spent her time on people. She used to complain about how long it took her to do a food shop every week – she didn’t seem to realise that it was because she talked to everyone she met!

For years she would get off the Belfast train in Connolly station full of stories about the person she had sat beside and talked to on the way down.  I often wonder about the number of people who went home from a flight to Edinburgh or a train to Dublin and talked about the lovely women they met on their journey. She had a hand’s on approach to love – lots of tactile expressions – a hand held, a cheek stroked, a body embraced. She touched people physically, and she touched them emotionally.

Family and friends were the mainstay of your life. Looking back over photos it’s inspiring to see how much our lives were woven into the fabric of her friendships.

And so it was with family. She grew and wove our family through hard work and dedication, just as she made our home, out of crafts and DIY.  Every curtain hangs with the threads she had stitched, chairs and furniture brought to life with her hands.   Our three homes all bear her labours of love, be they cushions and curtains, reupholstered chairs, or tapestries. Our children all have clothes she knitted and stitched. Mostly they were beautiful reminders of her mantra “If you’re going to do something, do it right.”

There were a few exceptions of course. When I asked my brother to give me a story, he reminded me of the 6 month knitting challenge that was his Aaron jumper. She had cursed and cried and knitted and tutted but eventually it was done, just in time for the Val Doonican jumper to go out of fashion.  He has never been able to throw it out though, because he knows how much love went into every stitch.  This made me smile, because I have exactly the same story. When she finally finished mine I wasn’t sure if it was a dress or a jumper. But I’ve never been able to throw it out.

Every holiday was accompanied by her tupperware box of goodies, and every return home was accompanied by “It’s lovely going away,” and then she would smile, and say “But it’s lovely coming home.”

It was an ancient Greek statesman who said, “ What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others”.    Her stitches of love are seen everywhere, in our homes, in her friends, and in our families..

She always felt insecure about the fact she didn’t finish school or have a big career.  She seemed to think this didn’t make her as smart as some other people. But what she never understood was she had the smartest knowledge of all. When I look back on all the things I have learned I realise that actually the only things I learned that really matter, where the things I learned from her.  No, not how to stack a dishwasher. I have never learned that.  But I did learn the other things she taught me.

How to love. How to be kind. How to value your friends. How to say sorry first, even if it wasn’t your fault, because friendship and family were more important than being right. She might not have had a degree, but she had a motto: People matter.  She always made people matter and that made her the smartest person I know.

IMG_4793The Wizard of Oz told the Tin Man, “the size of your heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved.”    By the love she generated, I know the size of her heart was enormous.

Of course my sandwich years are not really over…my dad needs support now as he adjusts to a life on his own. But it will be easier in so many ways. He can travel, and I won’t have to make choices between my parents and my children as much.  I will miss her beyond my comprehension. But I guess I’ll just keep talking to her. Because there is something else she taught me.

Hers were the arms that first held me…. and I know that they always will.

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Letting go and holding on

I am about to embark on an experience I have always dreaded. All my life, losing my mum was was vista I imagined to be full of horror and devastation. But now that it is here, it is a strangely enriching and comforting experience.

My mum is now actively dying, and while I always thought of that as a moment I would focus on the horror of watching that last breath, I realise instead I am spending my days focusing on her smile, on singing her songs, on holding her hand. And in a way I know now that the last breath is nowhere near as important as all the ones before it.

She is home, safe and secure in her own things, surrounded by her family, with friends dropping round.

This is such a privilege. To be here, to care for her, to see the love on her face, to be a part something so important which is ensuring that this is not all about her death – it is all about her life and her love.

We are all together – my mum and dad, my brother and me, the family I came from.  I realise that it is still a comforting place to be… for years we pigeon hole the ‘family’ of our childhood as it was then.. a time when (as I now know!) the family is at it’s most fraught, with me as a child and them as the parents. But it hasn’t been that way for a long time. As our family has evolved over my 45 years, now, at it’s end, it is four grown people, caring and loving and looking after each other (and naturally still irritating each other and fighting too). I feel very proud for us all to be where we are.

I have not one regret about my mum and that makes all the difference to this experience. Over the last 5 years of my sandwich years I think, as a family, we have nurtured her as she once nurtured us. We have cared for her and loved her as she always did for us. And before her stroke, we spent time on each other. Often we fought, often we irritated and even hurt each other, but mostly we held hands, and drank cups of tea and gin & tonics, and talked.

Yesterday, as I sat beside her, and she drifted in and out of sleep, I put on the well worn BBC DVD of Pride and Prejudice. It was 1985 when, sitting on the sofa, we watched Colin Firth jump into the lake for the first time, and ever since, whenever we were together we would often say, “shall we put on a bit of Darcy?” I reckon we have watched it over 50 times. So yesterday we watched it one last time. She slept through most of it, but every so often would open her eyes and smile.

She is peaceful and content – my loving kind mum remains when all else is gone. She opens her eyes and sees someone she loves – my dad, my brother, me, one of her friends. Is there any better way to go?

Yesterday morning she reached out her hand and stroked my face and pulled me close. She mumbled but I could make out “love, lovely, love.” I think she was telling me she loved me. What better way is there to say goodbye?

The palliative care team are now involved, so a nurse comes twice a day. This is a huge relief, as I feel there is someone who can tell us what is happening. It is a scary time. It is stressful. Leaving the girls in Dublin for so much time is really hard, once again the sandwich years forcing me to make choices. But there is no choice this time.  Tomorrow I will bring the girls up to say goodbye -their decision, and I hope then too, they will be reassured, that this is about letting her go in a gentle loving way, and in doing so hanging on to the memories that matter.

I don’t know how long we have, but she is happy, she is loved, and it is a real privilege to be with her.  Watching my mum die is not the horrific experience I once dreaded. It is a loving experience I will always remember.

mum and me (1)

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What we are left with

I have spent most of my sandwich years being pushed and pulled between one need and another, thrust about between joy and grief. Pushed and pulled between the needs of my children, career and parents. The joy of a baby and the grief of losing my mum.  And once again, two aspects of my life grab a hand and pull in opposite directions.

I literally could not be going through two more opposing experiences right now.

One is my dream come true, and one is my worst nightmare.

I have a lived in dream-like state for the last year as I gestated a book, knowing each week another essential part of it was developing. (My favourite words in life were being able to say “This week I am growing eyelashes on my baby”). And so there were weeks I could say  “this week I am actually constructing what looks a lot like a chapter. “  It grew and grew and grew and until finally, it had a cover, and a launch date. But still it was a bit of a dream.  Only me and my publisher knew it. It could still not be real. But then a package arrived, and there it was, my actual book. With chapters, and pages and everything.

And now, I am literally living beyond my dreams, as journalists are reading it and interviewing me, and I am being asked on radio and TV and to signings and all such exciting things and it feels like I’ve landed on the moon.

On the other hand, my mum is at the end stage of her life.  I’m not sure if I’ll be hosting a book launch or a funeral in the next couple of weeks.

Mum is home – there is nothing more they can do in hospital. I don’t know how long it will take  for her to slowly, softly fade.  However long it takes we will be there.

As I wrote my book, about my mum, and all we have gone through during these sandwich years , I realised a very important thing.  When everything else is stripped away, the only thing that is left, is the only thing that matters; love. She doesn’t know my name, and she can’t remember all the amazing things we have done, but when she sees me, she knows she loves me.  When her best friends of 50 years come to see her, she can’t say their names, but she knows that she loves them.   She can’t share memories or plans with my dad, but when she looks at him, it’s clear she loves him.

And despite all the pain and my dad, brother and I feel, we are all calm. I know now that letting her go is what she needs. And I am no longer afraid. Because she has taught me the most important lesson in life. When everything else is gone, you are left with the love.

And so I ride these two waves – one so high, and one so low, but both of them crashing to shore, me tottering to keep my balance, not really knowing how I’ll land.

I went back down to Dublin for a day and when I arrived back this morning, for the first time in my life, my mum didn’t smile when she saw me.  She is too tired to even do that now.

I take calls and answer emails and say yes to events, and meetings and photoshoots and interviews because I don’t know when I’ll have to say no.

I will ride these waves and let them both take me to the places they need to take me.  Because I have always ridden the wave she made for me, a wave made of love. She has held my hand all my life, and always smiled when she saw me.  Now she can no longer do that I will hold her hand until the end of her life and smile for us both.

88b90-daisy27schristening98

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