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Lighting Up My Life

Years ago, when I started writing for profit, I read how ‘profit’ doesn’t have to be just cold, hard, cash; and how competitions (this newsletter is full of them) where your literary talent garners you top prize,  even if the competition isn’t ‘literary’, can still be counted as ‘writing successes’. I wasn’t sure I agreed with this – until yesterday.

Last night, my eldest daughter had the honour of turning on the Christmas lights on Dublin’s Grafton Street (with a little bit of help from Westlife).  This came about because I entered a competition in her name (you had to be between 5 &10) for the job of switching on the lights. In order to win, you had to answer three questions and complete the slogan ‘Dublin City Centre is magic at Christmas because….’. My ending was: ‘when the heart of the Capital lights up, the hearts of the Capital light up as well.’

Turning on the lights would have been enough. But there was more – there was so much more. First off, my little one was treated like royalty from the time we arrived at Powerscourt Town Centre (at 4pm!) until we left Bewley’s two hours later. Everyone from the PR ladies, to the Executives of Brown Thomas and Bewley’s, to the Lord Mayor, to the officials from Dublin City Council, to the very gracious David Brennan of Dublin City Business Association to Martin King, Louis Walsh and the members of Westlife treated my daughter – and, indeed, her sister and myself – with utmost courtesy, kindness and consideration.

But there was more. The traders of Grafton Street – most notably HMV, Bewley’s and Brown Thomas – put together a huge hamper for us as well. My daughter, who is seven, would actually fit into this basket, I kid you not.  It contained goods and vouchers worth approximately €1,000.

Best of all, though, was the joy, excitement and sheer pleasure my daughters both experienced as a result of my penning the winning entry – which included a live interview with Tom Dunne on Newstalk this morning. It was a good result for ten minutes’ writing work.

So while, on this occasion, my writing may not have earned me a place in the halls of literary fame, it did enrich my family on a number of levels, and it did give my children memories they will treasure forever – which is surely, the most rewarding profit of all.

A Prayer For Padang

This is a lot longer than my usual posts, please excuse my departure from brevity.

In 1995, I went to Indonesia for the first time.  My (then) husband, a Malay, was working there – and on first landing in Indonesia, I was smitten by the country.
That first time I went – not to Jakarta, the capital – but to Padang, the capital of West Sumatra. The news this week of the devastation that has been wreaked upon the island has brought back so many memories of my first time in the country that I was later to call ‘home’.

It was in Sumatra that I first encountered people who, in meeting me, were meeting the first white person they had ever come across. Children would huddle together and giggle politely behind their hands while staring at me. And calling out the only words of English that they knew:
“Hello Mister!”
I would smile, wave and greet them in my pidgin Bahasa Indonesia
“Selamat Pagi!” Or ”Selamat Siang!”  I would call across, which would tickle them even more than the fact that I was there to begin with.

What of those children now – who would be in their late teens and early twenties – are they still alive? If they are, I’ll bet they have little to smile about.

Eka, one of the men my husband was doing business with, came from a privileged background and had studied in Canada. He spoke flawless English with a soft Canadian accent overlying his native one.  The lines between business and pleasure were blurred, and my husband and I often dined with the people he was there to see professionally.

Eka was one of the few people I encountered there who spoke more than a little English. He took great care to make me feel more included – translating the gist of conversations when I was obviously lost, and explaining cultural nuances. One night, over dinner, he took it upon himself to explain the origin of the word for ‘milk’.
“Actually, susu means breast as well,” he told me, running his hand over that part of his own anatomy to emphasize his point.  He imparted this information without a shred of embarrassment, or a hint that he was trying to embarrass me.  Or titillate the rest of the company. It was important to him that I felt welcome, at ease and comfortable.

Today, I wonder how comfortable he is.  Or if he is dead.

It took a few days before I got used to being stared at. The first few times I was approached by Sumatrans who came up to me and held their faces a mere two or three inches from mine, I was unnerved. Then I realised that all they wanted was to see for themselves how un-brown my green eyes were, and it didn’t bother me anymore.

How many of the eyes that stared into mine are now permanently closed?

The Sumatrans – the Minangkabau – are very proud people. This is reflected in their architecture. The rooves of the area are shaped like buffalo-horns.  The roof of the Ambacan Hotel – where I stayed for my first few weeks in Indonesia – was also shaped like buffalo horns. I have fond memories of that hotel and the staff who were so kind to me during my stay. Today, I learnt that the Ambacan toppled in the earthquake – trapping at least sixty people in the rubble. The rooves in Padang are so constructed to honour a time when, according to legend, the Minangkabau defeated the Javanese in a buffalo fight.  Everyone from Padang assumes you haven’t heard the story before, and proudly relates it you.

It pains me to think of this pride dashed and dented.

On my second day in the city, a stout police sergeant crossed the road to the side where I was walking. Smiling, and with his hand out-stretched, he approached. Pumping my hand enthusiastically, he loudly proclaimed “My friend! You are my friend.”
Returning his smiles, I assured him that I was.

Now, I wonder how many of his friends he has lost since Wednesday.

Wherever I went in Padang, people touched my skin. They stroked my arm, or the back of my hand out of absolute curiosity to see what it felt like – if it was in any way like their own.

Today, I wonder about those anonymous people – men, women and children – whose curiosity overcame their innate good manners as they touched me, un-invited. I wonder how many of them are still sheathed in their own skins.

The person with whom my husband mainly dealt was a squat, rotund man called Arnolih Boy – or ‘Boy’ for short. Though married and with his sixth child on the way, he was regarded by one and all as a ‘boy’. There was mischief in his smile and it was difficult to believe that someone who looked so childlike could drive a hard bargain and was a local ‘hot-shot’.

What of Arnolih Boy today? Where is he and his wife and all their children? Has the smile been permanently wiped off his face?

Everywhere I went on Sumatra, people took my photograph.  This annoyed my husband so much that one day he rounded on some unfortunate man, telling him to put his camera away, that I was his wife, and ‘not a national monument’.

I can’t help but wonder how many of Sumatra’s monuments are still standing.

During my first fortnight on the island, we passed by a hall where a young couple was getting married. One of the people we were with vaguely knew the family of the groom. He left us for a moment to wish the couple well. Minutes later, the groom’s father came out, ushering us to join in the festivities, to eat and drink our fill and to bless the couple. I remember one of the older aunties there insisted that – moreso than anyone else – I was to have my photograph taken with the newly-weds. They told me they  were honoured to have a foreigner at their wedding (my husband translated). I replied that I was the honoured one.

Where are they today? Are those newly-weds now among the newly-dead?

Fourteen years ago, Sumatra carved a place for itself in my heart. Today, Sumatra itself has been carved apart by a devastating earthquake.  Half a world away, I wonder about all the people I encountered when I first went there. I think about all the people who extended their hospitality and kindness to me. I think about all the people who helped me – translating, taking me shopping, inviting me to break bread with them, putting their cars and drivers at my disposal, showing me the natural beauty of the countryside.  I am helpless to do anything for them but pray.

The Sport of Thugs?

It’s been a bad week for boxing, but then again, boxing is bad for the weak. It’s bad for the weak of heart, bad for the weak of stomach and bad for the weak of corpus. Before I write another word, I need to express my sadness that Irish boxer Darren Sutherland recently felt he had no choice but to take his own life. As someone who clawed her way back from the brink of suicide, I know how bad that choicelessness feels. I also want to express sympathy to Bernard Dunne that he  is no longer a world champion. Losing your title must be crushing.

I really have to question, though, a ‘sport’ where the stated object of the exercise is to render your opponent senseless.

Of course I’ve heard the arguments for boxing; that it channels aggression; that fighting in the ring with rules is much better than fighting on the street without; that it’s a way out of poverty for some; that it teaches discipline and promotes fitness. That’s all grand, but boxing is not the only way – or indeed the best way to achieve these goals. I really cannot find it in me to endorse a ‘sport’  that gives points only to ‘blows with force behind them’.

Is being punched in the head really anything any of us wants our children to excel at? Sure, I know there are those who might suggest that if I had boys I might feel different – that having only girls precludes me from understanding the positives of pugilism. I disagree. I have brothers (four of them) and nephews (six of them) and I would never, ever, ever, like to see any of them fight – either inside or outside a square ring.

On the other hand, I’m more than happy to watch them play tennis, skate, swim, run, jump, play GAA sports and even rugby. Heck! If one of them took up cricket, I’d watch them play that, too.

Every sport has its own inherent dangers – but a sport where danger is the sport, can that be called a sport at all?

Mythbuster#1: The Irish Don’t Love Children

There is  a rumour being promulgated that Irish people love children. It irks me because, like many myths, it simply isn’t true. So let me take this opportunity to set the record straight; as a nation, Irish people do not love children.

I think this myth springs from the fact that Irish people had so many children – due, primarily, to the lack of availability of reliable contraception. Until years after I was born (conveniently) the rhythm method was the only method legally available to generations of Irish mammies and daddies. Let’s face it, using ‘natural’ contraception is a bit like saying that playing Russian roulette with a machine gun is safe once you know what you’re doing.  So Irish mammies and daddies had loads of children that they never touched – except to hurt; and rarely spoke to – except to give them orders, give out to them and give them an idea that they were, generally, worthless.

Irish people don’t love children, they tolerate them. If Irish people truly loved children, then the abuses that were visited upon this nation’s babies by members of the Catholic Church would not have been tolerated and condoned the way they were.

If Irish people loved children, they would not have allowed the Catholic Church to have sold their ‘illegitimate’ babies – which they did until the 1970s.

If Irish people loved children, we would not have heard Michael Murphy on the Late Late Show telling Ryan Tubridy very matter-of-factly and with great dignity about the abuse he suffered as a child.

What made Michael’s story worse was his acceptance and understanding that there was nothing at all unusual in an Irish child being abused physically and sexually by an adult within the home or close by it. It happened. It still happens – and it will continue to happen until we learn to love our children.

Of course, most individual mothers and fathers love their individual children, but our national identity cannot include a love of children because it doesn’t exist. It will not exist until our government does more to uphold the rights of children instead of merely paying lip service to them. It will not exist until children who are being abused are removed from abusive situations and properly cared for – which doesn’t happen. That cannot happen while our social workers struggle under huge caseloads. It will not exist until every child receives a decent education, which cannot happen where there are more than 22 children in the class. It will not exist until we accept that, as a nation, we have been getting it very wrong for a very long time – and we learn how to do it better.

My friend Noelle Harrison, wrote in her new novel (The Adulteress) that to be loved is to be treasured. How many Irish children went to sleep last night feeling treasured? I’ll tell you – not enough. Not nearly enough.

This is my first time……please be gentle with me!

Motherhood is not a career move. Not even for sixteen year old school girls who want a flat and enough money to survive on. Because that’s the thing – Lone Parents’ Allowance is just barely enough to survive on. I have never met a single mother who has had a child in order to ‘earn’ money. I have met women who have had a baby thinking that would ensure them the attention and affection of their beau.  I have met women who had babies because they got drunk and then pregnant, and wouldn’t contemplate having an abortion.  I  have met women who got pregnant in order to escape a dreadful home life. I have met women whose marriages have broken down and they have had no choice but to accept social welfare payments in order to raise their children.

Still, along with the ‘those foreigners stole our jobs’ brigade the ’single mothers should be forced to work’ brigade are clamouring to be heard. Talkshow hosts give them air time and consider their views. There are several ‘interesting’ ideas about how unwed (or no-longer-wed) mothers should contribute to society. How they should have to work for their payments, or how they should not receive as ‘much’ as they do.

What all these opinionists fail to recognise – and what has yet to be pointed out to them by any radio host I have heard – is that Bunracht na hEireann protects a woman’s right to raise her children. Article 41 (2.2) states  that:

‘The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

It would, therefore, be unconstitutional for any legislation to declare that women who have children and no partners must work outside the home.

Some people think this Article is demeaning to women. They interpret it as a reflection of the misogynistic view that “a woman’s place is in the home”. Personally, I see it as recognition of the valuable job that mothering is. A woman’s right to mother her children is upheld by the Irish Constitution. I actually think that’s quite progressive. The Irish Constitution itself recognises that, while motherhood is not a career move, it is the most important job any woman will ever undertake.