2013

My first post of the year will be a bit of a non-post, I’m afraid. 

 

It’s been a while since I wrote on this blog, and that’s not because there has been nothing to say. Paradoxically, it’s because there is so much to say that I haven’t been sure where to start! 

 

If that sounds like an excuse, that’s probably because it is. 🙂 Or, if I’m to be kind to myself, it’s a reason. 

 

So now, with much to do before leaving the house in about an hour, I’m off. 

 

But I’ll be back again soon. 

Kite Flying


With the budget closer than Christmas (which, apparently, is very close), the Irish government is engaging in a series of ‘kite-flying’ exercises. This is where our beloved leaders ‘leak’ information to the media and then sit back and see what public reaction is. If they get away with an idea without too much flack, then the idea makes its way into the budget. If the ‘leaked’ information results in a veritable shit storm of apoplexy (pardon my mixing of metaphors and medical conditions) then they quietly shelve it, claiming it was never being considered in the first place.

 

Last week, they mooted the idea of fiddling with the universality of universal child benefit. This week, it’s withdrawing funding from fee-paying schools. This talk worries me. I live on the edge. I am a loan parent bringing up two girls who have special educational needs. I have no help – practical, financial or emotional – either from a former husband/partner or my family of origin. My children cannot get the education they need in a ‘regular’ neighbourhood school. I tried that and ended up with a seven year old who, in her own words ‘just wanted to die’ because of how she was treated at school.

In Ireland, if you have a child who doesn’t fit into the expected box, they do not receive an education.  Let’s take a look at what I mean by that. When talking about education, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says:

“Article 29

1. States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to:

(a) The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;

Irish schools don’t do that. Unless you hover around ‘average’ you won’t do well in the mainstream Irish educational system. they only hoope you have is to seek out an institution tat will work with you and your child/ren and educate them. Or you can homeschool.  I did the latter for a year and, at the beginning of this academic year, my girls started at a different school. This school is more than 20kms from home and lessons start at 8am, necessitating a 6.50am departure from home. It’s a lifestyle change, but one that we decided, as a family to make. Nearly two months later, we have no regrets.

My children are happier than they have ever been at school. They are in small classes with teachers who are there for the children – not the holidays. also, this shcool caters fro the fact that my children are Hindu; which is important to us.

The good news is that this school has a secondary school attached to it. The bad news is that the secondary school is fee-paying. In spite of that, I am determined to do all I can to ensure that my kids – when the time comes – attend that secondary school. Going to a main-stream government run institution just isn’t going to work for my girls, I’m afraid.

Part of the reason that this school can exist is the money it gets from the government – in the form of (some) teachers’ salaries and capitation grants etc. The fees parents pay goes towards providing hot dinners during school hours to all students, to providing additional teachers and to providing other educational opportunities to the students. If the government took back the money it pays to these schools, I would absolutely not even be able to think about affording sending my girls there. It would be out of the realm of even my dreams. We’d have to emigrate (education is, to me, the most important thing I can give my children – after food and shelter).

I know it’s probably a bit daft of me even to suggest it – but how about the Minister for Education, instead of taking money away from fee-paying schools gives more to non fee-paying schools and brings up the overall standard of education in this country? How about the Minister looks at the services and extra educational value fee-paying schools offer and then implements them throughout all schools in Ireland? Then, by all means, withdraw funding from fee-paying schools.

Until he does that, though, a fee-paying school is the only way my children will get an education that fulfills the terms of Article 29 of the UNCRC. And aren’t we supposed to be finally legislating to bring our laws in line with the CRC?

That is, after all, the only thing on my Christmas wish list. You can keep your kites.

Happy International Day of the Girl

Today is an exciting day. It is the first International Day of the Girl ever!

We already have an International Day of the Child (November 20th), but the UN was convinced of the need to highlight the plight of girls – particularly in developing nations – and designated October 11th the Day of the Girl. This was achieved, in no small part, by the lobbying and hard work of Plan International.

It’s an opportunity to focus on what still needs to be done to keep our girl children safe; to celebrate the general fabulousness of girls and to focus our efforts on the dangers that uniquely face girls in this world – and try to fix them.

This morning, I’m going to a launch by Plan Ireland, in the Mansion House, to mark the occassion.  The venue made me smile because the Oak Room of the Mansion House (where the launch will be held) is exactly where a group of friends and I had our joint 16th birthday party (one of my friend’s dads was the Lord Mayor at the time).  It seems fitting, somehow, to be going back there again this morning for this event.

Proposed Children’s Rights Referendum Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Since the wording for the Children’s Rights Referendum was announced a few weeks ago, I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m so uncomfortable with it. People I like and admire – like Senator Jillian van Turnhout and Tanya Ward –  are fully behind the proposed wording, arguing that our children are not sufficiently protected by the Irish Constitution. I agree with them on that point, but I am gravely concerned that the proposed constitutional amendment doesn’t go far enough.

And I am concerned that we have a history of ‘settling’ in this country. The belief that ‘half a loaf is better than none’ seems to permeate our collective consciousness.   Nearly a hundred years ago, a delegation left these shores for Westminster to negotiate a treaty with England. Accepting something that was less than what the majority wanted led to civil war and decades of sectarian violence on this island.

More recently, we had a Civil Partnership Bill, which recognised the validity of relationships where people are committed to each other, but not married. It was a sop to same-sex couples, recognising their unions and allowing them certain rights under the law – particularly in regard to taxation.  For many couples, however, it just doesn’t go far enough. There are several areas where the disparity between marriage and civil partnership – and many of them are detailed here.

But civil partnership was heralded as great progress when it was signed into legislation nearly two years ago. In spite of the fact that it doesn’t offer parity with marriage – it cannot reasonably be called ‘gay marriage’ because it’s not. But it’s half a loaf. So we’ve grabbed at it gratefully and thought it was a toe in the door. Hopeful, perhaps, that later it could be amended to

It’s a slowly, slowly catchee monkey approach that so characterises an Irish approach to change. Instead of standing up and demanding the full loaf that we’re entitled to, we gratefully accept a morsel, a slice or a half loaf and tell ourselves ‘it’s a start’.

When it comes to our children, this approach sickens me. If you take a look at the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child  and compare it with the wording for the proposed amendment to the constitution , you can see that the proposed amendment does not go far enough – it does not discharge its duty to protect and care for the children of this nation in line with the UNCRC. You might think about that before you vote.

Breastfeeding Awareness Week

This week marks Breastfeeding Awareness Week – a week when we take stock of the rates of breastfeeding in our country and take stock of new research and evidence with regard to the benefits of breastfeeding.

 

 

Sadly, in Ireland, we have very low rates of breastfeeding our children. Only five out of ten babies will leave hospitals as breastfed, and fewer will be breastfed for very long. We really need to ask ourselves the hard questions with regard to feeding our babies ourselves in this country.

 

According to an article on the radio earlier this week, women in Ireland are more likely to breastfeed their babies if their husbands/partners are non-Irish. What does this tell us about Irish men’s attitudes to breasts and their being used for the reason they were invented? What does it also tell us about how easily Irish women are influenced by their men?

 

I struggle to understand why any woman who can – and that’s over 90% of women- does not breastfeed her baby. The short, medium and long term benefits far outweigh any initial discomfort. Whenever I hear a woman talk about how hard it is, I am reminded of a dear friend of mine who adopted a baby and induced lactation in order to breastfeed the infant. Her determination was fierce and it was not an easy road, but she was adamant that her child would not lack anything another child born to her might get.

 

From my own research, it would appear that Irish women believe the baby-formula hype (lies) that formula is as good for babies as breastmilk – especially after six months. This is complete nonsense as breasts are amazing things and will adapt the milk they produce to ‘fit’ the child they are feeding. Indeed, if a baby and a toddler are fed at the same time, the breasts will produce different milk for each child.

 

Apart from ignorance, I think lack of support – social, medical and familial – is a huge barrier to breastfeeding. As is mothers’ sad lack of comfort with their own bodies.

 

We need to stop pitting bottle-feeding mums against breast-feeding mums. We need to stop judging mothers who bottle-feed and make breast-feeding the unquestioned norm. If we could make child abuse normal in this country, surely we can do the same with child-nurturing?

When the Private is Public

A few days ago, I came across this post about a woman in Cork who worked for Dunnes Stores in their Ballincollig store. The woman is a Muslim and wants to wear a headscarf to work because she said it is part of her religion. Dunnes Stores has a uniform policy and wearing a headscarf is not part of their policy – and they are not about to permit people wear them. I think it only fair to note, at this point, that Islam does not insist on women wearing headscarves – but the woman in question is a recent convert to the religion, and there is something in that old saw about converts and zeal.

 

When I first read the piece, it reminded me of the case of a Christian woman who sued BA because they wouldn’t let her display her cross when she was working. Both stories are about women who have jobs, who are happy to work, but who also want to violate the uniform agreements they have signed up to.

 

I do not envy their managers. What is the right thing to do in these instances? Part of me thinks that wearing a hijab is harmless enough. Another part of me thinks that if you sign a contract that includes a uniform policy, then you are bound by it and to start complaining about it after the fact is a bit daft.

 

I believe that a person’s religion is their own private business – but I wear a bindi and, on my right wrist,  I have a tattoo that melds both the Om symbol and Lord Ganesha. Were I asked to remove my bindi to go to work, I don’t think I’d react positively. Wearing a bindi doesn’t interfere with my ability to do my job. It doesn’t contravene any health and safety regulations and it’s hardly offensive.  My tattoo is only noticeable if I’m not wearing full sleeves.

 

At the same time, if I were asked to remove my bindi because a firm I worked with didn’t allow religious symbols in the work place, I’m not sure I could refuse if I had been aware of their policy before taking up employment.

 

A person’s religion is their own private business, but people still have the right to practice and express their religion in this country.  I think, however, that if a  hijab is not allowed under the uniform policy and is not a religious requirement, then Dunnes Stores are quite right to insist their workers show up for their shifts bare-headed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choices

Abortion is a hot topic in Ireland and in the Irish media again. It’s 20 years since the ‘X Case’ that rocked Ireland to its core and divided the country. SPUC-ers termed themselves ‘pro-life’ as if everyone who held a different view was, somehow, ‘anti-life’ and feminists clamoured for a woman’s right to information and to choice.

The arguments often contained rhetoric like ‘you don’t know what you’d do if you were in that situation’. Or they pulled on emotional extremes like ‘what if your daughter was raped and then got pregnant?’  Well, when I was 12, I spent a few months worried that I was pregnant. It turned out I wasn’t. Years later, I learnt that one of the side-effects of the sexual abuse I suffered was that my reproductive system was so damaged, I actually couldn’t conceive until after I’d had surgery in my 20s. If I had been pregnant at that time, I’d have been pregnant by a relative as a result of rape (obviously!).

I was terrified. What would the baby be like? What would my mother say? (I knew she’d blame me). What would happen to me? This the worst case scenario that many people cite  in order to underscore how valuable abortion is – and how it should be available to women in this country. Obviously  they argue –  in this position, every woman would want an abortion.

Actually, no, they wouldn’t. Had I been pregnant, I wouldn’t have had an abortion. But that’s me. That’s my choice. I have absolutely no right to force my decision on anyone else. None.

Years later, just before I turned 30, I discovered – to my astonishment – that I was pregnant. The father of my child, as I have mentioned on this blog before, ‘suddenly remembered’ that he was married. To his cousin. Who was living in India, while he lived with me in Singapore.

I had already married and left two abusive men, and I had a 17 month old daughter from my second marriage. When I told people I was pregnant, many people assumed I’d ‘get rid of it’. At work, one of the people senior to me took me to one side and put pressure on me to have an abortion. He iterated how easy it was to have an abortion – compared to how hard it was to be a single parent.

‘And you already have a child,’ he reminded me. As if I needed reminding.

‘How much harder do you think your life is going to be with two?’ he asked.

He put a hand on my shoulder.

‘Give yourself a break,’ he counselled. ‘Have the procedure done this weekend. You’ll be back in work on Monday and no one need ever know.’

I didn’t have ‘the procedure’. I had my reasons for not wanting one – but they were my reasons. I had no right to foist my reasons on anyone else. Not then and not now. Which is why I support women’s right to choose. I support legislation that would make abortion legal in Ireland. Not just for medical reasons, either – because all that does is pit one type of woman against another. All sanctioning abortion ‘for medical reasons’ does is allow one group of women the right to choose, while removing the right to choose from another group of women.

Ireland needs to start treating women like adults; allowing them to make their own choices, and supporting them in the choices they make. Instead of, like it does now, turning away from Irishwomen who must journey overseas to have abortions for whatever reasons they make those decisions.

A Section of Society…..

A fortnight ago, I heard about the latest ESRI report on the fertility of Irish women. It’s taken me a while to address the most disturbing statistic revealed in that document, but I’m finally getting around to it.

 

Caesarean section rates in Ireland have increased. They are steadily creeping up and now stand (or lie!) at almost 25%. Bearing in mind that the WHO recommends that the C-section rate should not be more than 15 percent in any country – least of all a developed one where difficulties associated with vaginal birth, like malnutrition and FGM resulting in damage to the birth canal are virtually non-existent.

 

The day after these figures were released, I heard Peter Boylan of the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street giving reasons why we are now more than ten percentage points above the recommendations of the WHO.  I was just going to tweet ‘There’s Peter Boylan talking bollocks’, but I decided instead that it might be more useful to deconstruct his argument.

 

Boylan’s main arguments for the rising increase revolved around the following:

1. We now have women who are ‘much older’ giving birth for the first time.

2. There are more IVF babies.

3. Breech presentations lead to more C-sections.

4. Women have a ‘natural tendancy’ to worry about their pregnancies and think that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

 

Unfortunately, none of these ‘reasons’ is an evidence-based reason for cutting women’s abdomen’s open in order to extract their babies.

 

That Irish women are ‘much older’ giving birth for the first time, is an interesting piece of demographic research – not a reason to insist they undergo major surgery! In a search of scholarly articles, I could not find a single shred of evidence to suggest that being over 35 or even over 40 was in and of itself a contributing factor to risks that would necessitate a C-section. Not one.

 

As to Boylan’s assertion that IVF babies are more likely to ‘need’ to be brought into the world via surgery – there is no evidence to suggest that a pregnancy achieved through IVF does not proceed exactly the same way as every other pregnancy. Therefore, there is no evidence to suggest that any more than 15% of these births should be ending in Caesarean-sections.

 

Breech presentations, as any good midwife knows, are a variation of normal. A breech birth, therefore, is a ‘normal’ birth and should be treated as such. The problem is that the knowledge and skills necessary for attending a breech birth are being lost and ‘normal’ is regarded as ‘dangerous’.

 

I don’t think any of Peter Boylan’s ‘reasons’ for the rise in C-sections is quite as arrogant, condescending, patronising or stems from a more patriarchal place than his assertion that ‘women have a natural tendency to worry about their pregnancies and think that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong’.   Women don’t have a ‘natural tendency’ to assume that their pregnancy is doomed from the outset. We don’t need a doctor to pat our hands and tell us that they’ll take care of everything for us! Women, in fact, don’t worry about anything until it is suggested that there is anything to worry about. And who plants these seeds of doubt and worry? Why, the doctors, of course.

 

If, as Peter Boylan was suggesting, these natural worrying tendencies of women are responsible for the rise in C-sections, I wonder where he feels the responsibilities of doctors lie? Should they not be reassuring women with actual, cold, hard facts on the outcomes of pregnancy and childbirth? Should they not be reassuring women that pregnancy and birth are perfectly normal, everyday occurrences? Should they not be informing women that the outcomes for then and their children are better if they just allow nature to take her course?

 

In her piece in the Irish Times on June 26th, Dr. Jacky Jones reminds us that  ‘Fooling ourselves that the birthing process is safer for women when doctors are in charge is the ultimate example of group-think. The vast majority of women are able to give birth without surgical intervention so doctors are redundant except in about 10 to 15 per cent of cases. Obstetricians spent the 20th century inventing surgical and mechanical ways of interfering with a natural process to ensure they were not redundant.’

 

Unfortunately for women and their babies, Dr. Jones is right. I don’t want to vilify all doctors; they’re not operating from a place of greed many of them genuinely believe that they have women’s best interests at heart; but they forget that they are trained in the ‘abnormal’.  Their expertise is in intervention when things go wrong. As women have increasingly handed over their power to male doctors – and female doctors trained in a medical model that was invented by men – the amount of intervention in normal births has increased.

 

Dr. Marsden Wagner, who was formerly the WHO’s Director of Women’s and Children’s Health, wrote about this phenomenon in his seminal piece ‘Fish Can’t See Water’  which points out that because doctor’s don’t know any better, they can’t do any better.

 

It makes me very, very sad that women are continuing to hand over their power in this, the most feminine of arenas, to men. Until we stand up and wrest our power back from the patriarchal system that Birth is embedded in in this country, we can never truly expect the lot of women and children here to improve. As long as we are happy to be compliant, we will continue to be complicit in our own subjugation.

 

A Sporting Chance

So, it’s Wimbledon final today. I have no interest in Wimbledon – save it’s home to the common where the Wombles live. Also, I’ve a friend who lives in Wimbledon. From her balcony, one can see the famed tennis grounds. The actual tennis itself, though, holds no interest for me. 

 

I was on twitter last night and there was much tennis-talk filling my stream. I ignored it until one tweet caught my eye. It told me that Andy Murray, who is playing in the men’s final as I type, is a survivor of the Dunblane Primary School Massacre. That made me pay attention and I marvelled at the man’s ability to triumph over such an appalling event. 

 

I remember Dunblane well. I was living in Singapore at the time, the 22 year old wife of a 33 year old Singaporean who was bankrupt (financially and morally, as it turned out) and living in a dump. I was jobless (my then husband’s precarious position as a bankrupt meant he couldn’t sponsor me for residency and, as he was on bail for a number of corporate crime, I was denied a working visa whenever I found an employer willing to apply for one for me). I was also a few weeks away from homelessness.

 

For weeks, I didn’t bother getting out of bed until just before my husband was due to come home. For what? Why would I bother? It’s not like there was anything for me to do. I slept an unnatural sleep – unconscious for hours and waking more tired than I’d been when I’d gone to sleep. I had no energy for anything. I was isolated. I had no friends and no possibility of meeting any. Efforts to be upbeat took too much energy, so they didn’t last. Sometimes, I would have crying jags that could last literally hours. I ate once a day – if that – and would probably have killed myself if I could have summoned up the energy.

I remember I was in that awful dump, listening to the BBC World Service – which was my lifeline – when I heard a news report from Scotland. Evil had visited a primary school in the small town of Dunblane, a place I’d never even heard of. As I listened and learnt the details of the horror that had unfolded that March morning, I sat on the floor and sobbed. 

 

My heart broke for the 16 children and their school teacher who were mercilessly – and repeatedly – shot in their school building.  I grieved for their shattered bodies and the shattered dreams of their families. My spirit screamed in agony for the parents who had hugged and kissed their children goodbye that morning as they sent them off to school, and who would never hold them again. My soul ached for the children who survived – but would forever be haunted by the sights and sounds and smells of that morning. My heart broke for the community that had been rent by this horrible, reprehensible crime.

 

Even as I sat on the floor, with my face in my hands, hot tears splashing into my palms and my shoulders juddering, I did wonder if I was over-reacting. I asked myself how I could be so affected by something that had happened nearly ten thousand miles away, in a place I had never heard of, to people I didn’t know. I wondered if I was just using this terrible news as an excuse to ‘legitimately’ let go of some grief I had stored inside myself. It didn’t feel like that, though. I was genuinely upset at what I was hearing. Deep inside me, something gave up. It was as if the hopelessness I felt inside me was reflected in the outside world.

 

The thought of a man deliberately loading up two guns and going to a primary school with the sole intention of robbing babies of their lives, parents of their babies, a community of its future, shocked me and seemed personally offensive.

On Wednesday, March 13th, 1996, I felt as though Hope had taken a look around her, given her head a resigned shake, packed her suitcase and headed for sunnier climes. Two months shy of his tenth birthday, Andy Murray was there that day. He saw and heard and smelt and felt what happened. I know a thing or two about trauma. From a personal, professional and an academic point of view, I know  what trauma can do to a person. That’s why I’m in awe of the man currently slugging it out on the court in Wimbledon, attempting to be the first British man to win the men’s single’s final there since (I believe) 1936.

 

It takes a lot of character, a lot of talent and a lot of drive to make it to Wimbledon. It takes more to make it to a final. And it takes more again to triumph over witnessing a massacre and end up on centre court in Wimbledon for the men’s final. 

 

 

Addiction and Children in Care

Irish people are addicts. Every Irish person I know (and, living in Ireland, I know quite a few!) is addicted to something: whether that’s coffee, sex, alcohol, nicotine, heroin, or something else entirely, practically every one of them has an addiction.

 

For years now, I have asked myself what is wrong with us – as a people – that we are all addicted to something. If I may be simplistic for a moment, addiction is a substitute for a lack of love.  Addicts pursue their addictions because they feel unloved and are trying to fill the internal crater that a lack of love leaves inside a person.

 

In Ireland, we don’t care about, or look after, our children. I’ve written about this before.  Am I the only one who sees a link between how we treat our children – as is evidenced by the recent report on the deaths of children in care – and the level of addiction in this country?

 

The Value of Work

Yesterday saw the ESRI make the unprecedented move of pulling off their website a report that had made headlines earlier in the day.  The report that the ESRI decided, on reflection, that they could not stand over, claimed that some people were better off on the dole than working.  Specifically, this report claimed, that 44% of families were better off being in receipt of social welfare payments and the ancillary benefits associated with those payments than going to work.

 

In the hours between this report coming to light and it being removed from the think-tank’s website, there was much air time given to it. People rang various radio programmes and declared that they were aware of people who refused to work because they were better off on social welfare payments. Interestingly, I didn’t hear one person say they had, or would, refuse to work because they would rather be on the dole.

 

You see, work is about more than the money you get at the end of the week. Work provides a sense of self-esteem. It gets you out of the house, provides opportunities for intellectual stimulation, conversation with peers, the possibility to form relationships with other people. Work gives you a sense of purpose, a sense of pride, a sense that you are doing something worthwhile. Being offered a job comes with a sense of achievement – the knowledge that you were the most suitable candidate for the job – that you don’t get on the dole.

 

Work helps you feel like you’re making a contribution to the society in which you live. There’s a lot to be said for that, as self-esteem is very important for mental health. Of course, the pay check at the end of the week or month is useful, too, but it’s not the only reason to go to work.

 

Mind Yourself

Like your physical health, your mental health is your own responsibility. You can choose to blame other people for everything that’s wrong in your life, but you can also take responsibility by looking for help when you need it. There are people and places you can go for help, but the first thing you need to do is admit that you need it in the first place.

 

I don’t say this glibly.  Looking for help – admitting you need it – can be a scary thing to do. For many of us, seeking help for a mental health issue is difficult. This is due, in part, to the fact that there is such stigma attached to mental ill-health that  seeking help can be daunting. But think about it – if you had a broken leg, wouldn’t you take yourself to hospital? If you had a cough that wouldn’t go away, wouldn’t you seek help from a doctor, pharmacist, homeopath or naturopath? It’s the same with your mental health.

 

If you are in emotional pain, there is no reason to let that pain fester. There are many different types of healers you can approach, depending on your own beliefs and what you feel might work best for you at a given time. The point is that if you are suffering you are not doing anyone any favours – not yourself or anyone around you – by continuing to suffer.

 

If you are unhappy, you must take responsibility for your unhappiness yourself. Blaming other people for every upsetting or disappointing event in your life does no one any favours – including yourself.

 

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t hold other people accountable for their actions. Accepting responsibility for your unhappiness also allows you to accept responsibility for your happiness, which is hugely liberating.

 

For example, I could quite easily blame the people who abused me for my unhappiness. That would just give them power over me. I no longer choose to do that. Instead, I acknowledge that there was huge pain and trauma associated with their actions. I acknowledge that I need to heal from that trauma. I acknowledge that there are some bits of me that will never heal (a bit like an amputee accepting that a severed limb will never re-grow). I also acknowledge that in every moment of every day, I have the power to choose my own happiness.

 

It took a lot of work, a lot of therapy and a lot of time for me to reach this point. I’m still a work in progress, but I know I can’t do it all on my own – and I don’t expect that of myself any more.

 

I’ve learnt how to mind myself.

 

Mind Your Space

One of the things that can impact directly on our moods – and on which we have a lot of control – is our environment. Living in dreary, grey Ireland won’t do much to lift your mood but there are plenty of things you can do within your own four walls that can help.

 

I have noticed that I feel much less motivated when my house is trí-na-chéile. I feel like I can’t breathe, I feel overwhelmed and I feel lethargic and incapable when the house is a mess. The solution is so simple – sort it out! The problem is that by the time it gets bad enough for me to feel stifled by it, it feels like a problem that’s too big to tackle. The solution, I’ve found, is to tidy and sort as I go – and to get the children to pitch in and do their bit as well. I know this sounds so obvious and simple – but it is really easy to let things slide. It’s easy to let things get out of control when there are so many things of equal priority on your to-do list. But when something so simple can have such a profound effect on your mental health, it’s a good idea to train yourself to pay attention to your surroundings.

 

Decluttering is wonderfully therapeutic. At least twice a year, we go through every cupboard, closet and drawer and strip it of anything non-essential. It helps if you have a friend who will lend a hand with this process – other people aren’t emotionally attached to your clutter the way you are. If you haven’t worn an item of clothing for 6 months (or for two seasons, if it’s a seasonal item like a winter coat) give it to the charity shop. Books you have read and know you won’t read again deserve to be enjoyed by others – so donate or Freecycle them, too.

 

While your children are doubtless artistic genii, you don’t need to keep every daub they ever put on a piece of paper in their lives. Keep a sample from each school term, and one or two other exceptional/sentimental pieces. Bin the rest.

 

Moving furniture around – even getting rid of one or two pieces – can improve the flow of energy in your home. If you’re not constantly irritated by the placement of a particular table or stool, you’ll automatically feel a lot better when you step through your front door.

 

Paint your walls happy! Even in rented accommodation, it’s usually possible to broker a deal with the landlord with regard to repainting the premises. Start with the room that bothers you most, or the room where you spend most time (they’re often the same room!) and set to with rollers and tins of gentle, refreshing colours. If a re-paint really is out of the question, head to IKEA and invest in some cheap frames (they have loads) and frame pictures, paintings, postcards and even bits of fabrics to brighten your surroundings – and your mood.

 

I’m not suggesting that we should all aspire to make our homes museum-like in their neatness or zen-like in their minimalism or even that we should know and employ every rule of Vastu Shastri or Feng Shui, but the more you enjoy being in your surroundings, the more you’ll enjoy being in your skin.

Supporting Someone With a Mental Health Issue

At some stage in our lives, each of us will suffer with mental ill-health. It’s important, therefore,  to know how to manage our own mental health but it’s also important to know how to support someone in difficulty.

 

The first thing to remember is that, like pregnancy, mental health issues are not catching. You won’t ‘end up like’ the friend or relative you support when they’re feeling low.

 

Personally, I find that the most qualifying, the most dignifying, and the most helpful support I have ever received from friends who have supported me is what compassionate professionals call ‘witnessing’.  Simply put, this is the act of  ‘allowing’ the person who is suffering to go through what they are going through without trying to minimise or ‘fix’ it; without trying to shake the person out of how they are feeling or tell them that shouldn’t need to feel as bad as they do. Just allowing a person to sit in silence, or sit and cry and not trying to intervene is hugely empowering for the person in pain.

 

Sometimes we stay away from people who are in mental anguish because we are embarrassed to see someone who is in pain, or because we don’t want to see our own pain reflected back at us. It’s really important not to further isolate people in pain by shunning them. It adds to the stigma, and can make people more reluctant to reach out.

 

If you share a hobby or have a standing arrangement with someone who is suffering mental ill-health, don’t change your common routine just because they’re not feeling well.  They may not be as chipper as usual and they may be resistant to  going out but if that’s the case, can you go to them? Feeling that people still care can be a huge help to recovery for most people.

 

Do remember that ‘this, too, shall pass’ and your friend will return to themselves.  In the meantime, though, you don’t have to have all the answers, just being there and making the odd phone call or the odd cup of tea can make all the difference. Letting your friend know that you think they’re worth bothering about and worth the time and effort you put into the relationship can help them to feel that way about themselves.

 

Finally, bear in mind that if you want a friend, be a friend. You never know when your own mental health will suffer and you’ll want support, understanding and kindness yourself.

 

Mental Health

Many discussions on mental health focus on mental ill health.  Like our physical health, we need to care for our mental health. Here are a few ways everyone can easily incorporate mental health self-care into their daily lives:

 

1. Exercise.  I know it can be hard to find time, but if a twenty-minute walk or run is the difference between a good day and a terrific one, it’s something you need to find the time for.

2. When you’re feeling down – or feeling you might slide towards feeling down, don’t read or listen to the news. News is usually negative, and when we’re mentally and / or emotionally vulnerable or fragile, the negativity eats at us more than it would otherwise.

3. Have something that soothes your soul – knitting, needlework, painting, reading or photography – nearby and use it to help you when you need it to.

4. Don’t use your to do list as a tool to beat yourself with and scream ‘Failure!’ at you. Only allow things on your to-do list that really need to be done today.

5. Don’t berate yourself for being sad. You feel how you feel and you don’t have to apologise for it – not even to yourself.

6. Keep a gratitude journal. In it, write down the things you are grateful for. On your sad days, look through it and realise how blessed you are.

7. Whenever someone pays you a compliment, or comments favourably on something you’ve done, make a note of it. If you start to feel down, refer to the list.

8. Add to the list with things you notice and like about yourself.

9. Treat yourself. Every day do something nice for yourself; buy yourself flowers, run yourself a bath, talk to a friend, read a book, watch a movie you love, cheat at solitaire….whatever makes you feel you good. You deserve to feel good.

10. Eat well. A good, nutritious diet will help you feel good and will strengthen your immune system. All of which will help you feel good inside and out.

Pulling the Curtains on a Dilemma

So, the news in Dublin today is that a lady left a pair of curtains into a charity shop, and sewn into them was a wad of cash. Honest workers at the shop are desperately trying to re-unite the lady who donated the curtains with her money.

 

Hearing this news, I couldn’t help but wonder what I’d do if I bought a pair of curtains in a charity shop that then turned out to have a large amount of money sewn into them. I would like to tell you that I am so scrupulously honest I’d return the money to the shop in question. But the truth is, I’m not so sure.

I think it would depend on how much money the ‘find’ contained. If it was just €50 I might keep it. Or I might not. I might be more likely to return it – €50 isn’t a life-changing amount and it would make me feel good about myself if I went back to the shop with it. On the other hand, €50 is enough to make a difference to my weekly budget and would buy a few things my girls need. So I might hang on to it.

 

Then again, a larger amount – say €1,000 and above – is a significant sum to me and would make a huge difference right now. And I could easily convince myself that I was predestined to stumble upon the money; that finding the cash in the curtains was the same thing – more or less – as buying a winning lottery ticket. I would agonise over what the right thing to do was.

 

That said, I am the type of person who, if given too much change in a shop will hand back the extra. I’ve also been known to point out omissions on restaurant bills and tell suppliers when their goods turn up after they have refunded me for items that we thought were lost in the post.

 

The difference is that in those instances,  I don’t feel morally entitled to keep the money. It doesn’t feel legally right, either. But the money-in-the-curtains thing? Well, if  the money legally came into my possession, would it morally be mine? Would it be okay to keep it?

What would you do?

See Change

This morning, See Change launched its Make A Ripple radio campaign. The campaign sees 22 real people tell (part of) their real stories. These awareness-raising ads were recorded and produced without scripts and without music or intros by the wonderful, generous, inspiring Evelyn McClafferty.

I was honoured when I was asked to be part of the campaign, which aims to raise awareness and smash the stigma surrounding mental ill health in Ireland. I was delighted when I was asked to speak at the launch. This is what I had to say:

“I became involved with this campaign because I believe that the more people speak out about their mental health, the more people will speak out about their mental health.

The stigma attached to mental ill-health allows ill-informed people to continue to say ill-informed, unkind, untrue, unhelpful things about mental ill-health. The only way to exorcise stigma is to educate it out of people. The only way to do that is to challenge it. The only way to do that is to speak out and refuse to be silent. To tell the truth.

My truth is that I have post traumatic stress disorder. I have PTSD because I was sexually abused from the time I was two until I was an adult.  The people who brutalised my body also traumatised my mind. How could they not? Body and mind are two halves of the same whole; they are indivisible and inextricably linked. Yet, discussing physical health is so much more ‘acceptable’ than discussing mental health.

I have a condition – a disorder – that is incurable. There is no cure for PTSD – there is no pill that will take the edge off it. When I was hospitalised two years ago, the consultant psychiatrist I was under told me as much. ‘Medicine can’t help you,’ he told me candidly. ‘We cannot help you here.’

He was right, the best I can do is be grateful for the fact that it’s not as bad as it was. Because, truly, it has been awful. There were days, many days, when my first thought upon waking was ‘Oh no! I’ve woken up again.’ There were days – years, in fact, where I retreated so far inside myself that I wasn’t sure I could ever be found.

PTSD meant I lost the ability to recognise my own instinct – let alone follow it. As you can imagine, that got me into some hairy situations. PTSD has seen me suicidal, believing that I truly was the worst person on the face of the planet; believing that the world, including my children – especially my children – would be better off without me.

PTSD left me terrified of the world and everyone in it. It left me believing the worst of myself. It saw me acting in ways that were not in my own best interests.

My symptoms were compounded by my attempts to conceal them from the world of “normal” people. (Yeah right! Who’s normal? Hands up here, all the normal people!) The relief I found when I stopped doing that was phenomenal. Suddenly, the energy that I’d been spending on concealing how I was, on playing the game, was freed up. I felt lighter – I felt like myself, even though it wasn’t easy. Especially not in the beginning.

It meant staying away from people who fed my negative views of myself., and who had a vested interest in keeping me stuck. It meant being honest when people asked me how I was. I’m not always ‘grand’! Sometimes I’m only ‘okay’. Sometimes I’m pretty low. Sometimes I’m barely hanging on. But I accept that.

My mental health is part of who I am, but it does not define me any more than having green eyes or unfashionably large feet or tattoos define me. I’m not stigmatized because of my eyes, or my feet or even my tattoos. So I no longer accept stigmatization because I have PTSD.

I’m not naive enough to think that my rejection of it will erase stigmatization. It won’t be wiped out at the end of this campaign fortnight. I know it’a a long journey and we’re just setting off. I know that people will still talk. I know people will still be unkind. I know some people will still call me cracked. But that’s okay, because every time someone calls me ‘cracked’, I remember what Groucho Marks had to say on the subject:

‘Blessed are the cracked,’ he said, ‘because they let in the light.’

So I thank God for all the cracked people. Long may we continue to let in the light. Long may we continue to shine.’  “

The stigma attached to mental ill-health can compound the difficulty of the initial problem.  Speak out about mental health, get help for mental illness the same way you would for physical illness. Don’t suffer in silence.

Our Fat Starving Children

Children in Ireland are bearing the brunt of the economic recession on this island. That is the truth. As the amount in their parents’ wallets shrinks, so too does the level of care Irish children are receiving. And I don’t mean trips to the apartment in Spain, or a weekend away in Disneyland for your birthday. I mean basic things. Like shoes that fit properly. And food.

 

We Irish have a funny relationship with food. We can’t shake off our ‘famine mentality’; which tells us we need to gobble every morsel laid in front of us because if we don’t, we’ll be starving tomorrow and then we’ll be sorry! Before the Celtic Tiger prowled the land (swiping at everything in his path and, ultimately giving us all septicemia) we were told to eat up our dinners and that it was a sin to leave food on our plates.

‘Poor black babies,’ we were told sternly ‘are dying in Africa and there you are, wasting food.’

 

I remember being force-fed to the point of vomiting because I couldn’t stomach what my parents deemed ‘enough’ food. I’m guessing they weren’t too concerned about food and the possibility of forming unhealthy relationships with it.

 

My eye is always drawn to anything in the news related to children, and this week, I have read two pieces which alarm me. In the first, I read of how – because one in five Irish children is obese – children in Ireland will be weighed when they start school. Now, aside altogether from the ritual humiliation of this kind of action, I wonder what the follow-on will be? What will be done with the information that’s collected this way? And, in these belt-tightening times, where will the funding come from? Would money not be better spent promoting healthy eating? Starting with breastfeeding, which has been shown to have a positive impact on obesity in later life (and is free!) ?

 

The second piece which alarmed me was this one. It tells of how five per-cent of  children in Ireland has self-reported going to bed or to school hungry. Now, while I couldn’t help but notice that the statistic is the same for both groups, I don’t for a moment suggest that the 5% that’s going to bed hungry is the same 5% that’s obese. But it’s possible.

 

Obesity, we all know, is caused when there is a huge surplus of energy (in the form of fats and sugars) going in compared with the amount of energy going out (in exercise). The only way to avoid obesity is to either eat less or exercise more – or both.  Avoiding obesity is also connected with avoiding empty calories and eating healthy nutritious food. And guess what? Healthy, nutritious food is more expensive than rubbish food.  And the empty calories – the ones that are all energy with little or no nutritional value – do not keep you feeling ‘full’ for longer.

 

For people on a very low income – for people who are living in poverty – buying  food that is full of nourishment is harder than you might think. A sliced loaf – bread made with good quality ingredients and low sugar and low salt and whole grains – costs €2.25 in a regular supermarket. A sliced loaf – thinly sliced, with very little nutritional value –  in one of the low-cost German supermarkets will set you back a mere ¢75.  Obviously, Mammy On A Budget is going to plump for the latter – because she can’t afford the former. But the cheaper one is a less healthy option.

 

Ditto fresh, organic fruit from the Farmers’ Market. Waaay better for you than the cheap stuff in the supermarkets – which are sprayed on the outside with goodness-knows-what, which does goodness-knows-what to your insides. Poor people have no choice but to buy the cheaper version and feed it to their kids.

 

The poor can’t afford to feed their children properly. The result? Fat, starving children.

Child Sexual Abuse And Self-Esteem

The effects of child sexual abuse are far-reaching. Child abuse doesn’t stop once you reach adulthood. It doesn’t go away and stop bothering you when you blow out the candles on your 18th birthday cake.

Yesterday, Lorraine Mulvey refused to be anonymous and spoke out about how being sexually abused by her father for most of her childhood had affected her. You can read her victim impact report here.

What struck me most – apart from Lorraine’s obvious bravery – is how similar her experiences were to my own. I, too, remember looking at other girls in school and wondering how often a week they were ‘visited’ in their beds. It never occurred to me that they might not be. It never occurred to me – until I was a teenager – that what was happening to me was not ‘normal’.

As I mentioned in an interview with Sean Moncrieff last week, my first memory is of being sexually abused. My first recollection of myself is of being a few weeks past my third birthday and being picked up by someone more than 30 years my senior; someone I should have been able to trust, and brought up to his bed. There, he stripped me from the waist down and proceeded to fiddle around with my vulva and my vagina before forcing his penis into my mouth. I tried to resist. That earned me a slapped face. I vividly remember the chubby roundness of my little cheek being lost inside the palm of his hand as he lost patience with me.

The worst part of this memory is that I have an awareness that I knew – when he picked me up – what was going to happen. I can still feel the dread, quickly followed by numbness, which indicates to me that this was not the first time I’d been abused. Just the first recollection I have of it.

Remember, I was three.  This is (part of) my first memory. No memory precedes it. No memories of hugs, or kisses or bed-time stories, or of bed being a safe, warm place to be. No memories of laughter or sun. My first memory is of not even belonging to myself.

I didn’t like what was happening – but I didn’t know any different. I didn’t know that things could be different. I didn’t like it, but I knew I had to put up with it. The same way I didn’t like potatoes, but I still had to eat them. They made me gag, too.

The people who sexually abused me told me that I was ‘a dirty girl’, ‘a bold girl’ ‘disgusting’ and ‘ugly’. I believed them. How could I not? I had never heard anything good about myself. For years and years, if anyone paid me a compliment, I couldn’t accept it. How could anyone say anything remotely good about me? Often, I’d assume that the person paying me the compliment was being particularly unkind – saying something that couldn’t possibly be true as a way of pointing out how awful I was. Or I’d feel guilty for having – somehow, unwittingly – duped them into thinking something good about me. Even now, accepting a compliment – no matter how genuine – causes me difficulty.

Shame was my constant companion. I was ashamed that I had this body that made people hurt me. I was ashamed of how ugly I was. I was ashamed of the fact that this was happening to me. I wished I was invisible.

Guilt and fear jostled for pride of place in my psyche for years.  Sexual abuse hurts your sexual organs. It is natural for a child to place a hand on the sore parts of their bodies. Putting a hand – even subconsciously – on the part of me that was sore and stinging (a part I didn’t have a name for until years after the abuse had started) would earn me looks of disgust and words of admonishment ‘Stop that, ye dirty girl, ye!’

More guilt.

I felt that what was happening to me was my own fault. I believed them when they told me it was.

The night would bring fear, as I wondered whether or not I’d be left alone. Whether or not I could sleep.  As a child, I wasn’t even safe in my own bed. A little tight ball of anguish,  I cried myself to sleep every single night.  I prayed to God that I would never wake up again. Then morning would come, and I would wake up and knowing what the days held for me, I would conclude that even God didn’t want me to live with him. I was that bad.

I lived with a knot of fear in my stomach. I was afraid of everything and everyone. I was such easy prey for bullies;  even now,  in my 30s, a bully can stop me in my tracks and reduces me to a gibbering wreck (not a good look!).  Fear is a debilitating disease. It crippled me, and chased away any sense of esteem I might have had.

But my past does not define me. I no longer feel that I walk around with a visible thumb-print of abuse on my forehead. I no longer believe I am to blame for what happened. The guilt and shame are not mine to own.

I firmly believe that the more people who talk about abuse…the more people will talk about abuse. And the more people who talk about abuse, the more people will get help to overcome the trauma. That’s something else Lorraine Mulvey and I have in common.

 

Please don’t keep secrets about sexual abuse. Phone the rape crisis centre nationwide hotline: 1800 77 88 88 or One in Four: 01 6624070 /info@oneinfour.org

Benefits?

“It’s not all bad,” I have written before about being a lone parent. “There are advantages,” I have said. “There are certain things that are better about being on your own with the kids,” I have revealed.

One of those things, however, is not trying to subsist on social welfare payments. A parent in my position – with two qualifying children – receives the grand fortune of €247.60 per week. There is an additional fuel allowance of €20 per week during the colder months – but the last budget slashed the ‘cold season’ from 32 to 26 weeks.   Yes, I know, lone parents and their children are entitled to medical cards and some lone parents get help with their rent or mortgage but still, €247.60 a week to cover the costs of food, detergent, toiletries, other groceries, clothing, transport, energy, the phone, the Internet (no longer a luxury) and refuse collection. Not to mention ‘luxuries’ like books and outings. Because, yes, children do need books and they do outings (of course I’ve heard of the library – and we revel in our trips there, but some books you need to own). Sending them to school will not provide them with an education (but that’s a whole other blog post).

 

Anyone can live on €247.60 for a week. Or a month. Or six. After a year, though, the shine goes off it. After five, it becomes a struggle to survive. The feeling of triumphing over your circumstances because you’ve managed to ensure that no one went hungry all week, dissipates. You get sick of having to say ‘no’ to your children because you can’t say ‘yes’ – not as a lifestyle choice.

 

The feeling of embarrassment when your laser card is declined at the supermarket is alien to you. It’s happened so many times already that you don’t care about the humiliation, just the fact that you still don’t have bread or eggs or salt.

 

You resent having to choose between paying the rent and buying food for your kids. That’s a choice no one should have to make.

 

You turn down invitations not because you’re anti-social but because the cost of a night out petrol, parking, a babysitter – just isn’t available to you.

 

The cost of everything – insurance, tax, petrol, food, clothing, energy – has risen in the past year. I understand that they have increased for everyone, not just lone parents; but when you only have yourself to rely on, then you do feel it more acutely.

 

But, guess what? I don’t want to live on social welfare payments. No, really, I don’t. This is not a lifestyle choice for me. I’m not moaning because the government won’t give me enough of your money to live and raise my kids on. I would love to work. I would love to use the talents and experience I have to provide for myself and my family. I am a highly intelligent, well-educated, articulate, motivated, capable woman. I have valuable international experience and I learn fast. I am highly employable – and I have always managed to earn enough to support myself and my family outside of Ireland.

 

For so many lone parents in Ireland, working is incompatible with raising our children. Yes, I have tried. Dear Lord! I have tried.  Again and again I have come against the brick wall that is the attitude of employers in Ireland. They do not understand how skills can be easily transferred from one sector to another. They do not understand that people can be highly productive off-site. And don’t get me started on the lack of affordable childcare – especially for those of us who don’t have another parent, or parents or siblings of our own around to share that with.

 

In the absence of paid employment – and because I refuse to atrophy – I’ve returned to education. Partly funded – I will admit – by the Irish government. The non-funded part? I had to find that myself. I’m not even going to go into how I managed it. But manage it I did. See? I’m good at project-management, juggling budgets and finding solutions. The one thing I can’t find a solution to, though, is this government’s continuing willingness to penalise the most vulnerable, the most voiceless and the most precious people in our society – our children. That benefits no one.

Close the Vatican Embassy – and Several Others

There is much agonising in Ireland at the moment over whether or not we should close our embassy in the Vatican. Last November, the Taniste (second in political command) announced the closure of the Irish embassy there.

 

On Saturday, however, there were whispers from Government that it wouldn’t close – or that it would close, but would be opened again in two years if economic conditions allow.

 

Let’s just think about embassies and their functions for a moment. Principally, they are there to offer diplomatic and consular assistance to their citizens on foreign soil. Their other principal function is to forge and maintain good economic and diplomatic links with their host countries.

 

Take a look at this list  of Irish embassies and consulates around the world. There are plenty there that could be shut.  I mean, do we really  need one embassy and 14 consulates in Spain? Really?

 

When I lived in Jakarta in 1997, we had no embassy there. We still don’t, as it happens. At the time, the nearest Irish embassy was in Kuala Lumpur. In 2000, we opened one in Singapore. I understand the strategic importance of an embassy in Singapore – it’s a gateway to China and is very well-placed in South East Asia. But do we really need one in Kuala Lumpur as well?

 

While we’re busy closing schools, removing SNAs from children with special needs and increasing class sizes, does it make sense to keep so many embassies open? Remember, it’s not just the salaries of the staff you’re paying, it’s the rent of the Embassy, the Ambassador’s residence, the residences of the First and Second Secretaries, the Ambassador’s car, a ‘hardship allowance’ in some territories. Not to mention the cost of moving staff and their belongings around the globe. School fees at International schools for the offspring of ambassadors and other staff, domestic staff, security staff……do you see how quickly the euros mount up?

When I lived in countries where there was no Irish embassy, there was always an Honourary Irish Consulate. This was a person local to that country who had links to Ireland – usually they had been educated here – and who undertook to help get passports and register foreign-born children as Irish citizens.

 

Jakarta in 1997 wasn’t The Year of Living Dangerously, by any stretch – but there were a few hairy moments. Irish people there – and there was only a handful of us in that city of teeming millions – were advised that if we were in trouble or needed refuge, then the embassy of any EU country would help us.

 

If that solution was good enough then, why isn’t it good enough now? There is an Irish embassy in Rome. Let it deal with the Vatican as well – and let’s keep a few small schools open and a few more SNAs in employment.

Time Waits for No Woman

I’ve always had difficulty with time. I don’t understand it. And grappling with the notion of the space-time continuum ties me up in mental knots. Sometimes, I feel as though my brain has pinched the sides of understanding, but a deep understanding of the notion eludes me.

 

But I don’t have to muse on the space-time continuum every day. I do, however, have to work with time every single day. There are things to be done every single day, there are places I need to be every single day. There are things I need to do with, and for, my kids every single day. Very often I feel overwhelmed by time and feel the lack of it. I am anxious because there isn’t enough. Being late stresses me more than anything else…..and yet, I often find myself running late. 

 

Discussing it with a friend of mine – Richard –  during the week, I traced my feelings of unease with time back to my teens. I hung around with a guy who called time ‘the enemy’. 

 

‘How is the enemy?’ he asked once. I looked perplexed. 

‘TIME is the enemy!’ he pronounced, and ever after, when he asked how the enemy was, I would look at my watch and tell him the time.

I understood. Time was that thing that works against us – conspiring to suck all the joy out of our days because there is never enough of it. It disappears too quickly, leaving us breathless in its wake. It rubs its hands in glee as we run to escape from it. Except there is no escape. Time wins every….well, time.  

 

So for twenty years, I have understood that time is my enemy. It is evil and it wants me to fail. We are constantly pitted against each other and I can never win. Part of me, despite my every experience with it, expects Time to expand to accommodate me. And then I get upset and frustrated when it doesn’t. 

 

This week, I had an enormous shift. (No, that’s not a confession that I kissed a fella!) I just turned my perception of time on it’s head. Talking with Richard, the words

‘Time is my best friend’ tumbled out of my mouth. A huge smile spread across my face as I realised the truth of what I’d just said. I felt as if a large, ickky, tar-like mass had moved inside me and exited my body.

‘Time is the thing that exists to allow me to get things done, it’s not something that conspires against me to prevent me getting things done,’ I continued, as the realisation flooded through me. 

 

Changing my view of Time has completely changed my attitude towards, and relationship with, Time. It is no longer my enemy. It is my best friend. It is there to help me, to work with me and to make sure that I get done the things I want and need to get done in my life. 

 

I treat a friend very differently to how I treat an enemy, as well. I now treat time with respect, I welcome it with joy and I understand that it wants what’s best for me. 

 

I feel lighter, happier, and know that what I want to get done, I can do – because Time is on my side. Literally. 

 

What is there in your life that changing your attitude towards would result in changing your life? 

 

Should Taxpayers Fund Private Schools?

I learn, from the radio, and The Journal that the Irish minister for education is to look at what, exactly, fee-paying schools do with the fees they are paid. The “potential extent and nature of Exchequer investment” in fee-paying schools will be under review, the Department told The Journal.

 

There has been a bit of grumbling in the Irish media recently about private schools that are also in receipt of tax-payer’s money.  Some people contend that if a parent wants to send their child/ren to a fee-paying school, then they should foot the bill for all the associated costs.

 

I disagree. According to our constitution, all children are entitled to an education. Article 42.2 states:

 

The State shall provide for free primary education and shall endeavour to supplement and give reasonable aid to private and corporate educational initiative,

 

(In the Sinnott case, the Supreme Court decided that the right to free primary education ends at age 18).

 

The State has a duty to provide a minimum standard of education, but if a parent desires more for their child and they are willing to find the money to pay for it, then I think fair play to them.  All they are doing is ‘topping up’ the amount provided by the state in order to ensure that their children are educated to a higher than ‘minimum’ standard.  The children of the fee-paying schools are entitled to the minimum standard at the tax-payer’s expense, just the same as the children who attend non-fee-paying schools are entitled to that minimum.

 

As I have written before the standard of Irish education is not very high. If you have 30 children in a room there isn’t much you can hope to teach any of them.  In many fee-paying schools, the fees go to provide extra teachers to bring down the pupil:teacher ratio. This gives the children in these classes a better chance of reaching their potential. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is what education’s all about.

 

 

 

Small Stone

Last year, Alison Wells drew my attention to the River of Stones blog. I enjoyed reading what she wrote every day last January, but never had the urge to join in.

 

Today, however, when Alison posted her first small stone of 2012, I decided to jump into the river with her.

Here’s my first small stone:

When the sky turns this colour
I always think of you
And your first floor-length gown
Of a deep midnight blue
Nervously sophisticated
You stood by the door
And you waited

2012

I’ve often been heard to say that I don’t like Christmas much, but I do love the New Year. I love the hope, the promise, the belief – nay, the determination – that next year will be better. Some years that’s true, some years it isn’t – but it’s great to start off a new year believing that it will be. 

 

Most years, I make an effort and either have people in or go somewhere. This year, however, New Year’s Eve in our household will hardly be noticed. I have no desire to do anything but treat tonight as just another night. The girls and I contemplated going into Dublin for the NYE Party, but then my youngest voiced her concern that there might be drunk people there and she doesn’t want to be around drunk people. Fair enough. 

 

So I’ve sat down to scribble off a blog post. I am not going to compile a list of my 2011 highlights or lowlights. We all know what happened last year – and in our personal last years, and if we’ve forgotten, then maybe that’s for the best. Nor am I going to detail what I want, hope, aspire and commit to in 2012. For all but me, that would be a rather boring list. 

 

Instead, I’m sitting here, warm, safe and comfortable, listening to my daughters, in the whole of their health, roaring with laughter as they play together. The dinner is simmering on the stove and I have a glass of bubbly (water) to hand. 

 

Yes, 2011 brought me challenges, it taught me lessons and it reminded me – God it reminded me! – of how blessed I am. 

 

Thankful may I ever be for everything that God bestows

Thankful for the joys and sorrows, the blessings and the blows

Thankful for the wisdom gained through hardship and adversity

Thankful for the undertones as well as for the melody

Thankful may I ever be for benefits both great and small

And never fail in gratitude for the most divine gift of all;

The love of family and friends that in times of failure and success

O may the first prayer of the day be ever one of thankfulness

 

May 2012 be your best year yet. 

 

L’Chayim! 

 

 

 

And…..Breathe…..

I’ve written before about the fabulous Women On Air initiative and how it is both a great net-working opportunity for women who work in broadcasting and women who want to. The inspiring Margaret E. Ward and her committee organise occasional talks, seminars and workshops for such women. They are always well-attended, informative, interesting and fun.

 

There was one last night and, initially, I wasn’t going to go. As many of you already know, I have two young daughters and I am on my own with them – as a result they end up coming most places with me, which often means late nights. I’ve also returned to education and am studying, full-time, for an MA. Going out on a Wednesday night would have meant two late nights on the trot for my girls. As well as a few extra hours away from my books. I decided to be sensible and give it a miss.

 

Then, I noticed that more and more of my buddies were going. I wanted to hang out! At the last moment, I put all my mis-givings to one side and bought my ticket for the three-hour event with Miriam O’Callaghan. With all due respect to Miriam, I didn’t think that anything she was going to say was going to change my life. I was more interested in seeing, talking to and hanging out with the fabulous women who attend WOA events.

 

Now that I’d committed, I was all excited and sold it to my daughters as a fab night out for them, too. I even got myself a matching notebook and pencils to take notes on the night.

 

 

I left college yesterday at 2.30pm and pelted it home to pick my girls up from the school bus, then made dinner while they did their homework. Afterwards, I bundled my long-suffering pair into the car and we hit the road at 4.40pm to get to the venue for 6pm. I figured we’d be early by about 15 or 20 minutes, but I hadn’t banked on the weather.

 

From the time I hit the gates of our estate, the rain started. By the time we were half-way there,  my sat-nav was telling me we’d be ten minutes early. We sat in traffic for a while and the sat-nav told me we’d be in the door at 6pm. I gritted my teeth. I hate being late.

 

By the time we got to Dawson St. (where the event was taking place), I was already 10 minutes late and couldn’t find parking! I drove around, looking for a spot. There was one, but it was too far from where I needed to be. Had I been on my own – rain or no rain – I’d have parked and sprinted. As I had the girls with me, there was no question of my doing so.

 

Looking at the clock, the weather and the traffic, I decided to swing around one more time. This would make me half an hour late, but I would just nip in at the back and not make a fuss. I’m good at slipping in unnoticed. I’d have missed the beginning of what Miriam had to say, but I’ll still get to see the fabulous Women on Air afterwards.

 

Doubling back  took a bit longer than I’d hoped. Driving up and down the streets of Dublin, scouring for a parking spot, I realised there was none to be had.

‘Girls,’ I said to my two. ‘I think we’re just going to leave it and head home.’

They said nothing.

‘You could do with being in bed at a reasonable hour,’ I told them. ‘Especially because you’ve got to come to DCU with me tomorrow.’

 

Admitting defeat, I pointed the car in the direction of home and consoled myself with the thought that I was being ‘sensible’, ‘responsible’ and practical’.  Instead of being disappointed that I’d missed what (I hear today) was a wonderful night, I decided to take a lesson from the experience.

 

I need to realise that I am one person already doing the work of four. I need to realise that I can’t do everything I might like to. I need to realise that I can’t be everywhere I might like to be. I need to learn I don’t need to accept every invitation I receive.  I need to trust that, sometimes, there are second chances – that I will get to meet up with all the fabulous women I missed meeting last night. I need to learn that I can spread myself too thinly and then I do no one any favours.

 

It took bad weather, heavy traffic and missing Miriam O’Callaghan  to remind me of that.

 

 

Why I Celebrate September 11th

We all remember where we were this day ten years ago. We know where we were when we first heard. We know where we were when we first saw the pictures streaming out of New York. We remember how we felt and what our first thoughts were. We remember. We can never forget.

Like the rest of the world, I remember where I was. I was sitting in our living room in Singapore.

My (then) husband had gone to the pub after work. I was alone – though not quite alone, as my eldest daughter was busy gestating and I was sure I could feel her spirit around me all the time.

I was watching my friend and colleague, Lawrence Chau, as he presented his new game show on telly. Game shows aren’t my thing, but supporting my friends is, so I had the television on. Just after 9pm (Singapore is 12 hours ahead of New York), across the bottom of the screen, a ticker-tape news flash informed me that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers. Further information was on the other channel. I flicked.

I never did get back to watching Lozzy’s game show.

I reached for the phone and dialled my husband’s number. There was something surreal about the pictures I was seeing. I’d been to New York – to the Towers themselves – in July. My husband had scoffed at my tourist’s desire to go inside them, but I had insisted. I was a tourist and – for all his desire to think of himself as a local,  because he’d worked there (illegally) a few years earlier – so was he.

Sridhar didn’t answer his phone on the first ring. Or the second. He didn’t always answer his phone to me when he was out drinking.  It was a case of fifth time lucky. When we spoke, I told Sridhar that a plane had flown into the World Trade Centre. He derided my worried tone.

‘It’s just a light plane, I’m sure. Stop getting so excited.’

‘I think it’s more than that, Sridhar, I’m watching it now, it’s pretty terrible.’

‘Pretty terrible’ turned out to be the understatement of the year. The pictures were horror-filled, the news was soul-wringing and the pain and anguish being suffered by New York and her denizens was soon to become obvious.

In the following days, our inbox filled with messages from friends in New York, detailing where they were and how they were coping. Not well, on the whole. One of Sridhar’s friends worked at the WTC, but had missed his train because he’d spent an extra ten minutes playing with his baby. He had known he’d be late for work, but the giggles of his six-month old son had been too much for him to resist. Thank God they were.

For my part, I worried about the world my baby would be born into. All I’d ever wanted was to be a mother, but now I wondered if it was the right time to be bringing a child into the world. What kind of world would there be for her to inherit? Would there be a world for her to inherit at all? Was my desire to be a mother nothing but selfishness, after all?

When reading about the World Trade Centre, I realised that my own history had, in a very slight way, parallels with the history of the WTC: The towers had opened when my mother was expecting me – her first daughter. They were felled, 28 years later, when I was expecting my first daughter.

Ishthara was born 10 weeks early, ignominiously, in a toilet in India.  Her chances of survival were slim. I was told not to get too attached to the tiny scrap of humanity that was the embodiment of every hope I’d ever hoped. Pointless instruction, I think.

On September 11th, 2002, when my baby was nearly six months old, I was told that she had passed the ‘critical’ stage. I could never expect her to be the same as other children her age, I could expect her to always be smaller than her peers, I could expect her to be developmentally delayed, and to be slightly retarded. But, finally, I could expect her to live.

My Isha has lived. She has thrived. With a mother’s heart, I see that she is not the same as other children her age – but that’s not a bad thing. She’s funny and out-going and vivacious and kind and thoughtful and determined and she amazes me on a daily basis. She is petite and fine-boned, but of ‘average’ height for an Indian girl child her age. Ishthara is far from developmentally delayed, having been assessed as ‘Gifted’ earlier this year and – with every passing day – she brings more joy to me and those with whom she comes in contact.

September 11th has, since 2002, been a special day of celebration in our house. Today is no different. My little girl has requested we go to Carton House for their wedding fair. She wants to look at pretty dresses and jewellery and dressed tables and heaven knows what else. I will remind her that is she made for more than just marriage and smile as she gasps and sketches and touches fabric and offers her own opinions and expresses excitement.

Today, as I do every September 11th, I will offer special prayers; prayers in the memory of those who perished as the victims of murder on this day in 2011 – and their families. I will also offer special prayers of thanks for the blessings I received on September 11th, 2002.

In another parallel with the WTC, I will celebrate much of what Ishthara and New York have in common; resiliance, determination, the ability to astound, the ability to exceed expectations, the ability to come back from disaster.

One Bad Apple

I love Apple products. The first computer I ever had was an Apple. Since then, I have never bought any other type. I love the logic of Apple products, I love that they are easy for me to use. I love that they are reliable. And any irritation I might have regarding incompatibility of Apple products and software is neutralised by the fact that Apple products are so much less likely to be attacked by viruses.

 

I love that Apple products are so easy to use and so clever.  When I first held an iPhone in 2008, I thought ‘Hmmmm, I gotta get me one of these’. Then, I remembered that I don’t actually like touch screens on phones.

 

So when the iPad was invented, I thought I’d get one of those, instead. Now, however, I’ve changed my mind.

The big tech news this week is that Steve Jobs has resigned as CEO of Apple.  Truly, he has my sympathy. My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family as he continues to battle cancer. My thoughts and prayers are also, however, with the workers and their families at the factory in China where iPads and iPhones are manufactured.

 

When I first heard about the worker suicides at the Chinese plant that makes Apple products, I was absolutely dismayed. It’s something I can’t ignore. Much and all as I would like an iPad, there’s no way I could live with myself if I funded someone else’s misery. As my seven year old just said, ‘It’s like paying someone to kill themselves.’

 

So there will be no iPad for me. I’d never be able to wash the blood off.

Come Whine With Me

The first episode of the Irish version of Come Dine With Me aired last night on TV3. I love the UK and Australian versions of Come Dine With Me – but the Irish version was a bit like car-crash TV.  Dave Lamb did a wonderful job as the voice-over, and the production values were as high as the versions produced overseas.

 

But – oh dear – the guests!   In case you haven’t noticed, Irish people don’t do dinner parties. As a rule – and, yes, I know there will be exceptions to that rule – Irish people rarely extend or accept invitations to dinner. This perplexes and frustrates me; having a meal in someone’s home is a great way to relax, unwind and get to know your friends/neighbours better – or to be introduced to new people.

 

As we don’t seem to do the whole dinner party thing here, the attitude and comments of the host and guests on last night’s Come Dine With Me was hardly a surprise.

‘Fucking vegetarians!’ the host was heard to cry when he burnt the pine nuts he was meant to be gently toasting.

‘Let them go off and eat grass!’ another guest pronounced on the subject of vegetarians.

 

Sadly,  the ignorance and intolerance in evidence was nothing I hadn’t come across before.  Mind you, the token vegetarian in the group did nothing to endear herself to her fellow diners. She was an obnoxious aggressive woman who gave vegetarians a bad name.

‘It looks like poo,’ she said of the meal the other diners were about to tuck in to.

 

The diners were rude to, and about, each other – but it made for compelling telly, even if it doesn’t present Irish people in a good light. So you can bet your next meal that I’ll be glued to it again tonight!

The New Face of the Irish Mammy

Last Saturday, I was at my girls’ school. My eldest daughter’s classmates were first communicants, and she was as included as she wanted to be in the proceedings. This meant that we went to the church and she sat with her friends for much of the ceremony, before heading back to the school afterwards for cácá milís and a cupán tae.

 

Ishthara went as far as to wear a beautiful white dress – because the other girls were – but instead of a veil, she wore a tikka that matched the rest of her jewellery. She looked heart-breaking beautiful. But I’m her mother – I’m going to say that no matter what.

 

What amazed me, though, was not how well the children looked – but how well the other mammies looked. To a woman, they looked fabulous.

 

I thought back to my own school days. Growing up, every class had one glamorous mammy – maybe two if you were lucky – but the rest of them were, like mine, kind of frumpy in a mammy sort of a way. Back when I was in school, the mammy rule was that your foundation had to be at least two shades darker than your actual skin tone. Not only that, but eye-shadow was pretty much always two blue streaks on the lower lid – regardless of the colour tones of the wearer’s eyes, clothes or skin tone. And you had to put more make-up on when you were going out to something ‘special’ than you would otherwise; to show you’d made an effort, like. This was your ‘dressed-up and going out face’.

 

In the years between when I was at school and when my children started school, mammies got gorgeous. It’s not just the style and the sophistication of what they wear, though – more noticeable is the confidence and the self-possession that Irish mammies have now. What happened? Was it feminism? Was it the fact that we travelled more? Or that we had access to more magazines telling us how to dress and groom ourselves? Was it the Internet? Was it the Celtic Tiger? Was it Oprah? Was it the mere fact that more of them have third-level qualifications than my mother’s generation had?

 

Whatever it was, it’s made a very radical change to the face of motherhood in Ireland and I really hope that, with all our current problems, worries and woes, we won’t let the confidence that allows us to look glamorous and sophisticated take too much of a bashing.

Embrace Your Madness!

In Istanbul in November of 2005, I had one of those rare ‘aha’ moments. One of those moments where I saw myself as others might see me, and realised why even those who like me refer to me as ‘mad’. Personally, I prefer the term ‘eccentric’ – but we all mean the same thing; that I do tend to march to the beat of my own drum.

So there I was, in Istanbul, with an 18 month old and a three-and-a-half year old. We’d just deplaned from Prague, and were in a taxi.

My Turkish is non-existent and the taxi-driver had just a smattering of English, so communication was minimal. I gave him the name, address and telephone number of our hotel – having typed it out before we left home. Our driver nodded.

‘I know,’ he said, with sage reserve.

Entrusting my safety, and that of my precious children, to him, I settled back to get my first glimpses of Constantinople.

In hindsight, I realise I should have asked him what, exactly, it was he ‘knew’. Was it the address he recognised? Did he know the hotel? Or was he just confirming that he knew how to read English?

On the outskirts of the city proper, with one hand on the wheel, the driver pulled out his mobile phone. He glanced at the piece of paper I had given him and punched some digits on the keypad. A quick conversation took place in Turkish before he looked at me over his shoulder.

‘I know, I know,’ he reassured me brightly and set off with increased confidence.

About fifteen minutes later my ‘aha’ moment dawned on me:

It was just after midnight, and I was going the wrong way up a one-way street, in a city I’d never visited before, with my children in the back of a taxi, with whose driver I could not communicate; I had a booking in a hotel neither he nor I knew the location of, and my ‘guidebook’ was two pages torn from a month old copy of the Sunday paper. Nobody knew where I was, and my mobile phone didn’t work in Turkey.

Still, something inside me knew it would all work out – and it did. Within another five minutes, we had reached our destination.

My girls and I had a wonderful five days in Beautiful Byzantium. Flying out of the city at six on the morning of our departure, I realised how grateful I was for my ‘madness’. I finally understood what Shakespeare meant when he wrote ‘To thine ownself be true’: That it is important to march to the beat of your own drum, no matter how out of synch with the rest of the world that beat might be.

Mind Yourself

My girls were three minutes late for school this morning. It was my fault entirely;  I had them out late last night – at  The Sugar Club, a nightclub in Dublin. Even though it was a school night, I made the decision to bring them because I thought the event was important enough for my duaghters to witness it first-hand. The event in question was the launch of See Change‘s Make A Ripple campaign.

Make A Ripple is the joint effort of 45 individual bodies concerned with mental health. The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness about mental health, mental ill-health and to remove the stigma associated with mental health difficulties. Two very brave women – Barbara Brennan and Caroline McGuigan –  spoke about their own experiences with mental health problems and their brushes with suicide.

Mental health is as much a part of who people are as their physical health – in fact, the two are inextricably linked. I felt it was important for my children – aged 7 and 9 – to be at an event where mental health and difficulties with mental health were spoken about openly and without shame. At their ages, I wanted my children to be aware of that. I wanted them to know that if they ever had a difficulty that they could speak about it – and that by keeping it to themselves they would be making it worse.

We spoke about mental health on the drive home. My girls understood what Barbara and Caroline  had meant when they spoke about their difficulties. They understood that it  was important to talk about pain and difficulty – whether that pain was physical, mental, emotional or spiritual.

Coming away from the launch last night, I had a very strong feeling that mental health awareness needs to be taught in primary schools across Ireland. If we are going to remove the stigma associated with mental (ill)health and see a decrease in the number of suicides and attempted-suicides in this country, then we need to start with children as young as five and six.  Those children are our future, we need to make sure theirs is a bright one.

Mindfield

We’re just back from Mindfield. The girls and I had a wonderful time. The sun shone (always a bonus), most people had smiles on their faces and, while well-attended, it wasn’t packed to capacity; so there was a pleasant hum rather than a deafening roar of people.  The organisers and stall-holders might have preferred more of a crowd, but for this mammy, being able to spot my two if they ran off in different directions was a treat.

Ishthara, Kashmira and I got there in time for the butterfly-wing-making workshop with the talented, inspired, patient and unflappable (which is, paradoxically,  a good thing in a wing-lady!) Orla Kelly. While the wings dried, the children took a dance workshop with Monika Bieniek.  Then, both workshops were put together as they donned their wings and danced their dance.

After that, it was time to eat. We repaired to the car, where the wings were deposited, the clothes were changed and the picnic was retrieved. A few minutes later, at a picnic table (whose very civilised idea was that?!) we shared what we’d brought with a lovely family of two young boys, their Daddy and their Nana. Pride of place in our picnic basket were our mangoes – which were fresh off the plane from India yesterday. In case you’re unaware of how I feel about this fragrant yellow fruit, you might want to read this.

Just as we  finished, the Second Year students from Dun Laoghire IADT lumbered across the road from the Dead Zoo. To the delighted screams of the children (and a few of the adults), the students shared with us the performance element of their end-of-year projects; animals constructed from a wide variety of materials which the students slipped inside and roamed through the park. It was all very Macnas-like and wonderful.

We wandered around the stalls and the girls engaged with science, fashion and books before declaring themselves tired. We left, but I was disappointed not to have been able to take part in the later discussions – which, I heard via Twitter, were inspired and inspiring.

For me, though, the best part was bumping into people I hadn’t seen for years and years! It was wonderful to catch up quickly, re-kindle old friendships and swap contact details. I love making new friends, but there is something truly special about meeting old ones.

We’re going back to Mindfield tomorrow and who knows who we’ll bump into?

Mother’s Day

I walk into the room where the children are sleeping. They have their arms around each other. Their breathing is synchronised. They are soft and warm and innocent and beautiful. And they are mine.
I adore my children, I can’t bear to think of a life without them. It took me ten years, two husbands, bucket loads of pills, three surgical operations and rounds of infertility treatment to have my first (neither of my husbands would agree to adopt).  I know how lucky I am to have her and her sister. I know the pain of empty arms and an empty heart and celebrate that that is no longer my lot in life.
Being a parent is the most humbling, most exhilarating, most rewarding, most joyous experience of my life.  No ‘romantic’ encounter has ever come close. Perhaps because none of them was ever real and what I have with Ishthara and Kashmira could not be more real.
If bliss is when joy comes from your core and bubbles through you, touching every fibre of you, making every nerve tingle and then gushes out your pores, then my moments of true bliss are borne of my children.
They are the moments when we are just be-ing. They are the moments when their spirits are released – when they almost forget they are human and chase after a butterfly on a summer’s day, whooping and laughing. The moments when one of them will look at the other and say ‘I think you’re amazing’ and I know she’s saying so because she is overwhelmed by the truth of her statement.
They are the moments when I wake in the still darkness of early morning and feel the warmth of a little body cuddled in either side of me and know that all that matters in the my universe is in my arms.
Bliss comes to me in those moments when nothing else matters but the three of us and the bonds we share, the love we have for each other and the joy that we experience together.
My girls are truly wonderful creatures. They are spirited and joyful and charismatic and intelligent and creative and – more important than anything else – they are kind and thoughtful and loving.  I am truly blessed to have them in my life.
I am hugely honoured, privileged and lucky to be a mother. Having my girls means that every day is Mother’s Day. I am a mother because of my children. Every day is a celebration of who they are and who I have become because of them.

(Photo: Ishthara & Kashmira on Shergar with me in the background. Credit: Maura Hickey http://www.maurahickey.ie)

Our Bedouin Brethren

Forget the DNA research which told us we are more closely related to the Spanish than anyone else, I am starting to think that the Irish are most closely related to the Bedouin.

Last week, my friend and colleague Sarah Franklin posted on The Anti Room , a piece called ‘You say cronyism, I say helping a friend,’ about the propensity of Irish people to give each other ‘a dig out’. She mused that while, in other countries, it might be frowned upon to give people a hand; in Ireland it is the done thing.

Sarah’s post reminded me of a story I heard from another good friend, Jane Bishop. Years ago, Jane taught at the American University in Cairo. She loved her job, but was perplexed and annoyed when, during class tests, her students would cheat blatantly.

No matter how carefully Jane explained the rules of writing your own answers and not asking for – or giving – help, cheating during tests was rife. Frustrated, Jane wondered how on earth she was going to assess who knew what and who needed extra help.

She turned to one of the older, more experienced, lecturers. Smiling, her colleague asked Jane to think for a moment about the backgrounds of her students. They were desert folk, and in the desert, it is a matter of duty to assist anyone who asks you for help. If you don’t, you may as well sign their death warrants. Further, Jane’s colleague reminded her, many of her students were related to each other – brothers, cousins, second-cousins or in-laws. To refuse to help a relation was a matter of grave dishonour.

When Jane first told me this story, ten or so years ago, I was instantly reminded of Ireland and the way things work here. You help someone who asks you to. You help someone whom someone else asks you to. It is the done thing on this little island – and perhaps for the same reasons as it’s the done thing in the desert.

Then, yesterday, I read a piece on The Media Line that detailed how women are flauting the Saudi ban on women drivers. I couldn’t help but think how like Irish women these Saudi women are; they do what they have to do to keep their families ticking – working, shopping and ferrying the children to and from school.

I was also reminded of the Irish attitude to flauting rules; that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude that allows learner drivers to drive unaccompanied, that allows many infringements to go unchecked.

I’m one of those people who thinks that we’re all connected; every person is connected to every other person on the planet and we would do well to remember that: These similarities between the Irish and the desert peoples really helped to remind me of that.

How Are You?

How are you?

No, really, how are you? Tell me, I’m interested. I wouldn’t ask otherwise.

Answering this simple question honestly will go a long way towards normalising mental health – good, bad and ‘meh’ – in Ireland. This was the message at a recent public meeting held by Amnesty International and addressed by the award-winning writer, Colm Tóibín and Dr Siobhán Barry of the College of Psychiatry, Ireland and Caroline McGuigan who set up SOS (Suicide or Survive). Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland, chaired the discussion.

Can you imagine having the freedom – nay, the permission – to answer ‘How are you?’ honestly? Imagine if you weren’t expected to respond with ‘grand’, ‘not a bother’, ‘fine’, ‘great’ ,‘draggin’ the divil by the tail, thank God’ or some such positive response?

Imagine a world where it was okay to say ‘not great’, ‘I’m having a hard time,’ or ‘I’m not really coping’ ? Imagine yourself having a hard day – for whatever reason – and being asked by someone in the supermarket how you are. Now imagine yourself saying ‘If I hadn’t had to get the kids to school I don’t think I’d have bothered to get out of bed today’ or ‘Today’s hard.’  No, go on, close your eyes and imagine it. Would the earth shake and crumble? Probably not. Would you be struck dead on the spot? Probably not. Would the other person be embarrassed? Possibly. But so what? Whose problem is that – yours or theirs?

If we all did this – if we all engaged honestly with each other – can you imagine the change that would come about? People who weren’t sure they could cope with the answer wouldn’t ask ‘How are you?’ and people who really care wouldn’t take ‘fine’ for an answer. Unless they really believed it.

Try it. Just for today, answer ‘How are you?’ honestly every time you hear it. Notice how people react. Notice how you react. Then do it again tomorrow. I’d be interested to know how you get on.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QbftG0fIWoY

Children’s Rights?

In 1992, Ireland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. What that means is that Irish governments are bound by the Convention and must work towards its implementation.

What that, in turn, means is that we must look at our laws and ensure that none of them is in opposition to the spirit or letter of the articles of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. More than that, we need to ensure that the rights of the child are enshrined in our laws.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, is a legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights—civil, cultural, economic, political and social. In 1989, world leaders realised that children need a dedicated convention because they often need special care and protection that adults don’t. They also wanted to make sure that the world recognized that children have human rights too.

I’m not going to reproduce the entire document here, but let’s take a look at a few of the rights that are enshrined in the Convention and how well Ireland fares in ensuring that the one million children here have these rights respected.

Let’s look first at Article 19, which tells us that children must be protected from “… injury or abuse … including sexual abuse, while in the care of parents … or any other person….”

In Ireland, smacking a child is not outlawed. Parents are free to chastise their children physically if they so wish. Yet, if an adult chose to chastise another adult physically, that would legally be considered assault.

How parents treat their children is still treated as a ‘family matter’ in Ireland. Irish people don’t feel they ‘have the right’ to ‘interfere’. In 20 years’ time when the child against whom violence was used uses violence against others those same people will be clamouring for harsher punishment rather than looking at how violence can be eliminated from society.

Article 2 tells us that ‘all children must be treated without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of … race, colour, sex, language, religion … or other status’. And yet, 442 Traveller families live at the side of the road, without access to water or adequate sanitary facilities.   Still, in disadvantaged areas, one child in three leaves school with literacy problems.

Articles 21 & 22 declare that the State shall ‘ensure alternative care … [for] a child … deprived of his or her family environment … [according to] the best interests of the child ….’ Can the State explain to the Irish people, then why 703 children are currently in State care with no allocated social worker to support them? Can the State further explain to the Irish people why over 500 children have gone missing in the Republic of Ireland since 2000 – and why 90% of them are still missing?

Our children are our future. They are our most precious asset. Their health – mental, emotional and physical – should be of paramount importance to us. If the rights of children are important to you – and they really should be, whether or not you are a parent – then please make the Rights of the Child an election issue for you. Voice your concerns to canvassers who call to your door. Demand that Ireland, as a state, improves its record on children’s rights. Insist that Ireland honours its commitment to making Ireland a safe place for all children to live, play and be educated.

The Children’s Rights Alliance has produced a handy doorhanger with information and questions to ask of those who call to your door seeking your vote. To view, download and print it, go here.

Keep ‘Em Safe

About a fortnight ago, I had a piece in The Irish Examiner about child abduction. That was followed up by an appearance on Irish national TV where I gave an interview on the topic. Just yesterday, I spoke about the issue again, this time on radio.

The interest in child abduction and how to prevent it has led me to believe that more people are concerned about the issue than I had first thought. I have, therefore, decided to post about it here, and pass on the tips and information that I have in this regard.

While some of the things I have to say are very specifically pertinent to Irish parents, and those resident in Ireland, most are universal.

  • To keep your children safe, establish with them and with the school, who exactly is allowed to pick them up from school. If there is to be a deviation from this norm, for whatever reason, you must let the school know in writing. For example, if the rule is that only you are allowed to collect the children from school, but on Monday you have a dental appointment and can’t, you write to your child’s teacher explaining that your sister, Rose, will be picking up Little Johnny from school today. Make sure your children know who will be picking them up as well.
  • Have a ‘safe’ word, or ‘password’, that only you, your child and your child’s teacher know just in case you are incapacitated and need to send someone else to pick your kids up from school. Unless the person claiming to have the authority to pick up your child freely gives that word, your child is not to be released to them and the Gardaí are to be called.
  • Re-visit the rules of stranger danger and that your children are not to get in to a car with a stranger no matter what that stranger tells them. Unless the stranger knows the safeword.
  • Remember, if your ex wants to abduct your child/ren he or she may not do it personally; they may send a relative or friend to do it on their behalf.
  • Have an ‘identification pack’ ready just in case your child/ren is/are taken from you. That pack should include:

1. Around six copies of a recent photograph (update the photograph every month.

2. Height and weight (again, take these measurements and record them regularly)

3. A DNA sample – this doesn’t need to be anything dramatic, the child’s hair pulled from the hairbrush after you’ve brushed it, or their toothbrush will do fine.

4. If your child wears glasses, take pictures of them with and without their specs.

5. If your child has long hair, take pictures of them with their hair down and also pulled back – so it looks short.

6. A written description of your child, with as much detail as possible anything you can think of that could help someone identify your child is useful.

For example – Mary is X’Y” (Z cms ) tall, she weighs 25kgs and has shoulder length blonde hair with a fringe. Mary has a scar on the back of  her left hand from where she cut it when she fell last year. She has a slight stammer and is afraid of cats.

  • Become hyper-aware of what your children wear when they go out to play every day. Really look at them and train yourself to know how they were dressed. If they wear a school uniform, make sure you know the details of their school bags – any logos, badges etc.
  • The Hague Agreement offers some protection to abducted children. It is an agreement between countries that states a child taken by the non-custodial parent will be returned to the custodial parent.
  • Get your children on the ‘Stop Pass’ list. This is a list held by the Passport Office. If you worry that someone may attempt to get a passport for your child by claiming that the one they have has been lost, you can have your child added to the ‘Stop Pass’ list. You need to give grounds, substantiate your claims and confirm that you have your child’s passport, that you keep it safely and ask that no one be allowed to receive a new passport for your child but you. You will receive written confirmation from the Passport Office that your child is on the list.
  • Remember that if your child has been living in Ireland for more than twelve months and one day, they are deemed to be ‘legally resident’ here. That means that they fall under Irish jurisdiction and the Irish legal system governs their welfare.
  • A ruling in a country outside the EU has no bearing whatsoever on you.
  • To enforce a ruling in Ireland, the side that has been awarded it needs to apply for a ‘mirror order’ which is an application to the Irish courts to have a ruling similar to the one made abroad made in an Irish court. In other words, someone who is awarded custody of your child in, say, Israel, would need to apply to an Irish Court of the same level (i.e. circuit court here to match circuit court there) to make the same ruling in Ireland. Then it can be enforced here. An Irish court will only grant a mirror order if it is satisfied that to do so puts the rights of the child first.
  • Irish courts are most concerned with the rights of the child. The mother’s rights and the father’s rights come after the best interest of the child.
  • If you have serious grounds for concern, approach your local Gardaí. They will listen to you and, if they agree that your concern is valid, will open a file for you.
  • If you can, apply for sole custody of your child. This provides some legal clout here and in a number of countries abroad. You have more of a leg to stand on if your ex does swoop in and take your child because the court here will not just award sole custody just because one parent asks for it. They will notify the other parent (no matter where they live) of the proceedings and invite them to be part of the proceedings. If they do not show up, or send a legal representative or if they do not impress the judge sufficiently as to why sole custody should not be awarded, only then will one parent be awarded sole custody
  • In the event that your ex needs a visa to come to Ireland, notify the Irish Embassy in the country where your ex lives that there is a concern regarding abduction. While the Embassy cannot refuse to grant a visa just because you ask them to, they will make note of your fears and attach a reference to those fears when the visa application is forwarded to the Dept of Foreign Affairs. Abduction of Irish citizens is a very serious matter and is taken very seriously. It helps if you have a case file with your local Gardaí that you can quote the number of in your correspondence with the Irish Embassy abroad.
  • If your child is eligible for Irish citizenship – for whatever reason – make sure they have it.
Finally, if you need further advice or help, you can contact http://www.reunite.org, a wonderful organisation in the UK. Reunite offers support and advice to those who fear their children will be abducted, those whose children have been taken and those seeking to reach an agreement on access. Their website is http://www.reunite.org.

Charity Begins….

Since I was a teenager, I have made it a point to do something for charity; something more than just drop a few coins into a bucket.  Don’t worry – I’m not going to shine my halo (but if you wanted to, I’d be delighted if you’d buy a copy of The Big Book of Hope) because I think charity is only really charity if one doesn’t crow about it.

In a recent radio interview, however, I was asked why people should contribute to a charity that helps children overseas when there are so many children in Ireland who need help. Why should Irish people send money to India or Ethiopa when there are children here who could benefit from that money?

I do not deny that there are children in Ireland who need help. There are children in Ireland who will go to bed hungry tonight. There are homeless people in Ireland who need food, clothing and shelter. There are sick children here who need – and whose families need – financial assistance. There are elders who need help. There are animal sanctuaries and community projects that all need – and deserve – help.

Most of us don’t need to leave our own towns or villages to find a person or family or cause who could use a bit of assistance. So, when I ask people to support a cause that helps Indian children, I am not asking them to do so at the expense of Irish children. I am, instead, offering them the opportunity to help in a way that might appeal to them more than other opportunities to help.

The €1 you have to spend on charity will, to be blunt about it, achieve more in Kolkota than it will in Kiltimagh. It will buy a loaf of bread and an apple (in Aldi or Lidl) but feed a family of four for a day in India. Does that mean that the people in India are more deserving? No, it doesn’t. But if you believe, as I do, that we are all connected and that no matter which way you send an act of compassion, it is received and does good, then it really is up to you what you do with your spare time, your spare pennies and your spare goodwill.

Make this year – Europe’s Year of Volunteering – the year that you do something for others on a regular basis. Find a cause – here, there or anywhere – that tugs at your heart-strings and support it. If you can afford to, set up a direct debit that benefits your chosen charity. If you’re flat broke, give of your time or your talents.

Where charity begins – at home or overseas –  is irrelevant.  What is important is that charity begins.

Blessings – Real Friends

I’ve just had a visit from a wonderful friend. I love and value her and the gift of her friendship for a number of reasons.

I love my friend, not because she tells me what I want to hear, but because she doesn’t lie to me.

I love her, not just because she listens; but because she hears what I’m saying: And what I’m not saying.  I love her honesty and her addiction to Truth.

I love how she knows she can turn up at my home, unexpected, unannounced,  and know she’ll be welcome. I love that she can turn up at my home and take us as she finds us. I love that she can turn up for ‘a quick visit’ and, two hours later, start to think about leaving.

I love how well she knows me – and how accepting she is of who I am.

I love how she is not afraid to reveal who she is to me. That she knows she can be herself in my company is a compliment I revel in.

I love that she knows she can confide in me – her darkest moments, her worst fears and her biggest disappointments; but also her  hopes, joys, dreams and triumphs. She knows I will rejoice with her without any trace of jealousy.

I feel privileged to know her and honoured that she has chosen to have me as a friend.

As I grow as a person, she supports, encourages and facilitates my growth. She does not try to squish me back into the box I’ve just jumped out of.  She does not try to tell me that I can only be what I was. She applauds and tells me to keep going – reminding me that I have already come further than I thought possible.

Real friends are a rare and true blessing. And I am truly blessed.

Life Without Santa

Another Christmas day has come and gone, and I am pleased to report that Santa did not make an appearance. He never has. There is no such thing as Santa, as you well know. In Ireland, however, as in much of the Western world, this imaginary creature is a bigger, more important fixture in the whole milieu than the infant Jesus.

My daughters were born in India and Singapore respectively, where I felt no compunction whatsoever to celebrate a Christian festival.  We joined in when we were asked – the same way we joined Eid, Lunar New Year and any other festivities we were invited to enjoy.

This year marked the third Christmas that my children and I have spent in Ireland – and the seventh (yikes!) that we have spent in Europe. Every year in December, conversations turn to ‘Santy’ and at some stage, I will mention that we don’t ‘do’ Christmas and, therefore, we don’t ‘do’ Santy.

Why we don’t do Christmas – we’re not Christian – is far more acceptable to most people than why we don’t ‘do’ Santy. What I have always found interesting is other people’s annoyance with me for my non-conformism with regard to Santa.  I am called upon to explain myself several times a year, and most often during the months of November and December.

I have a few friends who are proud, devout athiests. In keeping with their beliefs, they teach their children that there is no God. Yet, they also teach their children that there is a santa. While I consider it their right to tell their children what they like, I find it interesting that santa is ‘allowed’ but God isn’t.

My stance on Christmas and Santa was questioned again about a fortnight ago. Yet again, I explained that we are Hindu and, as such, our big celebration is Diwali. We celebrate it with much joy, feasting, visits, stories, prayer, new clothes, sweets, gifts….in fact, there is little difference between how we celebrate Diwali and how other people celebrate Christmas.

Yet, I am frequently struck by how other people are irritated by my refusal to celebrate Christmas and tell my children that a fat man with a beard will gain entry to our home when we’re asleep and give them all the things their little hearts desire.

The reason I have never told my children that Santa exists is simple; I don’t want to lie to them. In recent weeks I have been called to task by my assertion that telling children Santa Claus exists is lying to them. It’s not ‘lying’ I have been told, it’s ‘telling stories’. Lying is bad, telling stories is good. It’s helping kids’ imaginations grow.

I disagree. Santa sets up expectations. If you’re good, you’ll get what you want – if you’re bad, you won’t. What do you when you can’t afford what your child wants? Or, indeed, when you don’t even know what they want? It is conceivable that a child might be reluctant to share what they truly want from Santa with their parents (or anyone else) – or even commit to paper in their list to the mythical being: Yet because of the lies – sorry, stories – they have been told by their parents and other adults, they believe Santa knows what’s in their hearts and minds and so, will grant their wishes.  How disappointed will that child be on Christmas morning? I fail to see the ‘magic’ of Santy that I am often told I am depriving my children of.

I’ve also cringed when I’ve heard parents use ‘Santa’ as a stick to beat their children with ‘If you’re not good, Santy won’t come.’ ‘Stop that now, or Santy won’t come to you.’ Even – ‘Eat your peas if you want Santa to come.’

Of course my children are given gifts at Christmas time, but they know who the gift-givers are, and they know that gifts from me are, well, from me. I don’t see the need to buy into a lie perpetuated by the society I happen to live in. Because, of course, one lie begets another, begets another. Children don’t just think about ‘Santa’ at Christmastime, they will think – and ask questions about – him throughout the year.

The questions they ask need answering – inevitably with more lies. And what about the moment when the child realises or is told that there is no Santa? I know several people who were annoyed with their parents for duping them in their childhoods, and others who were devastated when they found out that something they had believed and held dear all their little lives was totally false.

I feel it important to note that my children are aware that other children believe in Santa Claus and they have been brought up to respect that and not spoil the ‘fun’ for other children. When asked, my two just say that Santa doesn’t come to them because they’re not Christian, but that they get plenty of presents at Diwali – which comes at least 6 weeks before Christmas. They like the fact that they get their celebration before everyone else!

Whatever you believe, whatever you celebrate, I would like to wish you and yours peace, love, joy and safety now and always.

Would You Lie To Save A Life?

I could save a life. In fact, I could save several. It wouldn’t cost me anything. It wouldn’t hurt. It wouldn’t put me, or anyone else, in danger.  It wouldn’t take long. It wouldn’t involve breaking any law. But it would require me to lie.

I don’t smoke. I drink in moderation and I don’t take any drugs – prescription or otherwise. I am vegetarian and the picture of rude good health. And, like nearly half the world, I have bog-standard O+ blood. I’d love to share it – but I’m not allowed. At least, not in Ireland, where I currently reside.  I lived in England in the mid-1990s and and the Irish Transfusion Board has decided that because of the risk of  BSE, it cannot accept  my blood.

Even though I tried to persuade the Powers That Be that I just am a mad cow – I don’t have mad cow disease, they won’t budge.

I console myself  by reminding myself that I donated my spare breastmilk to the milkbank in Fermanagh for as long as I could, helping to save a number of lives over those months.

Like less than 1% of the world’s population, three of my four brothers have super-special AB- blood. They get ushered to the top of the queue whenever they go to donate.  Last year, one of them  – who lives in London – shared the story of a donation he had made a few months previously.

He noticed that, instead of one bag to collect his donation, he was attached to four little bags.

‘Out of curiosity,’ he asked the nurse. ‘Why the four bags?’

‘There’s a courier on the way,’ she explained. ‘To collect this once you’re finished and take it to Great Ormond Street. They’ve babies waiting for it.’

‘Take some from this arm, too,’ Barry offered, holding his other one up.

The nurse smiled and shook her head.

‘I can’t take any more than 470mls from you in one go,’ she said.

‘I’ve loads,’ Barry tried again. ‘Way more than I need.’

‘I really can’t,’ the nurse told him. ‘Just make sure you come back to us in 16 weeks.’

While I wouldn’t be quite as useful as my brothers, I am sure the Irish Blood Transfusion Board could find something to do with my blood. But they won’t get the chance. The part of me that is a ‘good girl’ – the part of me that hates to break rules refuses to lie.  Even though I find it frustrating every time I hear an ad on the radio appealing for blood. Like at this time of the year, when people are too busy and, statistically, more blood is usually needed.

This holiday season, I’d like to urge all of you who can, to make a blood donation. And, if 2011 brings me the one thing I’d really love – a new baby – I promise to donate all my spare milk again. Deal?

Irony

Irony is writing a post about radio and how much I enjoy it – and, the following morning, losing my voice!

I am now on Day Six of Voicelessness and starting to feel like a representative of oppressed peoples everywhere. It is very frustrating not to have one’s voice heard. Every time I have something to say, I am unable to say it.

Like much related to our health and well-being, we tend to take for granted the fact that we can speak and only realise how much talking we do until we can no longer do it.

Periodically, my voice goes – and goes completely. The first time it happened was when I was in college. I was studying Theatre and it was two days before a show, in which I had rather a lot of lines. Thankfully, my voice was only MIA for about 24 hours, so the show went ahead as planned, instead of as a mime.

A few years later, when I was living in London, my voice went again. This time, it was gone for three days. At the time, I was working in Knightsbridge – as a receptionist! It tickled me that my situation would give people rise to thinking that mine was an extreme equal-opportunities employer. On the second day of voicelessness, I was sent home and told to pop by the doctor on my way.

The last time I lost my voice was about five years ago, and it was only gone for three days.  At the time, my children were only three and a half years and 18 months old respectively. It upset them that their mother wasn’t talking to them and it pained me to see the look of confusion on my youngest daughter’s face when her mum wouldn’t speak to her.

I have never been without my voice for this long. My children are older and taking it in their stride. My eldest is enjoying being my spokesperson; preceding me into shops and telling people on tills that ‘my mum’s not being rude, she just can’t speak’.  For my youngest, on the other hand, the shine has completely gone off my silence. She’d just like her mum back to normal.

Personally, I’m fed up of my own silence as well. I am restricted by it. When the phone rings – I have no choice but to let it ring, something which goes against my nature!

I am also quite stifled by the fact that quick replies and exchanging pleasantries with neighbours and parents at the school is beyond my ability at the moment. Popping in next-door for a coffee and a chat – something I did regularly – is another pleasure  denied me at the moment.

I have realised how much speaking I do normally. Comments, responses, suggestions, observations – and I’m well known for talking to the radio. (My children have given up telling me that the radio cannot hear me!)

Of course, I always have pen and paper within arm’s reach, so I am always able to write my words even if I can’t speak them. Having a conversation on paper, however, is very tiring. I find that I can’t write legibly quickly enough to have a fluid chat – and that I distill much of what I would have said if I could speak into as few words as possible in order to keep up the pace of the exchange.

I’m bored, now, of not being able to talk. I’d like my voice back.

(Photo Credit: Darren Robertson)

Women On Air

The Huffington Post ran an article a few weeks ago about the dearth of women in media. Specifically, the few women in print. According to the Huff Post, only 10%-20% of opinions in newspapers are written by women.

Unfortunately, the figures are equally disheartening in other media; one Irish radio station has just two women broadcasters out of fifteen in total. Another – a national station – has just four women presenters out of a total of 21. None of these women broadcasts between the crucial listening hours of 7am and 7pm Monday-Friday.

Yet, women outnumber men in the ‘support’ areas of research and production. So why are so few of them making the transition from support to presentation?

Tackling this problem head-on is Margaret E. Ward, of Clear Ink. Mags has organised a number of ‘Women On Air’ seminars to which women who broadcast – or would like to – are welcome. The seminars have speakers from the industry who share their experiences and ideas with the assembled women. Afterwards, it’s across the road to Buswell’s for a bit of net-working.

While it’s a sad reflection on the state of the industry that ‘Women on Air’ seminars are necessary, their popularity proves their necessity.

Just so you know, we’re not a coven of mad witches sitting around moaning about the fact that the boys won’t give us jobs; we realise that most men in broadcasting are not misogynistic by nature. It’s just that men know other men more than they know women.

Think about it – they go to school with boys, they have male friends at university and they socialise with more men than with women. If you need someone for your programme, you’re most likely to ask someone you know – and if you’re a man, you’re more likely to know other men.

Personally, I have found the seminars very useful and would walk across hot coals scattered with broken glass to attend them. I love the comraderie of women who are in the same industry: Women who are open to the ideas and suggestions of other women, and women who want to help other women.

One man asked me why it was important to have women on air. He pointed out that Miriam O’Callaghan presents Prime Time – so, obviously, women are on air.  Yes, there are women on air, just as there are women in politics, but there are not enough.

Quite simply, women and men see things differently, react to things differently and are moved by different things. As women make up 50% of the population, excluding their voices from media means that we are only getting half the story.  It also means that a female perspective which is often – but not always – different to a male perspective, is never aired.

Since Margaret started her seminars, I’ve racked up over two hours of radio time,  made connections with women I’d never have been able to meet otherwise, and I’ve gained confidence.

I’ve had a piece on the financial state of Ireland published in the Singapore Business Times (which I would never have dreamt of doing a few months ago). I also pitched an idea – and later a regular column – to the editor of a new magazine. She was open to both ideas and commissioned pieces from me.  Oh! And invited me to appear on her radio show later in the month.

So, without wanting to appear evangelical, my message is that if you’re a woman with an interest in broadcasting, you need to contact Mags and get yourself an invitation to the next Women On Air seminar.

Book List…..

1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4. Harry Potter series – JK Rowling

5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6. The King James Bible

7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

8. Nineteen Eighty Four (1984) – George Orwell

9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10.   Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12.   Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14. Complete Works of Shakespeare

15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk

18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

19. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20. Middlemarch – George Eliot

21.   Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22.   The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

23.   Bleak House – Charles Dickens

24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

25. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

26.   Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

29.   Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

31.   Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32.   David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

34. Emma -Jane Austen

35. Persuasion – Jane Austen

36. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis

37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres

39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

40. Winnie the Pooh – A.A. Milne

41. Animal Farm – George Orwell

42. The DaVinci Code – Dan Brown

43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44.   A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45.   The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

46.   Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47.   Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

48.   The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding

50. Atonement – Ian McEwan

51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52.   Dune – Frank Herbert

53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55.   A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57.   A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60. Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66.   On The Road – Jack Kerouac

67.   Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

70.   Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71.   Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

72. Dracula – Bram Stoker

73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

74.   Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75. Ulysses – James Joyce

76.   The Inferno – Dante

77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

78. Germinal – Emile Zola

79.   Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

80.   Possession – AS Byatt

81.   Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83.   The Color Purple – Alice Walker

84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85.   Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86.   A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White

88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom

89.   Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91.   Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery

93.   The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94.   Watership Down – Richard Adams

95.   A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97.   The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

98. Hamlet – William Shakespeare

99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

100.    Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

That the BBC expects ‘most people’ to have read just 6 books out of this list astounds me – how, exactly, did they determine that? I would love to know.

I am also perplexed that collections of books are counted as one entry. It doesn’t seem quite fair to me.

Some of the books on this list are books I will never read, others are on my ‘to be read’ list and still others are of no interest.

Years ago, I realised that there is no moral or intellectual superiority in finishing a book merely because one has started it – hence the number of italicised books on the list. If a book is not engaging me, I will put it down in favour of something I will enjoy.

Now – have  a bit of fun of your own; Copy the list into your own blog and see how many of the 100 books on the list you have read!

92 Million Girls Miss School Every Day

The next time you’re in a large bookstore or newsagents, pick up a copy of a newspaper or a book in a language you do not understand, written in a script you cannot read. Look at something in Arabic, or Hindi or Russian. You can’t make head nor tail of it, can you?

That’s what being illiterate feels like.

Nelson Mandela told us that ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’.  Both sexes share this world, so the responsibility and the right to change it rests with both sexes. Change cannot come about if only women in developed countries have equal access to education. 70% of the world’s out-of-school children are girls. That is more than 91 million girls around the globe who are not in receipt of formal education.

The fundamental building block of education is, in my belief, literacy. (I know numeracy is vital, also, but I believe that words pip numbers to the post by the narrowest of margins because you need the words to explain the numbers!).

A world where all women and girls could read would be an amazing place to live.

Imagine what a literate girl could do. Apart from being able to read and write her way through primary, secondary and even tertiary education, she would also be able to read the literature which shapes her life: The terms and conditions of employment, of bank loans, of marriage agreements and of the holy books that may be misrepresented to her by men with an interest in such misrepresentation.

A literate woman can make informed decisions regarding her fertility and her own care during pregnancy and birth – and does not have to simply ‘do as she’s told’.

A literate mother can make informed decisions on the health and welfare of herself and her children.  A literate mother can easily follow the instructions on medication for her sick child. She can monitor her children’s progress in school and exchange notes with their teachers.

A literate woman can acquaint herself with her rights and the rights of her children and other family members. She can challenge institutions that do not respect their rights.

A literate woman can access information that will make her own life, and the lives of her family members, better.

Literate girls and women can read books just for the pleasure of it; books detailing the dreams of others who have come true, and be inspired to keep dreaming their own dreams.  Literate women soon realise that they are not alone. They can draw hope from the tales written down by others. They can form networks across the globe.

An educated woman is an empowered woman – a woman capable of making change. Of course, educated women are less likely to be compliant. They are less likely to do what they are told. They are more likely to question. They are more likely to want more for themselves and their families and their societies. Would that be such a bad thing?

Great Expectations

‘And what does she do?’ I was once asked, by a middle-class Indian mother, as we waited to see our paediatrician at Jehangir Hospital in Pune.  I knew the type – competitive mothers keen to display how ‘advanced’ their children were because they could do all sorts of things yours could not. I refused to engage in the competition.

‘She breathes,’ I answered with a smile. ‘And that’s enough.’

Because, really and truly, it was. My daughter, then aged 6 months, had been born 10 weeks early, and had not been expected to survive. All I wanted was for her to breathe and to keep breathing.

Since then, I have been acutely aware of the expectations parents have for their children.  I have always maintained that I have no expectations for my children – and have been happy to tell myself exactly that. Until this week.

This week, thanks to Tara Sophia Mohr, I encountered the Girl Effect for the first time and I realised that I actually have a lot of expectations for my girls.

I expect them to stay in school until they are at least 18. I expect them to choose some form of tertiary education. I expect them to continue travelling and exploring new countries and cultures. I expect them to always have enough to eat. I expect them to always have enough weather-appropriate clothes. I expect them to always have a roof over their heads. I expect them to express their opinions and to be heard expressing those opinions. I expect them to choose when – and if, and whom – they marry.  In their relationships, I expect them to be treated as equals. I expect them to do their best to be fair to themselves, to each other and to everyone they meet. I expect them to decide whether or not they want children. I expect them to choose when and where and with whom they birth those children. I expect my daughters to choose careers that satisfy them on many levels; whether that’s working in a shop or finding a cure for AIDS.

I expect them not to have to even think about these decisions when they are 12. In global terms, that already marks my children out as ‘privileged’ and among the minority of 12 year old girl-children. Yes, that’s right – the minority.

In global terms, I expect a lot for my daughters. In global terms, more mothers should be in a position to have the same expectations. Together, let’s work to make that happen.

‘They Died For All Free Men’

In 2001, I had the honour to hold the office of President of the St. Patrick’s Society of Singapore. It was in that capacity that I received an invitation, from the British High Commission, to attend that year’s Remembrance Day memorial service and lay a wreath.

I assumed that the event would be full of British pomp and colonial ideation.  This notion was re-enforced when I received the agenda for the day. With no allowances for a loose attitude to time, this document was prepared with military attention to detail. Seeing as it had been prepared by the British military, that should have been no surprise.  I did gulp slightly, however, when I realised that I was expected to arrive at 0713h!

My companion on the morning was my Vice-President, a wonderful woman from Ballymena called Mary Fynes.  Mary picked me up at 0630h, and we drove to Kranji War Memorial, which is located on the north of the island. Kranji War Memorial is in the War Cemetery in Singapore. It is the final resting place of 4,458 allied servicemen in marked graves laid out in rows on maintained and manicured lawns. Over 850 of these graves are unidentified.

I was wrong in my assumptions regarding the ‘Britishness’ of the occasion. The service was conducted with the utmost dignity, reverence and sombreness. There was no sense of British ‘ownership’ and there was a distinct lack of a ‘colonial’ attitude. The British High Commission may have organised the event, but it belonged to all of us.

As we drove through the gates, we were directed by a young man in military uniform to our designated parking spot.  We presented ourselves at the wall in plenty of time for the ceremony, greeting those we knew who were also in attendance.

At 0730h, the ceremony commenced. The British High Commissioner welcomed us all and prayers were offered by representatives of various religions; Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Taoist, and Jewish as well as various Christian denominations.

Then, the memories of those who had laid down their lives during armed conflict were invoked. The tones of the bugle added to the solemnity of the occasion and coaxed tears from practically every assembled eye.

Afterwards, those of us who were laying wreaths were invited to do so.  When I stepped forward to lay a wreath on behalf of the Irish people, I felt privileged to have been given the opportunity; I also felt grateful to be alive and humbled by the enormity of the sacrifice that so many thousands of young men and women had made in order that the rest of us might live free from oppression.

The ceremony was closed with a rendition of ‘Morning Has Broken’, sung by an Englishwoman in possession of a pure soprano voice.  In a scene that could not be invented, just as she reached the end of the first line, the clouds parted and a shaft of light reached down and caressed the wreaths we had just placed.

Before turning away, I read the inscription on the memorial, which reads:

On the walls of this memorial are recorded the names of twenty-four thousand soldiers and airmen of many races united in service to the British crown who gave their lives in Malaya and neighbouring lands and seas and in the air over southern and eastern Asia and the Pacific but to whom the fortune of war denied the customary rites accorded to their comrades in death

THEY DIED FOR ALL FREE MEN”

I couldn’t help but notice that many of those names were Irish and many of those ‘men’ were still teenagers, or in their early twenties. Sometimes we forget that thousands of Irishmen united with men of many other nationalities and marched towards the common goal of freedom for all men and women. Sometimes we forget the thousands who gave their lives for the cause of our freedom. We should never forget. We should never, ever forget.

Peaceful Pumpkin Protest

The Peaceful Pumpkin Protest was organised for today. An ‘ordinary’ father, Richard O’Toole, from Dún Laoghaire, was concerned enough to organise the protest. He spoke to Tom Dunne on Newstalk about a fortnight ago, set up a facebook page and wrote to the Irish Times.

As if that wasn’t enough, the story was taken up by other websites, such as http://www.rollercoaster.ie and even Marian Finucane mentioned it yesterday on her morning radio show. Sure, I even put the word out on Dublin South Radio last Wednesday when I was on Morning View with Bryan Foxe.

We were expecting a few hundred people, and, in our more optimistic moments, thought that maybe even as many as a thousand Irish people might turn up outside the Merrion Gates of Dáil Eireann to register their dissatisfaction with the current government and the hames  they are making of running the country.

It was expected that these people would turn up with their children, in fancy dress if they so wished, and with a pumpkin to protest. We have plenty to protest against; the cuts that have been made, the cuts that are about to be made, NAMA, the Mercedes-Benz fleets, Garda drivers for former Taoisigh and plenty more.

So, how many people turned up? Apart from myself and my two children, only about 40. How is that apathy in action?

People of Ireland, My brothers and sisters of Ireland, Mná na hEireann agus Fir na hEireann – where are you? What are you doing now that your country needs you? It’s all very well to moan and whinge, but if you’re not prepared to actually do something, then you don’t really have a right to moan and whinge, do you?

Kiss It Better

The two sisters in this photograph were born in Developing Nations and they were not born in hospitals. Unlike many babies born under the same conditions, these girls are not at risk of developing tetanus. These children are lucky, their mother was inoculated against the disease long before they were born. I know because these babies are my babies.

Unfortunately, 170 million women around the world are not as lucky and they and their newborn babies are at risk of developing tetanus. This month, Pampers has teamed up with UNICEF in a campaign known as the ‘Virtual Kiss’ campaign to provide vaccinations against tetanus.

Pampers first teamed up with UNICEF to try and eradicate the disease in 2006. Since then, 300 million vaccines have been donated by the company. This year, Mel C – former Spice Girl – is fronting the month-long campaign.

‘I’m on the Pampers Parenting Panel,’ she explains. ‘And I was really excited when they approached me and asked me to work on this new campaign. It’s so simple for people to just log on and send their virtual kisses.’

Even if you don’t have a child in nappies, you can still help. If you click this link Pampers will donate the cost of one vaccine to UNICEF.

From the comfort of your own home, from in front of your own computer and without it costing you a penny, you can save the life of a newborn baby.

So go on – kiss it better.

Just The Vax, Ma’am, Just The Vax….

Prevention is better than cure, right? So why do so many people get all agitated at the notion of vaccinations?

It’s one of the few areas of parenting where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you do vaccinate, you are introducing foreign elements into your child’s system, the effects of which you can’t be sure of. If you don’t vaccinate, you are willfully putting your child’s health at risk.

Before my eldest was born, I researched the pros and cons of vaccinations. Or, to be more accurate, I tried to. I found it very difficult to get balanced information from any source.

I found that middle-class and affluent women in their thirties were most likely to shun the notion of vaccinations. When I asked why, I was told that ‘things like polio are dying out naturally, anyway, so there’s no need to vaccinate’. I asked for evidence and was met with stony silence.

One friend blithely told me that as long as I was breastfeeding, my kids would be fine because they would get my antibodies. Her theory was that I didn’t need to give much thought to vaccinations until my kids were no longer breastfed. That idea didn’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny, though.

Pharmaceutical companies have their own agendas – naturally (or unnaturally?!) – and they can be very persuasive, so doctors tended to be biased in favour of vaccinations.

Dr Google left me bleary-eyed and none the wiser.

When my eldest daughter was born, I looked around and saw children with the paralysed arms and legs that result from polio. There was no room for a blasé attitude; Ishthara was vaccinated.

Since then, both my children have received nearly every vaccination they were offered. Last year, the Swine Flu vaccine was rolled out. Ishthara has asthma and I asked my doctor’s advice on whether or not to get her vaccinated.

‘It’s a no-brainer,’ my GP told me. ‘She already has a chest difficulty. This flu is a chest-based virus. We don’t want to play with that.’

I read what I could, took my GP’s thoughts onboard and had Ishthara vaccinated. Kashmira and I – who do not have asthma – were not vaccinated.

Apart from the strong impetus provided by the visual of seeing people damaged by a preventable disease, personal experience prompted my decision to vaccinate my kids.

When my sister was 4, she got measles and she got them bad. She was so ill that the paediatrician called to the house. In serious silence, he examined my sister.

‘She needs to be in hospital,’ he told my mother before adding ‘But she’s too sick to take her there.’

To my 12 year old mind, this made no sense. How could she be too sick to go to hospital? It was only years later that I realised what he meant; the journey would have killed her.

I remember my mother – who you would not call ‘maternal’ or ‘loving’ by any stretch of the imagination – sitting up two nights in a row keeping vigil by my sister’s side. She was sure the child would die and she wanted to be with her when she went.

Today, my sister is a strapping six-footer of 30 who plays rugby and loves cats. But she was so very nearly a three-foot-six-inch corpse. I didn’t want that experience for myself, so my kids were vaccinated against childhood illnesses.

The following year, my youngest brother was born with whooping cough. It wasn’t diagnosed until he was 4 weeks old. He spent a further 4 weeks in hospital. Twice, when my mother went to visit him, she was met with a nurse saying ‘We nearly lost him last night’.

They were words I never wanted to hear, so my children were vaccinated against whooping cough.

Kashmira received her initial vaccinations in Singapore and the one for TB, which blisters and scars, was delivered to her buttock – for cosmetic reasons! In order to leave arms blemish-free for the wearing of sleeveless and short-sleeved tops, doctors are in the habit of giving the shot in the bum rather than the arm.

Somewhere between 2002 and 2004, I learnt that Singapore (where we were living when Kashmira was born) offers the vaccination against chicken-pox to children over the age of 12 months. We left before she was a year old, so she wasn’t vaccinated. Neither was her sister. I thought chickenpox was a fairly innocuous virus – a bit like a cold. I revised that thought when both girls got a really bad dose, and Ishthara ended up in hospital as a result.

I’ve never regretted getting a vaccination, but I have regretted not getting that one.

When it comes to the health of our children, no parent wants to compromise. Vaccinations are a thorny issue, but I would urge every parent to weigh up the pros and cons and make informed decisions.

Mini Fashionista

My eldest is a wee fashionista. She’s only 8.5 years old, but she loves style, fashion, fabrics, textures and everything to do with putting an outfit or a ‘look’ together.

From the age of about 4, she has been vocal about clothes and accessories. Not only does she know what she likes, she knows what suits other people. We could be walking through a department store and she will reach out to a top or a skirt or something and proclaim it ‘perfect’ for some friend of mine or other. She’s never wrong.

When she was 5, we were in Next and she spotted a dress and asked if she could have it. Personally, I thought it would look dreadful on her. I felt that the brown in it was too close to her skin-tone, that the print was so big it would dwarf her (she’s very fine-boned) and that, really, it just wouldn’t do her any favours.  I suggested to her that it wouldn’t suit her.

‘At least let me try it on,’ she reasoned.

I acquiesced. She disappeared into the changing room while I stood vigil outside with her sister. The eldest came out of the changing room and looked amazing. She brought the dress to life – the brown that I thought would look dreadful on her made her skin look more chocolate-y than ever, the big print looked wonderful and emphasised how petite she is. The drape of the dress made the most of her slender frame. She looked amazing. She made the dress look good.

Yesterday, we were going past Monsoon on Grafton Street

and she noticed that there was an advertisement in the window for a ‘Sales Assistant’. Immediately, her interest was arrested. This, as far as she is concerned, is her ideal job.  Working with clothes and helping people dress themselves would send her into paroxysms of happiness. Never mind the staff discount!

‘How old do you have to be to work in Monsoon?’ she asked.

‘Ummmm, 16, I think,’ I told her.

‘But you’re not sure?’

‘I’m pretty sure that you need to be 16 to work a few hours a week.’

‘If I wore heels……’

I smiled before explaining to her that potential employers would require proof of age. She wasn’t convinced. Instead, once we’d completed all our business, she asked if she could go in and ask for the job.

The lady at the counter was very kind. She took my daughter’s enquiry seriously, but told her what I already had – that she’d need to be 16 to apply for a job.

‘Come back when you’re 16 and I’ll have an application form ready for you,’ she told her.

Slightly disappointed, my little one left the shop with me – wishing the next 7.5 years away so she could go back and work.

I was struck by how lucky we are. Unlike so many children in the country of her birth (India), my daughter does not have to go out to work. There is no question of her being sent out to seek paid employment before she’s 16. Even then, there are tight controls and restrictions on what she can do and how many hours she can work – and rightly so.

So many children in so many countries are forced to work – on rubbish dumps, as house boys/girls, in markets, in factories, on farms and even in the sex trade. I am eternally grateful that my children are not among them.

Between now and when she’s old enough to work in a clothes shop, my daughter is going to have to content herself with making the product look good. 🙂

If you would like to help children in India who are victims of child labour, buy The Big Book of Hope: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Big-Book-Hope-Various/dp/1842234676/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1284712383&sr=8-1

HOPE For All

The Big Book Of Hope launched last Thursday. Proceeds from sales of the book are in aid of The HOPE Foundation and I urge you to buy a copy. It’s a wonderful book packed from cover to cover with pieces that will inspire you; make you laugh; make you cry and make you count your blessings.

On a day in February last year, the idea first came to me. I wanted to do something to help and the idea of a book came to mind – an obvious fund-raising vehicle, I suppose, seeing as I’m a writer. I decided it needed to be a ‘big’ book – because there are plenty of ‘little’ books around – and that each story, written by a well-known Irish personality,  needed to hold ‘hope’ as its central theme.

Getting a wisp of a thought to a proper book of over 400 pages and bearing a ringing endorsement from Vikas Swarup on the front cover was a challenge, but it was worth every moment.

There were a lot of late nights, a lot of emails, a lot of phone-calls, a lot of disappointments, a lot of joy and a lot of lessons along the way. I am delighted with the finished product and the reception it has received from the media and the general public. At lunch-time today, Amazon was reporting that it had just two copies of the book left. That thrilled me plenty, I can tell you.

In a time when the news is dominated by doom and gloom, we can all do with a little lift and a sprinkle of hope.  This book provides exactly that. Why are you still here? Go and buy a copy!

The Unkindest Cut

My daughter, who is six, has an eye infection. Unlike other eye infections she’s had, this one is under her upper eye-lid. The doctor prescribed a course of antibiotics for her and she’ll be grand in a few days. It never occurred to me to ask to have her eye-lid sliced off. That would be beyond barbaric, and totally unnecessary, right?

Yet, millions of parents throughout the world choose to have an equally barbaric and unnecessary procedure performed on their children – circumcision.  Specifically, male infant circumcision – a procedure that removes a piece of skin, one of whose functions is to protect the organ beneath it. In much the same way as an eye-lid protects and lubricates the organ beneath it.

For some reason, while many people are appalled by the notion of female genital mutilation, its male counterpart raises not nearly as many eyebrows. Circumcision is routinely carried out on millions of little boys worldwide and it truly is the unkindest cut. Unkind not just because it is medically unnecessary in the vast majority of cases, but also because it ‘removes one-third to one-half of the skin on the penile shaft,’  according to Ronald Goldman, Ph.D., executive director of the Circumcision Resource Center in Boston and author of Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma. ‘The average circumcision cuts off what would grow into about 12 square inches of sexually sensitive skin.’ According to Canadian pathologist John Taylor, M.B., the foreskin is one of the key erogenous zones of the male body. Its 240 feet of nerves and 1,000 nerve endings are similar to those on the fingers and lips.

Douglas MacArthur, a 55-year-old  who was circumcised as an adult has this to say about his pre- and post- circumcision sexual experiences: ‘Sex before circumcision was like driving a luxury car with automatic transmission,’ he explains. ‘I used to just glide along. Sex now is like driving a tiny, powerless compact with a manual transmission. It takes a lot of work to get anywhere. My penis has lost 90 percent of its sensitivity.’

Some people use religion – whether it’s Judaism or Islam – as an argument for circumcision. That argument makes my head spin. Mutilating the genitals of a baby or young boy on religious grounds would be funny if it weren’t so sad. If we take that argument apart, what it says is ‘I believe in God. I believe in God as a supreme being who never makes a mistake. Yet I believe that I know better than God how a male human body should be constructed.’ Wow. That’s some powerful arrogance.

As it happens, neither Judaism nor Islam prescribes circumcision. If you don’t believe me, you can see for yourself here and here. Circumcision is not even mentioned in the Qura’an and both religions expressly forbid disfiguring the body. Can anyone honestly say that mutilating a penis is not disfiguring it?

No medical argument for routine circumcision is valid, either. There have been plenty of them, mind you, and all of them equally bizarre; from the notion that circumcising black men would prevent them raping white women to the belief that it cures all manner of ailments from epilepsy to mental illness. In the 1940s, circumcision of males was recommended to eliminate sensitivity of the penis and prevent boys and men from masturbating!

Some doctors have had the balls – if you’ll pardon the dreadful pun that I should have been able to resist – to recant their early espousal of circumcision. Most notably, Dr Benjamin Spock now holds the position that ‘My own preference, if I had the good fortune to have another son, would be to leave his little penis alone.’

I’m not saying that circumcision is never medically necessary; congenital phimosis – a condition where the foreskin cannot be fully retracted from the head of the penis – is not always treatable by measures other than circumcision. It’s a rare occurrence though, and to remove a foreskin prophalactically is akin to removing the breast buds of a newborn girl in order to prevent her from getting breast cancer.

Some advocates of MGM say that babies don’t feel pain and that they don’t remember the procedure, in order to justify the fact that day old babies are subjected to this brutal abuse which is usually performed without anaesthetic (a graphic account of what exactly happens to these baby boys can be found here). Those babies are  screaming in agony – making an absolute mockery of Hippocrates’s  primum non nocere (first do no harm). And I find it an insult to my intelligence to suggest that such a traumatic experience does not imprint itself on the brain of a young baby. Think, for a moment, how awful it must be to have your first sexual experience such a sadistic one.

So, who benefits from routine male genital mutilation? Not the boys and men it’s done to, that’s for sure. Not their sexual partners, either. At the risk of sounding cynical, only those who are paid to carry out the procedure benefit. Oh! And the manufacturers of lubricants, gels and ointments that there would be no need for if penises were left intact.

Contrary to what circumcised men will try to tell you – their penises are not more sensitive than their uncut brothers’; in fact, it’s the exact opposite. A penis without the protection of a foreskin needs to toughen up, which results in diminished sensitivity. At the risk of imparting too much information, I can tell you that men who are circumcised tend to use their penises as pestles (because they need to pound more in order to orgasm). Also, as far as foreplay is concerned, there’s a huge amount more you can do with a complete penis. A huge amount.

My basic point is this: I believe – passionately – in genital integrity. That is the principle that all human beings—whether male, female or intersexed—have a right to the genitalia they were born with.  If an adult decides they would like to chop off a perfectly functioning and important part of their anatomy and they can find a doctor to oblige – then fair play to them. But it is not fair to do the same to a defenceless baby.

(Thanks to  @janetravers, @Chadwickauthor and @Danoosha for our conversation on Twitter this morning which prompted this post)

Baby Dearest

This is my second attempt at #Fridayflash. My own feeling is that there is still something lacking in this – but I was so keen to continue being part of the ‘gang’, that I was eager to post anyway. As John Connolly said recently ‘part of the joy of writing is getting it nearly right, so you can do better next time.’

Anyway, here it is – I appreciate the time you’re taking to read it:


I don’t love you. I know I have responsibilities towards you and I carry them out with impeccable attention to detail. But it’s performed, with complete detachment and dispassion.

Is it terrible of me to wish that you had never been born? I resent that you have arrived and taken over my life. Tom gets to go to work – to escape. I don’t. I’m stuck here with you. Just the two of us. All day every day.

What have I become that the highlight of my existence is going to the supermarket? In fact, it’s more than that; going to the supermarket is an achievement. I have to have us both up and dressed appropriately for the weather. Then, I have to make sure I’ve got all the paraphernalia with me – nappies, wipes, a spare set of clothes, a clean bottle, cooled boiled water and the formula. Oh! I tried to breastfeed. It was a bloody nightmare. The nurses in the hospital didn’t know one end of a tit from the other. And they kept scaring me by telling me that you were starving to death while I was busy trying to get it right. It was a relief to give it up.

Inevitably, I forget to pick something up in the supermarket. Even if it’s on my shopping list. This makes me feel like a failure and can reduce me to tears. I am used to being competent, in control, capable. I am used to being looked up to as a remarkable woman with drive and ambition. Now, I can’t manage to get the grocery shopping done.

I have become a frightened person. A wave of fear washes over me when Tom leaves for work in the morning. I am afraid something will happen that I won’t be able to cope with. I’m overwhelmed by the enormity of the day that yawns ahead of me. I know it’s ridiculous. That’s why I can’t tell him. What would he think of me if I told him I was engulfed by fear every time he walks out the door?

I turn on the cooker to heat some soup for my lunch, and the image of me sitting you on the hotplate flashes through my mind – terrifying me. I know I wouldn’t do it, but the fact that I can see myself doing it means that I might, doesn’t it? I put you in another room before I turn the cooker on, in case I’m tempted. I’m afraid to tell anyone in case they take you away from me. Isn’t that farcical? I don’t want you, but I don’t want you to be taken from me.

Have I lost myself? If I have, where have I gone? Will I ever come back? When I return to work, will I be able to do my job?

Maybe it would be different if you were pretty. I can’t quite understand why you’re not. There is no one in my family or your father’s who looks like ET. Yet you do. Look at you – a big fat head on your long, wobbly neck. You’re supposed to be a little girl, yet anything less feminine I have never seen in my life. You’re all blubbery limbs with no hair and muddy brown eyes.

‘Oh! She’s so beautiful!’ strangers exclaim. I look at them like they’re nuts. Do they think that I don’t have eyes in my head? Do they think that I can’t see how un-beautiful you are? I suppose no one is going to come right out and say ‘Here, Missus – your kid is dog-ugly’ but they could say things like……… well, I don’t know. They could comment on how happy you are or something.

‘Is she good for you?’ they ask. It’s a stupid question, but I know what they mean. They mean ‘Does she disrupt your life as little as possible?’ So my answer, almost grudgingly, is ‘yes’. You’re probably a dream baby. That, too, terrifies me. I remember hearing how babies who die of  SIDS are ‘mail order’ babies. What would I do if I woke up one morning and you didn’t?

Tom gets in from work and scoops you up into his strong, capable arms. He coos at you and tells you he’s missed you. He asks me for updates. I tell him that you spend much of the day sleeping, a good part of it feeding and some part of it shitting.

Tom is a marvellous man – which is why I can’t tell him that I don’t love you. You’re his child as well, and Tom deserves to have his child loved by the mother of his child. I am filled with sorrow at my further failure – this inability to love Tom’s child. Sometimes I think the two of you would be better off without me. Tom could remarry. She – his second wife – would be vivacious, witty, sexy and a great mother to you. Maybe your new mother would even give you siblings.

Some days I think about leaving you and driving into the sea. I am filled with a jittery feeling that is edged with power. I know I am capable of it. Then I think of Tom and I know I probably won’t. I love him too much to hurt him.

I feel sorry for you because you have done nothing wrong and yet you don’t have the love of your mother. I know you’re entitled to it, but I can’t give it to you. That adds to my resentment. It’s like, by your very existence, you are pointing out a glaring failure on my part.

Maybe you’ll grow on me. Maybe one day I’ll wake up and adore you. I hope so. I suppose, for now, it’s enough that I’m doing my best for you. Even though it’s my perfunctory – rather than my heartfelt – best.

#FridayFlash – ‘Frank’s Legacy’

This is my first attempt at #Friday Flash – an initiative which encourages writers to post their fiction for others to read and comment on. I have been meaning to do it for about a month now and have realised that if I don’t just take the plunge today, I may never do so!

I hope you enjoy reading the piece and if you feel like leaving a little comment, I’d be delighted.

Frank’s Legacy

Siobhán has always remembered the first time she saw her mother cry. She was about three and it must have been winter because there was a fire going in the kitchen.

She remembers looking up in alarm at the raised pitch and the snuffly sounds that her mammy was making. She remembers, too, looking in astonishment as Josie reached for the yellow and white tea-towel that hung on the back of the chair to dry her eyes with.

Siobhán was astonished because, to the best of her knowledge, mammies didn’t cry. Only little girls like Siobhán cried. Brian, who would have been about six, wouldn’t look at Mammy. He was opposite Siobhán on the rug in front of the fire. His face wore a mixture of embarrassment and guilt as his eyes warned Siobhán not to be looking at Mammy. Although it didn’t register with her at the time, Siobhán knew, from the look on Brian’s face, that he had seen Mammy crying before.

Siobhán doesn’t remember what happened after that. She thinks her daddy was shouting, and he probably was because Frank Flaherty always seemed to be shouting at someone for something. Or nothing.

Frank was a difficult man. He’d grown up in the Curragh. That flat, flat place in the middle of nowhere where fine racehorses were bred for rich Sheikhs. Apart from stud farms, the Curragh was famous for two things – sheep and soldiers. Naturally, this gave rise to plenty of crude jokes. And Frank Flaherty was a crude, cruel man both in his speech and his manner.

Frank’s wife and children all thought they loved him. They didn’t. They were terrified of him. It would be years before they figured that out, though.

Now, twenty-six years after that first time, Siobhán listened again to her mother crying. She was equally bewildered by it this time as she had been that first time – even though she wasn’t in the same room watching in amazement as the tears coursed down Josie’s face.

Siobhán felt impatience bubble up inside her, but managed to quell it before it frothed up her throat, out her mouth and down the phone-line.

‘Mam,’ she said quietly. ‘Why are you crying? Surely you’re not grieving for him?’

‘No,’ Josie answered, her voice thick with tears. ‘I think it must be the shock. You know – even though I had a barring order, I used to worry that he’d come back and cause trouble for me – for us, I mean.’ Josie amended her statement quickly. ‘Now he’s gone. I suppose I’m just relieved.’

‘Are you going to the funeral?’ Siobhán enquired.

‘I don’t know,’ her mother answered, struggling to get her tears under control. ‘Do you think I should?’

Siobhán gritted her teeth and rolled her eyes.

‘It’s up to you, Mam. It’s whatever you want to do that matters.’

‘I suppose I’ll be expected to,’ Josie continued as though her daughter had never spoken.

Doing her best to be gentle, Siobhán tried again.

‘Mam, it’s up to you. Do you what you want to do – not what you think you should.’ Even as she spoke the words, she knew they were wasted on her mother. Josie spent her life trying to figure out what other people expected of her and then trying to fulfil their expectations.

‘Are you going?’ Josie asked.

‘Absolutely not!’

‘Well, that’s a matter for yourself,’ Josie sniffed, her tears finally under control.

‘I don’t see the point in my going to be honest.’

‘Yes, you were always honest, Siobhán,’ her mother’s tone was snitty.

‘Even if you didn’t always believe me,’ Siobhán screamed at her silently.

Five minutes later, the two women had finished their conversation. Siobhán went to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of red wine. If she’d had champagne, she’d have opened that instead. Siobhán thought about her old man. Then she tried to stop. She was done with that, done with remembering his foul mouth, his rudeness, his brutality.

In the living room, Siobhán sat on the floor, her back against the cream-coloured sofa. She clicked on the television and Oprah at her incredulous best filled the room. Siobhán sipped her wine. It was warm and slightly peppery. Frank, she remembered, had been a Pioneer. That peculiar breed of Irish teetotaller who offers up their abstinence as penance for the sins of those who drank. Siobhán snorted out loud at the hypocrisy. Damn! She cursed herself. What was she doing thinking about him? Quickly, she tried to change the topic in her head, tried to drag her awareness back to Oprah.

But it was no good. Even after all this time, she could still hear the way his breath whistled down the nose he’d broken when he was sixteen, and which had never set properly. She could smell the stink of stale cigarettes that came off him, off his clothes, off his hands, off the fuggy air around him. Major. That had been his brand. A real hard man’s cigarette.

She could hear his voice, issuing commands, reminding his children that they were his slaves and they existed purely to do his bidding. Rebellion was dealt with swiftly and absolutely. The rebel would think long and hard before trying to stand up for him – or her – self again. ‘Defying’ as Frank called it.

Then, there came a day when Frank’s abuse could no longer be hidden. The head nun at school called the parish priest. He called the Gardaí. They called a social worker. People were in and out of the house. Josie cried. Frank swore and shouted. Siobhán felt as though her insides were frozen solid.

‘So this is what it feels like to be dead,’ she thought.

Except she knew she wasn’t dead because there was life inside her.

She was fifteen.

‘You broke up this family – and don’t you ever forget it,’ Josie had yelled in her face, her Kildare accent softening her ‘ts’ so that is sounded like ‘forgesh ish’.

Siobhán liked to think she had forgiven her mother, but she knew she would never forget.

For years, Siobhán had thought about this day. Waited for it. Imagined herself going back to Ireland and standing up at the funeral to deliver his eulogy. Except that hers would be a eulogy with a difference. It would be honest. She would speak the truth about Frank. The truth they all knew, the truth that most of them denied. After a while, she’d decided against going back for the funeral at all. Frank had been dead to her for a long, long time and going home to watch him be lowered into a hole in the ground wasn’t worth the airfare. Not even on Ryanair.

The phone rang. It was her brother, Rory.

‘Have you heard?’

‘I have.’

‘You going to the funeral?’

‘No. Are you?’

‘Am I fuck!’

There was a slight pause before Rory spoke again.

‘Are you all right?’

‘Of course I am,’ Siobhán replied as light-heartedly as she could.

‘How’s Seán? And the Big Fella?’

‘Grand. They’re both fine, thanks. How’s Fiona?’

‘Yeah. She’s fine.’

‘Good. Tell her I was asking for her.’

‘Will do.’

Another pause. Broken again by Rory.

‘Right. Well, I’ll let you go, so.’

‘Okay. Thanks for ringing.’

The clock in the kitchen declared the hour with an electronic pip. Siobhán started to think about what to do for the dinner. Seán would be in from football practice any minute. She decided to wait and ask him what he wanted. At fourteen, he was getting finicky about what he would and wouldn’t eat.

The phone rang again. Siobhán groaned and wondered which of her siblings it was this time. It was none of them. It was Michael. He sounded tired as he told her that it would be another hour before he was home and suggested that they eat without him. She didn’t tell him that Frank was dead. There was no point. Not until he got home anyway.

She smiled as she remembered the night, eight years previously, when she had bumped – almost literally – into Michael. She had been startled and had gasped in fear. He had thought it was because he was Black. It took a while before he realised it was because he was a man. They worked at the same hospital and saw a lot of each other at work. Eventually, Michael had persuaded her to see him outside of work. Over the months that followed, she’d told him about herself. About Seán. He had accepted her and her son without reservation. Siobhán could no longer imagine life without him. She smiled as the thought of him warmed her more than the wine had.

The door opened and Seán clumped in. Siobhán looked at him and her heart swelled. She was so proud of him. He was bright and his kindness and good humour ensured that he was popular. Siobhán knew she was biased, but she thought he was gorgeous; green-eyes and skin tanned from the amount of time he spent outdoors. Most striking, though, was his copper-coloured hair. The same colour as her own. The same colour as her father’s. The same colour as his father’s.

Mango Madness!

I’m waiting for a call from an Indian man. No, he’s not going to ask me out – it’s far more exciting than that. He is the owner of the local Asian food shop and has assured me that he will give me a bell as soon as the boxes of mangoes arrive.

It’s been mango season for a month now and my girls and I have been dying to sample some of India’s finest. I have driven about 100 kms in that month looking for the golden pods of heaven-scented deliciousness to no avail. It looks like today may be my lucky day.

I love mangoes. I love everything about them – the heft of a ripe one in the hand; the scent of them; the colours of them; the shape of them. And, of course, the taste of them. I love their versatility – the way you can use green, unripe ones as a savoury side dish if you pop few mustard seeds and coat them in chilli powder; the way you can make drinks, pickles, desserts, ice-cream, breads, crisps and even curries out of them. Of course, nothing beats eating a perfectly ripe mango just as it is.

I know some of you may be frowning and thinking ‘But there are mangoes in the shops all year round – what’s wrong with her?’ Well, yes and no. The truth is that I’m a mango snob and I wrinkle my nose at the sight of those small, red and green bullet-hard fruits from places such as Brazil. Everyone knows that mangoes – real mangoes – are only grown on the India subcontinent. Beautiful, firm alphonsoes, for example. Or, my personal favourite, the banganapalli.

When they are perfectly ripe, the banganapalli is soft beneath the taut golden skin. Then, the only way to eat them is to squish the fruit gently with your fingers and then bite off the tip of the mango. Slurp out the pulpy, slightly-sticky contents until there is nothing left but the seed rattling around in the pod of skin. A word of caution, though; don’t do this around people you don’t know/want to impress. You will end up covered in mango nectar, but that’s half the fun. Or it can be, if you’re with the right person. 😉

Bed Bound

A fortnight ago, I got a call from one of my cousins. Her sister was moving – the following day – to Wales. In the middle of clearing out her house, she had realised she had a spare bed. My cousin rang to see if I wanted it. I thought about it for a second and said, ‘Thanks but no Thanks.’ I knew I’d want another bed at some stage, but I didn’t think I needed one now.

About an hour later, I rang my cousin back.

‘Can I be a PITA and change my mind about that bed?’ I asked.

‘Of course!’ came the reply. It would be dropped around in an hour. Between the first and second phone calls, I had given the bed some thought. If I had a double bed, it could go in my eldest daughter’s room. I could move the bunk-beds from her room into my younger daughter’s room and, that way, when I had visitors, they could have my elder daughter’s room while the two girls shared the bunk beds in the room of the younger. Fantastic! I was doubly delighted because I am expecting a friend to come and stay with us in a month, for an extended period.

When the bed arrived, however, things did not quite pan out that way.  For a start, there was no mattress with it, which I had expected, to be honest. Upon inspection, it wasn’t really that great a piece of furniture at all, and it certainly wasn’t ‘nearly new’ as I had been told. In fact, I started to think that if it had gone in the skip, that would not have been so terrible a thing. Still, I figured that, seeing as I had it now, I’d buy a good mattress for it and it would do for a year or so.

Finally tackling the job of moving all the furniture around, I first tried to move the bunk beds out of my eldest daughter’s room. No joy. I’d forgotten that the bed had been assembled in the room. In order to move them out, I’d have to disassemble and re-assemble them. Well, that wasn’t going to happen.

So, I thought I’d put the double bed into my younger girl’s room. It would fit, but it would be a tight squeeze. There wouldn’t be room for much else. I realised that it wasn’t going to work. Things would have to revert to how they had been. The bunk beds where they were and the small single bed back in the room I’d just taken it out of.

Sigh.

Further, I’m now going to have to get a skip myself to get rid of the blasted thing. I have other bits and pieces around the house that need to be skipped, so I’m not getting it *just* for the bed. Still, I’m a bit put out because a skip bag would easily have taken care of the things I need to get rid of. So, really, it’s going to cost me €25 to get rid of a bed I never used.

I’ll stop moaning now, because I have learnt from this experience. I’ve learnt a couple of things, actually.

First of all, that if something is working, then let it keep working.

Secondly, I have learnt that I have enough stuff of my own. I don’t need other people’s.

Thirdly, people will lie – or at least stretch the truth – if it is in their own best interests to do so.

Fourthly, if I think I want something, I should make sure that the goods are ‘as described’ before accepting them.

Finally, there’s enough stuff in my house. I need to get rid of things, not take in more!

Living MY Life

Facebook has a lot to answer for. No, I’m not going to blather on about privacy and all the other bugbears that Facebook users moan about. I’m talking about the snapshots of other people’s lives that Facebook can give us. Little insights into what they’re doing and where they are and how they’re doing. I’m on Facebook, but under an assumed name. I am happy to share what I’m doing, but only with a select few. You can only be my friend on Facebook if I invite you – look for me under my own name and you won’t find me.

The thing about Facebook, however, is that it’s so easy to find people you knew years ago and have lost contact with. Of course, that was part of the raison d’etre for the thing in the first place, but it can be dreadfully envy-inducing; kind of like a school-reunion where you compare and contrast your life with the lives of your peers.

This morning was a classic example. I clicked on my friend’s friends list and found a mutual friend. So I clicked on her. This woman was a woman I knew – and was very friendly with – about 9 years ago. Our eldest daughters were due within a few weeks of each other,  we held very similar views on parenting, and generally got along grand.  I also really liked her husband, a genuine, warm guy with a fabulous job for a large MNC. We lost touch when I moved back to Europe, though I sometimes heard of her from our mutual friend.

Anyway, this morning, I learnt that she is living my life. That is to say, she has what I always wanted. She is still married to the same wonderful man, she now has not one, not two, but FOUR gorgeous children and she’s living in India.

This information sent me into a comparison overdrive. This woman is just a few months older than I am. Yet there she is, having the life I always wanted: A loving husband, loads of kids, no financial worries and living in my favourite country. And here I am, never having had a loving husband, with just two children, plenty of financial worries and living in my least favourite country.  Poor me.

Thankfully, I have a reality stick, and I keep it fairly close to hand. I picked it up and gave myself a little whack over the head with it.

Who says that all is rosy in my old friend’s garden? Don’t I know well that things are rarely what they seem to outsiders? Don’t I know well that people have plenty of troubles that they don’t broadcast? Who am I to decide that her life is ‘better’ than mine? I may not ever have had a loving husband – but I have lots of friends who bring much joy, support and love into my life. I may ‘just’ have two kids; but they are amazing children and I am truly, wonderfully blessed to have them.  My children are safe and healthy – not every parent has that luxury. I may have financial worries, but I also have the capability to rid myself of them – and while I may not be the wealthiest woman on my street, what I have is mine and I’m not dependent on any man (or woman!).  While I am living in a country where I’d rather not be, it’s where I am and I can choose to be annoyed about that, or I can choose to bloom where I’m planted.

If I am to remind myself of one of my core beliefs – that everything is as it should be – then I have no reason to be upset, envious or worried. I may not have access to the amount of money my friend has, but am I any less happy? I shouldn’t be. I have the life I have. I can choose to moan about it or I can choose to live it.

OLOL Back in The News

Yet again, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda is in the news for all the wrong reasons. According to Fiach Kelly in today’s Irish Independent, when Melissa Redmond presented for an early pregnancy scan, the doctor who performed the scan told her and her husband that their baby was dead. Arrangements were made for Melissa to undergo a D&C operation to remove the foetus from her womb.

Melissa, however, who already had two children and had also suffered four miscarriages, felt that this was a misdiagnosis. Relying on her own instinct and previous experiences, she made an appointment with her GP, who confirmed that her foetus was still very much alive.

Melissa gave birth to a healthy boy in March of this year.  As her husband,  Michael,  says in the Indo’s report today, there is every possibility that other women could have had viable foetuses removed from their wombs. Unfortunately – in a culture where doctors are still treated as gods – it is not just possible, it is highly likely. As there will be no investigation by the hospital, just how many babies – if any – have been killed by negligent doctors at OLOL in Drogheda will never be known.

A number of things struck me about this case.

Firstly, I was shocked that one doctor – without a second opinion or reference to a single colleague – declared a baby dead and set about organising the removal of said baby from his mother’s womb. Surely, a second opinion should have been sought?

Secondly, it brings glaringly into focus that midwifery skills are sorely lacking in Irish hospitals. A competent midwife with a functioning pinard would have been able to tell Melissa the happy news that her baby was fine.  No piece of equipment can take the place of an experienced midwife.

Although it wasn’t mentioned in the newspaper article, I have to wonder if the doctor asked Melissa Redmond such obvious, common-sense questions as ‘Do you still feel pregnant?’ or any question relating to how she felt at the time of the scan and how she felt on previous occasions when she lost a baby. Contrary to what so many members of the medical profession seem to think, women are not thick – not even when they are pregnant – and asking relevant questions can uncover relevant answers.

Once again, I was struck by how badly women and children are treated in Irish society. I was struck by how little we matter – and how disempowered we are (even though I sometimes wonder if women are their own worst enemy and actively collude in their own suppression – but that’s a blog entry for another day).

The bottom line, I think, is that women need to take more responsibility for their own health and well-being – whether that’s taking responsibility by choosing the safer option of a home birth (homebirth is safer than hospital birth for over 80% of women) or by simply trusting her own instinct and asking for a second opinion.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Long before she was conceived, and confident that my firstborn would be a girl, I had a middle name – Saoirse – for her. We lived in Asia, and felt that an Irish first name, especially one that did not conform to English phonetic rules, would be impractical. Her first name, we agreed, would be Sanskrit and, by virtue of its transliteration, easy to pronounce. In his hometown of Chennai, my husband bought a copy of the ‘Book of Hindu Names’.

‘Ishthar,’ he pronounced after flicking through it.
‘Ishthar,’ I rolled the name around my mouth. It sounded too harsh, too masculine, it stopped too abruptly.
My eye was drawn to another name further down the page.
‘I could live with “Ishthara” I told him.

So it was decided; my daughter would be called Ishthara – which, in Sanskrit, means ‘that which is desired most’.

It was the perfect name for the perfect child that it took me nearly ten years to have. When I held her in my arms for the first time, I knew that she was all I desired. She was every dream I’d ever had come true. She was a part of me that had come back to me. She was the song of my soul. She was, truly, Most Desired. In Hindi ‘Ishthara’ means ‘Falling Star. In either language, it’s a beautiful name. For short, I call her ‘Isha’ – which means ‘Goddess’ – and that, too, is appropriate.

Not long after Ishthara’s first birthday, I left my husband; and the nature of my work meant that I found myself in occasional need of a babysitter. I was fortunate enough to find a wonderful Bangladeshi woman – Neelu – who was kind, sweet, motherly, and who adored Ishthara.

During that summer, Neelu’s daughter visited Singapore. Tahira was pregnant with her first child, and sometimes accompanied her mother when Neelu babysat. Both women shared their hope with me that Neelu’s grandchild would be a girl. Further, Tahira told me that she really wanted a little girl like my little girl; sweet, affectionate, sunny, good-natured, and beautiful.

In the middle of October, I hired a full-time, live-in nanny, and Neelu went back to Bangladesh to be with Tahira in her final trimester.

On January 25th, 2004, my phone rang. The line was very crackly and there was a slight time-delay. It was Neelu, calling to tell me that her granddaughter had been born a month earlier.
‘Congratulations!’ I cried, before asking ‘What’s her name?’
Neelu hesitated. The child had not yet been named, she told me.

‘That’s why I’m ringing you. We – my daughter and I – want to call the baby Ishthara, after your daughter. But my son-in-law will not agree. For one month, we have been asking him. We told him how wonderful your Ishthara is, how much we love her, and that we really want to call the new baby by her name. Finally, today, he said that if we can find out what the name means, and he likes the meaning, the baby can be called “Ishthara”. Please, can you tell me what means the name?’

I felt a rush of mixed emotions. I realised that it is quite an honour when someone wants to call their baby after yours. But at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling that ‘Ishthara’ was my daughter’s name. I chose it especially for her. It’s hers! I felt as protective of the name as I am of the child. I didn’t want anyone else to call their child ‘Ishthara’. I wanted this woman to go and find her own name – to put as much effort into finding a name for her child as I had put into finding a name for mine. A very unkind part of me was tempted to tell Neelu that the name means ‘Pig Goddess’. There was no way a Muslim would consent to his daughter being named that! 

‘It’s a Hindu name,’ I cautioned her.
‘A Hindu name? Okay….but what does it mean?’
‘Most Desired’, I told her.
‘Most Desired?’ she repeated, to ensure that she heard correctly over the bad line.
‘Yes.’

Later, I learnt from Neelu that her son-in-law had been satisfied with that meaning, and her granddaughter had been named ‘Ishthara’.

Naming a child is a very serious matter, and should be taken very seriously. I put a lot of thought and effort into naming my children; and, somewhere in Dhaka, someone else put an equal amount of thought and effort into the task when she named her eldest daughter after mine.

 

 

 

Poetry!

So there I was, looking for a photo of the girls and myself on the back of a camel in the Punjab and I came across some of my poetry. There is no connection between camels and my poetry (except that when I wrote poetry, I usually had the hump), but when you’re looking for things in this house, you’re never sure what you’ll actually find.

You didn’t know I wrote poetry, did you? Well, that’s because I don’t any more. I’m not sure why. I used to write several pieces a day when I was in my mid to late teens. Then I got married and stopped doing a lot of things I enjoyed! Anyway, seeing as I’m being all brave this week, I thought I’d share some of those scribblings with you.

This first one was written a few days after I left my first husband, in 1998.

The Portrait

It is you who are my Dorian Gray
My face on which your lines appear
My heart that holds your worries
Your disappointments and your fear

My countenance is etched
With the marks of all your woes
While your visage, obviously,
Ne’er a day older grows
My heart is growing heavy
With the tears you do not weep
And with all your little secrets
Ones that I’m supposed to keep

Looking, you can see the furrows
That have crept around mine eyes
I wear all the markings
Of your betrayal and your lies
You have coated your soul in debauchery
Quaffed at the fountain of youth
Bathed in the waters of villainy
And I, I wear your truth

’Twas mine own hand that held the tools
As this portrait was being sketched
Though as I daubed, I did not know
That it would e’er look so wretched
For simple fool that toiled that day
Was unaware her picture would
Be soon replaced by her master’s
And he’d painted his with blood
And now the oil begins to flake
And now the rose is wan
And now the lustre leaves the lips
And now the joy is gone
So good you look, dear Peter Pan

While I shall soon expire
Sinking deeper, deeper still
Into your dank quagmire
Daily hurtling on towards
Destruction and decay
I fight to leave your attic
My Master, Dorian Grey

This one was written when I’d been trying for about 8 years to have a baby. Finally, I realised that it had nothing to do with me. That no matter how much I wanted it, to whom I was married, what doctors I saw and what procedures I underwent, it wasn’t really up to me.

A Welcome Song

Reaching for you through the mists of time,
Holding my arms out wide
Waiting for you to make the leap
And welcome you inside.
I know I cannot force you
You will come when your time is here
When the world is finally ready for you
Then, only then, you’ll appear.
When all your whispered promises
Are ready to come true
Then you will come and join us
And I’ll be waiting here for you.

A few years later, in India, in 2002, I became a mother and my soul felt like it was blooming. When Ishthara was about 6 months old, I wrote this:

Soul Song

You are my soul singing
And you are the song of my soul
You took what was unfinished
And you, you made it whole.

You took the tune that I was humming
And you put words to the air
Taught me how to sing it loud –
Louder than I would dare.

We are singing the same song
We are singing it together
The sound soaring through the air
Light, pure, free, untethered.

You are the whispered promise
My life said that it was bringing
You are the song of my soul
You are my soul singing.

So once I’d read through a few bits and pieces, I found the picture of the three of us on the camel. I think I’m baring a bit too much leg in the photo; but I don’t think I’m baring too much soul in the poems.

Star (Of The Sea) Struck

I don’t do star struck.

I don’t do speechless.

I don’t do babbling.

Last Friday night, however, I managed to do all three at the Kildare Readers Festival.

Ireland’s best writer of the decade – Joseph O’Connor – was there. An incredibly gifted writer, he is also a consummate gentleman and a very charismatic person. When he talks to you –  in that mellifluous voice you know from the radio – he addresses you as though you are the only person in the room.

I first came into contact with Joseph O’Connor (rather than his work) a year ago when The Big Book of Hope was still just an idea I’d had on a bus.  I jotted off an email to him, asking him to be part of the project – the Big Book of Hope will raise funds for the HOPE Foundation – and he responded immediately. Without hesitation, he committed to the project and delivered -without fanfare – before deadline.

When I met him, finally, on Friday night, I turned into a babbling thing of God knows what. See? Just like that – I couldn’t string a coherent sentence together. Now, I’m fairly used to famous people. I’ve dined with ambassadors, royalty and artists of note and never found myself star-struck before.

I think the difference is that Joseph O’Connor is not just famous, he is talented and he is disarmingly humble. In fact, I think that must be what did for me. I was expecting someone who seemed at least a little aware of his own talent; and who wore that knowledge like a beautiful cloak that we were all expected to admire. But no. Mr. O’Connor seemed vaguely surprised that all these people were there and had turned up to see and hear him.

He was generous with his time – chatting with everyone who had a book to sign, allowing people to use their mobile phones to take snaps of them with him, and humbly accepting the praise his fans delivered. I had my children with me, and he took the time to acknowledge them and speak to them, too.

On our way back to the car, my daughters weren’t sure what I was so thrilled about.

‘That was Joseph O’Connor,’ I explained to them. ‘The writer!’

‘Oh,’ said the Eldest, obviously still not sure why this was such a big deal for me. ‘But you’re a writer too. And so are loads of your friends. Especially your friends on Twitter.’

‘I’m not in the same league,’ I assured her. ‘He’s an amazing writer. Very clever and very funny.’

‘He wrote on your book,’ the Eldest pointed out.

‘He signed my copy of his book,’ I told her.

‘Why?’

‘That makes it more special.’

‘Right.’

She paused for a moment.

‘When I met Westlife, they were fighting over who would hold my hand,’ the Eldest said in what I suspect may have been a stab at one-up-manship. ‘And there’s four of them. There’s only one of him.’

That’s right, Darling. There is only one Joseph O’Connor.

Embrace Your Madness!

In Istanbul in November of 2005, I had one of those rare ‘aha’ moments. One of those moments where I saw myself as others might see me, and realised why even those who like me refer to me as ‘mad’. Personally, I prefer the term ‘eccentric’ – but we all mean the same thing; that I do tend to march to the beat of my own drum.

So there I was, in Istanbul, with an 18 month old and a three-and-a-half year old. We’d just gotten off our plane from Prague, and were in a taxi. My eldest daughter exclaimed that there were no seat-belts in the back of the cab and I murmured that I’d be delighted if there were brakes.

My Turkish is non-existent and the taxi-driver had just a smattering of English, so communication was minimal. I was able to give him the name, address and phone number of our hotel – having typed it out in large, block letters before we left home. Our driver nodded ‘I know,’ he said, with sage reserve. Entrusting my safety, and that of my precious children, to him, I settled back to get my first glimpses of Constantinople.

I’d wanted to visit Istanbul for years. Ever since our history teacher, Geraldine Haughton, introduced it to us back in fifth year; particularly the details of the Ottoman Empire, Selim the Sot and the Golden Horde. My imagination was captivated by the notion of a city that could straddle two continents. I spent the first twenty years of my life in Europe, and most of my adult life in Asia, so it felt only right that I visit the one city that joined both ‘my’ continents.

Before driving off from the airport, I hadn’t ascertained what, exactly, it was that our taxi driver ‘knew’.  Apparently, it was the general direction of where our hotel was located rather than precisely where we were going. On the outskirts of the city proper, with one hand on the wheel, he pulled out his mobile phone.

A quick conversation took place in Turkish and he resumed driving with increased confidence.

‘I know, I know,’ he reassured me brightly.

About fifteen minutes later,  my ‘aha’ moment dawned on me:

It was just after midnight, and I was going the wrong way up a one-way street, in a city I’d never visited before, with my children in the back of a taxi, with whose driver I could not communicate; I had a booking in a hotel neither he nor I knew the location of, and my ‘guidebook’ was two pages torn from a month old copy of the Sunday paper. Nobody knew where I was, and my mobile phone didn’t work in Turkey.

Still, something inside me knew it all work out – and it did. Within another five minutes, we had reached our destination, a gorgeous boutique hotel on the same street as the Topkapi Palace (one of the city’s top tourist attractions).

My girls and I had a wonderful five days in Beautiful Byzantium and I learnt that it is, indeed, a divided city: The inhabitants couldn’t decide which of my children it preferred. Half of them favoured my three year old with her dark looks and vivacious, outgoing personality that knows no language barriers.

Everywhere we went, people just gave her things – sweets, apples, smiles, hugs – even perfume! The other half was smitten by my 18 month old – with her paler complexion, curls and general baby-ness. Whenever I stood still, she was patted and cooed to. On three separate occasions she was extracted from her sling in order to be cuddled by complete Turkish strangers.

The people in Istanbul were also of both continents – most of them dressed and looked like Eastern Europeans, yet every single person exuded the warmth and generosity that I had grown accustomed to in Asia.

Flying out of Istanbul at six in the morning, I realised how grateful I was for my ‘madness’. Without it, my girls and I would not have had the wonderful visit to Istanbul that we’d enjoyed.

I finally understood what Shakespeare meant when he wrote ‘To thine ownself be true’: That it is important to march to the beat of your own drum, no matter how out of synch with the rest of the world that beat might be.

The Value of Woman

I’ve just listened to the news.

I have just heard that the government is set  to introduce legislation that will make certain products – currently sold in ‘Head Shops’ in Ireland – illegal. If you’re caught in possession of these products – like Mephedrone – you face a fine and up to seven years in prison. If you are found to be a supplier of these mind-altering drugs, you could get a life sentence.

I also heard about a woman in this country who, not quite three years ago, was six months pregnant and lying asleep in her own bed in her own home. At 4.30am, she woke up to see her ex-boyfriend (and the father of her unborn child) in her room, totally uninvited.

He was wielding a shotgun. After breaking her teeth, he told her to look down the barrel of the gun so she could see the bullet as it was coming to kill her.

Afterwards, he raped her – anally and vaginally. He held her hostage for a number of hours before the Gardaí eventually convinced him to release this woman without doing her or her baby any further harm. I don’t know this woman but I am willing to bet my house that there were days when she wished to God that he had killed her. Such is the absolute devastation that an attack  like this wreaks on the life of the violated.

This savage, vicious attack could easily have caused this woman to have lost her baby. There was no report of her having lost her child, so we can assume that she carried her baby to term and delivered him/her. If she chose to keep her baby, she has a reminder – every time she looks at the child – of that child’s father. The man who brutalized her, violated her, and scarred her – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

Let me be clear – this woman will never recover from her ordeal. She will learn to cope, she will learn to live with the aftermath, she will learn to function. She will have bad days and good days. The best she can hope for is that, one year, the good days will outnumber the bad days.

Today, the man who brutalised her was sentenced. He received a sentence of 10 years, with 3 years suspended. So he will serve 7 years.

That’s right, folks, you can break into the home of a pregnant woman, you can break her teeth, threaten to kill her with a shotgun, hold her hostage for several hours, force your penis into her anus, force your penis into her vagina, ‘to pass the time’ (as this man told this woman) and leave her scarred for life. Or you can buy a little bag of mind-altering chemicals for your own consumption. You’ll serve the same amount of time.

Now, I understand that, sometimes, judges have their hands tied by the laws of this country. If the maximum sentence a judge can pass is 2 years, a judge can’t send someone away for life just because he feels like it. But a 10 year sentence – with three years suspended – for a series of crimes this heinous seems shabby.

Could the judge not have handed down a sentence for each crime and ordered them to run consecutively?  Could this man not have been sentenced for illegal possession of a shotgun; breaking and entering; false imprisonment; each count of rape; threatening to kill and assault and battery?

If not, why not?

Or is the simple, bald truth that we value women less than a bag of ‘Spice’ in this country?

Listening to the news frequently annoys and upsets me. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop.

Give Up Yer Oul’ Pension!

Today, Jim McDaid resolutely declared that he would not be giving up his ministerial pension of €22,487. Just to be clear, we’re not expecting him to spend his golden years in dire penury. McDaid will still receive his other Dail pension. Perish the thought that he would have to live on the measly €225 that his government expects ‘regular’ pensioners in this country to live on. No, no, banish that thought outright as well!

McDaid was quoted today as saying that he would not like to see a situation where ‘only the wealthy could enter politics’.  What Ireland is he living in? In the Ireland where I live, only the wealthy can enter the supermarket, for God’s sake!

Dr Jim is clear that he’s keeping his pensions not because of the money – of course not, it’s never about the money, is it? – but on a point of principle. Well now, if it’s not about the money, and it’s merely a matter of principle why doesn’t he take the money and give it to charity? Or to his local hospital?

The principle that Dr McDaid is sitting so loftily on is the principle of not being ‘whipped’ by the media in a ‘media driven witch hunt’. He is very cross with the media for mentioning that he is keeping both his pensions. Surely, however, this is the very job of the media – to bring subjects of interest to the attention of the public. The Fourth Estate is duty-bound to inform, offer opinions and present alternative points of view.

McDaid’s outrage would be funny if it weren’t so serious. His point of view is that because it is legal for him to hang onto both his pensions, he’s jolly well going to. It’s not very admirable, is it: To find a loophole in the law and wriggle through it to claim asylum? Shrugging and saying ‘But it’s perfectly legal’ doesn’t mean that something is perfectly moral.

We elect people to lead us. We expect them to lead by example. I don’t think the example of Dr James McDaid is one worth following.

Mythbuster #4 – Parenting Alone is the Hardest Gig Ever

If there was a club for lone parents and I was a member of that club, this post would have the chairperson asking me to return my membership card and unceremoniously kicking my ass to the curb outside the clubhouse.

Thankfully, there is no such club and, therefore, I am not a member, so what I’m about to say will not result in a bruised derriere.

I’ve been parenting alone for about 8 years. My eldest was born in India and I stayed there with her until she was 9 months  old, while the ex was in Singapore. We lived together as a family only for 3 months or so. When my (then) husband was around, he was not particularly interested in the child. So, in reality, I was a lone parent with my eldest daughter. I was on my own with my second daughter from the day after I found out I was pregnant with her.

So, for six years now I have been on my own with two daughters. I have made all the decisions. Everything – from what country we will live in, to what they will wear, to what they will have for dinner – is my decision. Choosing schools, houses, cars and holidays all comes down to me. Making decisions regarding medical care and vaccinations is my duty and mine alone.  Some people would balk at this responsibility. I revel in it. There are no arguments with anyone else about my decisions. Things are the way I say they are. Yes, the buck stops with me – but I have never shied away from responsibility.

I enjoy my autonomy. I am the sheriff and there is no deputy. I am quite convinced that the fact that I am a lone parent has been responsible for honing my children’s negotiation skills. If I refuse a request, for example, they need to live with it, convince me otherwise or broker a workable compromise. They can’t go running to Daddy and try to play us off one against the other.

At the drop of a hat, I can decide that my children and I are going off for the day – or the week, or the summer. There are no lengthy discussions with ‘the other half’. It’s just done.

I’m not saying that I wouldn’t like a partner – but I’ve already been married twice and I know that’s not all it’s cracked up to be, either.  Being in a relationship doesn’t automatically mean that there is someone around to share the chores with; it doesn’t mean that you have regular sex; it doesn’t guarantee adult conversation and it doesn’t mean you’ll have someone around to offer to make the dinner or a cup of tea.

Being on your own means you know where you stand. In order to give that up, I’d be looking – not for a partner, but the right partner. In the absence of that elusive male, I’d rather be on my own with my children.

Art?

I was with a group of artistic people recently. I don’t merely mean creative people, I hang out with them all the time.  These people were visual artists of. I know about as much about paintings  as I do about wine. Which, technically, isn’t much. But I can tell you what I like and I can tell you why. Maybe I can’t tell you why in the jargon of the professionals, but I know that doesn’t make my preferences or opinions any less valid.

The conversation drifted to the Tates in London and everybody else expressed a preference for the Tate Modern. One or two people positively gushed in appreciation of the works of genius housed there. I wrinkled my nose.

‘Can’t stand it,’ I said. ‘It irritates me.’

Raised eyebrows all round.

‘Seriously. It’s full of pretentious rubbish. So much more of what passes for ‘art’ does not display any talent. None of any artistic merit, anyway.’

There were audible gasps. I am old enough now not to care if I don’t appear sophisticated. I am secure enough in my opinions to proffer them fearlessly. In fact, I was a little amused. It did occur to me that these artistic people seemed to think that in order to appear sophisticated and knowledgeable about Art, they felt that they must profess appreciation of the most outlandish offerings labeled ‘Art’.

‘The beauty of modern art is that it can be whatever you want it to be,’ one of the Artists told me. ‘You need to be able to look at it and see beyond what’s on the canvas or in the frame.’

I smiled, remembering how, on a visit to the Tate Modern my eldest daughter – then aged just five – pronounced how she could have ‘done something like that’. I was in no position to disagree with her.

‘Can we leave now and go and look at some real paintings?’ she had asked me. She didn’t have to ask a second time, I can assure you.

To be perfectly honest, Modern Art smacks to me of  ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. The thinking seems to be that only those who are rather old, very conservative,  incredibly gauche or terribly unsophisticated would admit that they don’t ‘get’ it.

In conversation with these Artists, however, it suddenly occurred to me why I don’t like modern art; why I like Art to look like what it’s supposed to look like. I like pictures of people and flowers and mountains and sunsets.   My entire life has been spent in chaos. I am a past-master at making sense of madness. I have skills in that arena that – if I could teach them – would make me enough money to retire on by my next birthday!

Taking a big, awkward mess and trying to make it – inside the shell of my skull at least – into something that is ordered is something I can do with ease.

Organising chaos is first nature to me because in order to stay alive – literally – it was something I had to learn to do as a young child. So, the idea of choosing to do the same thing as a pleasurable pursuit is laughable! I don’t want to have to work at turning a load of paint splattered in a corner of a canvas into something coherent.

So I make no apology for my apparent lack of sophistication. I do not regret that I have no interest in looking at pictures that require ‘work’ to understand them. I’d much rather look at pictures that represent objects that are what they seem to be – pictures without agendas, if you will.

Third World Healthcare? Yes Please!

Hours waiting to be seen in A&E. Days – sometimes weeks – on trollies in hospital corridors. Up to two years waiting time to see certain consultants. Unopened mail. Unanswered emails.Appointments postponed by months or even cancelled for no apparent reason. Mis-diagnoses. Missed diagnoses. People dying because they can’t afford private healthcare. X-rays not read by a qualified person. Unnecessary procedures performed without even a cursory nod in the general direction of  evidence-based medicine. Necessary procedures unperformed because of lack of properly trained personnel. Dirty hospitals. Stained bed-sheets.

Sounds like some God-forsaken Asian backwater, doesn’t it? But it’s not. It’s here.  Here, in  puffed-up little Ireland where we like to think we’re some sort of sophisticated first-rate, First World nation.  The truth – though few will admit it – is that Ireland  is really a Third World country with her best frock on. During the Celtic Tiger years, she was a third world country with her best frock and some-one else’s borrowed jewels on.

I am always aware of how poor healthcare is in Ireland – not least because I lived outside of Ireland for most of my adult life and I know what superb healthcare looks like. I’m acutely aware of how atrocious Irish healthcare – more specifically the Irish hospital system is – since I received a letter from a children’s hospital this morning.

For years, my daughter has had a physical problem that I simply could not get diagnosed in Ireland. My GP was clueless – but refused to admit he was (he’s not my GP anymore, by the way).  Eventually, I found a consultant I thought could help and rang his secretary. Going private did away with the need for a referral letter and more than halved the waiting time.

Still, nearly €500 later, my daughter did not have a diagnosis. The consultant – who was an eminent professor in his area of specialisation – could do nothing better than hazard a guess.

The following year, we were back in India. I consulted a paediatrician there.  At 11am on a Wednesday morning, she ordered a full-body MRI. My daughter had her scan at 6pm that same evening. The hospital where this took place was spotless. The equipment was brand-spanking new Siemens and the cost was €90. How long would I wait and how much would it cost for a similar procedure in Dublin? I shudder to think.

Anyway, I was unconvinced by this doctor’s diagnosis. So I sought out another doctor. This man was a specialist in the area.  Within 5 minutes – literally – this doctor was able to accurately diagnose my daughter’s condition and he put her on medication. The consultation and six months’ supply of medication cost me less than €20.

My daughter is still on this medication. I took the prescription back to Ireland from India, explained to my new GP what the Indian doctor had said and she was happy enough to accept his diagnosis and write a prescription for the same drug.

Three years later, my daughter is still on the tablets – although the dosage has been more than doubled. She has not, however, seen a consultant in all that time. Last October, my GP suggested it would be prudent to get my child reviewed by a consultant. We were given an appointment for this month. This morning, a letter arrived to let me know that the appointment has been moved from April until August. What kind of nonsense is this?

I will admit that my daughter’s condition is not currently life-threatening, but she does need monitoring. She does need her health to be reviewed by someone competent enough to do so. She needs further tests – as was acknowledged in the letter from the consultant’s office – and she may need different medication or a different dosage of the same medicine. At the very least, I need to speak with someone who is qualified to discuss this area of her health with me.

It seems, however, that I’ll need to go to a Third World country to access that kind of healthcare.

Forget his Resignation – Arrest Sean Brady

What has amazed and infuriated me most about the ‘should he/should he not resign’ debate in the media  regarding Sean Brady is that it stops there. It stops with many clamouring for his resignation and many braying to leave him alone, that he’s ‘a good man’.

Whether or not he resigns or is sacked – what I want to know is why no one has called for the man’s arrest? Indeed, regardless of whether or not it has been called for, why have the Gardai not appeared at his door and effected an arrest?

This man is surely guilty of perverting the course of justice (swearing children to secrecy in 1975); concealing a felony (which is a crime – and the sexual abuse of these children was a felony); gross intimidation (intimidating children with the threat of eternal damnation resulting from the excommunication which was threatened in the event that they disclosed they had been abused by clergy). Anyone with a legal qualification could probably count a few more crimes of which Sean Brady is guilty. Yet this man is still free to walk our streets.

What does this say about how we treat sexual abuse in Ireland? In my opinion, it speaks volumes. The national psyche has made obvious strides away from viewing the church as completely untouchable. It has also made strides away from from viewing child abuse as something we ignore, at best, and condone at worst. That’s not enough, though. We need to realise that every child in the nation has a right to be safe and protected inside and outside of their homes. We need to actively protect those rights and bring to justice every person who violates them. Without exception.

Mythbuster #2: The Irish Educational System is the ‘Best in the World’

Yesterday brought news of a drop in the standards of Irish education. There is concern in industry – as expressed by John Herlihy of Google that Irish graduates are showing up with impressive qualifications – and spelling and grammatical errors in their CVs.

There has been a huge rise in the number of firsts being awarded at third level and also an upsurge in the amount of  people achieving ‘perfect’ leaving certificate results.

While it is not amusing that the Irish educational qualifications are slipping in terms of their perceived worth, I could not help but be amused at the horror expressed by Batt O’Keeffe, the Irish Minister for Education.

I grew up hearing that the Irish education system was the best in the world and I was privileged to be able to benefit from  it. Then, I just believed what I was told by my parents and my teachers and the nuns. Later, I questioned this assertion. I was fortunate enough to live and work abroad and had the opportunity to examine other educational systems. It didn’t take me long to realise that ours is sorely lacking.

For example, Irish people leave school having studied the Irish language for a minimum of 14 years – yet most would be hard pressed to hold a conversation in that tongue. Irish people also leave school having studied other European languages – French, German, Spanish and Italian – without being in any way fluent in those languages either. At best, they can tell you about their family backgrounds, their favourite foods and hobbies and where they went on holiday last summer. They could probably also book a hotel, ask directions and tell the time in those languages. After that – they would be more than a bit stuck. Certainly, Irish school-leavers do not have the competence in languages their European counter-parts have. This is nothing short of disgraceful.

With regard to science and technology, Irish school leavers lag far behind school leavers in Asian countries. Part of the reason for this is the ridiculous notion, much held in Ireland, that people can’t be good at both languages and sciences. This nonsense is trotted out by parents and teachers alike and subject choices are split along lines which reinforce this myth in many schools. This crazy myth is not promulgated in any Asian school I have visited.

If you empty your wallet into your head, no man can rob you, yet our government chose to shave millions off the budget of the Department of Education and Science this year and class sizes increased. Bigger class sizes mean that each child in those classes does not get the help and attention they need. I know – I’ve taught classes of every size from 15 children (in a private school in Bangkok)  up to 44 children (in a government school in Singapore) –  and believe me, when the numbers go over 22, all you’re doing is crowd control.

Instead of the Irish Leaving Certificate, I would dearly love my children to complete the International Baccalaureate (IB). It’s a far more rounded approach to education and I love the continuous assessment element. In order to have my children sit the IB, however, I’m going to have to move. Either to an area on the other side of the city I couldn’t afford to live in, or to another country. We’ll probably take the latter option – but will avoid Lybia because that’s the only other country on the planet that also uses the Irish Leaving Certificate as the final school examination.

A poor educational system does not mean that Irish people are thick, however. Quite the opposite. They are very clever. Clever enough to figure out the system and how to, if not quite beat it, then to work it. This means learning how to write exams and learning how to write them well enough to score highly on their leaving certificate examinations.  No critical thinking or problem solving skills required.

That, in itself, is a critical problem that needs solving.

Does Why Matter?

There is no good news regarding my data. The book is still on the hard drive (we hope), but has not yet been recovered. My brother could not recover the data, even with the help of a Mac expert at work.

They have one or two other ideas, but I’m not holding my breath. Chances are that Enda won’t be able to do much, either. So I am bracing myself for an expedition to Ontrack Data Recovery – and the attendant expense such a trip would cost.

While that’s the practical side of things, I have taken the loss of my work very hard on another level. I wondered if it might be a sign from God that I’m not meant to write. That, while I might think I’m pretty good at stringing a sentence together, really I’m no great shakes. This was compounded by the fact that, yesterday, I wrote a post for my other blog and, somehow, lost 300 words. I rewrote them. I wasn’t as happy with the re-rewrite as I had been with the original. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’d already posted the shortlink to the blog update on Twitter, I wouldn’t have bothered to rewrite at all.

I thought about just giving up writing. I thought that if God is against me and I lose years of work in a flash (literally), then what is the point in continuing to write? I mean, I can’t do it on my own. At some point – after the hard work is done – the stars need to be aligned. The agent you contact needs to be in a good mood and like what you’ve written. The publisher they approach needs to love your work and you need to be bringing it to market at just the right time. While so much of writing is exactly that – writing – in some ways, that’s the easy bit. The hard work – the blood, sweat and tears – will only result in publication if other things which are outside your control happen. In other words, you need a certain amount of luck.

Seeing as how Lady Luck and I have never been the best of friends, I thought this latest happening – losing my book – was a huge sign from God that I should just give up. So I did. I didn’t write for about a week. That is to say, I didn’t put any words down on paper. But I couldn’t stop the words dancing and tumbling around in my head. I couldn’t stop my opinions forming in my head. I couldn’t stop creating and crafting properly-constructed paragraphs in my head. I couldn’t stop.

Maybe I couldn’t stop because I’m not meant to stop. Maybe the whole book losing episode was just a way to tell me to back up rather than a way to tell me that I shouldn’t write. Maybe now is not the right time for my book to go to market. Maybe later will be a better time. Maybe the lesson is not in what happened, but in my reaction to it.

Maybe this has happened so that I could find out how I felt about my book and about publishing it. Maybe this has happened so that, on the bumpy road to publication, I will remember this and remember how much it meant to me and keep going.

The only other time I felt like this was when my ex-husband was threatening to kidnap my daughter. I found out by accident and I was terrified. At the same time, it brought sharply into focus for me what was important to me – my children. Everything else was gravy. I remember lying in bed with an arm around each sleeping child and thinking ‘this is what matters’. Money, work, a nice house, a decent job – none of that mattered. Only my babies did.

There are hundreds of files on my hard drive – short stories, my thesis, pictures of my children, about ten thousand words of a novel, notes made for future work, letters, emails etc. etc. etc. – yet, not one of those items is causing me grief. I would like to get them back, but if I don’t, I don’t, it’s no big deal. My memoir is a big deal. It’s a very big deal. When I think of the hard drive and what’s on it, the only thing that I think of is my book.

As you can tell, I am still living with the conviction that I will see my work again. I cannot bear the thought that it is gone. I cannot bear the thought of all that work having been for nothing. I cannot bear the thought of sitting down and re-writing it. In fact, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t.

I am trying to be philosophical about this experience, but it’s not always easy. The only thing that will make it all right is the recovery of my work. I’m holding out for that.

Woah! Back Up There!

It’s one of the worst things that can happen to a writer. You write and you write and you write. Then you edit. You put shape on what you’ve written. You re-write parts. Re-jig parts. Excise parts. Add bits in. You save everything carefully. It is your habit to save at the end of every sentence.

One day, you have over 105,000 ‘clean’ words written. More than one hundred and five thousand words that have been written and edited and scrutinised and re-worked until you are happy with those words. You are pleased with what you have written and you are keen for others to read your words. You start a marketing exercise. You start ‘admitting’ that you have written a book. Then, you realise that you are proud of the fact that you have written a book and need very little encouragement to talk about it. People – even people in the media – are interested in reading your book. You have started to approach agents with a view to getting published. You even have a celebrity lined up to launch your book when that fateful day comes around.

Then the unthinkable happens. You lose it all.

That is exactly what happened to me three weeks ago last Tuesday. My Mac exploded. I turned it on that Tuesday, read a few emails and sent a few emails. Then I dropped the kids to school. By the time I got back in front of the Mac, about two hours had elapsed. I was surprised to see that the screen was black and the power was off. Similar to what happens when there is a power cut. Except there hadn’t been a  power cut.

Puzzled, I turned the computer back on. There was a smell of burning and a glowing in the back of the machine. Even I – with my limited technical knowledge – knew this was not good.

I made a few calls and found The PC Guys. They took my machine in and a day later it was ready to pick up. Jas had taken the hard-drive out of my Mac and put it in a caddy. Delighted, I took it home and plugged it in (a friend had generously loaned me her spare desk-top). Of course, I plugged it into a PC, so it didn’t work. It took a few days and a few phone calls, but I tracked down another Mac to run it through.

An hour’s drive away, my friend Dee had a Mac that she generously allowed me to run my hard-drive through. My idea was to find my book and email it to myself. Unfortunately, it didn’t work.

Unwilling to give up on a work I had started three years ago, I got in touch with another friend whom I knew also had a Mac. Very kindly, she called into me on Saturday last. I plugged the external drive in again and crossed my fingers. No joy.

Fortunately, my brother – who is a bit of an IT wizard – was staying with me that weekend. He made a clone of my hard drive and took it home to the Netherlands with him. He offered to try and recover data from it when he had a moment.

In the meantime, Jas at The PC Guys, offered to take another look at the hard drive for me. It showed up on his laptop (a Mac), but with an error message. He held on to it for a few days, but was unable to recover any data. His advice was to approach Ontrack Data Recovery. They are the absolute finest when it comes to data recovery, apparently, and their prices reflect that. To get the hard drive looked at in the first place would cost €95. Thereafter, recover of data would cost me anywhere from €589 to €1,200.

Yet another friend has a friend who also does data recovery. This wonderful man – Enda from Arona – offered to take a look at the hard drive for me. He doesn’t normally work on a Saturday, but he met me yesterday and took the caddy from me, with the caveat that he doesn’t normally work on Macs, so he wasn’t promising to recover anything for me. He did promise, however, to do his best and that if he didn’t think he could help, he wouldn’t  ‘go fiddling’ and that he certainly wouldn’t do any more damage than was already done.

I am seriously crossing my fingers that either Enda or my brother can recover my data. In case they can’t there is always Ontrack as a last resort. As soon as I figure out which of my kidneys to sell.

The biggest torment for me is that not that I have  lost nearly every word I have written, and nearly every picture I have taken of my kids in the past four years. No. The biggest torment for me is that the whole thing was completely avoidable. Back up. That’s all I needed to do. And I didn’t do it. You don’t need to be technically savvy to effectively back up your work. Emailing yourself to a gmail or hotmail or yahoo account will do it for you. Then, your work is on their server and accessible from anywhere.

Thumb-drives are an effective way of backing data up as well. Then, there are other, more sophisticated ways – burning stuff to DVDs, for example. Or converting everything to a Google doc. You see? It’s not hard and I do know how. I just never did. I thought my hard drive was invincible – not least because it was a Mac – and I was wrong. Boy! Was I wrong.

I would like my tale of woe to be a tale of caution for you. Back up your work. Please. Constantly. At the end of every chunk or session or paragraph – whatever works best for you. Just do it. Save yourself the angst and the trauma and the expense. Save yourself from the terrible fate of losing years of work. Save yourself from the writer’s worse nightmare.

The F Word

A few weeks ago, my nineteen year-old niece asked me if I was a feminist. I wasn’t able to give her a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. It’s a question I have asked myself once or twice over the past number of years, and I’m still not sure.

Growing up in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s, ‘feminism’ was derisively referred to as ‘Women’s Lib’. Those who pioneered it – such as Nuala O’Faolain, Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny and June Levine were branded by many as nothing more than trouble-makers. And it wasn’t just men who were scathing in their references to these women who were pushing for equal status. Many women, too, were uncomfortable with the changes and struggled to maintain the status quo.

In the house where I grew up ‘Feminism’ was synonymous with disgruntled bra burners who wanted more than they were entitled to. Women who hated men. Women who were malcontent and keen to stir up trouble for trouble’s sake. Women who were not content to be women.

I was always uncomfortable identifying myself as a ‘feminist’. Mostly, when I was asked if I was one, I would cautiously assert myself as someone who was keen on the idea of equality for all; regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation, cultural background, religious persuasion etc. I had no desire to relinquish my femininity for the good of any cause.

With regard to male-female relations, I have a desire for equality – which is not sameness.  I would like men and women to be treated equally, by governments, industries, employers and each other. ‘Equal’ does not mean ‘identical’. Equal means ‘same in status’.

I would dearly like to see women and men same in status to each other. If that makes me a feminist, then I guess, reluctantly, that that is what I am.

Pedigree

The note came home yesterday that the GAA was starting back training for hurling this morning at 10am. The Littlest Little One got all excited. Then,
‘What’s hurling?’ she asked.

I could feel the ground under me shake as my grandfather spun in his grave. A Kilkenny hurler himself, when he moved to Kildare, he took his passion for the world’s fastest field game with him. He loved everything about it – the speed and the skill and the camaraderie. For years, he was an integral part of his local GAA club. I have an abiding memory of him, in his workshop fashioning hurlies from ash. I remember watching with awe his fluid skill in reaching in and extracting the hurl from the pale wood. It was pure sorcery.

Both my girls arrived at the pitch today to give it a bash (literally!). In conversation, I mentioned to the coach that my late grandfather had been a Kilkenny hurler, and that my uncle led his own team to county victory on more than one occasion.
‘Pedigree!’ the coach shouted. ‘Lock the gates!’
I’m pretty sure he was just kidding,

The girls had great fun, and can’t wait to play again next week.  I think the Biggest Little One, in particular, has found her sport. She seems to have a greater instinct for hurling than for (Gaelic) football.  When she heard that my eldest brother had also hurled in his day, her anticipation of his February visit doubled.
‘Great!’ she said. ‘I can play with him when he gets here.’

I smiled. There was something that just warmed the cockles of my heart seeing my half-Indian baby, with her plait swishing around her bottom, wielding a hurley and getting excited about displaying her skills to her uncle in a few weeks.

There was a tremendous sense of connectedness as I watched both my children clashing ash in pursuit of a sliotar. It was like there was a fine thread connecting them to the generations before them.  I remembered something Bishop Eamonn Walsh had said at my late grandfather’s funeral. Specifically addressing the grandchildren he told us:
“Remember this, in each of you there is a part of him.”
As I watched my children play my grandfather’s sport, I realised that there is a part of him in them, too.

Pedigree? Tradition? Culture? Just a bit of fun? Or a mix of all four? Whatever it is, I’m glad the note came home and I’m glad my girls can’t wait to get their helmets on and their hurlies back in their hands next week.

The Food Issue

A listener to Tom Dunne’s morning show yesterday got in touch to detail a problem. Her nine year old has decided to stop eating meat because meat comes from animals – which are God’s creatures.

A flurry of texts ensued, with many people giving their suggestions on how to cope. A problem is a problem if it is perceived as such, so I am not about to dismiss this parent’s situation as not being problematic – because it obviously is for her.

Most of the world is vegetarian and it’s not that hard. In Ireland, there is a perception of vegetarians as being ‘picky’, ‘difficult’ and ‘awkward’. There is also a misperception that a vegetarian diet is somehow lacking. Honestly, this is just ignorance, with a bit of laziness thrown in.

It is not my intention to convert anyone to vegetarianism, nor am I about to expound on my own reasons for being vegetarian. I have done my research and believe that a vegetarian diet is the healthiest option – and research is key. It is the only way to make an informed decision; indeed, it is the only way one can claim to have made a decision at all.

Choosing a vegetarian diet means learning about food. It means looking at the food purchases you make. It means reading the back of packets of food you buy. It means educating yourself and engaging with food. But wait a second! Shouldn’t you being doing that anyway? Shouldn’t you be aware of what goes into your body no matter what diet you choose?

A notion abounds in Ireland that only meat provides adequate protein. This is incorrect. How much protein do people think they need anyway? What makes  people think they can only get it from meat? There are many sources of protein. Apart from what my kids call ‘pretendy meat’ – like Quorn and other substitutes – lentils, tofu, dairy products (we’re not vegan) nuts, legumes, rice, wholegrain cereals and vegetables all provide protein. Eating more protein than you need is not ‘better’ for you than eating an adequate amount. Unlike fat, the body does not store excess protein – it excretes it.

It is actually very easy to be vegetarian and it’s very easy to raise vegetarian children – you just have to make an effort and educate yourself about food, so you’re aware of what you’re putting into your mouth. Balance is key in any diet and is easily achieved on a vegetarian diet (our diet was reviewed six months ago by a dietician at Crumlin Children’s Hospital, who couldn’t find fault with it).

Feeding my kids well on a vegetarian diet is not hard. What is proving tricky is the learning curve I’m on since last Monday – when I learnt that my youngest is allergic to gluten and dairy and has other food intolerances. Excuse me while I go off now and educate myself some more.

Water and Kiasu-ism

In the estate where I live, we are into our third day of a waterless existence. That is to say, we have no mains water. Apparently, the water has not been shut down, but the pressure is so low that no water is coming into tanks – and, therefore, no water is coming out of our taps or into our showers or our toilet cisterns.

To my mind, this is an inconvenience, not a crisis.  For our household, it means that we are not able to shower, turn on the dishwasher, the washing machine or flush our toilets too frequently.  We have plenty of water to drink – courtesy of the supermarkets – and we can use bottled water to wash our hands and dishes when necessary. For certain tasks – like cleaning faces – there are baby wipes. For certain other tasks – like cleaning surfaces – there are household wipes.  For showers, we have gym membership and for washing clothes, we have friends who have water and washing machines.

Don’t get me wrong – I would not like this to be a permanent situation, but we have been told that we will have our water mains back to normal by the weekend. Today, to ease the discomfort of residents, the local council sent out a large water-tanker. This tanker came into the estate and stopped at the junction of the spine road and each cul-de-sac. Initially, we thought the truck would come into the cul-de-sacs, but it soon became clear that this was not going to happen.

After nearly 45 minutes of standing, waiting politely for the tanker to make its way to our junction, some of my neighbours decided to take matters into their own hands and make their way to the tanker instead. For some, it was a matter of practicality – they were wives and mothers who needed to get the dinner on, or they were shift workers who needed to hurry up in order to be at work on time. Others were motivated by the fear that the tanker would be empty by the time it got to our junction.

Looking at my watch, I decided that if I were to get the dinner made and make it to my 6.45pm meeting on time, I, too, needed to get a move on. So I picked up my assortment of bottles and lidded saucepans, and made my way to the tanker.

I was astonished to see the amount of people who had brought their wheelie bins to the tanker to be filled with water. Why? Why on earth would any sane person bring their rubbish bin to be filled with water? I mean, what can you do with water that has been in your bin? Even if it was filtered and boiled (twice!), I wouldn’t drink it, would you? Come to think of it, how would you get water out of a bin that deep? Wouldn’t you be at a serious risk of drowning leaning over trying to scoop it out? And what would you do with your rubbish while your bin was full of water?!  It’s not as if we’ll be without water forever – it’s not even as if the tanker won’t be around again in a day or two to fill our pots and pans and bottles and buckets again.

‘Kiasu’ was the word that came to mind. That’s Hokkien for the concept of  ‘being afraid to lose’. Now, ‘being afraid to lose’ is very different, linguistically and conceptually to ‘wanting to win’.  Kiasuism refers specifically wanting to have something so that you don’t have more than I do – not necessarily because I need it or want it, but because I don’t want to have less than you do.
Kiasuism is a national sport among Chinese Singaporeans. It’s one of their least attractive characteristics.  I really hope it’s not spreading. Kiasuism  would be harder to live with than no water.

Well Schooled

Ivana Bacik was on the radio yesterday. She feels that there should be more secular schools in Ireland and I have to say that I agree with her.

As I’ve mentioned here before, my children and I are not Christian. We’re what’s referred to as Hindu and, when the time came to put their names down for school, I was torn. I wanted to send them to an Irish-language school (a Gaelscoil), but I didn’t want to send them to a Christian school.

In the end, it wasn’t my decision. When my eldest was 4, there were no places available at any of the seven schools that accept girls in any of the three towns nearby.  Finally, when she was five years and two months old, the principal of the nearest Gaelscoil contacted me.  She told me that there was a place for my daughter at her school.  My relief was palpable – trying to ensure my daughter’s education had become almost a full-time job and I was starting to worry that she would never see the inside of a school building. (I had thought about homeschooling, but was in the middle of a degree myself, so that wasn’t a practical option).

In September of 2007, my Big One started school – a year after I had wanted her to.

Interestingly, the local Educate Together has always told me that they have no places for my children. This school is walking distance from our home – while the Gaelscoil is 5 miles away. I put my youngest daughter’s name down on their waiting list in 2004, before she was even six months old. Yet, in April of last year (2009), they wrote to tell me that there was still no place for her in Junior Infants. I have often wondered how this could be. There is no sibling rule in operation at that school; also, I know mothers of white, baptised Catholic children whose names were put on the list after my daughters’. Yet there was room for their children, but not mine. I’m just saying.

As it happens, the Gaelscoil my girls attend embraces diversity. Diwali is celebrated in my kids’ classes every year and, despite the school being run under the auspices of the Catholic bishop, they are not compelled to learn Catholic prayers or to be schooled in that faith. My Big One is in First Class and they have a religion book. When the rest of the class pulls their religion books out – she does, too. The only difference is that hers is for Hindu kids.

I don’t entirely think, however, that religion has no place in school.  If there were a Hindu school I could send my children to, believe me, I would. The nearest one is in London, so that’s not going to happen any time soon.  In the absence of that, however, I would like to see the Catholic Church bowing out of the majority of Irish schools. I wouldn’t advocate banning them altogether, but I do think that the amount of Catholic schools should be reflective of the percentage of people who are regular church-goers. Perhaps the best option is a school system which gives students an overview of a number of faiths, but doesn’t get mired in specific doctrine.  That, I know, was the idea of the Educate Together schools, but that isn’t the way they have turned out. Certainly not round my way, anyhow.

What Will Matter…

Tidying up my desk-top this morning, I came across the following poem. For some reason, I felt impelled to share it with you:

WHAT WILL MATTER
by Michael Josephson
Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end.
There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days.
All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations and jealousies will finally disappear.
So too, your hopes, ambitions, plans and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
Even your gender and skin color will be irrelevant.
So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought but what you built,
not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage or sacrifice that enriched,
empowered or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew,
but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories but the memories of those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what.
Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident.
It’s not a matter of circumstance but of choice.
Choose to live a life that matters.

Singapore – The Bad….

Since Singapore is such a small country – and much of it is reclaimed from the sea – there is not much in the way of natural attractions, but the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is well worth a visit as a 164 hectare example of pristine rainforest. Singapore’s Botanic Gardens – at the top of Orchard Road, the main shopping drag – are spectacular and there are often free music recitals held there.

Apart from that, Singapore boasts one of the best zoos in the world – second only to the one in San Diego, apparently. I’m not a zoo person, but I really enjoyed Singapore Zoo – and the Night Safari there is a real treat.

Unfortunately, there is not much old architecture in Singapore. When Singapore got independence from Britain in the 1960s, many of the old buildings were torn down. Thankfully, many of them around Boon Tat and Amoy streets were not destroyed and have been lovingly restored. The famous Raffles Hotel, of course, is still standing as stately as ever. It provides the visitor with a lovely glimpse at the opulence enjoyed by the privileged of yesteryear who sojourned in Singapore. About six years ago, there was talk of tearing down the old Ford factory; where the Japanese surrendered to Lord Mountbatten. Thankfully, good sense prevailed, and the building is now a national monument and a World War II exhibition gallery.

There is no concept of free press or free speech in Singapore, either, but if you’re only going for a visit, that won’t bother you too much. I had to laugh when, years ago, the government gave into public clamouring for an area similar to ‘Speakers’ Corner’ in London’s Hyde Park. A small patch of a park was conceded to people wishing to air their views. There were, however, a few catches; Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner is beside a police station, a script of the proposed speech must be submitted to the police at least a week before it is due to be delivered and if the authorities don’t like what you’re planning to say, they will not allow you to say it. Further, if you deviate from your ‘approved’ script, you will be arrested.

More than any country I’ve been to – and I’ve been to a few – Singapore is concerned with image. So, there are no beggars on the streets of Singapore, either. They’re in Woodbridge – the mental asylum – to keep them off the streets and away from tourists and those going about their daily business.

A final word of warning, though, before you pack your bags to visit Singapore – be sure that you don’t break the law. “I’m foreign,” or “I didn’t know” are not acceptable responses.  You will be dealt with just as severely as someone who has been living there all their life.  No, you won’t be caned if you don’t flush a loo, but you will be fined. Obey the authorities, regard the rules live by the laws and you’ll have a wonderful time in the ‘Land of the Lion’.

Singapore – The Good….

A friend of a friend is off to Singapore soon and I thought I’d share some of my observations about that city-state:

“It’ll be lovely when it’s finished,” a friend of mine commented.  She was talking about Singapore. Not a particular building in Singapore – but the whole, entire city-state. Singapore feels like a building site. Apparently, it’s part of their economic strategy – tear down perfectly good structures and erect other, perfectly good structures in their place. It seems to be working – Singapore has avoided the brunt of the global recession that is enveloping the rest of us.

That aside, Singapore is probably the best place to start your Asian tour. It is familiar enough – everyone speaks a sort of English – that you don’t feel totally overwhelmed. Yet foreign enough to make you feel like you have travelled half-way around the world – which you have.

Its an excellent springboard to countries such as Malaysia – which is just a hop skip and a jump down the road (Bukit Timah Road) and over the Causeway.  The Indonesian islands of Bintan and Batam are just short boat rides away.

Singapore is a city that is constantly celebrating. The mix of cultures and religions means that there is always an excuse to get dressed up and overeat! All the major festivals of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam are celebrated with great joy and enthusiasm. Lunar New Year (known as ‘Chinese’ New Year in Singapore) falls in January or February, which is followed shortly afterwards by Valentine’s Day.  Since the early years of this century, St. Patrick’s Day, in March, has joined the calendar of events in Singapore.

Given that eating is a national past-time – with every cuisine in the world available in the city-state – it will come as no surprise that there is a ‘Food Festival’ in Singapore in July.  So no matter what time of the year you go, you can be sure that you will bear witness to a cultural celebration which will remain with you forever.

The climate of Singapore is tropical and humid – the country is just one degree north of the equator – so there will be no huge difference in the weather no matter what time of the year you visit. If the heat and being permanently damp from the humidity gets to you, it’s easy to nip into an air-conditioned shopping mall to cool down. Shopping is the other national past-time in Singapore, so there are malls littered all over. Conveniently, most MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) stations have shopping malls built over them.

Speaking of the MRT, it is a fantastic mode of transport.  Clean, efficient and ultra-modern, the MRT criss-crosses the island and is a very cheap way to get around.

Unlike most countries that have a predominately Chinese population, Singapore has a designated Chinatown. It is well worth a visit as a one-stop area for all things Chinese – including Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which is fully regulated in Singapore.

My favourite place in Singapore, however, is Little India. Turning the corner from Jalan Besar (literally ‘Big Road’ in Malay), is like being instantly transported to India. The sights, sounds, smells (and driving!) are just like you’d find in any town in Tamil Nadu! The Indians in Singapore are predominately Tamilian, which is why Tamil is one of the country’s four national languages.

The other ethnic enclave of Singapore is ‘Kampong Glam’ – where the Malay culture is on colourful display – while Holland Village was, historically, where the Europeans shopped. The best bakery in Singapore can be found here, just behind Cold Storage Jelita. It is called ‘Petit Provence’ and has the most amazing cinnamon rolls you will ever eat. In Singapore, such an item is called a ‘die, die, must try’ piece. So don’t be alarmed when you hear that phrase during your visit.

So that’s the good (or some of it). Watch out for my next post, when I’ll tell you a bit about some of the bad.

From The Desk of Florence Nightingale…..

I’ve been MIA here for a while. The girls have been sick. The Little One ended up in hospital on Friday. She’s been sick for three whole weeks and, on Friday, our wonderful GP suggested bringing her into Crumlin to have her checked out. We were only there for three hours, which is a short while to spend in A&E of a Friday afternoon/early evening.

The good news is that there’s nothing discernibly wrong with her. The doctor we saw seemed to think that she had picked up a virus, which left her immune system compromised slightly, then she got tonsillitis, now that’s gone and her immune system is still a bit low. So, all I can do is mind her until she picks up.

The Big One was grand. She got off the school bus and was taken home by a friend of mine who has a child in her class. At a quarter to midnight on Saturday, she sat bolt upright in bed and said something.
“Sorry, Sweetheart?” I asked, none too perturbed, because this child often speaks in her sleep.
“I’m going to….blehhhhhhh”
Oh great. Who thought so much vomit could come out of one so small? Thank God we’re vegetarian so there wasn’t rotting meat to contend with.

I cleaned her up, changed the bed and put her back into it. We both went back to sleep and slept peacefully. Until 2.22am. When there was a repeat performance. Lovely.

The Big One has hair down past her bottom and it hadn’t escaped unscathed. I had no option but to stick her in the shower. It was 3am by the time we got back to bed. Thank God, it seems to have just been a 24 hour thing.  I had a touch of it myself yesterday, but Solpadine took care of it.

As I spent the weekend with my Florence Nightingale hat on, I was profoundly grateful. Grateful that there is nothing terribly wrong with my girls, and grateful that I can fix all that is wrong or uncomfortable in their lives.

They’re five and seven and, to a huge extent, I control their universe. My grip will slip as the years advance, and I am acutely aware of that.  There is so much outside of my control – paedophiles, abusive boyfriends, bullies, drunk drivers, to name a few.  It is tempting to home-school them, forbid boyfriends, refuse them permission to leave the house, and disallow access to the Internet. But I can’t. I cannot protect my girls from life. The best I can do is give them the tools to cope with it.

The Parenting Privilege

In 2007, The Grand Jury of the European Court made a ruling that devastated Natallie Evans, a young British woman. Six years previously, Ms. Evans was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. At the time, she was engaged to Howard Johnston and they underwent a rapid round of IVF, which resulted in six embryos. These were frozen for use once Ms. Evans was well enough to contemplate pregnancy.

The relationship between the couple, however, broke down and they separated. Ms. Evans still wanted to use the embryos that she and Mr. Johnston had produced together. He refused and so the legal wrangle began. Ms. Evans lost her final appeal and the embryos were destroyed.

We have a similar case before the courts in Ireland today.  A separated couple has frozen embryos that the woman wants implanted and her estranged husband doesn’t. This couple already has two children and the woman wants to grow her family against her husband’s wishes.

Central to this case is the view of the Irish High Court that frozen embryos are not ‘unborn’ within the view of the constitution.  An embryo is only deemed ‘unborn’ and entitled to the full protection of Irish law when that child is implanted in a human womb.
A child born of one of those embryos would be a child born of bitterness. Is that really an ideal start for any child? Perhaps, the woman in this case, should focus on the children she already has, rather than trying her best to bring another child into the world and struggling to bring them up in a single-parent household?
If the woman in this case gets the result that she wants and the embryos are implanted, her estranged husband will be responsible for the resulting babies.  He will be required by law to provide for the child/ren financially, and to bear responsibility for the lives that ensue.

For whatever reason(s) this man has made the decision that he does not want to have any more children with a woman with whom he is no longer in partnership.  We cannot have it both ways – insisting that men should be responsible with their sperm, and then over-ruling the desires of a man who is doing his best to be.

A Santa-Less Christmas

It’s a funny thing; a child could walk into nearly any primary school in Ireland and declare that God does not exist. There would be no hue and cry. If, however, that same child walked into school and declared that Santa does not exist, there would be uproar.

With Christmas nearly upon us, we need to acknowledge that not everyone celebrates Christmas the way it has traditionally been celebrated in Ireland. Not every child in Ireland will expect a visit from Santa this year. My own two daughters are among them.

There are a number of reasons why this is so. For a start, we’re not Christian. In Ireland, though, any declaration of non-participation is generally greeted with remarks about how much my children are missing out on.  Oddly enough, my Muslim friends never berate me for my non-celebration of Eid, nor have I ever been chastised by a Jew on account of my non-observance of Hanukkah.

Another reason why I refuse to ‘do’ the Santa thing is that I have a policy of not lying to my children. Whenever they ask me a question, I do my best to answer them as honestly as I possibly can.  I have this policy because I want my children to trust me.

Another problem I have with Santa that he only comes to ‘good’ children – and that if you are ‘good’ Santa will bring you your heart’s desire. What about the child who could not be better, but whose parent/s simply can’t afford to give the child what they want? What message does that give such a child – that they simply aren’t good enough? That Santa doesn’t care? And what of the child who keeps what they want a secret – believing the lies that Santa knows what children want? How disappointed will that child be on Christmas morning when they don’t get what they most coveted?

As children get older and more aware of the world around them, they learn about children who live in poverty, children who have little or nothing, and children who are starving. Why do those children not receive gifts from Santa? Are they ‘bad’ as well as poor?

In Ireland, if you don’t invite Santa into your home, you are viewed as odd – if you are white, you are considered even odder. People have accused me of ‘depriving’ my children. All children need something to look forward to, I am told. Well, mine have plenty to look forward to. Apart from their birthdays, we mark the coming of spring and a number of Hindu festivals. In fact, the school my girls attend celebrates Diwali with them every year.

My awareness of what other people tell their children has led me to be sensitive about what I tell mine about Santa. So don’t worry – your secret is safe. Just don’t call me mean-spirited or try to tell me that my kids are deprived because I don’t lie to them – okay?

Why Do Women Hate Their Bodies?

Des Bishop stood (sat?) in for Sean Moncrieff yesterday on Newstalk, and he had an item called ‘Why Do Women Hate Their Bodies?’ It immediately started me thinking about the part(s) of my body I’d like to change. Rather than bore you with that, though, I’d much rather concentrate on what I like about my body. Why on earth would I want to share that with you? In the hope that you would take another look at yourself – literally and metaphorically – and realise that there is so much about your own body that is fabulous.

I’m not very tall, and it used to bother me a lot. All my siblings are 6’ and over – including my sister. But I inhabit my space and I’m not afraid to stand up for what matters to me.

I have big feet. It makes getting shoes difficult (not as difficult here as it was when I lived in Asia, though!) and I’ve always bemoaned the size of them. Yesterday, though, I thought about how lucky I am that I have feet that are not deformed or arthritic. I’m also lucky that I always have shoes.

I don’t have perfect legs, but they work perfectly.

‘Buxom’ is not a word that could ever be accurately applied to me – but my breasts are ‘working breasts’ not just there for decoration. For over seven years straight, they provided nourishment, comfort and immunological protection to my children. The children of strangers also benefitted from my milk, as I donated my spare milk (and there was a lot of it!) to the milk bank.  Without my milk, my eldest would not have survived her first few months. I wouldn’t trade any of that for a bigger cup size. My cup runneth over.

No one will ever write poetry about my eyes, but I’d be lost without them. And they are never afraid to look you in yours.

My stomach is not as flat as it could be, but – newsflash! – I’m a woman, not a stick-insect.

Sure, my smile may not light up a room, but I smile a lot – and I smile from the heart. I’m lucky to have so much to smile about.

I don’t have a dinky little nose like Nicole Kidman, but I am still overwhelmed by the smell of jasmine, baking bread, coffee, spices and babies.

When I sit down and think about it like this, I don’t hate my body. Even if I did, it wouldn’t get me anywhere. To a large extent, our bodies are genetically pre-determined. There are certain things that we absolutely cannot change about the way we look. I have other things to battle – other fights to fight. I don’t need to fight myself.

All I Want For Christmas…..

I’m a writer. And I’m a Virgo. This instantly gives you a few vital (!) pieces of information about me:

1.    I love to write.
2.    I love to be organised, part of which means that
3.    I love lists.

In keeping with the festive spirit, I have decided to blog about the things I would like for Christmas. So, here – in no particular order –  is my writerly Xmas wishlist:

  1. A laptop The four year-old i-Mac is sooooo sllllloooowwwww. Keeping multiple applications running and multiple tabs open is draining its life force.  A laptop (I’m so desperate it doesn’t even have to be a Mac) would mean I could take it with me, too! I know I can write on the back of bus tickets if I have to, but I find that I can’t work on current stuff unless I have it with me. I only get new ideas when I’m out. Which is great, but I have work I need to finish!
  2. An iPod Touch Like many writers, I love to have music on when I write. An iPod allows me to take my music with me everywhere. An iPod Touch would allow me to read everywhere, too!
  3. Pretty Stationery. I love stationery because I love writing. I love writing on good, attractive stationery when I send letters and cards.
  4. A lovely pen. I’m picky about what I write with. I like a nice fountain pen, but the one I have is going a bit leaky. A nice one would go with well  my lovely stationery. 🙂
  5. A Ladder to my Attic. You know, like a Stira. That way, I could disappear into the attic when I needed to write completely undisturbed. They’d never think of looking for me there.
  6. A Kettle. I’d like a kettle in the room where I write, so I don’t have to disappear downstairs and risk distraction every time I want a cuppa.
  7. An Anti-Guilt Pill. This would be fabulous for those times when I feel guilty for neglecting the kids when I write and guilty for neglecting writing when I’m with the kids.
  8. Media Directory. Handy to have when you get an idea and would like to know who best to pitch it to. A Media Directory has the answers to all your media questions.
  9. An Agent. I know, I know, but it’s a wish list, right? I’d love to have a kick-ass agent who loves my work and would help me land
  10. A Publishing Contract. There’s nothing more to say about that, is there?

Unmentionables

Today’s blog was inspired by the wonderful Alex Barclay. In her book, Blood runs Cold, Ms Barclay refers to a multi-pack of pastel-coloured cotton panties as  ‘Darkroom panties; things would only develop in the dark’.  She further proclaims that ‘every woman has a couple’. Well, for the record, I would like to put my hand up and declare ‘not this woman’!  It’s a fantastic image, though, and I’m sure we all know immediately what she means.

In my teens, I decided that underwear should only be worn in one of two colours – black or white. Occasionally, I throw caution to the wind and wear something in purple, but that is only on rare occasions.  When I was a teenager, leggings were invented and they were de rigeur for Drama students in the early nineties. Back then, the idea of a VPL (visible panty line) caused my blood to run cold and I adopted the habit of wearing only thongs. Or g-strings, as they were called in those days.

Not long after, I moved to Singapore, where such items of underwear were impossible to find. Even M&S didn’t carry a selection. I had mine sent out to me in what I referred to as ‘Red Cross Packages’, which also contained Sinutab and Neurofen, which were similarly unavailable in the Land of The Lion back then.

When I worked (here) in Bangkok, one of my colleagues bemoaned the fact that her boyfriend didn’t get the notion of period underwear. He couldn’t understand why, for those few days when she had her period, she wore grubbier, less sexy underwear than she did the rest of the time. This woman was Canadian – though her parents came from Korea – and he was a Brit, and she wondered if it was a cultural thing. I could shed no light, but figured it was probably more personal than cultural.

Obviously, my former colleague’s boyfriend thought that women should be sexily-dressed all the time, no matter how comfortable or otherwise their pants might make them feel.

Personally, I feel that regardless of what’s on display, whatever is next to my skin must be feminine. Even though no one else will see it, I make sure that my underwear is matching and comfortable. Even though a one-time flatmate of mine contended that g-strings couldn’t possibly be comfortable!

When it comes to children, however, I am distinctly unnerved by some of the products on the market. Large department stores have bra-tops for 4 year olds. Why? They also carry ranges of knickers that have things like ‘cute’, ‘lovely’ and even ‘sexy’ on them. Now, call me old-fashioned, but when it comes to children I really think that underwear should be of the type Alex Barclay refers to – plain cotton pastels. The odd flower here and there is also perfectly acceptable.

My eldest daughter wears bloomers (like these), which we pick up in India. She loves them – not least because we have to go to India to buy them – but her sister wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair! Even so young, they have definite ideas about what kind of underwear they like and will wear.

So what I’m wondering is, does our underwear say something about us? I’d guess it probably does, though I’ve not come across any research on the subject.  So why don’t you ‘fess up and share with the rest of us what your knicker-drawer contains?

I Hate Meeces To Pieces…….

There’s a mouse in the house. It’s a dead mouse. Or, at least, I think it’s dead. I haven’t been able to screw up the courage to open the press and verify the life-status of said animal.

On Monday, I went to make some bread. I opened the cereal cupboard. Uh-oh. Mouse droppings, oats and bits of shredded Flahavan’s Organic Oats packet were visible. I shut the press as quickly as I’d opened it. And I haven’t opened it since.

On Wednesday, my friend, Seán called around. I persuaded him to set the trap that I’d had since a vermin visitation a few weeks ago. (That time, I called Rentokill but baulked at paying €260 to get rid of a mouse. My youngest daughter set the trap. My sister got rid of it.) Anyway, Seán set the trap on Wednesday and I can only assume that it worked. I haven’t gathered up the courage to check.

I have a phobia when it comes to rodents. It’s not merely a dainty, girly squeal and a screwing up of my nose. It’s a constriction in my throat,  shaking, difficulty breathing, horrific visual images and whimpering like I’m facing down the barrel of a loaded gun. In short, a full-blown panic attack. The man from Rentokil recommended hypnotherapy. Bless him.

So I’m sitting here, fully aware that there is probably a decomposing mouse in the press in my kitchen. I am aware that decomposing mice smell and that sooner or later, the decomposing mouse in the press in my kitchen will start to smell as well. I have no option but to enlist the help of some friend or relative.  I’ll have to put up with their feigned (at least I hope it’s feigned) martyrdom at my girlyness and their retelling of the episode – complete with embellishments – for some time to come.

Still, it’s not as if I can do it myself. It’s one of the things a husband could be useful for. I’d happily trade a few hours of sex for rotting rodent removal. I’d even throw in a good meal and a few laundered shirts to sweeten the deal.

 

Now that I think about it, there are a number of ways in which a (new) husband could be useful. I’ll blog about them later in the  week.

The Murphy Report

The Murphy Report was released the day before yesterday.  Since then, the government, clergy, gardaí and other concerned bodies and individuals have been howling in indignation.
People are being condemned left, right and centre for allowing Irish children to be sexually abused; for abusing the children, for hushing it up and for doing nothing when they were informed.

But here’s a newsflash – this report is not an indictment of the Irish Catholic Clergy – it is an indictment of the Irish as a people.  We stand by as our children are abused. We turn away from them and then, when faced with an incontrovertible truth, rend our garments and cry ‘Why didn’t they say something?’

The questions, instead, should be ‘Why didn’t we listen when they told us’ (even non-verbal communication is disclosure) and ‘Why didn’t we do something?’

As someone whose earliest memory – before I was even three years old – is of being sexually abused, I feel I know a thing or two about this subject.  I’m not afraid to speak out. The only thing that stops me naming those who abused me is that there has been no prosecution. The DPP – despite confessions – decided against prosecution because ‘there wasn’t enough evidence’.

But it’s not just now that I refuse to hold my tongue.  As a young teenager – when I finally found out that what was happening to me on a nearly daily basis was not ‘normal’ – I spoke out. I looked for help. I was desperate to be rescued from hell.

I told ‘responsible adults’ who told me that ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘men are like that’. I told a respected psychiatrist in Crumlin Childrens’ Hospital. Her response? She called – no, not the Gardaí, or social services don’t be silly! – but one of the people who was abusing me and told him, in very coded language that she knew what he was doing. Did he stop? Not on your nelly! He ‘taught me a lesson’ so I’d learn to keep my mouth shut and ‘stop spreading my filth’.  (As you can see, I’m a slow learner!)

My friends, out of concern, told their parents, who said ‘Shhh! That’s private family business. We can’t interfere.’

In the past year, I have learnt that, at one stage, a delegation of my teenaged friends went to the headmistress of our school (a nun) and told her of their very real concerns that I was going to kill myself. Her response?  ‘You’re all good girls – don’t worry about Hazel and her problems. Don’t let that distract you from your studies.’  I heard that and felt almost defiant for still being alive, 20 years later.

So my point is that ‘the church’ did not abuse these children – ‘the country’ did, because it permitted the abuse in so many ways and on so many levels. And what you permit, you promote.

Inter Country Adoption

An article in yesterday’s Irish Independent caught my eye and brought to the surface feelings of discomfort that I have around inter-country adoptions.  Or, more precisely, inter-racial  (although I hate that term!) adoptions.

You see, I am not entirely sure that adopting children from other cultures and bringing them up in another culture is really in that child’s best interests. I am not naïve – I have been to India, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam and I have seen for myself the abject poverty and atrocious circumstances these children are born into.  And of course I am not suggesting that if they could be given a better life, it should be denied them – but I question whether or not that better life can only be provided outside their country of birth.

My intention is not to be glib – I understand the pain of childlessness and considered adoption – but was married to a man who wouldn’t countenance it. I was lucky that I eventually (after 13 years of trying) did conceive.  My children are half-Indian and there is no dad in their lives, so it is up to me to provide their Irish-ness and their Indian-ness. This I do as best I can. The deep awareness and understanding of their cultural and religious background makes this easier for me. We go back to India as often as my purse will allow and we have friends who are Indian Hindus both here and in India. Still, I find integration can sometimes be difficult.

Identity is a huge issue for all of us. We all want to know who we are and where we came from. Is it fair on these children to bring them up in a family that they are obviously adopted into?  It is obvious from first glance that they weren’t born to their parents and there is an immediate sense of dislocation. They are marked as ‘different’ from the start; and all sorts of presumptions are made about them and their parents – both birth and adoptive.  What does this do to their sense of self, their sense of belonging, their sense of security? Of course I understand that a child is better off in a loving home than dead, but I have to question if anyone has the right to remove a child from the country and culture into which they were born and transport them across the globe. There are other solutions – foster parents in their own countries of birth, for example.

The dirty nasty truth is that, for as long as there are foreigners prepared to pay for them – no matter how that payment is dressed up – children will be sold into adoption and women will be coerced into surrendering children they don’t particularly want to surrender. It happened in Ireland not so long ago  – remember?

There are plenty of children  in Ireland who need loving homes. Many children in long-term foster care simply cannot be adopted by their foster parents because our laws prohibit such adoptions. Maybe, rather than decrying the laws of other countries we should lobby our own government to have our laws changed.

Off With Their Hands!

They should be grateful we’re not living in Saudi. If we were, they would probably have their hands cut off and I, for one, would not object. I’m not referring to petty thieves – or even the corporate thieves like our bankers and lawyers – but to people who drive and talk on their mobile phones without using their hands-free kits.

What is wrong with these people? Run a red light, overtake me on a dangerous bend, speed if you absolutely must but for God’s sake, put down your blasted phone when you are driving.

Do they think they have special powers denied the rest of us mere mortals? Do these people think that the laws on driving while using a mobile phone don’t apply to them because they are such fantastic, talented drivers that they can do both?

Because if that is what they think, they should have their licences permanently revoked on the grounds that they are delusional and, therefore, a threat to the rest of the road users.

Yesterday was a typical morning. I took the kids to school, drove around to my sister’s, drove her to work and drove home. In total, it was a round trip of about 20 miles undertaken from 8.40am until 10.30am. On that trip, I counted no fewer than 27 drivers who were on their phones and driving at the same time. Most notably, was a man in a truck who was stopped, waiting to turn right onto the motorway at Maynooth. I had had to stop to allow the person in front of me turn left in order to get on the motorway. So I stayed stopped and motioned to the man in the truck that I was allowing him to turn. He couldn’t complete the manoeuvre immediately, however, because he was on the phone!

Maybe I encountered so many phone-drivers because I live on the Dublin-Kildare border, where people are more likely to use their phones while driving

According to the UK Department for Transport, you are four times more likely to crash while driving and talking on your phone.

Just like drink-driving, there is no excuse for this behaviour – unless you’re calling the fire services, the Gardaí or an ambulance in reaction to a genuine accident (not one you’ve caused because you were driving while on the phone).  This is also not a new law – it was introduced on September 01, 2006.  The penalty for driving and using a phone without a hands-free kit is two points on your licence and a fine not to exceed €2,000.

Obviously, this is not enough of a deterrent when you see the amount of people rabbiting on roundabouts, overtaking while orating, and speeding while speaking on their mobile phones.

Obviously, the penalties currently in place are no disincentive, so I propose something slightly more creative.  Every person caught driving while on their mobiles should be forced to spend a week going about their daily business with one hand tied behind their backs. That should do it.

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.