2014 – it’s there for the taking

When I look back over the diaries I kept as a child and turn to those blank freestyle pages at the back of the notebooks I learn more about my then self than from the daily entries that make up most of the journals.  I’ve found wills and last testimonies bequeathing favourite toys and clothes and postal savings accounts to sisters and friends or just acknowledging allies who hadn’t shopped me in. Declarations and remonstrations.

But mostly it was where I recorded the important ‘historical stuff’.

Like “ It is 11.57 on 11 Nov and I am nine”

“It is 11.59”.

And finally “It is 12.01 on 12 Nov, I am now ten”.

Without fail, on New Year’s Eve I sat with my diary on my lap, an honest observer and chronicler waiting to record the new year in the only way I knew how.

“It is 11.59 and 1980.” Then underneath,”Now it’s 12.01 and 1981″.

It seemed to matter.

It still does. To acknowledge the transition – the passing out of one year and the arrival of a new one. With the full quota of hope and aspirations and best intentions.

I have high hope for 2014 and my place within it.

Lists have been written with mind, body and spirit in sight. Recorded in the back of a journal just as decades before.

Earlier to bed, earlier to rise (my clock is set for 6.26am. I hope to get that back to 6am). Journals – dream journal, morning pages, ideas. Writing. Blogging. Grapefruit. Lemons in hot water. Two litres of water. Walks and affirmations and walks while affirming. Courses and reading around personal development. Mindfulness. Therapeutic writing. More cooking less baking. De-clutter house. If I don’t use it, then I must lose it. Dates with husband and with children.

For the record,  it’s 20.48 on 31 December 2013.

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I couldn’t find a relevant image so chose this instead. Will abide by.

A narrative

What started out as a post for this blog sprouted wings and took flight. In fact it’s only getting its’ outing here now despite being written some time ago. It is a story but by it’s dissemination a whole other story needs to be written too. So what follows here is the lot. There’s my recent story (which my blog charts), the ‘original story’, The Irish Time’s spell-checked and subbed version of that story (spot what didn’t make the final cut) and the reaction to its publication including the aftermath for me.

So pop on the kettle and make yourself a cup of tea. Best make it a pot.

12 Months ago

I could take you back to London in the eighties but we’d be here all day and anyhow the original story does that succinctly. Twelve months ago I was still pretty lost. I knew what I didn’t want to do, but my lens to the world was ‘obscured’. That’s the term window fitters use for bathroom panes. Obscured perspectives have their place (in toilets etc) but I was finding it difficult to navigate around my world with that outlook. I now wonder if through getting no satisfaction from looking out, I was forced to look inward and that’s where many of my answers lay all along.

I knew that the answers lay with me. Oh, the pressure. What was I doing keeping them to myself and at the same time keeping them from myself. I didn’t know how to access them until I started to trust my intuition, my gut. Like a dowsing rod I was led to an adult education college where I enrolled on a certificate in counselling. I wasn’t clear what I was going to get from the course or the qualification but enrolling sat easy with my gut.

Another seismic event was the arrival of a humble brown envelope. From my sister in Ireland. In it, a photocopy of an article from The British Journal of General Practice (BJGP) entitled ‘Therapeutic writing – a tool for general practice’ with a yellow post-it on top. “MT, I really think this is something for you”.

I say seismic because my obscured window pane shattered. I made an appointment with an expert cited in the study. I invested in a two hour mentoring talk with her, which warrants a blog post all to itself. She was wonderfully encouraging, at one point comparing me to an antique cracked Chinese tea bowl. She explained that they are more sought after (and more valuable to collectors) than their perfect pristine counterparts.

Being a diarist and blogger therapeutic writing/writing for well being would be a good fit. However I was encouraged to do more of the pen and paper writing. Something special happens when nib contacts paper that a keyboard can’t replicate. And I have been doing that since.

My original emigrant story

These forays into counselling and therapeutic writing spawned essays like the one on my emigration story. This is the ‘original story’ I refer to earlier and the catalyst for all that followed.

Home and Away – now more home than away  

The tipping point happened a few years back when I had lived in the UK for more years than I’d lived in the country of my birth, Ireland. Acknowledging that was a big deal for me. I’d been playing with the figures and putting it off. I took into account the two years I reckoned I wasn’t in England – made up of a year backpacking around Africa in 1990 and countless trips I’d taken overseas when I worked with the airlines. But there’s no getting away from it now.

I came to London at 21 as a recent graduate from NIHE. Even that dates me – the college is now DCU. Same campus, same course, even a few same faculty members. I know this because my nephew left this year with the same qualification. My degree (Communication Studies) was a leap of faith for my parents back in ‘84 when we first saw the CAO offer published in the newspaper and they agreed to fund my studies. My heart soared. It couldn’t have been easy for them. As well as their own, they were already supporting two households as older sisters studied in UCG and UCD. I was 17 and not familiar with the ways of the city. I packed a torch in the suitcase I took to Dublin forgetting about street lamps. How we’ve laughed about that since.

On graduation my options were to sign on the dole which was a definite no-no in my father’s eyes or leave for England and beyond. I won’t call it a choice because it didn’t feel like that then and in this retelling it still doesn’t. We had no family in London so I arranged accommodation in a women’s hostel in Victoria. Run by nuns.

There was a pay phone on each floor – our link with home and employment agencies as we waited for bookings. Job offers came flooding in. I worked for a Canadian bank by day and as an usherette at a West End theatre by night. Because of our central location I got to know London city by foot very well – knowledge I still call on today.

There was a communal TV room in the basement. Posters stuck on the walls appealed for prayers and funds for those less fortunate. Trays of M & S sandwiches and cakes on the turn (edible though unsellable) were left along the corridors. Corporate donations for charity cases….and maybe we were.

The nuns enforced a no-male-guests policy and we had a curfew. Those restrictions ensured a quick turnover and so a vacant bed for the next Irish departee.

It wasn’t a good time for me though in that first year in London I fell in love. With an Irish boy He wasn’t the man I would marry though we remain friends since. Who knows it mightn’t have been any easier had I spent my early adulthood in Dublin. Getting comfortable in my skin.

In the spring that would mark 6 months away, my mother posted over a cutting from the Irish Press. Aer Lingus were expanding in Heathrow and eager to employ their own. I made an application and after an interview where I had to show my knees – to see what I’d look like in a uniform skirt – I got offered a job. For many years I straddled both countries. This was in an era before departure tax when it was cheaper to hop on a 737 and pop across to Dublin than to board the piccadilly line for Leicester Square. It was almost as fast.

Maybe because 25 years have passed and that’s a milestone of sorts I’ve been thinking back on those early days. Though a recent encounter I had in the city could have been a trigger. Led by my six year old son to a toy store in a shopping arcade this young guy comes bounding over to serve us waving a wand and trailing bubbles that miraculously don’t pop. ‘Touch bubbles’ he tells me. ‘Kids love dem’. I’m cheered on hearing his strong Irish accent. He’s been in London seven months and loving every minute of his stay. I don’t want to burst his bubble but surely he was reared for greater things than this. He tells me he graduated last September from UL with a degree in music technology. He’s in a band. He gigs by night and plays with toys during the day. ‘I’m living the dream’ he enthuses – only half tongue in cheek.

The celtic tiger has spurned her cubs but there’s no denying their DNA, formed during those years when anything was possible. He has a confidence and ease lacking in waves of bygone emigrants. I’m sure it will carry him far, and home again if he so wishes.

Decades on, people have stopped asking me if I plan on moving home. I’ve even stopped tormenting myself with the question. Though I still feel a physical ache when I’m in Ireland and driving to the airport bound for my home in London. My husband is English and in a minority – the ones who are not charmed by all things Irish. I guess that means he loves me for myself. We were wed in a castle near my birthplace. While on a holiday home I’d my children baptised in the church where I had my first confession and other sacraments. On equal ops forms I tick the box ‘White Irish’ for the three of us. Though I can’t imagine they’ll define themselves in that way when their time comes. Recently I got them Irish passports. When I flipped open the cover and saw ‘Irish citizen’ by their photos it looked all wrong. For I know that they are not. Though their mother will always be. And that will do for me.

Outing

While I wrote it one night, it was years in the making. I sent it on spec the The Irish Times online forum called generation emigration. They asked if they could publish it in their print paper and even offered to pay me. I was thrilled. Turns out the sub editor working on it was in university a year ahead of me.  I remembered him as very lovely and very talented. He wrote me a wonderful generous email, commented on my “existential unease” (that’s me in two words) and offered some great advice.

When the article appeared in the newspaper  I noticed that they’d ditched my title. Instead they’d pulled a line from the text and made it the heading – “London 1988:  I had to show my knees in an interview”. Oh, dear.  I suppose it catches the eye. With a different heading again on the online version.

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Reception

All weekend I received emails and texts and FB messages from friends and acquaintances – recent, old, mislaid and forgotten. It’s still happening. The paper was happy with the article’s reception. Many FB likes and a lot of online comments and discussion.

The Irish Times came back to me a couple of weeks ago and asked for 200 words on the concept of Home. These appear in their Weekend Review section of Saturday’s paper which has a huge readership, especially today, 4 days shy of Christmas. This time they use some of the biography they’d asked me to supply with my first approach. ‘Marie Therese Keegan, 45, runs creative writing workshops for children’. Those who know me will say she’s demonstrated her first bit of creative writing right there with those figures. That was the I.T being creative, trying to work out my age from references or maybe from an old acquaintance, the sub editor.

Since

Having something recently published has bolstered me with current writing projects. Because my writing has appeared in The Irish Times me writing and continuing to write has earned me a certain degree of credibility previously lacking. Yesterday I happened to be in the toy store I refer to in the article. Our recent and eager emigrant is still there and remembers me and the dormant volcano he sold us (a disappointing toy that didn’t deliver). I told him about the article and his place in it. He was chuffed and would be googling it later.

I googled myself this morning to get to the weekend review. I now have quite a presence. I’m even quoted on a technology website where they talk about RTE announcing The Late Late toy show being available as a live broadcast on RTE player ( my account of our annual Toy Show party is published on The Irish Time’s website) I can’t dine out on one story forever. With that in mind I’ll bring this to a finish.  Now there’s an area of writing craft I need to work on – endings. And the one for this blog post…. three little words…Watch this space.

Covent Garden where worlds and words converged

There’s a game at which we Irish excel, that doesn’t involve balls,sticks or horses and is played out whenever we encounter a fellow compatriot.  It does rely on wide circles, knowledge of local topography and banter. A good memory will carry you far. It’s a take on six degrees of separation but we do it in three steps at most.

Here’s a good example. A father at my daughter’s London school,on hearing I was from Sligo, told me of a girl he’d kissed when they were both 14 and studying at the Gaeltacht. Turns out she was in my secondary school. I can’t take the credit for working that one out. The Dubliner joined the dots.

And another. My sister spent a couple of years in NYC. One day in a bar, she got chatting to Kevin who was living in Brooklyn with his girlfriend who they figured out was in my university class. And on it goes.

I get a thrill when I make the connections and I’m genuinely surprised with how small the world seems in those moments.

With white Irish making up a little over two percent of London’s population (based on the 2011 Census) the odds on me finding someone from home last Saturday were not in my favour.

I was participating in a therapeutic writing workshop at the Poetry cafe in Covent Gardens.

Malachy looked Irish but I knew from past encounters that making assumptions based on appearances don’t always hold. However when he spoke there was no place for doubt. Malachy was the echo of my friend’s father – a native of Co. Cavan. I heard Malachy talk eloquently about the wind on his cheeks as he saved turf. About his craving for the smell of sods burning in a grate. I made a beeline at break time approaching him in the coffee queue, my opening gambit a shot at his county of birth.

“Don’t tell me, don’t tell me, you’re a Cavan man.”

I’d gotten it wrong, he was from Tyrone.  He placed me in Kildare. I corrected him. Sligo.

“Back in the nineties, I lived in Boyle, just up the road from you”  he offered.

“Oh, small world. Boyle is where my mother’s people come from”.

Of course we didn’t leave it there. He’d bought his newspaper from my aunt’s shop. Across the road was a big department store, Boles of Boyle. Oh yes, that’s still there.We spoke of the Abbey and The Forest Park. Of  Rockingham estate and the grand house with a window for every day of the year before it was destroyed by fire in the fifties.

And then Malachy got more specific.

“Boyle was my town but I lived in Knockvicar”.

So did we, I exclaim! And we spoke of the pubs and the river and of the writer John McGahern that both of us regretted never having met. Though I tell him my mother went to his funeral. Her brother had been mentioned on one page of his memoir. That was prerogative enough. He tells me his old neighbour had once been a neighbour to McGahern. The neighbour he referred to was from Crosna and not Knockvicar.

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Always on the lookout

CROSNA, I say.  YOU ARE KIDDING?

That’s where my parents wed. In the church on the hill. I’ve stood outside that church waiting for a hearse to arrive many times. My parents bringing us with them as they paid last respects to old neighbours. On sad occasions I’ve sat with the chief mourners at funerals of grandparents, uncles and aunts. I resisted the urge to play funeral bingo but we were bound to have attended the same ones.

Instead, with no shops or pubs to match up in this very rural setting, we spoke of characters. Of reputations.

And then we spoke of the serendipity around this encounter. Leaving our respective London homes that morning, neither of us could have predicted this.

The writing group were returning to their chairs but Malachy and I had more business to attend. Besides, a number of our classmates had taken quite an interest. These things don’t happen so often among the English. “Are you two related”, our tutor asked?

“Maybe” I said. There was more drilling to do.

I asked him if he were to stand outside the church door which direction would he turn for his home. “Right, to Derryherk” he said.

I was speechless. Could he and I have lived in the same house albeit in different decades?

We hadn’t. I’d mistakenly thought Derryherk was the name of my grandad’s house. Malachy tells me it refers to the townland that denotes a handful of houses. His being one. Batty, my grandfather and his brother Tom were dead before Malachy had come to the area, but he’d gotten to know their sons. He tells me something I didn’t know. He’d heard it said that my great-uncle had the gift of weather prediction. I knew he had the cure for burns. We swapped stories about the men who lived a field away from Batty. A father and son. Great characters. The old man drove an ass and cart when I lived in the area. I was last in their home almost forty years ago. I remembered the dresser with the blue and cream striped crockery – much sought after vintage gold these days. It survived the decades and Malachy knew of what I spoke.

When the class disbanded, we chatted some more. Therapeutic writing is powerful so we were basking in the feel-good factor from its immersion with the added kick of our jaunt down memory lane on a particular path I hadn’t trodden in a long long time.  I have emailed my new friend and old ‘cousin of the soil’ since.  He wrote that he was still recovering from the shock of hearing the word Derryherk uttered in the heart of Covent Garden. As am I. It’s a small world and even smaller if you’re Irish.

193 steps

On disembarking at Covent Garden I knew what I had to do. I’ve been doing it since I was 21 and had first stepped off the tube at this same stop.  Eager to sidestep the glut of people waiting for the elevators when I saw the sign for the stairs I followed the arrow and started to mount what I now know as the 193 steps.

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More recently I noticed the sign which unhelpfully sits at the top “ This stairway has 193 steps”  That’s the sort of information you want to have before you start out and not at the summit. I didn’t see it that first climb. 193 steps would wind most people. I’m sure those top flights winded me too but I also felt a sense of achievement and I challenged myself and older selves to always opt for the covent garden stairs. It will be a sad day when, through age or infirmity, I have to take the lift. That day wasn’t Saturday.

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As I climbed those steps I thought of some of those early climbs – for dates and dinners and market visits. This day I was going to a workshop on therapeutic writing at the Poetry Cafe.

I reflected on my last year and the steps I had taken towards realising my own dreams. Twelve months ago I was pacing the mud floor in my rut. I knew I was in it but saw no ledges or footholds to get myself out. I was there a long time. There were some very dark days.The journey ahead of me seemed so immense I didn’t think I was up to the job. But when I thought about staying put, that was unbearable too. Inch by inch to start with, I began to claw my way out. It got easier and when I’d see a chink of light I was encouraged. Where am I on my steps – I’m not sure, but I know I’m on the ascent. I want to feel the sunlight on my face. Maybe there’ll be a platform, maybe there’ll be a ladder, a beanstalk.

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My word on that Saturday was Steps. Almost immediately it made an appearance as once settled in our circle in the Poetry cafe we were asked to write on the cityscape. I wrote about the 193 steps and also this

Steps  – Winded, elated, congratulated, vindicated.

Steps took me far on Saturday.

 

Holidays – for fun and firsts

Unlike my children, whose lives and milestones have been documented in video clips and picture files, the pictorial record of my childhood fits into a couple of chocolate boxes. Looking through those photos, you’d mistakenly think we were constantly on holiday as most of the snaps are of me with my parents and three sisters on various beaches, straddling canons by historical houses or tucking in to fantastic spreads set out on a red tartan picnic rug. Bad perms, sun burns and ra-ra skirts make unwelcome appearances.

Can you spot me*?
Can you spot me*?

My uncle was a headmaster of a boys school so we’d borrow his apple green Honda minibus and bags our seats hoping for windows, then negotiate with the adults for time slots to listen to our music choices on the radio stations and tape deck. Think the Partridge family and you are not far off.

I fondly recall football tournaments on silver strands, running up and down sand dunes and coconut oil bastings as we competed for the best tan.

We only had a week and so much to cram in to it.  I remember the excitement as we’d arrive at our destination, be it a hotel suite or a house rental. We’d sprint to our room, siblings jostling to find the best bed, the one furthest from our parents so late night banter might happen uninterrupted. At night we’d sit in the hotel lobby as my mother took a deck of cards from her handbag and we’d play Twenty Five and Beggar-My-Neighbour with pennies in the pot while my dad got us lemonades from the bar.

I had a lot of firsts on family holidays. I learnt to swim in a seawater stone-enclosed pool. I had my first dingy lesson on a calm Atlantic. I tasted lobster in a harbour pub close to where the  crustacean met its end.  And I had my first kiss at age 14 from Kevin, the boy from the suite next door. After asking me if I wore a bra, I said no – a late developer I didn’t need to – he said no matter and planted a smacker.

We had a frail grandmother living with us so getting away wasn’t easy but my parents somehow managed and for at least one week a year we got to be carefree and playful.  My mother would say “The family that plays together, stays together”.

Holidays have always mattered to me. Then and since.

My husband’s daily commute from central London means he doesn’t get home to us until bedtime so holidays provide precious opportunities for long stretches of quality time together.  Amber (age 9 ) is a beach scavenger and whatever the weather will happily spend hours combing the strand for sticks, stones,even garbage to embellish the  sand sculptors that herself and her dad have built.

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On holidays he gets to race them in the pool and play bucking bronco. I’ll hear squeals and laughter as they slide off his back and topple into the water. Splash!  He’ll somehow find the stamina to “play tennis” with the 6 year old. Sawyer serves and his daddy fetches. Our kids might broker a friendship in the pool with other children and we’ll find ourselves tennis opponents on the strength of it.

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Or the three of them will leave me on a sun lounger with my book while they explore. If I’m lucky they might return with a chilled soda.  My daughter might stay behind with me, busily adding entries in to her journal. The girl is surely on track for a career in forensics or espionage  with the level of detail she provides. Two pages on waking up, dressing and visiting the breakfast bar.

So what I want for our holiday is time together, in a picturesque location (because there will be lots of pictures taken) where we get to have fun and experience firsts.  That could be in the sun – windsurfing (that’s a first right there) or in the snow as first timers at ski school. I want my children to have a well of wonderful holiday stories and conquests to regale their children with.  “Once upon a time on a Mark Warner holiday…”   I’ll be sure to remember to pack my deck of playing cards.

{*that’s me second from the left}.

This post is an entry for a competition to find #Markwarnermum  (and dad) bloggers. 

To further demonstrate my versatility….

As a mark warner mum, should I get chosen
we’ll jet off to places ski-tastic when frozen

Or maybe we’ll go to sun-lit adventure
It’s all set out in the terms of indenture

Wherever we‘re sent, one things for sure
Our account will read better than any brochure.

And show that I’m not the only one who will be taking notes…..

Transformers

What do you see…Two cans of Heinz Spaghetti?

Last night walking back from the station having taken the 23.12  from Waterloo I saw something else. Security and defence. I was armed. My weapon the two weighty cans. I felt so much safer carrying them. As the plastic carrier bag swung by my side, I thought should I be attacked, I’ll give as good as I get. I’ll give better – a pot shot of two weighty spaghetti cans. Comforting thoughts that got me home safe.

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This morning they were cans again.  Until I cut the lids off with a can-opener,  toppled out their contents and peeled away the wrappers as per the instructions my daughter carried home from school. Greased with butter and lined with parchment paper, now I was looking at a couple of Christmas cake baking tins that would be filled with the batter the children weighed out and assembled in their classrooms later today.