Paths

I will try to work out the words for this thing I thought. Bear with me.

I was telling my friend about this memoir I’m editing. I started working with the writer last spring, when he had a lot of words that made up individual stories that lacked a unifying theme or a coherent narrative. He’d just written down all his stories, the sort of stories you’d tell an old friend or a new one you happened up beside at the bar. They were full of repetition because in his mind each of them stood alone, so he had to explain things anew each time. He asked me to help him make it into a book.

It was a wonderful challenge. As I read, my mind hopping  from one era of his life to another and back again (because he’d arranged the stories not chronologically but with “the most interesting first, in case people got bored”) I tried to unravel the tangles and find out what happened to him from the beginning to where he is now. And I began to see themes emerging, silver threads gleaming from the page, begging to be picked up and drawn out, explored, rounded.

From where he is, it’s a bunch of stories. My job is to make it a narrative. Because, when you’re in your life, you can’t see the wood for the trees. Of course you can’t. Even at the end of it, looking back, it might take someone else, someone like me, to find your threads and pull on them to make something that feels whole and satisfying. I might be wrong, of course, and need to be set right: I might see threads that aren’t really there, make something out of almost nothing – or I might see things he never even knew about until I bring them up, glittering, a vein of ore that was buried.

It’s so satisfying to begin at the end and have the opportunity to impose an order on things. In my own writing, I have to start from nothing and create something. I might know where the end is going to be, but I don’t know how I’ll get there. I just have to write to find out, which is what I’m doing at the moment – I’m getting towards the end of a first draft that right now is terrible, to my eyes, but once it’s there I can make it better. Before it existed, there was nothing to fix.

And when it’s my life instead of my writing – my parenting life, for example – it’s so hard to see the path when you’re on it. You can look back and discern the road that brought you here, in one straight line or a winding one, but from where I am right now there are a myriad of options, just like with fiction, and I don’t even know where I’m going. Sometimes you don’t even feel like you’re moving; you’re just standing still and trying not to collapse under the weight of all the things the world is throwing at you, like a deluge, a hail of trash and random items falling on your head. One foot in front of another is enough achievement, never mind looking ahead and picking a direction. Who’s steering this thing? Am I supposed to be in control?

So I suppose the moral is that in my writing, I am in control. I can steer along the path both backwards and forwards until I make whatever needs to happen happen, because fiction is tidy and satisfying that way. In my editing, I can take pleasure in helping my client shape his many stories into a single narrative that tells of a life he recognizes as his and yet is in many ways tidier, more like fiction. But in my own life – my real life, unadorned, unedited – all I can do is I can just keep plodding and remember to look up now and then and try to see a little way ahead, pivot a bit, keep paddling.

A leaf-strewn path through woods.
One path, looking back
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Sunrise, sunset

Here’s a thing. I remember when we moved into this house, and the new kitchen cabinets were up (though the countertops hadn’t yet arrived) and I started putting plates and glasses and baking ingredients in cupboards, thinking “I’ll put this here for now but I can change it later when I find something better” and simultaneously knowing that what I did now would probably just stay this way forever because entropy.

I still feel like I could easily change the locations of things – like the flour that I put ridiculously high up because I had a toddler who might get into it, and the cooling racks that get hung up on each other because they’re shoved in on top of the lasagne dish, and … you get the picture. But to my kids, those places for things are sacrosanct. That’s where the item belongs, now and for evermore, and the idea of moving it is as ridiculous as suddenly picking up our house and plonking it at the end of the road instead of here in the curve of the cul de sac.

I know this, because I know how I felt. By the time I was about seven, my mother had been married and living in my father’s house for eight years – just as long as I’ve been in this house. And her life, before me, may as well have happened in the middle ages, as far as I was concerned. When she met up with her friends from the bank, where she worked before she was married, that was ancient history walking around, like zombies. It hailed from another dimension.

I had no idea then that eight years is nothing. That I remember things that happened ten years ago as if they were yesterday. That I know how I felt and what I thought when I got married, a whole fourteen and a half years ago. That I was, in fact, the same person I am now, just with fewer grey hairs and a more impermanent address. I don’t even think of this house as my home forever and ever, I think of it as where we live now. Even though the 12yo vaguely remembers where we lived before here (he had just turned 4 when we moved) I know both kids would be horrified by such heresy. Here is now and now is forever.

There’s nothing quite so surprising as the passage of time. I probably shouldn’t be frustrated when my son repeatedly seems amazed that it’s now past the time when he can get his homework done before nominal “bedtime” because it’s an hour later than it was when I first mentioned that he should definitely start now. I’m just the same, only on a larger scale. I can cope with the minute-to-minute and hour-to-hour, but the decade-to-decade is decidedly shocking.

Clouds over the lake in autumn
Neither sunrise nor sunset, actually

 

Sorry about the vagueblogging but I just need to vent

I am very good at giving advice and very very bad at taking it.

Knowing this, I sometimes try to trick myself by pretending I’m someone else and giving myself the advice I’d give that person. But my perspective is off – I can’t tell if I’m being uber critical or giving myself a pass. Because I hate criticism. even from myself.

Nobody likes criticism, I suppose. But I feel other people probably have better defences against it than I do. I might be wrong about that, but I like to blame it on my not having siblings who said mean things which I learned to ignore. Nobody ever said mean things to me.

Today two different people, speaking in professional capacities about each of my children, said things that could, by a paranoid person such as myself, be interpreted as criticisms of my parenting.

Therefore I’m a crap parent and my children will grow up to be burdens on society except mostly on us their parents first and possibly forever.

Except that Dash is doing perfectly well at school and Mabel’s increasingly reading, which has to be good, and the cats are alive and well even if I did kill the potted herbs, and I’m making black bean brownies so everyone will have lunch dessert tomorrow and there’s a babysitter booked for tomorrow night so we can have a date night and look after our relationship and I’ve just ordered the proof copy of my third book and am close to finishing the first draft of my fourth and at least one of us will have a flu shot very soon and I switched the summer duvets for the winter duvets on the kids’ beds today and we are all enjoying watching junior masterchef together and I AM DOING WHAT I CAN.

girl with notebook sitting on floor, boy with video game beside her, cat on cat tree watching them
Trio

Reasons why I took a shower at 4pm today

I got into the car at 5:20pm with my hair still wet, to go to a parent association meeting at Dash’s school. Everyone will think I’ve come from the gym, I thought to myself, amused by the irony, because why else would someone shower in the middle of the afternoon?

I imagined the conversation going something like this:

– Were you at the gym?

– No, I just showered now because at 7am I had to wake my third-grader with a cat and make waffles and at 8am a guy appeared on the doorstep to vaccuum all the heating vents and at 9am I was jubilantly booting the third grader in the door to school and then having a conversation with a mom-friend about our impossible children and at 10am I was back at home wondering if the vents guy had accidentally let out one or both cats and trying to write through the din of sucking how many years of dust through the tubes behind the walls and at 11am I was on the phone to the hospital in Ireland hearing about my dad’s brand new broken leg and at 12pm I was paying the vents guy an inordinate amount of money and locating in the basement the traumatized cats and at 1pm I was talking to the estate agent in Dublin about house showings and at 2pm I was printing out forms from the solicitor that I’d already signed and sent back but that appear to have gone astray in Hurricane Ophelia to send by registered post all over again and going to the supermarket for more juice boxes and at 3pm I was in the car driving to school to pick up the sixth grader and at 4pm I was finally able to take a shower so that at 5pm I could make myself a sandwich before welcoming my husband home and leaving the house again to drive to the ten-miles-away school for the second time today for this 6pm meeting.

I might have just told them I was at the gym after all, to save us all that, in spite of the ridiculous lie that would have been. But nobody asked, because everyone else’s day was probably just as busy as mine and quite possibly more so, because that’s how life is.

At 8pm I got to write a blog post with a gin & tonic and a bottomless bowl of pita chips while spinning the Twister arrow and laughing at the rest of my family contorting themselves as they sang along to the Buffy musical episode soundtrack.

They’re not so bad, maybe.

The annual curmudge

I’m a big old St Patrick’s Day curmudgeon. This is not news to anyone who was here last year or any other year. I don’t want to wear green today or get drunk today (well, sure, but children) or set up leprechaun traps today or listen to traditional Irish music today and I’m only just getting over the mortification of having to see Enda Kenny visit Donald Trump today.

When the word went out that this year’s international dinner at Dash’s school this Sunday would have live Irish music and dancing, I went from vaguely wondering if we could get out of it to deciding that I really didn’t have to show up to everything they put on.

Old map of Ireland, framed, from unusual perspective.
No, it’s not sideways. That’s the way they drew the map.

Then I wondered if I was really a terrible person, denying my children access to their heritage like that. Am I like one of those immigrants who refuses to speak the language of the old country to their children so that they’ll assimilate better, thus taking the wonderful benefits of bilingualism out of their family’s grasp?

Actually, no. I don’t like traditional Irish music or step dancing. It’s part of my national heritage, but it’s not something I feel any personal connection to. Same goes for GAA (that’s hurling and Gaelic football). And we’re not even Catholic any more. But you know what my kids will grow up with?

  • A Hiberno-English vocabulary that they can turn on and off at will.
  • A bookshelf full of books by British and Irish authors many of whom are less well known here, from Oliver Jeffers’ picture books to Joyce’s Ulysses and a lot in between.
  • Knowledge of the canon of Father Ted, Monty Python, The Two Ronnies, and various other bits and pieces of nerdy 80s trivia befitting children of Irish people our age.
  • A better grasp of Irish and European geography and history than many Americans.
  • An understanding that other countries are just as valid and real as the USA and that normal is an ever-shifting concept.
  • Familiarity with the Dublin Monopoly board.
  • Access to plenty of excellent Irish hits of the 80s and 90s, should they choose to indulge.
  • Their grandfather’s watercolours of Irish scenes and historical maps of Ireland on the walls.
A pile of books by authors including Marian Keyes, Kate O'Brien, James Joyce, Julia Donaldson, Liz Nugent, Flann O'Brien.
Not all Irish authors, but all from that side of the pond

And then there’s that book I wrote, too. It’s set in Ireland.

I think they’ll be secure enough in their cultural heritage even if it doesn’t extend to a spot of the old diddly-aye.

Framed watercolour painting of a Galway hooker with brown sails on the water
An Irish painting of an Irish boat

Invisible invulnerable invaluable

And then poor George Michael only got one day in the news because of Carrie Fisher. What a crappy year, seriously.

I heard an interview with Carrie Fisher on the radio recently, and she struck me as a woman who is at that point in life where she really has no fucks to give. She tells it how it is and she doesn’t have to be something for anyone else any more. She wasn’t putting on her best self for the Terri Gross interview, she was just there, talking. If we wanted to listen, that was up to us. We should all aspire to such levels of notgivingafuckitude. I feel like she and Hilary Clinton could have run the world so well, but instead we’re left with TinyHands OrangeFace and a fairly vague Han Solo.

(I found it hilarious that from what Carrie said, Harrison Ford didn’t actually have to act at all for Star Wars. That terse, ultra-dry-witted man is exactly who he was/is in real life.)

There’s this thing about how older women are invisible, and how it’s really hard to come to terms with this new phase if you’ve been generally known as a pretty or beautiful woman in your younger days. But older women have such strength – think of Carrie Fisher, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Hilary Clinton – women who kick ass, take names, and give no fucks. (I hope Hilary is doing yoga, centering herself, drinking red wine, wearing leggings and letting her pores breathe, enjoying not having to give a shit about what she’s projecting to anyone any more. She’s proved herself a million times over.) Who told me that the Dalai Lama said that Western women will save the world? If only the world will let them – but hell, they’re trying so hard.

Women over 50 have walked through the fire of the gaze, the vulnerability, the judgement, for all those years. They’ve held it together, all of it, all at once, probably for everyone else at the same time as for themselves. They’ve done it all and fallen down and got up again and done it all some more, and even if they think they failed they’ve done it anyway. That’s what women do.

And then sometimes some of the best of them have a massive damn heart attack and it’s not fair at all.

Why is it different for women? Because men are never vulnerable. Not until they’re aged and infirm, and even then they’re less vulnerable than old women. (I just heard a story about an old man who confronted a burglar in his house, made him a cup of tea, and saw him out the front door. Admirable; but an old woman can’t do that.) Most young men have no enemies but themselves – if they can avoid getting killed through their own sheer foolhardiness or stupidity, they won’t have to worry about their personal safety for a long time.

Men don’t even know why women move in packs and go to the toilet in pairs and bring a friend to the party – we barely remember ourselves, we think we’re just more social than boys, but the truth is that we don’t go places on our own at night. One of us always has to be the more sober one, the most sensible one, the one who can make sure everyone else gives the right address to the taxi driver and doesn’t throw up in the car. One of us will always rise to the occasion. The boys can just get rat-arsed all they want, because they can probably wander home as slowly and alone-ly and darkly as they like.

Apart from personal safety issues, women have run the gauntlet of each other’s judgement since they were old enough to be told that’s a pretty dress now go and brush your hair. Opining on other women is like breathing. It’s what you do while you’re not doing anything. You look around, you see other people, you think things. Good, bad, pretty, fat, thin, nice shoes, horrible jeans, I wouldn’t do that with my hair. Older than me, younger than me, more friendly than me, quieter than me, shrill, short, bossy, judgmental. Who’s judging me today? Who am I doing this for? Who am I trying to impress? Why is this important?

And eventually you might get past it and stop trying to impress and you start seeing inside people a little better and ignoring their outsides a little more easily.

And then maybe, just maybe, you get to be something near as kick-ass as Carrie Fisher.

 

Post-election brain dump

Hello are you new here I process my feelings by writing about things. I’m not done yet, but I’ll put it all here and then we shall all move along.

The Americans I know are good people. Smart, educated, intelligent, thoughtful, kind people. It just so happens that because of my personal and online bubble, and where I live, I probably don’t know many people – if any, even – who voted for Trump. Most of my friends here are all just as mystified as the rest of the world about how this happened – but I think that’s the problem. We’re so divorced from the “other half” that we can’t begin to appreciate their difficulties. Voting for Trump was a cry for help. They didn’t really care what happened afterwards, so long as their voice finally was heard.

No country is perfect. No country has figured it all out yet so that every citizen is perfectly content with their lot. Canada sounds good, sure, but it’s cold up there. Scandinavia has its problems too. Utopia is still fiction.

Therefore, it can only be expected that people will vote for something different, to see if they can make things better than the not-perfect they’re experiencing. Historically the establishment almost always gets voted out after eight years to make way for something different. As a race, we strive to improve our lot – but not always in the most rational of ways.

Almost half the voting public is so pissed off with how their lives are going that they threw their lot in with a man who is a bully and a bigot, who denies climate change and assaults women and tells us that all men are like that. They voted for him because they wanted a big change from the establishment and that’s what he represented. They voted for him because he said the things they thought nobody was supposed to say, and thousands of people cheered him on and drew comfort from the fact that they had all been thinking these same things all along. They voted for him because they hate Hillary Clinton, and because everything they watched and read and heard on mass media and social media confirmed their reasons for hating her. Older and wiser and better people* told them not to vote for him, so of course they went right ahead and did it, to stick it to the man.

This election has made me question the nature of truth and the function of the mass media. The media here is acknowledgedly biased – which perhaps is better than pretending to be balanced when such a thing is impossible. But a voter can live their entire life in the bubble of their choosing, seeing only the information that confirms all their biases, and easily disregarding anything that doesn’t already agree with the opinion they’ve been carefully fed.

Then there’s this: roughly half the country identifies as Republican and roughly half the country voted for the Republican candidate. The fact that the outcome of any election depends on a tiny tipping point in the middle is the fault of the system. There can only be one winner, because America doesn’t do coalitions. A lot of people were unhappy about the Obama administration. Now a lot of people will be unhappy about the Trump administration. You can’t please all of the people all of the time.

(New information: almost half the country (46%) didn’t bother their arses voting at all. So one quarter cared enough to vote for Trump and another quarter cared enough to vote for Hillary. This makes me feel like the whole thing is a fucking farce. But anyway.)

I want to find a republican and be friends with them. I want to stop reading terrifying articles about what will happen next and op-eds about what we did wrong and everything that pits one group of us against another group of us. I want a hug. I want to give someone a hug.

I want to move on.

I want to keep believing that most people are good.

*That’s a quote. From Saki’s “The Lumber Room,” if I recall correctly, which is an excellent tale.

pinkish leaves on the ground
Picture of fallen leaves, for you to interpret metaphorically as you wish