There are days of burgeoning luminosity. When all is clear, calm and focused. And there are days when something small tips off something a little bigger and there’s a battle to get back on solid ground. As a parent and guide it is incumbent upon me to have a little foresight. Some powers to forestall the dominoes days. To reclaim, mid-stumble, the calm. As a parent I have, it seems, no such powers. The family grows organically, through clear days as well as through the murky ones. Who’s to say which days are really better? Perhaps we all learn a little more about resilience as we navigate the falls and swim through the mud.

There are days when I feel a gnawing indigestion-style impatience to catapult us along. Days that feel numbered, as inevitably they are, and that there is just so much to do. I must forge ahead, forge ahead, forge ahead. Get us to that other realm, that safe place, wherever that is. It’s up to me, I know it is, but I just don’t quite know how. There is so much to be written and somewhere deep in me I feel that this is the key to the safe place. But sitting writing quietly in a corner for no monetary reward takes a bit of a leap of faith. Submitting work unsolicited will take another. So far I have put myself out there not a jot. I have approached not a soul. I’ve been told that I should be ‘hustling’. That I have ‘a lot in my shop window’ to show-case. That I’m to cold-call editors to meet for a coffee. That it takes about three months and 50 cups of coffee to land a deal. Not coffee by myself in Starbucks you understand. Coffee talking about myself. Offering my wares. Hustling.

I am so far removed from a ‘hustling’ type of gal it’s not funny. I would have to be hypnotised to hustle. That or be otherwise drugged. I’m old school and a bit of a perfectionist. I think if I work hard enough the quality will speak for itself. I will be sought after without having to open my mouth. Which isn’t going to get us anywhere in this era. I’ve been tasked with setting up Linked In and Twitter profiles. There have been requests to Link in with me (no idea why) and I ought to be following people and commenting on Twitter. Which seems like a massive distraction from real work to me. But the gnawing feeling of needing to catapult us along will not be served by my old school self. I’m going to have to become a little bit American. How does this sound?
Hi, I’m Dr Ellen – an award winning sociologist, researcher, editor and writer. I’m available for freelance work – feel free to fight amongst yourselves for my services. Looking forward to hearing from you.

There are days when I trust that all will be well. Days when I revel in moments of pure joy with the kids. These are the days when the kids are showing me, mindfulness masters that they are, just how to be, right here, right now. All of the senses in their fresh bodies fully engaged in the present moment. I hand marque 3 a plate of buttered toast and hard boiled eggs – from corn fed free range hens apparently – shelled, halved and sprinkled with cracked black pepper. I’m moving on to the next thing – someone has requested orange juice – when he calls me back.
‘Thank-you so much, this looks amazing’. He is smiling and looking at the array. I stop. I haven’t my lenses in yet and it’s all a bit of a blur. I go over to him and look at the plate. I’ve prepared it but I haven’t seen it. I can see it now. The deep yellow yolk flecked with black fragments, a smidgeon of mayo and encased in white. The promise of melting buttered toast to enhance the flavour. He feels the texture of the egg, then bites into it and his smile broadens.
‘It is absolutely delicious, thank-you’.
‘I know’ – I can taste it too – ‘you’re welcome’. You’re welcome doesn’t quite cut it though. Maybe I should be thanking him.

There are days such as today. When age knocks rudely on the top of your head. When you think that an elusive soft leather marine blue biker’s jacket is just the ticket to stall the onwards marching. But then you find yourself dancing slowly in the kitchen with your eldest child to Finbarr Furey singing live on the radio. ‘I love you as I loved you, when you were sweet, when you were sweet sixteen’. Today it is your birthday. A day when it dawns on you that all is well. That you are already in your safe place.


Of limbs and sins

‘There’s something wrong with my legs’ marque 3 announces. It’s Saturday morning with swimming lessons in an hour.
‘I can’t walk. They feel really weird and sore’.
‘That’ll be the trampolining you were doing yesterday in your friend’s house. You’re not used to it. You’ve pulled a few muscles’. Ah yes, it’s a great feeling, providing the answer straight away. Diminishing the anxiety that accompanies acute onset lower body paralysis with a quick, knowledgeable response. That’s what we’re here for after all. Make them feel safe. Understood.
‘Here, put your togs on. The swimming might help to work your muscles free’.
‘How can I go swimming when I can’t even walk?’ he asks logically enough. Because we’ve bloody well paid for it, I answer in my head. I’ll carry you to the pool-side, toss you in and bingo, your legs will start kicking just fine.

Except that, as it turns out, he’s right about not going swimming. He crawls upstairs and puts himself to bed. The pain in the legs travels to other parts of him and he’s out for the count. It’s the suddenness of it that you hear about but don’t quite believe. Until you watch it strike child after child and then it strikes you. Floored. This year’s influenza enters our house via the musculature of the lower limbs and does not leave until it has wasted the cells and the organs and the minds of all but one person. A much envied person courtesy of the ‘flu jab. A person who is not used to being the only one left standing. Asthma has made sure of that over his life time. Maybe it’s the fever causing me to think this way. Little hallucinations. But is he not smiling a bit too much given the state the rest of us are in. Shouldn’t he at least try to join in with the odd fake symptom?

Mothers and fathers of Ireland, in the name of all that is mighty, get yourselves the ‘flu jab. It is excruciating to be attempting to care for worryingly sick children while you are worryingly sick yourself. When it hits me I feel as if I’ve fallen down a flight of stairs and broken my coccyx. The pain radiates from there and I am unable to walk. There’s a nausea and dizziness accompanying it, a touch of the runs for good measure and other queer symptoms you don’t tend to hear about. Marque 2 talks incessantly about the smell of burning tyres he’s getting in his nose, as if his little nostril hairs are singed from the temperature. He’s worried about a fire in the house that we just haven’t noticed as we’re all too sick.


It renders the old maternal instincts a bit schizoid too. Before succumbing to it I’m doing religion homework with marque 4. His First Confession is coming up and in order to prepare for it there’s written work. Finish these sentences: I was unkind when… I was untruthful when… I was unfair when. We stare at the words. We can’t think of anything. In my pre-‘flu state I look at marque 4 and think of how kind and fair and truthful he is.
‘We’d better make a few things up’ I say eventually, exasperated.
‘But wouldn’t that be untruthful?’ ‘There you are, I was untruthful when I made up sentences that were untruthful for my homework’. Then he has to learn the Confiteor prayer off by heart. There’s that middle bit which gets my blood up. It was much better when it was in Latin. Created a little distance for us sinners.
‘Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa’. River flowingly gentle on the ear too. Not so with the new version. There’s no wiggle room here:
‘Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault’. Chest banging overt self-flagellation.
Hang on a second. Don’t I spend most of my waking hours telling them that it isn’t there fault. Don’t worry, just an accident, not your fault. I don’t want them crippled by guilt in life. I thought we’d all moved on from that.
He trips over the words, mixing them up, coming out with combinations that cause laughter in the wise old mother, confusing him all the more.
‘You don’t have to learn that off by heart’, I tell him. ‘I don’t approve of it’.

Over the next day or two while influenza works away in me and marque 4 is yet to crumble it all seems very different. I can see many, many things that we could now write down in those sentences. And I seem to be chanting ‘through your fault, through your fault, through your most grievous fault’ in my delirium. If he falls mute in the Church and can’t think of anything to ask for forgiveness for, I’ll give him a hand. Shout a few prompts in his direction. That’s how the ‘flu makes you feel. Which is perplexing so I google it. Why the hell do I feel so irritated and low with this thing? The result is interesting. There is a battle going on, obviously, but during it our immune systems release chemicals – cytokines – to fight the bug. The cytokines do something else though while they’re fighting. They deplete serotonin levels in the system. So you can be left feeling bewilderingly low. Once I understand this I begin to feel a little less like a lemming and notice the good stuff again. Like the way they crawl in beside me in our bed and fall asleep. Marque 5 naturally. But marque 2, 3 and 4 as well. Nesting. And marque 1 sits in my chair, just as sick as the rest of us, but he’s keeping watch. Asking if I’d like a cup of tea or some more nurofen or anything at all as soon as I open my eyes. Not bad. Not bad at all.

The ‘flu jabbed father sails in from his daily 12 hours of labour in exuberant form. He fends for himself food wise (appetite loss is another key aspect), swims through the deluge improving things here and there, and pours himself a healthy glass of red wine. He gets two glasses out, just in case. Nice touch. It’s the last thing in the world I feel like (and perhaps I slit my blood-shot eyes at him to indicate this) but it offers symbolic hope. Trust. Faith. Your empty glass shall some day soon be full. The urge to throttle with envy is waning a little now and I’m beginning to interpret his smile as something other than smug. Things are definitely on the up.

‘My hair feels much lighter’ marque 4 says sitting back down on the Church pew. It’s a few days on and we’ve made it to his First Confession. Enjoying it as it happens. The purity of the singing voices of eight year old boys. The jollity of the priest who mentions the goodness at the core of all gathered.
‘What, since we got it cut?’ I ask. He has the thickest hair I’ve ever seen. We had it trimmed last week.
‘No, just now since I spoke to the priest and he spoke to me. My hair and the top of my head feel much lighter, it’s really weird’. His face contorts slightly to indicate his confusion. I say nothing. I may even be a little dumb-struck. I’m staring at him, wondering. Are we in the presence of someone who has received a sacrament and felt it bodily – a sudden lightness? Or is it a coincidental side-effect of the ‘flu? For tonight, in the spirit of the occasion, I’m dumping the scepticism. For tonight, for one night only, I’m a bit of a believer.




Perhaps it’s a sign of something bubbling away in me that I’m only dimly aware of. Something that perhaps I ought to pay more attention to. Or maybe I’m just getting the ‘flu. The announcement of the death of a much loved nun from my old school has thrown me off kilter. I’m grappling to understand why. Questioning. Wondering. Can I live a bit more like her? Can I bring some of her wisdom along with me as I go? Would the kids benefit from it if I did?

While I’m pondering all this there’s a knock at the door.
‘You wouldn’t have two euros on you would you?’ a bespectacled, gruff voiced middle-aged woman asks. She speaks quickly, without hesitation, as if she does this all the time. And expects assent.
‘No I would not’ I say managing not to blink, not to falter, remembering the last time I handed out dosh on the doorstep. To a burglar. How I swore I’d never do it again.
‘Jesus’ she says, shaking her head in disgust and turning her back on me. Have I just failed my first test in charity? Should I call her back, offer her a cup of tea instead? I liked her approach. Direct, no sob story. Her fury at my refusal. Maybe I should knock on a few doors myself.
‘You wouldn’t have a job in there would you?’ … Tut, tut, shake. About turn. ‘Jesus’.

I had an early traumatic experience of a nun in my first school. A nun who was well into corporal punishment. Of the pinching, wet-handed slapping, belting type. And it wasn’t that I was afraid for myself. It was witnessing and hearing the damage being inflicted on others that sent me practically mute. Blood curdling screams echoing down the corridors. And worst of all, witnessing her handing jelly snakes from the tuck shop to her victims.
‘Here, don’t tell your Mammy now will you?’ Sadistic stuff.
Then I developed a sort of Stockholm syndrome attachment towards her. Insisted that my family call me by her name. Dorothy. Just call me Dorothy. I will not answer to anything else. A little worrisome for the parents. They took a two pronged approach to my psychological state. Invited her over for tea. Watched her fawning all over us. Watched her showering us – her ‘best little girls’ – with Smarties. Then when she reverted to type on the Monday, they whipped us all out of that school and packed us off to the Dominicans. They had one question alone for the lovely principal there.
‘Do you allow hitting in this school?’.
‘No’ the gentle white haired nun replied, locking her twinkly grey eyes to mine.
‘No we do not’. I was seven years old.

I was welcomed into the bosom of a plump jolly nun’s class. She was ruddy cheeked and quick to laugh, gentle, charitable and kind. She had a thing about warming her hands behind my collar on the top of my back. Touch. Wouldn’t be allowed today but it was wise. Her hands were already warm. She was warming me instead. I spent that year finding my feet as she stood beside me. This included knitting when I wasn’t supposed to be. My own hands under the desk, click-clacking away, some invisible garment, while I was ‘listening’ to the lesson. I threw myself into gymnastics and was chosen for a lead part – Jack Frost – in the school play. Prancing around in tinfoil casting my spells. It was heavenly. Safe. Being allowed to emerge and blossom without fear. Then the end of year report came and her final comment was ‘she’s a great little knitter too!’. I didn’t know until then that she knew. She had never attempted to stop me. She just understood it was therapeutic. Wise. Charitable. Kind. Somehow I never insisted anyone call me by her name though.

So the death of another key figure nun this week has me reminiscing and wondering. Is it possible to mix core aspects of the values of the Dominicans into our life now, without being religious? I feel that it is. They have a loyalty to life-long learning and are contemplative and mystical in their spirituality. They show rather than tell. The support, when needed, is consistent, quiet, there. The nun who has just passed (Sr. Barnabas but known to all as Barney) was a vigorous, spritely, witty, beautiful person. She was in your corner if ever you needed her to be. I ran into difficulty on a French language exchange programme in third year. I was staying with a family in Paris to learn French. A three week stay. On it the father insisted on practising his English on me at every turn. There was a kleptomaniac cousin sharing the bedroom with us and every time we went shopping she was blatantly filing her sac with non-purchased goods. Jewellery, the lot, while everyone turned a blind-eye. I was waiting to be arrested as an accomplice. And the mother was overwhelmed and weepy and seemed to see something potentially helpful in me. I responded dutifully. A week into it though I’d had enough. Phoned home to say I was jacking it in. The next morning the phone rang in apartment hall. I could hear Barney’s voice chiming feistily. She addressed all of the points with the father. There was to be no more practising of English on this student who loves French and is here in this family to learn more of it, ensuring as it will, a top grade in her state exams. There was to be no more shop-lifting which was frightening and bewildering for this student. And this student, while obliging, would not be making the beds of all the residents and preparing all the lunches from now on. A switch was flicked. The father left me alone, the klepto cousin went home, and the mother wept with a smile of such vulnerability that I continued to help out where I could. But Barney phoned me all the time to check that I was ok.

Her humanity shone constantly through her large lively brown eyes. She was lucid, bright and engaging up until the end. She passed on St Brigid’s Day (nice one Barney) aged 98. She had a special connection with my older sister (Brigid!). Regular visits for chats about family and friends were kept up until the end. She had a keen interest in all that was dear to my sister, and was guiding her subtly all the time. She used to phone her and leave a message if not answered. Intuition was strong in her, her timing unnervingly spot-on. She’d call out my sister’s full name followed by ‘you are not forgotten’. Isn’t it hard to reach out and leave a voice message like that? But it shouldn’t be. It is a powerful, wonderful message.
‘I’ll miss all the love’ my sister confided on hearing the sad news.
‘But it hasn’t gone, it’s all still here, in you and all around you. You must carry it with you’ I said surprising myself with my new-found spiritual tone.

Thank-you Barney. Rest in peace.


Déjà vu

Perhaps these things are cyclical. Or maybe it’s a blogger’s déjà vu. A karmic reaction to writing about it all in the first place. This evening, cherry picked strands from previous blog posts visit us in condensed form. They visit us, as it happens, in our sitting room.
‘Hang on a second’ I call out into the smoke. ‘I think we’ve already done this.’

It is, naturally, my favourite evening again. That Friday feeling which is intoxicating all day long. The kids are happy. I’m sneaking some newspaper reading on my bed – all gruesome murder tales, what is going on? – followed by googling how to kick off as a freelance something or other. Anything really. Yes it’s time to be a freelancer. There’s much encouragement out there. Something called ‘online content writing’ for a start. I could do that, I’m pretty sure, whatever it is. Sounds like a doddle. I’m congratulating myself on my job search with a cup of tea and indulging in a marshmallow covered rice crispie bun when marque 2 comes to me with my phone, already answered. I can see as he waves it at me that it is one of those numbers you do not need to engage with on a Friday evening. I possibly shoot him a little daggers look. I would not have been available if he hadn’t answered it. A lending bank. Looking for dosh. Or a twelve and a half year old bank clerk as it turns out, with a zillion questions. Cheeky intrusive questions. Slapping me on the wrist. Even though we’re up to date with our interest only agreement, I swear. To keep it going the child clerk is demanding bank statements, pay slips, social welfare slips if applicable. Go to hell I’m mouthing as I dip the bun into the tea to kaleidoscopic effect.

I will not let the cheeky pup put a dampener on the evening, I mumble to myself as I light the fire. We have all we need for a perfectly relaxing night enhanced by some flames. She’s got to me though. I find myself emptying lunch boxes and checking for notes in school bags – the activity of say, a Tuesday evening, not a bloody blissful Friday. I find a note from marque 4’s reading support teacher indicating a sudden waning in effort. I’m concocting an excuse to write back (sick, tired, bored – and that’s just me) and look around the room for inspiration. There’s something not quite right. I can’t see the kids clearly. There’s a fog in here. A dense fume filled fog. And then the alarm that we never expect to hear starts to flash and bleep. The carbon monoxide alarm.

‘Out of the sitting room’ I holler and they run with that out onto the street.
‘The hall guys, just wait in the hall until I put the fire out and open the windows’.
‘No way Mum, we had someone in school yesterday talking about carbon monoxide poisoning. I’m not going back in there’ marque 3 says, standing in the dark wet drive, barefoot, in his PJs. The others echo his sentiments. Mutiny. He coughs. Reminding me that he’s a touch asthmatic. The drama unfurls.

Marque 1 and I set about quenching the flames and opening the back door and windows to the piercing shriek of the alarm. The others fret about us on the driveway, a smidgeon of palpable hysteria, the odd plea to ‘get out of there Mum’. The smoke alarm joins in with the poison alarm just for the hell of it. As mother and protector of this crew there are many conflicting, guilt ridden thoughts. Chimney swept. Tick. Carbon monoxide alarm. Tick. (A gift from my conscientious sister, but tick nonetheless). Instilling calm. Fail. Why won’t they come back in?
‘We’re waiting for Dad. He always knows exactly what to do’ marque 4 calls back and the others echo him. The traitors. Great. He’ll be greeted by a semi-hysterical, semi-clad gang on the street, shrieking about being poisoned. And he’s only been gone for a couple of hours. I think I feel a massive toxic headache coming on.

A potentially blissful Friday night slips from my grasp, again. I google sites for advice and come up with the idea that, for safety, even though the alarm has given up, I’ll phone the local fire station to run through what happened and see if there’s anything else we should do. A simple, natural, reasonable step. Until I phone the local number to be told it’s no longer in use. If you wish to contact this station dial 999 of 112. As the sites recommend this, I take a fumey breath and choose the seemingly less dramatic 112.
‘Which emergency service do you require, ambulance, Garda, Coast guard, fire?’
‘Oh, well I was just hoping to chat to someone about something that happened with the fire earlier’.
‘Fire, putting you through now’.
‘Address where the fire emergency is?’
‘No it’s not an emergency as such. We lit a fire and the carbon monoxide alarm went off and I just want to chat to…’
‘Where is the emergency taking place?’
‘Where do we need to dispatch the fire engine to?’
I’m with Dougal. I want out… I didn’t know what I was getting into.
‘I don’t think it warrants the fire-brigade (again), I just want a chat, I don’t want to be wasting their time’. Or our money.
‘But you dialled 999 and that’s what they do – go out, check with rods, carbon monoxide detectors’.
It wasn’t 999.
‘Could they come without the truck?’ Don’t want to alarm the poor neighbours, again.
‘Will we be charged €500?’
‘I can’t say’.
‘Can I just talk to one of them?’
‘I can’t give over any numbers’. So understand this. If you are concerned at all, about fire related issues, there are no half-way choices. It’s all bells and whistles. Oh and the probability of a €500 charge. Or nothing. No helpline, where you can run through your concerns once you’ve handled the emergency yourself. Why the hell not?

I delegate. Hand the phone to the person who always knows exactly what to do. He is perhaps a little surprised to be talking to the emergency services. Even more to be discussing the imminent arrival of the fire brigade to our quenched detoxifying home. He’s wondering if I’m losing it. So am I. Oh well.

He declines the offer of the brigade on grounds of cost and drama. Just like me. Isn’t there perhaps something a little worrying about this though? We, and I’d guess many more like us, have to weigh up the odds, take a chance that all will be well safety wise. Otherwise invite a ginormous flashing truck and a ginormous bill. Are people risking their lives or injuring themselves putting out their own fires because of the bill? Shouldn’t there be a middle ground solution? A chat with someone, who might just pop by in a car, check it out, for an eighth of the cost? I know that the firemen themselves are unhappy about the charge. They told us so the last time they came out. It’s disgraceful to stress people in an emergency situation out further. But it’s not their call, it’s the Government’s. Aren’t we already paying for these services with our taxes? It is a bad, unsafe, governmental call. Something needs to be done about it.

He decides as a means to getting that middle ground to pay a visit to the fire station up the road. For a chat. But it’s hard to get into it. The doors are closed and everyone, it seems is asleep, storing up for the night hours ahead. Fingers crossed they won’t need it. He finds a fireman at a side-door, fixing it, and has the chat. He comes back with reassuring messages. No flames, no smoke, unlikely that there’s poison. It diffuses and dissipates apparently. Doesn’t hang around after the source is killed, waiting to kill. I feel a little better, I think.

Yet it’s like the Friday before Christmas when I lost my appetite due to a brush with a burglar. In case he decided to come back. And the night when the chimney was on fire and the brigade came for real. And the night when the burglars came for real. Tonight again I am on high alert. The fact that carbon monoxide has been knocking around all these precious little people. I tug the positives out of it, though. How lucky we are that it happened early in the evening, before we dozed off. Often on a Friday we all stay in the sitting room eating and drinking and watching the Late Late. Often, one by one, we doze. We bring the kids up when we are going ourselves. Carbon monoxide poisoning happens most often when people are sleeping. The incident helps to put being dressed down by a bank clerk into perspective too. We are here. We are safe. The rest will work itself out.

It’s Saturday morning and I phone a chimney guy. I tell him about the plumes of smoke and the poison alarm and the likelihood that something is suddenly blocking the chimney. He asks if I have kids (oh, just the five) and suggests something plastic might’ve gone up the breast.
‘That’s what happened to the family in Sligo’ he says. I had been thinking about them last night. The simple act of throwing a crisp bag into the fireplace, it getting sucked up the breast and stuck, preventing the fumes from being released out into the air. Silently dispersing them around the cozy room. No alarms to indicate their presence. I’m popping out to get the cash to pay the guy and I look up at our roof. Something is different. It takes a moment to work it out. The chimney pot – the orange thing that juts out of the chimney stack – is misshapen, at least half of it missing. Bingo. The chimney pot has broken and fallen, in all likelihood, back down the breast. Blocking it completely. We are very lucky.

The excellent chimney guy arrives at the time he says he will, complete with a cherry-picker to get up on the roof. He sails up past the sitting room window, thrilling us all, and sets about plucking and mending. His partner is in with us sweeping and pulling and chatting away. Then he whips out some cement and fixes a few cracks on the fire wall.
‘Could you fix some more cracks while you’re here please?’ marque 5 pipes up, and I hush him while his brothers laugh. These are delightful friendly, competent folk and I’m waiting cynically for the sting. The ‘that’ll be €hundreds’ for all the mending and the cherry picker. Nope. They charge less than a sixth of what the fire engine would’ve cost, and of course the firemen wouldn’t have fixed the pot. So today we feel vindicated in the choice that we made last night. We got away with it after all. But we are left with a feeling of ill-ease about the likelihood of others being forced, through financial constraints, to choose to deal with their own fire-related emergencies and not getting away with it. That charge should be dropped or cut right back. And there needs to be a section of the service designated to deal with people experiencing minor emergencies or who are worried about safety after an emergency. A small, rational ask in an economy on the up.

Now I’m going to stop writing about hazardous fires and burglars in the hope that they will stop visiting. I think I’ll start writing about winning the lotto instead.