My Happy Place

“Just, I don’t know…kick it in.”
“I can’t just kick it in. What if I break it?”

My boyfriend and I are standing at the door of an abandoned cottage. I know the walls are whitewashed, but they now appear a sinister mossy green colour after years of neglect. The thatched roof is on the verge of collapse and as I look up, I spy a small tree sprouting up from behind the chimney.

Jack shoulder-charges into the door again. It doesn’t budge. Shoulder and ego bruised, he turns to me. “You know technically, we’re breaking and entering here.”

“Calm down Sipowicz,” I snap, “this is my grandparent’s house. I have every right to be here.”

As a child, this was my favourite home to visit. I use the word ‘home’ because it was a home in every sense of the word.

20140412-130414.jpg
Source
Located miles away from a main road, down a tiny boreen (boreen is the anglicised version of the Irish word ‘bóithrín’, meaning ‘little road’), it could have been an illustration in a Grimm’s fairytale. Surrounded by lush greenery and colourful flowers, it was a simple whitewashed cottage with a beautiful straw thatched roof.
Down the garden, a swing hung from a large oak tree. A stream separated the pretty garden from my grandparent’s vegetable patch, where they grew all their own produce. Hens roamed freely out in the yard and the din of my grandfather’s beehive could be heard faintly from the front door.

Inside the house, there was three rooms. Three rooms in the entire house; the main room, which functioned as a kitchen and living room in one, and two bedrooms. That was it. When I was a very young child, my grandparents didn’t have electricity, so they heated their water in a large pot above the fire. The fire was the centre of their home; a beautiful open fire that seemed to be eternally lighting. There was a wheel beside it that you had to spin in order to stoke the flames and as kids, that was our favourite novelty activity in the house.

My grandmother was always baking. Her favourites were apple and rhubarb pies and different types of breads. Everyone’s absolute favourite was her soda bread and I can still smell the bread baking in the oven and wafting all around the cottage as we waiting impatiently at the table. She would always let me ‘help’ her, though I wasn’t tall enough to reach the counter top and I always ended up with flour all over my face. She would construct a miniature version of whatever she was baking for me and then tell everyone proudly that I made it.

20140412-130610.jpg
Source
When I cast my mind back to my childhood, this is the place that I felt happiest. Whether I was acting as my grandmother’s sous chef or evading cantankerous hens in the yard, I was carefree in this idyllic haven.

Then, suddenly, my father and my grandparents stopped speaking. I’m not going to explore the reasons behind their rift here, but it was a serious falling out. When you are a child, you are completely unaware of the complexities of adult relationships and I was no different. I had no idea why we had stopped visiting my grandparents; all I knew was that we had.

My grandmother died first. When we heard she was sick, we went to see her in hospital. Although she didn’t have the strength to speak, I will never forget how she squeezed my hand. I will also never forget the single tear that slid down her wrinkled face as she smiled weakly at me.

When she passed away, my father and his father still did not mend their rift. I never got to return to the cottage while anyone was living there. My grandfather died a few years later, and the house was abandoned. As the years passed, it seemed to exist solely in my memory. I could not bring myself to visit it.

One day, I visited my own father in the house I had grown up in. As I prepared coffee for us both, I spied something hanging on the wall. It was a commemorative plate, with a prayer and a picture of Pope John Paul II. One identical to this had hung above my grandparent’s fireplace.

“Dad, where did you get that?” I pointed to the wall. His eyes followed my finger and a sad smile settled on his face.

“I got it from your grandparent’s house,” he answered. There was a silence while I attempted to figure out how he could have done this. He must have registered the look of bewilderment on my face. “I went to the house a few weeks ago.”

I can’t describe how I felt on hearing this. You know that feeling you get when you’re not sure whether you’re ecstatically happy or heartbroken? I just shook my head when words evaded me. Dad looked sympathetically at me.

“The door is unlocked. It is abandoned and no one has been there for a long time. You should go and see it but…be careful.”

Be careful. I still remember him saying that, because it seemed an odd choice of words.

I asked Jack to come with me. I felt apprehensive and I didn’t quite know why. This was the place where all my happiest childhood memories lived.

The pathway to the house was completely overgrown, so we had to negotiate through briars and brambles. Several cuts and swear words later, we were standing in front of the cottage.

It was different. Of course it was, it was years later. Still, I felt a profound sadness looking at it. The clean whitewashed walls were now covered with years of fungal growth. The roof was beginning to cave in. I imagined the house like a soldier returning from war; damaged, ravaged, broken and changed forever.

Tears streamed down my face as I took in the nettles, the briars and the green moss that seemed to have infested every beautiful inch of the house. Jack squeezed my hand and planted a soft kiss on my head.

“Are you okay?” he asked tentatively, as I dried my eyes.

“Yes. I’m okay. There’s just such a profound sadness in knowing that this is what that beautiful, magical place has become. This house was the most beautiful part of my life and now it barely even exists.”

We stood looking at it, until I felt ready to go inside. When Jack finally got the door to open, the smell of dampness and neglect welcomed us. I stepped in gingerly to the main room. Dampness crept up the walls. The whole place was shrouded in darkness.

As dreary as the place looked, it wasn’t what affected me the most. The mouldy surrounding moved out of focus. Everything was exactly as I had remembered it; perfectly preserved like it had just jumped from straight from my memory. My grandmother’s Blue Willow China adorned the large oak cabinet, my grandfather’s patchwork blanket still rested on the back of his rocking chair, cutlery lay in the drawer by the sink just as it always had. The beds were still made. Pictures of relatives hung on the walls. I could almost hear the squabbling of all of us children over the wheel by the fire. I could almost feel my grandmothers gnarled and warm hand on mine as we baked together. The stories that a neighbour used to tell of the púca and the banshee when he visited echoed around the room.

20140412-130940.jpg
Source
I stood still, taking it all in with a find smile. Jack slid his arm around me.

“It’s beautiful,” he whispered. I nodded. It was no longer confined to the deepest recesses of my memory, but instead was here in front of me; a house filled with stories.

“I’m ready to go. At least this time, I can say goodbye.” I felt a strong sense of comfort leaving and I feel it now. Knowing that the house is preserved like that, with all the utensils that my grandmother lovingly used still hanging up over the cooker, gives me a warm feeling that I will hold onto for a long time.

As we drove back to our own home that summer’s evening, I considered my dad’s words- “be careful”. I now knew what he meant. Revisiting old memories can be a painful business. It can leave you weary and unfulfilled. This wasn’t like that for me though. I left that house that day knowing that it was just as perfect as I had always remembered. I realised that it belonged in my past, and it was a part of my life that I would never forget. It’s time for me to make some new memories.

Do you have a cherished childhood memory? A place you go to (even in your mind) when you need comfort?

Being a Teacher

20140308-000644.jpg

Source
Teachers in Ireland (and indeed in many countries) get a really hard time. In terms of public perception, we rank somewhere between politicians and circus clowns. Many people assume we are greedy, lazy and that the interests of the students are the furthest things from our self centred minds.

I’m not writing this piece to defend the teaching profession, per se. I’m writing this to frankly and honestly discuss my personal experience with teaching and what being a teacher means to me. It is an incredibly difficult and challenging job in itself, and the constant public derision certainly does nothing to help. I would love to say that it doesn’t bother me; that the most important thing is my own dedication to the profession and that baseless criticisms from people ignorant of the career shouldn’t matter but…well, after a while, you start to have doubts. When people say teachers are lazy, you start to question your own work ethic. When people say teachers are only interested in their pay packet, you start to wonder if maybe there is some truth in that.

I have been guilty of previously making these assumptions myself. When I was in the early years of secondary school, I had little respect for the profession. Like many students, I had good teachers and bad teachers. Unfortunately, it is the “bad” teachers that stand out. When I say bad teacher, I’m referring to those who act unprofessionally and who have little or no passion left for their job. I’ve heard of teachers who didn’t know their students names after two years, who smelled of alcohol in class, who had little knowledge of their respective subjects or who flew into unprovoked and scathing attacks on particular students in my class. I’ve spoken to many people who were only too happy to regale me with tales of incompetent teachers. I’m sure you too, dear reader, have experienced teachers whose methods left a lot to be desired. But we can also agree that we have all had motivational, inspiring and capable teachers who have invested their best efforts and time into helping us to realise our full potential. I also think it’s fair to say that every school I have been in, either as a student or as a teacher, has had a large majority of brilliant and dynamic teachers. There is a rising standard of professionalism that ensures the very best teachers are emerging from training courses. The problem is, we tend to focus on the minority that bring the profession into disrepute.

It wasn’t until I was nearing the end of my time at school that I began to really appreciate my teachers. My worst subject, without a doubt, was maths. I lacked motivation and I didn’t really care if I did poorly in my final maths exam, as the outcome of that particular exam wouldn’t have affected my chances of getting into university. My teacher had other ideas. She didn’t care that I wasn’t aiming high. She refused to let me fall behind or slink to the back of the class and secretly read Jane Eyre. She was on my case day in, day out. If I didn’t understand something, I couldn’t pretend that I did. She knew I was lying. She would keep repeating the methodology of a sum until it clicked with us. She would give up her breaks and her free time to offer us free tuition. And in the final exam, I got an A. An A in a subject I had previously despised and feared. That grade made me realise that hard work and effort does pay off and it gave me a confidence in my own abilities that I have never forgotten. I also haven’t forgotten that teacher; a woman so dedicated to her profession I’m sure she must suffer from a permanent exhaustion that is only challenged by her unwearied assiduity to her students.

There were other good teachers too. There were those who made me laugh and who sparked interests in me that I don’t think any book or film could have. I started to realise that my teachers were having a massive (and very positive) impact on my life and were helping to shape my future in a way that I could never have imagined. That’s when I decided that if I could have such a positive impact on someone’s life, I would have found my dream career. I knew teaching would be a challenging career, but I also knew that it would make me happy, and that I could help students to learn new things every day, not only about the world around them, but also about themselves. This may sound cheesy, disingenuous even, but it’s the truth.

I studied hard to become a teacher. I did a three year degree course in my subjects. I then studied for a Master’s Degree. After that, I studied for my teaching diploma. During this time, I was supervised in my teaching by a former school principal who critiqued my methods with honesty. It was a very intense year, and I can safely say that it was the most challenging experience of my life (I also had to contend with a lot of personal and medical issues).

At the moment, I have been qualified for three years. I’m working in a sometimes difficult environment, where many of the students are unmotivated and ill-disciplined. I like the school I am in (the management and staff are superb) but I have shed tears, I have been ill from stress and I have had many sleepless nights. I have mounds of paper work to contend with, difficult classes and demanding parents. I’m not just speaking for myself here, I’m speaking for all teachers. Yes, classroom engagement time (contracted hours) might be minimal when compared to other jobs, but there is more to teaching than that.

The preparation that goes into a week of classes is immense. There’s also the assessment of our students’ work which takes up much of our evenings and weekends. All of this I can handle, as it’s part of the job and we must accept that. In Ireland, we are also expected to do unpaid overtime, thirty three hours a year to be exact (depending on your timetable), which had led to feelings of resentment surfacing in many teachers. We are also routinely inspected, which is fair and of course standard practice in many jobs, but it just adds to the pressure that is already placed on teachers by society at large.

This week alone, I’ve had a student run out of my class sobbing (a close friend of hers died and she’s finding it difficult to cope), a student get injured in the hallway, given detention three times, met a concerned parent, have a difference of opinion with a colleague about a particular student, refer another student for counselling…I could go on. What am I saying all this for? What am I hoping to achieve? I understand that there are many jobs where employees experience far more stress than I do. There are amazing doctors, policemen and women, firemen and women and nurses that provide such important and potentially life-saving services everyday. The thing is, I would never think of denigrating any of these careers. I know that teachers don’t save lives (usually), but I would like to think that we influence the outcome of some lives in a positive manner.

Despite all the disparaging comments that I hear (by the media, but also by people I know quite well), I wouldn’t change anything about my career. The other day, a student I have was struggling to understand what the different poetic terms were (alliteration, onomatopoeia, simile, etc). I spent two classes explaining until finally he excitedly exclaimed “I get them, I get them ALL!” Seeing that “eureka” moment in a student is truly rewarding and it makes everything worthwhile. It makes me realise that the profession is bigger than my insecurities. It’s about the students. It’s about their potential. It’s about guiding and helping and being a positive influence. I’m learning to deflect the negativity and to remember why I decided to peruse this career: I wanted to make a difference to someone’s life. Even if it’s just a handful of people over my entire careers, I’ll still be proud.

Being an Atheist from a Devoutly Catholic Background

I have struggled with writing this post. As I have mentioned in a previous post, I loathe confrontation. When I feel I have offended someone, I become a simpering mess of nerves; anticipating the backlash much like a child anticipates painful injections at the dentist.

From perusing multiple blogs here on WordPress, I have arrived at one obvious conclusion: there are a lot of deeply religious people in the blogosphere. Some of my own followers are faithful Christians and that has been why I have found writing this post so difficult. However, I decided that my atheism forms a pretty sizeable part of who I am and it wouldn’t be very honest of me to neglect discussing it at some stage. Also, I am not ashamed of it. I don’t think I need to conceal it.

I said in a previous post, in passing I might add, that I am not religious. I noticed after writing that post that I lost some followers. This may have been for a different reason (I will admit, I’m kind of annoying), but I would bet my (measly) life-savings that it was because I had offended some of my deeply religious (now ex) followers. The thing is, I am completely tolerant of other people’s beliefs. I support someone’s right to express their religious belief, as long as it does not affect the dignity of someone else. I have many Christian friends and I do not judge them for subscribing to a faith that I have chosen not to. In turn, they remain tolerant of my choice.

If you are reading this, and you have been following my blog for some time, it may change your opinion of me. Perhaps you are a person of faith and you are offended by my views. Perhaps you are a person that I have gotten along with and now you feel differently about me. I hope not. Even though I don’t believe in God, that doesn’t affect your faith, right? It’s a personal choice for me. I don’t have scales, or a tail, or horns and I’m not plotting to take over the world (just yet).

20140223-204531.jpg
Source

I try to follow an ethical code in life; basically, I try to be kind and just and I don’t intend to cause injury or harm to anyone.

Arriving at my decision to finally admit to myself that I am an atheist was not easy. Firstly, I dislike the word “atheist”. I don’t know why, it just sounds unpleasant but the cap fits me. Secondly, there are a lot of atheists who come across as smug, sanctimonious and downright aggressive (like the YouTube commentator “The Amazing Atheist”, whose points I often largely agree with but who is often utterly detestable). For me, however, my atheism is most unusual when you consider where I came from: a very traditional and conservative Catholic background.

I grew up in a very small village in the south of Ireland at a time where it was still illegal for a married couple to seek a divorce. My parents, particularly my father, are very devout and conservative Catholics who actually voted ‘no’ to divorce in a subsequent referendum due to their strongly held religious convictions (ironically, they are now separated). In my village, everyone was devoutly Catholic. It was a judgemental place, where there was no room for individuality or uniqueness. One villager came out as gay in his late teens, was disowned by his family and moved to Scotland, never to return. Another villager became pregnant out of wedlock and was thrown out of home. I still remember my parents discussing her “situation” in our kitchen with shock. She was sent to live with relatives miles from home. This was in the 1990s, by the way.

I went on to attend an all girls Catholic school, where religious instructing formed a large part of my timetable. When I qualified as a teacher, I also taught at a similar school where I was expected to uphold the Catholic ethos of the school. I have never been able to admit my atheism in any job I have held, because the vast majority of my colleagues have been religious and many schools in Ireland have a Christian ethos.

My parents remain devoutly Catholic and superstitious. My father attends mass every day. My mother prays every day and relies on her faith very heavily to help her through her toughest days. My parents are good people, but they have many conservative views that I do not agree with. To say that we are different would be an understatement. My mother recently announced to me that a son of a friend of hers is “what do you call one of those people who doesn’t believe in God? Yeah, an atheist!” She waited for the shock and horror to register with me. It didn’t.

And so, discussing my atheism with my parents has not been easy. The thing is, I don’t go around announcing it because I don’t feel that it’s necessary. It’s a personal choice. I’m choosing to discuss it here because, well, I can. It came up in conversation when my mother pointed out a church to me that she thought I might like to get married in some day. Here is how the conversation went:

“Oh, look Jane. There’s a beautiful church for you to get married in someday.”

“Hmm.”

“I wonder what parish this is? Who’s the priest I wonder?”

“It doesn’t really matter.”

“I know, I’m only joking. But I know Jack and you will get married someday and it’s no harm to discuss certain aspects of it, is there? I assume it’d be our church anyway, wouldn’t it?”

“Actually Mam, it wouldn’t be any church. We wouldn’t have a church wedding.”

“WHAT?!”

“Mam, when is the last time I went to mass? I’m not religious. It would be hypocritical. I don’t plan on attending mass so I would like a secular wedding and I know Jack would too.”

20140223-204955.jpg
What I expect my mother’s reaction to be
Source

There was silence for a long time after that and we haven’t discussed it since. My father knows that I am not religious, but I’m not sure he knows that I am an atheist. We avoid discussing religion, although occasionally he will pass comments about feast days or saints. I don’t feel that my father would be very happy if I told him that I was not planning on having a religious wedding (although I have heard him bemoan the hypocrisy of couples who do not attend mass and are clearly not religious but who have a church wedding). He may even turn down a wedding invitation because he wouldn’t support a secular wedding (although I’m almost certain he would swallow his pride and attend). He wouldn’t see it as a “real” wedding. And I’m not going to even begun to discuss what will happen when I don’t baptise my children.

My work place is no less inhospitable to atheists. I work in a nondenominational school, where there are atheists attending alongside Protestants, Catholics, Muslims and Hindus. As I have already mentioned, I don’t feel the need to discuss my atheism unless I feel it’s necessary. Teachers have the option to opt out of school masses. So this all seems fine, right? On the surface, perhaps. However, as there was a nun on the panel of interviewers when I applied for the job, I knew the school has deep religious ties. Teaching jobs are very rare in Ireland due to a massive over supply of teachers, so it would not be in my best interests to admit my atheism at all. Sometimes I feel like I’m living a big lie, but I suspect it’s the same for many people in Ireland. Some work places are just not very accepting of atheism.

Besides all of this, I know that many of the teachers unintentionally prejudge the atheist students. It is not malicious, I assume it comes from a discomfort and a genuine ignorance about atheism that many people hold; that is, the all atheists must be morally bankrupt and are “just trying to be different”. Whenever it is mentioned that a certain student is atheist, I can feel the negative attitude radiating from the other teachers. It makes me wonder how they would feel if I told them the truth about me.

So there you have it dear readers. I’m an atheist. Will it affect my blog? No. I don’t see how it’s relevant to my blog, which you may have noticed, is hardly teeming with deep philosophical thought. I won’t discuss it often.Why did I post this then? I don’t really know. I felt I needed to say it for some reason. Does it change how you feel about me? I certainly hope not, but if it does then at least you know the truth. I would like to think that we can all just get along.

20140223-205418.jpg
Source
Anyway, I gots to go. I have a Richard Dawkins lecture to attend. (Little atheist joke there. We meet Mondays, bring cheese.)

Mean Girls: Nice Women Don’t Finish Last

I’m a nice person. It’s true. I’m not being arrogant when I say that; in fact, I think it’s fair to say that many people view kindness as a weakness.

Maybe I am too nice. I mean, I sometimes struggle to be honest with people because I’m afraid that they will construe my honesty for harshness. I do feel that I sometimes let people take advantage of me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a complete push-over. I just loathe confrontation.

20140217-171729.jpg
Source

If I have an opinion, I will state it. Similarly, if I feel someone is being unfairly treated, I will speak up. But it stresses me out beyond belief. I don’t particularly feel very enamoured with this aspect of my personality, but I would much prefer to be too nice than too mean.

I find it very difficult to deal with aggressive and domineering people. You know the type I’m talking about; the people who convince you that being aggressive “assertive” means passing critical comments or disagreeing with you over the most trivial of things. Or they’ll sometimes feel the need to offer you “advice” when it’s really just destructive criticism which serves to damage your self-esteem. I mean, haven’t some people heard of talking about you behind your back?

20140217-173728.jpg
Source

I once had someone aggressive like that in my life. Not by choice, I would like to add, I’m not crazy. She was related to one of my best friends and was a self-titled “bitch.” She constantly referred to herself as such. I’m all for assertiveness and confidence, but she was poison.

She would constantly comment on my appearance: “Oh, Jane. You’re going with that?
“What did you do with your hair? It really doesn’t suit you.” She would also start random and unexpected arguments with myself and my friends. I don’t know how many times I had to explain her behaviour to people.

After a few years (yes years, I suppose I’m a glutton for punishment) of putting up with her, I approached her cousin and the friend who had introduced us. I had had enough. It was my birthday, and we were having a party. I’m no diva, but I suspected that I would be spending the night apologising to people for her behaviour and that wasn’t exactly how I wanted to remember my twenty first birthday.

When I brought up my concerns to my friend, she brushed me off with the usual excuse: “Oh, that’s just the way she is. She’s just a bitch.”

This time, I refused to accept that as an excuse for her behaviour. It’s not even an excuse really, is it?

So I took a deep breath and said:

Listen, Katie. I love you but I’m just not going to accept that flimsy excuse anymore. It’s rubbish to be honest. I have never done anything to deserve her completely unacceptable behaviour. I refuse to believe that this is “just the way she is.” The girl makes a constant and conscious effort to be a bitch, it is not inherent in her personality. It would be really simple for her to be nice every now and again, but she just refuses to demonstrate even basic kindness. I might not be as confident as she is, but I can hold my head up high and say that I have never set out to deliberately denigrate anyone in order to make myself feel better. I’m just not going to put up with her behaviour anymore.

(It may not have actually been as articulately worded as that at the time but it went something like that.)

Katie reluctantly agreed with me and said that she would have a word with her cousin before the party. Of course, it didn’t work and meany mcBitchface (I’ll try better at the ole nicknames next time) was worse than ever. She refused to go to the pub we were going to because it was “crap”, she hated my dress and she called one of my friends that she had never met a “retard.” Yes, a charming woman indeed.

I haven’t spoken to her in years. I have cut her out of my life entirely. The saddest part of it all is that I heard that she got married recently and none of her “friends” attended. Despite her and Katie being first cousins, they haven’t spoken in nearly two years now. From what I hear, she has alienated most of the people who ever cared about her. She spends most of her time making fun of people and dead celebrities (yes, really) on Facebook. I do feel some pity for her.

The whole point of this post is to point out that being nice might not always be productive but in the long term, neither is being a bitch. For years, that bossy and unpleasant girl had loyal followers who viewed her aggressiveness as something that demonstrated honour and strength. Now, she has become lonely and isolated by her choice to remain aggressive.

Maybe I could stand to be slightly more critical. I probably should send below par food back in a restaurant or admit when I don’t want to go to the cinema to watch an action film. There’s nothing wrong with being assertive when you are not intentionally setting out to offend someone. The problem arises when you confuse bitchiness with confidence. And this happens a lot. We are surrounded with films and TV shows where the message is clear: being a bitch pays off. If you go onto Facebook you’ll see provocative memes like this:

20140217-184523.jpg
Source

Now, I’m all for female empowerment and all that. But to me, that is just plain aggressive and promotes bitchiness as some kind of badge of honour. What about this for a meme, eh?

20140217-184857.jpg
Source

I always encourage my students to try and be confident and to express themselves in an assertive manner but I also remind them to always be respectful of other people’s feelings. While being a self-styled bitch might garner you some fearful respect in the short term, you will end up facing the consequences of your actions sooner or later.

What about you? Are you too passive? Or could you do with being more diplomatic? Or maybe you’ve struck the right balance between the two? If so, tell me your secret in the comments below!

Why Valentine’s Day isn’t Romantic

I know, I know. Writing an anti-Valentines Day post is about as original as telling a knock-knock joke in a pair of Uggs. I also realise that my blog title has the word ‘Cupid’ in it and that I often enthusiastically write about my relationship. You’d think I would be out on the street ringing a bell with an “I LOVE VALENTINE’S DAY” sandwich board.

But alas, Valentine’s Day is not for me. Besides the fact that it is a cynical corporate ploy, I find it wholly unnecessary. For me, it’s just another way for society to try and convince us how inadequate we are. It’s like there’s someone shouting “ROMANCE? YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!” into our ears. We are constantly surrounded with propaganda that attempts to convince us we’re not sexy enough, romantic enough, wild enough or fun enough. Valentine’s is just another way for us to feel that we need to spend a certain amount of money on grand romantic gestures to somehow quantify our relationships.

20140210-213643.jpg
Source:
http://leftsrightswrongs.blogspot.com

It was a few days before Valentine’s last year when an excitable colleague of mine asked me, with all the enthusiasm of a girl in the early stages of a relationship, what I was getting my boyfriend of ten years for a gift.

“A giant teddy bear, but instead of a bear’s head, I’m going to put a model of my face,” I answered her, expecting her to deduce that I was joking. She stared blankly at me. “Alice, I’m kidding. I’m not getting him anything.”

This shocked her even more than my psychotic present idea.

“You can’t get him nothing,” she complained, “it’s VALENTINE’S DAY!”

Even though I knew Alice was just a hopeless romantic and there was no malicious intent in her questioning, I felt slightly irritated.

“Alice, we’ve been together for ten years. We love each other but we don’t need to buy each other gifts to show that.” I could tell by her face that she didn’t agree with me. So I told her about our first Valentine’s Day together.

I had been just sixteen years old. Jack and I had been together for about six months. I was young and naive and I genuinely believed that if I didn’t buy Jack the most amazing gift and have the most romantic day then it would spell disaster for the future of our relationship. Jack told me that he had gotten me “something special”. You might assume that this would have delighted me, but instead it added to my apprehension. If he had gotten me something so wonderful, then how could I possibly measure up? Men are almost impossible to shop for. I traipsed around shop after shop, with several friends in tow. “How about a teddy?” they would recommend, “or a watch? Book? Jersey? Cologne?”

“No, no, no, no, NO!” I would screech manically, “it has to be PERFECT!” The problem was, I didn’t realise that last minute gifts and nails bitten to the quick hardly constitute perfect.

I can’t say I enjoyed that Valentine’s Day. I spent most of it imagining various reactions to my terrible present (I think I went with aftershave):

“Are you implying that I SMELL?!”

“This aftershave smells like the inside of a Hippo’s colon!”

Etc, etc.

My point is that that day was ruined because of the pressure I put myself under. I confessed this to Jack a few weeks later. He was surprised.

“You really thought I would break up with you if you couldn’t find me a gift? Do you really think I’m with you so that once a year I’ll get a bottle of Hugo Boss? Do you think that that’s how I know you love me? From PRESENTS?!”

“Well, when you put it like that….” I admitted, feeling sheepish.

Since that fateful first Valentine’s, we have a rule: no presents. Instead, we cook a meal together. We chat, have fun while cooking and then eat it over candlelight and reminisce on the all the years we’ve been in each other’s lives. We decided that one day in the year shouldn’t be dedicated to making each other happy; that should happen as often as possible. Sure, not everyday can be Valentine’s, but shouldn’t the supposedly selfless and romantic spirit of that day be present in a relationship more than just one day a year?

There are times when Jack and I argue of course (tomatoes ARE fruit, damn it!) but when I look back in years to come at my favourite memories with him, it won’t be those I remember. It also won’t be any grand romantic gestures. It will be the days when I came home from work and Jack had warmed my slippers by the fire and had a cup of tea waiting for me. For me, and I know for many others, it’s the little things that count.

So if you happen to be nervously perusing shops looking for that perfect Valentine’s gift, relax. Take it from me, expensive gifts don’t equal romance. In the long term, this realisation will benefit any relationship. Or destroy it, whatever.

A SPEECH ON HOMOPHOBIA THAT EVERYONE NEEDS TO SEE

If there is one video you watch today, this should be it.

Rory O’ Neill, AKA “Panti Bliss”, is an Irish drag queen and theatre performer.
A few weeks ago, Panti appeared on an Irish talk show and discussed homophobia in the Irish media, choosing to name some of the worst offenders (notably, those who oppose gay marriage in Ireland).
The people named threatened to sue the Irish broadcaster, RTE, that aired the interview.
RTE subsequently issued an apology to these people and a settlement of €85,000. They also removed that portion of the interview from their online archive.
Needless to say, this has caused outrage among members of the public who felt that Panti’s comments were entirely justified.
A few days ago, Panti came on stage in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and made this impassioned speech about homophobia. It really is fantastic. If you feel so inclined after watching it, I urge you to share it so that it receives the attention is deserves (although it has already clocked up an impressive 300,000 views on YouTube).
Thank you for watching!
On a side-note, I am officially having my laziest day ever. Woo (too lazy to add hoo).

A Beautiful Poem: The Skunk by Seamus Heaney

The Skunk

Up, black, striped and damasked like the chasuble
At a funeral mass, the skunk’s tail
Paraded the skunk. Night after night
I expected her like a visitor.

The refrigerator whinnied into silence.
My desk light softened beyond the verandah.
Small oranges loomed in the orange tree.
I began to be tense as a voyeur.

After eleven years I was composing
Love-letters again, broaching the word ‘wife’
Like a stored cask, as if its slender vowel
Had mutated into the night earth and air

Of California. The beautiful, useless
Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absense.
The aftermath of a mouthful of wine
Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.

And there she was, the intent and glamorous,
Ordinary, mysterious skunk,
Mythologized, demythologized,
Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.

It all came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line nightdress.

Today, I read the poem ‘The Skunk’ with my pupils. It is one of my favourite romantic poems and my students loved it. It elicited a great discussion of what constitutes romance and I left class knowing that my students had personally connected with this beautiful poem.

In terms of being “romantic”, it is unconventional to say the least. The poet compares his wife to a skunk, which on the surface, is not the most flattering of comparisons. However, a deeper look at the poem reveals the affection and tenderness that is evident between the poet and his wife. I love it because it is not cliched; it is affectionately teasing and the comparison makes sense to them. His deep love and desire for his wife is obvious.

Heaney died last year at the age of 74. His last words, to his beloved wife, were in beautiful simple Latin: Noli timere, meaning “don’t be afraid”.

Neknomination: Immature, pointless and senseless

20140202-150843.jpg

Source
There is a craze currently sweeping social media in Ireland at the moment; a craze so pointless and immature that it’s paining me to write about it, but I feel it’s necessary. This craze is called Neknomination.

Neknomination began in Australia, but found its way to our shores through the sharing on social media of the many Irish emigrants over there with their friends back home. It involves the recording of oneself “necking” (which basically means drinking something as quickly as possible) a pint (and sometimes more) of something alcoholic. You then upload the recording to Facebook, where you nominate two more people who then must complete the challenge within twenty four hours. Finally, you bask in your own adultivity and spontaneity and await all the invitations to cool parties, cause everyone knows what a crazy b**tard you are.

You might think that this actually sounds like it might just be harmless fun. We’ve all had those nights out where we’ve invariably joined in a group of rowdy spectators chanting “chug” to some inebriated beer-bellied good-time guy at a random college house party. You might think I’m being the idiomatic “wet blanket”. If someone chooses to partake in this fad, can’t I just ignore it? What harm does it do me personally? The thing is, it’s not as simply dismissed as that. There have been two reported deaths in Ireland because of this craze. People are feeling the need to “one-up” each other, by chugging things like full bottles of Jaggermesiter and (gag alert) their own faeces.

It has flooded my newsfeed like some kind of medieval plague. It is everywhere. I haven’t actually watched many of them (except the first few due to my unbridled curiosity). When something becomes this much of a trend (remember planking? *collective shudder*), it inevitably finds itself being practiced by many different strands of society: old, young, male, female, etc. And what group of people becomes most sensitive and susceptible to fads and trends than teenagers?

Let’s face it, being a teenager is hard. Yes, you have a small group who like to deviate away from the trend-setters but the majority of teenagers like to follow the crowd. Understandably, they want to fit in. They want to be seen as cool, fun and “with-it” (aside: why am I sounding increasingly more and more like my grandmother?). If you add the pressures of social media to the mix, being a teenager becomes a minefield of peer pressure and bad decisions.

I was a teenager once (yes, really) and I have to say: I was an idiot. Again, I want to reiterate that I’m not saying all teenagers are idiots. I chose to teach them because I know how articulate, wise and perceptive they can be. What I’m saying is, teenagers can often make idiotic decisions (just like adults); I know I did. This Neknomination ridiculousness is exactly the sort of crap I would have done as a teen. Last year, I heard of the incredibly silly fad of “gallon-smashing” (going into a supermarket, smashing gallons of milk and skidding down a supermarket aisle on it…yep, it is that stupid). While I don’t condone this pointless prank, I do concede that it isn’t too far off the sort of silliness I partook in back in the day. And that’s my point, if there’s a silly fad about, many teenagers are usually lining up to take part in it regardless of the consequences.

So if I was equally as irresponsible, what’s my problem with neknomination? What does it matter to me whether teens (or anyone) decide to record themselves necking pints on Facebook? My problem is that first of all, Facebook didn’t exist in my day. I might have done some stupid stuff, but at least there’s no record of it. It didn’t have the potential to go viral and be viewed by millions of people. People, not just teenagers, are putting themselves in very vulnerable positions. Of course, adults are well aware of this and are old enough to decide for themselves if they want videos of them chugging drinks on the Internet, and that’s their business (and it hasn’t changed my opinion of my friends, it’s the fad itself I have the issue with). Many teenagers, on the other hand, are not old enough or mature enough to make wise, informed decisions. We all have regrets from our teenage years but because of the absence of social media, we don’t have to live with them for too long.

Besides the fact that neknominations are a dangerous fad, they are also pointless. What’s the attraction to recording yourself downing a pint of spirits/beer/wine and sharing it online? What good can come of it? Where’s the fun in it? Surely we take part in things like this because something productive or at least fun can come out of it. This is just silly, immature and pointless. The common counter-argument from alcohol chugging participants is that detractors like me are “buzz killers” or “kill-joys”. Erm, no. I can have fun, but to me uploading a video of myself partaking in some frat-party douchery to impress strangers over the Internet is hardly my idea of it. I’m not trying to sound sanctimonious (trust me, I’m hardly one to pontificate) but senseless rubbish like this irritates me. I actually started writing this a few days ago, before the reported deaths, and I had said “someone, somewhere is going to die as a result of this. I say that without any sense of melodrama or hyperbole.” Unfortunately, it looks like I was right.

If the reports are true, and two people here in Ireland have died as a result of this ridiculous craze, then that should say it all. I’m not saying we need to go overboard (ala the satirical episode with the bear patrol in the Simpsons) and become melodramatic about the situation. It’s not bird flu or Justin Bieber, it hasn’t caused widespread damage. What I would ask the young people who feel obliged to partake in it is to think: would you like to see the video in ten years? Would you like others to see it in ten years? At best, you’ll look stupid, at worst, you’ll hurt yourself. Trust me, it’s about as productive as attempting to teach a Kardashian lessons in subtlety (I’m using analogies that the kids will understand).

Every so often, fads like this come along. And like The Macarena and the Cha-Cha Slide, they’ll disappear (except those were fun, damn it). The difference is, this one is potentially dangerous, immature and pointless. Put down that pint of vodka and (seriously, what were you THINKING?) and go be SENSIBLE.

A beautiful Irish ballad

Usually, I try to make you guys laugh…. and I fail, but the important thing is, I try. Today, I’m posting something that may make you cry.

This song was first played to me by a friend and I remember trying to hold back tears as the final verse played. I’ve since played it for my own students and they have also found it moving and poignant. It is a moving song about emigration and its effects not only on the people who have had to leave but also on the people left behind.

The song was written by two American men, Steven and Peter Jones. Their great-great-grandfather, Brian Hunt, had written letters from Kilkelly, Mayo, Ireland, to his son and their great-grandfather, John, who had emigrated to America in the nineteenth century.
The letters were found by the men in an attic in the United States and they were so overcome with emotion that they decided to write a song based on the content of the letters.

The writings revolve around local and family news being given to John by his father Brian. John had emigrated during the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 and the letters cover a period of time from 1860-1892. As Brian was illiterate, the local schoolmaster, Patrick MacNamara, wrote the letters down. His sense of isolation and loneliness at the loss of his family to emigration is obvious, but he remains jovial and kind in his letters.

Here is a beautiful performance of the song by Robbie O’ Connell and I’ve also included the lyrics. I hope you guys enjoy it as much as I did.

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 60, my dear and loving son John
Your good friend the schoolmaster Pat McNamara’s so good
As to write these words down.
Your brothers have all gone to find work in England,
The house is so empty and sad
The crop of potatoes is sorely infected,
A third to a half of them bad.
And your sister Brigid and Patrick O’Donnell
Are going to be married in June.
Your mother says not to work on the railroad
And be sure to come on home soon.

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 70, dear and loving son John
Hello to your Mrs and to your 4 children,
May they grow healthy and strong.
Michael has got in a wee bit of trouble,
I suppose that he never will learn.
Because of the dampness there’s no turf to speak of
And now we have nothing to burn.
And Brigid is happy, you named a child for her
And now she’s got six of her own.
You say you found work, but you don’t say
What kind or when you will be coming home.

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 80, dear Michael and John, my sons
I’m sorry to give you the very sad news
That your dear old mother has gone.
We buried her down at the church in Kilkelly,
Your brothers and Brigid were there.
You don’t have to worry, she died very quickly,
Remember her in your prayers.
And it’s so good to hear that Michael’s returning,
With money he’s sure to buy land
For the crop has been poor and the people
Are selling at any price that they can.

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 90, my dear and loving son John
I guess that I must be close on to eighty,
It’s thirty years since you’re gone.
Because of all of the money you send me,
I’m still living out on my own.
Michael has built himself a fine house
And Brigid’s daughters have grown.
Thank you for sending your family picture,
They’re lovely young women and men.
You say that you might even come for a visit,
What joy to see you again.

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 92, my dear brother John
I’m sorry that I didn’t write sooner to tell you that father passed on.
He was living with Brigid, she says he was cheerful
And healthy right down to the end.
Ah, you should have seen him play with
The grandchildren of Pat McNamara, your friend.
And we buried him alongside of mother,
Down at the Kilkelly churchyard.
He was a strong and a feisty old man,
Considering his life was so hard.
And it’s funny the way he kept talking about you,
He called for you in the end.
Oh, why don’t you think about coming to visit,
We’d all love to see you again.

Picture Source