Category: Family and forgiveness

Taking Reg’s remains to the dump

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Christmas past, with Reg’s ‘mushroom table’ beneath the tree

I went to the dump today, with the remains of my father-in-law. More accurately, I drove to the dump. My first drive in a while, and my first in many years in the towns where I used to live, and where I will soon live again.
Anxious about many things at present, and always anxious about driving, it took me a few attempts to reverse into a space, failing to get the car into reverse gear, and fearful that there would be men sniggering at me, and rolling their eyes. My imagination, of course. After attempting to get my husband to swap places, so he could perform the manoeuvre, he roundly told me that I would only get less nervous if I drove more often, and I deftly parked soon after.
I did not look behind me at the items in the back seat, the footwell, of the car. The green office chair, which had never been that comfortable, did not concern me. But the remains of my father-in-law did. Small, wooden items made by Reg Bradley, father-in-law from my first marriage. Little stools that he had made for my daughters when they were toddlers; a tile-topped low bench, which had served as a bedside table in the house we are leaving, and before that as a … what did we use it for? … in the house I lived in before, for twenty years, and where I raised my daughters.
Reg’s creations were square, sharp-cornered. Tights were often snagged, shins bruised. They were solid, well-made, and put together in his shed from timber bought for a song at auctions. They were popular amongst our friends, back in ’80s. They would say, ‘Would he make me one? I’ll pay him for it,’ and he’d make a coffee table, and only charge a fiver for it. Not much more than the cost of the wood, nails and glue that had gone to make it.
He made me a sewing box on legs for Christmas, one year. It had an insert, set in the top, with compartments lined in green baize. Win, my mother-in-law, added in a box of pins, a magnet for collecting pins, should they be spilled, a tape measure, and other sewing essentials.
Our flat, when the girls were tiny, and later our house, when they had grown a little, was filled with Reg’s woodwork. Reg did not live to see us in that house, in which he would have spent visits hammer in hand, workbench set up in the back yard. But he died of a heart attack (his second) in the time between us finding the house and moving into it.
When my first husband and I separated, we were each left with Reg Bradley coffee tables, tile-topped. The one that remained in the house where I stayed, with my girls, had bottle-green tiles on top with a mushroom motif, and was known as ‘the mushroom table’. Long after our daughters had outgrown the little stools, they were used as plant-stands, or to place coffee cups on, next to the armchair. One of them had ingenious, crossover legs, which allowed the stool to be collapsed flat; often when a child was sitting on it.
We are now in an in-between place, my second husband and I. We have nearly sold the house we have lived in for more than eight years, and have not quite bought another. In a strange symmetry, my husband has had a heart attack in this in-between space, as Reg did twenty-nine years ago. Though my husband has survived.
Time to let go of Reg. No reason to keep his remains. Many items have gone over the years: my sewing-box-on-legs; my daughter’s wooden Tardis with a torch inside that shone a light through the plastic dome in the top; the mushroom table (offered to my ex-husband, who had quite enough of Reg’s tables already). The dark-stained bathroom cabinet, later painted white, which was left in the house I once shared with Reg’s son and his granddaughters.
I did catch a glance, in the rearview mirror, of the stool with the collapsing legs, before my husband took it, and Reg’s other remains, to the relevant skip. I knew it was time to let them go. Hoping that someone might pick them up, those little stools and that tile-topped bench, and take them home.

William Trevor, my father, and me

William Trevor and I have connections, via a small town in Ireland, and two men. One of them was my father, another is now a friend, and was a catalyst for uncovering my past and a wealth of material that was to feed my writing for many years.

In 2007, a William Trevor story appeared in The Guardian, and in the biog it said that he was born in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork in 1928. In the same town and the in same year of birth as my father. It was a town I had never visited, and as my father had been dead for seven years by then, I had no cause to visit. We had few connections with that side of the family: Dad rarely mentioned his childhood, and his silence spoke of sadness.

I had not seen or spoken to my father for several years before his death, for reasons that I won’t go into here; stories that are not mine to tell. The truth is, you can never cut off entirely from your past, and my curiosity about my father’s past grew. I held on to The Guardian short story supplement for some months, spoke to a friend about writing to William Trevor, and the impossibility of doing so. I’m not sure what was holding me back from sending a letter, from writing the letter, but my friend said, ‘What do you have to lose?’

I found out that there was a short story competition to be judged by William Trevor, part of the William Trevor Literary Festival to be held in Mitchelstown. So I wrote a letter to William Trevor, care of the administrator of the competition, Liam Cusack. I left the letter to Trevor unsealed, placed it in another envelope, and enclosed a note to the administrator, asking him to forward it, and saying that he was welcome to read the letter before sending it on. I didn’t keep a copy, but from what I remember I asked if he might have known my father. Perhaps they had gone to school together. My dad knew William Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ by heart, and perhaps they had learned the poem together. I expected no reply.

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Liam Cusack, Jim Parker and Maria in O’Callaghan’s, Mitchelstown

A few days later, I had a telephone call from Ireland. Liam Cusack had read my letter. He said that Trevor had previously received ‘crank letters’, so he had opened mine. There was no point forwarding it, though, as Trevor had left Mitchelstown when he was five years old, and would not have gone to school with my dad. He would, however, do a bit of research for me, about my dad, as he thought there was a man who would have known my dad.

This led to a visit to Mitchelstown in 2007, and twice more, the last being in 2014 when I read a story from my collection As Long as it Takes at a Culture Night event, in the company of both Liam Cusack and Jim Parker, the man who knew my father, and with whom I exchange long, handwritten letters once or twice a year.

In 2008, I spent two days at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival in the beautiful setting of Charleston. William Trevor was making a rare appearance, a reading and a book signing. It was sold out, but I hung around the desk in the hope of ticket returns. Five minutes before the event, a few tickets were released, which had been reserved by people in the USA, and had not been collected. I took my place, and listened to a story set in a small town in Ireland, not unlike Mitchelstown, read in the same accent that I had heard throughout my childhood.

I queued to have my book signed, and had a few moments with the man. He looked frail, and the organisers were protective of him becoming too tired, and aware of the long queue of people waiting. I told him that my father was born in Mitchelstown, too, and in the same year, and that Trevor and I had a mutual friend, Liam Cusack, in Mitchelstown. ‘Oh, how is he? I’ve heard he’s not been well,’ he said, but I was moved along before I could say more.

William Trevor only lived in Mitchelstown for five years. His father was a bank manager in the town, and bank managers were moved from town to town. Then Trevor left Ireland, as my father did, as a young man, to go to England to find work, and never returned to live there. He was an outsider, a Protestant in a Catholic country, an Irishman in Devon, and this gave him a different perspective on the world he lived in. Liam Cusack told me that Trevor came back to Mitchelstown often, and was to be found sitting on a bench in the square, looking towards the Knockmealdown mountains, or watching people, making up stories in his head about small town people.

I would not dare to put my own writing in the same class as William Trevor, but we do have a connection. We cannot quite escape our past, even a past that is ours only tentatively, or is it in the blood, in the psyche? What do I know, really, of Ireland, having grown up in England, having visited, for only weeks at a time, the Ireland my parents were born in? Yet Richard Skinner wrote this of my stories, when he reviewed As Long as it Takes on Writers’ Hub:

McCarthy shares with William Trevor a profound melancholy and her tales, like the Irish landscape eternally showered with soft yet invasive rain, are similarly saturated in shame, sacrifice, and secret sorrow.

Now there are more than Fifty Ways to Leave

We’ve all had break-ups. There’s the ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ scenario; there is often blame and recriminations of the other party, sometimes self-blame, whereby we examine what we have done wrong. There is usually some discussion, argument, sorting out of stuff – who owns the CDs, who gets custody of children and pets, a splitting of finances.

But what about friendships? In these days of social media, cut-offs can be swift and devastating. How easy it is to ‘unfriend’, to ‘block’ without discussion, leaving things unsaid, things unsorted.

When I think of friends I’ve left behind, they fall into different camps. We have moved apart physically, geographically, changed jobs, changed schools, just don’t get the chance to hang out anymore. I had my children when I was young, and lost many friends who were getting started on their careers whilst I was negotiating nappies. Natural progressions, my former mental health nurse called it when I mourned people I was losing at a time of great change, when chronic illness came into my life. I used to find it harder to let go than I do now.

There are friendships that end in a row. In hindsight, there were things wrong with those friendships from the start. I’ve examined why those people and I became involved. Was it that circumstances pushed us together when we had little in common? Were those things we had in common harmful?

Some friendships end with confusion. A friend I had been close to for many years suddenly starved me of contact. My emails, phone calls and texts all went unanswered. There was no incident before this, no indication of what was to come. Six or so years after she broke contact, I remain baffled as to what I might have done. It was painful for a long time, then I became angry. It was cruel to treat a friend that way. I deserved an explanation.

I am an explainer. I broke up with a very long term friend once. He had been around for so long, I accepted how things were between us, until new friends said, ‘Why do you let him treat you that way?’ I’d shrugged off some very unacceptable behaviour in the past, but when I came to look at your relationship, I actually didn’t like having him around. So I wrote to him and effectively ‘broke-up’ with him. He was hurt and didn’t see what he had done wrong, but there was no other way to do it.

Recently, I ‘unfriended’ someone on Facebook. Someone I have been fond of, but their comments on my threads were so much in opposition to my own thinking I couldn’t tolerate them anymore. Attempts at discussion went nowhere. It helps that I rarely see this person in real life; I know it will be awkward when I do.

I have been ‘unfriended’ twice in recent weeks, each time without discussion, though I can guess at the reasons. Both ‘unfriends’ are people I know very well, in whom I have confided in real life, and they have confided in me. These are acts of hurt and anger, which feel irreparable. In days gone by, they might have slammed doors or slammed down phones, or perhaps not spoken of their hurts. They might have kept away for a while; we would have made it up. But there is something final about wondering where your friend has gone, the friend that always ‘Liked’ or commented on your Facebook posts, only to discover that you have been ‘unfriended’, even blocked.

I can psychologise here. Perhaps these people grew up in atmospheres where it was not safe to discuss things openly. Perhaps there is a family history of cutting people off. Indeed, this is the case in my own family – aunts not spoken to for twenty years, people ignored in the street. It’s a strategy I have used, a learned strategy. Self-protection was an issue in some instances; in others, a lack of self-awareness as to what I was doing. It’s never to late to say sorry, I have found, and some of my previously cut off relationships have been restored, years after a break. True friends forgive.

Paul Simon wrote ‘There are fifty ways to leave your lover’. With social media and texts, there are even more. Separation and divorce involve a painful division of possessions, shared space, shared bodies. Friendship break-ups could, perhaps, go through the same process. It would help with the grief, allow people to eventually pass in the street, to think that was someone I was once close to, to wave and move on.

Nostalgia – a longing for a past that is not our own

“I heard the news today, oh boy…” of the death of George Martin. The cacophony at the end of The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ is magnificent, and I was hoping to hear that; the track that BBC 6 Music chose to play first, though, was ‘In My Life’, a nostalgic song.

I have been thinking about nostalgia recently, with the loss of so many of my cultural heroes this year. Also, because I was involved in the production of a poetry collection about the experiences and memorials of soldiers in World War I – Memorandum: Poems for the Fallen by Vanessa Gebbie. It’s an immensely moving collection, which brought me to tears more than once as I was editing it. It has also brought a rush of responses from readers, the poems resounding with their own family histories. It’s interesting to me, as it is a kind of removed history. My parents arrived in England from Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s, and although my father arrived in 1944, and later did National Service in England, Ireland was neutral during the war. My family’s war experiences were different from those of an English, or in Vanessa Gebbie’s case, Welsh, family.

There is a photograph that sits on the cover of my cousin’s pamphlet, The Men from North Clare and the Great War 1914-1918, by Guss O’Halloran. It is of Pte Patrick O’Halloran, 1st Battalion Connacht Rangers, saying goodbye to his sister Bridget and mother Mary at Ennistymon Railway Station early in 1914. He died at the 2nd battle of Ypres the following year. It is an intensely moving picture. Bridget is avoiding Patrick’s gaze as they hold hands; he is leaning out of the train window, she is on the platform. Patrick looks a lot like my cousin Guss. Mary’s face is obscured by Bridget, though her sorrow must have been as great. Guss has written ‘The Last Goodbye’ across the photograph. It can be viewed, along with the pamphlet, as a PDF on the Clare Library website: The Men from North Clare and the Great War 1914-1918

I didn’t know these people, nor know of them till recent years. Nor did I know of the part that Irish soldiers played in the conflict until I read Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. And being raised in an Irish family in England, I was steeped in  nostalgia that was not from my own past, my own experiences. When Irish friends and family came round, there would be singing and the playing of records of sentimental songs about Ireland; the homesickness in the room would be palpable. An immense sadness, a longing for their homeland. It is not surprising that the origin of the word nostalgia is expressed in terms of pain. From the Concise OED:

Nostalgia – n. a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past … acute homesickness, from the Greek nostos “return home” and algos “pain”.

We are suckers for nostalgia, from the ubiquitous Keep Calm and Carry On posters to Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife. I must confess to watching the latter – largely undemanding, at times moving, and depicting the time when I was born and was an infant. It does feel like my past – the clothes the children wear being those I see in old photos of me and my family.

Leslie Ronald Harding, photo with kind permission of Jacquie Kirby

Leslie Ronald Harding, photo with kind permission of Jacquie Kirby

I am currently working on a poem based on a photo of a boy to whom I have no connection. A friend pointed it out to me on Facebook, knowing that I have been writing about the decline of the orchards in Kent. I have had some contact with the person that posted it – it’s of her uncle as a child, leaning on a cherry ladder in the now-felled orchard down the road from where I live. It was taken sometime between 1914 and 1920, she thinks, and I became a little obsessed with finding out about him. His history is not mine, nor the history of the orchards. I only moved to this part of Kent in 2008. It is not as if I grew up with the sight of sheep grazing beneath fruit trees, nor did my family occupy cherry orchards for a few weeks each summer to pick the fruit. Yet I am sad that these things are disappearing.

I wonder what it would be like to live in the present, to be concerned only with what is going on now, not to pine for a past that is not mine, not ours.

I do think that being an outsider helps us to see things more clearly, to record them. Being neither fully Irish nor English has given me an outsider’s view, standing aside and watching, not fully engaged with a nostalgia that is not mine to own.

It’s Advent: Let the Pre-Christmas Tension (PCT) begin

He hasn’t even started his Christmas shopping. He sighs deeply at the task ahead. I’d show some sympathy, except that I have taken care of the presents; he only has to choose one for me.

IMG_0930We’re having a reduced Christmas this year. Fewer names on the gift list, spending less on those that remain. We (mostly) gave up sending cards a few years ago, sending emails and a Christmas missive instead, giving news of the year gone by. This was supposed to save us (me) time and energy. I have energy problems already, and the writing and sending of cards was a further drain on my limited resources. What has happened instead is the Christmas missive has become a major production. We both have a perfectionist streak – my words have to be witty and well-edited by him; we have to choose just the right photos to add in, chosen from the thousands we’re now cursed and blessed with, in the days of digital; he has to make the layout as perfect as possible. This year, we are wondering whether to just email a nice photo with links to our respective websites. But which photo?

Pre-Christmas Tension (PCT) is the name I have given to the phenomenon, and I think that women are particularly prone to the condition.

In my childhood, my mum went into debt every year to give a good Christmas to her five children. Gifts were bought from Ali’s Bazaar – a chap who sold toys and all other sorts of goodies from the back of an estate car, on easy terms, instalments paid throughout the year. Then there was the food, tons of it, and the trauma of Christmas dinner. The magic of the feast was performed while Dad gaily went to the pub with his mates. I recall Mum serving everyone else, then finally sitting down in front of her plate, and sobbing at the tragedy of lumps in the gravy. Meanwhile, my whiskey-sozzled father nodded in a doze over his dinner.

When I grew up, and had a family of my own, there was the annual decision of who we were going to upset that year – my parents or his. Until someone suggested that we could do as we pleased: stay in our home with our own children, upsetting both sides of the family. By that time, my mum had given up on choosing presents. ‘Oh, you know what they want,’ she said, meaning my children, husband and myself. ‘You buy them and I’ll give you the money.’ Her PCT was no doubt reduced, while adding to mine.

Like my mum, I tried to give my daughters a good Christmas, and got thoroughly exhausted in the process. Though the rewards were sweet – the squeals of delight on Christmas morning. And they both still love Christmas, even in their thirties, when they are now prone to experiencing PCT for themselves.

The lessons I have learned about Christmas are:

Please yourself – don’t do things out of duty

Perfection is never achieved – don’t cry into the lumpy gravy

Keep your expectations modest, then you won’t be disappointed

Don’t place expectations on your grown-up children – they have their own lives, their own, newer Christmas traditions, which might not include you

It’s OK to opt out – of gatherings, jollity, or out of Christmas altogether

Give yourself a rest – in the PCT season and during the festivities. Last year, I went to a yoga and meditation morning at the beginning of December – the best gift I could give myself

I was raised Catholic, and though I am lapsed, I love singing carols. My favourite is In The Bleak Midwinter, from a poem by Christina Rossetti, and one of the things I like about Christmas  is light in the darkest days of the year. Also, a chance to remember those we only hear from once a year, like Elsie, who was a neighbour, and sat with my two-year-old daughter on a snowy winter’s day over 30 years ago when I went into hospital to give birth to my second daughter.

Perhaps I will send this as my Christmas letter, or maybe an email with a nice photo, and a link to this post. Meanwhile, it’s my turn for the odd dates in our shared, everlasting Advent calendar, so I shall slot the first reindeer in his stable. Tip – I don’t get Christmas Eve, but there are more reindeers on the odd dates of Advent.

Love and death

I am the servant of a 20-year-old cat. Each day, I live with the knowledge that she won’t be around forever. A recent dream found me carrying her in a cardboard box, across a field, on her last journey to the vet. My daughters fell in at my side (Biscuit is the last pet we all owned/served before they left home). The sun was shining, and I said to Biscuit, ‘What a beautiful day for your last day in this world.’ I woke sobbing, and went to check on the old girl, who was sleeping peacefully, but not finally, on the sofa.

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

It was a comforting dream, knowing that I will do my best for Biscuit, as I have for two other cats – not letting her go on any longer than is right for her; being with her when the needle goes in.

With the first cat I took on the final journey, I let her go on for far too long: injections every three weeks to relieve her arthritic back legs, which she struggled to lift over the litter tray. I kept her going for me, and I vowed never to do this for another cat. My struggle was with the acceptance of death, with letting go.

As the child of migrants, death was something experienced via visits from uncles or aunts who, somehow, had heard the news from Ireland in the days when few of us had telephones in the house. My maternal grandmother’s death was something I barely understood. I had only met her two or three times, and I knew that there was ‘no love lost’ between my mother and her mother. Mum was kind of upset, but in a closed-down, angry way. She said there was no way she could go to the funeral in Ireland, with the five of us children to look after; I think she didn’t want to go, and we were the excuse. There was a tradition of closing the curtains when someone died, out of respect, and there was no telly allowed either. I found the loss of children’s TV that day greater than that of my nan. I also didn’t know how to feel about the death of someone who should have been close, but whom I barely knew.

My first experience of a death that truly affected me was of a pet. Prince, our little cross-breed dog with a bit of Jack Russell and a lot of ‘the devil’ in him, took it into his head to keep running beyond the house of the neighbour who gave him a biscuit every day, and ran and ran with me in pursuit. The more I chased, the faster he ran, eventually into the path of a car. He was still, but his eyes were open and he was breathing when the car driver stopped, picked him up and took the two of us home. Prince disappeared to the vet’s in a neighbour’s car, and I never saw him again. I thought it was my fault, and my mum did not comfort me, so lost in her own grief for an animal she seemed to love more than her own mother.

I didn’t go to funerals as a child, except for one where the father of school friend had died, and the children’s choir, of which I was a member, sang at his service. Even then, I just felt sorry for the girl, not sadness about her father’s passing.

My first funeral of someone I knew well was for a girl I worked with in Woolworth’s, who was just 15 when she died of leukaemia. Even then, a mix-up over the church meant that my friends and I arrived just as everyone was coming out of the service. We then went on the crematorium, where I watched this box disappear through a set of curtains, unable to connect it with my friend.

In my mid-twenties I experienced the devastating death of a friend, Julie, who took her own life, just days after the birth of my second child. The people around me thought it best that I didn’t go to the funeral. My sister arranged for a beautiful flower arrangement to be sent on my behalf. My mum came to stay for a few days, seeing my grief. But no one said, ‘I’ll look after the baby; you go and say your goodbyes.’ For a long time, I didn’t believe she was dead.

It took me 15 years to come to believe that Julie wasn’t coming back. I was seeing a psychotherapist at the time, and I said that this girl’s death was something I needed to deal with. I said nothing during the 50 minute session; I just cried and cried, let out all the tears that I should have shed when she died. I finally believed that she had gone.

I didn’t go to my father’s funeral, partly because I was very ill at the time, but mostly because I was angry with him, and had been for years and years. I don’t regret missing this. It was the right thing to do for me, and I believe that funerals are for those that are left behind, not to mark respect for the dead. I heard there were disagreements about the service: Mum wanted them to play ‘Walk Tall’, made famous by Val Doonican. It was a song that Dad sung when he was drunk, swaying in the doorway of the living room after a good session in the White Horse. My siblings didn’t want to be reminded of those times, nor were the lyrics appropriate: “That’s what my mother told me when I was about knee high…” My dad wasn’t brought up by his mother. He didn’t get to know her at all before he was 16.

It was my father’s death that led me to have my own will drawn up. I was a single parent at the time, and with no partner to assure my wishes were met, I didn’t want my mum saying I should have a Catholic funeral, or that I should buried when I wanted to be cremated, or that said burial should take place in the town in which I was raised. I was 40, and it was the first time I had squared up to the possibility of death.

I have few problems with death these days. My favourite TV programme is Six Feet Under; I am now watching it for the third time. I find it strangely comforting, especially at times of great sorrow. I watched it at the rate of two episodes a day when my friend Karen was dying of cancer. It helped me to cry in the way I should have done when Julie took her life all those years ago. And here’s the biggest thing – I offered to deliver the eulogy at Karen’s funeral. I knew that I was the best-placed person to do this. It was the hardest thing, but when I heard the non-religious celebrant talking about my friend, clearly knowing nothing about her, it stirred me on to give my account of the real Karen.

I missed her terribly, but I did believe she was dead. Much of this was through seeing her in the last few weeks of her life. On one visit, I took her for what turned out to be the last visit to our favourite cafe. She could barely walk, but somehow we got there. Here is an extract from ‘Where the High Street meets Star Hill’, the prose piece that ends strange fruits, the poetry collection I published in her memory, to raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Support:

November, two weeks on from diagnosis, she is home, and my husband Bob and I arrive to take her out to Norma’s cafe. She is skeletal, yellow-tinged, wonders whether she’ll be able to make it to the car, to the cafe, but somehow we get there. Two cappucinos, mine a decaff, and she fancies a packet of Quavers, so that’s what I get her. She is exhausted after twenty minutes, so Bob goes to get the car, to bring it as close as possible. She asks to sit outside in the cold air. She has spent weeks indoors, staring out the window, too tired for TV, bored of the radio. ‘I do love you, Karen,’ I say. She giggles. She and I don’t say things like that to each other. ‘I love you too,’ she says, and gives me a peck on the cheek.

strange fruits is available from www.culturedllama.co.uk All profits from its sale go to Macmillan Cancer Support.

On showing not telling and subtext in writing and relationships

I am reading a bestseller, and it’s annoying the hell out of me by showing and telling. It’s a memoir, and the story is good, but I am mentally editing as I read: the writers’ and editors’ affliction. So let’s talk about showing not telling.

I can’t explain this any better than Julia Bell. Here is a quote from her blog. You can read the full post at Show Not Tell.

Good writers always try to show in this way – illustrating their characters through their actions and details. If you find yourself writing reams of back-story and notes and profiles, then, good, you’re discovering your character. But how much of this do you need to share with your reader? If you find that you’re writing no dialogue or action for your characters you might find it’s because you’re telling too much of your story, and not letting the characters be dramatic on the page. You’re describing them in action, not showing them in action.

There is a passage in the book I am reading that shows that a cat is a stray – he is described as scraggy, thin, has no collar and has an abscess on his back. He is hanging about in the lobby of a block of flats day after day. The narrator tells us that he thinks it’s a stray; he then says to his friend, ‘I think it’s a stray’. We’ve already got this by the description; we could do without the narrator telling the reader and then telling again in the dialogue. But I’m telling you this when you’ve already got the point. Which is the point.

I suppose what’s irking me is the absence of subtlety, of allowing the reader to work things out, make their own interpretation of the words.

Coincidentally, I was reminded of the importance of subtext in an article by Tim Lott in The Guardian, which is mainly about the use of subtext in relationships, but talks about writing too..

One of the lessons that I teach my creative writing students is the importance of subtext – what is really being said, as opposed to what is apparently being said. One can learn about this by, for instance, reading great movie scripts – in Casablanca, nearly everything is implied rather than stated directly.Or you can simply look at your own relationship with your partner.

No dialogue is so couched in subtext as that of people in long-term relationships. This is inevitable because one learns to be careful since, over time, certain “hot buttons” are established, which, if pressed, are liable to set off fireworks. So one tiptoes around certain subjects and yet can’t quite leave them alone.

I can think of several examples in my own life. When I phoned home to say I had got a 2:2 in my first degree, my mother said, ‘Is that good?’ Partly that she didn’t understand the university marking system, but also a couched response to the words ‘Lower Second Class’, which were clearly not the words she was hoping for. When I asked a partner ‘What’s your signature dish?’, he took this as a criticism of the fact that he had not taken a share in the cooking. He was right – it was a difficult subject to broach with someone who didn’t take criticism well. My assertiveness skills had temporarily deserted me. I also lived with someone who would make himself a sandwich and a cup of tea, and bring it into the living room where I was sitting, without asking me if I would like one. What better way of showing not telling the state of our relationship.

So I guess that subtext is good in writing but not so good in relationships – direct communication is better. Or maybe not. When my mother said ‘Is that good?’ she was really saying, ‘I’m disappointed in you’. I wouldn’t have wanted to hear that;  a simple (even if not heartfelt) ‘Well done’ was all I wanted.

When is it right to write? When is it right to share?

In the early years of my writing life, which began in 2000, a year into major life changes due to illness, a friend suggested that I should write about the experience. Maybe a magazine article; people might be interested. At the time I was writing poems full of self-pity and anguish. I couldn’t physically write for long, and the thought of a long article mining my pain and difficulties was beyond me. More than that, I wasn’t ready to write it. When you’re in the maelstrom it’s enough to cling on to the wreckage, to survive, without processing what’s going on and turning it into art.

Some eight years into the illness, my then partner, now husband, set up a website for me, an earlier version of this one, and I started blogging about living with chronic fatigue syndrome. There was a lot reaction to the posts, not all of them welcome. Let’s just say that I am allergic to offers of miracle cures, and if one more person suggests a drop of lavender on my pillow as a cure to the sleep problems I have endured for 14 years… There were also snide comments on how I seemed to be doing a lot for someone who is supposedly ill, as if I were making it up. I don’t need to justify or explain, but whilst it may appear that I am doing a lot, I work in small chunks of time, often only 20 minutes a day, and take rest in between.

When my site was updated about a year ago I decided to ditch the chronic fatigue page, to make the site more about my poetry and stories, and blogging on whatever took my fancy. Living with chronic fatigue syndrome has only come up once, when I wrote a post on living through the harder days.

14 years after my friend’s suggestion to write an article, I wrote the script for a talk I gave to Kent Writing and Wellbeing Network. A member of the group looked it over, and thought it was publishable, so I pitched it to a couple of magazines. It was taken up by Writing in Education, the journal of the National Association of Writing in Education, and published in Spring 2014.

Here is an extract:

It was a time of great loss – of work, health, relationships, financially and most of all a loss of place in the world. I had defined myself by my work, particularly during the years that my marriage was not fulfilling me, and that was gone.

There was a paring down of friendships. Some had liked the Maria who danced at the front when we went to gigs; they could not cope with who I had become, and neither could I cope with having lively, chatty people around me. Visits and phone calls exhausted me. My voice was weak, and even holding a phone was too tiring.

One of the greatest losses was that of words. I couldn’t read for long, or watch a film without losing concentration or falling asleep. I struggled for the right words to describe things I saw – everyday words.

It felt risky, particularly exposing the rifts between me, members of my family and close friends from whom I decided to separate during my illness. I took shelter in the fact that none of them were likely to read the article or hear me speak on the subject.

Maria prepares for her talk: ‘Low Energy High Creativity: Discovering Writing through Illness’ in the yurt at A Few Wise Words

In April 2014, I gave a talk at the Few Wise Words festival in Canterbury. The angle was how discovering writing has helped me to survive the enormous changes in my life as a result of my illness, and how, without exaggerating, writing saved my life. The audience was invited to ask questions, to share their own experiences and to engage in writing exercises. By revealing ourselves we make ourselves vulnerable, and my story liberated others to share theirs.

As the talk ended, a queue formed in front of the small dais where I sat. I felt like some kind of guru as people revealed their own experiences of illness and family difficulties. The most poignant was a woman who asked if writing would help her terminally ill daughter-in-law. She had so much anger, I was told, and was struggling to express it.

Sharing this kind of thing comes with responsibilities, to the people around me affected by my illness, by my decisions to separate from family and friends. If I had written too soon, I would have been full of blame, and I am not blameless. I wrote letters, told people just what I thought of them and why I didn’t want to see them. I was not tactful. I discovered that most people would prefer not to be told ‘the truth’ as I saw it. There was a time when I felt ashamed of those letters. In my defence, I was chronically sleep-deprived: 18 months of sleeping no more than 3 or 4 hours a day – it sends you crazy; you can’t tell the difference between waking and dreams; I was verging on mania. Someone who had been through mental health difficulties said to me, ‘Those letters saved your life.’ That’s probably true. I do, however, accept responsibility for the hurt they caused. Apologies were sometimes as unwelcome as the letters. For many, things are better left unsaid. I can understand that, but for me leaving things unsaid, unwritten, means illness and living an inauthentic life. But what I have learned is: you don’t have to share what you write; the act of writing is enough in itself.

Back to the queue of people waiting to talk to me after the Few Wise Words event, there was a responsibility for me to listen, to empathise, but not offer advice. My way through was messy, unplanned. My way may not be another person’s way. Who knows if the terminally ill daughter-in-law would find writing helped her deal with her anger? All I could say was that writing is not for everyone, but if she did write, she might want to decide what would happen to her journal after she died. The mother-in-law could offer to do as the woman wished with it, to destroy it, if that’s what she wanted. The writer must be free to write without awareness of a reader.

There is also a responsibility to myself, to be authentic in my writing, whether I share it or not, and to protect myself from others’ reactions to my story. To be empathetic, but not to listen too long and take on the emotional baggage of other people’s stories. To recognise that I need to protect my health, my limited energy, to repel those that offer miracle cures. To remember those things that help me and those things that don’t. And to keep writing.

Wordsworth described poetry as ’emotion recalled in tranquility’; the same goes for writing an article, preparing a talk, sharing experiences. Written too early, shared too early, the anger and blame of my letters and poems showed through and hurt others. 15 years on, experience is filtered through self-knowledge and seeing things from other people’s viewpoints. There are still some people I would not like to read the article I wrote; nonetheless, I had it published. Here is a writing prompt from the article:

I would like to write about…

But I am afraid to because…

Nevertheless I shall…

 

Fail better

As it’s approaching the end of the year, a time for reflection and hope for the new year (never got that last bit – how can the change of a date mean a change in the world?), I’m taking time to remember those epiphanies that came after the ‘shouldn’t have done that’ realisations. And thinking about how we can learn to ‘fail better’.

Some twenty years ago, I phoned my mother after our cat had gone missing. I was hoping for some words of comfort, but what I heard was, ‘You shouldn’t have let him out at night’. The very last time I spoke to her, after several years of estrangement, she called to tell me that I was a bad mother. My daughter had left home after a horrible row, which was mostly to do with my boyfriend, who had just moved in to our house. We were both hurting terribly, my daughter and I, and my mother chose that time to point out all the things that I had done wrong. Some of this, according to her, was letting alcoholics into my life, into my daughters’ lives.

The boyfriend was a recovering alcoholic. He had many faults, but excessive drinking was not currently one of them.

What is was about, with my mother, re the missing cat and the men in my life, was pointing out that things were all my fault, and implicit was that this is how I am, that there is no capacity to learn or to change.

There are two areas of my life that I am focusing on in this blog post on failing better – work and men.

Never be a slave to any job or any person

I have had some horrible jobs in my time. Washing up in the kitchens of the Grandstand at Epsom race course was one of them. Asked to wash shelves and shelves of plates, stacked floor to ceiling, the day before the race meeting, I lifted off the top plate of the pile to discover that all those below had been stacked dirty at the end of the last race meeting, the remains of the last meals they had held still clinging to them.

That job was only for a few days. I stayed because I had a work ethic, I’d been taught to see a job through. And I wanted the money to buy records and clothes. But there were other jobs where I stayed too long, used and abused. The last of these, my last full-time job, ruined my health. I knew it was dreadful, I knew that I wasn’t being looked after by my employers (the board of trustees of a mental health charity – many of whom had severe mental health problems themselves), but I had been trained from childhood to look after other people and forget about my own needs.  The client group had needs greater than mine – until I became one of them.

Lesson learned: never be a slave to any job or any person. If it’s not right for you, get out. Since that time, I’ve got into other abusive situations workwise, including as a volunteer, and it has taken me some time to realise it’s not right for me. Patterns can be hard to shift. But I have got out in the end. As the Beckett quote goes:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Moderation in everything – don’t get involved with drinking men

My mother was right. I do have an attraction towards men who drink. The men who came after my first marriage broke up all ‘liked a drink’. They could be exciting, tremendous fun. They were also a nightmare. Even the recovering alcoholic, so damaged by his past drinking, and with a need to control his environment to make him feel safe. This included controlling me – wanting me to be in touch with him all the time by text; berating me for going out with female friends; accusing me of affairs with male friends. See above re lessons learned about abusive work situations – If it’s not right for you, get out. He left, clearing my house of most of the furniture, as he’d insisted that I get rid of my stuff when he moved in. As I sat there on one of the remaining chairs, without a TV to watch, with my eldest daughter barely speaking to me, I knew that I had failed big time. That I shouldn’t have let him charm his way (bully his way) into my life. But, boy, was I glad that I’d got him to leave.

An epiphany came with sitting in the Rochester Cathedral Tearooms with two male friends. There I was with two intelligent, interesting men who had chosen a cafe over a pub for lunch. I thought, ‘what have I been doing with those drinkers?’

Lesson learned: don’t get involved with drinking men, even those who have stopped drinking. I’d failed with the recovering alcoholic, but I had the courage to try again, and found a man, now my husband, who only drinks in moderation. His idea of a binge is the three pints he had on his stag night.

Learn something from every ‘shouldn’t have done that’

I’ve learned something from even the worst situations. Every difficult work situation has given me a new skill. Working on the sweet counter in Woolworth’s in the ’70s gave me terrific mental arithmetic skills, still sharp after 40 years. I’ve picked up marketing and budgeting skills from working in charities, where you had to do a bit of everything. Even in bad relationships, I’ve had good sex. And fun, for a while, when joy had been lacking in my life for a long time. Even the recovering alcoholic got me to reassess my relationship with my late father and my brother, both drinking men. He helped me to see a disease, not a character failing or a lifestyle choice.

As for my mother, the lessons learned are it’s best for me to keep away from her, not to allow that negativity, that blame  for things I have done wrong, into my life. I take responsibility for my own shortcomings as a mother and try to offer support without criticism to my daughters. If I get this wrong sometimes, I certainly shan’t be telling myself that I ‘shouldn’t have done that’, just remember what Beckett said:

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Going Home

I did not speak to my father for the last few years of his life. Some of the reasons are mine to tell; others do not belong to me, are not for sharing here, and there is that thing about family secrets – who knows, who doesn’t, it’s hard to remember.

‘He was fond of the drink,’ they would say, meaning that he was an alcoholic, not fully acknowledged by us, his family, and not at all by him. His drinking was nobody’s business but his, he said. Anyone who has lived with an alcoholic knows otherwise; their drinking is everyone’s business.

He was the father of five children; I am the middle child. He didn’t know how to relate to us. He didn’t know how to love us. I can name only a handful of good memories of being with him. One where he led me by the hand on the way to Sunday Mass, lifting me as I kicked the piles of autumn leaves in the park, so it felt like I was walking on top of them, my feet not touching the ground. Another, when he and I were alone, awaiting the wedding car after the rest of the family had left.

There were times, many of them, when I wished my mother would leave him, find someone nice. There were times when I thought of him as a monster.

When he died, I was very ill. Too ill to travel to his funeral, too ill to cope with the emotion of it all, and not prepared to hear the stories of what a lovely man he was when I knew otherwise. It wasn’t until seven years after his death that I came to know him, and that process is ongoing, another seven years on.

I wanted to know where he had come from, how he came to be the man he was. I knew little of his childhood in Ireland, only that he had been left by his parents who went to England without him, and that he was raised by his Auntie Molly, amongst her children.

Through good luck, the help of a man in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, who came to be a good friend, and meeting the cousins my dad was raised with, plus an old schoolfriend of his, I pieced together my father’s story. It has been material for poetry, stories and for crying my way through to a kind of forgiveness. There is a lot of talk about forgiveness these days – it does not mean condoning the things a person has done, but coming to terms and letting things go. Perhaps understanding how the early influences in their life, a lack of love, caused them to become the person they grew up to be.

I first visited Mitchelstown, my father’s home town, in 2007. I decided to go alone, the first time I had travelled by myself. I was 47 and it was about time. It was a deeply emotional experience, gruelling in many ways. But I met people who took me to their hearts and do so each time I return. I visited in September 2014, not only a social visit, but to read from my collection of stories As Long as it Takes at the town’s Culture Day celebrations. In an email before my visit, my friend Liam said, ‘Pleased to hear you’re coming home.’

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The photos I am adding to my Friends’ Gallery are from my visit to Mitchelstown, September 2014. Me, with my friend Liam Cusack (left) who helped me find my way to Mitchelstown, via a letter I sent to William Trevor who was born in the same year and the same town as my father. Next to Liam is Jim Parker, a schoolfriend of my dad’s and now a friend of mine. Jim ended his career as Chief of Staff of the Irish Army. A local celebrity, I was honoured when Jim travelled to Mitchelstown to hear me read from my book. We are having lunch in O’Callaghan’s, which was formerly a jeweller’s shop owned by Peter and Mary Dold. Mary is one of the cousins my father grew up with.

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The second photo is with newly found cousins – Edel, Anne (who is not fond of of having her photo taken) and Liz. They are the daughters of two of my dad’s cousins, Nelly and Mary. I think that makes us third cousins. We had a wonderful afternoon together, piecing together family connections, guessing at the secrets that the older generation reveal only unwillingly, if at all. And making me feel a part of the family.

So is Mitchelstown ‘home’, even though I have never lived there, have only spent a couple of weeks there in total? It surely felt like it that day.

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