Not offended

On NPR the other day they were talking about the recent sexual harassment revelations – no shit sherlock, it’s been going on this whole time, hands up if you’re surprised – and an older gent rang in to say, in coded terms, that he thought it was all a bit of an overreaction. “If I’ve ever… offended anyone… I obviously didn’t intend to,” he said, looking for some sympathy for his plight, poor fellow.

“It’s not about OFFENDING someone,” I shouted at the radio. “Women are not delicate snowflakes with no sense of humour, which is obviously what you’re thinking, you blithering old fart.”

Let me repeat that. It’s not about being offended.

It’s about power. It’s about wielding your power over a person who has less, or none. It’s about waving your power in her face, shoving your power down her throat, maybe literally, because you know you can do that and she can’t stop you. We are not offended by the sight of your unsolicited dick pics. We are not offended by your hilarious jokes about sex in a professional setting. We are not offended by the catcalls and the conversations aimed at our cleavage and the boys’ club atmosphere. We may be variously disgusted, horrified, repulsed, nauseated, and very very weary of it all – but that’s on a good day.

(Please note: We are not, ever, turned on.)

On a bad day, we are scared. We feel threatened and made insignificant. We have our power taken from us, our power as individuals, our autonomy over our selves. We become things, vessels, objects that can be done to as someone else wishes, just because that person is stronger, is in a position where they can do what they want without worrying about repercussions, doesn’t give a shit about human decency, has lost sight of the fact that his mama taught him better than that.

Maybe his daddy didn’t.

On every day when this is in the news and people are surprised, shocked, astounded – we are angry. We are angry and incredulous at your shock and we are not very surprised. It’s anything but surprising, really, all this news, except for the fact that it counts as news. Which is, perhaps, surprising and a little encouraging.

Onwards.

 

Sorry about the vagueblogging but I just need to vent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trio

To Mabel, who is nine tomorrow

You are my dragon girl. You are fierce; you breathe fire.

You see injustices that others gloss over, you speak up for equality. You demand equal rights for mythical creatures and humans alike.

You create. You make worlds and homes, families and cities. You write declarations, you draw scenes, you set up tableaux, you assign everyone to their clan. You have notebooks filled with the work of your busy pencil, always multitasking while I read your bedtime story.

You are funny; funnier, perhaps than the deep, wise dragons of old who hid their dry humour far inside and scorned the silly. At their peril. You find kindred spirits in those who get the joke, who see the tiny curve of your mouth and know you’re waiting to see what they say, that this was a test. Those who pass are honoured.

You do not always sheathe your talons. But you can be caught unawares in moments of tenderness, looking out for small children, loving the stupid fluffy cats, snuggling up.

You are strong and skillful and brave. You walk the high wire, you ride on one wheel, you keep trying. You work hard for what you want, ignoring bruised shins and bumped elbows until you have mastery.

You speak in tongues: dog, Russian, nonsense, hieroglyphics. You are a linguist. You want to learn more words, more ways to say it. You obfuscate. You calculate. You want more, bigger, harder math. You burn with the desire to know more.

You know your mind, and you know who you are. It’s hard being you sometimes, but nobody else is so much, so magnificent.

You are my dragon girl: hard to decipher, challenging to guide, a delight to be in league with, an honour to love.

Happy birthday.

Reasons why I took a shower at 4pm today

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

I imagined the conversation going something like this:

– Were you at the gym?

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

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

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

They’re not so bad, maybe.

How to sell your parents’ house, part 3 of 3, maybe

The estate agent rang me this morning to let me know that the For Sale sign will go up next week, probably Wednesday. So that’s a strange feeling, putting your family home on the market. Especially since my two parents are still living. It feels wrong to sell it out from under them, even though I’m not doing that at all: my father is selling his own house, I’m just doing the donkey work. He signs the cheques. I sign for my mother, because she can’t do that any more, when we get to the actual legal documents part, assuming that’ll happen in due course.

It all seems very sudden, even though it’s been on the cards since last May, when Dad looked at me and said “I suppose we’d better sell the house.”

I loved the estate agent. He looked around the house in wonder and awe and probably some internal consternation, and said “It’s really hard to value” but also appreciated all the work that had gone into it, from the very beginning, all by my dad himself.

He saw an old photo upstairs – actually, a photocopy of a photo, that my dad had framed – and audibly goggled at how cool it was – my father’s uncle in 1913 posing with his swim team. Like something from another world, really; one we can’t begin to imagine in spite of all the pictures and films and books we’ve seen. These were real people; a little bit of their DNA runs through my veins. I pulled the photocopy out of the frame and kept it with all the other old photos.

When I got back from Ireland I was very productive for a few days, writing thank-you cards and feverishly sorting through the loose photos, writing on the back, trying to put them in chronological order, despairing when a random wedding picture had no names, no faces I knew, not even an indication of which side of the family it had come from. I went to Ikea, made a lovely photo collage for the wall, hung it up, even. Such industry, in a house otherwise crumbling around me (crumbling at least in terms of undone housework and un-put-away toys, constantly on the brink of running out of milk and bread).

Here’s a list, in two parts.

Things that were easy to put in the skip: (That’s a dumpster, Americans.)

  • Garden waste.
  • Very old pillows.
  • My bank statements from 20 years ago.
  • A nasty rolled-up rug.
  • Used makeup, old hairspray, battered shoes without mates.

Things that were hard to put in the skip:

  • My mother’s cushions. (You can’t donate cushions. They’re like pillows, nobody will take them.)
  • The last bits and pieces from each room, the things I couldn’t decide about, the things I left for my friends to remove because I kept wanting to leave a little something, for character, to make it look at least a tiny bit personal.
  • The photo albums that weren’t old enough to be interesting – the ones of my parents’ trips or travels over the last twenty years or so, visiting people I don’t know, or people who have their own pictures of that day.
  • The Hummel figurine that someone knocked over on the way out to the garden; probably one of the very helpful people who were giving up their Saturday afternoon to help me out; they didn’t even notice. I shouldn’t have left it there, so close to the door. But it had survived so long, and now it was in three pieces. Poor little boy in the apple tree.

It’s weird being entrusted to get rid of other people’s stuff, even two people as uncaring about material goods as my parents. I kept the things I wanted. I kept a few things I thought other people would want. I gave away as much as I could to friends and family members who wanted them, who would take them and keep with them the memory of the place they came from – or even who would say “A lady gave it to me one day when my parents went to her house. I don’t know who she was, really. A friend of Mum and Dad’s who they hardly ever see, I think.”

My best friend told me I had no sentimentality, as I shot down her suggestions of things I might want to keep. I had two suitcases, mostly already full of photo albums, and a house full of junk over here already. I have no space for sentimentality. She left with a shelf that we unscrewed from the wall along with its curly brackets, and some of my mother’s jewellery, and the Dyson. Sentiment and practicality right there. I was happy about that.

A house story

And now I am here again, at my kitchen table, thinking about back-to-school nights and bringing in the washing, instead of there, thinking about the ends of things. It was an intense weekend-and-a-bit, but with a lot of help from a lot of great people I accomplished almost all I had hoped to.

It was very … elemental, maybe, is the word I want. Very much about life, the hard parts of it that are the most real. I met a friend who was coming from her father’s funeral, buying balloons for her son’s fifth birthday party. I gave small children things from my aged parents’ house, sent them back to their homes with the last of my childhood books, dominoes, pretty boxes, and my spare recorder (sorry).

But there was a story I wanted to tell. On Saturday afternoon, someone helping me put things in boxes pulled a string in the kitchen and it broke. It was fine, it didn’t matter. They noticed the string was attached to a little bell that rang when you pulled it. They wondered why. I explained.

My father’s office was downstairs in the basement, ever since the recession in 1987 or so caused him and his partner to downsize and move to working out of their respective homes. There was a phone down there, and a phone upstairs in the hall beside the kitchen, so if the phone rang during business hours my dad would answer it down there, professional-like. If it happened that the call was actually for my mother, rather than have to open his office door and shout loud enough to be heard through the door to the basement, or come all the way upstairs, he rigged up a little bell with a string that went straight down through the floor, so that he could ring the bell from right where he was to let her know it was for her. (Or for me, maybe, even.) No undignified yelling required.

It is a perfect example of how our house worked, and how the things in the house were exactly tailored to suit its inhabitants. A little thing, that nobody seeing that bell would know, once I’m not there to tell the story any more: not the person who shows the house to prospective buyers, not the one who looks at the house wondering how they will mould it to their needs, not the one who rips it off the kitchen wall after the house has been sold.

So now I’ve told the story, and the reason for the bell will always be here, not lost after all.

Table covered in vases and jugs

Right at the beginning of the ending

Casting off

This evening I sat on the floor for twenty minutes casting off.

There was this knitting thing, you see. Back in May I had opened the bottom drawer of the bureau in the hall and found a bag with knitting in it. In May I was busy looking at nursing homes. My brain can only cope with one thing at a time. I’d closed the drawer and gone back to whatever else I was doing at the time, just like I had closed cupboard doors on moulding jam and half-used lipsticks and left them for another day, another trip.

Now I can do it. I can open those drawers and I’m ready to consign much of their contents to the skip that’s handily outside the house (yes, I arranged for it to be there). In May I threw out the tissue paper that was everywhere, consolidated items, put all the lone gloves into one drawer and socks into another, found the jewellery that had been secreted away in odd shoes and cubbyholes and hinged tchotchkes. Now it’s September and I’m ready to put them in boxes and send them away: to donate them, to bag them up, to remove them from the spaces they were placed into and set them free.

So when I saw the knitting this evening, that I had pulled out of the drawer yesterday, I said to myself, I need to just do away with that so that I can put the needles and the wool with all the other knitting needles and donate them to the charity shop.

And then, because I had twenty minutes to spare before I had to be somewhere, I thought, No, wait. I don’t need to unravel it. I can just cast this off. And I sat on the floor where the kitchen meets the hall, and in the dimming light I put my basic knitting ability to use and I cast it off.

It was going to be something in baby blue. I don’t know what, though I think there was a pattern in the bag. I suspect it was for Dash, when he was a baby, that it was found too frustrating and stuffed away. My mother was never a great knitter. The biggest thing she ever knitted, to my knowledge, was a moss green waistcoat for my father some time in the 80s. I found it on his shelf yesterday when I went through his wardrobe, but I put it in the donation pile because I don’t think he needs it in the well-heated nursing home. I have no sentimentality, no soul, apparently. Also, I don’t think he ever wore it much, he just couldn’t throw it away.

So I cast it off, the blue knitting that was going to be a cardigan for my baby boy, or whatever, sitting there on the floor in the evening light. I’ll take it with me for the girlchild to use as a doll blanket. Knit one, pick it up, push it over the one before. Off she goes. My baby boy is eleven now, he’d never fit it. I saw my mother today and she was delighted to see me, disbelieving that I was really me, asking me how my exams had gone, moving on to generic questions about mum and dad or the boys, things she could ask anyone, because she wasn’t sure any more who it was but she couldn’t let on.

And then I cut the yarn, pulled the knot through, put the rest of the ball of wool in the bag with all the knitting needles and the patterns, ready to go to the charity shop tomorrow.

And as I sat there I thought how poignant it should be, and how metaphorical it was, and how I could write a great blog post about casting off the past and all that jazz. But really, I was just knitting, waiting, in a messy house, full of memories; it’s reached its time, it’s moving on, as all things have to. Finished off, undone, sent on, sent away. An end and a beginning. There’s always a beginning too.

Seafront at dawn

Ending/beginning

Magic wand required

Orange and white cat on wooden floor with a fluffy yellow toy

You are so NOISY. Why are you so NOISY, cat? Stop licking my computer. Go away.

/cat lies down on the rest of the table/

On Friday I was driven to distraction because Mabel didn’t go to school and I couldn’t get anything done. Now Mabel’s at school (praise be) but this cat is giving her a run for her money.

The other cat is fine, he’s somewhere else. But no doubt they’ll swap and it’ll be his turn in a little while.

Stop looking at me, cat. Floofer, floof thyself.

I need more coffee.

—-

The last several times I’d gone home to Ireland before last May’s visit, I’d thought to myself “This might be the last time they’re here” – meaning my parents, both in the house I grew up in, the house they should have sold years ago so they could move to somewhere with no stairs, no hill, less upkeep. They were increasingly aged, increasingly in need of more help than they had, something had to give, and I was just hoping from afar that it wouldn’t be something tragic or drastic.

Similarly, every time I was in the house I’d spirit away a few bits and pieces – mostly books – and look around my bedroom to gauge whether there was anything left there that I’d be distressed at losing, if it all had to be done away with in my absence. As if one day a magic wand might wave and the contents of the house would disappear, the house would be sold, and someone would just let me know, as an afterthought.

Every now and then I’d acknowledge to myself that there was no magic wand, and if the contents of the house were to go anywhere I was the one that would have to be instrumental in the doing of it. On the spot, not from afar. It’s not the sort of thing you can orchestrate across an ocean, the dismantling and disposition of a household’s worth of belongings. And then I’d get stressed about when it would happen, and how, and how I’d know it was time, or who would tell me, and who was in charge, and if it was me.

The crisis happened in March, and it wasn’t terrible. My Dad went to hospital, my Mum went to a nursing home; then my dad went to rehab, they said he couldn’t go home, I went back to find a nursing home for him, he went there. Now the house needs to be emptied. The house needs to be sold. I’m the one who has to put it all in motion, because I’m the only one there is. My dad’s in charge, but he’s tired, and he can’t get about much. I’m in charge too.

I’m the one who will be emptying out my childhood bedroom, bringing the rest of my books to the charity shop, throwing out all my feis medals (it’s fine, I’m over it), my school awards, my recorder exam certificates, the mug I always used with the harvest mouse and the poppies on it. I can’t keep much – just enough to go in a suitcase and a few things to store with extended family, perhaps.

So many things, though. So much stuff. So many categories of stuff. In my mind I open another cupboard door and go “Oh no, all the cleaning things. The hoover! That ancient carpet sweeper! There’s an ironing board in there! And all those 70s serving platters and canapé trays that only came out once a year. Argh!”

Maybe by the time I come back I’ll have put together a really helpful list of how you too can empty a house in four days. Maybe I’ll tell you that I did as much as I could but the job overwhelmed me. Maybe there’ll be an emotional, midnight, mid-purge post over the weekend. I suspect I’ll be telling you how I couldn’t have done it at all without the help of friends and family, about how people are important, and knowing when to ask for help is a vital skill of the fully formed grown-up.

 

Important places

“I have lived in important places, times / When great events were decided”

Those are the opening lines of Patrick Kavanagh’s “Epic“, a poem that was used mostly to illustrate the form of a sonnet to my English class, early in second year (that’s 8th grade for Americans). No mention was made of the contrast of the title to the brevity of the poem, now I think about it, but our teacher had enough to do just trying to get the basics across to us, since this was our first encounter with such a high-falutin’ thing as a poetic form other than nursery rhyme or limerick.

Anyway. The reason those opening lines are running through my mind is that I’m trying to figure out what to do with my dad’s photo albums. In about two weeks’ time I have to go to Dublin (yes, again) and try to tidy up and get rid of as much as possible of the contents of my parents’ house as I can in roughly four days. They don’t live there any more.

(Mabel says I can’t go. She won’t let me. It’s too hard to go to sleep at night with only Daddy. I’m sorry, and all, but I’d love to not go, except I have to. There’s nobody else to do it. This is what happens. It’s what everything comes to in the end, someone clearing away your belongings, assigning importance to some and tossing others out. She doesn’t get that yet. Maybe I don’t get it yet myself, really.)

In anticipation, I’m mentally going through the house, listing items of furniture and categories of things, deciding what could be kept, what should be given away, what’s just irredeemable rubbish. My father has been trying to empty the house for years; my parents weren’t hoarders (though in her later years my mother had taken to squirreling away tiny bits of tissue paper and scraps of cellophane, but those are very easy to throw away, after making sure there’s no tiny treasure balled up in the middle).

I’m trying to simultaneously think of everything there so that I can plan what to do with it, so I can spend more time doing and less wondering, and also so that I can be mentally bolstered against the whole thing, the whole dismantling of my past, my parents’ pasts, my home, my history. I’m very practical, but I’m also practical enough to know that it’ll be hard. It’ll hit me in the guts, so I need to be prepared.

Anyway, as I think I already said. I was thinking about my dad’s photo albums. He has about 15 of them hidden away in a piece of antique office furniture in the spare room. As befits him, they are meticulous records of days past and travels in interesting places. He has lived in England and Ireland, spent two years in the US, and a year in Guatemala, and these albums record those places, and others he travelled to, probably mostly in the 50s and 60s. When I’d asked him about them he’d shrugged and supposed that they’d have to be thrown out. Who would be interested in such things, he asked rhetorically, assuming the answer was nobody.

I wasn’t so sure. The idea of just throwing out his carefully recorded memories didn’t sit right with me, even if I didn’t think I could mail them to myself in the States to go through at my leisure, even if I wasn’t sure I would be all that interested in unknown people and places. But it occurred to me that he was in a couple of clubs that are still active, that might have people interested in their history and their founding members. And then I asked a lot of random strangers in an Irish Facebook group what they thought and the response was overwhelming: don’t throw them out! Find an archivist! Find a library! Someone wants these!

I emailed the two clubs in question and at least one is definitely interested. I had a correspondence with someone from the National Library, who said they might be interested depending on how much of Ireland is in it. I am pretty sure, based on all that, that there would be someone out there – or maybe out here – who would love to see the American and Guatemalan parts of his travels and records. I won’t toss anything. I’ll ask someone to keep them for me, or see if I can find someone to scan them for me, or maybe I will just post them to myself, but I will not trash them.

I think my dad will be happy about it. Bemused that his old snaps might now be considered archivable, important bits of history, even if the times he lived in were not important-seeming, if no great events were apparently being decided there and then. Sometimes ordinary lives are the most important. Patrick Kavanagh taught me that.

Man posing on skis in late 60s

Just call him Bond

 

Tipping point

Before:

I stepped outside around 8:30 this evening. It’s uncharacteristically chilly for late August, so I’m wearing jeans and a cardigan with my sandals and my t-shirt, but the kids are still mostly running around in shorts and short sleeves.

Someone had an amazing new electric toy car, big enough to sit in, with all sorts of bells and whisltes that basically make it better equipped than our Corolla was (bless its dear departed soul), and the children were all taking turns in it and wandering along behind as it bumbled along. The current occupants were two and four years old, and the two-year-old would prove tricky to dislodge. The novelty gradually dimmed for the others and they turned to other pursuits.

To wit: my 11 year old pulling our 12-year-old neighbour along on roller blades, using two hockey sticks as reins. My 8 year old on a tricycle that fits a two year old, knees popping up above her shoulders at every turn of the pedals, undaunted, three mothers chatting, a three year old jealously guarding a bag of popcorn, a small dog, a small boy with a new tennis ball, glowing lumniously in a way that made me realise that it’s getting dark.

They came in without much complaint, enticed by the prospect of a movie, tired after a long day with friends and a late night last night. The summer is all but ended, the grand flourish and spectacle of the Labor Day Festival all that stands between us and school – new starts, new teachers, old friends, new notebooks and pencils and scissors and glue sticks.

****

After:

The Labor Day festival is done. Mabel won two blue ribbons in the art show and one in the photo show, in contrast to my none at all. Dash had more goes on the bumper cars than you might have thought possible. Their father spent 40 minutes queueing up to go on one of the fast and scary rides, which wasn’t all that fast or scary. I spent 5 hours working the book stall in the rain, so it wasn’t very busy at all. Mabel met all the dogs at the festival, of which there were many.

On Tuesday and Wednesday night Mabel put herself to bed, early, in anticipation of school the next day. This was an instant turnaround from the whole weekend that had gone before, which was full of nights so late you would not believe (even though we were not out), and associated sundry “I’m not tired, I don’t know why you always think I’m tired” meltdowns. On Wednesday and Thursday she got up and ready for school like an angel child, and brushed her hair both at night and in the morning, and was a model pupil, at least from where I was standing. (Nowhere near her, not allowed wield a camera or phone in her direction for a first day of third grade photo.)

This morning the novelty had worn off and I had to coax/reason/yell at her to go to school. Maybe by next week we’ll have reached a happy medium.

Dash also started school, with less drama of extremes. He’s a middle schooler now, because in America most middle schools start at 6th grade, but since his wonderful, fabulous (expensive) school goes all the way from 4th to 12th grade, even though they try to make a big deal of it, it’s not the big adjustment that it is for most kids. It’s the same place, the same kids, many of the same teachers. He does have to change classrooms and teachers more often, and remember to be in the right place because he’s not just following his friends to wherever they’re going too, and he seems to have a lot more homework, but apart from that it all seems to have been a pretty smooth transition.

And I’ve managed to get a lot done in three days. None of that has involved tidying up the mess in the family room, but maybe I’ll get around to that next week.

At least the cats still pose for photos