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Things to worry about

About this time last week, my list of things to worry about looked like this

  • Being killed by terrorists.
  • ISIS expanding to take over all of Europe and then the USA.

and far down below those and everything related to them, quotidian things such as

  • Dying in a fiery car crash on the Beltway.
  • Being killed by a random gunman because I live in the USA, or having that happen to my husband at work or my children at school.
  • Having the house broken into (while B’s away).
  • Having the house broken into (while we’re all here).
  • B dropping dead while running, leaving me ignorant of passwords to online bill paying, so that as well as being bereft and lonely and bored with nobody to make up appropriate lyrics for any song at the drop of a hat, we would have our electricity cut off and freeze to death.
  • Getting stuck behind a fiery car crash on the Beltway so that I’m late to pick Dash up from school, and discovering that my phone refuses to hold any contact numbers any more so I couldn’t even call them to say why I’m not there.
  • Mabel refusing to open her mouth at her upcoming dental checkup.
  • Cancer.
  • Meningitis.
  • My turkey being dry on Thursday.

and so on, in descending order of terribleness or likeliness; you get the idea.

This week my sense of statistics has righted itself and those first two have dropped down to somewhere below the others. Climate change is in there somewhere too; I’m never quite sure where. And maybe the zombie apocalypse, sure, if I’m in the mood for fretting.

Of course, statistics are no comfort to all those families in Paris, in Mali, to a family not far from here who lost someone. To everyone who has died in car crashes or mass shootings or all the other terrible things that happen and continue to happen.

So, in conclusion, this isn’t a very comforting post, is it? But I really like how everyone’s tweeting cat pictures in Brussels. That seems like a very good way to deal with the tension. I’ll be over here trying to keep my worry weebles the right way up.

There’s no such thing as failure

There’s no such thing as failure.

There’s listening to your heart and your head. There’s going with your gut and trying again. There are lessons in perseverance and determination. There’s making a judgement call.

There’s listening to the universe when it drops a few hints, and picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and changing tack. There’s trying something new even if you feel old, taking a road nobody else has taken because it feels right, or exciting, or you’re up for a challenge.

If you’re still here – and even, maybe, if you’re not – you didn’t fail. You did something else instead.

Sunlight through yellow leaves

Inspirational picture

In spite of how it looks, this was not inspired by some terrible knock-back from an agent. It was just something I thought of when wondering what advice I’d give to school-leavers.

Gone fishin’

Mabel has this first-aid book of which she is extremely fond. It’s not a kids’ first-aid book, it’s an old one that’s been on our shelves for ages, since my husband once thought he should be better prepared in emergency situations or something. She found it once when she was much smaller and was entranced by the drawings of people in varying amounts of agony, skin sliced open in different ways, tourniquets and slings and gunshot wounds. There’s even one of a baby being born. (Not graphic. Lots of towels and hot water.)

One of the pages has a painful-looking picture of someone with a fish-hook through their finger, and a diagram of how exactly you would approach bandaging this (if you could then take him to hospital) or removing the hook (if you were camping in the wilds of beyond and couldn’t get to a proper doctor, I presume).

Anyway, I always thought, when my eye fell on that particular squirm-inducing illustration, “What a ridiculously obscure injury. How many people get fish-hooks in their fingers?”

You might fear you can see where this is going; but don’t worry, it’s not. Nobody ends this blogpost with a fish-hook embedded in any part of them.

However. On Saturday afternoon I took Dash to a friend’s birthday party which turned out to be a lovely lazy afternoon by the bay, where the boys waded and swam and also got to do some fishing off the little dock. Now, I know absolutely nothing about fishing, and nor does my husband, so when Dash was given pestered me until I bought him a fishing rod last year, his one outing to try it out was not very successful. So the opportunity to have people who actually know how to fish show him what to do was pretty special.

Dash fishing (from behind)

Not that he caught anything, because it was the wrong time of day. But there he was, and there were several other people near him, and they were all casting away and suddenly I felt like getting a fish-hook in the thumb would be a very very easy injury to attain, and that if I didn’t step back quickly I might be on the wrong end of a fish-hook in the eyeball instead, and the book hadn’t even addressed that one.

But instead, the afternoon continued to be lovely; and there was a Minecraft cake and a Nerf battle and we went home without any fish-hooks embedded anywhere but with a happy boy who had done some fishing.

And the understanding that one day’s obscurity is the next day’s commonplace, because you just never know how things will turn out.

My stance on mythical creatures

It’s Easter Morning and no bunny came to our house. The kids are fine with that. They haven’t really noticed. To be honest, I didn’t really notice. I thought for a good 30 seconds after I woke up to figure out what day of the week it was, and was happy when I decided it was a Sunday. I did not leap out of bed and get busy with baskets and fake grass and eggs of any description.

Not to say that we don’t do Easter things. We went to an egg hunt yesterday. There was a big guy in a bunny suit there, but he wasn’t handing out candy so my kids weren’t really interested in him.

Egg haul

Mabel’s eggs

When I first discovered – and Dash was about five when this happened so you’d think I’d have noticed before – that the Easter Bunny in America was like Santa Claus, an imaginary being who delivered things in the night, I was a bit horrified. Another one? Do we never get to give our kids anything ourselves? And since Easter always comes somewhere between B’s birthday and Dash’s, usually closer to the latter, we really don’t need an extra occasion for overconsumption.

Am I depriving them of a quintessential childhood memory? Will they complain to their therapists that the deep-seated trauma of never getting an Easter basket is at the root of their neuroses? Do I care?

I made a nice dinner for the grown ups last night, with a nice dessert to boot. Rhubarb, first of the season, grants a wish. The children didn’t eat anything, due to ill-timed large bready snacks in the late afternoon. Mabel is going through a phase (let’s charitably say) and the day ended with my carting all the soft toys and all her dolls down to the basement in a huff, because she wouldn’t even try to clean up. She’s been happily playing with Lego all morning.

Dash had a fever on Friday and is now in that “is that a rash?” in-betweeny stage. He might have strep, he might have fifth disease; he might just have a sore throat. We might go on an outing today; we might stay at home. We don’t need any more bunnies.

Dinner music

An unforeseen side-effect of dinner-at-the-table has been dinner conversation. I had vaguely wondered if I’d need to make a list of topics to discuss or something, but I had banked without the rest of my family members, who of course are far less reticent than I.

Mabel has taken it upon herself to play gameshow host at dinnertime, and plies us each with a question. Sometimes it’s “What’s your favourite colour?” but last night it was a real doozie: “What’s your favourite song?”

To a five-year-old, that’s a pretty easy one. Hers is “Of course I want to build a snowman,” a lesser-known imaginary-response version of the song from Frozen, sung from Elsa’s point of view. Her brother didn’t have much trouble deciding that his (right now) is “Beat it.” Can’t fault Michael Jackson, I suppose. Better than One Direction.

But her father and I were stumped. We spent the rest of the evening taking turns to play our contenders, just a few of them, on the iPod. If you could break it down to favourite song by a certain artist, or in a genre, or in one period of your life … but favourite song? Just one? Ever? Impossible. I’m still trying to come up with my definitive list.

Do you have one? What’s your favourite song?

Children wearing headphones


White stuff

All this white stuff is getting me down. It’s doing nothing except getting in the way at the moment. It’s piled up at the sides of the road, turning slowly black from the car exhausts, slushing in the driveways, lying slippily in wait in the shadows where you least expect it, blocking the way at every turn so people are walking on the roads and can’t get from the bus stop to the bus without clambering over an Everest and possibly leaving a shoe behind in it.

And even though forecast temperatures for the rest of the week are in the 50s, (that’s over 10C), we’re expecting possibly another inch or two tonight, as a sort of farewell gesture. If school’s cancelled tomorrow I’ll be … I’ll be… actually, I can’t even muster the energy to threaten anything. It’s been so long since Dash went to school (last Wednesday, it was) that I’ve forgotten what it’s like.

While it persists, never mind the ever-present children, I can’t get down to anything. Everything is too much work. Everything is temporary, about to melt away any moment (if only it would). Everything is on the long finger, for when things go back to normal, when everyone goes back to school, the ground goes back to looking like the ground instead of treacherous uneven cold wet stifling white stuff.

Snow and trees

Little Americans

I didn’t get selected for the Listen To Your Mother cast. That’s fine, really. It gets us out of a babysitting hole because one of the unmissable rehearsal days was when B would be on a very rare work trip. It would have been fun; I might audition again next year.

Anyway, it means I have a ready-made blog post for today. This is the piece I wrote for it.


I never meant to have American children.

Years ago – far too many years ago to count in public – I was in Boston with my boyfriend. (He was from Ireland too.) One day on a dusty baseball diamond near where we were staying, we saw some kids playing T-ball. I heard their little shouts and watched their little legs run and realised that their American accents were already in place. You know how when you’re in a foreign country it’s amazing that even the three-year-olds can speak the language? It was like that. “They’re tiny Americans,” I thought. “They’re going to grow up to be American all the way down. How bizarre.”

If you’d told me then that I’d have American children, I’d have been positively insulted. That was one thing – the one thing – that I would definitely not do. My children would be Irish, like me and my mother before me. They would grow up with the wind and the rain, rosy-cheeked and soft-skinned, they would paddle in the chilly Irish Sea and complain about their Irish-language homework and criticize Bono (because that is the birthright of natives) and sound like suburban Dubliners, just like their parents.

What’s that saying about fate laughing at your plans?

It began with thinking we could have a baby in America so long as we moved home to Ireland before he knew what was what. Things progressed, so that I felt if we moved before he started school, that would be fine. Oh look, now I have a second-grader and a rising kindergartener and hey guess what, they’re American.

Becoming a mother so far from my mother – and everyone else – gave me a certain freedom. If I’d been surrounded by all those people whose opinions count, whose merest incline of the head I might interpret as a judgement of my parenting choices – well, I might have made different choices. As it was, I was free to read the books I wanted to, to find my tribe on the Internet, to follow my instincts and trust myself with my babies. If people looked askance at me in America for whatever I might have been doing – breastfeeding in the supermarket, for instance – well, I’m a foreigner. A European. And we all know what those Europeans are like.

Similarly, if in Ireland my mother wondered when I was going to stop breastfeeding in the supermarket, for instance (or wherever), she could put it down to the hippie dippie influence of America, where they have no inhibitions at all.

Probably, nobody was judging me, but that’s not the point. The point is that I was free to play the crazy foreigner card on both sides of the Atlantic.

So my kids have American accents. Of course they do: they were born here. They have American passports and American birth certificates and American social security numbers. My kids learned to swim in a lovely warm outdoor pool in a swelteringly humid DC summer. My son rattles off the Pledge of Allegiance every morning with his classmates. Despite their parents’ best efforts, they say mailman and sidewalk and zee and twenny and sometimes they even talk about to-may-toes.

And that’s okay. Maybe time has softened me. Maybe I’m coming to terms with being almost-American myself. Maybe it doesn’t matter, because when they meet their Irish cousins – once the first amazed comments from their aunts and uncles about how American they sound have been registered, for the record – they all start talking about Disney movies and My Little Ponies and superheroes and the Irish cousins are saying “awesome” and quoting Star Wars just as much everyone else.

Life does funny things. You can tell it where you want to go, but it’s not a taxi driver. Sometimes it just picks you up and swirls you around and points you back the way you came, or to exactly the wrong spot; and you can rail against it, and you can decide to get off the bus and walk, or you can recalibrate your expectations and work with what you’ve got. Mostly, you have to do a bit of everything and muddle about and see what happens.

If I had been so dead-set against having American children, maybe I shouldn’t have taken up with a boy whose ambition was to go study in the States after he finished his undergrad degree. But I have no regrets.

Last summer, my seven-year-old signed up for baseball. He ran his little American heart out on our local dusty diamond, and I sat on the bleachers and cheered for him.

Machine-pitch baseball

Brat bán sneachta

Mabel making a snow angel

Apparently every Irish essay I ever wrote in school involved the unlikely scenario of waking up to snow. I know this, because I can still write it.

Ar maidin, dúsigh me go luath mar bhí geal ait ins an seomra. Nuair a d’fhéach mé amach an fuinneog, chonaic me brat bán álainn sneachta ar fud na háite.

[In the morning I woke up early because there was a strange light in the room. When I looked out the window, I saw a beautiful white cloak of snow everywhere.]

(No correcting my Irish, please, from any of you Gaelgóirí. It’s mostly right, and I only looked up one word.)

I know this phenomenon is not limited to me, because the first thing my husband said to me this morning was that he was considering posting “Brat bán sneachta” as his Facebook status.

But I remember so well all the mornings I spent lying in bed trying to divine a geal ait (strange light) in the room, approaching the divide of the curtains slowly, wondering if what I was seeing through the crack was just plain white sky or if it might possibly be a brat álainn sneachta (beautiful cloak of snow) after all.

Almost always, it was not snow. In spite of all my Irish vocabulary had taught me, snowy winter days are not very common in Ireland.

But last night here, around 3am let’s say, when for some unknowable reason (Mabel) I was wandering around our house, the geal ait was completely obvious. Instead of an inky night sky  – Washington DC light pollution allowing – the sky was eerily light, illuminated somehow from within, or maybe as a reflection of the thick layer of white stuff it had already begun to lay down below it. I could see the softly falling flakes quite clearly everywhere without having to find the arc of a streetlight to show them to me.

So, snow day. I think the sled is buried somewhere at the bottom of the garden. Hope we can find it.

Dash making a snowman

Saturday round-’em-up

Mabel missed her nap today, for no obvious reason except that she woke up ten minutes after she went to sleep, and that was that. As a result she was increasingly volatile as the afternoon wore on, and finally caved at 6.25 and is asleep. So I can actually enjoy my dinner and a glass of wine without rushing, except that I’m so used to rushing that I’m not sure I can do it any other way.

Mabel also had her first pony ride this morning, so I suppose we can only blame ourselves when she starts demanding a pony. It was impromptu: we happened to be at a local farm-in-a-park when there were rides going on, so we nabbed one each for the kids. Mabel didn’t even want to be held on her shaggy Shetland – she grabbed the – what’s it called? – the thing on the saddle to hold, not a possum, not a podium… – the thingy like a pro and nonchalantly rocked around the ring. Pommel, that’s it. Here she is, quite unperturbed.

Mabel being led on a very small ponyMonkey leaned over to me as I accompanied him with the camera and whispered, “When is the real ride going to be?” He’s a pro: this was maybe his fourth ever pony ride, and he wanted to be let loose to gallop free across the hills, or something. I explained to him later that riding a horse isn’t as easy as it looks, once you progress from being led on the most docile nags in the county.

Monkey being led on a slightly bigger pony
But it’s fun to think that some day, on some vacation, we’ll all go on a pony trek and I can show off my amazing trotting skills. They’re about on a par with my amazing cartwheeling skills, which I like to bring out on beaches and in secluded parklands, to delight the children and entertain the adults.

Maud doing a cartwheel on a beachHa. You thought I was joking, didn’t you?

Prairie living

I’m not just bad with snow psychologically. I’m bad on a physical, up-close basis too. And apparently it’s genetic.

There were six inches of lovely snow all round our house for two days before I actually let the kids go out and play in it. And they hadn’t exactly been clamouring to go, either. Monkey had some complicated notion about pouring water out of the garden hose onto the snow to make ice, which I wasn’t about to indulge him in, no matter what fascinating science discoveries we could have made from such an experiment. (Just one more reason why homeschooling is not for me.)

For all my self-satisfaction at having procured snow boots for the trip to Ireland, Mabel is actually the only one of us properly kitted out for the snow. And all she wants to do is sit down, take off her (extortionately expensive, Irish) waterproof gloves, and eat the stuff.

Mabel sitting in snow, eating snow

Exhibit A

Mabel has lovely purple snow pants because I picked them up at a yard sale in the summer. There were no snow pants in Monkey’s size at any yard sales, so he doesn’t have them. He does have waterproof gloves, but prefers to keep his hands in his pockets instead of putting them on. Which means he’s not very good at making snowmen (he prefers to direct operations, but my gloves aren’t waterproof), he’s scared to sit on a big plastic platter and slide down our tiny back-yard hill, and when he finally engaged with me in a snowball fight, I had to take us all in after three minutes because I couldn’t bear to look at his red, achy hands for any longer. (He also has appalling dry skin, because having to moisturise your children is not a notion I grew up with. Hand cream was something my mother used, not something kids needed. That’s not the case in this climate, but I’m slow on the uptake.)

Do Canadian and Scandinavian babies instinctively understand that you shouldn’t take your gloves off in the snow? Do Minnesotan preschoolers leap onto sleds and whizz unbidden down slopes at the drop of a snowflake? I suspect correct snow behaviour is learned, not innate; but I never learned it either, so we’ll all have to learn together if we’re to survive in this hard new land that is not of our forefathers.