Haven for the Head-Wrecked

Life can be a battle
Life can be a battle

I’ve become particularly aware in the last while that many of the people I am in contact with in my everyday life both physically or virtually (through twitter or email) are struggling in some way and putting a brave face on it. They are feeling confused, vulnerable, lonely, disheartened, unsure or scared and they are mad and fed up at themselves for feeling like this, for not being able to just get on with things and ‘be normal’. They can sense a stronger, more able person on the inside, a person who can ‘do so much more than this’, a Yes person who wants to embrace every opportunity instead of feeling overwhelmed and losing impetus. I understand these feelings, because I’ve been there at various times in my life, where stresses sent me spiralling, grief left me paralysed and self-doubt knocked me into a deep hole where I all I wanted was someone to throw me some kind of rope I could hold onto. At this time of the year I worry that the long dark nights and short grey days will take hold of me and drag me into a perpetual lethargy that will only lift in Spring.

People have real problems, difficulties at work, at home, with their children, finding balance in their lives. There are real tragedies, losses and readjustments. There are some days that are just plain bad. In these circumstances sometimes all we can do is wait for the passing of time, perhaps just a moment where we take a deep breath, half an hour where we do the things we burn to do always, a day, a week, a month, a year to move away from the pain that holds us by the lungs and squeezes.

There are some things that help:

  • Breaking our negative thought patterns:newmoodtherapy

We reinforce many of the negative feelings we have about ourselves and our circumstances through our negative thinking patterns. Pychological studies have shown that depression can be alieviated hugely by using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy either alone or in conjunction with medication. Thinking habits build up over a lifetime but we can work on them and practice substituting more realistic, helpful and positive thoughts. We can use techniques to control our anger and stop procrastination.

Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns is a wonderful book with excellent exercises for breaking mood cycles and destructive types of thinking.

  • Head space
    Create head space by doing what you love
    Create head space by doing what you love

Doing something we love or indulging in our happinesses. On her website Winslow Eliot gathers examples of these ‘daily happinesses’ and on her site Barbara Scully helps us find serenity. It is often difficult to see where we can find time to recuperate, dream, kick back or create but very small changes can make huge differences. I found this recently when I decided to get up at 6 each morning to do some writing, despite having four kids and an almost 2 yr old who wakes in the night. I found that I actually gained energy from the satisfaction of having done something I loved.

  • Connecting

My involvement in the parent-to-parent support group Cuidiu since my first child (now almost nine) was born got me through the hair-raising and hair pulling out first years of the culture shock of children. Similarly my writing connections through twitter and writing courses have shown me that my writing struggles are shared with many others.

  • Keeping going, however slowly, you are doing well

A step is a step is a step, it’s still progression, and even if you step back, you still learned something from going forward to begin with. Congratulate yourself for your effort.

  • Let it out, communicate and express yourself
    Let others know how you feel
    Let others know how you feel

Tell someone, or talk to others with similar difficulties. You will be surprised at how others feel just the same. Many of the struggles a writer deals with on a personal level may find expression through stories or in journals. In what I called the Book of Joy,  I worked through a troubling period in my life, coming to the realisation that life is two sides of a sphere, dark and light.  We can  see joy more clearly  in relation to loss or grief. This is the theme of my poem ‘If we thought that love was gone.’

j0385413Who cares? Plenty.

I write my stories because I want to touch people, to connect with them, to make something resonate within them, to give them words for the feelings they experience throughout their lives. I want to establish a well of common humanity which we can all share, so that we can understand what makes us similar, what can give us empathy for each other. Through my relationships with people in daily and virtual life, at the school gate, in Cuidiu, with relative strangers on Twitter, long standing but unseen friends over email and phone I know that I’m not the only mixed up crazy kid on the block. And I want you to be sure that there are a whole lot of lovely people out there, who not only care and feel, but care and feel for You. I’m one of them and there are plenty more. Here is where it begins and ends, I’m throwing a rope  into the universe to you all, hoping you will catch it and hold on.

Of Semi-Colons and Sandwiches

penguindictionaryAs a writer, once you get your bum on the seat, it is all too tempting to concentrate on the story, the creativity, the word count, the dreamlike moment when you go up to claim your award……Anything, anything but grammar. ‘Don’t they have a thing on Word for that?’ I am aghast, you charlatan! Not really. But you need to know enough to know whether you should ignore the grammar tool on Word and whether you know enough to turn off the bad grammar indicator all together. So this time, in the run up to more things pedagogical, I thought I would give you (and myself) a short punctuation lesson on semi-colons from the wonderful Penguin Guide to Punctuation.

It begins:  The semi-colon (;) has only one major use. It is used to join two complete sentences into a single written sentence when all of the following conditions are met:

  1. The two sentences are too closely related to be separated by a full stop;
  2. There are no connecting words which would require a comma, such as and or but;
  3. The special conditions requiring a colon are absent.

(The colon is most correctly and often used when a general statement is followed by an explanatory phrase which gives specifics. For example: Africa is facing a terrifying problem: perpetual drought.)

The semi colon, they go on to explain, must be preceded and followed by a complete sentence. The following example shows an incorrect use:

We’ve had streams of books on chaos theory; no fewer than twelve since 1988.

The use here is incorrect since the second phrase is not a complete sentence.

A correct usage (if not PC?) would be:

Women’s conversation is co-operative; men’s is competitive.

If you used the joining word, while before men’s you can use a comma instead of a  semi-colon

However (to tax your brain just a tad more), certain joining words such as however, therefore, consequently, nevertheless and meanwhile require a preceding semi-colon.

(Read all of the above three times and it will become magically clear).

The most famous correct example of the use of a semi-colon is:

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Healthy Lunch Box

And that brings me nicely onto sandwiches. Semi-colons can be used to sandwich sentences together. But it’s far from those kinds of sandwiches the writing mother of schoolkids will be shortly. It is the best of times and the worst of times. The kids will soon be back at school and occupied but the amount of preparation and organisation that goes into getting the kids back to school is mind-boggling, literally. Books, uniforms, bags, lunches, labels, fees, it goes on and on. This year, my third child is starting school (1 left) so the preparation time is increasing exponentially. On Sunday night there will be sandwich making and of course now there is the ham controversy.

We have been informed that pre-packed convenience ham is in no way suitable for the tender digestive systems of our little cherubs. That’s why this Sunday I will be carefully preparing a boiled ham, from which I can cut juicy, nutritious slices to sustain the bodies and brains of my angelic, diligent children as they hang on every word their teacher utters.

(That reminds me, where I grew up, it was known as a hang sanwitch and was accompanied by a bottle of black tea wrapped in a tea cloth as the turf was cut, spread and footed back in the hazy August days when heat rose off the bog and when we came home we had to examine ourselves to see if we had succumbed to the blood sucking fangs of the sciathorn (tick). If anyone knows the correct spelling of that Irish word, let me know. It’s amazing how many of the commonly used phrases and words in the country do not exist in any dictionary or in an internet entry. Fedgeock is another one (clumps of a thick, dead sedge) or perhaps it’s my spelling.)

I digress. Ham is also, of course, ‘an inexpert if showy performance’. The phrase is admittedly used more for actors than writers. It could be applied to the kind of self-conscious writing we all begin with, the overwriting, the showy phrase we’re in love with but that adds nothing to the story. In the past year, but particularly over the last few months, I have been writing one short story after another. One of the things that I have realised is that we are never too far from cliché, and there are no new stories to tell. The secret is in using the right words that may have several nuances, all of which can enhance or illuminate the story, in using the right sounds and rhythms that reflect the pace of the piece, the mood of the character, in using objects and scenery to define characters rather than just being a backdrop.  If we do all this then we give the stories layers (like a sandwich) and these layers make the story meaningful and give it greater resonance with the reader. It is no longer just a universal story, it is a specific story with vibrant characters about whom the reader now truly cares.

So remember: Make sandwiches with the content of your stories;  the best sandwiches leave out the processed ham.

Head space at dawn

Last night the baby woke again.  His Dad, who deserves a shelf of parenting accolades, got up yet again.  But if I don’t keep my eyes absolutely shut and resist the urge to turn over I start to wake up and if its almost midsummer and the bloody birds, bless them, think that the faint light of three forty five means its morning and they are going to sing their hearts out telling me that, then the wires connect and there you go, the brain’s awake and spinning. 

Hubby comes back to bed and to the sound of his gentle snoring, I think of a fabulous (ideas are either horrifying or fabulous at that time of the morning) idea for a new website for creative parents. I think of several new ideas for blogging and find two lines of a short story I am writing sitting on the kitchen table of my mind with a mug of coffee beside them.  I compose a e-letter to a friend and work out the logistics of pick ups and drop offs and the events of the forthcoming day.

How productive am I. It is 4am on a Monday morning of a very busy week.  The kids are all asleep, I am alone in my head for once and so I find there is plenty of space there after all.

Creative Writing Exercise

You arrive at the supermarket and bump into an old friend. What does she look like now? What was your relationship with her? How do you feel when you see her? How do you want to present yourself to her. Is there something in particular you really don’t want her to know?

She invites you and your husband to dinner. Do you go? If so, what happens. What happens if your secret slips out in conversation, are there consequences? Write up to 500 words just to see where it takes you.

Pay Attention


Back to ‘normality’ after the school holidays, time has evaporated once more, appointments and deadlines beckon, meals, uniforms, homework, housework, nappies, snacks and pickups fill the space. Four clamouring voices make me addled and the temptation is to fob the children off in favour of getting things done. However I have found, when I remember to do it, that the more focussed the attention I give the kids, the calmer they and the household become. By focussed attention I mean, really listening when they are trying to communicate, getting down on their level, stepping outside of the situation and seeing what is really going on (tiredness, hunger, overwhelm, boredom) rather than issuing them with vague commands to sort it out or stop wingeing. Distract, disarm, tickle them into submission or give them a few minutes each of special time more about those in another post). Help them to focus themselves, to engage in an activity, to rest, to help with the dinner (something very basic please!).


It pays to pay attention to your relationships. My husband and I recently celebrated our wedding anniversary. We enjoyed a night out, just the two of us at the Porterhouse in Bray. It was a Saturday night and ridiculously I couldn’t get over how busy it was, how many people were actually out. (Life continues even when we’re not there? How did I not realise that?)  We sat across from each other, chatted without interruption, enjoyed the music and the atmosphere, drank cocktails (our attempt at decadency) and ate great food. I have to tell you how much I enjoyed a giant Yorkshire pudding filled with bangers and mash and lathered in onion gravy. We dreamed of going to the nightclub but couldn’t stretch the circumstances that far. (Will have to remember the nightclub still exists when all the children are old enough for a sleepover. – Do they still call it a nightclub?)


Normally we wave vaguely and occasionally at each other through a mental and physical fog, meeting for the odd hour on the sofa, during a house programme or in the hallway between the kids bedrooms. Much more rarely do we have time to pay attention to each other. We sometimes remember to hold hands, to kiss each other instead of only the kids, to sigh or smile simultaneously at the end of a favourite film, to meet each other’s eye for that extra split second across the dinner table, to say how are you or well done or sorry or I care about you even if it doesn’t look like it and I’ve hardly spoken to you all day. To say, you mean something, you’re important.


Finally (and it usually is finally), yourself. The wonderful aspect of being a hard pressed bamboozled parent is how much you appreciate even the small pleasures that others take for granted. Some of my favourites are going to the bathroom by myself, managing to drink an entire cup of tea while its hot without being interrupted, five hours sleep in a row, a lie in until quarter to eight, walking down the road without pushing a buggy or cajoling a preschooler, having a whole HOUR to read a book or magazine, watch a programme, write a blog entry. Glorious bounties! These are the ways we need to pay attention to ourselves. These are things we absolutely need in order to soldier on in the boot camp of parenting.

Writing Endeavours

Since the children were born, I have been picking away at creative writing, finishing one (quite woeful) novel and still progressing another, with a third whirring away in my head (busy writing itself I hope!). In the last couple of years I have revved up a little and wisely turned my attention to short stories. I have been previously published in the Ireland’s Own but my current claim to fame is having one of my short essays The Flask published in the anthology Sunday Miscellany – A Selection from 2006-2008 – out now in all good bookstores!


Sunday Miscellany goes out on RTE Radio 1 on Sunday mornings. My essay the Flask and another one entitled Buntyland were broadcast in my own voice in May of 2007 when I was expecting baby number four. (Click Podcasts on Sunday Miscellany: April 2007, May 2007.) (Check back to this post will update exact dates shortly.)


This year I tried my hand at the RTE Radio 1 Frances Mac Manus short story competition with an amusing story The Plumber’s Uncle. The shortlist has just been announced and sadly I’m not lucky/literary enough to be included (however I console myself that there were over 700 entries.) Some excellent advice (I can’t remember who said it though!) I read over the last while was that a writer should have their work circulating continuously, so I keep trying, entering competitions and submitting to magazines. I’ll let you know from time to time how it’s going.


For details of the shortlist see: Frances Mac Manus Award

These stories will be broadcast throughout the year on RTE.


Now is all there is

Hello.  Today you can just see the top of my head over the waves. Recently I edited a newsletter for parents on Mindfulness and Wellbeing. We wanted to explore how parents in the maelstrom (or sea, to keep to the blog’s theme) of raising children could possibly find the space in time or within themselves to re-energise and take stock of their circumstances. As a writer (I was going to say would-be writer, but here I am)  and mother of four young children, aged between 8 and 18 months I want to share with you whether or not it is possible to get your ‘Head above Water’ and find that moment of what Buddist’s call concentrated awareness, the now that has depth,  slows time and gives it greater quality.

My baby gives his absolute attention to the texture of a pebbledash wall. I feed off his fascination. As a writer I need to pay attention, to notice. As a full time mother I am prey to the constant demands of requests and chores, the hands on care of small bodies and the fuelling of expansive minds.  I cannot find a quiet place in my head or imagination. Friends in the parent support group (Cuidiu) in the early days of total immersion caring for a newborn alongside their other young children have experienced it as a kind of drowning.

Today all four children were at home on their school holidays. Two had very bad colds, the four year old in particular was constantly in crises and tears from sheer exhaustion. The two older boys were in a hyperactive frenzy usually directed towards each other.  While I checked my email this morning I distracted the baby with my paper clip container, while writing this tonight I have been treated to the sound of my eight year old whistling and have answered several calls for assistance. Is there still an identifiable train to my thoughts? You decide.

There are many reasons these days why people’s head are ‘wrecked’. It’s the fashion to be on the go, to be getting somewhere. To squeeze the last out of the analogy, sometimes we are wasting our energy swimming against the tide. (Groan, okay, I’ll be more inventive next time). In this blog I’ll be looking at how we can get our heads above water and maybe even spend sometime sunning ourselves on a some well-placed rock in a more gently flowing river.  And then I might even talk about writing as well.