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How Long Is Too Long?

When you’ve been absent from blogging for as long as I have, it’s really difficult to know where to begin again! I had every intention of sharing all my experiences when I moved back to Northern Ireland in 2017 to help look after my elderly father. But when the going gets tough for me, I clam up.

I received a message just before the holidays via my website; a friend from my teen days, telling me how much he enjoyed reading my blog. So, grateful thanks go to him for convincing me to finally get my butt back to the keyboard. He seemed to particularly like the stories of my experiences while visiting Northern Ireland in the past when Dad was still alive. Dad has always been an eccentric man. His exploits were hysterical and I loved sharing them in my blog.

Things started out not bad at all when I arrived in October 2017. Normally when visiting I’d stay in Dad’s house in Robin Hill, just outside the coastal village of Dundrum, but I knew in order to keep some sanity and sanctuary for when my Graves Disease acted up, I needed to find my own place. Having searched online with PropertyPal.com I found what looked like a charming top floor two-bedroom apartment in Newcastle, a couple of miles away from Dad’s place. I was very lucky. It indeed turned out to be extremely charming, and to my relief, furnished! After I moved in I brought Dad and his dog Cooper up for a visit.

He laughingly called it a ‘hovel’, which was probably a correct impression compared to his lavish, beautiful home in Robin Hill. I don’t suppose he ever understood why I needed to live away from him. Perhaps he felt insulted, although he, a private man himself, of all people should understand a person’s need for their own space. My biggest problem was that even at age 92, Dad rarely sat down for very long. And with my Graves Disease there are times you have no choice but to rest or you’ll end up very ill. Unfortunately, Dad considered illness to be a moral weakness and didn’t understand why I couldn’t just ‘push through’ it.

My mother nicknamed him ‘Hurricane Jim’ after they married because he was always active, flurrying around like an unpredictable storm. Gardening, remodelling, washing cars, walking dogs, repairing and painting … you name it. It was obvious he considered the rest of us lazy good-for-nothings! At his house I got into the habit that any time I heard his footsteps approaching, I’d immediately pretend to be busy. I’d leap to my feet and make it look like I was intent on some task or another. He probably wasn’t fooled at all. When I set up my computer, I made sure to be facing the door so he couldn’t see the screen! It all seems so silly now, but he had a manner about him that made you feel you were ineffectual and slothful.

After I moved into the apartment, we fell into a pleasant routine. I’d come over to Robin Hill mid-morning after doing some work on the computer, just in time to join Dad and Cooper for a walk, invariably in Murlough Nature Reserve, just across the road from Dad’s house. Then I’d make lunch for both of us, and do whatever chores needed doing around the house. At first I stayed every other night in my old bedroom, but once I adopted the two cats, I rarely stayed overnight at Dad’s. I usually made dinner for the both of us, and once I’d cleaned everything up afterwards, I’d either stay and watch television with Dad or head back to Newcastle. Sometimes I’d prepare his dinner and put it in the fridge so he could microwave it later.

It worked very well for a while. But dementia had already begun taking its terrible toll. At this point I wasn’t aware of it; I just thought any changes I noticed were normal signs of aging. I wish I’d been able to recognise the symptoms. But dementia is insidious. It was so gradual I didn’t notice and wasn’t concerned that he no longer took Cooper to any other place to walk, or wanted to go out for lunch anymore. Television programmes ceased to be of interest to him and most of the time he had the BBC news channel on. He spent a lot of time on his computer. One of his hobbies was investing funds. He moved money from account to account, getting the best interest rates, and enjoying playing the stock market. Then it seemed he was always getting locked out of his accounts, mixing up his passwords. If I couldn’t assist, then my brother Ian had to drive the half hour trip from Carryduff.

It didn’t help that Dad’s hearing loss had become extreme. He used ‘bunny ears’ that amplified the television, but it was a constant annoyance to him that the batteries kept running out. He ended up with two amplification sets, so that one could charge while he used the other. Then he constantly mislaid his hearing aids. Several times a day. I learned the most likely places to search ... usually in the bathroom or by his bedside.

The trouble was he had a bit of a temper when it came to inanimate objects, so often the hearing aids were hurled across the room and forgotten out of sight on the floor. Keys on his computer keypad would mysteriously come loose and he tried to stick them back on with Blu-Tack. The bunny ears ended up stuck together with Blu-Tack as well. He used to yell at the top of his voice when he got frustrated. In hindsight I realised I reacted the wrong way. It was his way of asking for help; I was supposed to come running if I heard shouting and clattering. But I reacted the opposite way. I really hated the anger and would stay quiet, waiting for it to blow over.

Later on when I shared this on a dementia carers’ support site, people assured me the anger was just the dementia, but Dad had always had a short fuse. It used to make for hysterically funny tales, like the time he took a pickaxe to a petrol-powered lawnmower that wouldn’t start. Or how at top volume he’d curse a lost sock to hell and back.

I’m going to share some of those hilarious stories as they come to mind. But for today I’ll leave you with this beautiful letter written to a friend by Fra Giovanni on Christmas Eve, 1513 A.D. Even though I’m not religious I have found it to be comforting, something we all need after such a difficult year as 2020.

“Take Joy”

I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not;
but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today.
Take Heaven.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant.
Take Peace.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it yet, within our reach, is joy.
Take Joy.
And so ... I greet you with the prayer that for you,
now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.

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Have you ever eavesdropped and heard a conversation that terrified you?

This question came up on Quora, which I answered. To my amazement it's had over 40,000 views in 20 hours so I thought I'd add it to the blog.

Yes, I was standing in line to go through US Immigration and Customs at Dublin airport, heading out to Newark. The two men immediately behind me spoke to each other in low, intense tones.


“You’re on your own once you get through,” said one. “I’m not helping you after that.”

The other muttered something in response.

“They’d better not search me,” said the first one. “I don’t know what I’ll do if they search me.”

I surreptitiously dropped my boarding pass so I could twist to the side to peer at the men while I bent down to retrieve it. Average-looking in their twenties. Nothing to indicate they belonged to any particular group.

“If they do search me,” continued man number one, “I’ll have to fight them.”

I’d heard enough. Terrified isn’t quite the correct word to describe what I felt, but my pulse raced as adrenaline coursed through me … this was a very suspicious conversation, particularly in an airport.

My turn came to go over to one of the scanning machines. As I slid my passport inside to be scanned I craned my neck to see if I could spot someone from security I could talk to. Even if it turned out to be nothing, how could I just ignore something that had set off every alarm in someone who grew up with terrorism literally in the back garden?

Walking on from the machine, I saw a young man and woman in Irish security uniform, and went straight over to them. Quietly, I explained what I’d heard.

“You’ll have to give me more than that,” replied the man offhandedly. “Did he say he’d be violent?”

I was aware of the two men having completed the scan of their passports and on their way towards us.

“He said he’d fight if he was searched.”

“Not enough. I need more than that.”

How much more did he need? Is fighting not being violent?

The two men were almost upon us. I shook my head at the guard and turned away to go down the stairs to the US TSA security lines. The guards obviously weren’t concerned, but post 9/11, I certainly was. By the guard’s dismissal of my concerns, I ended up feeling like a meddling, attention-seeking loser.

But nothing bad happened. Who knows what the men had been discussing. Out of context it could have been anything.

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Blame it on the Weather

The other day I got to display what a rational, composed human being I have become. (Ahem!) I was driving Dad and the dog over to Murlough to take a walk in the slightly cooler afternoon. We've been having a heatwave in Northern Ireland, and are not used to it at all. It's evident in the short tempers and intolerance people are showing.

The lane up to the gatehouse at Murlough is extremely narrow and one always has to stay around 15 mph to be on the safe side. People who don't want to pay the fee to take the car in, park outside on the road and walk in, and there are always excited dogs and children to keep an eye out for. There's one particular bend in this lane where many times when coming back out of Murlough, a car heading in meets me head on, and if I hadn't been going slowly we would have collided. This was Sunday and the place was more crowded than I've ever seen it. Knowing how easy a collision could be, when I came to that bend I stayed over to the left-hand side, just in case. Sure enough, a blue van was emerging from the gate. But to my shock, two people and their dog were on the lane right in front of me. With nowhere to turn, I braked hard. It wasn't a big deal as I was only doing about 15 mph, but gravel shot up as the car stopped abruptly. They looked pretty shocked too, but disaster had been avoided. Then I noticed the driver of the van. His face appeared to light up with what could only be described as unholy glee. He wagged a finger at me, and wound down his window as he drew alongside. I couldn't hear him, but his mouth was busy spewing something very negative, if the expression on his face was anything to go by.

My window was wound up to let the air conditioning work, but the back ones were cracked a couple of inches to give the dog some airflow. In the split second I had to react, my thoughts careened with, "I wasn't speeding! Who made you the police? Do you work here? Who do you think you are, chastising me?" It all culminated in an almighty, "FUCK OFF!" at the top of my lungs.

Dad looked a little startled. I explained why I was annoyed and he agreed with me. The other driver should have had all the information before he decided to scold. Funny how the little things annoy us, isn't it? The only satisfaction I have is that he must have heard me, with the back windows open. Bet he didn't expect that!

Rational and composed? No.

Blame it on the weather!

  • Current Mood
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This fleeting, floating world

Dad and I got back from our walk with the dog to find a baby bird lying helpless on the ground beside the garage. The wings hadn’t formed yet, and the yellow beak looked huge on the chick’s tiny head. It was still breathing, its little bald body swelling and contracting with each gasping breath.

Dad gently scooped it up in his palm while I brought the step ladder from the garage. Above where we found the bird a hole gaped in the garage eaves, with a few nest twigs visible. Between us we managed to place the tiny creature back in but we could tell the nest wasn’t strong enough to keep him there. Using an old sock and glove salvaged from the garage, Dad tucked them around the side of the nest to temporarily reinforce it. The chick seemed stable so we backed off, taking the step ladder with us. Not long after, from the window I witnessed an adult bird near the nest with a worm in its beak. I felt so good to think we had rescued her baby, but it was short lived.

After I went out to do some shopping, Dad decided to cut back some errant fronds of ivy from the side of the house. When he came out he found that three chicks had fallen from the nest. The sock and glove were still in place in the nest so we don’t know what happened. This time they were too injured to be rescued and Dad was forced to end their suffering. The adult bird never returned and when I came back we buried the wee mites in a shady corner of the garden. It was heartbreaking.

Another reminder of how fragile life is. I’m not saying live today as though you might fall to the hard ground tomorrow … but perhaps too much time is spent ruing yesterday and anticipating tomorrow. It’s the here and now that’s important ... the Buddhist interpretation of Ukiyo, the floating world.
  • Current Mood
    pensive pensive
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Incorrigible

The eccentric father I mentioned in my last post is as incorrigible as ever. I just got back from walking the dog with him, and he was in fine form. As we pulled out of the driveway he said, “There’s a body buried under that garden, and he’s having a piddle.”

I did a double take and followed his gaze to see a pathetic trickle of a spray in the neighbour’s yard, watering a minute stump of a newly planted tree. Laughing, I told him he had quite the imagination. I guess I now know where I got my writer’s brain from!

During the walk he pointed to the side of the pathway we were on and announced, “There’s mushrooms over there.”

He knows I like to pick any edible ones we find so happily I lunged forward to claim them. And found myself looking at some lumps of dried horse dung that had turned white. Dad chortled, delighted I’d fallen for it.

He’s always had a sharp and witty sense of humour. Sometimes too sharp. But that’s another story … ;-)

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Answers to prayer, and other things ...

Okay, I’ve faffed around enough. Been in Northern Ireland for six months now and haven’t written very much at all. I have, however, become most adept in the art of procrastination. But no longer! Today I am opening the door to creativity, beginning with this blog. I find that it really helps focus the mind, and if nothing else, is writing. Jay Lake, who wrote his blog faithfully every single morning, used to nag me to do the same. I’ve admitted many times in the past that I’m a dreadful blogger. The problem lies in that by the time I get around to writing it, so much has happened it would take a novel to share it all. I’m going to try and change that. If I write even a paragraph every day or so, maybe I can keep it up.

It’s a shame that I haven’t been doing so. It’s been quite a year with a lot happening. The condensed version is: I moved back here last October to take care of my elderly (and eccentric!) father. Not that he really needs a lot of care at the moment. He’s almost 93 and still drives, still takes his dog out for walks daily, still works in the garden, and prepares his own meals when I’m not there. Good genes, he claims. I can only hope to have inherited them!

I got an instant family in December by adopting two black male kittens. Both were very ill when they got here but with lots of love and special care they are now both in great shape. They are quite the characters, always up to some sort of mischief. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m so lucky that my brothers and their families are here (and in Scotland). A childhood friend and I got reacquainted thanks to Facebook, and she has been wonderful, including me in her circle of friends so I’ve been having a blast going out on many girls’ nights! Another childhood friend and I met in November for the first time since 1979, and I’m looking forward to getting to know her all over again. I’ve also been fortunate to have met some new amazing friends, amongst whom is the artist behind the cover of A Song of Bullets, one who is a very gifted local poet, and the other a fellow returned native. Making new friends is apparently something that’s supposed to become more difficult the older you get, so I am very grateful.

Work wise, I continued to translate my Great-Uncle Ernest Blythe’s (Earnán de Blaghd) three-book memoirs from Irish into English. Having learned no Irish at all growing up, this was quite the undertaking. I have loved every challenging moment of it. It was like being read a bedtime story, not knowing what was coming next. Just before Christmas I finished the first book of the series. But then progress became horribly congested. Although I was proud of myself for completing it, I knew it was nowhere nearly good enough for a literal translation. So I decided to adapt the memoirs into a biography, but still didn’t feel I was doing his words justice. I’m sure this has had a lot to do with why I haven’t been writing. When A Song of Bullets was published in 2016, I made a promise to myself that I’d finish my great-uncle’s work before I began another book of my own. But I trapped myself between the proverbial rock and hard place. I couldn’t write anything until I’d finished the memoirs, and I couldn’t finish the memoirs because I felt creatively stymied.

Then a remarkable thing happened. Out of the blue Dad got a phone call from a man with a beautiful Irish accent, Clive Geraghty, who wanted to talk to him about Uncle Ernest. As Dad is hard of hearing I returned the call. Mr. Geraghty is an extremely talented, well-known Irish actor, playwright, and published author. (I’ll let his webpage and biography speak for him!) He apparently got his start as an actor many years ago at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin when my great-uncle was a director. He has started translating the books himself, and writing a thesis on him. Hearing his enthusiasm for Ernest and learning that he spoke fluent Irish, I felt like Clive was an answer to prayer. We met shortly after in Dundalk, just south of the border and agreed to collaborate on the memoirs. Clive will translate and I will edit. There are plans afoot about publishing it, but I will wait until we have something concrete to share. At the moment it is a labour of love, and we’ll just see where it goes. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this. Clive just finished one of the books already and I got to read it exactly as Uncle Ernest wrote it. It’s so awesome, in the proper sense of the word. I can hardly wait to read what happens next!

So, that brings you up pretty much to date with me. I will have lots more to share, and hopefully be able to tell you about my new book. Not sure what it’s going to be, just yet. I’m fiddling with a couple of ideas. Very exciting, starting out once again with a totally blank page/screen!

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Travelling in a Strange Land

On Friday I made my first exploratory expedition in the literary world here in Northern Ireland, by attending David Park's book launch of Travelling in a Strange Land, hosted by No Alibis Bookstore in the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast. I was curious to see if things were done any differently to the States, and was happy to find out they are very similar.

David made this launch an extra-special event by opening with guest singer/songwriter Mandy Bingham, whose beautiful haunting voice perfectly suited the introspective mood of his new book. He also invited photographer Sonya Whitefield, who had put together a collection of photos of her impressions of David's novel to share some of them while he read accompanying excerpts from the book.

Before David gave a reading he talked briefly about its creation, and his life. Then he read the opening of the novel and the first few pages. Beautifully crafted, and wonderful to hear in the author's own voice. I look forward to reading it, and thought it was very creative to have the music and photography included in the presentation.

A most enjoyable evening, and my good friend June Wilson came with me. Our friendship began back in Primary School in Belfast when we were 5 years old.
It is a strange and wonderful thing to be back here again. Travelling in a Strange Land, one might say. For now, anyway, while it's still new!






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There and Back Again

I recently had a good whine on Facebook about three 'endings' that have just happened in my life. The last of a group of friends in my neighborhood has moved out. About five of us used to hang out and get into the fun kind of trouble, particularly at the July 4th holiday and the annual Robin Hood Festival here in Sherwood.  And then my baby grand piano has a crack in the harp, so can’t be tuned. It gradually slides into tonal disarray, and eventually will have to go. That hurts! It took me years to get the point in my playing where I could justify having a baby grand, an item that had firmly been on my bucket list for decades. And my faithful 1999 Chevrolet Cavalier, nicknamed the Romulan Warbird, was  rear-ended a few weeks ago and is about to be collected by the insurance company for scrap.

People were so kind, rallying to offer me comfort and support. But I feel like a fraud! I can still visit my friends, I own an upright piano, and I can get another car if I want! You’d think I never had any real problems and these three things were overpowering me. In the past few years the kind of challenges I’ve faced are the death of a few loved ones, including my mother. I was ill for several years, declining horribly until I was finally diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, easily controlled. I’ve immigrated across the world, facing all the challenges that involves. And I’ve dickered with different life options, trying out new countries and careers, and come out of them much more grounded and appreciative of how blessed my life is.

The big picture with the lament is that I’m getting ready to return once more to Northern Ireland to help out my elderly father, but this time will be semi-permanent. I don't know when I'll be back ... I’m taking an apartment close to Dad’s place, and I booked a one-way ticket with my air miles. It’s a new adventure and I’m looking forward to it. How many immigrants get the chance to return home, be close to their families and friends again? In ye olde days, once the ship had sailed and the covered wagon rumbled off on the trail, that was it.

So, the timing on the neighborhood, the piano, and the car are actually perfectly aligned. A natural closure on three of the things I’d miss if I left.

The people are another matter. I will miss them. Fortunately, flight prices are reasonable, and I will continue to come and go as I have, just less frequently. Thank goodness for Facebook and Skype!

"We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive
where we started and know the place for the first time."  -- T.S. Eliot






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Alien: Covenant

About a week ago I went to see Alien Covenant. A town a few miles away from Dundrum had sprouted a multi-screen cinema at some point, but I’d never noticed! It’s tucked out of sight down a hill, where even the signs are blocked by foliage, so unless I’d picked up their flyer like I did in the local shop, I’d still be totally unaware they were there. I remember a time when you had to wait almost a year to see new films after they came out in the States, and drive about 35 miles each way to Belfast!

So, the movie began and within a couple of minutes I had the sinking feeling that I’d seen it before. It turned out I hadn’t, fortunately. I was remembering the previous one, Prometheus, which I’d obviously found so unremarkable I’d totally forgotten it.

To my surprise, I was highly entertained by Covenant, expecting it to be ‘naff’ as they say over here. Admittedly, I laughed in a few places where it was supposed to be serious, and had a couple of moments where if I’d been at home in front of the television I’d have yelled, “What??? Highly trained team of scientists and experienced soldiers trek out onto a new world WITHOUT FILTERS OR MASKS OF ANY KIND????” Or “Don’t be stupid, only a moron would go in there!!!!” You know the kind of thing.

The special effects were great. With VFX technology as advanced as it is today, the aliens looked terrifyingly real. And ugly. And very, very nasty.

Throughout there were a few homages to the first Alien movie from 1979. One in particular, the entire audience chuckled and made eye contact with people sitting nearby.

It took me a while to realize the first scene was a prologue of sorts, but it made sense later on. The token sex scene was well … token. And rather silly. Just a device for something else, but I won’t spoil the plot for you. David the synthetic human, (á la Ash from the original) was quite hypnotizing in his role. A wee bit of eye candy too, which is always welcome.

All in all, I’d recommend going to see it while it’s still in cinemas. A good romp of a story with a nice dash of horror throughout.
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A rude by any other name

I drove over to Ballynahinch today to meet my cousin for lunch. In the public car park, I parked in a space beside a stationary 4x4 Suzuki Grand Vitara, pulled on my hand brake and switched off the engine. The 4x4 driver mustn’t have checked her surroundings and swung round hard on her steering wheel, hitting my car as she reversed out. She scraped, dented, and scrunched into my driver’s side so I had to clamber over the gear stick and out my passenger door. She was hostile and rude as she approached me. Out of courtesy I asked her if she was okay.

"No," she snapped. "I'm not. Give me your insurance information!" I leaned into my passenger side to open my handbag to look for it, and asked politely for hers. "I don't have it," she snapped again.

I found a pen but could only find a bookmark for one of my novels. I didn't want to give that to her so I asked if she had a piece of paper we could use. "No," was the answer in her now customary rude tone.

I searched again, and when I couldn't find anything I asked her one more time, careful to be polite, of course. When she answered negatively again, I said, "Then, we're in a bit of a pickle, aren't we?"

She grunted and I rummaged in my car door pocket, produced a CD case, removed the cardboard cover and tore a strip to write on. My hands were shaking from nerves so the writing looked feathery and jagged.

As I handed it to her I asked, "Did you not see me?"

She blustered. "Did you not see me? Why didn't you see me?"

I looked her in the eye and stated, "You were stationary when I pulled in."

"I wasn't ... " Then she scurried to her car, got in and began to reverse.

I quickly got my phone and started taking photos because I thought she was going to drive off. She pulled into an adjacent space and got back out. I asked her for her contact details, and she barked them at me as I scribbled them down. She snatched my pen from me and made a big deal of copying down my car licence plate, then thrust the pen back at me.

"Thank you," I said. "Take care."

"Sorry about this," she growled as she got back into her car, then drove off.

I put coins in the ticket machine, affixed it to my windshield, locked up the car and headed to the restaurant to meet Clare.

Accidents happen, I know. That's why we have insurance. So, was it necessary for her to be so rude? The more polite I was the more angry it made her!

In the restaurant, poor Clare had to wait while I called the police and made a report, then my insurance company. It took over half an hour before we could settle and catch up. And it was a lovely time, as always. She's a sweetheart.

As soon as I got home I returned the calls that the insurance company had made to me. I am totally blown away by how accommodating and helpful and sympathetic they were. They assured me it was obvious I wasn't at fault, and have already arranged for a man from an approved car repair shop to come and collect my car tomorrow, and deliver a courtesy car for me to use while it's being fixed. This will all be billed to Mrs. Rude's insurance company. I have to say I highly recommend Hughes Insurance, Northern Ireland. They have been amazing to me today.