Thursday, November 17, 2011

A little post about a big park

It is 91 days since my last blog post, the longest gap so far. Since I last posted I have rented out my house, wound up my business, sold my car, packed up, sold, stored, gave away and shipped my stuff and been through the complexities and uncertainty of US immigration. I’ve bid goodbye to my family, my friends, moved into a new home, started a new job. Oh, and I wrote and edited the final draft of my new novel.

The point of this list is not to line up my excuses for your approval – although they are good excuses, goddammit – but instead to frame what I want to post today. You see even though I have ragged notes and folders on my computer about how the last 91 days have felt – leaving, arriving, leaving, arriving and everything in between – these reflections are not a blog post yet. I am still too much in the eye of the emigration tornado to write about it, the whole subject too big to fit into paragraphs, sentences, words. So instead I want to write about something smaller. I want to write about Central Park.

I am living nine blocks from Central Park, in the same apartment where I stayed this summer. Between June and September I only managed one trip there: a sunny Sunday that involved a near capsizing on the lake and a botched attempt to go to the Boathouse where there was an angry protest and a giant blow up rat outside.

In my last 20 days here, I have been to Central Park five times. Three of these have been in the last six days. Because six days ago, I remembered running.

If you’ll bear with me I’ll digress, for a minute, from the park. At home – in Dublin – I run all the time. I am a regular early morning fixture along the seafront between Teddy’s in Sandycove and Bullock Harbour. No matter how hard it is to drag myself out of bed to go running, I have never wished I hadn’t made the effort, never been convinced my day would have been better with an extra hour’s sleep instead. Two years ago when an operation knocked me off my feet for a couple of months, running was what I craved. Above my desk I have a photo of Haruki Murakami in his running shorts as a reminder of one of my favourite books.

So it’s pretty obvious, I love to run. But sometimes when I’m somewhere new, somewhere different, I forget obvious things and it takes me a while to remember.

Last Friday, I remembered.

Friday was a holiday here, Veterans Day. At half eight in the morning, Ninth Avenue was emptier than usual, quiet, by New York standards. I raced across avenues and up blocks until I got to the corner of Eighth and 55th where the lights caught me. By the time I reached the entrance to the park on 59th, I had run for ten minutes. I was out of breath already, unsure of which path to take and a little afraid of getting lost.

My feet took me the way they wanted, the way some part of me seemed to know or remember. Down the path covered with a carpet of yellow leaves that blew first one way, then the other, tumbling, co-ordinated in the wind. I ran past trees, still damaged from the October storm, past bathrooms, a playground. I took a right under a bridge that I’m sure I’ve seen in a film, or an episode of Law & Order – hopefully it wasn’t where a body was found. I ran past a man playing a saxophone, turned left and ran uphill, towards the Dairy, my legs and breath co-operating despite the lapse of time since they’d last done this.

I could take you on every step of my run; down towards the lake and the Bethesda Fountain, past the woman singing a Four Non Blondes song to no-one, a man taking a photo of his dog. I could take you right around the park and back again but instead I want to take you to the end.

One of my favourite things about running is the end, so much so that I sometimes suspect that ‘having run’ is what I love, more than the actual act of running itself. Once the end is in sight I can push my body harder for that last stretch, pump the last dregs of energy and power into my limbs in a way I never could sustain if I knew the distance stretched out and out ahead. At home my trigger for the last spurt is when Teddy’s comes into view. Last Friday I found myself doing the same thing, pounding back towards the gate I’d come in forty minutes earlier, running faster than I’d run all morning.

At home, at the end of my run, I know what to do. I get my water from the car, check my time, warm down and sit on the wall looking out at the sea, breathing it in. On the corner of 59th and Eighth, my next move wasn’t so clear. Across the road was Columbus Circle, the statue of Columbus himself, fountains arranged around him. Waiting at the light I got my breath back and noticed that someone had added two life-size metal elephants since I’d last been there.

I crossed over, sat down on a bench, pulled my legs up to sit the way I always do. I closed my eyes, could hear the water. I peeked out to see the shape the jets made, closed my eyes again. All around me, New York City was churning, like the leaves caught in the fountain’s spray. Outside me there were sirens, traffic, horns, water falling, leaves blowing, voices calling.

Inside I saw the line of horizon at the edge of the sea, dawn unfolding, peeling back layers of colour in the sky. I kept my eyes closed and saw the lake I’d just run past, the palette of trees reflecting in the water. I sat there, kept breathing, Sandycove, Central Park, a slideshow in my head, appearing, disappearing, taking turns, sometimes blending together.

And when I opened my eyes again, New York was still there, had never gone away. I walked up to the elephant, leaned on it to do my stretches, the way I always do my stretches, waited for the light to change and jogged home.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Downdogs and downpours...

The title of this blog post came to me earlier this evening, as I stood on my yoga mat in Bryant Park and raised my arms and my gaze to a rectangle of cloud overhead. I know I should have been staying present, but it was hard to do when the clap of thunder from somewhere behind us sounded like a skyscraper falling and the raindrop I felt on my skin become raindrops, became rain.

The teacher gave instructions louder, then faster. She held her microphone close to her mouth. Down dog, warrior one, warrior two, side angle. As our mats got wetter, we slid through the poses. People ran to shelter as she implored them to stay, calling after their departing backs if they remembered what it was like to play in the rain. Tree pose was to be our final asana before being officially rained off. Left side first, then right, we swayed in the rain. And just as we were about to pack our bags, the sun came out and we started all over again.

That was my second yoga class this week. The first was a birthday bash for Anusara yoga, which was fourteen years old at the weekend. Anusara is the type of yoga I mainly practise now and it’s hard to explain what’s so special about it. There’s lots of different parts to it and one of the elements I like best is the focus on synchronicities, the connectedness of life, something they call “stepping into the flow of grace”. That makes it sound really gentle – namby pamby yoga – but it’s anything but and on the way to this class taught by two of Anusara’s leading teachers I was as intimidated as I was excited. Handstand awaited, I was sure of it. The splits. Crow pose into tripod headstand and back out again.

By the time I got to my mat I’d concocted the yoga sequence from hell, was planning my escape route to the bathroom when things got too tough. But things never got too tough. Instead, the ninety minutes felt like nine, as they took it in turns to guide us through poses that were grounding, gentle, challenging, fun. Gratitude, abundance, joy, those were the themes and the feelings too. I thought of my yoga teachers back home, how much I owe them, how I wished they were there, how in a way, they were.

Leaving the studio with a smile on my face and an ache in my hips I got talking to one girl visiting from Paris, a girl who heard my accent and asked if I knew a yogi in Ireland who stayed with her earlier in the year. A yogi in Ireland who was one of the two teachers I’d just been feeling such gratitude for.

The funny thing was I shouldn’t even have been at that class, wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t missed the workshop I was supposed to attend the day before. I missed it because of the rain, a Sunday downpour that lasted all day. I know how ridiculous this sounds. I am Irish, after all. I know rain. But I didn’t know New York rain, rain that falls so heavily and so suddenly that rivers flow at the corner of each block, ankle deep, shin deep, rivers that become impossibly wide to jump so the only option is to put your already soaking runner into the middle of the water. I didn’t know the kind of rain that causes subways to detour, traffic to drive in diagonal lines and park across pedestrian crossings in a way that can actually make it incomprehensibly impossible to cross a road.

Like everything else it does, New York does rain to extremes and the day before I’d found myself cursing the city as I saw it rear its ugly head and it bothered me, that feeling, that I could hate the city I loved so much. But as I said goodbye to my new Parisian friend I smiled because I’d forgiven New York already. And swinging my unopened umbrella I realised I loved the city again, more than ever and that maybe, sometimes stepping into the flow of grace, means getting your feet wet.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hot in the city

It is hot in New York.

Since yesterday, it has been hot. Last night, in Times Square, my ice cream ran before I could eat it, lines of vanilla and chocolate sprinkles sticky on the paper. Neon lights were off, electrical fuses blown from over worked air conditioners. The sun was long down, but the heat stayed.

It is hot in New York.

It escapes from everywhere, this heat, from every brick, every slab of sidewalk, the metal carts on every corner. Occasionally, there is heat on top of heat. A gust of wind at the corner of 52nd like a giant hairdryer, the mistake of walking over a subway vent in the street. This morning at the flower garden the gate wouldn’t close, the heat had inhabited the metal and someone shouted in a panic to leave it open, leave it open.

It is hot in New York.

I walk four blocks and stop for water twice, more expensive today, than last week. When I say this to the vendor, he gets defensive, uptight. Tells me how the price of ice is increasing, ten dollars, he says he pays for ice now. He takes me around the side of the newsstand, to see it, this expensive ice in blue and white bins. He waves his hands.

It is hot in New York.

Walking along 47th street my feet slide in flip flops. There is a Starbucks on every corner and every one is full, people sitting on the floor, their backs to the window, showing patches of their sweat. The one I am in is out of venti cups for iced drinks. There is a calm in the coolness. I get a seat, a coveted spot, only it is a trick, this window spot the sun finds. My finger sticks on the mouse pad.
People talk about the heat in a way that we talk about the weather at home. There are photos posted on Facebook of iPhones displaying temperatures of 102 and 111 and 108. I find this comforting, to know it is worth taking note of, this heat, to know it won’t always be like this.

In the post office, I meet a woman from England. She has lived here for many summers. She says it is early in the summer to be like this.

August, she says, now, August is hot in New York.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dalkey Book Festival

Very late post just to say if anyone’s at the Dalkey Book Festival tomorrow I’m reading in New to You at 2pm.

Topic is how growing up in Dalkey influenced my writing so sitting here selecting which of the many scenes set by the sea that I might read from The Other Boy and What Might Have Been Me.

Excited though I am about the reading, the excitement has just been topped as I just found out there is a drawing of me on the ‘writers’ wall’ in Harold Boy’s national school!

Hopefully not a student out for vengeance a year after last year’s colouring competition in Eurospar...

Friday, June 3, 2011

Happy Birthday Listowel!

This week marks the 40th anniversary of Ireland’s longest running literary festival; Listowel Writers’ Week.

You can only have your first Listowel experience once and mine was seven years ago. I’d never been to the town before and pulling into the square in a taxi with three strangers, what I remember seeing first is the Listowel Arms, where the climbing roses were in full bloom. I remember too the sunshine and a band playing on the street – although part of me wonders if I’ve edited that into the memory, as I’ve never seen one since.

Later that evening, I met my friend as arranged and we set about exploring. By the next evening, when we’d both finished our workshops, our twosome had grown into a little group. And the little group grew into a bigger group and an even bigger one, until seven years later, Listowel is full of friends. Some of them are the kind of friends you see year round. Some of them you look forward to seeing once a year. Some you remember only their faces and by now it’s too late to ask their names but it doesn’t take from the animated discussions over coffee and custard creams in the boys’ school on breaks from the workshops, or in the back of Keanes’ late at night.

Over the last seven years I’ve learned how to write novels, short stories, articles and obituaries, I’ve even had a stab at writing songs. Life has changed, is changing, will continue to change. There’s a statue of John B in the square now and a new bookshop on the mainstreet. One of my good friends had her book published a few years ago and her second and her third. Last year mine joined hers on the shelves.

I listened to the John Murray show yesterday, broadcast live from Listowel. Since Wednesday I’ve been getting e-mails and texts from friends enjoying the fortieth festivities. They urge me to come down, that it’s not too late, that the sunshine is promised to last the whole weekend. And sitting writing this, looking at the orange climbing roses in my garden, in full bloom, I’m still not sure why I won’t be joining them. I know you can only experience your first Listowel once, but something tells me that by missing out on this one, I might just get a little closer next year.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

This is the sea

This piece originally appeared in the Irish Daily Mail magazine last September. I thought it might be worth sharing here for anyone who hasn’t already seen it....

Growing up next to the sea, you take it for granted. That’s not to say you don’t notice its beauty, just that it is always there, like, say, electricity. Where I went to school the sea was a constant presence, a shimmer behind the railings, rockpools where pictures in our science books came alive. You could say that the sea was part of the curriculum.

During the summer, my friends and I headed over Killiney Hill and down the steps at the back to Whiterock. When we had money we went to the Rainbow Rapids in Dun Laoghaire, snaking plastic tubes that swerved out of the old baths building and back in to a deep plunge pool inside. The green slide was the fastest, with more twists. I always went for the beige one.

You see the truth was, even though I was surrounded by sea, I was no water baby. Far from it, but then I was not from a family of water babies. My mother never learned to swim and my father is the only person I’ve ever met who taught himself, lying across a dining room chair, a library book open on the floor beneath him as he practised strokes in mid air. And yes, it was Dad who taught me.

I only remember snatches of those lessons: a mouthful of water, the opposite side of the pool seeming to bob ever further away. My arms cold and bare after the water wings had gone. Somehow, I got the idea that if I put my face fully underwater, I would certainly drown. Despite all this, the lessons were a success, certainly more so than our driving lessons years later, in that I did actually learn to swim. I swam with my neck arched and my chin well above the surface, I swam with graceless strokes fuelled by panic. But I swam all the same.

When we were teenagers, my friends grew more adventurous. They leapt off rocks and piers and boats. My fear grew in direct proportion to their confidence and I stayed near the edge, never higher than my waist, well out of danger of a wave breaking in my face. It bothered me for a while but then it didn’t, because we grew up and there were much more important things to do. For a few years I lived in London and the closest I ever got to the sea was the canal, where the listless water barely covered the wheels of the submerged shopping trolleys. And it was only when I moved home, back to the sea, that I started to notice it in a way I never had before; the colours and shape of the waves, how being next to it seemed to fill me up, like water seeping into a footprint on the shore.

That’s what brought me to the side of that pool one Monday night in January, convincing myself, but still not convinced that I could do this. There was an audition swim before we were assigned classes and one splashy breathless width later I was joining the level twos, a group I barely had a chance to assess before our teenage instructor set us off on our first width.

It started badly. My new fog resistant goggles were steaming up already and in my haste I hadn’t fitted them properly so the rubber strap bisected my ear. Halfway across, I became conscious of a voice calling out, repeating the same thing. “Put your head down! Put your face in the water!” I realised it was my instructor and that she was talking to me.

Of course, I was doing my usual stroke, neck and chin achingly high and I ignored her. I wanted to explain to her that I wasn’t ready, that it would take a while, but she kept calling, louder each time and just like that, my body obeyed her, even though my mind hadn’t. My face was in the water and I could see tiles and the shimmery white leg of someone in front of me. I pulled my head back out, gasped in some air before going under again and again until suddenly I was there, at the other side.

Clinging onto the rail, my heart pounded. I grinned from ear to ear. The instructor was focussed on someone else now, making wild gestures with her arms at one of the men. Whether it was what he was doing or should be doing, I couldn’t tell. She hadn’t noticed my achievement, no-one had. There would be no pat on the back, no brass band parading along the tiles. But none of that mattered. What mattered was that when it was my turn to swim back, my heart pounded a little slower than before. And each time that night and the next Monday and the one after that, the fear loosened its grip, bit by bit, so I was able to leave it behind like the trail of bubbles in my wake.

I’m still no water baby. You wouldn’t envy my technique. But I swim in the sea and I love it. I run straight in. When the waves come, I close my eyes and dive right through them and when I break the surface again the icy tingle on my skin feels something close to freedom.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Things I never blogged about in March

Today is the second of April. And too late I realise that it’s five whole weeks since I’ve been writing ‘update blog’ on my to do list, five whole weeks since I’ve been moving it onto the next day.

It’s not that March was a barren blogging month. Far from it, there were lots of blog worthy events; the first ‘hello’ in Terminal Two, my new Villagers CD, a ceili in Monkstown that provided more than enough material. I could’ve blogged about the hen party of one of my oldest friends or a turquoise frying pan or the two robins by my foot in Blackrock Park or pruning the garden after a long winter or about how it’s easier to look at a closed down shopfront when the sun is shining.

I almost blogged about childhood memories of St Patrick’s Day – fractured views of the parade through gaps between the people in front of me, the boom of ‘ATA Security’, a shamrock shake afterwards.

I wish I’d blogged about a nighttime drive across the Wicklow mountains, looking back over my shoulder to see the orange flames rising from the landscape, sudden and frightening against the black, black sky.

I should’ve blogged about the Dublin Book Festival and the novel writing course I’m doing with the Irish Times and the new French edition of The Other Boy.

You’ll be glad I didn’t have the energy to blog about a sudden bout of gastroenteritis.

Truth is, it wasn’t lack of material or even that I was too busy to blog in March – no more so than usual. What happened in March was that I was on a break from my second novel. I took the break seriously, those precious few weeks to draw breath and not work and where any writing done is sporadic, half written scribbled things, notes in journals and sometimes just inside your own head and sometimes not even that.

But now it’s April and it’s back to it, the next draft. And something tells me there’ll be lots of new things to blog about.

Or not.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dublin Book Festival

The Dublin Book Festival is bigger than ever this year, running from Thursday 2nd March until Sunday 6th.

There are three things I really like about this year’s programme.

The first is that there is, quite literally, something for everyone. Whether your thing is prose or poetry, crime or literary fiction, history or comedy, the programme is jam packed with household names. They have events for kids and young adults, walking tours and tea parties and even a session with everyone’s favourite Dragon, Bobby Kerr for those who are more interested in ‘books’ of a different type.

The second thing, is that almost all of these events are free. For the ones that do carry a cost, that cost is a very reasonable €5 which you get back by way of a book token for the festival book shop. The cost of readings and workshops in this country has long been a pet peeve of mine and it’s great to see a festival that’s so accessible to everyone on all levels.

And the third? The third is that I’m delighted to say I’m part of the programme this year and will be lining out with other ‘Fresh Voices’ Paul Soye, Nuala NĂ­ ChonchĂșir and Liam Carson at 4pm on Sunday 6th March in City Hall. There’ll be readings and discussion with our chair Sinead MacAodha, so should be a lot of fun. Hope to see some of you there!

Friday, February 18, 2011


Before I was published, I’d often imagine into the future; what it would be like to get a book deal, to see my name on the cover of a novel, to see that novel on a bookshop shelf. These daydreams would usually come when I was at some difficult stage of the process, times when I was trying to avoid actually doing any writing at all.

Since I’ve been published, I’ve noticed that people often ask me about those exact moments I used to imagine. Usually, they have a smile on their face, urging me to tell them stories of elation, euphoria, of a world shattering into a billion starry molecules all around me. And sometimes I tell them that, or something like it, even though it’s not one hundred percent true.

The truth is, that while I remember each of these moments with a startling clarity - the Wednesday August evening when I got the e-mail, the Saturday morning I met my editor outside a McDonalds to take possession of my first copies - as well as elation, there was relief and disbelief and fear. And even as each event was happening, there was something else going on too, a tiny gap between the way I was actually feeling and how I was expected to feel. A gap big enough for the dreaded ‘should’ to squeeze through, as in: should I be feeling more than this?

Today, I received delivery of the paperback format of that same novel, The Other Boy. The paperback release is a low key affair, a new cover, bigger print run – no publicity or launch parties here. I was on the phone, still in my running clothes, when the courier rang the doorbell and I ate my breakfast, answered some e-mails and played a Facebook scrabble move before I rescued the box from the hall and sliced through the brown tape.

The first thing I noticed about the book was how nicely it fit into my hand; chunky but not too big, the cover matt and soft and grass green. When I turned it over, my name was there, right at the top. I sat down on the couch, read a bit in the middle and I remembered writing it. I flicked to another section and smiled, I remembered writing that too. And that was when it finally hit me, 10 months after being published, a year and a half after getting the deal, that this was actually my book, a book I’d written. The kind of book I might even buy.

I’m writing this in Starbucks. There’s a floor length window with the sea outside and today it’s rough, white peaks of waves on grey water. I like writing here because it’s a nice distraction to glance out at it, between paragraphs, when I run out of words. Today, I’m glancing at something else as well, my novel, the paperback, on the table, next to my cup.

It’s silly, I know, self indulgent, to carry it around like this and tomorrow it’ll be back on the shelf where it belongs. But just for today, I’ll keep it close and enjoy the unexpected tingle of elation that seeing it unexpectedly seems to bring.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Seapoint Literary Supper

This is a bit of a shameless plug but I think it's an event some of you might be interested in. Dubray Bookshops and Seapoint restaurant in Monkstown - home of amazing seafood and their legendary rosemary and parmesan fries - have started a literary supper evening on the first Thursday of every month.

The idea is simple. For €28 you get to enjoy a 3 course meal, a glass of wine and a reading and Q&A session with an Irish author, who, on Thursday 3rd February, happens to be yours truly.

Spaces are limited (genuinely so, as you can see in the photo the room is lovely but not very big) so if you're interested call Seapoint on 663 8480 to book your place.

Kick off on the night is 7:30 and as well as reading from The Other Boy (which is out in paperback that day) I'll also be doing my first reading from my new novel What Might Have Been Me.

Hope to see you there!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Saying goodbye

I went to a funeral last Thursday, a funeral of someone I’d never met, someone I didn’t know. Only now, sitting down to write about it, I feel like I knew her very well.

She was the mother of a friend of mine. The kind of friend who you can have a great laugh with and a great conversation with, a friend I don’t see every week, or even every month, but whenever I spend time with him, I vow to see him more often.

We met a few years ago, when I was going through a tough time in my life, a time, it would turn out, that would mark the start of a period of great change for me. We shared a small office and the same sense of humour and a liking for chocolate muffins. But mostly what we shared was a passion for music. There wasn’t much in the office but there was an old CD player - 1990s ghetto blaster style - and we took to taking turns hijacking it every day, sharing our soundtracks with each other. And somewhere between Pink Floyd and Arcade Fire, we became friends.

Today, I heard his mother’s soundtrack; Mama Cass and Mozart and of course Bob Dylan. She was a young woman and her illness had been brief, barely eight short weeks between the day she saw the first signs of it and the day at St Jerome where we all stood shoulder to shoulder waving her goodbye. But she was an organised woman, with a plan in an envelope of what she wanted. And it was this plan that her two boys – two men – bravely brought to life with no celebrant, no middle man, only this rich tapestry of words and music. Without the framework of the familiar, the rhythm of rituals, there was a purity, a simplicity to it all. The sound of a life well lived, of a soul, singing goodbye.

And as I stood there, listening to her voice rise and fall in the chapel, the clear pitch of each note as she sang “The Moon and St Christopher”, I felt as if I had known her, this woman who touched so many. And I wished I had. And it made me want to work harder – so much harder – at really getting to know the people around me, and most of all, to really get to know myself.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Getting re-started

What is it about re-starting something, that makes it so hard?

I think the answer is somewhere in that little ‘re.’ Re-starting is just like starting, but without that energy and excitement you had the first time around. There’s usually a reason that you’ve stopped doing whatever you were doing and you know the effort that’ll be involved to get going again. You know the pitfalls along the way, because you’ve fallen in and peeped out from inside.

This week for me – like a lot of you, I suspect – has been a week of re-starts. Starting back at work, yoga, running, blogging, even though these are all things I enjoy, they’ve been surprisingly hard to get back into after only a couple of week’s break. And so, I decided, to get the re-starting started, I’d go easy on myself this week, instead of raising that bar, or even keeping it level, for once I’d bring it down a little notch.

And, at the end of the first week of 2011, I’m happy to say, my underachieving approach has worked pretty well. You could even say, it’s beaten my expectations.

My first run wasn’t quite as early as usual, or as long. A simple twenty minutes, rather than thirty was the carrot to get me out there and, encouraged by the fact that I could walk pain free the next day, I got the second run of 2011 in as well. Rather than go for the advanced yoga class I opted for an easier one – no inversions here! – and lying on my mat at the end of an hour and a quarter, my out-of-practice body felt the ache of effort and accomplishment that I normally feel after an intense two day workshop. Good thing I’ve saved that particular treat for next weekend then...

And, as for the blog, my deal to myself was this: I just had to blog by the end of this week. It didn’t have to be the best blog post ever, the funniest or the most entertaining or insightful. It just had to be readable and a bit interesting. A low-ish bar that I hope I’ve met, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

I promise to raise it for the next one!