Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Seven Days After Sandy

It’s a week since the storm. It’s a week since the storm and only now am I sitting down to write about it, to put words in a line, on a page and try and explain. In part this is because last week was busy, chaotic in a completely unstructured, routine-free way which doesn’t serve me well. In part, this is because it takes me time to process things, to see things, to feel. Today there is a need to write about it, a hunger that makes me put off all the other things that  need to be done and do this thing which needs to be done more.

We moved, my partner and I. We moved two days before the storm hit. Saturday. And before then we’d disconnected the TV, the internet, had been packing, cleaning, packing. So it was only on move day, in a chain passing boxes and bags down the stairs that we heard the warnings from our friends, my partner's sister, the removal men. Stock up, they said. Fill the bath, they said. Make sure you have water.
On Sunday we took their advice and on our first morning in the new place instead of unpacking we did what everyone else was doing - we queued. We queued for water, for cans of tuna fish, for batteries and a flashlight that I call a torch. The queue in Starbucks was to the door, a handwritten sign said they were closing at 2:30pm and wouldn’t be open until Wednesday. Wednesday? All Starbucks? Yes, all Starbucks. Don’t blame us, blame the weather man.

Monday morning was wet, a little wild, but nothing to write home about, certainly not for someone raised along the Irish sea. Like the New York Stock Exchange, the soup kitchen where I work was closed - for the first time in 30 years. My partner's job was closed too so  we unpacked a little, borrowed a radio from a new neighbour that turned out to be an alarm clock and not a radio at all. We braved the weather to buy a proper one, more batteries, another lighter, just in case - it was like Christmas, in a way, this last minute panic to buy as one by one everywhere shut down until even McDonalds closed. The street was silent, like their subway sisters they were in garages somewhere, waiting.

That's what we spent our night doing too sitting and waiting, cooking and baking, eating and waiting and cooking again. All the while we listened to the radio, making our own pictures instead of those on TV - a crane was swinging on 57th Street, the front of a house on 14th Street had blown off. There were people who wouldn’t evacuate zone A.

Night came on and the wind whipped the trees and spat rain at the window. The sky was full of strange colours – like lightning but not lightning, shades of blue and yellow and green and red. Transformers exploding, that’s what we found out later but that night, but we didn’t know as we watched them highlight the silhouette of the apartment across the street. There were Facebook updates, of course. Someone’s power was out, then someone else’s – early, it seemed, before the storm could have even taken hold. A tree fell on a friend’s boyfriend’s mother’s car, another friend had flooding – water on her street, up to the steps of her apartment building, into her hallway. Our lights flickered and stayed on. I could see the wind but I never heard it. A few miles downtown they were in darkness, streets like rivers. Nothing to be done we went to bed, slept soundly. I didn't hear rain on the window.

Tuesday was almost dry, a bright clear sky, blue with sweeps of white. Thousands were without power, half of Manhattan. We had light and gas to cook breakfast. The radio told us about houses still smouldering in Breezy point, whole blocks washed away. Outside our street was clogged with leaves, a few branches.

On the walk to midtown - 60 blocks -  branches became trees, uprooted across roads, on top of cars. There were torn and sagging awnings, a flattened bus stop sign, two lots of collapsed scaffolding. And it took an eternity, that walk, with the sidewalks full, like Grafton St at Christmas and everyone stopping to take photos of whatever signs of Sandy they could find.

Looking back on the week, Tuesday was the day, I think, when I was least aware of the  full impact. While everyone else was battling with Sandy's aftermath and those who weren’t were watching on screen, my partner and I tried to track down UPS packages, clear out the last remnants from the old apartment, clean it up for its next inhabitants. My work e-mail was down, no-one was answering their phones, no-one was calling back.

On Wednesday, I tried to get to work, waited more than an hour while six full buses sped by, blowing their horns in case we tried to climb on board.  People came and went. We chatted over the sound of chainsaws behind us in the park as crews in yellow jackets tackled fallen trees. An old man collected branches while he waited, dropped them by the sawn up logs and soon we were all doing it too.

After an hour I walked to find an open Starbucks and tons of messages from everyone at home. And it was only when I saw the photos that everyone in Ireland had already seen – the waterlogged cars, trucks floating in the Battery Park tunnel, half of the island in blackness – and I began, slowly, to understand.

On Thursday I made contact with work. My boss was OK, everyone was OK and a handful of my colleagues and volunteers had made it to the soup kitchen where a crowd were gathered. Usually we feed over a thousand, every day, but that Thursday they were running out of food. We were going to have to turn people away.
Putting the call out on Facebook for sandwiches was just an idea, something quick and simple that might do something, that might help tide us over for the next day, or at least for a while. I wrote the post quickly, crouched in Starbucks with everyone else who had no internet, put my contact number on the post, just in case.

Stories are told in numbers and Sandy is no different: 55 deaths, 40,000 displaced and without a home in New York City, $50 billion worth of damage. But there are other numbers that I’ll remember: 88 Facebook 'Likes', 34 'shares', 21 phone calls checking ingredients, packaging, our location. At 8:30 that evening, the buzzer in my apartment rang and there were four adults and a child carrying 18 shopping bags of sandwiches. At 10, just as my partner and I were finishing separating the peanut butter and jelly from those that needed to be refrigerated, I was beginning to panic about how I was going to get these to work and that's when the phone rang again. It was call number 20, the second last of the night and someone else who had seen the post, who wanted to help, someone who lived close by, who offered to drive me to work the next morning.

The roads were quiet that Friday morning, petrol shortages keeping people at home. Downtown the swinging traffic lights were dull and we nosed around corners, lurched across highways – my good Samaritan, my sandwiches and me.

Some of my colleagues were there already and we hugged in the cold, unloaded sandwiches together. As we set up the tables, more people arrived  - women, men, families, a priest, all showed up with sports bags and boxes and backpacks full of sandwiches – each individually wrapped, some with a chocolate inside, or a granola bar, fruit. One bag had homemade brownies inside, still warm.

At first, we worried that there wouldn’t be enough people to eat them all, that since we'd run out the day before they'd gone somewhere else. But as the morning went on, word got out and they came. They came and came until almost one o’clock, when we had handed out over three thousand sandwiches and diverted hundreds more to others who needed them by then, more than we did.

Power came back on in the soup kitchen on Friday night, like it did in much of Manhattan. I had a poetry reading in the Irish Arts Center and although the turnout wasn’t huge, it wasn’t cancelled and we were able to get the subway home. By Saturday almost all the trains were running and my partner’s sister in Long Island called to say they had power too. On Sunday when I went for a run in the park, I only saw one fallen tree, still tangled in yellow tape. And yesterday was Monday and the office was open. We had e-mail and phones and power to cook now, for the people lined up outside, some of the same people, some different, than the ones who ate sandwiches last week.

Today is election day and I got my TV working this morning but somehow the need to write about this week, to remember is more important than any coverage. I don’t know exactly what it is I want to imprint on my brain by writing this, what lesson it is I may have learned.  Generosity, kindness, faith in the human spirit – certainly these are some – but where I work I am lucky to see many of these qualities every day. No, it is something more than that, something about how a crisis strips away all those other layers, the layers that keep us separate and apart, that keep us from looking one another in the eye, from speaking the truth, the fear the contains us and contracts us and keeps us hidden.

What would happen if we could blow off these layers, not just when we are in crisis but all the time? If we could harness this openness, this energy, the need to connect and be part of something for others?

That’s what I saw in every carefully labelled sandwich last week, what I heard in every voice I spoke to on the phone – a need to be needed, to help someone else, to connect, to share. More than a need, really, a hunger, a void. Something that, at least for a while, was filled with sandwiches.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Journalist Peachy Deegan reviewed 'What Might Have Been Me' earlier this year and because she and her panel really liked the novel she followed it up with an interview. We covered a lot of ground - everything from my writing process to 'What Might Have Been Me'to my favourite Manhattan spots and soy chai lattes in Starbucks! Below are some extracts, full interview is avaliable at:

Peachy Deegan: What is your first writing memory?
Yvonne Cassidy: When I was a little kid I used to love drawing. I remember being very small and writing a story to go alongside one of my cartoons.

How would you compare and contrast life in Ireland with life in New York and what do you love most about each?
New York City has over twice the population of Ireland so the biggest difference would be the sheer number and variety of people I encounter here every single day. That's one of the things I love most about the city - the energy and the pulse of it. Life in Dublin is slower and the thing I love most - and miss most -is being by the sea. I grew up next to the sea so it almost feels like part of my DNA.

We loved What Might Have Been Me; how much of that was autobiographical? Thanks, I'm glad you liked it! Bits and pieces were autobiographical, but not too much. There are things I have in common with Carla, the main character: I spent a summer in Montauk, Long Island, I'm from Dublin, I love New York and sadly I've experienced Alzheimer's disease in my own family. But most of it is entirely fictional - Carla stays in New York whereas I went home. Some of her biggest struggles are around the loss of her father and her relationship with her sister - I'm an only child and I'm happy to say my Dad is alive and well.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing What Might Have Been Me? I found writing about Alzheimer's disease the most challenging as it is such a sensitive subject. I wanted to be really sure I represented it correctly and that I didn't cause upset to any readers by not being 100% accurate to the experience of watching someone you love suffer from the ongoing effects of dementia.

What inspired you to write "What Might Have Been Me?" The Irish are a nation of travellers - the Irish Diaspora massively outnumbers Irish people who live in Ireland- and I've always been interested in the idea of cultural identity in that context. I wanted to write about someone Irish living here and their experience of leaving Ireland behind. Somewhere along the way this developed into the idea of someone living here illegally over a long period of time and the impact this has on the day to day things we take for granted.

How do you relate to the main character Carla? In my first novel, 'The Other Boy', the central character was male, so I knew I wanted to write about a girl this time. The funny thing is that when you write about someone of your own gender, people assume that the character is a disguised version of who you are! While my own circumstances have been very different to Carla's, I related to the sense of her being stuck and floundering while she figures out what it is she wants to do. I know I felt that as I approached 30 and a lot of people I knew seemed to take different choices and paths at that stage. Like most of us, she's not perfect - she can be selfish and at the start of the book, she's pretty immature. Over the course of the book though I've had some readers tell me that the changes in her are as pronounced as those in her mother, Collette.

When you write about a contemporary time and place, is it harder to reference certain facts knowing that in the future, your points may not be recognized by the reader? I tend not to think about it as I'm writing because it would impact my ability to tell the story if I focused on that too much. In this book, there are very contemporary references - such as Skype, for example - but in the future if it's something the reader doesn't know, I figure it could be an interesting thing for them to look up.

How to decide for a happy ending? When all the loose ends are wrapped up, do you feel the need to write a sequel? The Matthews family certainly has more stories to tell. They certainly do, but I don't think I'll be telling them - at least not for now! For me, each story is a slice of someone's life, there is no 'ending' per se, just the point we (me as a writer and the reader) decide to leave them. Where we leave the Matthews family in 'What Might Have Been Me' felt like a natural end to this stage of their journey.

Between the lines, you develop the character of Carla with a nod to her surround, and her past. Are there places you wanted your character to go, but held back, so as to tighten the storyline? Yes! There were lots of scenes which I had to edit out where I had taken Carla to other places and had her interacting with other people. As an author, once I have a character developed as strongly as I felt Carla was developed, I love to explore new settings and places. In the end though, you have to come back to the narrative and only include those which are helping you tell your story. Some of the other scenes which were cut out could end up as part of the story of another character, in another book.

Can you tell us about your upcoming novel? It's in its very early stages still, but what I can tell you is that it's a coming of age story about a young Irish girl in New York City on a quest to find out more about her dead mother.

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence? That's a tough question. Probably my family - I was always taught to do my best and it's something I bring to everything I do. I also like to write in libraries - something about being surrounded by all those literary greats inspires me to be the best writer I can be.

What are you proudest of and why? Since 'What Might Have Been Me' was published I’ve received a lot of e-mails from readers who have enjoyed the novel. While it’s really nice to get any and all positive feedback, what makes me especially happy is the number of readers who are in the same situation as Carla, caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s. Many have told me that reading the book has helped them to feel less isolated on their journey, and, in some cases helped them to cope. To think that words I’ve written could have that kind of impact on another person makes me very proud.

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan?
So many to choose from... it's probably the New York Public Library on 42nd street with a stop off in Bryant Park along the way.

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan?
Can I name more than one? Macy's, Brooklyn Industries, the gift shop in NYPL and Lee's Art Shop on 57th Street.

What is your favorite drink?
That’s easy - Soy Chai Lattes in Starbucks - I'm addicted!

What is your favorite Manhattan book?
My favorite novel set in New York is ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ which is up there as one of my all time favorite books. My favorite non-fiction work about Manhattan is ‘Here is New York’ by E.B. White. Although it was written in the 1940s, it captures the energy and life of the city in a very real way that is still recognizable today.

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience?
Running in Central Park - I do it at least twice a week. I also love the summer yoga in Bryant Park.

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else?
Just to simply walk around and breathe in the atmosphere of the city – you can’t do that anywhere else.

If you could have dinner with any person living or passed, who would it be and why?
It would be a toss-up between Nelson Mandela and my Grandfather. Nelson Mandela for obvious reasons and my Grandfather because he died when I was nine and I’ve a lot to fill him in on!

What do you personally do or what have you done to give back to the world?
I work in Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Chelsea – the largest soup kitchen in New York and the second largest in the country. We feed 1,200 people every single weekday and spending time there is both humbling and uplifting. For me, working in that kind of environment is using the skills I have for their best use and giving back to the world.

To read the full interview check out Peachy's blog here:

Friday, August 3, 2012

Voting is open for the Fascination Awards and my blog is nominated in the Creative Writing Category! To vote click on the link below, scroll to the very end of the nominations (I am the last one) and click on the +1 symbol. I am new to Google+ but I think that's how it works! Any problems voting, let me know...

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I just found out that my blog has been nominated for a Fascination Award: 2012's Most Fascinating Creative Writing Teacher blog. Seemingly someone nominated me and the comments posted in response to my posts prove my content inspires my audience and creates discussion! Reading that last sentence (a sentence every writer wants to read) I feel both delighted to be nominated and inspired and determined to post more regularly... In the meantime a big thank you to whoever nominated me and to everyone who has posted and commented. I will post again when I find out how you can vote for me -I think the category opens for voting next Monday.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Feeling my way through the dark

I am walking up Broadway, dazzled by colour. A segment of green in a street vendor’s umbrella. Converse on a shelf behind glass– orange, pink. The sunlight cuts shapes out of shadow, on brick, on steel. After ninety minutes of having my eyes closed, each detail of the street is reflected back at me, as if brand new.

I have just come from a yoga class, Elena Brower’s yoga class, which I’ve been making it my business to get to every Tuesday at midday. When I first started coming I couldn’t get over how many other people made the effort too – fifty or sixty of them sometimes. Who were they, these people, who had two hours to spare in the middle of their day? Were they actors, freelance designers, stay at home mums? Maybe they were unemployed? Last November, when I first came to class, I used to wonder about these things. But I don’t anymore.

Elena is a teacher I happened upon by accident. I’d been going to Vira Yoga whenever I was in New York, and of course I’d heard of her, of course people had urged me to try her classes. But for some reason, I resisted. I don’t know why – maybe I was nervous that it might be too hard, maybe I couldn’t spare two hours in the middle of the day, back then. And so it was only when a botched attempt to see Sianna Sherman one lashing August Sunday, led me to a workshop she was doing with Elena the next day, that I realised this was where I was supposed to be all along.

Each class has a theme that builds on the last, and lately, we’ve been going very deep into our bodies. You might be thinking – ‘doesn’t all yoga go deep into the body?’ – and yes, it is does, but this is different. It’s like we’re explorers, miners, adventuring down through layers of tissue, burrowing through sinew and peering under bones to find out what is happening deep inside, really happening. We circle around the sensation, listen to what it has to tell us, before letting it diffuse through the rest of our cells.

If it sounds all heady and new agey, it’s not, or maybe it is, but I don’t care because it’s telling me a lot about myself, that in 37 years I had somehow managed not to know. These are not things I always want to know, mind you, but things I need to. The thoughts I have, the feelings, the spaces where my body contracts and clenches, these are what make me who I am. Surely it is in my best interests – never mind everyone else’s – to spend some time reading my own user manual?

Today, sitting with our eyes closed, she starts to tell us about a student of hers who is also a teacher, who teaches yoga to people who are blind. We go into all fours, still with our eyes closed. I am getting the point – the attention paid to sensation is greater when vision is taken away – and I hope she is going to make it through one or two poses, not a whole class. But no, we are in down dog, plank, chataranga, up dog, all in self-imposed darkness. My eyes flicker open. My feet are wonky on the mat and I see she has turned down the lights. I close them again.

As we move through the poses I am glad that I take this class regularly, that this sequence is familiar, and yet it is not familiar at all. Right foot forward between my hands – where are my hands? – left high, for standing split. Even though I often practice getting deeper into poses with my eyes closed, it is not like this, it is nothing like this. I never shut my eyes during transitions, never move into the darkness. I wait until I am grounded in the pose, settled. Safe. Perhaps this is the point.

I run my fingers along the edges of the mat, checking where it stops. My foot finds the ground somewhere behind me. Steps on something – someone’s fingers? Navigating this 6 x 2 feet rectangle of rubber feels as terrifying as if it is balanced on a ledge of one of the city’s skyscrapers. I feel the fear in my body, ripples of it, waves, moving into each pose, followed almost immediately by relief when I land at my destination.

Through the blackness Elena’s voice is strong, clear. I trust it. I follow it. I am learning to trust myself.

We pick up speed. I can hear my breath, the breath of the girl next to me. Occasionally our arms graze. Who is in each other’s space? Does it matter? Bending forward we are instructed to feel our collar bones widening, an instruction I have heard many times. There is a tiny movement somewhere I didn’t think could move, it feels like the bone itself is stretching. I have never felt this before and as well as understanding the point of the class in my head, I feel it too now, in my body. Feel how removing the floodlights of vision allows me to hold the torch beam steady, into the recesses of myself I can’t usually see.

Buoyant with my new insight I push into down dog again, through plank and onto the floor. The rhythm of the class is changing, I know it well, can feel the trajectory towards a slower, stiller place. Lying with my head on my hands I reflect on the progress I’ve made since starting yoga four years ago. When I first came to the mat it was a shock to see just how much I compared myself to other people, just how competitive I was. I always knew I liked to be good at things – OK, then, better at things – but yoga was something at which I had to get used to being bottom of the class. People who were older than me, heavier than me, newer than me, didn’t seem to struggle to open their bodies the way I did. It took me a long time to realise the only person I was competing with was myself.

I smile, right before I realise that the pose I am in feels all wrong. My eyes pop open – I can’t help it – and everyone else is lying flat, while my knees are on the floor, one arm reaching back awkwardly for the opposite foot. I lie down quickly, cursing myself for not listening, chastising myself for still not being able to stay present for a full ninety minutes, before I remember that my job is only to observe, never to judge.

After class is over, we move as if in a daze, putting mats and props away, our gazes mostly on the wooden floors, occasionally glancing at each other shyly. In the changing room I unfold my jeans slowly, as if they are precious, a gift. Maybe they are. It is crowded but we move out of each other’s way easily, as if it was a dance, that somehow we all know, even though I don’t remember ever learning it.

In the hallway I put on my shoes, head towards the stairwell. As I open the heavy metal door I hear a voice – I think I do – calling out: ‘Goodbye, Yvonne.’ I can’t see anyone, there is no-one there, but it might the woman in the reception area who said it, from her room at the end of the hall. I peer down only there’s a shadow across the desk and I can’t see if she’s there or not, if anyone is there.

‘Goodbye!’ I call out anyway. And I smile, just in case she can see me. Because I’m beginning to realise that it’s OK if I don’t see everything, all at once. That sometimes it’s enough just to be seen, to be seen, exactly as I am.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thirteen Boxes

The boxes take up nearly all the floor space. I count them quickly.

‘Thirteen,’ the delivery man says.

I count again. He’s right. I sign. He leaves, grumbling one last time that the building needs an elevator.

Each of the boxes says ‘Cassidy, New York’ in red marker, and something about that makes the move more real than any other time during the three months it has taken them to get here. I open the first one, slicing through brown tape to find books – my books, the same creased spines. The fact that they are here, that we have all made it to the same place, is amazing and thrilling. As I gently take them out, I imagine their journey across the sea, on docks, in warehouses. It took me seven hours to get here, less, but three months seems more like the kind of time it should take to move from one country to another.

Last October, packing these boxes, I was somehow shielded from the reality of what was happening. I knew I was moving to New York – of course I knew – but even as I was busy dismantling my life in Dublin, some part of me didn’t fully get it. Like a child who doesn’t understand time and space, New York ceased to be a real city and instead only existed in my head.

New York has existed in my head – and my heart – for a long time, long before I ever set foot here. And yet, I never thought I’d live here. I thought New York was destined to forever be the place where I’d wished I’d lived. But life can take us in directions we don’t expect, or maybe directions we’ve always been coming in, and for me that direction was across the Atlantic.

It’s amazing how easily a life can be dismantled. Houses can be rented, cars can be sold, businesses can be wound up. Bit by bit, the tiny little details and grooves of our days, our weeks, can be taken apart and packed up or given away or let go of entirely. Until what you have left fits in thirteen boxes.

As I empty the boxes I find things I’ve missed, but I will never find everything and that’s the hardest part. To make room for your new life, you have to let go of so much of the old. Family, for instance, can’t fit in a box, or friends. How do you pack up a yoga class? Or Dun Laoghaire pier? It’d cost a fortune to ship and besides, someone would be bound to miss it.

It has become a favourite story of the media, emigration, another oozing scar from our Celtic Tiger mauling. On television, we watch families wave off children, sisters, uncles, friends, as reporters hover, waiting for a sound-bite that will sum up a nation’s loss. The story is boiled down to its simplest form – the grief of leaving – but it is not simple at all. How can leaving be the whole story? Shouldn’t we focus on the arrival too? The opportunity it brings? The hope? If we let the cameras keep rolling beyond the security gates would we see a little glimmer of this? Would we see tears dry? The same children, sisters, uncles, friends, picking up luggage, hailing taxis, walking up the steps of an apartment building, smiling, glad to be home?

As I write, I am acutely aware that unlike so many others, I was not forced to leave. I know that makes it different. Leaving is hard enough when you want to go and my heart goes out to those who left because they had no other choice. But, even then, leaving can only ever be half the story.

Here, in New York, things are starting to feel a little more like home. I have a social security number, a bank account. I have started to receive junk mail. My thirteen boxes are all unpacked now, space found – miraculously – for everything in my apartment.

And today, 104 days after I arrived, as I walk down Ninth Avenue I know I have more with me, than the contents of those boxes. There is ice in the air but the sky is blue as any June morning and something about the light reminds me of Sandycove. True, the sun reflects on glass and steel instead of water and rocks, but I can see that too, all around me, I can almost see it.

Because even though Sandycove is three thousand miles away it’s much, much closer than that. Like so many other things that wouldn’t fit in the boxes, I packed it somewhere else, somewhere there is no weight restriction. Dublin and New York will always be in parallel, they will never meet, but in my heart, there is space enough for both, for all the people and places and things I love, wherever they are.

And for me, for now, that’s enough.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bar 82 Reading NYC March 5th

First New York reading of What Might Have Been Me took place in Bar 82 in the Lower East Side on Monday night.

To see the reading and find out what the title means check out the video on the Facebook page.!/whatmighthavebeenme

Friday, March 2, 2012

Commenting on this blog!

I know a lot of people have previously been unable to comment on this blog so I just wanted to let you know I have adjusted to settings so everyone can comment freely!

As you can see I don't always post that often but more frequently updated content such as book reviews, info on readings and events etc can be found on one of my two Facebook pages...

Thanks for reading!


A tribute to a special teacher

About fifteen years ago, when I lived in London, there was an advertising campaign to encourage people to become teachers. The ads ran in cinemas and they featured head shots of men and women who looked straight into the camera and slowly said a name, before it panned to the next person. They were young and old, these people, their faces were different shapes, different colours, but they had something in common – whatever name they said made every one of them smile.

“Mrs Sanders.” “Mr Singh.” “Ms Watson.” “Mr Johnson.” At first you didn’t know what the names meant, that was the idea, but when the screen faded to black, one simple sentence ran across it, in white letters: ‘you never forget your favourite teacher.’
Watching those ads, in the darkness of the cinema, I said a name too. I said it in my head, in the silence between the other names. Her name would have sounded good as part of the ad, I always thought, it would have fit in well.

Mrs O’Neill.

The fact that she was my English teacher strengthened her odds of being my favourite teacher, of course it did, but the thing is, I didn’t love English, not then. Not yet. Sure, it was OK, it was certainly better than a lot of other subjects, but I didn’t love it. At home, I loved reading – I read everything – and I loved to write, but school English was different. School English was old fashioned, complicated, written in a language I didn’t understand by people who I had nothing in common with. English had nothing to do with my life. Of that I was absolutely sure.

So, there I was, fifteen years old with my mind made up and Mrs O’Neill changed it.
I feel like I can remember the first day I took my seat in her classroom and that she changed it right there, that day, and even though I know that can’t possibly be true, it feels like it’s true. I feel like I can remember opening a new copy of Hard Times, starting to read and thinking “more of the same” right before something changed. Before everything changed.

In the two years in Mrs O’Neill’s class, I seem to remember more than the rest of secondary school put together. I remember her explaining what Dickens was doing when he chose the names Bounderby and Steven Blackpool and Thomas Gradgrind, explaining it in a way that made it into a conversation, where we had a voice too, an opinion that counted. I remember acting out MacBeth, the day Mrs O’Neill turned the classroom into a courtroom and how I got so into being Lady MacBeth’s defence lawyer, I was gutted when the double class ended, even though we got her off.
In my memory, Mrs O’Neill always had our attention and yet I remember too, her writing “sex” on the board, to get our attention. In a convent secondary school, it was a technique that was always going to work.

Of all the things that I remember about Mrs O’Neill, though, what I remember most in her class is being seen, being encouraged, being understood. Mrs O’Neill was the first person who noticed I liked to write, who told me I was good at it, that I should write more. She was adamant that I should choose the creative writing essay from the list on the exam paper rather than pushing me in the deathly dull direction of the ‘factual’ essays which had always been drummed into us all as the way to score higher grades. Goodbye, ‘Discuss Ireland’s unique role as an island on the edge of Europe.’ Hello, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever.’

Maybe English had more to offer after all.

After I left school I chose English for my degree. I read Jane Austen and Robert Frost and Samuel Beckett. Bertolt Brecht and Caryl Churchill. I learned more about what I liked to read. It was after college when I moved to London that I went to my first creative writing class, the first of many, many classes. I had lots of teachers. I learned why I liked to read the things I liked, what made them good. I learned that writing was hard work, that it wasn’t as easy as I used to think it was back in Mrs O’Neill’s class, but that in some way I didn’t fully understand, I had to do it. To keep doing it.

My first novel was published in May 2010. I felt a little silly, sending a launch invitation into the school, wasn’t sure if Mrs O’Neill would get it, if she’d wonder why I’d asked her, but I sent it anyway. On the evening of the launch, walking down towards the bookshop, things felt a little unreal. In the windows there were posters of the cover of my book, with my name on it, inside, a whole bay of shelves was devoted to it. Someone had put it in the ‘best seller’ section.

I stood with my parents by the window, next to one of the posters while some friends took photos. I wondered if anyone would show up, if it would be half empty. Peering through the glass, I saw there was at least one person there already. It was a woman, who had picked up my book, was reading it. She had her back to me and it was a back I recognised, I thought I did. The woman was still reading when I came in, she only turned around when she heard me behind her. When I saw who it was, I hugged her without even thinking about it, like it was the most natural thing in the world to hug a teacher I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years.

The fifteen year old me would’ve been mortified, she’d have sworn that that would never happen, never in a million years, especially in public. But then again, as it turned out, she didn’t know everything.

I don’t know if they make ads any more about teachers, if an advertising campaign ever ran in Ireland like the one I used to see in those London cinemas, so many years ago. But I know that if I am ever asked to name my best teacher, my favourite teacher, the teacher who has had the most impact on me, that from all the wonderful teachers I have been so lucky to have in my life, there is still only one name I will ever say.

Thank you, Brenda, for everything.