Friday, September 26, 2014

Pole Dancing on the 2 Train

Last week I went to a book club where they had read my latest novel. I like going to book clubs. I like to talk about my novels. I like the way arguments break out over the characters as if they are real people because to me they are real people.

I also like that there is usually wine.

     At this book club, towards the end, after we’d discussed Rhea – the main character – and her mother and her aunt and her lover, one of the women brings up something else, something I hadn’t heard a reader say before. “The subway,” she says, “you must love it. The novel is like a tribute to the New York City subway.”

     She’s right: I do love the subway and Rhea does too. She loves to ride from one end of the line to the other and when she’s a little kid she even makes up her own game using an old subway map her mother left behind. Before I made up this game for Rhea, I’d never made up a game with a subway map but I’d thought about it. There’s something that’s always appealed to me about those maps – the colours, the order, the fact that you know where you are and where you’ve just come from and where you will be next.

     This week has not been like that. Two days ago my wife had surgery – surgery that went successfully – and during these long days there’s been a lot of stress and a lot of waiting and a lot of not knowing where I will be next. This morning, I visited her in hospital and afterwards I found myself standing on the corner of 10th Avenue and 59th street, uncertain. She could be released later, but then again that might not happen until tomorrow or Sunday. The day may or may not be empty and even if she didn’t come home there were lots of important things to be done, things I’d been putting off all week. Just because I couldn’t remember what they were didn’t make them any less so.

     Frozen, I couldn’t seem to decide where to start my day. So I decide to start where I often start when I feel like that – I decide to take the 2 train to Brooklyn.

     When the train pulls into the station at 42nd street it is past rush hour and there is a choice of seats but I don’t sit down. I walk to the front of the carriage to the standing area by the door. No-one else is standing so I have the pole to myself. I interlace my hands loosely around it, plant my feet on either side. This is something I used to do when I wanted to get deeper into Rhea’s character. I haven’t done it in quite a while and as the train takes off and my hands pull back against the metal I think I might be doing it this morning to get deeper into my own.

     To Rhea a subway journey is like a fairground ride – a cross between a roller coaster and a ghost train. To get that feeling she needs music – I need music – without it, it just doesn’t work. She plays songs on repeat and I do that this morning too, only it’s not one of her favourite songs I’m playing, it’s one of mine: “Hero” by Family of the Year.

     Being at the front of the carriage is important because you get to see through the window into the carriage ahead of you and the reflection of what’s happening behind you at the very same time. And if you watch the swing of the metal chain that connects both carriages together, you can see the curve of the tunnel right before you feel it in the sway of your hips or the weight in your feet or the way the pole jerks and pulls against your hands.

     My favourite part – the very best part – is when the train picks up speed and gets really fast through the stations where it won’t stop. That’s why it’s good to be on an express train. This morning that was the stretch between 14th Street and Chambers, when it feels like the music picks up speed as well and there’s darkness and metal and lights and a station and darkness again and curves of wall and another station and just when you think it can’t get any faster, any curvier, any jerkier, the train slows down and this time we’re stopping.

     I didn’t used to like stopping in stations, but now I do. The trick to enjoying the stations is not to spend the time wishing the train would move again but to look outside when the doors open – properly look - at the people on the platform, the tiles on the walls, the old mosaic of the subway names. Because once I look at all that, really see it, it reminds me that I’m not just shuttling through tunnels on a train underground: I’m shuttling through tunnels on a train under New York City.

     The last burst of journey for me this morning is between Wall Street and Clark, under the river. No stations to pass through here and it feels a bit slower, slow enough to see the graffiti on the walls lit up by blue lights and the yellow-white ones. The carriage is nearly empty, just me up this front end and I sneak a look at my reflection side on in the grubby window, arms outstretched, swinging back from the pole, the metal warm now, under my fingers.

     At Clark Street I am jerked forward for the last time. The doors open. The ride is over. I jump off.

     As the train pulls away I take a photo of it on my phone – maybe I already have this blog post in mind – but I don’t stand there to watch it leave the station. The rush of energy from the jostling and the swaying and the music is still in my head, still in my body as I bounce up the platform, take the steps two at a time.

     And walking down towards the water, my song is still on repeat, until I get to the bench where I know I am going to turn it off and start to write this, while I still can.  And even without the music, the energy is still there, in the tingling of my fingers from holding the pole, in the place the pen meets the page.

     And it’s still here now – the energy – even though it is slowing down, even though I know that we are getting towards the last line, that we are nearly at the station. And even when I finish, I might still feel it, I think I will. Because I’ll remember that even when I don’t see it, the subway is still there, deep below the ground.

And that even though it runs late sometimes it can always take me home.

Friday, August 22, 2014

To the End and Back

The first time I made the journey was on the train, one of three Irish girls with pale skin and oversized backpacks. Boarding at Penn Station, we’d been nervous, indecisive about where to sit, moving twice before deciding on the four seater nearest the door so we could watch the bags while we stood between the carriages and smoked.

My smoking habit was new, just like the Converse I was wearing that carried the rumble of the train up through my feet and into my legs. If I close my eyes, I can almost feel it, that rumble and the wind that snatched the smoke from my mouth before I even had a chance to inhale.

            That’s over twenty years old, that memory, and when you write fiction for a living it can be hard to trust a memory as clear as that. But this was my first day in America, the morning I’d woken up in New York City after days and months and years of wanting to be there. At nineteen, I was finally here, my life was finally starting and even though the train ran out of track in Montauk, it didn’t feel like the end - it felt like the beginning.

            At the station, a friend was waiting, a friend who already had somewhere to live and a job. Anxious to catch up, we set out the next morning, the three of us, to find work. We started at one end of town, each taking every third bar, restaurant or shop to see if they were hiring. It was an egalitarian system that had its first test when we reached the shop selling live bait. By the time we got to the restaurant where I would end up working, our initial hope had lost its sheen and conversations were on the cusp of becoming disagreements.

I didn’t like the restaurant’s tinted windows, its sign - this wasn’t where I pictured myself working. But it was my turn. I climbed the steps slowly, secretly hoping they were fully staffed.

Inside, a woman in a long dress directed me to a booth and she sat and smoked while I told her about my experience waiting tables back in Ireland. I had no experience waiting tables - in Ireland or anywhere else - and I don’t think she believed me. I didn’t believe her when she said she’d call me the next day.

            She did call the next day, but not on the phone. Walking down main street on our second tour of job seeking, I heard my name, and when I turned around she was there, clasping her dress around her knees as she ran after me. Breathless, she told me they needed someone. A busser. I could start that night.

            It’s funny, looking back, how the trajectory of my life, of other people’s lives, hinged on that moment, as if my response was a pinball in a machine that could have bounced a different direction. If it had, a whole other reality might have happened, a reality without a lifelong friendship that was forged in that restaurant, a reality without a blind date between that friend and another, a date that led to a wedding, to children being born.

            But I’m jumping ahead. Back in Montauk, my nineteen year old self didn’t know any of that any more than she knew that this town would be the backdrop to one of the novels she dreamed of writing. But she knew she needed money. She knew she needed a job.

            I don’t have space here to describe that summer and anyway, you probably had your own summer like that - the summer where your eyes opened and you saw that there were different ways of living, of being, than the ways you’d always known. And by the time I was leaving on the train in early October, I knew that I was taking back more with me than just the money I’d earned, the clothes I’d bought on my trip to New York City, even more than the memories and the friendships. I was taking home the possibility of another version of my life, a life that could look different than the way people always told me it should look.

And I knew that I’d be back.

            That sunny September morning on the Hampton Jitney sixteen years later wasn’t my next journey to Montauk, but it is my next vivid memory of arriving and the first time I was making the journey alone. At thirty five, I was doing a lot of things alone since the break-up two years before that still felt like it should have a capital “B.” I was in New York alone working on a novel that was going to be published as part of a two book deal I’d just signed. I wasn’t far into the novel but part of it was set in New York and that was why I needed to be there to write - that was what I told people and it was true. What was also true was that there was something else I was trying to work out, something that had been bothering me for a while, something about my sexuality. Something that I’d kept hidden for so long, I could hardly see it myself.

            Montauk was quiet that morning. Windy. Standing in the circle, the flag snapped above my head and the benches I remembered always being full were empty. A purple taxi drove lazily by and my history rose up around me in 3D. The drug store, the pub on the corner, the gazebo, the diner where my friend burned her hand toasting a bagel – all of it still there, as if it had been waiting for me. I walked past the restaurant where I’d worked, the sign the same although the owners were different, and around by the Laundromat where most of my rare days off were spent. Across the road, in between the motels, I took the path to the beach, the path I’d taken so many times before. No-one else was around that morning, just the seagulls, still as stone, and before I could think about it too much I lay down, right where I was.

            Lying there, with the wind blowing sand into the pockets of my jacket and the rolled up cuffs of my jeans, I watched the light on the water, the waves. And out of the corner of my eye, I saw my nineteen year old self with her backpack of dirty laundry and her dreams; the dreams about writing books she talked about late at night over bottles of Miller Lite and the other dreams, the ones she was too scared to tell anyone about, even herself. And I took out my pad and I started to write. I wrote in a way that I’ve only written a few times in my life, the type of writing where, when it was time to go, I couldn’t make it more than a few steps without having to stop to capture the words down before they blew away, out into the waves.

            I wrote over lunch in the diner and I was still writing when the Jitney took off, wrote until we were well past Southampton. And when I finally finished, my mind had a clarity, not just about my book but about other things too. Watching the sun sink red and low behind the skinny trees, I made a decision about a woman I’d met a couple of weeks before - a decision that suddenly seemed so simple. And as the sky darkened outside and the bus sped back towards New York, I felt an ease I hadn’t felt in a long time.

That book got written, as books eventually do, and another one too that I went out to Montauk to finish last Thanksgiving, editing over four days to the rhythm of the waves outside my hotel room window.

You see, journeys out to Montauk are easier these days, now that I live in Manhattan. It’s almost five years since the decision I made on that Jitney, the small decision that led to a lot of bigger ones, decisions that led me here, to today, to an apartment on the Upper West Side where I live with my wife. And even as I write that, the magnitude of that statement catches me afresh – how so much change can be wrapped up in only a few simple words.

Now and then, people ask me how come it took so long to figure it all out; what I wanted and who I was and all of that. And I don’t always know how to answer them, how to explain it, except to say that sometimes there is no shortcut. 

Sometimes you need to go all the way to the end and back, to find your way home.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Better late than never

The first time I heard the word “lezzer” I was playing a game called “Home Truth.”  My friends and I played every day for years and that day two of us were hiding in a hedge between two gardens. A boy cycled up the driveway behind us. He was a boy we never asked to play and usually he was a quiet boy, but not that day.

“Lezzers!” he shouted. “Youse two are lezzers!”

My first concern was that he had given up our hiding place. But when my friend pushed herself far away from me and made a pukey face, I knew a lezzer must be something really bad. And that my next action was important. “No we’re not!” I shouted and pushed myself so deep into the hedge, away from her, that the branches scratched my arms.  I don’t remember the rest of the game, if we got caught or “saved ourselves,” but I do know that neither of us said anything about the incident to the others.

By my first year in secondary school, I knew, of course, what “lezzer” meant although I don’t remember who ever told me. At lunchtimes, we speculated about who might be one. Apparently one in ten girls were, some people said one in four. That meant there could be twenty five in our year. It seemed impossible that these alien girls could walk among us, preying on us and I don’t know if I fully believed it, but it didn’t stop me hypothesising, safe in the knowledge it wasn’t me.

I gave this detail to my protagonist Rhea Farrell, in my new novel “How Many Letters Are In Goodbye?” Rhea is 17 and, like me, grew up in a small village in Dublin. But Rhea is younger than me and braver than me and has been through much, much more than me. For both Rhea and I, uncovering our sexuality is gradual. There’s no flashing sign, no letter in the post, only a series of small and bigger clues. Rhea is willing to look at these clues. At 17, I wasn’t.

Did you ever ignore something for so long you forgot you were ignoring it at all? That’s what it was like. And if a new clue sneaked into my view, something I didn’t want to bring into the light, it just became something else to hide in the dark. But when my life took some turns at the start of my 30s, turns that I never wanted it to take, the lights came on and they weren’t so easy to shut off again.

Looking back, this period was painful, lonely. I was terrified to speak to anyone – not family or friends, even my gay friends. Everyone knew me as straight –I knew me as straight – and I wasn’t even sure, I had to be sure. I started to go to a lesbian group in Outhouse, creeping up Capel Street with an excuse at the ready in case I was spotted. Sitting awkwardly at the table making small talk, I envied the younger girls - they brought girlfriends, held hands, kissed. They seemed so much lighter, like somehow they’d put down the boulder of shame that weighed so heavily on me, or never picked it up at all.

They influenced my novel, those girls. They helped me to show how naturally Rhea’s sexuality unfolds for her, how pure it feels. Being gay gets tangled up in debates about religion and debates about politics but really, in the end, it’s just about love.

For me, I had to get far away to shed that shame, as far away as New York. I found love there – it found me – and after years of knowing and not knowing, I finally knew. And it felt like freedom.

Love gives you strength, it gave me strength to tell the first person and the next. Once I started to tell people I didn’t want to stop. Each time I told someone, I reclaimed something, a part of myself I’d given away before I knew how important it was.

We live in New York – my wife and I – and the only time people look at us when we walk down the street holding hands is when we march in the Gay Pride parade. It might sound over the top, but after years of silence, there’s something about the crowds, the banners, all that cheering that’s very special, more than special – it’s a feeling I can’t describe.

And I wish that I could bottle that feeling, or make a tape and somehow show it to my 17 year old self. So she could see there’s no reason to worry, there’s nothing to be afraid of, that things will work out.

No matter how long it takes.

This article was originally published in The Evening Herald on Saturday 5th July. It was also published on the Independent Online on Monday 7th July and is available here:

Learning to listen

Last month, I turned 40. Having an age that ends with a ‘0’ makes you think – it makes me think. And the collision of this milestone birthday with the publication of my third novel is making me think about writing, and its place in my life.

When people ask if I always wanted to be a writer, I answer “yes” without hesitation, but I’m not 100% sure that’s true. For a long time I wanted to be a cartoonist, and before then, I wanted to be a detective, like Nancy Drew. But I loved writing essays and when I didn’t have essays for homework, I sometimes wrote plays on the back of stationery that Dad brought home from work.

Nancy Drew came from the library in Dun Laoghaire where I went with my parents every Saturday morning. The pride of the children’s section was an Apple computer with one game that we lined up to play, where you had to get a frog safely across the road. And although I loved that frog as much as the next kid, waiting in the queue, I always had my head in a book.

I’d like to say that in my teens I devoured Jane Austen and the Brontes but I’d be lying: I was more of a Judy Blume and Agatha Christie kind of girl. Classics scared me with their old fashioned words and tiny print and it wasn’t until fifth year that my English teacher opened them up for me so I could see the world these writers lived in wasn’t so different from mine. She had a big impact on me, that teacher. She encouraged me to write creative essays instead of the standard ones about unemployment or Ireland’s role in the E.E.C.  I seem to remember her taking me aside one day, telling me to keep writing, that I had a knack for it, but I might be editing that scene in. You have to watch that kind of thing when you’re a fiction writer.

The book that had the most impact on me as a teenager was “The Catcher in the Rye.” I had that edition with the yellow cover and black writing, the finish so smooth it felt like silk when you rubbed it against your cheek. It was on my reading list at U.C.D. and I will never forget reading that first line, the first paragraph. I didn’t know that “literature” could sound like that, that it was possible for a writer to create a voice in my head that I could hear as clearly as my own. I wanted to do that, to create a character that would do that. And that’s when I decided to write a novel.

I was 17 – the same age as Rhea, the protagonist in my new novel “How Many Letters Are In Goodbye?” – when I made that decision. I talked about the novel I would write, talked about it into my 20s, conversations that became increasingly urgent late at night after several glasses of red wine. It wasn’t all talking, I did some writing too. I joined classes, enjoyed them, but once they were over, I’d stop. To write a novel I needed a desk, a laptop, a room to write. One by one, I got these things but I still wasn’t writing. There was something else I needed: I needed time.

Looking back, it was a simple lesson that took me ages to learn– that if I wanted to write I had to make time for it, just like I made time for going out with my friends or going to the gym or watching television. It was the rapper Eminem who helped me finally get it. One day in the car, I heard him say that his songs wouldn’t write themselves, and, sitting looking out at the Donnybrook traffic, I realised my novel wouldn’t either. Thirty was looming large on the horizon by then, and the next week I took a deep breath, walked into my boss’s office and asked for six months off. We agreed on three.

One of the scariest parts of that was telling people what I was doing. I contemplated pretending I was travelling around South America but that seemed an impossible lie to pull off and besides I knew I’d run into someone on the DART. So I told the truth and people said things like: “I didn’t know you were a writer” and I’d feel like a fraud - I wasn’t a writer at all, only pretending. But every time I told them, it was a good thing, because I wasn’t only telling them, I was telling myself. And by the end of that three months I’d written thousands of words, tens of thousands. I had characters. I had a plot. I thought I had a novel.

The best present I got for my 31st birthday was an e-mail from an agent. I’d sent her the first three chapters a while before, and although her response was brief, it included the word “love” and said she wanted to talk on the phone. I don’t remember much about that birthday, but I remember the phone call the following week, hunched on my mobile in my boss’s office. I’d allowed half an hour and we spoke for 40 minutes. The opening minute went well, where she complimented my writing style but before I had a chance to bask in her praise she’d moved on to issues with structure and narrative and pace, issues that she seemed unable to move off for the remainder of the call. By the time I hung up, I’d covered three foolscap pages with scribbled notes. My hand was sore, my head was too. I was late for a meeting and slipping into the back of the room one message rang loud and clear in my ears: I wasn’t good enough, the book wasn’t good enough, I never should have tried.

Now, of course, I see it – that she wouldn’t have spent that long with me if she didn’t see any promise - but I didn’t see it then, I didn’t see it for a long time. I had been editing the book on weekends but I stopped after that, put it away. Weeks passed, months, before I was able to take it out again. And as I reread my old draft, a small voice told me that she was right, something I think I’d known since the day of the phone call, something that somehow made it worse. But even if she was right, what was I supposed to do? How would I know what to throw away and what to keep?  And could I just start again?

To finish something, I need to be open to starting again – chapters, paragraphs, sentences, sometimes whole stories. I learned that from her, just like I learned how vital it is to share my work with people I trust, people who can see things I can’t see yet. And to listen to them. I learned to listen too, to that small voice, the one that knew she was right. I learned that voice doesn’t care about sounding clever or being published, it only cares about being expressed. And the more I listened, the louder that voice became, and with a lot of help, that mass of words did become a novel, my first novel that was published a few days after I turned 36.

I’m writing this in a park in New York. I live here now. Life happened, as all that was happening, more life in my 30s than any other decade so far. I faced truths I’d hidden away back when I was reading Judy Blume and in the facing of them I got to go deeper within myself and deeper in my relationships. I got to go deeper in my writing.

I have a part time job here in the city and the best part of this is teaching creative writing. My students are mostly homeless - living in shelters or on the street – and they have stories to tell. Every week, I set them exercises for homework and one they like a lot is the listening exercise. The rhythm of a conversation, the hiss a bus makes before it takes off from its stop, the clack of the subway turnstile – the exercise is simple but not easy: they have to listen and write down what they hear.

Over the past year, I’ve noticed how this has helped them introduce all the senses into their writing, to set a scene, but it’s helping them in other ways too. They’re listening to their own voices, refining, honing, expressing more simply, more sharply. And today, at 40, if there’s any kind of secret to writing I think it’s that: just to listen. Listen and write – it’s what they’re learning to do, it’s what I’m learning to do.  I think that’s all there is. 

"Learning to listen" was originally published by the Irish Times on Friday 13th June and is available here:

Friday, May 23, 2014

30 Things I Learned in my 30s

The year I turned 30 I took three months off from my job to write. I’d always wanted to write a novel - I’d talked about it for most of my 20s. But at 30, I was ready to really give it a go. I was ready to write, rather than talk about writing.

Now, it’s ten years later. I’m three weeks into my 40s. Books have been written, decisions made, life turns taken that I never could have foreseen. So I thought I’d make a list of things I learned along the way, things I want to remember, because I know I’ll forget them again…

  1. Being afraid is not a good enough reason to stop you doing something.
  2. Getting published doesn’t make you a better writer, but it makes other people think you are a better writer.
  3. It is a good idea to check the bathroom in Starbucks is working before you order a Venti Soy Chai latte.
  4. Manhattan real estate brokers don’t negotiate. Ever.
  5. When a bucket of cement is lodged under your Volkswagen Golf, the only way to remove it is to drive really fast, then brake suddenly.
  6. Eve Lom cleanser is worth every penny.
  7. Things don’t always work out the way you want them to.
  8. Very often that’s a good thing.
  9. The better I get to know myself, the better I can get to know you.
  10. Six weeks is just about enough time to pack up a house, a business and a life, and move to the other side of the Atlantic.
  11. Most people do the best they can, most of the time.
  12. Even if the above statement is not true, it helps me to believe it is.
  13. Being a good listener means you have to really listen, not formulate in your head what you want to say next.
  14. Living thousands of miles apart from friends and family can sometimes bring you closer.
  15. There really is no such thing as being “good” or “bad” at yoga, there is only intention and practice and being present to your own experience on your own mat.
  16. When you sign a form before an operation allowing them to take a different medical action if they need to, you should take it seriously.
  17. The terror of “coming out” becomes worth it when you love someone.
  18. Every time you do it, it gets easier.
  19. Avocado on toasted McCambridge’s bread (with butter) is perfect at any time of day.
  20. Just because someone is fidgeting in the front row of your reading doesn’t mean they hate your book – they may have a bockety chair.
  21. My only hope of ever getting the future I want, is to stay in the present.
  22. Even though I feed off New York’s energy, when I spend too much time in Midtown Manhattan, it starts to feed off mine.
  23. It’s important to say what I think, even when it’s not the same thing you think.
  24. I need to spend time alone.
  25. No matter how many colours of Converse I get, I will always wear white the most.
  26. Sometimes the Universe does things for me that I can’t do for myself.
  27. My body is often smarter than my mind.
  28. It’s OK if you don’t agree with my opinion: it doesn’t mean either of us has to be wrong.
  29. There is no greater freedom than the freedom of being seen as you really are.
  30. I’ll probably know less in ten years than I think I know now.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Home away from home

I have something else I should be doing right now, a whole list of things in fact. I hadn’t planned on writing a blog post today and certainly not this one. But sometimes things happen that you just need to write about – that I just need to write about – and this is one of them.

Today, I learned that Virayoga is closing its doors.

I was on the 1 train when I read the e-mail that I received yesterday. I might have left it unread for another day or so, but the headline caught me: “Important News from Virayoga.” And so I opened it.

I want to write that reading the e-mail “my heart sank”, something like that, and one of the things I find most frustrating about writing is that when I want to express real emotion, my mind tries to shortcut it with a cliché like that. Because what I want to write about, what I want to capture, is what Virayoga has meant – still means – to me.

I moved to New York from Dublin on 27th October 2011, arriving late on a Thursday night. Less than 48 hours later, amidst an unseasonably early snow storm, I made my way downtown to SoHo and up the stairs of 580 Broadway to take class. It wasn’t my first time at Vira. I’d first come in 2008, a year into my yoga practice at a time when my eyes were drawn to others’ mats instead of focusing on my own. I’d been so intimidated by everyone around me that I couldn’t wait for the 90 minutes to end. But over time, as my practice evolved and I became a bit stronger, I’d check back in, try a new teacher or class, until every time I visited New York, Vira had a slot on my schedule, or more than one.

I’ve written a lot about my move from Ireland, how about unaware I was really, until I got here, of how big a transition it was for me. And in those early days of being uprooted and not yet planted in New York City, I gravitated towards Vira more and more. Looking back, I don’t think I’d have been able to articulate how important Vira was for me then, I don’t think I even knew. All I knew, was that during this time of so much change, when my belongings were still on a ship or on a dock somewhere, when not even the brand of deodorant I could buy was the same as back in Ireland, that yoga provided something I needed. And that through the classes I took in Vira I found a constancy, a consistency, a gentleness, a welcome.

A home.

Mostly, I took Elena’s classes. Elena is known all over the world and lots of people had urged me to try her but until the summer before I moved something had held me back. Elena owned the studio and I’d heard her classes were full of teachers – everyone, in fact, who recommended her, was a teacher. And after four years of yoga, I was still often mistaken for a complete beginner because I couldn’t put my shoulder blades on my back properly and my left hip refused to open and I was terrified of handstand. I am still terrified of handstand. So, if it wasn’t for a workshop she'd taught with Sianna Sherman that August, I might never have made it to Elena’s class at all. I might never have realised that Elena’s were the classes I should have been taking all along.

Her Tuesday class at 12 o’clock quickly became my staple and every week I went there, even structuring my work schedule around it. The new friends I was making would ask, the way New Yorkers do, why I would travel “all the way” from Midtown to SoHo for yoga when there was a studio across the street from where I lived? What was so special about Vira? What was so special about Elena as a teacher?

I liked when people asked, to get a chance to talk about it and yet I didn’t like it because I felt like I never could quite explain the feeling I got walking up the stairs and into the dimly lit studio, rolling out my olive green mat on the highly polished floor. How Elena’s precision, her curiosity, her gentleness and her sense of humour made every class exciting, different – revelatory, even. How after a class with Elena, in a way I didn’t quite understand, I got to know myself better – my body, my heart, my mind. That in her sharing so much of herself – even the parts of herself she didn’t like, especially those – she showed me what courage looked like and the freedom in honesty and true acceptance, things that took me way beyond the mat.

Elena is at the heart of Virayoga but Vira’s heart beats in everyone who works there, everyone who practices. I enjoyed so many classes, so many teachers. There were days when I wanted to be held in the gentleness of Andrea Frade’s candlelit Sunday practice or have fun with Kevin Lamb or Jorja Rivero in her star speckled yoga pants. I can remember stories told by Eric Stoneberg and Laura Juell and most recently been introduced to the idea of the universe of stars beneath my very own skin by Ally Bogard. I’ve walked back onto the chaos of Broadway in blinding sun and teeming rain and often, this winter, in flurries of snow. And each time, every time, I’ve been a different person than the one who walked in.

Finishing my latest novel has impacted many areas of my life this past year, and yoga is one of them. But over the last few weeks I’ve been reconnecting again, climbing those stairs again, rolling out my mat on the highly polished floor again. Only yesterday, I made a note of when my class card will run out and resolved to buy another, to keep up this momentum into the summer.

So when I read the e-mail on the 1 train this morning, I’ll say it, I don’t mind saying it: my heart sank.

But I don’t want this blog post to end on a sinking heart. Because for me Vira has been about beginnings, about grace, about showing up - on the mat, in life, whatever direction that leads me in. I took class while waiting for biopsy results last year, I took class the night before my partner’s hip replacement. I took class when I finished the first draft of my novel, when I got engaged. I will be taking class tonight.

Vira has been there for me through so much in the last two and a half years and more than anything, what I want to say in this blog post is “thank you.” To Elena, to all the teachers, all the staff, for creating something magical, somewhere special. For providing, in the middle of this mass of movement and energy and bodies that is New York City, a place of stillness, of comfort, of cradling.

For bringing me home. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

How to be a man

Last year, I was honoured to be asked by Colum McCann to take part in the launch of his non-profit project Narrative 4 and to write 800 words on the first assignment: "How to be a man."

My take on this is below and you can read pieces from other writers and find out more about Narrative 4 here:

Last night was 86 nights. I know it’s 86 because of the row of dents in the wallpaper. The first dent is deeper because it’s in the squashy patch, under the windowsill. I always make the dent before I cover Betty’s ears, even though I know she can’t hear because they’re made of fur.
I keep thinking Mammy will see the dents when she changes the sheets, but she hasn’t changed the sheets. She changed the sheets every two weeks before, but maybe I’m remembering wrong.
The day Mrs Taylor catches me sleeping at school I don’t know I’m sleeping until I’m awake and the other girls are laughing because of the wet on my cheek and my copy. Afterwards, I have to stay back.
‘How’s everything at home, Grainne?’ It’s Monday so she’s wearing her beige jumper and brown blouse. Her breath smells cigarettey.
Lisa went on ahead to tell her Mam to wait for me and I hope they do because it’s raining.
‘How’s your Mam?’
She nods. ‘You’d miss not having a man around.’
In the car, Lisa’s making faces at her brother but I don’t join in because I’m thinking about what Mrs Taylor said. At home, I start the list:
1.      Drive the car.
2.      Fix things.
3.      Mow the grass in the summer.
4.      Make her laugh.
5.      Give her money.
6.      Put the bin out.
I think that’s everything, except for sleeping in her bed and I have my own bed. The car was taken away after his accident and nothing needs to be fixed and it’s not the summer. 
That leaves the laughing and the money and the bin.
I’m no good at jokes, I’m always forgetting, so I learn the ones in the back of Whizzer & Chips by heart.  That night, I try one.
‘How much does it cost to keep a polar bear as a pet?’
She looks at me as if I’m far away, even though I’m only on the bed.
‘We’re not getting a pet, Grainne.’
‘It’s a joke, Mammy. Guess!’
She shrugs.
‘Nothing – they live on ice!’
I laugh. She smiles and says ‘that’s funny,’ but her smile doesn’t go as far as her eyes. I try another joke in the morning, about walruses. She calls me a joker. She doesn’t laugh.
Thursday is bin night.
In the dark, the garage is scarier because you can’t see the spiders. The handles of the bin are too far apart. When Daddy lifted it, he made it easy. I imagine he’s there, giving me super powers of strength. When the bin falls over it makes a big crash, and I think Mammy will come in and give out but she doesn’t hear it.
Tonight, is night 87.
The money slides in my shoe. The pointy corners where it’s folded, catch in my sock. I didn’t want it falling out of my pocket. I imagine Mrs Taylor saying, ‘Where did you get that twenty pounds from, Grainne?’ and my face going red and everyone knowing I’m a bad girl. And I’m not really, I don’t want to be. Anyway, Lisa’s Mam still had four twenties left.
Daddy always left the money in the kitchen, behind the windmill from Holland, but I can’t put it there, so I sneak into Mammy’s room. The smell is like Daddy, but not like Daddy, and I know it’s because the laundry basket still has his socks and shirts inside. The black patent bag she’s used every day since the funeral is on the floor. Her purse has a zip and it sticks but then it’s open.
That night, tucking me in, she gets into bed with me and Betty. She’s already crying. She still has her shoes on. It’s squashy and hot.
‘I need money, Mammy. For school.’
‘We’ve got swimming tomorrow. It’s £1.25.’
Swimming’s not for two weeks.
‘I’ll leave it out later, love.’
‘You might forget. Please, Mammy.’
She pushes herself up, wipes her face. The mattress goes down like a valley and then flat. I hear her in her room, opening her bag. I think I hear the zip getting stuck but I’m only imagining. When she comes back she has a pound note, two ten Ps and a five.
‘There.’ She wraps the coins in the money and puts it on the chest of drawers.
‘Thanks, Mammy.’
She kisses me on the hair. She’s stopped crying. She must have seen the twenty. It must have worked.
After she turns out the light, me and Betty lie there, listening to her on the landing, the stairs. We must have fallen asleep, because then I’m awake, and then I hear her.
I find the right place on the wall, dig my nail in.
I cover Betty’s ears.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Hurry Up and Wait...

I don’t like waiting.

I don’t like waiting and I’m not very good at it. I don’t have a lot of – what’s it called again? – patience, that’s it. I don’t have a lot of patience.

People are sometimes surprised to hear that. Some people have even remarked on my patience, praised me for it. That makes me feel good, when that happens, it makes me wonder if maybe I am patient after all. But just because I can fake it, just because I can keep smiling while someone ahead of me at the Subway is swiping their Metrocard five times to get through the turnstile, doesn’t mean I’m patient. It doesn’t mean I’m smiling inside.

Patience, waiting – these are not things that you associate with living in New York. It’s the city that never sleeps after all, everyone is doing something. Diners, shops even hairdressers stay open 24 hours a day. Trains glide into the station as you jump down the final step onto the platform. The guy in the deli on the corner makes your sandwich exactly to your specifications in record time every time – and everyone else’s sandwich as well.

In a city like New York it’s easy for the little grammes of patience that you possess – that I possess – to somehow flitter away.  I notice it in little things, silly things – two people in a queue for the bathroom at Starbucks means I’ll leave and find another one. A train in ten minutes means leaving the station walking the seven blocks to the express stop.

Sometimes, over dinner, I’ll tell my partner about these little details of my day and she might laugh. She might ask why I wouldn’t just wait for the train, point out that it will take almost ten minutes to walk to the 96th Street station anyway, so I’m not really saving time.

            She has a point, I know that. Still, I try and explain it to her: how walking to another station is doing something and doing something – anything – is better than doing nothing, better than waiting. I explain it all as best as I can, but she doesn’t really get it.

Sometimes I don’t get it either.

            Today, right now, right this minute, I am waiting. I am waiting for my publisher to send me through the final copy of my latest novel to proof read. I’ve been waiting all week, or maybe more than that. Maybe as soon as I hit the ‘send’ button and my copy edits were winging their way through cyberspace, maybe my wait began then. Right now, it’s 11am here in New York which means there’s only another hour to go in Ireland before the business day is over. And if I don’t get an e-mail with the proofs by then, the rest of my day will be pretty free and I’ll be waiting for another whole weekend.

            At this juncture, I need to point out that there is no urgency for me to receive this proof copy today. The novel publication date has been moved until June so we have more time. More time is good: more time means we will catch more things on the proof copies, fewer chances of mistakes, more time to find the exact right shout line and tweak the blurb for the back of the jacket. More time, in fact, is what I’ve wanted all along, I was asking my editor for more time last summer, last autumn, last month. And now I have it, I want it to hurry up and pass, but instead, I have to wait.

            This week – this wait – is what’s really made me think about all this, my patience or lack of it, what it’s all about. I started to see how obsessively I was checking my e-mail, skimming over mails from friends and marking them ‘unread’ while I searched for my editor’s name. Before I get out of bed, I find myself reaching for my phone, something I usually never do before I meditate. And twice this week, after yoga, still in the glow of Savasana, there I was, plucking it from my bag, pulling down the screen to refresh my inbox even though it’s past midnight in Ireland.

            On Monday, I talked to a friend about it – a fellow writer and a musician – about this waiting, this obsession. Rather than make suggestions about how to get my editor to reply quicker or fill my time, she said something else - she asked how I was feeling.  We were standing at the Subway station at 14th Street and it was freezing. I dug my hands deep in my pockets. We didn’t have a lot of time, it was too cold to hang around. I wanted to tell her the truth, but it wasn’t sure what it was. I thought it about it and I guessed – I said it might be something like sadness, it might be something like loss.

            Under her big fur hood she smiled a nice smile. She squeezed my shoulder, hugged me. “You’re grieving,” she said. “It always happens to me when I finish something big. Have you never felt it when you’ve finished a book before?”

            I thought about her question the whole way home on the train – the express train that I’d taken rather than hang around for the local, even though it would bring me closer to home. And I thought about it waiting on the lift in my apartment building, as I checked my e-mail.

Four days later, I’m still thinking about what she asked me –writing about it now – to dig these feelings up, prise them out, so I can look at them more clearly and find out exactly what they are. And I’m remembering my other books, the process of finishing and how that rolled straight into the chaos of publication – into PR and promotions and parties. And I’m thinking that in all of that, the whirl of that, that these feelings – grief is surely too strong a word? -  got lost, got buried, got hidden. And that being hidden isn’t the same as going away.

It’s coming up to twelve o’clock. She’s not going to send the proof today. She may not send it on Monday or Tuesday either. She has other authors, other books, other deadlines after all. There are other people who are waiting. It’s not just me.

A month ago, two months, seven months ago I would have looked at this future version of myself with a free Friday afternoon in New York with envy. In August, when I spent Saturdays at the library while my partner was at the beach, in December, trudging past the Christmas lights of Bryant Park market after a day of work to begin an evening of edits, I would have given anything for a day like today. A day that I can spend doing my own thing, with real people, rather than characters I made up in my head.

What I am about to write next makes me scared that you will judge me or think I am crazy, which is exactly why I know that I must write it. The truth is that I miss them – those characters in my head. I miss their stories, their lives. I miss the timbre of their voices and the scenes we created together. I miss Rhea Farrell, my feisty seventeen year old protagonist. I miss the way she sees things around her and the things she doesn’t see yet, and that only I know she’ll see things differently in a few months, or a few chapters or a few pages.

 Maybe that’s okay, to miss her – to miss them. Maybe that’s part of it. And maybe it’s okay to feel scared too, about what might happen to them next when the book is published, about whether critics and readers and friends will like them too. Maybe that’s what this waiting is for and maybe all of it, every single bit of it, is okay.

I’m going to finish up there because it feels like the end and because I have a Friday afternoon free with not all that much to do. I’m in Starbucks and I need to use the bathroom before I leave and I’ve decided that no matter how many people are in the queue, I’m going to join it. And I’m not going to check my phone, or check my watch, I’m just going to stand there, breathing.

I’m just going to just wait.