Evening all. The blog has been quiet for a week because my productivity in summer seems to slow right down, and my patience with my children has all but dried up completely. The older one is upstairs, WAILING because she stubbed her toe at dancing and suddenly, upon being told it was bedtime, the pain returned with such ferocity that it triggered a full on attack of THE RAGES . Earlier they had been quite good. ‘Off you go to yoga!’ I told LSB. ‘Sun salute your way to serenity, all grand here!’ No it fucking isn’t. My head is pounding and I’ve a ‘to do list’ that would would stretch from here to Brittany. BUT ANYWAY, sorry for the rant there, and on to more life-affirming topics.
Last night I had a slot at an event at the Eastside Arts Festival, and it attracted a cracker audience who were ever so appreciative, and was beautifully curated by Jan Carson. It is a never-ending source of wonder to me how Jan manages to stay AWAKE, given the number of arts-related projects she’s involved in, or indeed ORGANISING. But not only did she remain wide-eyed throughout but she read some of her gorgeous stories and entertained us too. (Check out her tale about the bloke with the brick babies. It was my favourite. I’m a sucker for a bit of magic realism).
Stephen Connolly showed his musical side, playing a few soulful tunes about people being miserable and did a superb rendition of Leonard Cohen. I liked that very much. He seems a most affable fellow and my husband has all but persuaded him to come to parkrun so we could be best buds in no time.
Speaking of buddies, I’d rather like to pull the fabulous Emer Maguire into my circle of acquaintances. I almost did myself an injury guffawing at her song about morphing into middle class and eating avocado in over-priced cafés. ‘That would be me then,’ I thought, but then I’ve never been one to berate myself for being middle-class. As a student, I remember cooking up three course feasts for my friends, and then ringing my mum because I had no money left. She and my brother then found a receipt from Tesco and saw my purchases in black and white. ‘King Prawns. Chicken Breasts. Tesco’s Finest Ciabatta’.
‘No wonder she’s blooming’ broke said The Mothership.
Back to Emer. If I could just direct you to her website, have a quick peruse. (Just don’t if you’re having a bit of a downer because trust me, you’ll feel like an under-achiever.)
What a preamble that was! If you’re still here, and you’d like to read my piece from last night it’s just below. But first, I’d just like to thank all my terrific friends who showed up to see me. Trust me, I know what it’s like trying to get to a 7pm gig when your youngsters are going berserk. And my pals Maureen and Malachi came too, and if anyone should be over-saturated with the arts it’s that pair, but there they were, full of bonhomie and fun with their mate Joan to boot. LSB was there, fixing projectors and opening wine for people. He’s a good egg. And the folks, they came along too, and thank goodness they did. Mum made a rather manic gesture before proceedings began. I trotted over. ‘What’s up?’ I said. ‘If you want to cross your legs like that you need to wear a longer dress,’ said The Mothership. ‘The front row got a right eyeful,’ said Dad. Luckily, I knew the front row well. I assumed a more ladylike posture after that.
I write a blog called Sour Wee Bastard, and as the name suggests, I can be a bit of a whinger, and I’m inclined to think that yes, everything does get worse all the time. Sometimes I feel the overwhelm so acutely, that I have periods of great despair and despondency. But Yeats coined the oxymoron ‘terrible beauty’ and I find it an apt term for existence in general. In order to experience life at it’s most fulfilling, we have to accept that there’s a lot of shite too. Thus we must find ways to elevate ourselves when all seems lost. So this evening I’m going to share with you my top six tips on how to do this.
Number One– Ring Your Mammy.
Now The ‘Mothership’, as she appears on the blog, can be at once caustic and insightful; an odd mix but there you have it. And she is, happily, just at the end of the phone when I get beside myself. A couple of years ago I got a trifle fraught. I can remember the exact moment when, while putting on the umpteenth load of washing that day, I heard on the 6 Music news that the Russians had annexed Crimea. My bIood ran cold. ‘It’s starting,’ I thought. I rang my mum.
‘It’s me,’ I said, voice aquiver. ‘Oh hello, I’m just sitting here, having a cup of tea,’ said the Mothership, ‘with a nice slice of ginger cake, from the market. You sound very glum.’
(Me) ‘It’s the Russians. I think there’s going. To. Be. A. Third. World. War.’
(Mothership) ‘Are you on the drink dear?’
(Me) ‘It’s three thirty.’
(Mothership) ‘Hasn’t stopped you before. You’re talking terrible nonsense. I thought we had discussed this ‘end of the world business.’ It’s getting very tiresome.’
(Me) It’s getting very close. They’ll be all out nuclear warfare, this is just the start of it.
(Mothership) I’ll ask your dad. RONNIE? Come down off that ladder before you brain yourself. The child’s demented here, because of the Russians.
(Me) And Trump.
(Mothership) And Trump she says. Do you think we should be worried?
He’s shaking his head. Probably not, he says, though he’s not watching the news anymore. Honestly, if it’s not about the Napoleonic Wars for that U3A he’s in, he’s not interested.
Listen, your grandmother survived the Blitz, hiding under the very table I’m sitting at here, trying to drink my tea. Do you think she ran round worrying the end was nigh? She did not. Too much to do! And we’re all still here aren’t we?
Now we’ll just put on us here and come up and see you. Will I pick up a baguette in Asda?
After a chat like that I always feel better. We may all be heading to hell in a handcart, but at least there’s tea and cake and helpful parents.
Do something useful. So many things are a bit rubbish. But if we make a small effort in our own lives to volunteer, to recycle, to involve ourselves in creative projects, we will at least feel as though we’re contributing to something. At the John Hewitt Summer School this July I met a writer by the name of Angeline King, who has formed a Regeneration Project in Larne. Working with local communities they plant flowers, paint murals and run round the town yanking up weeds like mad guerrilla gardeners. It made me want to visit Larne. That had never happened before. If there’s hope for Larne, there’s hope for all of us.
Yes, when I listen to the news, it makes me want to run the bath, pop on Radio Head and marinade in vodka. But that’s not very useful is it, so I might write instead, or of a Saturday morning, I head down to parkrun to meet other people who have dragged themselves from their pits and instead of languishing, are starting their day in a more positive manner.
Tend your garden. I got this from Voltaire’s Candide. Candide faces all manner of misery, surviving plagues and earthquakes and seeing the woman he idolises reduced to being a toothless old crone with syphilis, but throughout, he remains stoical. The novel concludes with him shacking up with a crowd of like-minded survivors, growing their own food and looking after each other.
So when you feel beaten down by the squalid aspects of the modern world, don’t go to Tesco and buy a budget cottage pie, devoid of all nutrients, and let’s face it, hope. Feel the earth under your fingernails and plant a few courgettes. You have to be a special sort of a person not to be able to grow courgettes: they are prolific. And if the thought of organic veg doesn’t soothe your soul, perhaps just being outside in the air may bring you some respite.
Find comfort in literature. Everyone has suffered, but some people put their agonies to good use and write about it. One of my favourite authors is Maggie O’Farrell. She has nearly died 17 times, as she chronicles in her latest book, but I’m almost glad she’s had such a rough trot since it’s given her plenty of experiences from which to draw. Her novels help me transcend the misery of Brexit, of Trump, and life’s frustrations. She sharpens the experience of what it is to be human, and there is always, in her work, a sense of redemption and reconciliation. Could Stormont do with a dose of Maggie O’Farrell? I’m thinking yes.
Beckett too is worth listening to when your soul’s in torment. My friend Aisling is a massive fan, (and bless, her, she sent me this quote because reading through endless Beckett would have me mainlining the drugs). Pozzo tells us in ‘Waiting For Godot,’:
The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors.
Looking around, we can be inclined to think that things have never been direr, but this is not true. I like to think of the Greek concept of the wheel of fortune. Sometimes we’re up, and sometimes we learn that Californian Holocaust deniers are running unchallenged for the Senate, but if we can employ some of the thinking of the Stoics, we may be able to maintain a degree of serenity, whatever our predicament.
If the life you have chosen has stopped bringing you joy, then choose another. After a few miserable years, I finally caught on to this. In my opinion, no one can truly appreciate stress until they’ve done a day’s work in a pressure cooker of a school, picked up two small, tired children, and had to make a right turn from a crèche onto the Annadale Embankment at rush-hour.
‘Quiet now, stop crying, just let me out of here. Your picture’s lovely pet, lovely, I’ll see it we get home. ‘Will she let me out? Will she! She will! Thank you! Aren’t people nice girls? OH FUCK ME WHERE DID HE COME FROM? God Almighty!
When my second child started using choice language of her own, aged two, I knew I had to exact a change in my life. (Incidentally, her first word was ‘No,’ and that continues to be one she employs a lot.)
And finally number 6. My father offers some sage advice, but this is by far his best. When you feel something niggling away at you, such as a feeling of gross ineptitude or abject terror, he advises: don’t feed it. I used to torture myself over things I couldn’t change, and they would mushroom out of control until I felt riven by dread. What a waste of time. As my yoga teacher Elizabeth says, if you get a parking ticket, pay the bill, then let it go. They’ve taken your money, don’t give them anything else.
But ironically, since I started writing Sour Wee Bastard, and airing my grievances, I’ve started feeling a whole lot chirpier. I’ve stopped suppressing all my rage and feelings of impotence and articulate them instead. In fact, some of my readers have conveyed to me that they feel a bit short-changed, since I’ve started being more up-beat and brighter. Don’t worry, I tell them, I can still be an acerbic old bag, and at least I can direct my vitriol at some of the feckers who deserve it.
Thus to conclude, when it all gets too dark, jog, volunteer, help people, or write your way out of the mire. Love and consideration are so undervalued by our politicians and world leaders. Maybe subtle changes in our own lives can show them what’s what.