Fallout Girl

I meet the New Year with mixed feelings; something has got to give but, man, it has been so glorious eating and drinking the shit out of everything for weeks now. Now to deal with the fallout – it’s back to work tomorrow and I don’t seem to be sufficiently stocked in stretchy professional clothing. My current plan is to rotate the two outfits that do still fit until, incrementally, more of my wardrobe becomes accessible again. I’m hoping my colleagues won’t notice. Maybe I can change things up with earrings – my earrings all still fit.

Next problem is how to make it so I can get back into the rest of my clothes. I have had that conversation with myself about how weight is just a number, and I should focus on the positive aspects of myself – but my charming personality isn’t going to help me fit into my clothes, and I will not, WILL NOT, buy bigger pants! In my career as an educator I have always found that where I set the bar for my students, was exactly where they rose to. Sadly, the same can be said for the clothes in my closet – whatever the largest size is, I will expand to fill it.

In Ireland there’s a decent lag time between the last mince pie and the first beach day. Not so in Florida. We were at the beach on December 27th – horrifying! On top of my fear of bathing suits, clues that the time has come to apply the brakes include my total avoidance of being in photos and, when cornered, the way I terrify random children as I grab them to place in front of me before saying, “cheese” (chin tilted just so). Another big tip off was that when playing around with a photo editing app recently, I was seriously considering being okay with my Facebook friends thinking that my teenage daughter was pregnant – if I pulled her stomach out just so it made my waist look much smaller. Signs!

So here’s my plan for the New Year, and it encompasses more than just dealing with my current roundness: I am committing to thirty minutes of goodness each day. Ten minutes to each area I feel needs attention. I promise myself to exercise for ten minutes each day, to mediate for ten minutes each day, and to write for ten minutes each day. I feel I can force myself to squeeze thirty minutes out of the day for these things. And the hope is that once I have done ten minutes a day for a while, some synapses will have connected in my old brain so that it gets easier to expand the duration of each thing. In the interim I’ll also do that God awful thing of trying to expend more calories than I  consume (hate that).

In the hopes that my derriere soon stops progressing up my back, that is the plan. I have already removed the bad stuff from the house; not as noble as it sounds – I ate it all. Today I did more than my ten minutes of writing (voila!), I mediated for a whole 17 minutes, and shocked the hell out of my poor, neglected elliptical machine for a full 15 minutes. Now let’s see how fabulous I am with a ten hour work day in the mix. But I do feel that the two pairs of pants situation will be a motivator. Otherwise, I’ll be investing heavily in earrings.

Waiting for the Hurricane (Irish Times)

Hurricane season in Florida runs from June 1st to November 30th. Veteran Floridians know that those five months are also silly season for local news and weather shows; the slightest bit of movement off the coast of Africa is likely to lead to pronouncements of impending doom. Usually the cloudy clumps on the weather map disperse or veer off, leaving the TV weather guys crestfallen, and the rest of us chuckling at our own insightfulness in not having been bothered to begin with. Sometimes, however, the pronouncements are accurate.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992 is a prime example of that. Andrew, a category 5 hurricane, hit a year before I moved to Orlando, but my cousin Val ran into it on his honeymoon in South Florida, and described it terms that put hurricanes right at the top of my “things I may not like about living in Florida” list – even beating alligators, mosquitos and snakes.

And of course, I didn’t arrive here a veteran Floridian; my first few years in residence I watched every slight swirl in the Atlantic with the exact degree of attention and trepidation that the weather guys wanted me to. Ten years in and I had noticed a definite pattern of dissipation or redirection, leading me to become almost native grade blasé about the whole hurricane thing. Until Charley, that is.

In August, 2004, it became clear that one particular swirly mass coming headed towards Florida was not going to fade into oblivion. Veteran Floridians tend to play chicken with hurricanes. Even when the weather guys were yelling, “we really mean it this time”, it was only when the storm was a couple of days out that we started to pay attention. In fact, I went straight from blasé to terrified with no stops in between.

There’s something incredibly surreal about an approaching hurricane. We could see the storm tracking towards us on our TV screens and there was nothing we could really do about it other than stock up on water, canned food, batteries, flash lights, ice and such. The grocery store shelves were ransacked. I remember thinking it was odd how bread was such a hot commodity (people seem compelled to make sandwiches in hurricanes). Alcohol, more understandably, is also a hurricane staple, and hurricane parties are actually a thing.

In 2004, my husband Tom and I had expanded our tribe to include a one-year-old, a three-year-old and a five-year-old. We got as prepared as we could. We brought in outside furniture and anything that might become a projectile. We stocked up on the recommended supplies, filled the cars up with petrol, and reckoned the rest was out of our control. Then Tom had to go to work; he’s a firefighter and is wont to be at work during hurricanes and such. That left me, our three children, my mother, and our friend Colin, taking shelter in our little tree shaded bungalow as the winds picked up.

We watched the TV coverage for as long as we could before huddling into a small interior hallway which we had furbished with a single bed mattress, blankets, flashlights, water and food. Listening to the winds whipping outside, punctuated by the occasional crash and bang, was totally unnerving. Tornadoes were a worry so we tried to notice changes in the stormy concerto; anything that might signal that impending doom we had heard about for so long. The storm seemed to last for hours, but when things finally quieted down, Colin announced that he would venture out to assess the damage. We had heard one particularly painful metallic crunch, and that turned out to have been the swansong of my mini-van, which was discovered to have a large tree directly down its middle. Our cul-de-sac looked like a war zone and a huge pine had fallen across it’s exit, essentially imprisoning us.

The aftermath of the storm was even more traumatic than its visit. The damage to the scenery of our daily backdrop was deeply disturbing. Piles of debris stacked in front of houses sat there for weeks as our utilities companies struggled to meet the need. Worst of all was the fact that damage to the lines left us without electricity for a week. No electricity is a challenge under any circumstances, but in August, in Florida, it was unbearable. My three sweaty babies cried often and emphatically. But little by little, not helped by the subsequent visits of hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, the damage was undone and we scratched our way back to normalcy.

Shockingly, I have since grown blasé again about hurricanes. That’s likely a function of time, but also a probability thing – we hear the names of the storms as they form in the Atlantic or in the Tropics but since the majority of them really do fizzle out, we don’t pay attention. Until now, and Matthew.

As I write we are hours away from meeting the massive Matthew. I gave Matthew the same sparse attention I normally do when a name is first announced. Matthew didn’t fizzle out though, and here I am, twelve years post Charley, sitting in the same little house, waiting for a storm which our state governor earlier announced, “. . . will kill you”. My Weather Channel app sent me a notification a few hours ago which said, “Get Out Now”. Yet, I’m trying to remain optimistic.

We have two cases of water, food, batteries, candles, flashlights and petrol. All the patio furniture is stacked and the basketball hoop is reclined. Like last time, Tom’s at work and Colin will be over soon to spend the night. The toddlers are now teenagers (so deodorant is currently a hurricane staple too). The rain is here now and the trees are starting a slow dance. We will watch the wind pick up and our sense of foreboding will increase as daylight dwindles. We will attend to the TV for as long as it’s safe, or until the power goes out, whichever comes first. We will hole up in our safe space and listen to the harsh notes of the storm playing outside. This time we will have smart phones to keep us informed (for as long as the towers stay standing) and laptops to keep us distracted (for as long as the batteries last).

The TV weather guys won’t get to sleep tonight, and chances are we won’t either. There’s a heaviness around the uncertainty of what this night will bring. Either we’ll be digging out tomorrow or we’ll be wondering what to do with all the sandwiches and batteries. We’ll know soon enough.

http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/generation-emigration/irishwoman-in-florida-our-sense-of-foreboding-is-increasing-1.2820589

Bye-bye, Baby

When my first-born, Ciara, was four I enrolled her in a half day program at a local Montessori school. I was a Montessori teacher (taking a year or two out for reproductive purposes) so it made sense that I would want her to reap the Montessori benefits. I prepped Ciara for that first day; we toured the school, bought the snacks, I talked it up, but on the day she was due to start, about ten minutes into the new morning routine, she asked me to sit on the couch with her. “I’m not ready”, she said. “Me neither”, I replied, and that was that. Ciara never made it to preschool.

She was reading, and social and doing just fine without preschool, I told myself, but there was no reasonable way to avoid kindergarten. We toured the school, we bought the backpack, we talked it up, we met the teacher, and on one warm August morning, with her three year old sister on one hand, and her soon to be baby brother kicking around my innards, my husband, Tom, and I walked our little Ciara into Blankner K-8 to begin her educational journey.

She was ready then. I still wasn’t. I held it together in the school, encouraged by her total excitement and absolute confidence. I held it together in the car, not wanting to upset little Aoife. But, when I got to the bathroom at home, I took a look at my sorry self in the mirror and started to bawl. Oh, how I wept. I wept for Ireland. I wept for the “loss” of my child. I wept for the “loss” of Aoife and (unborn baby) Tomas’s time with their big sister. I wept for the books we wouldn’t read together, the Dragon Tales episodes that would go unwatched, the playground trips we’d miss. I wept for the loss of control. I wept the ugly weep, with snot and slime and deep, reverberating sobs. After about thirty minutes, with my husband knocking on the door to check if I might ever come out, I looked at my red, swollen face, hair “glued” haphazardly  across it, and knew I had to get myself together. Life would go on. We would adjust. She’d be back at 2:45 PM, after all.

Jump forward in time 13 years. The way I just said that is kind of the way it was –  a short jump. Ciara, now 18, had finished her elementary and secondary education. She had played a blinder (despite the deprivation of preschool). She was class president all four years of high school. She joined soccer and swim teams, she soared academically, but more than all that she was a very decent and kind human being. Tom and I had one end goal when we decided to have children; to raise people whose company we would enjoy as adults, and we knocked it out of the park with Ciara. But now, having raised a person we really liked, came the cruel irony of college.

In America, college age kids have a tendency to move away, far away, for college. Back in my day you took the bus to UCC (University College Cork) or the Tech, and were back home in time for the dinner. Parents generally had to beg their children to move out at some point in their twenties. Despite a concerted effort on my part to extol the merits of online college (which could be comfortably attended from the kitchen counter) our American girl had indeed set her sights very far away. Indulgently we drove her to visit universities as much  as ten hours away, but heaved deep, deep sighs of relief when she accepted an offer from the University of Florida, a mere one hundred and twelve miles from home.

Once the decision was made I entered a long and lovely period of denial. I was finishing up my Master’s degree, starting a new job and we were planning a big celebratory European trip to mark multiple family milestones; it was easy to put the college thing on the long finger. A few weeks out from move in day and Ciara told me about moms of her friends who were already openly weeping at any mention of the upcoming nest departures. I was cool as a breeze (though I did find myself humming the Beatles, She’s Leaving Home, at odd times).

The weekend before she left, I went dorm room shopping with her and, though I acknowledged on some strange level, that something was about to change, I still managed to remain aloof. On the one hand I was proud of myself for being able to put her excitement above my potential grief, but on the other I thought it was odd that I was feeling so detached. I speculated that maybe my experience as an emigrant helped me put it all in perspective – she wasn’t leaving us to cross an ocean, after all. That was probably it.

I got through packing and the pile of boxes by the front door feeling calm. My sister came by on the morning of moving day to say her goodbyes. She had confessed to being weepy for days at the prospect of Ciara’s departure, and I had her well warned to “behave”. No sooner had she sat with her cup of tea, across the kitchen island from me, than she sighed deeply, “I remember when she was just born”. Tears stung my eyes, and my heart actually hurt. I shook my head, “Oh, no. We are not doing that, Audrey. No, no, no!” But, by the time the “last” hug was given in the driveway, my sister’s sorrows had me beginning to really feel my own. But I kept it together on the drive up there, thankful that Aoife had come with us in place of Tom, who had to work. I did find myself glancing sideways in the car a lot to see the face in the passenger seat, beginning to realize I wouldn’t be seeing it so much anymore.

Arriving at UF we got elbows deep in the move in process; lugging and hefting in 98 degrees. One elevator trip per family was the rule and with an entire van load of boxes and bags, that meant quite a few lumbering, sweaty stair climbs. Once everything was in the dorm room we set about the fun decorating stuff; hanging pictures and mirrors and setting up the extra long twin bed to make it feel like home. Finally came unpacking the clothes. This is when I really began to feel it; we were going to soon be at the part where we left her. As each bag got unpacked my dread grew. I slowed my unpacking pace, tried to remain upbeat, but my voice was cracking, there were deep sighs, and I know she caught my watery eyes a few times. She started to get a little less excited too, realizing soon she’d be on her own. Thankfully, she had a Rush Week orientation to attend at 7 PM, which meant we ran out of time to linger at an emotional goodbye. I drove her to Whatever Hall, hugged her hard and said goodbye. Yes, crying a bit at this point. As we drove away, I watched her in the rear view mirror walking off into her future without me.

The two hour drive home was not as awful as it might have been. Aoife (for once not having to call shotgun) snoozed and I listened to News Radio to stop my thoughts from wandering. I was good, I told myself. She’d be good. It would all be fine. Exhausted I turned onto our street, feeling pretty darn proud of my levels of stoicism throughout the day, but then I saw it – her car. Her car parked outside our house. Our house that no longer had her in it. That was it; the floodgates opened and I was transported back to that first day of kindergarten – a big snotty, sobby mess, and this time she was not going to be home at 2:45 PM.

The sobbing lasted for about two hours on and off that night, and there has been intermittent sobbing since. Don’t tell me how great it’s going to be – I know. No need to remind me that she has entered the best days of her life – I get it. No one is more delighted for her or proud of her than me. And her leaving – we did that – we explicitly raised her to leave; it was all part of the plan. But just for now I’m indulging my sadness about losing the company of one of the people I love the very most from my daily life. I’m lamenting not knowing how she’s feeling throughout each day, what’s she’s eaten, what she’s done, where she’s going. I’m missing the sound of her laugh from the bedroom, her random hugs, her funny stories. And I know that life will go on. I  know that I will adjust. But I also know that it won’t be anytime soon.

Pulse (for the Irish Times)

On Saturday I woke to the horrible news that a young singer had been senselessly shot while signing autographs at a venue just 5 miles (8km) from our house. I shook my head and lamented the loss of this young life, and the fact that Orlando would now be synonymous with the violent act of one crazed man.

On Sunday I woke up to the sounds of helicopters hovering in the airspace over my house. Scrolling through my newsfeed minutes later I learned, with horror, about the shooting at Pulse Nightclub, less than a mile from our front door.

I pass Pulse every day on my drive to work. In its past incarnation as Dante’s Restaurant, my husband and I and a group of friends used to enjoy Thursday happy hours there every week. Since it became Pulse we’ve visited a few times, even held my sister Audrey’s hen night there a few years back.

Now, the early morning news said, 20 people were lying dead inside those walls. I tried to wrap my mind around that, and couldn’t.

I stepped out front and saw our neighbour Fred across the street, partially obscured by the large rainbow flag that flies in his yard. I put my hands up to the sky – what gives? Fred walked towards me with tears in his eyes. We hugged and he told me that he was frantically trying to get hold of his brother, who is often at Pulse on a Saturday night. He told me he was leaving for church. I told him I felt I needed to go too.

I hastily dressed and 10 minutes later was sitting in a pew at Christchurch Unity, a non-denominational church with about a 50 per cent gay congregation. People were hugging each other, sitting looking stunned, crying. Fred told me he’d been in touch with his brother and he was safe. I listened to the uplifting message of tolerance and love and, feeling somewhat better, headed home.

My husband was home from his shift at Winter Park Fire Department by then. He had been unaware of events at Pulse. His crew did run calls for Orange County overnight, but hadn’t known why. He told me the number of dead had been raised to 50 and that this shooting, a stone’s throw from our house, was now being labelled the worst mass shooting in American history. None of us could comprehend the magnitude of that. Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando. How is that possible? Down the road. Madness.

Our 18-year-old, Ciara, suggested we go donate blood. My sister had already dropped her young children off so she could do so too. I called home to Cork to let our parents know we were well.

At 10.30am we arrived at the blood centre to see a long line of people reaching out to the street and wrapping back around again into the parking lot. We found my sister Audrey, standing with our friend Lu Hanbury from Dublin, and began our wait. The crowd, a mix of all the demographics, was sombre. People were crying, hugging and expressing pure disbelief that such hatred and violence had visited us in the City Beautiful.

Volunteers were distributing water, snacks and sunscreen to those of us in line. June in Orlando is brutally hot. As we waited the donations got more elaborate. Local restaurants sent employees laden with burritos, ice creams, pizza and subs. An ex-Orlando Magic player, very concerned with everyone’s hydration levels, handed out water bottles insistently. A bank of portable toilets was delivered.

News crews from all over interviewed the people in line. We saw crews from Norway, China, England and Vietnam. The sombre feeling of the morning lifted as the hours passed by, and a strangely muted festive atmosphere settled in. We felt we were part of something, part of a solution, and we were held up by each other.

The lines were amazing; one reporter speculated as many as 1,000 people were at our site alone. When officials from One Blood came to speak to us, about three hours into the wait, to tell us we were likely to be in line for as many as five more hours, hardly anyone left.

Audrey and I had our donation plans thwarted by a Mad Cow Disease restriction on those of us who lived in Ireland in the late 1980s and early 90s. We waited with Ciara, because she was still free to donate. When she got to the registration point we left her to go grab a drink and digest the happenings of the day.

Shortly after we arrived at Vanbarry’s, a restaurant owned by a friend of ours, we realised we had been carried along on a wave of altruism and unity to that point. Separated from the crowd we were left to consider the reality of the violence. The two helicopters still hovering in sight were a stark reminder.

Loud music played and a large group of drunk people seemed oblivious to the fact that the worst mass shooting in US history had just occurred just 3km away. It seemed bizarre. I felt oddly annoyed that the whole place wasn’t full of people hugging and crying. Audrey and I sipped our beers and barely spoke.

I saw him then. A young man intermittently sobbing and staring into space. Wanting to share some of the solidarity we felt at One Blood, and wanting to feel that connection again ourselves, we went and hugged him. His friends told me he worked at the restaurant and had lost multiple friends at Pulse. I asked how he was even vertical, and they told me he needed to be with his work family – he needed their support.

Other patrons followed suit and shared their condolences and hugs. A few minutes before 6pm, everyone gathered around a TV for a live news report and, though not observed on the news station we were tuned to, one of the bartenders announced there would be a minute’s silence. Our friend fell to the floor and his support dissolved around him. It was heartbreaking.

My husband called from One Blood, where he had gone to Ciara, and I went to join them. It had been almost 11 hours since we first joined the line. Inside were the people who had been around us in that line, sun burnt and exhausted but still managing smiles. Amazingly, the staff inside the centre were still smiling too, even as the TVs on the walls reminded us of the horrific reason we had all come together.

News crews were still interviewing donors; a persistent crew from Vietnam filmed needles going in to veins. A photographer shot multiple frames of bags of blood lying on a cart. I watched my daughter’s blood flow into a bag next to her gurney and thanked God she was one of the people able to help, rather than one of those in need of help.

My daughter’s first time donating blood was on the day that the worst mass shooting in US history occurred less than a mile from our home.

I reread that sentence and still can’t come to grips with it. It was a long and harrowing day.

Here’s the thing I take away from this; evil visited but love lives here. One man brought the hate but thousands replied with love. Psychological scars will remain, and I wonder how long it will take, passing Pulse on the way to work, before I won’t think of this day. But I feel more bonded to my community now than ever before. Orlando Proud.

http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/generation-emigration/irishwoman-in-orlando-the-shooting-took-place-a-mile-from-my-home-1.2682540

The Agony of Saint Patty

It’s time for a little reminder about the correct way to shorten the name of our dear Saint Patrick.

The Cork Woman

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The Irish have made their way across the Atlantic Ocean to American shores since the 1600s.  Today, over thirty-three million Americans proudly identify themselves as being of Irish descent. In fact, it would be a rarity for a native Irish person to set foot on U.S. soil without encountering at least one American interested in relaying information about their own distant relatives from county something or other. Quite a turn around from the experience of the first few native Irish to make the trip, when being from Ireland wasn’t considered such a boast-worthy condition. The Irish however, not generally known for their sensitivity, persisted in coming and now there are enough Americans with some bit of Irish DNA somewhere in their gene pools to warrant a good annual celebration of all things Irish.

Growing up in Ireland my memories of Saint Patrick’s Day involved having a bunch of shamrock pinned to…

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Mother’s Day

Today is Mother’s Day in Ireland. I have been blessed with a wonderful mother – not wonderful in many of the traditional measures of motherhood, but wonderful in ways that I have really only been able to appreciate, or possibly just accept, in my own middle years.

I have spent time for so many Mother’s Days past hovering in the aisles, looking for just the right card to send; the “Best Mum Ever”, “Thanks for Always Being There For Me” genre never seemed to fit. I had to navigate the soppy prose to find one that simply said, “I Love You, Mum”, and indeed there were years when even that seemed disingenuous.

You were a wild thing, Mum. You had dreams you had no right to and the audacity to pursue them, even if that sometimes meant your own children were left in your dust. The circumstances of your own childhood left you ill prepared to mother, and the chemistry of your brain routinely spun your perspective from that of a sewing, baking, dinner party throwing super-woman to that of wild animal clawing at its cage.

You were my hero and my nightmare; the glamorous creature I trembled to call mother, and the person locked in the bedroom for weeks on end. But you are my wonderful mother. If not with responsibility, you have loved with ferocity. You loved as you were best equipped to love. The gaps in that love allowed for the arrival of my other mothers – those beloved women who nutured me when you were unable to. I am grateful for them as I am grateful for you. You are the writer, the artist, the intelligent, creative and humorous soul that I am so connected to.

So, I send you a card that I won’t find on a shelf. It reads, “Mum, it hasn’t always been great; there’s been wild laughter and high adventure, there’s been darkness and scars, but I know that you have loved me, that you continue to love me, in the most profound way that you can. If I had to do it over, even with (or maybe, especially with) the benefit of hindsight, I would still choose you as my mother. I love you. Entirely.”

Half Expecting to get Shot

I admit that when I first came to America, I was a little terrified. My exposure to American culture mostly came from television and movie screens, and I was pretty certain that it was only a matter of time before I’d be shot. That will tell you how bad the Irish economy was at the time; I was actually willing to risk being hit by a bullet to escape it. So serious was this fear that I vividly remember spending the entirety of my first long drive with my mother folded over in the back seat of the car. Granted that, by American standards, the 90 miles from Tampa to Orlando isn’t a very long drive at all, but I was not taking any chances. I was ducked down seeking cover from the guy who would predictably (and possibly, deservedly) open fire on mother in a fit of road rage somewhere along the route.

Over time, noticing that I hadn’t actually been shot at all, I relaxed about the whole thing and hung up my bullet proof vest. Mind you, despite living in a decent enough neighborhood, there was a bit of shooting going on around me. Someone in the house behind and two doors down from ours, got shot dead in a drug thing a few years back. We were horrified when a cashier at our local grocery store was shot by her ex-husband not long after that. Sure, we had two police chases through our garden (nothing I’d ever have experienced in Ireland) but, dagnabbit, I was an American now and overall, having no personal bullet wounds, I was feeling pretty good about things.

 Then, one Saturday morning, driving my young daughter to a soccer game, a traffic detour took us through a less than savory part of town. Despite the shabby surroundings it was a beautiful day and I was drinking it all in as drove. I saw a clear blue sky, I saw a liquor store, I saw a run down motel, I saw a prostitute, I saw a young Hispanic man going for a jog, I saw his friend cycling along behind him. “How nice”, I thought, “two pals out for a bit of exercise on a fine day.”

As we got closer I saw the fella on the bike launch himself right on top of the jogger. An act of affection? Nope. An attack. I was appalled; not only for the sake of the jogger, but also for me. I had worked for years to convince myself that America wasn’t really like those movies after all (at least not in my actual, personal experience) and now this was going on right in front of my very eyes. In an act of high indignance, I slowed the car down to almost a stop and honked my horn very seriously. The message I hoped to convey was, “How dare you do that in broad daylight, AND in front of me and my child? How very dare you?” The cyclist got up, never turning in my direction, and casually pulled out what looked a lot like a gun. “OH, NO, NO, NO!” I honked. “NO, YOU, DO, NOT”. He seemed to pick up on my tone. Or maybe it wasn’t me at all; maybe he was getting fed up of getting smacked by the jogger’s towel. Either way, he turned and seemed to wander off.

I drove on to the soccer field, my daughter and I both feeling a little shook. When we got to the game I realized that I should probably make a police report, just in case the jogger filed a complaint, and needed back up of his story. I didn’t even dial 911 – that was something they did in movies. I googled the phone number of the local police department and called them. The conversation was all very casual until I gave the location of the incident that I had witnessed. I was quickly made aware that my heartfelt and vigorous honking hadn’t saved the day at all; that the cyclist had turned back no sooner had I turned the corner, and shot the jogger quite seriously. Thirty minutes later I was back on scene surrounded by police tape and flashing lights. I was now a movie extra. I crouched down nervously behind a squad car, scanning the streets as I recounted my story for the police, fairly convinced I was now closer than ever to being shot. After an eternity, I was told that I could go. A detective would be out to my house later to take my full statement.

Sitting in the detective’s car on our street that afternoon, with painstaking detail I recounted my version of events. Midway through my very serious account I thought I caught a glimpse of amusement on the otherwise austere detective’s face. What was so funny? Did he take me for some Fresh off the Boat? I may not have been shot in all my time in America, but I was a bona-fide citizen by then. “So, a jogger, you say?” the detective asked. “Correct, a jogger.”  That amused look again. After a pause, the detective put down his pencil and turned around to face me dead on. “Ma’am, no one jogs in that neighborhood. No one. All running in that part of town is strictly of the “run-for-your-life” variety.”

I felt a bit deflated. Good Lord, I am still totally a Cork woman, I thought. I’m not a hardened American at all. I was even beginning to feel a slight bit twittish. “And the towel, you saw the “jogger” hit his alleged assailant with . . .” (dear God, make this nice detective stop talking to me now) “was actually a hammer.” Hmm. So not only was I not a good witness by virtue of never having seen the cyclist’s face, but now I wasn’t even credible on account of my seriously shaky powers of observation.

The experience left me with renewed nervousness and some lingering civic obligations. Those obligations finally evaporated – on account of my uselessness, I imagine. I did eventually get to meet the “jogger” face to face. Someone pointed me out to him at a court hearing, and he came over and thanked me for being willing to step up. I apologized for being so idiotic as to think that my honking had saved the day, and for not having called 911 immediately. He was gracious. He turned out to be a nice young man minding his own business that day, walking back from the hardware store, where he’d just bought a towel (okay, a hammer). He was an immigrant, like me. And the experience of being shot didn’t prompt him to run back to his motherland – he just moved to another American city. Nowadays he’s probably feeling decidedly superior in the fullness of his American experience. But I’ll have to give him that much. Me? I’m dusting off my bullet proof vest.

Why I Teach

Being a teacher means that for ten months of the year, there is an expectation that I am available to answer emails, calls, and texts between the hours of 6 am and 11 pm, seven days a week.

Being a teacher means that the bar on my qualifications is constantly moving, and I am required to take course after course, on my own time, and often on my own dime, at the whim of my school district and state.

Being a teacher means that at social events, when the conversation comes around to disclosing my career choice to other professionals, they usually say, “Oh, that’s nice”, and shortly after move right along to engage in conversation with someone a bit more influential or powerful.

Being a teacher means, despite earning about forty percent less than similarly qualified professionals in other fields, I spend a hefty amount of my own money on my classroom and students (sometimes even buying clothes and food for them).

Being a teacher means sleepless nights worrying about how to get through to that child who is shutting me out, or those children who aren’t learning as they should.

Being a teacher means not only devoting myself to my students, but also having to manage the sometimes challenging behaviors of their parents and guardians.

Being a teacher means working in a petri-dish of germs, being sick frequently and sometimes (more often than you would image) being pooped, urinated or vomited on!

Being a teacher means taking a fresh classroom full of students into my heart every year; living their success and failures, their joys and their tragedies as surely as they were my own, and then having to let them go.

Being a teacher means that I miss my own children’s school events, because they often coincide with those at my school.

Being a teacher means having to write five page lesson plans for every lesson I plan to teach, without ever being given time at work to write them (goodbye weekend).

Being a teacher means having to teach in prescribed ways (depending on the educational philosophy flavor of the month, at district or state level) and not really being trusted to teach or assess in the ways you know work.

Being a teacher means that the bar on expected income and benefits is also constantly moving, with regular adjustments being made to pension, pay scale, and bonuses (and many of the recent changes on this front make no sense at all).

Being a teacher means losing instructional time with your students for up to three weeks a year, so that they can take often changing, district or state mandated tests, that do nothing but turn your students off learning, and do little to show their actual abilities.

These are the things I consider every summer. With all those negatives, why is it that for fourteen summers now, I have reflected, and still decided to go back to the classroom and do it all again?  It’s because every summer, I remember the reasons why I love teaching:

Being a teacher means being given the gift of a new group of amazing young people to love and nurture every year.  Now, that may not be a very politically correct thing to say, given how we aren’t supposed to touch, much less hug (I teach kindergarten – hugs happen), our students these days, but I don’t know one good teacher, who doesn’t develop a real affection for, or connection with, his or her students every year.

Being a teacher means that I get to share in the failures and successes, joys and tragedies, of the students in my care. I get to offer congratulations when they come in on Monday, all excited about their soccer team’s win, or the great party they were at, or their new karate belt. I get to offer them encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, and yes, a hug, through losses, divorces, deaths, and whatever else life throws at them in our time together.

Being a teacher means that I get to facilitate a-ha moments on a daily basis. I get to shepherd my students down the path of discovery. I get to witness the look on their faces when that thing they have been working so hard to understand, finally and suddenly becomes apparent.

Being a teacher means that I get to teach my students that learning is a magnificent endeavor. I get to teach them to take that pleasure for themselves, and to push towards understanding and success, not to make me happy, nor to make their parents happy, but because it makes them feel good to do it.

Being a teacher means that I get to participate in the pure, unadulterated joy of childhood every day. I get to see things through the eyes of a child, and experience the wonder of everything anew, over and over again.

Being a teacher means that I am influential and powerful because I get to nourish humanity at its very roots. I get to encourage children to see beyond themselves; to their classmates, to their communities, and to the world. I get to help them develop a sense of themselves as capable and responsible members of society, and stewards of our planet. Every day I contribute to the formation of good, kind, well informed and well rounded human beings. We need those.

These are the reasons why I teach. The pros are fewer in number than the cons, but they are infinitely more powerful. So, despite the abuses, love and learning are the “drugs” that keep me coming back for more every year. That’s why I teach.

Why I Teach

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There is a dichotomy to teaching, which I am grateful for; for every working minute, ten months of the year, we are in the moment – there is no other choice. When I am in my classroom, surrounded by children, my mind is fully focused on the needs and opportunities of the present moment; there is no time for thinking about any of the conditions or problems of my home life. The last six months of this past school year were very challenging on the home front, with death, surgeries, illnesses, and such, and I was never so grateful for this facet of my work. Conversely, at the end of each school year, there is time for reflection; what worked and what didn’t work in the past ten months, and how to improve the experience in the next ten, for the children whose development I will then be charged with.

Reflection is an important part of being successful as a teacher. Summer break is vital, not only to refill the emotional, and physical reserves (which do become depleted after ten months of intense engagement with students, parents, administration and peers) but also to think, to revisit, to plan. Last summer I worked a lot, and took state mandated classes, and returned to the classroom in August, not fully “spiritually” prepared for the year ahead. It was still a great year, but I knew that this summer I owed it to myself and to my next group of students, to breathe, and to think. Then, as if to support that plan, the Universe heaped one challenging event on top of another, so that, come June, there was no other choice but to step back and engage in a bit of self care.

This summer I enjoyed the company of my wonderful family and friends, I sat on a beach in Mexico, I read, I zip lined, I swam with sea turtles, I sailed on a catamaran, I cleared out closets, I redecorated, and I organized twenty years worth of accumulated teacher “stuff”.

The break of the summer naturally lends it self to reflection.  This summer, when it came time for that reflection, I engaged in an annual train of thought and self-analysis (which I’m not totally sure is unique to my profession, or just to me); I considered why it is that I do the job I do?

I contemplate my career choice, and it’s impact on my family, my finances, my health, and my personal and spiritual development. I know, this year in particular, that many, many educators in America have done the same. Record numbers of teachers have chosen to leave the profession altogether after the many debacles of the last school year. And I totally understand why. What other profession puts such demands on its members, while paying them so meagerly, and valuing them (at a societal level, at least) so poorly? It’s a tough number, and only those who feel compelled, at their core, to teach, can survive the job in the long term, without becoming bitter and jaded. I do know a lot of teachers who feel that it is their “soul’s calling”. I envy them. While I have been perceived to be a fairly decent teacher by some over the years, once again this summer I find myself reflecting on why it is that I teach. I consider the reasons against:

Being a teacher means that for ten months of the year, there is an expectation that I am available to answer emails, calls, and texts between the hours of 6 am and 11 pm, seven days a week.

Being a teacher means that the bar on my qualifications is constantly moving, and I am required to take course after course, on my own time, and often on my own dime, at the whim of my school district and state.

Being a teacher means that at social events, when the conversation comes around to disclosing my career choice to other professionals, they usually say, “Oh, that’s nice”, and shortly after move right along to engage in conversation with someone a bit more influential or powerful.

Being a teacher means, despite earning about forty percent less than similarly qualified professionals in other fields, I spend a hefty amount of my own money on my classroom and students (sometimes even buying clothes and food for them).

Being a teacher means sleepless nights worrying about how to get through to that child who is shutting me out, or those children who aren’t learning as they should.

Being a teacher means not only devoting myself to my students, but also having to manage the sometimes challenging behaviors of their parents and guardians.

Being a teacher means working in a petri-dish of germs, being sick frequently and sometimes (more often than you would image) being pooped, urinated or vomited on!

Being a teacher means taking a fresh classroom full of students into my heart every year; living their success and failures, their joys and their tragedies as surely as they were my own, and then having to let them go.

Being a teacher means that I miss my own children’s school events, because they often coincide with those at my school.

And here are a few that aren’t particular to my situation (because I am lucky enough to currently work at a Montessori charter), but which I have experienced, and which are part and parcel of life as a teacher in traditional public schools;

Being a teacher means having to write five page lesson plans for every lesson I plan to teach, without ever being given time at work to write them (goodbye weekend).

Being a teacher means having to teach in prescribed ways (depending on the educational philosophy flavor of the month, at district or state level) and not being trusted to teach or assess in the ways you know work.

Being a teacher means that the bar on expected income and benefits is also constantly moving, with regular adjustments being made to pension, pay scale, and bonuses (and many of the recent changes on this front make no sense at all).

Being a teacher means (and this has been the career-ender for so many teachers this year) losing instructional time with your students for up to three weeks a year, so that they can take often changing, district or state mandated tests, that do nothing but turn your students off learning, and do little to show their actual abilities.

These are the things I consider every summer. With all those negatives, why is it that for fourteen summers now, I have reflected, and still decided to go back to the classroom and do it all again?  It’s because every summer, I remember the reasons why I love teaching:

Being a teacher means being given the gift of a new group of amazing young people to love and nurture every year.  Now, that may not be a very politically correct thing to say, given how we aren’t supposed to touch, much less hug (I teach kindergarten – hugs happen), our students these days, but I don’t know one good teacher, who doesn’t develop a real affection for, or connection with, his or her students every year.

Being a teacher means that I get to share in the failures and successes, joys and tragedies, of the students in my care. I get to offer congratulations when they come in on Monday, all excited about their soccer team’s win, or the great party they were at, or their new karate belt. I get to offer them encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, and yes, a hug, through losses, divorces, deaths, and whatever else life throws at them in our time together.

Being a teacher means that I get to facilitate a-ha moments on a daily basis. I get to shepherd my students down the path of discovery. I get to witness the look on their faces when that thing they have been working so hard to understand, finally and suddenly becomes apparent.

Being a teacher means that I get to teach my students that learning is a magnificent endeavor. I get to teach them to take that pleasure for themselves, and to push towards understanding and success, not to make me happy, nor to make their parents happy, but because it makes them feel good to do it.

Being a teacher means that I get to participate in the pure, unadulterated joy of childhood every day. I get to see things through the eyes of a child, and experience the wonder of everything anew, over and over again.

Being a teacher means that I am influential and powerful because I get to nourish humanity at its very roots. I get to encourage children to see beyond themselves; to their classmates, to their communities, and to the world. I get to help them develop a sense of themselves as capable and responsible members of society, and stewards of our planet. Every day I contribute to the formation of good, kind, well informed and well rounded human beings. We need those.

These are the reasons why I teach. The pros are fewer in number than the cons, but they are infinitely more powerful. So, despite the abuses, love and learning are the “drugs” that keep me coming back for more every year. That’s why I teach.

The Charmed Life (2015)

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I realize now that I had recently considered myself to be living in a bubble, set to repel all the bad stuff of life. Despite the bumpy beginnings of my childhood, things really have been going well for the last couple of decades. Maybe I thought that I had paid my dues early, and that somehow I deserved the rest of my life to be a little bit charmed. Good health, a strong relationship, a great family, good friends and an enjoyable career all fed my illusion of protection. Then came 2015.

We knew that January would be a challenge.  Our fourteen year old daughter had had a series of orthopedic surgeries, and the big one, the one we had been trying to avoid with the prior surgeries, was scheduled for the first week of the new year. Tom and I propped each other up in the run up to these surgeries, assured each other that we were doing the right thing, walked and talked during the procedures and were each others support throughout her recovery. That January surgery was a tough one.  Two nights in hospital, two weeks in bed, wheelchair for the next two weeks and then six weeks of crutches.  Aoife was in a lot of pain and January took an emotional and financial toll; but it was all for a good cause.

Then came February. My aunt Rita, who had been complaining of back pain for a while, went for tests and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  While I planned a summer trip with our three children to spend time with her in Ireland, her health quickly deteriorated, and two weeks after diagnosis she was dead.  An unplanned trip home for two weeks, an unplanned absence from work, an unplanned abandonment of husband and children, and unplanned heartache.  She was one of our favorite people.  We thought that Aoife’s surgery and Rita’s death would be the extent of the year’s challenges.

Then came March.  Tom gets an in depth annual check up at his Fire Department.  His PSA (prostate specific antigen) levels had been rising for a few years and he was referred to a urologist for a prostate biopsy.  Not for a minute did it occur to me that the biopsy would come back anything but clear.  I was wrong, and the test results told us that Tom had prostate cancer. Tom is my bubble – my protection, in a way, and my barometer of rightness – when we are OK, everything is OK.  But Tom wasn’t OK now, and my bubble felt totally popped.

In May, Tom had a radical robotic prostatectomy which totally removed his prostate.  The run up to this surgery was hard. There was a lot of research and reading, and agonizing going on. And of course, none of this stressing and thinking and research was happening in a vacuum; we still had full time jobs, three children, and graduate school to manage. Finally, the tough realization came that the prostatectomy, with all its risks and complications, would be the best way to go.  Other measures might work in the short term, but in the long term we would always be followed by the specter of cancer returning.

The morning of the surgery Tom and I left the house at 5 a.m., the children all sleeping peacefully. We nervously arrived at the hospital and sat in the ironically named, Rapid In and Out Surgical Check In.  Our company was not cheerful. There was an Hispanic woman in her early sixties, tears running down her cheek. A calm looking man in his early seventies with his hand being squeezed tightly by his daughter – he was in for open heart surgery. Mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, and one old man in a wheelchair accompanied only by a hospital orderly.  “See,” I told Tom, “It could be worse”.

Tom’s surgery was scheduled for 7.30 a.m., which would have given us a mercifully short stay in Rapid In and Out, but it got bumped and it wasn’t until about 10 a.m. when we were brought back to pre-op.  As he got into his surgical gown and they attached various monitors and drips to him, I began to feel my stomach quiver. Suddenly, shit was getting real.  Tom’s spirits were kept up by the seemingly never ending train of pre-op nurses who knew him from the Fire Department and his frequent visits to the E.R. transporting patients. The repeated explanations of why he happened to be there as a patient that day, and the, “Oh man, that sucks” commiserations, finally got to me, and a dash to the loo so I could pull myself back together was needed.  But only once.

Finally the time arrived and the surgical nurses wheeled us down the corridor to the O.R.  As our paths diverged and he wheeled to the left, smiling weakly, while I walked on straight to the waiting room, I realized for the first time, that he wasn’t going to be in the waiting room with me, holding my hand through this.  A few friends had offered to sit with me, but I think I refused, believing that this was a Tom and Cathy thing, and that as long as that was the case, I’d be fine.  I hadn’t fully processed that I’d be alone.  That Tom was the patient.  When I got to the waiting room I fell apart a little.

Tom and I started dating when I was seventeen.  I was dating one of his best mates when we first met. Story goes that Tom encouraged that friend to dump me so that the lads could have a summer of unencumbered fun.  Shortly afterwards we started dating. We were together about a year when our families realized the connection.  Tom’s grandparents and my grandparents had lived cady-cornered to each other in a suburb of Cork city.  Tom’s mother was born one day before my father and both our grandmothers used to take them for walks together in their prams. Then we figured out that while our names were Thomas and Catherine, so were Tom’s parents, Thomas and Catherine, and both our paternal grandparents were Thomas and Catherine. Ah, sure, we were pre-ordained! Sitting on the steps of his house on the day that his father was buried, Tom, only twenty then, told me that he was the 16th and last Thomas Tobin in his family, and that should we ever marry I would have to be prepared to bear a son and call him Thomas! It all seemed very pie in the sky to eighteen year old me.

But we did marry, ten years on, and in Florida, where we had emigrated together. And after a Ciara and an Aoife, we produced the required Thomas.  Even through the challenges of a continent switch, small children, career changes and all the other ups and downs of life, we managed to stay best friends. We both agreed that there was no one’s company we enjoyed more than each others’. Next year we will be twenty years married, and thirty years a couple.  I still think he’s the most handsome guy on the planet, and though he annoys the crap out of me on a regular basis, I just couldn’t imagine a life without him. But sitting in the surgical waiting room, that’s exactly what I was doing.  It seemed forever, but finally the surgeon appeared with the news that all had gone was well as it possibly could, that there were no surprises, and he expected Tom would make a full recovery. Hallelujah!

It’s been almost a month since Tom’s surgery.  It hasn’t been easy on him.  It’s a serious operation and its aftermath has a huge impact on his quality of life.  Tom has been amazingly gracious and good humored through it all, but we have caught ourselves at times, wondering at whether the cure was worse than the disease. But then I log on to an online prostate cancer support group and see someone posting about their 43 year old husband who just died. Tom is cancer free and will be 100% in time.

Even then 2015 wasn’t done with us.  In May my mother went into heart failure, in June our daughter’s car broke down, costing $1100 to repair, and less than a week later she went into a 360 degree spin on a highway on-ramp. It has gotten to the point where we just say, “What now?”, and consider Googling ways to remove a hex!

But here’s the paradox of 2015; though all it’s challenges, we have found ourselves counting our blessings even more: Aoife’s orthopedic problems might not have been reparable, Rita could have suffered for months with cancer pain, Tom could have had a much worse or untreatable cancer, mother could have died, the engine might have blown, Ciara could have been killed. Lots of people have it far, far worse.

The glass has been at 50% steadily for the first six months of this year.  How we have viewed it has very much depended on the day.  My illusion of my charmed life has definitely been redefined, but not totally abandoned.  I am grateful to have so much to lose.  But that’s quite enough now, 2015; the lesson has been learned – thank you.