Big, shiny success

Creativity, Motherhood

What is success in life? What is your definition of success? I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the weekend. Is success outside of you?

Happiness 101 dictates that it is nowhere to be found outside of you, only bloody inside of you. What a drag! Is it true? Now I’m not going to start waxing on about how you can be perfectly content without material things or concrete achievements because I’m not a barefoot monk sitting under a benevolent tree weeping fragrant blossoms. But I have started to question what success is.

This is because I consider myself a failure at certain things. Either I haven’t tried hard enough, haven’t tried at all, or I have given up too easily. If I were happy with that state of affairs then that would be a success, I guess. Lately, I’ve been wondering if I am happy with my state of affairs. And a lot of the time the answer is: yes. I feel incredibly lucky to be the mother of three sons and the stepmother of a beautiful daughter. I feel lucky to be married to a man I love, even though we are very different, it still feels right (when we are not fighting, of course.) If you had asked me as a child what I wanted to ‘be’ or ‘do’ (ugh, that question), I would have said ‘mother’.

Being a mother featured big on my to-do list, as I’ve mentioned here several billion times before. So am I a success? Do I feel like a success?

No *uttered in pathetic, small voice*. Because we are programmed to always want more. We always want more, and we always want to be more. It’s a cursed thing, it’s a great thing, it’s a human thing. We will always want more or feel like we should be more, or that we are missing out on something, or that we are missing out on being something.

How many of us think, often, even once in a while, ‘Jeez, my life is exactly the way I always dreamed it would be.’ Actually, writing that sentence, I can say that I have thought that thought, briefly, recently. It was early in the morning. The coffee was glugging and chuffing its way out of the machine. The boys were playing around me; the littlest one ran up and hugged my leg. There was crappy white toast in the toaster (my goddam favourite) and salted butter ready to be slathered all over it (I’m not allowed it because of gallstones, therefore I can’t stop eating it.) An old Beatles album, Rubber Soul, played in the background. I’d like to add that sunlight was streaming in through the kitchen window, but it was pissing down. No matter. I still thought: living the dream. Living the goddam dream.

And that is success.

PS I have a deadline coming up which I’ve been avoiding and I would rather do anything else – pull off my toenails, iron my vulva (to steal a phrase from a funny old friend), pluck out my my eyelashes one by one and glue them back on again with yesterday’s porridge – than go near my book draft. See above. What is success? I’ll report back from the front soon.

Musical chairs

Meditation, Mental health

My friend’s been playing little ten-minute meditations to her kids on the school run. I probably should be doing it myself, but I like to drown out the dog-eat-dog world that exists in the three car seats to the rear with the volume cranked up on the dulcet, comforting voice of Marty Whelan on Lyric FM.

‘Is meditation like – a chair for the brain?’ asked her four-year-old, who has clearly nailed it when it comes to all things zen, as all small children have really. It is a perfect way to describe what that kind of mental restfulness can feel like. You get a break from yourself, from your worries, from the relationship you have with the most important person in your life: you.

That relationship is most important because if you aren’t being good to yourself, you probably aren’t being so great with others either. And I don’t mean ‘good to yourself’ in any kind of cream-cake eating hot purchase kind of way; I mean respecting yourself, giving yourself what you need emotionally so you can give that to others in your life who need it too (say, for example, three small children).

I’m off the chair at the moment. My brain isn’t sitting anywhere, it is all over the place. I’ve let the wild horse out and it’s running absolutely amok, totally out of control. I haven’t even started to look for the lasso to rein it in – I’m too far gone for that. This is what depression feels like. It feels almost exactly the same every time I get it. I’ve stopped meditating because meditating can – sometimes – make you feel worse.

Why? Because it releases stress. It gets rid of pain, by stirring it up. The idea is to let it go. That’s the hard part. Meditation can be like bleach for a blackened soul, and actually, I’m learning, it must be approached with caution. I will go back to it but at the moment I’m stepping back, once again hunkering down, once again waiting for the terrible storm to pass.

Am I good enough?


First off, the answer is yes.

Yeh, you are. You are good enough for that which you are brave enough to try. If the idea is in your head, if the urge to do it, attempt it, become it, is there – then you are good enough.

Somewhere along the way, I learned that if I am not immediately able to do something, then I must be shit at it, ergo, I must give up. If, as a child, adults reeled off that old mantra to me “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” I just wanted to tell them to fuck off, even when I was about four.

I’ve half-heartedly said the same words to one of my sons; I’ve noticed he has the same problem as me, stopping his play or his drawing if things get too tricky. It feels false, and as an invigorating phrase, it simply doesn’t work. As to what does – well, I’ll tell you when he’s a grown up. I’m well aware much of it is about setting an example in my own life, that much (if not all) of what children learn is simply modelled to them by their parents or caregivers.

Well, now I’m writing a book, and I’m just at the part where I want to give up because it’s too difficult. I offered a sliver of it up for criticism at my poetry class last night and – wow! I’m kind of glad I did because it taught me, in one brutal, quick, excruciating instant, how far I have to go. In writing (that’s a given, it’s a first draft) but more importantly, in how I accept criticism.

I am not good at accepting criticism. It was pretty comical last night when I was trying to accept all my criticism. First, I was quite perky and able to catch people’s eyes. Then, I grabbed my pen and dutifully started to scrawl down some snatched phrases (my brain was already packing up to go, literally shouting at my body: come on! Let’s get the hell out of here – like, yesterday!). I looked at the verse I submitted later; there were words littered all over it like ‘Would you really add a swirl of pink to red?’ or ‘There’s problems with ‘we’ who are ‘we’ or ‘Is there supposed to be no voice in this piece?’ (That was my personal favourite. No, there is not supposed to be no voice in this piece. Why would I write a character with no voice?). The third phase was reassuringly predictable, if you knew me: I burst out into hysterical tears.

But then – evidence of my evolution as a human being – instead of sprinting out of the room, I stayed there, stifling sobs, sniveling, wiping snot away with my arm, making everybody feel very uncomfortable indeed. I told them all to carry on with another poem, someone else’s obviously, then sat there like a broken glass of water, shards strewn everywhere.

Now, after wrestling with a particularly vile inner critic for so many years, why on earth would I have put myself into this situation? I’m not sure, nope, no idea.

Criticism is great, constructive criticism is a necessity, I know that. This next day, I have emerged unscathed. I think I have. I feel really wobbly. But I still think that what I am creating is good. It is good enough, because the idea is there, I have the urge to do it, I am attempting it. I am becoming a person who follows their creative urge, right to the very end. I’m following its lead into the dark, allowing myself to unfurl the fear of juxtaposing the wild, untamed imagination with reality and form.

On paper. Yes, in a book.

Poetry in motion


Poems are everywhere, they are all around you, said the poet Enda Wyley to me and a bunch of other word fiends the other day. Instantly I saw words swimming around me in the air, ready to be plucked down and arranged prettily on the page.

Prettily, and with meaning, I hope. Now, in mid-life, I’ve waded into poetry fearlessly, having previously only paddled in it like a wary toddler. Frankly, I was scared of it. I’ve always had some favourites, poems that were ‘easy’ to understand, by writers like Mary Oliver or E.E. Cummings, but I steered clear of many others; I don’t know – because I was scared, I guess. Not my idea of fun to discover, stumbling around words strung artfully on a page, that I might be, as I suspected all along, a bit stupid.

Oh but what a shame! No human is stupid! We all feel, and that is all we need to ‘get’ poetry. Last week, I also saw a young girl, maybe 16 or so, reading out a poem she’d written, and I was less enthralled by the words than by the way she was speaking them – mainly with passion and conviction that what she had to say mattered. Of course it did – it mattered to her.

I’ve started reading poems to my kids, and if you find the right one for them, you can see a light switching on inside them, which is joyous. Nonsense things (like Shel Silverstein’s Hat: Teddy said it was a hat/So I put it on./Now Dad is saying,/”Where the heck’s the toilet plunger gone?”) delight them but it’s the rhythm that gets them, it is innate in little ones to respond to rhythm. These are probably all really obvious things to state – but they weren’t obvious to me!

So poems are all around you, in motion, words dancing and fizzing – queuing up and jostling each other to try to get on to a page near you. If you have the urge to write one, then do. I’m going to try to capture more myself.


Meditation, Motherhood

I came across some words this morning and fell in love – a poem by Billy Collins called The Present, introduced by William Sieghart in The Poetry Pharmacy. It pokes fun at the current obsession with mindfulness and living in the moment, which conversely can cause a lot of needless guilt. (Like, often I’m with my three beautiful but bonkers boys, dreaming about being alone, snuggled low with a book and then bam! Comes the thought: WHY are you not savouring EVERY moment, they will be grown up soon and you will REGRET it!)

I don’t think the generation before me worried about all this consciously stepping into and savouring the moment – they just got on with it. Says William Sieghart on the pivot of this poem: ‘If living in the moment doesn’t suit you, don’t do it! Don’t feel obliged to change your interior life to suit the faddish dictates of the self-help industry. If you’re a fretter, or a daydreamer, or a reminiscer – celebrate it. Be yourself.’

Phew. There is a place for meditation and mindfulness, just like anything else in life, but it certainly isn’t there to make us feel we are failing in some way. Uh-uh, we are human, there’s no on/off switch – the mind is a massively unwieldy thing and yes, we can try to lasso it, rein it in, as is our wont – but we can dance with the devil too. If we were living in the present all the time, says Billy Collins:

…there’d be no past/with so many scenes to savor and regret,/and no future, the place you will die/but not before flying around with a jetpack. (Read the whole poem here).

This has cheered me up no end this morning because added to my long list of better ways to be – exercise more, meditate, be goddam mindful and don’t snap at my kids so much – there is a constant berating of my brain for the way it naturally is: it’s nostalgic, and often that causes me pain, yes, but it gives me some gifts too. As with most things, there is a flip side to nostalgia. It fosters my imagination; so for that matter does that other anti-mindful but delightful activity: daydreaming about the future.

Hidden peeks

Creativity, Meditation

I’ve read some great books lately, and they haven’t been for grown-ups. Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon, about a teenage girl with a life-threatening illness cosseted away from the world by her grieving mother; The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas – I couldn’t put it down – about a young girl who witnessed a cop shooting her best friend, and her struggle and eventual triumph speaking out about it; and Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds, a breathless tale told in rhythmic, musical verse, with a timeline of just one and a half minutes, about a terrified young boy desperate to avenge his brother’s death.

All have reminded me what it was like reading as a teenager, when you needed books to escape, to explain the world to you when the adults around you couldn’t, to reflect who you are, or help you find out who you are if you didn’t have a clue (still working on this, could be why I still read YA fiction). And to learn that it’s ok to be different or weird or that in fact, mostly, we are all normal, in our own abnormal way. When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, is a book about time travel, friendship, and the love between a mother and daughter. It’s beautifully written, and I came across in it as good a description I’ve found as any about meditation, or what can happen as a result of practising it:

‘Mom says that each of has a veil between ourselves and the rest of the world… The world is kind of blurry, and we like it that way. But sometimes our veils are pushed away for a few moments, like there’s a wind blowing it from our faces. And when the veil lifts, we can see the world as it really is… all the beauty, and cruelty, and sadness, and love. But mostly we are happy not to. Some people learn to lift the veil themselves. Then they don’t have to depend on the wind anymore.’

Yes, there’s this veil we live under, and it does make things blurry, and we do sort of like it. Occasionally, in transcendent (sometimes painful, as often joyous, moments) it drops, or shifts a little. We can see past it, or rather see the world without it. I think I saw the world like that after the birth of my son; after the death of my father. And once or twice, after meditation.

Do we all need to learn how to lift this veil? Yes, probably. I don’t mean we all need to learn to meditate. We each find our own way to get a glimpse past ourselves, and there are a myriad of ways of doing it. Reading, running, looking at art, walking, being in nature, or with an animal, cooking – and a thousand more.

The best thing, something I aspire to, is not having to depend on that wind anymore. Finding a way to tether ourselves to what is real and firmly eschew what is not.



I tried something different the other day and went to a mosaic class. It’s an art form that had never been on my radar before; or so I thought. Now I see that I’m always looking at pretty patterns and tiles, and so have been appreciating mosaics all along.

Anyway – another lesson on creativity for me. I have never touched a tile before, never mind created a work of art out of it. Most others in the class were in the same position and had a fairly relaxed attitude about the endeavor. Just pick a few colours they like, formulate a vague pattern and get going!

Not me. Mine had to be a masterpiece. It had to be the greatest piece of mosaic-making ever conceived by a complete beginner in the history of mosaic art. The colours would be blistering and precise, the pattern would be startling in its wild but uniform beauty. Like the others, I got going too. But I can’t say I was relaxed about it, I was taking it far too seriously for that. Hours passed. People finished, laughing and delighted with their work, heading on into the night, perhaps to sip a glass of wine, go watch a movie, or go to bed, their minds soothed after such a colourfully creative break.

I got myself into a terrible muddle. What I’d had in my head did not translate onto my mosaic. I caught myself thinking: God, I am shit at this.

Now can you imagine? Here it is, the death of creativity, right there. HOW can you be shit at something that you have never done before? It has been the same with my writing all these years, I have not allowed myself the leeway of experimentation. Stuff has come pouring out and because it hasn’t been perfect, a masterpiece from the get-go, I have dashed it aside, slapping it with the forlorn and deathly label of failure. This is simply not how creativity works, it does not, can not, will never work like this.

Look at a three year old painting with his fingers, or schlepping in the mud or building a sandcastle. That’s how creativity works. Or rather, doesn’t work. It’s play.

Relationship advice


When I was in my twenties and early thirties I put a lot of pressure on every relationship I had. Through the fogginess of dodgy mental health and a sense of direction that twisted to the rhythm of whims which came thick and fast, often with no sense and a bewildering plurality of intent (neuroscientist, poet, teacher, furniture-maker, midwife, minister, gardener, editor, chef), I was always steadfast about two things. I wanted to be a mother, and I wanted to write.

Since I was tiny, I loved babies; I wanted to hold them and help care for them. I remember once, when I was around six, an auntie was coming to visit, and she was bringing her newborn with her. I figured that if I sat on my sofa for hours, holding my doll, God (this man in the sky who decided how stuff went down) would see me, note how talented I was at holding babies, and then give me a chance to hold the real thing. When my auntie arrived, I was allowed to cuddle her baby – only to drop him immediately, to vigorous tears both on my part and his, as all the adults yelled, and he no doubt wondered at this brief slip in security so early in his life.

So every man I met was sized up as a potential father, I couldn’t help it, and I also couldn’t hide that I was desperate to be a mother. I wanted babies in my twenties. Obviously most men ran a mile, pretty quickly. The ones who didn’t, I was suspicious of: why on earth would they want to stick with someone like me? There must be something wrong with them – and so it went, until I met the father of my children, who is a stalwart sort and somehow saw beneath all the mental high jinks to the person underneath.

Anyway, last night, I lay thinking, as the heavy rain fell with luscious drops on the roof of the mobile home where we are spending this Irish summer. I am doing exactly the same now with the book I am writing. I am putting too much pressure on it. I want it to be something it is not right now, which is a first draft. I want it to be The One. The One that gets finished, the one that is a masterpiece, the one that gets me an agent. I’m killing the relationship before it has even started, because what the story needs is space. By that, I don’t mean I have to down tools and let the words languish: I mean I need to give them a break. They’ll be ok. It’ll work out. It is the same with any creation, in any sphere: over-crowding it, over-analysing it, will be the death of it. These wispy ideas that come to us must be offered succour, and treated with gentle respect when they do dare to tap us on the shoulder. You can’t let them wander up and then coldly hit them over the head with a hammer, killing them stone dead before they have had a chance to grow.

This is what I am doing with my ideas at the moment, as I did with relationships all those years ago. That critic’s voice is so powerful, and it has felled me before, to the point of just stopping creativity altogether –  a state which I think is non-human, and seriously detrimental to your mental health. If you are not creating, you are dead, because to create is to live.

Reading aloud


I was talking to my sister last night. We were both voracious readers as children, my sister to the point she used to rob books from the library. She’s shaking her head now as I tell her I’m writing this – why would she steal books from a library? We can’t remember. She feels terrible about it. This is how good a person she is.

There was a period of about five or six years – it ended recently – where I stopped reading fiction. I don’t know why, it wasn’t a conscious decision. I was being pregnant and having children for a lot of this time; I could only read in snatches. I’d always choose some dastardly health book about how not to die. Now I think about it, one of them was actually called How Not To Die. I also read some shocking unputdownable memoirs; I particularly favoured the medical sort, as is in fashion now. I read quite a few books about dying, about dying patients and end-of-life care. Possibly a delayed reaction to seeing my father die. He wasn’t ready and it wasn’t peaceful for him. I’d read the odd poem, usually by Mary Oliver or Walt Whitman. And lots of cookery books; I’d gaze at recipes and think how great life would be if I cooked like that, or if I could somehow magically have all the ingredients in my cupboard without having to go to the supermarket.

Mentally, I was living in a kind of a nightmare world, I think. I see that now my brain is being soothed by reading fiction again. It is so much more nourishing, to me, than the other stuff I was reading. The towering Maya Angelou said: ‘When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.’ Wow. Doesn’t that say so much? The life-giving power of literature. Yes! It resurrects you, it gives you life! If you recognise something about yourself in a great work of art, if you learn something about yourself; if you discover that you are not alone. If you just let your ear and heart fall around the words, let them wash over you like a cool shower, leaving you forever changed in some way. It’s glorious. Reading is glorious and I’ve rediscovered how much I used to love it, how I used to fall into it, how it made me glad to be alive.

What on earth was I doing not reading stories when, growing up, they were my lifeblood? And yes, as Maya Angelou says, it helps you gain a sense of yourself in the world. It helps you understand the world and your place in it. I do have a lot of information in my head now about what causes high cholesterol, or what to eat to offset dementia, or what the gut microbiome actually is – but hell! None of it is as useful or memorable as learning as a young child about death and renewal, and how precious life is, from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, or the power of the mind to be first flattened, then galvanised into overcoming any obstacle, as I found out in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. On deep and passionate friendship, neglect, death, security and the pure, redemptive love of a guardian – Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian had a profound effect on me as a child and has remained in my consciousness ever since. Or finding out as a teenager that Holden Caulfield found things equally as shit as I did, and for that matter, Hamlet did too; and that the pedestrian minutiae of life and relationships could be both comic and wholly revealing about human nature, as Jane Austen taught me. Charlotte Bronte, who put such poetry to isolation and depression in Jane Eyre, and let us soar up again as Jane found love. The breathless delight, the sheer chutzpah, the utter fun that is Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle.

These are some of the books I read as a child, each becoming part of who I am, each parenting me in some way, too. In childhood, I could not be dragged away from books. Now as I plough deeper into adulthood, into middle age – as I sail closer to that unknown horizon, where life morphs into something else, I think: I just want to read, read, read. There is so much to learn. I am at 0.000000000001% of what I want to learn about humans on earth, and it’s all there to be revealed, in words, in stories, inside books.

Everyone else is already taken


Another outcome of meditating regularly is that it makes it impossible to be anyone else but yourself. Or it’s getting older. I concede it could be either.

I find it to be an enormous relief anyway, because I’ve spent much of my life attempting to be someone else. Someone light-hearted, outgoing. Up for a laugh. Someone who doesn’t get hurt easily, who glides on the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune instead of allowing themselves to become floored by them. This person I was attempting to be was impossibly selfless and good (pssst, I’m not; I’m quite awful). She loved crowds, parties, big groups of people. She loved it when she was the centre of attention, like, that was no big deal. She lived for today and to hell with tomorrow. I was always drawn to those types of people. I was deeply fascinated by them. How were they not worried all the time? Did they not think about consequences? What about the past – did they not give a hoot about that and how it encroached upon the present? And what about the future – did they not realise all this goddam light-heartedness was a sure road to ruin?

I hate crowds. I feel anxious and worried in large groups of people. I much prefer long chats with a single human than boisterously regaling tales to a bevy of cackling, lusty friends. I am absolutely introverted. I like being on my own, I crave silence (Announcement: There will be no silence for the next 18 years as you have chosen to have three boys. Thank you.) I am as shy as hell. I haven’t got a clue what to say to most people, and will often come across as just bloody odd because I will launch into some deep navel-gazing commentary when all the person had asked for was my name. I can’t laugh at people’s jokes, ever, never have been able to. This is because as soon as someone launches into telling a joke I get insanely panicky in case I don’t understand the punchline and have to give one of those fake laughs, which I might do in the wrong place or inappropriately. Perhaps they weren’t even telling a joke at all. I’m not selfless and good, really, by nature – only this morning I started marching quicker than the lumbering man behind me in case they were running out of scones at the local coffee morning and he would get the last one with cream instead of me – though I would love to be. I am so ridiculously sensitive that you need only say boo to me and I will worry about it for the next few days afterwards. What did it mean? Was it my fault you said boo? Why am I the kind of person people say boo to? If I have a few drinks, I worry I am an alcoholic. I can’t throw caution to the wind about anything, it just isn’t in my nature.

Growing up, I followed the herd, trying to have ‘fun’ doing things I seriously hated. Going out to crowded nightclubs in my 20s – I hated, hated that, the noise, the lights, people shouting over the thumping music. Drugs – tried some, all made me almost instantly mentally ill and for days, sometimes weeks, after. Most of my friends were wild, carefree and drank a lot, then got up the next day and did it all again, and with a smile on their face too. Anyway, of course that all falls away as you get older (and for most, much younger than I was – I let all that drag on far too long) but still, I was afraid to be myself. I think it’s partly why I was afraid to write too; in case anybody found out who I really was.

I’m frustrated with the amount of time I wasted trying to be other than what I was. I don’t know what this was, a kind of escaping from myself I suppose. It’s really hard to start to learn to like yourself if you haven’t in the past; it’s like you have to build yourself again from the foundations, brick by brick. Or perhaps it’s like you are a sculptor. That quote attributed to Michelangelo comes to mind: The sculpture is already complete beneath the marble block. That’s you, who you are. The rest is all stuff you have accumulated. You are a perfect work of art underneath.