Our Christmas away from home

Sunshine, seafood for dinner and the outdoor market in Granada. That was our last Christmas before Little P came along and our first Christmas away from home. We had talked about going away for Christmas many times but family reaction always put us off the idea. In 2014 we finally decided to spend the entire Christmas period exploring Portugal and Spain. Like anyone who goes away for Christmas I was a little anxious about the experience. Would I miss family, friends and all the traditions that happen without fail every year? The truth is I felt very much in need of a different Christmas. It was all becoming a bit too repetitive. The same parties, the same music, the same TV shows, the same shopping panic and the same food. So we headed off for our adventure at the start of December. Just when ‘Fairytale of New York’ was blasting through every shopping centre in Ireland we landed in the bright and sunny Portela airport in Lisbon.

We spent out first evening eating roasted chestnuts and walking the streets of Lisbon. Lisbon is a city with style and for Christmas it was certainly decorated with style. In the main tourist areas there were sparkly trees, an ice rink and a giant Santa Claus projected onto buildings. But other parts of the city were more low key and reminded me of Christmas visits to Dublin as a child. The streets and shops were decorated with holly, wreaths, ribbons and lights. And cribs, there were so many cribs. In Portugal and Spain Christmas is far more obvious as a religious festival. The nativity or the ‘Belén’ is at the centre of celebrations and in every small village, town or major city we visited there were magnificent ‘Belén’ displays. Entire replicas of Bethlehem were recreated with minute attention to detail. We spent hours walking around them fascinated at miniature shepherds with tiny flocks of sheep, diminutive palm trees and market stalls full of minuscule vegetables. Entry was free but visitors left a donation for charity. They were all packed to the rafters with abuelos and niños in equal measure.
 By Christmas week we had moved on to Spain and the celebrations were really beginning. There were lots of outdoor markets, street entertainment and fairground rides. Just like in Ireland the Spanish Christmas is all about family and everywhere we went we saw multi generational family groups enjoying meals, shopping or just strolling about. Strolling about in the dry warm weather was one of the best bits about the whole trip! In Spain Christmas Eve is the day for house visits and a big family dinner so the shops and restaurants all closed early. But Christmas Day is for getting out and about. We spent Christmas Day in Granada, home to the Moorish palace ‘The Alhambra’. The squares and streets were buzzing with people wishing each other ‘Feliz Navidad’. For Christmas dinner we had a deliciously creamy seafood risotto in a restaurant overlooking the winding streets that lead to the Alhambra. Then, on Stephens Day we explored the palace itself and it was an unforgettable experience.
Although business appeared to go on as normal the Christmas celebrations last well into January in both Spain and Portugal. The Feast of the Epiphany is even more of an event than Christmas Day. The Magi come to visit every town and village and bring presents for all the children. We were in Almeria for this and there was a huge street carnival with music and dancing. At one end of the street on a huge stage sat the three kings. The children queued up to see them and receive their gifts. The children were wildly excited and the atmosphere was fantastic.
Over the four weeks we also visited Seville, Gibraltar, Málaga, Cádiz and spent a week on the beach in Southern Portugal. The weather was like a good Irish summer, we met mostly locals and we spent a fraction of what we would normally spend on Christmas at home.
I firmly believe that Christmas in another country is something that everyone should experience at least once in life. It gives a real insight into another culture and great ideas for bringing something different to Christmas at home. In Portugal there was a nationwide recycling awareness event while we were there. All homes, business and towns were encouraged to use only Christmas decorations that had been created from recycled materials. So this year I’ve taken some of the ideas I saw there to make decorations for our home. The holiday also reminded me of my own childhood Christmases and the basics of simple family time. Christmas doesn’t have to be about big presents, spending lots of money or having fancy decorations. The best Christmas is about having fun with your favourite people and showing some simple kindness to those around you. That is what I saw in abundance during our Iberian Christmas.
So if you’ve been thinking about going away for a Christmas I’d highly recommend it. No matter where you may decide to go. Having a different Christmas is like a breath of fresh air. And of course, it makes you appreciate Christmas at home all the more!

Why women are rocking social media….

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I’ve only very recently dipped my toe in the vast ocean that is social media. Previously I was working in the media industry and spending my down time on Facebook or Twitter felt far too much like work. So I kept away. Then I left my job. moved away from friends and family and had a baby. I wanted to keep in touch, share photos and still feel part of the action so I started to dabble. First with Instagram and then when I got the notion of starting a blog I signed up to Twitter as well. Two social media accounts is more than enough for me to be getting on with at the moment thank you very much! Instagram was a big hit for me straightaway. I love the visual aspect and I find it more user friendly. I’m still a little intimidated by Twitter, I’m never quite sure what to tweet. But I’ll get the hang of it eventually and find my Twitter ‘voice’.

The one thing that has leapt out at me since I began my adventures in social media is that marvellous women are everywhere. Funny women, business women, smart women, streetwise women, young, old, mothers, celebrities, academics, farmers, writers…….they’re all there and they are shaping the social media landscape. Social media is a tool that women are working exceptionally well in a variety of ways. A few reasons strike me as to why women are so ‘good’ at social media.

Multi-tasking
There’s plenty of research to suggest that women are very proficient at multi-tasking and it’s a quality that social media certainly demands. There are high expectations when it comes to content so writing and photography are not the only skills required. Filming, presenting, editing, and using graphics are all necessary for the vlogging, instastories, podcasts and newsletters that today’s followers enjoy. Of course you have to blog, vlog, or tweet about something. So the women I follow produce rich and entertaining content online about their businesses, families, travels, books, farms and various combinations of all of the above!

Support
Despite the propaganda that has been knocking about over the decades women are immensely supportive of each other. Previous generations of women with large families and few resources had to rely on each other for support. Then, while negotiating a male dominated workplace, often the only encouragement that women received was from each other. In order to survive and thrive on social media you need support. I see examples of this every day. Women promoting each other’s businesses, giving newbies (like me!) support and encouragement, showcasing each other’s skills and expertly building an online network that is self perpetuating.

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Keeping it real
The voices that ring out above the din are those that speak with truth and with passion. Women on social media don’t hold back. For so many years certain issues were taboo subjects for public discussion on traditional media channels (that were mostly controlled by men). Now the social media channels are wide open and stories about miscarriage, abortion, sexual harassment, mental health, domestic violence, infertility and more are at last being told. And everyone now knows that they’re not just women’s issues, they never were!

A voice for change
Women are also using social media to call out injustices, mistreatment and abuse of power. Over the past number of months there have been various high profile cases involving historic cases of sexual harassment, bullying and abuse. Social media provided a collective voice for women in the entertainment business and beyond to reveal the extent and the seriousness of these accusations that then led to investigations. Ultimately women coming together on social media is bringing about a much needed change in our culture.

New media
Social media is a relatively new media and women have been right in there from the start shaping the landscape. Many of the most successful bloggers and social media influencers are women. Unlike print journalism, TV and radio women have had an important role in creating and controlling social media. As a result it feels like a media that is more egalitarian and more reflective of real life. More representative of both genders.

In the words of the Nobel prize winning Malala Yousafzai, whose blog was only the beginning of her international campaign to ensure the rights of all females to education:

“I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”
Malala Yousafzai

Women are not just participating in the global conversation on social media, they’re setting the agendas. And about time too.

 

 

What Dr Seuss taught me about parenting….

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Little P loves books. She gets very excited at the prospect of a new book and she’ll read her old favourites over and over again. As a child I was the same, reading everything from Ladybird to End Blyton. But I can remember getting a Dr Seuss book from my cousins when I was about 5 or 6 and I took an instant dislike to ‘The Cat in the Hat’. I hated the rhyming, the nonsense language, the silly looking creature who didn’t even look like a cat to me. So I left it to one side and it was eventually given away to a charity shop.

Last week Little P went into the second hand book shop with her Dad and came home with ‘There’s a Wocket in my Pocket’ by Dr Seuss! She had picked it out herself and in the past week I think we’ve read it to her over 50 times. She adores it, and can almost recite the lines herself at this stage. But here’s the big shocker. I love it too! Finally after all these years I get Dr Seuss. I understand what he was trying to do with these books. The nonsense words really do grab childrens’ ears, the rhyming makes them want listen over again and if a child is learning to read I can imagine how it would make the process so much easier. But my childhood prejudice could have prevented Little P from enjoying all that Dr Seuss fun.

So it got me thinking about parenting and how I came to parenting with a whole backlog of prejudices. Irrational fears, anxieties, likes and dislikes. Some that have been passed on to me by my own parents. Others that have developed through my own personal experiences of life BC (before child!). How do I avoid inadvertently passing those on to Little P? I don’t want her to have an irrational obsession with germs, a morbid fear of raw chicken and public toilets. But yet I can’t constantly censor myself.
Could it be possible for me to change at this point in my life?

The truth is that since Little P was born I can feel myself changing almost daily. As a lifelong worrier I can remember as a child even worrying about going to birthday parties. But I can feel anxiety loosening its grip. It’s almost like there are so many possibilities for worry with a child that I can’t keep up so I just give up! And more importantly there are so many moments of pure joy that they just cancel out the worry. I can also feel myself becoming braver and more optimistic than I ever was before. She is such an outgoing, fearless bundle of fun that her spirit is infectious.

Becoming a Mum can be the biggest catalyst for change. I expected that, after all it is a momentous life event. What I didn’t expect was that I could be changed by this new little person herself. But, naturally enough, as in all good relationships, both parties can often change each other for the better. I forgot to consider the fact that Little P is a person in her own right. Not just somebody to be moulded by me.

When I’m with her she is like a mirror reflecting back, all my prejudices and my flaws. Through her I can see what I need to change about myself, and she provides the inspiration every day for how to make those changes. She’s an individual and at the moment she is developing a character that is distinctly different from my own. So, I will continue to be buoyed and inspired by my relationship with this exciting, developing, interesting person who happens to be my daughter.

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I hope she feels the same because in her I also see reflected my positive qualities and I realise that as a Mum I’m not too bad at all. Most importantly I’ll remember as the great doctor himself said:

“A person’s a person, no matter how small”.
Dr Seuss

How to spot your local Atheist

 

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I am an Atheist, but you wouldn’t know it to look at me. If you observed you may notice that although I live in a small rural village I don’t attend mass in the local church, or events in the parish hall. I don’t wear ashes on my forehead or give up chocolate for Lent. I’m not married and Little P is not baptised.

It’s tricky to recognise fellow non believers. It seems a bit of a personal a question to ask outright and, contrary to popular belief, we don’t have horns (even though that would make it a lot easier for me!). If I were Catholic I could go to mass or to toddler groups in the parish hall. If I were Protestant I’d go to service, Muslim the mosque etc. But where does one meet other Atheists?

I often meet other Mums, get to know them and then they start talking about holy communion plans or asking if Little P is enrolled in the local Catholic school. I can’t help it but my heart does sink a bit.  I’m not saying that I can’t be friends with religious people – that would be madness – loads of my existing family and friends are practising Catholics and it doesn’t affect our relationship. It’s just that when you feel completely outnumbered it can get a little lonely.

As an Atheist I have always felt isolated in my (non) belief but I definitely feel more alone since we moved to Kerry. The sense of community, neighbourliness and family values in rural Ireland is wonderful and much stronger than in the Dublin suburbs. But, the only difficulty for a family like us is that those values are almost always still connected to the church.

Religion has had the benefit of centuries of tradition in building strong and faithful communities. Christianity and then catholicism have become the majority religion of choice in Ireland. I can understand why people are reluctant to move away from these religious communities even if they don’t fully believe in what they represent. They are ready made, strong, warm and welcoming communities. Sometimes I miss the comfort of them. Although I was baptised and raised in a typical Irish Catholic household I now consider myself both an Atheist and a Humanist. An Atheist because I don’t believe in any god(s) and a Humanist because I place all things human above all things spiritual. It was while I was at university studying philosophy that I began to question religion and by the time I left I was an Atheist.

But I didn’t find many like minded individuals. My family and friends range from the committed mass goers to those who believe in god but ignore the religious trappings of Catholicism. While working I was often surprised when apparently agnostic colleagues would announce the baptism of their baby or send out invitations to their church wedding. On many occasions they would confess that it was to secure a school place or placate their religious families. It seems that religion is so closely woven into Irish life that it’s almost impossible to unpick the threads.

Even now in the 21st century the government is taking such tiny steps at separating Church and State that it feels like it will never happen.  It’s an ominous thought for me that Little P could yet become an adult in a country where schools, hospitals and even government are still so closely bound to the Church.

It does appear that the next generation are moving away from organised religion (in the 2016 Irish census 45% of those with no religion fell into the 20-39 age group). What will hold communities together in the absence of the religious ‘glue’? Atheists and Humanists like me will have to make a lot more effort to build secular communities. So, it’s time to stop complaining and start doing. As a natural introvert I’m not great at joining groups but for my sake and Little P’s sake I have to get over that.

I’ve recently discovered that there is an Atheist Ireland (www.atheistireland.ie) group in Kerry so my mission is to go along to their next meeting and connect with some other non believers. Humanist Ireland are also making great strides in growing regional groups and hosting secular events and celebrations (www.humanistireland.ie).

Communities built around human values like family, friendship, environmental care, nature and culture have the potential to be diverse, rich and inclusive. They have the potential to be even more enduring than religious ones because they are based around human values. Values that we will always have in common. They can become places where people of all religions and none can feel welcome and, most importantly, where no one will feel isolated. Atheists and Humanists have to be more active in creating these communities. We don’t have the benefit of generations of religious worship behind us. But the extra effort could make secular communities all the more worthwhile.

So, if you feel the same, and you recognise someone like me in your community make a connection. The more connections we make the more we can strive to build these secular  communities and create more genuine diversity. For as Jeanette Winterson once wrote ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’.

We’re all Supermum!

I’m pretty ruthless when it comes to clear outs. So ruthless in fact that after Little P was born I gave away almost my entire wardrobe leaving me with just a few tops and trousers. Most of my clothes were stylish workwear that no longer suited my lifestyle, so they went to the charity shop. Following a year of breastfeeding I dropped two dress sizes so even the trousers and t-shirts had to go too. Now I own three summer dresses, one pair of jeans, one pair of black trousers, four tops and two jackets. Along with underwear and nighties that is the sum total of my current clothing supply. As someone who previously had two overstuffed wardrobes I feel a zen like peace since I downsized!

But there is one piece of clothing I can’t seem to part with, even though it’s gone into the recycling bag more than once. It’s a nightie. Not very pretty and the cotton was so fine that at this stage it’s frayed and even torn at the seams. But every time I touch it or wear it I have such visceral memories that it’s almost like a relic to me. It’s the nightdress I wore on the morning that Little P was born.
 There were four nighties in my hospital bag. Three were new and one was a spare that my Mum made for me from a summer dress she never wore. I’m quite fussy about nightwear. It must be cool cotton, long and sleeveless and the four in my bag were perfect. The first one was destroyed when my waters broke so that had to go. In my panic at the increasing frequency and intensity of the contractions I changed into the ‘spare’ nightie. Maybe because it was the old one or maybe subconsciously because it was the one my Mum made and that gave me some much needed comfort. Either way about one hour after I put it on I was holding my new daughter. The nightie escaped the whole experience relatively unscathed (which is more than can be said for me!) so I kept it. It was the perfect  breastfeeding nightie so I used it a lot in Little P’s first year. Then it got a bit shabby from being washed so often. Then I snagged it in a door handle and it got a small tear. Then Little P found the tear and now it’s a big tear! But I can’t part with it. It’s odd because usually I’m not at all sentimental about clothing or things. I gave away all of Little P’s tiny baby clothes without a second thought. But the nightie takes me right back to what was easily the most intense experience I’ve ever had. It reminds me of the fear, the excitement, the pure joy and the amazing sense of empowerment that I experienced.
The nightdress is the physical thing that reminds me that I brought Little P into the world, I was the one who made it happen. Because a few days after her birth it almost felt like it had been a dream or a strange out of body experience
I know that women are giving birth all the time, I can only imagine how many babies have come into the world even since I began writing this post. I know that there is nothing remarkable about my experience. Except to me. Because no matter how common or how frequent it doesn’t take away from how profound, joyful and intense giving birth can be for each individual woman.
Beyond my partner I certainly wasn’t encouraged to talk about it afterwards. Many of my family and friends appeared uncomfortable or awkward if I tried to discuss the birth in any way. ‘Too much information!’ or ‘We don’t want the gory details thanks!’. But I found that, for me, not talking about an experience as significant as that left me asking had it really happened to me? Had I really brought this beautiful baby into the world? When I look at the nightdress I remember that for one morning, like all Mums, I was superhuman and I feel very proud.

What’s in a name?

With Storm Ophelia en route to our front door it got me thinking about names. Ophelia is one of those names that as a teenager I would have longed for. So romantic and unusual I had never met a real life Ophelia but the name conjured up such a fascinating and exotic creature.
I’ve always been interested in names, maybe because my own is a little unusual, always unique in my class in school and it generally provides a talking point when I meet someone new. I never ever forget a name and I love imagining what people will be like based on their name. All the Daisys and Mollys I’ve met have been quirky, interesting, creative types and as a result they are two of my favourite names. My extremely loveable Granddads were Billy and John and I can’t help but feel a warmth toward those names. Similarly there are some names that are just tainted by association and when we were choosing a name for Little P that was one of the problems. Despite that it was remarkably easier then I expected to choose a name in the end.
We found two names that we were both very enthusiastic about. Then, a few months before Little P was born a family member unwittingly chose one of our names for their new cat so at that stage we really only had one option! It’s a tricky process though and one that can cause a lot of angst. There can be pressure to agree on a name not just between partners but with extended family too.
I also found that when it comes to naming your own child sometimes the name you thought was the most beautiful in the world just doesn’t fit. Which brings me back to Ophelia. It was certainly on my list along with Leonora, Gwendoline, Paloma, Allegra – all names that I adore but they just didn’t feel right. We decided to ‘road test’ our choices by talking to the bump using any names we were considering. This works surprisingly well and lets you find out if you can ‘live’ with a name. This is how we eventually arrived at our shortlist of two, they were the ones that just felt right. By the time she was born we had been calling her Little P for so many weeks that she really was our Little P.
The name ‘trends’ that change over generations and cultures also influence our choices. Obviously in previous generations most names in Ireland were family names or saints’ names. Today popular culture plays a much more important role in influencing us.  When names enter into the zeitgeist, just like memes, they keep reappearing. So if suddenly it feels like everyone you know is having a Freya or an Oliver it’s probably because as people hear these names more like them, pass them on or use them and suddenly they are ‘trending’. So although names like Brenda, Maire, Paul or John may not be as popular today as they were in previous generations it’s likely that they will reappear for a future generation.
It’s little wonder that we attach so much importance to choosing a baby name. Names are so important to us as humans. Down through the centuries a name carried so much meaning. It was an indicator of family origin, occupation, wealth, even character. Having no name at all was even more significant. If you think of stories like ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ or ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ the protagonists are stripped of their humanity, their freedom and symbolically their birth names. Our name is a a signifier of our humanity, of being somebody. In the movie ‘Castaway’ the famous volleyball only becomes a real companion to Chuck Noland when he names it ‘Wilson’. People name their pets, their cars even their houses. We encourage small children to name their toys and of course one of the first questions they are asked when they learn to speak is ‘What’s your name?’
So, if you are currently trawling naming websites and books, keep doing it because it’s a wonderful distraction during what can feel like a very long nine months! Road test as many names as you like but try to keep most of them to yourself. You can be sure that your mother once knew a woman whose cousin was called ‘insert name you love’ and everybody called him ‘insert terrible nickname’! Don’t get too hung up on it though because whatever name you choose your child will embody that name, not the other way around. Even if you knew a thousand ‘Marys’ once you have your own she will become THE Mary.
Anyway, as Shakespeare knew, a little babe by any other name would still smell as sweet xx

Town Mouse or Country Mouse?

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Since moving from the Dublin suburbs to Co Kerry I’ve experienced only two types of reaction from people. The first is to tell me that I’m quite simply mad to leave behind all the conveniences, people and services of the East for the wild, sparsely populated and remote West. The second is to tell me how lucky I am to be ‘living the dream’. Now that we have been here for over two years it’s clear to me that the reality is somewhere in between.
We came here for a different way of life. A slower pace of life. We wanted to get away from motorways and traffic queues. From soulless shopping centres and concrete jungles. We wanted Little P to have the freedom to run on empty beaches, to be surrounded by nature and breathe clean fresh air.  We have all of that, we love it and she is thriving on it. But, there is a but.
We are far away from the centre of things and I often worry that she may want that when she is older. Maybe we will want it when we are older too. I occasionally find myself missing certain things about my old suburban life. I miss being close to the big national events that almost always happen in Dublin. I miss services like high speed broadband, varied employment options and the proximity to big cultural institutions. Sometimes I just miss feeling close to the centre of the action, close to where all the big decisions are made.
The gap between Dublin and the rest of the country can seem enormous when you live outside Dublin. Both media and government can appear to be very ‘Dublin-centric’ and that certainly adds to my feelings of living on the periphery. Even the attitudes of friends and family have changed since we moved. I’ve heard all the ‘jokes’ by now. ‘You’re a real culchie now…..’, ‘We won’t be able to understand Little P with that accent…’, ‘Do you actually have cinemas down there?…..’ etc etc!
So will my feelings of discontent gradually fade and disappear or will they just grow stronger and eventually become impossible to ignore? I know that at the moment my love for and my connection to the new home we have made is much stronger than any feelings of restlessness. But that could change. Perhaps some of us need different things from our homes at different life stages. Perhaps, like the idea of only one true love for a lifetime, the idea of one perfect home for life is only a romantic notion.
In her later years my Nana, who lived in a quiet cul de sac, would often say how she wished she could see people passing by her window. Her secluded and private home was the perfect place to raise a family. But when she grew older and her home became less busy inside she longed to see human activity and busyness outside her windows.
So, maybe the blog I’ll be writing in twenty years time will be from an appartement, a tower block or a condo. Or maybe I’ll still be here just a lot more windswept and a little wiser than I am now.
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