saving for a rainy day . . . in Phoenix


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When I turned fifty (admittedly a while ago), I realized that: a) I would never make enough money to go to a job I hate every day and b) money really isn’t everything although I have often acted as though it is. Much to the chagrin of Suze Orman, I don’t organize money neatly in my wallet, and I honestly couldn’t tell you how much is in the checking account at any given time. If I must choose between purchasing something sensible like a new kitchen appliance or springing for a hard-bound signed copy of Seamus Heaney’s Nobel speech, “Crediting Poetry,” well, there is no choice which leads me to an August afternoon in 2013, two weeks before Heaney died.

Time and space collapse when I spotted the handsome little volume perched on a shelf in an air-conditioned fine out-of-print  books store in Arizona, about as far away as I could be from Anahorish, “where springs washed into the shiny grass.” Alas, I didn’t buy the signed first US edition, and I felt so guilty for having abandoned it there, that I knew it would only be a matter of time before I would go back, with an explanation to the avuncular Phoenician bookseller, of the finer points of buying on tick.


Previously, the best money I ever spent was in 1982. Flush with my university grant money, I bought three things that would change my life – a Eurail pass, a 35mm camera, and a hi-fi stereo system. I moved out of the Halls of Residence at Stranmillis College and into a red-brick terraced house on Ridgeway Street, where I lived with three male engineering students who tolerated my girliness and threw great parties without ever damaging any of my vinyl.

At the lower end of our street was The Lyric Theater  and at the top, a convenient and The Belfast Wine Company, a well-stocked off-license.


Ridgeway Street, Belfast, N. Ireland

In the middle, houses teemed with students, all imaginative misfits like me. I’m sure we went to our classes when there was nothing else to do, but what sparkles in my memory is the time spent on Ridgeway Street. One glorious evening, we spilled out of our houses and onto the road, pelting each other with water balloons while the frontman of Thin Lizzy, a very cool Phil Lynott leaned against the door jamb of a house full of art students from Derry. Maybe he got lost on the way to wherever he was supposed to be staying after a gig at The Kings Hall. I have no idea what he was doing there, but he was enjoying himself. In my mind’s eye he is as plain as day, smoking and laughing at us as we soaked each other, on the kind of shimmering summer night that transforms Northern Ireland into a veritable tourist destination.PhilLynnotDecades later and the vinyl records bought with my lunch money and grant money, are stowed away in the roof-space of my parent’s house in Castledawson. Faded and stashed between the pages of an old diary, the Eurail pass took me to places that have stayed in my heart to this day – Paris, Florence, Rome, Capri, the Greek islands. The Olympus camera? It was stolen from my first apartment in Phoenix.

It took thirty years and a breast cancer diagnosis before I would buy another 35mm camera, when I was ready finally to take stock and see things through different lenses. In the Fall of 2012, a friend and I enrolled in a college photography class that required us to pay attention to shapes and patterns and all the lines and curves we might otherwise miss going about my daily business. The photography teacher’s assignments sent me on scavenger hunts every Sunday to spots like the “Water Mark,” where five 14-foot aluminum horses that guard a road in Scottsdale. Some folks believe it should be designated a wonder of the world, but my teacher just wanted me to notice it, to pay attention to those splendid horses that evoke the Wild West but also prevent flooding during our Monsoon season. At such times, water gushes from the horse’s mouths, and it is an awesome sight.


Now I know those wild horses belong in the Arizona desert where the rains are rare, but I prefer to think of them along the Annadale Embankment, watching over us at the end of a  wild Belfast night.

Footnote: The Heaney Lecture is now where it belongs – between Door into the Dark and Stepping Stones . . . on my bookcase. As for Phil? As Joseph O’Connor explains, he was “the first Irish person ever to bound onto a stadium stage in leather trousers and bawl to the gods: “Are you OUT there?” He was our first rock star, gone too soon, and on a rainy night in Phoenix, some three decades later, I can still hear his coyote call . . .

 But there is the replenishing joy of the songs themselves, that carnival of outlaws, renegades and chancers, tumbling through the sunbursts of his rhymes. From the lonesome cowboy’s prairie to the louche streets of Soho, from the mythic Celtic battlefields over to Dino’s bar and grill, his restless creativity roamed. You could stock a damn good jukebox with only his work, so vivid the eye for detail and so capacious its reach . . . The songs will abide. That’s the only consolation. But it’s a real one. Even in the darkest night, you can always hear the king’s call.





On the list – Blog Awards Ireland 2016



Click on the picture to vote for this blog. You do NOT need to create an account.

I love a list.  It has a beginning and an ending. It’s a certainty. A sure thing. Naturally, then, I love Rob Gordon, a kindred spirit erstwhile hapless record shop owner in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. A compulsive maker of lists, his “top fives” run the gamut of pop culture, eclectic compilations that include his top five episodes of Cheers, top five Elvis Costello songs, and the top five “women who don’t live on his street but would be very welcome.” Like Hornby’s character, I can produce all kinds of top-five lists . . . album covers, fonts, pet peeves, life lessons, things not to say to a teenage daughter, mix tapes (now playlists) for any occasion, places to see and avoid in Phoenix, dive bars, concert venues, ways to get my own way, pizza toppings, authentic “Irish” bars in Phoenix (there might not be five), hairdressers, Tom Petty concerts, Van Morrison songs, things Nora Ephron said about what not to wear, lipstick shades, road-trips, playlists for road trips, white lies, cocktails involving gin, dramatic entrances, exit strategies, famous people who could play me in a movie, Heaney poems, laughs, crying sessions, and ways to let someone down easy (mostly myself).

It turns out there are psychological reasons for this love of lists. For instance, there’s the guess-work, the wondering if what I think will be on the list will be there when I click on it, confirming that I was right about something. Apparently, a correct prediction causes the brain to send an extra little shot of dopamine, and that boost makes for a better day.

So today is a great day. I clicked on the link, and there it is – this blog has made it to the short list of  the 2016 Blog Awards Ireland competition in the Irish Diaspora category. This is not the first time the blog has made it this far – I am perhaps on the road to becoming the Susan Lucci of blog award competitions. Like Ms. Lucci, I’m happy to be nominated and in the company of others who wrestle with getting the words right and who retreat online to this timeless space, a home away from home. It is a lovely thing to know that there are readers for whom this corner of the blogosphere represents the Irish abroad, and the recognition delights me as does being included on a list with others who have lifted me up and set me down again in this very space.

So thanks to those of you who read and remark and still come back for more, for enduring thousands and thousands of words – many of them not the right ones, not even close – about breast cancer and bad hair days, about Belfast and bombings, extended rants about menopause and motherhood and having it all or not having it all, about Seamus Heaney – ah, Seamus – and back home,  about vinyl records and ticket stubs, and brown paper packages tied up with string the way my mother still does, about magic and loss and Lou Reed.  As much as I have revealed of myself in this virtual space, I know for sure what is not copy, what is not up for public consumption.

Cancer was copy – it still is. Some of the business of widowhood is copy too. But I know what is not.  I know what to keep and what to discard. I know how to control it and how to control myself. Most of the time.  As public as I have made many of my choices,  I know how to be private and how to keep what is precious, private with the man who makes me smile and lifts my heart and lights up the dark corners in which I sometimes find myself. I suppose I have learned how to  – as Meryl Streep says of Nora Ephron – ‘achieve a private act.’

I know how to avoid an ending, and I’m very good at the long game. I know what Nora Ephron’s son knows – that closure is over-rated.  I cannot consider the concept without recalling the first time I realized how much it mattered to other people, following a principal’s evaluation of a lesson I’d taught. In her report, she indicated, with some disappointment, that I had provided “no closure” for my students. I didn’t bother arguing with her, because I knew I would be back in my classroom the next day and the next to continue – not to close – with my students.  It is the continuing that matters (along with what I wore along the way).

Continuance – it has a nice ring to it. Keep on keeping on. Maybe you’ll come along for the ride.

Thank you.




Louisiana 2016 ~ Home Sweet Home


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But it isn’t my home,
now slowly melting down
to sweeten the sea.”

~ Sara Cress: Poem for the Louisiana Flood

A family tries to recover belongings from their home in Central, La., a suburb of Baton Rouge. Photo: David Grunfeld, AP Photo

Unprecedented and unexpected, the storm came like a hurricane with neither wind nor a name, but a relentless, record-breaking rain that over the course of four days wreaked havoc in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  According to Scientific American, this is a “once-in-a-1,000-year event” that has killed 11 people and displaced tens of thousands. The Governor’s office reports that 40,000 homes are damaged and at least 10,000 people are living in shelters. Over 30,000 people have been rescued, but they cannot be certain how many people are still stranded, waiting to be rescued.

The summer of 2016 has been deadly for Baton Rouge. In July, two white police officers fatally shot at  a black man, Alton Sterling. Twelve days later, in the protests on the streets of Baton Rouge, a shooter killed three of the city’s police officers. In a city still reeling from loss, the rains came and ravaged it some more.

We watch from afar, horrified and hoping we can do something with our prayers and donations of blood and money. We stop to count our blessings that we are safe. We find our better selves as Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy explained in her response to the earthquake in Haiti, that poetry is as powerful as prayer, that its language is where we find our humanity:

Poetry is the music of being human. We turn to poetry at intense moments in our lives ~ when we lose people, or are bereaved, we look for a piece of music or a poem to read at the funeral, or when we fall in love we turn to poetry, or when children are  born. And I think that can happen at moments of public grief too, as well as personal. It is so close to prayer, it is the most intense use of language that there is. It is the perfect art form for public or private grief.

Far from Haiti, Sondra Honora lost her home in the Louisiana flood, the home of her dreams and for which she saved for years. She started out dependent on government subsidies and used Section 8 vouchers to live in apartments and rentals, until in 2012 she could finally afford her own garden home with three bedrooms and a fireplace – her American dream off Old Hammond Highway. Getting the keys to that house was the best day of her life, and now it is gone.

Honore and her daughter, Ciera, are bus drivers for East Baton Rouge Parish. They have no flood insurance, no home, and no livelihood now that the buses are flooded as well. A poem, a prayer for her – forever –  from poet Sara Cress



I saved.
Not a penny spent
on frivolous things,
I forgot the taste of candy.
And when I walked in that front door I said, “finally!”
That floor under my bare feet was sweeter
than ten years of spun sugar.
Funny how it dissolves
like that
like one second
atoms switch around
and you fall right through.
They’re so nice here,
we don’t hear the rain,
they’re bringing us fruit,
and I laugh with the baby so I don’t cry.
But it isn’t my home,
now slowly melting down
to sweeten the sea.

How to Help Louisiana Flooding Victims



omagh – this is our life


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photo-62In the summer of 1998, I took my new baby daughter back home to Northern Ireland, my lovely, tragic Northern Ireland. Between my father, my brother, and a handful of relatives who could keep a secret (an impressive trait in rural County Derry) we had planned a “This is Your Life” style surprise for my mother’s sixtieth birthday.  It was delicious, knowing we had all swallowed the same secret, and that my all-knowing mother was completely in the dark.

The Troubles had tainted previous visits home, but this time was going to be different – no bombs, no shootings, no petrol bombs, no more girls tarred and feathered for falling in love with a boy from the other side. There was something symbolic, magical even, in returning home with a new baby girl in my arms to a new optimism fueled by The Good Friday Agreement.

It had been different four years before. That trip had coincided with Ireland’s qualifying for the World Cup. The country was ecstatic, with factories, offices, shops, even banks, all closing early so everyone could make it home, or to the pub, in time for kick-off at the Ireland v Italy match being televised live from Giants Stadium in New Jersey. We had considered going to the pub to watch the first-round match, but my father convinced us to stay home, have a few drinks, and watch from the comfort of the living room. So we stayed in and watched – in joyous disbelief –  as Ireland went up 1-0 against Italy at Giants Stadium. When the lads in green scored a goal, we roared with pride even as we were afraid to look, not unlike Boston Red Sox fans prior to the 2004 World Series.

The second half of the match was well underway when two men, their faces hidden behind balaclavas, stormed into a tiny packed pub, The Heights Bar, in the village of Loughinisland, County Down. With an AK47 and a Czech made rifle, they shot madly and indiscriminately at the sixteen men gathered around the bar watching Ireland beat Italy. They killed six of them. According to witnesses, the two gunmen laughed as they made their getaway. The first killed, Barney Green, was in his eighties, someone’s grandfather, and as I recall from the stories that later poured from that heartbroken village, he had put on his best suit to mark Ireland’s making it to the World Cup.

It chills me still to think of Barney Green struck down with such savagery in the very moment as that jubilant Irish squad burst out of an American football stadium, awash in green, buoyed by the chanting of 60,000 supporters, anticipating champagne and a night of revelry, only to be silenced and sickened by the hideous dispatch from a country pub back home. Surely that would be the last time we would hear of such horror. No.

For many Northern Ireland families, mine included, the youngest generation knew only a country in conflict. But in 1998, my daughter would witness a new country, a country at peace. The people had voted for it in anticipation of a new era for Northern Ireland. A brand new day. That year, when my mother’s sixtieth birthday arrived, I telephoned in the morning with love and good wishes and a promise that we would arrange a trip home soon. Yes, she had received the flowers I’d sent, and she was looking forward to going out for dinner with my father that evening. On their way, he took a bit of a detour for a quick visit with my Aunt Sadie, where delighted shrieks of “Surprise!”exploded from the well-hidden gathering of family and friends whose cars were parked on another lane, far out of sight. One of my cousins even assumed the role of This is Your Life host, Eamonn Andrews, complete with a big red book, and related the story of my mother’s life to all assembled.

When she reached the part about my mother becoming a grandmother for the first time just eight months earlier, she suggested calling me so that I could at least be part of the celebration by phone. Naturally, I was unavailable, given that two days earlier, I had flown in to Belfast with Sophie, and had been holed up at my Aunt Sadie’s house enjoying secret visits with my dad and my brother, the three of us laughing that my mother – who usually knows everything – was oblivious to all the subterfuge. She was disappointed that I wasn’t home, but was quickly distracted by the doorbell ringing. Thinking it was yet another cousin or a friend with a birthday present, she opened the door to find looking up at her from a nest of pink blankets, her beautiful baby granddaughter. It was a perfectly executed surprise, planned down to the very last minute, and one my mother would cherish always, as a jewel in a box.

Unbeknownst to us and to most ordinary people in Northern Ireland, another plan was coming to fruition, a diabolical scheme that would, one week later, rip asunder the tiny market town of Omagh in the neighboring county of Tyrone, devastating families from as near as Donegal and as far away as Madrid, Spain, and reminding us all that Northern Ireland’s Troubles were far from over.

I don’t know all the details. I’m afraid of them.

It frightens me to consider the machinations of minds that could craft a plan to load a nondescript red car, plate number MDZ 5211, with 500 pounds of explosives, park it in the middle of a busy shopping area, and place two phone calls to the local television station, one to the Coleraine Samaritans, with a warning 40 minutes before the bomb inside it exploded. There was confusion as the police evacuated the shoppers – mostly mothers and children on back-to-school shopping sprees. Thinking they were moving them away from the Court House to safety, the police moved people to the bottom of Market Street, where the bomb was about to be detonated.

I wonder if they felt that familiar relief, the kind you know from past experiences of bomb-scares and hoaxes, if they felt they were out of harm’s way and just in time, believing that it would all be alright. Maybe they told themselves it was just a bomb scare, like old times, not to be taken very seriously but still they would cooperate with the authorities so they could get back to their Saturday afternoon shopping, seeking out bargains for backpacks and books, new uniforms and lunch-boxes, full of the promise that accompanies the start of a new school year.

I cannot write about it without weeping.


Spaniard Gonzalo Cavedo and child posing by the car carrying the bomb that killed 29 people, many of whom are in the picture, including the photographer. Mr. Cavedo and the child survived. (Source: Belfast Telegraph)

Mere seconds after this photo was taken with a camera later retrieved from the rubble, the 500 pound bomb inside the red car exploded, blowing the vehicle to bits. Like a butcher’s knife, the blast cut through the row of little shops. I recall the harrowing accounts of witnesses, forever altered, who saw blood flowing in the gutters and pieces of people in the street, describing the savagery, the carnage before them as a war zone, a killing field.


At the same time, my brother, his girlfriend, and my baby girl were driving around the North Antrim coast, listening to Neil Young and Paul Brady CDs, occasionally breaking into song as we took in wild scenery around us. We stopped to show Sophie the horses and cows that peered over gates along the country roads. It was a beautiful, windy Irish day, and we were happy.

We were not listening to the radio that afternoon, so we didn’t hear the news. We had no reason to believe anything was wrong, until, heading home at dusk, we were stopped at a police checkpoint, where we were told to take a detour. And we knew. It had happened again. My parents knew too. Worse, they were worried sick. Something horrific had happened, and they had no idea where we were.  Worried, they paced the floor until their driveway was lit up again with the headlights of my brother’s car.

There was no peace. 

Another atrocity. Another anniversary for the people of Northern Ireland that would leave us wondering how we would ever recover from the maddening, wrenching anguish that visited us once again. My country is so tiny – I’ve been told it fits into one third of the state of Kansas – that I imagine everyone knew someone who knew someone maimed or killed in the largest mass murder in its history.  A relative of an Antrim barman had been killed in the Omagh bombing, and I remember wondering what I could possibly say to him by way of condolence, knowing there are no adequate words.

I felt sad and foolish, and I felt cheated, having dared to believe that peace had come to the country I had left but still loved. I should have remembered what we must never forget from The Isle of Innisfree –  that “peace comes dropping slow.”


Nothing had changed, and everything had changed in that blast that killed 29 people and unborn twins. And there would be no justice. No one has been convicted. 

The Omagh list of deadreads like a microcosm of Troubles deaths, and left no section of Irish life untouched. The town they attacked is roughly 60:40 Catholic:Protestant, and the dead consisted of Protestants, Catholics, a Mormon and two Spanish visitors. They killed young, old and middle-aged, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and grannies. They killed republicans and unionists, including a prominent local member of the Ulster Unionist Party. They killed people from the backbone of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). They killed unborn twins, bright students, cheery shop assistants and many young people. They killed three children from the Irish Republic who were up north on a day trip. Everyone they killed was a civilian. The toll of death was thus both extraordinarily high and extraordinarily comprehensive.”

Without answers, we can only bear witness. Can we ever bear our pain and that of others in a way that brings about peace and understanding? Is Northern Ireland forever destined to use remembrance as the ultimate divider? Will the families of the bereaved ever see justice?

No answers. Only this:

Neither an Elegy nor a Manifesto” by John Hewitt

So I say only: Bear in mind

Those men and lads killed in the streets;

But do not differentiate between

Those deliberately gunned down

And those caught by unaddressed bullets:

Such distinctions are not relevant . . .

Bear in mind the skipping child hit

By the anonymous ricochet . . .

And the garrulous neighbours at the bar

When the bomb exploded near them;

The gesticulating deaf-mute stilled

by the soldier’s rifle in the town square

And the policeman dismembered by the booby trap

in the car . . .

Patriotism has to do with keeping

the country in good heart, the community

ordered by justice and mercy;

these will enlist loyalty and courage often,

and sacrifice, sometimes even martyrdom.

Bear these eventualities in mind also;

they will concern you forever:

but, at this moment, bear in mind these dead.


James Barker (12) from Buncrana

Fernando Blasco Baselga(12) from Madrid

Geraldine Breslin (43) from Omagh

Deborah Anne Cartwright (20) from Omagh

Gareth Conway (18) from Carrickmore

Breda Devine (20 months) from Donemana

Oran Doherty (8) from Buncrana

Aidan Gallagher (21) from Omagh

Esther Gibson (36) from Beragh

Mary Grimes (65) from Beragh

Olive Hawkes (60) from Omagh

Julia Hughes (21) Omagh

Brenda Logue (17) from Omagh

Anne McCombe (45) from Omagh

Brian McCrory(54) from Omagh

Samantha McFarland (17) Omagh

Seán McGrath (61) from Omagh

Sean McLaughlin (12) from Buncrana

Jolene Marlow (17) Omagh

Avril Monaghan (30) from Augher

Maura Monaghan (18 months) from Augher

Alan Radford (16) Omagh

Rocio Abad Ramos (23) from Madrid

Elizabeth Rush (57) Omagh

Veda Short (46) from Omagh

Philomena Skelton (39) from Durmquin

Frederick White (60) from Omagh

Bryan White (26) from Omagh

Lorraine Wilson (15) Omagh