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Day Two: Quotation Inspiration

We want things to be easy for our children, and we know from sad experience that the world can be unkind to girls who do not please, who speak out, who go their own way. But we know from experience, too, that the role of the good girl can be a hollow one, with nothing at the center except other people’s expectations where your character might have been.

She doesn’t know it, but Anna Quindlen has been one of my best friends since I began my life in America. Helping me navigate my way through a new country, a new culture, was the Op-Ed column she regularly penned for The New York Times, aptly entitled, “Public and Private.” In 1990, before marriage and motherhood became milestones in my own life, I learned lessons about both from a woman I most likely will never meet and. As I turned 30, Anna Quindlen turned 40. The mere decade between us belied the often motherly wisdom I found in her writing, which was at once intensely personal and sharply political. So it is as my mother’s daughter and the mother of a daughter, that I am drawn once again to her words about women in the world.

As a child, I was an avid reader, much preferring to stay indoors with my nose stuck in a book than playing with all the other children on the big field outside our house on the Dublin Road. Our house was full of books, but still I borrowed as many as was allowed from the mobile North Eastern Education and Library Board van that parked around the corner every couple of weeks. Also, once a week, an impressive variety of comics was delivered to our house by a lanky newspaper boy. First came The Twinkle, “the picture paper especially for little girls,” when indeed I was a very little girl. Next, more comics named after more girls,most notably The Bunty (although I have yet to meet a real-life girl named Bunty), The Judy, and The Mandy. By the time I was a teenager, there was The Jackie – a little less childish and more ‘with-it.’ In my mind, it was a bona fide woman’s magazine, complete with fashion and make-up tips, and the much anticipated pin-up of pop singers of the day. There are many women, of a certain age, who will remember with fondness a very special issue – circa 1975 – featuring a very young “heartthrob,” David Cassidy. 

Between all the girls in the comics and those created by prolific children’s author, Enid Blyton, I was never lonely. My best friends were her ‘famous five,’ and her girls who attended the very posh boarding schools, St. Clare’s and Malory Towers. Written in the late 1940′s, I know Enid Blyton has been lambasted today as politically incorrect and sexist, reinforcing class and gender stereotypes, but her books were real page-turners, providing hours and hours of delight and pure escapism for a working class girl in Antrim, Northern Ireland. I just cannot bring my enlightened and evolved self to criticize Enid Blyton. That would be sacrilege!

Add to this print-rich environment three black and white TV channels from which to choose – Ulster Television, BBC1, and BBC – and there you have my recreational options as a child (which later expanded to include Channel 4, its color commercials and edgy content pushing the envelope).

By the time I got to Antrim Grammar School, I had expanded my horizons a bit with Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (which led me to her sister, Emily’s, Wuthering Heights), and Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. But, for a period, it seemed I was only reading the novels, plays, and poetry of white men, most of whom were dead. Chaucer, Hardy, Shakespeare, Dickens. Where were all the women? Surely they had something to say too? So it was altogether thrilling when in college I was reintroduced to the writing of women, Irish women in particular, such as Elizabeth Bowen, Mary Lavin, and my favorite, Edna O’Brien, whose work helped reform censorship laws in Ireland, following the banning and burning of her book, The Country Girls, in 1960. She spoke out, went her own way to craft exquisite literature, and the world was often unkind to her, but Edna O’Brien blazed a trail through it, changing it for so many. She changed it for me.

Years later, when my daughter was less than a year old, I worked part-time as an adjunct English professor at a local college. There, I took advantage of the academic freedom afforded me, and I milked every opportunity to introduce my students to writers who were actually alive and female. I wasn’t required to teach Shakespeare, but when I felt like it, I would take my students through some of his sonnets, like his clever Sonnet 138 instead of rehashing Hamlet’s soliloquy. Again. Just going my own way … and I brought good company with me. 

It’s been 28 years since I took my tentative first steps into a classroom at the old Hopefield High School, in a predominantly Protestant housing estate, where Loyalist sentiment regularly ran amok, outside Belfast, Northern Ireland. Armed only with Great Expectations and lesson plans and feeling very much like the young woman in Kingsley Amis Take a Girl Like You, I can still hear the click-clack of my high heeled shoes echoing in the hallways. I was only 21, and I was scared to death.  What if the pupils didn’t like me? What if they picked me up and put me in the wastepaper basket (like they had done to a petite biology teacher)? What if the English Department Head came in and observed the one lesson that hadn’t been planned? What if I sat in the wrong chair in the staff-room (the one reserved for a knitter, the High Priestess of the faculty)? What if they made me teach a novel I hadn’t read? I needn’t have worried – expectations were low. My pupils were working class protestants in a Belfast that often appeared to neither need nor want them, and I was a teacher who was committed less to building a better Belfast for them than I was to getting myself out of there, out of the country and off to America. I was fortunate, my family untouched by The Troubles that plagued our little country, other than what we read in the paper or what we imagined the few times our windows shook because of an explosion in a nearby town. As a child in this time, I knew without being explicitly instructed, the meaning of ’whatever you say, say nothing.’ I imagine many of us felt we had no choice other than going about our daily lives, and in the process hardening ourselves, on the surface, against the senseless bombings and killings of people who looked and were just like us. And so I left.  Traveling abroad with a local orchestra each summer had exposed me to places where people did not experience the kind of disappointment we felt almost daily back home. It helped expand my vision of myself, the very possibility of myself in a much bigger world. So I left Northern Ireland. Mentally, at first. The first in my family to ‘go on to school,’ I soon extricated myself from an engagement to a nice boy and what would have been a slippery slope to a domesticated life within what I perceived to be a small-minded hardened country in urgent and desperate need of humane leaders with expansive minds and hearts. Leaders who would see the human being behind the Catholic or the Protestant, the British or the Irish. Ironically, it wasn’t until I left Northern Ireland, that I found the voice to speak about it. I appreciate today what Edna O’Brien told a Telegraph reporter  about having been away from her “motherland” for over 50 years: 

Certain things are rock-hard within us – the feeling for a person or a country. That is not the same as wanting to live with that person or in that country.

Because today’s post is about health, I should write about why this quotation is so relevant to me now. Now that I have been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I know a little more about its vocabulary, its politics, its culture, and funded, even the level of commitment it requires in the form of endless appointments that quickly fill a calendar for a year, I am ready to speak out.  I will be 49 in a couple of weeks, so I don’t care as much about what people think of me any more. I am ready to tell my story, in my own way, about a disease that has just burst in and disrupted our lives.  I don’t know that I can sit back, be a good girl, and accept as truth that we are racing for a cure. That I’ll “battle” and “get back in the swing of things” soon.

I am a most unwilling conscript to this battle. We are doing anything but racing. We are moving at a glacial pace, and too often I feel as if I’m holding my breath, not unlike the way I did as a child, wondering if the bomb scare was just that. A scare. A hoax. Except in my new reality, the suspicious devices come in the form of tumors and test results.  All this waiting and worrying, all this time spent coordinating more time to spend in waiting rooms, is just too time consuming, energy consuming.  One out of eight women will develop breast cancer some time during her life – this means one new diagnosis every 2 minutes. Every 13 minutes, a woman will die of breast cancer, according to the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC). In 1973, it was 1 in 11. We have made such tiny steps. Unacceptable.

So, while I am an unwilling soldier in this cancer “battle,” I have nonetheless enlisted in an army, The Army of Women, because I believe this army needs my help to change the trajectory of the lives of so many of us. With science, real science, in its arsenal, this army has the potential to bring an end, forever, this disease. And to change the conversation about it. About my cancer. About the destiny of my daughter.


Volunteer SpotlightThank you for taking the first step in helping us move beyond a cure. Your decision to partner with the scientists who are seeking to unlock the key to preventing breast cancer will help us end this disease once and for all.We need YOU! Take advantage of this life-changing opportunity to directly participate in breast cancer research. Women of all ages, ethnicities and risks — whether you have had breast cancer or not — are needed now!

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