The Forward Ripple

In all but name, my great aunt Vera was a grandparent to me.

I write “was” because Auntie VV passed away two weeks ago. My first ever funeral. (In retrospect, getting to 29 without having attended a funeral seems an impossible feat.)

Yet as I sat there in church, listening to the eulogy, I didn’t feel sad; I felt thankful.

Thankful for the long holidays in Spain as a child, walking along the beach, Auntie Vera buying me ice cream and giving me hers when mine wasn’t enough. I remember sitting on the veranda together as the sky darkened and bats flitted overhead, playing cards and gambling with her enormous stash of pennies

Thankful for how much she made me laugh as I grew older. I remember sitting at her table in Dublin, talking about everything and anything as her latest rescue cat stared distrustfully from the doorway. I remember the throaty rasp of her dry chuckle, her eyes brightening with wicked humour.

Thankful for her friendship, the easy camaraderie despite the years stretching between us. She used to call me her little chicken, but I never thought of Auntie Vera as a mother hen. She was one of the girls, a trusted confidant of our many little secrets.

My entire childhood — when I had no concept of age — I thought she was 75 (an insult to her, at first, but eventually a compliment). Over the years, I noticed her getting older, but it was always in a passive way, unacknowledged.

But then, in one moment, things changed.

At her 90th birthday, in the confusion of a large family gathering, for a split second she confused me for my cousin’s wife. I bent down to hug her — careful now, she chuckled, don’t spill my rosé — and she said it was nice to meet me.

That was when I truly realised she wouldn’t be there forever.

I sat through the meal refusing to think about it. After dessert when the family furore had quietened, I went to sit next to her and we talked as we always had, as if nothing had happened. She quizzed me on “Mr Tall, Dark and Handsome” and then leaned in to tell me a secret: I can’t drink like I used to, she whispered, have a vodka for me, won’t you? 

The last time I went to visit her before her death, she was at home in her favourite chair with a blanket over her knees. Cigarette clutched in one hand, crumpled lottery tickets on the mantlepiece behind her.

Everything looked exactly as it always had, except her. She was smaller, somehow, as delicate as a bird in my arms.

Not long after, she was admitted into a care home. I never made it back to Dublin to see her, but I sent her postcards, photos, flowers, chocolates.

And now she’s gone. Yet no matter how hard I try to accept the finality of her passing, I can’t.

My great aunt Vera helped make me into the person I am today. She helped shape the lives of many others both in my family and beyond.

So when I think of her now, I think of the beautiful ripple effect of her influence, stretching forward into the endless future.

And I think that, one day, I’d like to leave a ripple like hers.

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Recapturing The Dream

Three months ago I started a new job. 

I’ve always worked in boring publishing. Fresh out of uni, many of my classmates wrangled their way into the big names: Random House, Harper Collins, Bloomsbury, and so on. They jumped headfirst into the dream we’d all wanted. 

Me? I met a guy on a night bus and ended up in legal publishing.

I told myself it didn’t matter. I was paid more than my classmates, given more responsibility, and had my writing to satisfy my personal interests.

Eventually I needed a new challenge, and moved into financial publishing. (I did warn you: boring.) My career progressed even more as I ultimately ran all print operations. 

But something wasn’t right. 

I didn’t believe in the work I was delivering. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to read it. 

So I started job hunting again, determined to recapture the dream. 

The problem was that now all the traditional publishers took one look at my CV and said no. I hadn’t worked in fiction or books before, hadn’t slogged my way up the chain. Some publishers offered me an entry-level salary as if my last six years’ experience counted for nothing. 

I started to question what I was worth, whether I’d been deluded all along. I started to wonder whether I’d be stuck in boring publishing forever, because I couldn’t afford to take a cut. 

And you know what that feeling reminded me of? That sliver of doubt whenever a negative review hits too close to home. When I start wondering why I bother writing, when I’m never going to be good enough anyway. When I’ll never reach my dreams. 

It’s so hard to remain enthused about writing when so many other commitments have to come first. It’s even harder when those other commitments – like my job – aren’t going the way I want. 

If I can’t get the job I want despite years of hard work, how can I succeed at anything else? 

Then, one morning six months ago, I had an email in my inbox. A job alert from a more modern publishing house. The role was right. The salary was good. 

First thought: I’m never going to get it. 

Second thought: What do I have to lose? 

Two months and several interviews later, I was in. A part of me still can’t believe it. It’s been a whirlwind (hence my silence on the blog front), but each night I come home energised. At last I’m working in fiction. 

And you know what? 

Now that I’m working so closely with books and editors, the dream of being a full time author has never seemed closer. 

I’ve just got to keep working.

Why Change Is A Good Thing

I dyed my hair yesterday.

For an hour the bathroom was transformed: the L’Oreal do-it-yourself kit spread out over every available surface, the contours of my face greased with vaseline, purple dye splattering the sink as I contorted to reach every strand.

When I finally emerged from the shower in a haze of chemicals like a butterfly lifting out of its cocoon, my other half took one look and said, “I don’t know why you do it.”

I shrugged and said, “Because.”

But inside my mind was whirring. Why do I dye my hair? Is it boredom, something else? I turned to my trustworthy friend Google but found no answers to explain my behaviour.

Dyeing my hair is an unintentional quasi-annual tradition. A switch goes off inside my head and it’s all I can think about: the transformation, the change.

Who cares if the process is tedious? For a few pounds and an hour of my time, I’ve explored the frontiers of mahogany, chestnut, and yesterday’s experiment: dark cherry. (The verdict’s out so far — I’ll let you know how it settles after a couple washes.)

But why?

We are primed to think about our physical appearance in terms of how others perceive us. Any alterations to our looks – make up, clothes, hair dye – are therefore assumed to be for other people’s benefit. Yet I’m not seeking male attention, nor believe that a new hair colour will make me more beautiful/desirable/noticeable.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that there’s only one possible reason for dyeing my hair: for a change.

Change is a good thing.

I’m a creature of comfort. But every so often I force myself to change, to jolt out of the normal routine to discover other parts of myself. To push myself into reading a new genre, or visiting a new place.

More recently, I’ve broken through my writing block by starting a paranormal romance novel. I’ve never written or even imagined myself writing romance before. But faced with the longest dry spell ever, I wondered: what if I need to write something different?

So maybe dark cherry is the wrong hair colour for me. And maybe this new romance novel will be a complete pile of poo.

But unless I try, how will I know?

A Lesson from Crete

I was halfway through my lunch when the beetle arrived.

At least I think it was a beetle. The length of my palm and the width of two fingers, black and shiny and so very loud as it hovered behind me on tiny wings. 

HOVERED. BEHIND ME. WITH WINGS.

(Some context: I was recently on holiday in Crete. We landed into the chaos of Chania airport late at night, and had a stomach-churning drive across winding, mountainous roads to Rethymno. The locals drove recklessly, overtaking on single lanes, speeding into the night as our car clung to the hard shoulder.

Within a few sun-kissed days I realised everyone was warm and welcoming. Their hosting prowess extended to food: at our first restaurant we were stuffed after the starters. As it turns out, you get free desserts in most places. And raki. Amazing.)

Back to the winged monstrosity…

We’d stopped at a taverna overlooking Lake Kournas for lunch. It was a hot day – as it had been every day of our holiday – the sheen of sweat coating my skin like a personal wetsuit. The occasional hot gusts of breeze provided little relief.

LakeKournas

The view of Lake Kournas from the taverna, Crete

We’d ordered the usual starters, and grilled lamb and moussaka as mains.

Then the beetle arrived.

I shrieked, hunched my shoulders, leaning as far away as I could without actually leaving my chair. A lone middle-aged Greek man at a table nearby chuckled into his beer as the waitress scurried over. 

When she saw the gigantic insect that was definitely about to land on me, she laughed.

“Just a beetle,” she said reassuringly.

“Just?!” I spluttered.

“A special beetle,” she added. “See its tiny wings? How can such a big beetle fly with such small wings?”

It veered closer and I flinched. The waitress gently wafted a menu at the beetle, and it finally droned off. I slowly straightened, alert for the next attack.

“Do you know the answer?” she prompted. When I shook my head, she beamed. “It can fly because it doesn’t know it’s big.”

I forced a smile to hide my confusion, and caught the Greek man nodding at me wisely.

As I picked through the rest of my lamb, I turned her sentence over and over in my head, struggling to make sense of it.

But now that I’ve been thinking about the expectation barrier, I understand.

The beetle flies because it thinks it can fly. It doesn’t stop to worry about its grotesque body size or simple matters like physics. It doesn’t worry about failing. It just flies.

And me?

Lately I’ve been so worried about failing, that I haven’t even tried to write. But who cares if I have tiny wings, and may never attain the heights of Philip Pullman? I need to put that out of my mind, and just write.

What Should I Post On My Blog?

Cassie’s recent vlog about showing more of her true self has got me thinking.

I’ve long debated what to post on this blog.

When I shut down quillsandzebras, I wondered whether to transfer my book reviews over. I didn’t because some of my reviews are negative; an author (politely) bashing other authors’ work wasn’t the image I wanted to portray.

I’ve wondered whether to post about food and recipes (I’m a huge foodie). But I haven’t, because I figured it was irrelevant and it might dilute my brand.

The point is that I’m constantly worrying about what’s right to post on an author’s website.

There’s so much conflicting advice. Some say every single post should tie back to writing or reading (without tooting your own horn). Others say you should write about everything BUT writing, to give people a sense of who you are. Other others say it depends on your genre.

I opted for the simplest approach: write the content I read.

I read a lot of writing advice, which is why I often ramble about writing here. But Cassie’s post made me suddenly think: is that what YOU want to read from me?

I struggle to name the blogs whose writing advice I’ve read. I Google search and skip through sites, sifting for content. I build no personal connection with the author of that advice.

The blogs I can name off the top of my head — Cassie, Meryl Stenhouse, John Wiswell — are the ones to which I feel a personal connection. I like the people behind them. Wouldn’t I rather people feel that for me?

The issue is that I’m by nature a private person, and that, as much as I like reading about other people’s lives, it feels self-indulgent to witter on about my own.

Perhaps I’m merely having a pre-lunch existential crisis.

What do you reckon?