Five objects and a piece of nature – a self-portrait

My efforts at describing what I do or what I’ve achieved have been met with comments like pathetic, weak, dismal. I suffer hugely from that Irish weakness that leaves us selling ourselves short. Blame it on the nuns, the brothers, the Irish mammy, it’s something that a lot of Irish people can identify with. Ireland in the 1970s was replete with phrases like ‘that wan has airs beyond her station’ or ’tis far from that he was reared’, which did a great job of reining us in lest we get carried away with ourselves.

Self-promotion is something I’m pitifully bad at. I always have been and no doubt always will be. My attempts at Internet dating were disastrous. My CV I had to treat as if it were about someone else. And while I can (and do) write excellent letters of reference, I struggle with a 150-word description of what I do myself. Mad, isn’t it?

Enter Liz Handy.

I first met Liz in 2008. I was introducing one of her husband’s books at a conference in Budapest. I remember being particularly chuffed because author/journalist Paul Lendvai sought me out after my presentation and told me that, second to Charles Handy himself, I was by far the best speaker at the gig. I was mega impressed. Ten years later I still get a warm glow thinking about that day.

Liz is well known for her portraiture. She asks her subjects to display five objects and a flower that symbolise what is important to them in life. I was struck by this at the time and made a note to myself to ‘paint my own portrait’. But I never quite got around to it.

Back in 2016, the Handys were in town again, for another book launch, and Liz told me of her twins project. She described it as a photographic exploration of identical twins in later life. She would choose 8 sets of twins (including the famous Happy Pear from Ireland) and ask them three questions which they would answer with photographs. Question 2 is whether the same things matter to them. Again, she used her still-life approach and asked them to select five objects and one flower or piece of nature, things that represented what best described them. It’s a fascinating exhibition of insightfulness that Liz has made available online. Check it out and share the link.

It got me thinking, yet again, about what my choices would be. And rather than put it off any longer, I quickly looked around, hmmmed and hawed, swapped and changed, and this is what I came up with.

The book on old Cuba captures my love of travel, of old places, and old stories. My glasses represent an innate curiousity that makes life interesting and a peculiar perspective which shapes my world. The cross signifies spirituality, my relationship with my God and my faith in tomorrow. The pen needs little explanation. The Eskimo girl reading, a treasured souvenir of life in Alaska, speaks to a love of solitude and reading. And my piece of nature – some blessed straw from the church crib in Clane – is equal parts tradition and superstition – both of which I lay claim to.

It’s a challenge. And no doubt, were I to do the same in twelve months’ time, I might choose differently.

Check out the twins exhibition and if you know any identical twins, forward the link to them.

And if you’ve any Irish in you, Liz’s Ballymun People project is worth a look.


If only we hadn’t missed that turn

Back in 2008 at a conference in Budapest, I discovered Thinkers50, a biannual global ranking of management thinkers billed as ‘the essential guide to which thinkers and which ideas matter now.’ When the list launched in 2001, Charles Handy held the No. 2 spot. He was in Budapest to mark the publication of two of his books in Hungarian. I had the pleasure of introducing one of them – The Empty Raincoat (Üres esőkabát) – at the launch. We discovered, in conversation, that he was born less than a mile from me at home, in the vicarage on the other side of the crossroads. How small the world. Read more

2013 Grateful 38

I’m a traditionalist at heart. Despite showing the outward trappings of a relatively successful life, I singularly lack ambition. I have no desire to even walk around a corporate ladder, let alone put my foot on the first rung. I care little for titles, prestige, or professional kudos. I’m good at what I do and like doing it. That’s enough.

I’m fortunate to have what Charles Handy calls a ‘portfolio career’ – I do a little of this, a smidgen of that, and it all adds up to enough to pay the bills and keep the bankers at bay. And it pays enough for me to be able to do half of what I do for free. That I feel good about.  That’s important. Most of what I do, I can do from anywhere that has an Internet connection – the freedom to come and go could never be measured in monetary terms.

I don’t have a career trajectory. I don’t have lofty ambitions. There is nothing (other than perhaps being able to buy a book I’ve written in an airport bookshop) that I long for professionally. I could give it all up tomorrow and spend the rest of my life darning socks, cooking dinners, and keeping house (as long as I still get to do what I want to do when I want to do it, of course).

Part of the traditional woman in me has baulked at the idea of ‘getting help around the house’ (or flat, in my case). Every time I come back from a trip to be greeted by dust balls creeping up the hallway, I could cry. When I can’t see my reflection in the bathroom taps, I want to weep. And not having time to get down on my hands and knees and scrub the kitchen floor makes me positively unhappy.

superwomanTherapists no doubt would tell me that I have a ‘superwoman’ thing going on – I want to be able to do it all. I’m my own harshest critic and it’s only in recent years that I’ve gotten any way comfortable with asking for help when I need it. That need to be self-sufficient runs through me in parallel with my independent streak but thankfully, I finally have both firmly in check.

For nearly 12 months now I’ve been thinking about paying someone to come clean my flat. But each time I went about organising it, I thought again. I wondered what it said about me. It seemed to scream of failure at some basic, traditional level. I mean, it’s not like I’m a jet-setting executive, a harried mother of three … or a man. I’m a traditional woman, with old-fashioned aspirations, who should surely be able to keep her own place in order.

The only time my flat gets cleaned is when I’m expecting company. I wander from my office to my kitchen wearing my computer glasses and so don’t see the mess. And when, suitably bespectacled, I do notice it, I’m usually too knackered to care. This week I gave in. I sat myself down and rationally explained to myself that I simply do not have the time to do what needs to be done. I told myself how much better I’d feel if I had one less thing to occupy my time. And I reminded myself that I have a dissertation due in seven weeks, the body of which has still to be written. I picked up the phone.

E came highly reIMG_3188 (800x600)commended. At least three lads I know are very happy with her and trust her implicitly. So I called. She came around to meet me and my flat. She liked what she saw (or relished the challenge, I’m not sure which) and she started this week. For six hours E scrubbed, cleaned, and polished (I’ll miss those three footprints on the windowsill) – and to her horror, she didn’t make it as far as the kitchen. So more of the same is in store next week, and then, once the first deep-cleaning treatment is over, we go onto a weekly maintenance programme, with periodic projects planned for the remainder of the year (I can’t remember the last time I had reason to look behind a radiator or up at my lights or at my ceiling pipes).

Seeing my sinks literally sparkle, seeing the sun hop off the shining wood floors, seeing my pictures clearly for the first time in months – all this is helping me come to terms with my failure. This week, as yet another self-delusion has been shattered (I can’t believe I’m not superwoman), I am grateful that I gave in. Perhaps my new environment will be more conducive to writing of all sorts, and I might still get to buy that book.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52