2018 Grateful 8

I was at home at the weekend. A brief in and out to see how the folks were doing. I went to Saturday evening mass, something I usually don’t like to do as I prefer to save my mass till Sunday. Somehow, going on Saturday doesn’t feel quite the same. Yet I was driving in from the airport, and it was on, and they were at it. So I stopped in.

It made a change to be able to understand what was going on. I’m usually straining to catch words I understand and then patching together the essence of what I think is being said. Boys from the village national school were being enrolled in the Confirmation programme, which explained why the church had fewer empty seats than usual.

I sat mid-way down the church. As one of the teachers called out the names of those being enrolled in the programme, they stood up. Amidst the expected Tadhgs and Jameses and Padraigs was a healthy smattering of names I couldn’t pronounce. Amidst the gingers, the blondes, and the brunettes were some fabulous coiled, coarse, and curly locks, including one fab set of dreads. Ireland wasn’t the only country standing up to be counted. I was impressed at the level of diversity in the school.

Back in my day, some 40 years ago, the diversity banner in our class was carried by a lone American. Her name was Phoebe Eaton. She lived in a house out the Dublin Road that was rumoured to have special plug sockets to take American hairdryers and toasters and kettles. For some weird and wonderful reason I’ve still not discovered, I found that fascinating. I’m not even sure if Phoebe made her confirmation with us, I just remember from primary school, an exotic little thing with massive eyes who twanged when she spoke. Strange. I haven’t thought about her in years. And years. [Out of curiosity I googled the name and found a Phoebe Eaton in NYC who is now a journalist. I wonder if they’re one and the same.]

Anyway, by the time I surfaced from my ruminations, a few of the boys were presenting banners representing the seven gifts of the holy spirit. As I watched and listened I noted that the seven boys standing on the altar as representatives of the Confirmation class, well, they were all obviously Irish. The diversity on display, such as it was, amounted to differences in height, weight, and hair colour.

Well, that set me off in a whole new direction.

Was I the only one in the church thinking that this was a little odd? Was I over-reacting? Was there a backstory I wasn’t privy to? Maybe the boys had volunteered. Maybe they had won a competition. Maybe they were being punished 🙂 Had diversity become so entrenched in the school that I, as an outsider, was the only one noticing that it was missing?

This week I’m grateful that my memory still works and that I’m still noticing things. And that Voltaire isn’t around to say ‘Judge a [wo]man by [her] questions rather than by [her] answers.’



2013 Grateful 9

There’s a chap who is a regular at the 6pm mass I go to on Sundays. He seems a little out of step with the rest of the world. When he comes in, always late, he does a full reconnaissance of the church before carefully choosing his seat. Then mid-way through mass, he gets up and moves somewhere else. And he might move a third or fourth time, too. When the rest of us sit, he stands; when we kneel, he sits. Whatever tune is playing in his head is not the one the rest of us are listening to.

This evening, he went to the top of the church and sat in the second row. When it came to passing the collection plate, he was first in line. The collector asked him to help out as his No. 2 hadn’t showed. My chap was a little stunned at first but  as this interaction played out in front of me I could see his face change from fear, to surprise, to sheer joy.

He carefully watched what the other collector was doing and mirrored it. I know I’m given to flights of fancy, but I swear that by the time he finished his rounds, he’d grown an inch or two. He was standing tall and proud and so happy that he’d been asked to do something and not, as I suspect, passed over as usual.

I had a conversation this weekend over lunch with the lovelies where we talked about asking people to do things. I was reminded of the wise words of a very wise woman – if you’ve never heard my no, you can’t appreciate my yes. All too often we don’t ask someone to do something because we think (a) they don’t have time, (b) they will say yes, even though they want to say no, or (c) they’re simply not capable. And while we’re perfectly within our rights to decide whom to ask to do what, when we make those decisions are we depriving them of an opportunity of sorts? Perhaps they (a) need encouragement to better manage their time, (b) need practice in saying no, or (c) need the chance to show themselves (and others) that yes, they can.

Trust me. Ask me. Let me decide. And then accept my answer for what it is.

20131103_105519_resizedIt’s been a long week, but a good one. I’ve had the chance to show the AussieMayos some of my city and in doing so get to see it through a new set of lenses. I’ve happened across the strange and the peculiar and sat in silent wonder watching serendipity at work. But more than anything else, as it comes to a close, I’m grateful for the daily reminders that life offers that neither people nor circumstance should be taken for granted.

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


2013 Grateful 36

Sixty-two, I said.
What? she asked.
There were sixty-two carriages on that freight train, I replied.
Why did you count them? she asked.
I don’t know… why did I?

IMG_3721 (800x578)

I realised this weekend that I have the strangest habit of counting things. Standing at the station in Dárzini, about 25 km south of Riga, a goods train passed. Without thinking, I started to count the carriages. I’ve never stopped to think about why I do this but on reflection, I do it often. I’ve narrowed it down to those times when I’m not doing anything else – when I’m waiting for someone or something to happen. Perhaps it’s my version of doodling. In Prague last month, I counted the steps (100) up to our apartment. I know there are 127 leading up to mine in Budapest. At mass on Sundays, I count the people in the church. I know that it takes 121 seconds on the escalator to get out of Széll Kálman tér metro station (I’ve counted them). I know there are nine towns between Waterford and Dublin (I know them by heart).

I can tell you how many times you’ve said my name in conversation, or how often you’ve used a particular filler word. I can tell you the number of times you’ve stirred your tea/coffee or how often you’ve checked your phone. I’m not doing it to judge (okay – the checking your phone is a definite judgment thing) – I just do it. And it doesn’t matter who you are or how well I know you. That has no bearing on anything at all.

I counted my postcards before I dropped them in the postbox today – I knew there were 15 but still I counted them. I counted toothpicks on the restaurant table at dinner, and the number of tables, chairs, and coat pegs. Sometimes, I even count my peas. I don’t need to know this information; it serves me no purpose. And I’m not suffering from a latent version of OCD. I just have this thing about counting… a thing I only realised I had today.

This week was an interesting week – it started off in Budapest and ended up in Riga. Those sorts of weeks are always interesting. Apart from having the wherewithal to travel and good friends to travel with, this week I’m grateful that after all these years of living with me, I still manage to surprise myself. That can only be good, can’t it? Perhaps it’s a growing sense of awareness of what I do and why I do it, or perhaps it was simply prompted by that simple question – why? Whatever. It’s not important. I’m just grateful that I’m still able to keep myself amused.

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

What was wrong with the original?

It’s been more than a year now, and I still can’t get it right. And I’m not a stupid woman. I actually credit myself with a modicum of intelligence. So why, oh why, can’t I get the new responses into my head?

Up until November 2011 (for practically my entire adult life to date, give or take a year or so), whenever anyone said ‘The Lord be with you’, my rote response was ‘And also with you’. In Hungary, this isn’t a problem. I don’t go to mass in English, so for one hour on a Sunday evening, I’ve very little to say for myself. Surprise, surprise, I hear some of you think. But when I’m in Ireland, I go to mass, in English. And it’s so annoying not to know the words after all the years I’ve invested in Roman Catholicism.

massAs I miss my cue, speak out of turn, and say the wrong words, I can feel the eyes turning towards me, wondering how long it’s been since my last confession. Troubled by this, I finally took the time to see why the words were changed in the first place, when what has been embedded in our collective Catholic memory seemed to be working just fine.

vatican2_500_363_242I’m too young to remember Vatican II  when the Roman Catholic church moved from the Latin mass to the spoken language of each parish.  Apparently though, the English translation strayed a little too far from the original and ten years ago, Pope John Paul II ordered revisions to better synchronise the two versions. It took a while, but now they’re in and accepted.

Interestingly, whenever I went to mass in a foreign language, the Confiteor included the three-time beating of the breast in the traditional Latin fashion of mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa and this was missing from the pre-November 2011 English version. But it’s there now…and sounds most peculiar as ‘through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievious fault‘.

It’s odd to think that the English version of the liturgy was the one out of step with the masses (ahem) for all this time. It doesn’t make much difference to me, though. I’ve missed the learning period and don’t go often enough in English to reprogramme my brain. Perhaps this is a symptom of a greater issue – I’m still reeling at the Pope’s retirement. I didn’t think that was allowed…

Time as a couch, not a tool

Last week, I did something I rarely do. I went to evening mass on Saturday. A middle-aged man stood by one of the confessionals, watching his daughter or granddaughter running up and down the aisle. He seems a little distracted. I looked again, and saw that he was texting. None of this surreptitious in-your-pocket stuff; there he was, standing in full view of half the church, busily sending SMSs as the priest did his bit on the altar. I thought perhaps it was just the one message – a life or death situation – but when I looked again, some ten minutes later, he was still at it.

Of course, I should have been saying my prayers and not wondering how others were spending their mass time – but I wasn’t. I should have been paying attention to what the priest was saying – but I wasn’t. I should have been present, in the church, at mass, head focused, brain in gear – but I wasn’t. Instead, I was getting more and more annoyed at a complete stranger. Irrationally so. I didn’t know him from Adam. And his texting during mass would have zero affect on my life once I left the church. So why was I so distracted by him? More to the point though, have I completely lost my ability to concentrate and stay focused on one thing for more than five minutes?


The year 2012 has been one of serious introspection for me. Perhaps it has something to do with the alignment of the planets.  I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter. I do know, however, that every little detail of my life has to be parsed and analyzed. Every action has to be gone over with a fine-tooth comb to figure out why it happened. Every conversation has to be replayed to catch the nuances and inferences that I might have been missed first time around. Am I going mad? Is this the onset of menopause? Or am I simply a victim of 21st-century navel-gazing?


This week’s pre-occupation, brought on by my texting-while-at-mass stranger, is with my attention span, or lack thereof. I’m a great advocate of what the likes of Ekhart Tolle and Antony de Mello call ‘being present’ and what Csíkszentmihályi calls ‘flow’. I try to concentrate on one thing at a time but it’s quite difficult when the levels of oestrogen in my body naturally lend themselves to multi-tasking. I try to be present. I do. Really. Yet it seems as if the world is conspiring against me. There are so many distractions. So many gadgets. So many interruptions.


It’s as if I have forgotten how to relax. Every waking minute has to be put to productive use. I read on the tram, the metro, the bus, standing in line at the post office, waiting for a friend to show. If I’m not reading, I’m updating my diary, tidying my phone messages, sorting the contents of my handbag. In Malta recently, I took a day off. Determined not to switch on my computer for a whole day, I even left my phone in my room and took myself off to the pool, with my book. But could I relax? Hello no. I tossed and turned on the sunbed. I couldn’t get comfortable. I had a string of things running through my head that I should have been doing. I was planning my work for the coming week, mentally arranging various meetings and appointments, scheduling my writing tasks. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t switch off.


Back in Budapest, I tried again. One day. No computer. No phone. Just me, myself, and I. I managed to sit still for five minutes before spotting a cobweb – eight hours later, my books were sorted in alphabetical order by author, my wardrobe was colour-coded, and every loose sheet of paper was filed in its proper place.  I tried again – this time venturing outside the four walls of my world. I figured I’d simply wander the streets and take time to the empty city.  A four-day weekend found just me and the tourists in town. Out on the street I was faced with an insurmountable choice: turn right for the tram, left for the metro. Because I had no plan, no specific place to be, no one to meet, I couldn’t for the life of me make up my mind which way to turn. Rather than waste valuable time, I headed back inside to sort my spice rack.

Where did we go wrong? When did we lose our ability to relax? When did we get so fixated with productivity? John F. Kennedy suggested we use time as a tool and not as a couch but I think we’ve gone a little too far.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 May 2012.