A life lesson learned

The Spanish health care system has a pretty good reputation and most of my experiences with it confirm that. First of all, it’s free, which, coming from a country where a ten-minute consultation with your GP costs €70 for all but a minority, that’s a major bonus. Staff are generally caring and kind and referrals are reasonably prompt. In addition, prescription medications are heavily subsidized. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the health care system in my adopted country.

But…it’s different. The culture of care is unlike the one I grew up with and over the years I’ve had quite a few experiences that have jolted me because the processes and procedures are just…well…different.

Towards the end of last year I experienced a funny sensation in my left leg for a few weeks – pain in my calf, heaviness in my entire leg, occasional pins and needles throughout my leg. It’s something I’ve had on and off over the years and, being a bit of a hypochondriac, I always convince myself that I have deep vein thrombosis. But the pain always goes away before I do anything about it. This time, however, it lingered and, as the weekend approached, it worsened.

By midday on Saturday I’d convinced myself that I’d be dead by nightfall and I decided to go to the doctor. Being a Saturday, the health centre in the village was closed and I had to drive the 22km to the nearest 24-hour centre.

I was surprised to find the door to the health centre locked when I got there. A note stuck to the door had the centre’s phone number, so I called it. Before I had two words out, the grey metal door to my right opened and I was ushered in to the treatment room immediately behind the door. I tried to avert my gaze from the old man, shirt open, lying on the consulting table, being treated by a male member of staff. The woman who had opened the door to me turned out to be the doctor.

“Sit there,” she said, pointing to a chair only two metres from where the other patient was being treated. Shouldn’t he have some privacy, I thought. Shouldn’t I? I sat with my back to the man, trying not to listen as he was prepared for the ambulance that was to take him to the hospital, forty minutes away.

The doctor sat behind her desk and began her consultation with me. But before we got two sentences into it, there was another knock on the main door. The doctor opened the window beside her desk and shouted out, “Come in through the grey metal door.” There was no response, so she got up, walked around her desk, and let a middle-aged couple in. The treatment room was beginning to feel decidedly overcrowded.

The doctor directed the couple to the waiting room, but left the door between it and the treatment room open.

“I’ll have to see your leg,” she instructed me, after I had explained my symptoms and she’d asked me some preliminary questions.

With the door to the waiting room still open, the old man still on the treatment table and the male staff member beside him, and the grey door to the street now open to allow the ambulance crew in, I stood up, unbuckled my belt and dropped my jeans to the floor, my pink-knickered arse towards the old man. The doctor had a feel around my leg and asked me some more questions. She was sufficiently concerned to immediately send me to A&E at the big provincial hospital.

I didn’t want to go on my own, so I phoned a friend to ask if he’d drive me. Then I drove home, packed a few things in a bag, and was soon on the road to the hospital. The waiting room was large and airy and pretty comfortable as waiting rooms go, which was just as well, because I had a three hour wait.

Finally, my number appeared on the screen. I was to go to consultation room six. I walked into consultation room six to find a woman lying half-naked on the treatment table. “Go next door,” one of the staff told me. I went to consultation room seven and the woman sitting at the desk asked my name.

“You’re not Rosario?” she said, looking confused.

At that moment an extremely tall, very bald, bespectacled young doctor appeared at the door behind me.

“Martina?” he asked. “Ah, here you are. Follow me.”

I followed him to the other side of the corridor and into a large room that contained a number of beds. On one bed lay yet another old man, with his shirt open and his large belly on display. I tried to look anywhere but at the old man while the doctor consulted a computer and tried to find which room I was supposed to be in.

“Stay here,” he said and set off down the corridor, leaving me stranded. I looked at the television monitor and saw that I was assigned to both consultation rooms six and nine. Just then, the doctor popped his head out of room nine and indicated that I go there.

The brightly lit consultation room was cold enough that I commented on it to the young, dark-haired (and, admittedly, handsome) member of staff sitting behind the desk. The tall, bald doctor, whose white coat was askew and whose trousers didn’t reach to the top of his colourful socks, asked me where I’m from.

“Ireland,” I said.

“Ah, Holland,” he replied, a common mistake which must have something to do with the weird way I pronounce ‘ir’ in Spanish. I corrected him.

“Let’s do this in English, then,” he said, and switched to flawless English far superior to my Spanish.

I told him my symptoms and he asked me some further questions.

“I’m going to have to see it,” he said.

By now, the tall, bald doctor and the dark-haired, handsome doctor were both standing in front of me, as I sat on the consultation table. There didn’t seem to be anywhere for me to go to remove my trousers in a dignified manner, or a curtain to pull around to spare my blushes. I guessed I’d just have to get on with it.

With both men standing mere inches away from me and facing me, I removed my shoes and then my socks. A number of thoughts flashed through my head as I started to drop my trousers. 1. I haven’t shaved my legs in about two weeks. 2. I haven’t moisturized my legs in probably the same length of time. 3. Why am I wearing my mother’s hand-me-down knickers today? (Calm down…she hadn’t worn then…or so she swore to me)

With my trousers removed, I sat back on the table and the tall bald doctor proceeded to examine my hairy scaly left leg, pointing to a bruise on my thigh (I walked into the kitchen table) and another on my shin (an ungraceful scramble out of the dinghy). He talked his colleague through the examination and then used a very impressive hand-held ultrasound device that he plugged into his phone to look below the surface.

He assured me that all was fine. I didn’t have DVT, but I did have some damage to a surface vein. “Does that put me at greater risk of DVT?” I asked.

“Imagine your deep veins are the motorway,” he said, “going up to your heart and lungs. You have damaged a small country road. So, there’s not much to worry about. But, as you know, sometimes we get off the motorway and take a country road instead. So, yes, there’s a little risk.”

What a cool doctor. I felt sorry for him that he’d had to touch my troll-like leg. He’d asked me about my work and, as I got dressed – again, undignified and in front of the two of them, almost losing my balance as I put my right leg into my jeans – he gave me some sage advice. “Disco dance while you work. It’ll keep your legs moving.”

And that was it – undignified, lacking in privacy, lacking in an concerns about a woman patient stripping in a consultation room in front of two men and no female staff member present. I could have done anything to those two lovely doctors!

I returned home feeling reassured, and having learned some valuable lessons – disco dance while working and never, ever, leave my legs unshaved and unmoisturized again.


There were seventy-five of us, by my count. I might be out by a few. It was hard to keep count. Children, grandchildren, greatgrandchildren, spouses and partners. Seventy-six if you include Nana, in the middle of us all, in her coffin.

The undertaker, Patrick Larkin, had asked us to assemble in Gilroy at 12:45. And here we were, squashed together in the living room, where Nana lay in her coffin, and in the narrow kitchen off the living room, leading to the only bathroom in the house. Most of us had been here five and a half years earlier, for her 90th birthday party. But that had been a warm July day and we were spread out over her big back garden.

“How are your girls?” Angela asked me, as a gang of us stood shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen.

“Put that in the fridge,” Louise said, as she passed me a two-litre plastic container of milk.

I’d only closed the fridge door when Conor walked in. “Did anyone get milk?” he asked.

I took the milk back out of the fridge.

“I’m making tea for Dad,” Conor said. “Anyone else want anything?”

“I’ll have a coffee,” Antoinette said, taking an impossibly huge mug out of the press. I didn’t fancy her chances of getting through the funeral if she drank the fill of that.

“When did you get home?” one of the twins asked as she hugged me.

“One o’clock this morning,” I replied. “Declan Farrell picked me up from the airport.” I asked when she’d flown in, careful not to say her name until her sister arrived and I could work out which was which. This always happens when I haven’t seen my twin cousins for a while.

“Is this a queue for the loo?” David asked, as he walked into the kitchen, ushering his two young sons in ahead of him. He explained to his bewildered boys that all of us chattering women were his cousins and aunts. He hugged us each in turn as he directed the boys towards the toilet after their long car journey from Cork to Offaly.

“Oh my God,” Antoinette said. “Stuart looks like Ryan Reynolds.”

“Don’t tell him,” the twin laughed. “His head will explode.”

Antoinette told him anyway and he beamed and gave her an extra big hug.

I squeezed my way back into the living room. The other twin was there. She hugged me and told me what time she’d arrived home from England. She mentioned her sister’s name, so now I knew that this was Lisa and Joanne was in the kitchen. I hugged those cousins, aunts and uncles standing around me who I hadn’t already seen earlier in the morning when I’d been into Gilroy for a quieter moment with Nana. Martina’s three boys – all six foot something of them, and John’s girls, and James, looking surprisingly fresh-faced despite having just arrived in on a flight from Hong Kong. There were cousins and aunts on the chairs and the arms of chairs, and more standing squashed together like a Tokyo subway train at rush hour, except we were all family and everyone had hugs for everyone. Mugs of coffee and tea were precariously held and threatening to spill on our best clothes. We were loud and laughing, delighted to be here together, despite the circumstances.

I wondered would this be the last time we would all be in Gilroy?

Gilroy, the centre of our family universe. An unassuming terrace house on an unassuming street that was the beating heart of our family. And, at the centre of that universe was Nana, always in her armchair by the fire, always with a smile on her face, accepting us in at any time of the day or night, occasionally grudgingly, if we threatened to interrupt a programme or a football or hurling match on the telly or radio.

No matter what time of day or night you went in, there was sure to be someone else there. One or other of us always dropping in ‘just for a minute’ but nevertheless always having time for a mug of tea or coffee, a couple of biscuits, maybe a sweet or jelly from a bag or bowl on the coffee table in the middle of the living room floor.

It was the rare day that we went into town and didn’t drop up to Gilroy. When we went grocery shopping, Mass, a trip to the doctor or dentist. Always, up to Gilroy before or after. Pretty much every day of the 13 years I was in school, I walked over to Gilroy at lunchtime for a huge middle of the day dinner and a glass of milk, followed by a couple of biscuits or a slice of Nana’s homemade tart. In my 20s, she occasionally cooked dinner for me if I was working in Edenderry. I didn’t really like her food when I was a kid. In my 20s, I loved it. And always, there were aunts, uncles or cousins there. Always some of us dropping in.

I’d phone Mammy for a chat. “I’m in Gilroy,” she’d say.

“Jim and Marian are up,” someone would say. “Up” meaning up from Cork…and in Gilroy.

“Phil’s home,” meaning home from England…and in Gilroy.

“Liz is down,” meaning down from Dublin…and in Gilroy.

“Jim is over,” meaning over from Navan…and in Gilroy.

Up, down, over, home – all our shorthand simply meaning that we were in Gilroy. Half the time I’m not even sure we were visiting Nana. We were just being ‘in Gilroy’ because you wouldn’t be there more than a few minutes before someone else would drop in for a quick visit, a cup of coffee, a biscuit, a chat. I often wondered how much money Nana spent on tea, coffee and packets of biscuits each week.

And always Nana, sitting in the middle of it all, in her chair by the fire, smiling and laughing, telling us the latest gossip from the street, or the latest plotline of some soap opera she was engrossed in. And we carried on around her, feeling at home, sometimes the noise of our chatter so loud that we couldn’t hear each other. So, it was fitting that, on that day, most of us were there, and we were loud, and she was in the middle of it all one last time.

At 1.30, we started to move out. We formed two lines from the front of the house, out along the path, to the street. We stood, seventy-odd of us, joined now by neighbours and friends, as six of my uncles brought Nana out of her house on Gilroy for the last time.

Definitely not chorizo

The road was dark and empty. Lonely. I wondered how long someone – me – might lie there unaided if their car ran off the road. How long before another car would come along. It could be hours. I knew I was driving too fast, the fall-away at the side of the road and the deer signs telling me I should slow down. But my tiredness and desire to get home pushed me on. What would the consequences be if I crashed? I could die. I could cause myself life-changing injuries. I could kill the dog.

I’d very nearly killed the dog once already today. That was why we were on this lonely road after midnight, with the Google maps woman telling me where to go long after I knew where I was and didn’t need her anymore. This lonely stretch of 16km, another lonely stretch of 13km, then the final lonely stretch of 8km.

I’d laid an old bedsheet on the back seat of the car in case Lady vomited. It had been a last-minute decision. She was already in the car; I’d packed what I was taking with me and I was about to get in when I thought about the potential for vomit. So, I ran back into the house and grabbed a sheet from the box of painting supplies on the high shelf in the utility room.

I expected her to vomit because, in the past hour, I’d force fed her 40mls of extremely salty water and, before that, 10mls of olive oil. She was miserable from all this manhandling and force feeding. Why was she being so horribly punished?  

She’d be dying unbeknownst to me right now if I hadn’t spotted her eating what I at first thought was a stolen slice of chorizo. Naughty girl, I thought, but I left her to it. Then I saw she had another one – or was it the same one? I couldn’t be sure. It seemed to be wrapped in plastic. I called her to me, prized it from her clenched jaws and started to remove what I thought was a plastic wrapper only, to my horror, to read the words, in Spanish, ‘raticida’. Rat poison. I took it to the bin and, as I did, she went back to the source, behind the bin, and found another one. I made her drop it and I wondered what to do. Had she eaten one already? Or was the one I removed from her mouth the first one? My walking buddy Jennifer calmly Googled what to do and said, ‘She needs Vitamin K.’ I left my half-full glass of beer on the table and walked home, calling the vet along the way.

The vet advised 10mls of olive oil, which should stop her absorbing the poison if there was any in her system. “Keep an eye on her,” she told me, “And if you see any changes in her, call me.”

I forced the olive oil into her and then Googled ‘My dog ate rat poison’. Without exception, every site urged going to the vet immediately: ‘Do not waste your time trying home remedies’.

I called the 24-hour emergency vet in Huelva for a second opinion. She advised me to force feed her very salty water. With a syringe. Sideways into her mouth so it wouldn’t go into her lungs. Based on how far away I live from Huelva and how long it had been since she’d possibly eaten the poison, if she didn’t vomit in an hour, I was to take her in. It’s critical that you don’t let too much time pass, she said.

I didn’t have a syringe. Someone with a small child is bound to have syringe, I thought. I phoned Egle because she has a three-year old son. Soon I had a syringe and I managed to get 40mls of water into Lady in the face of major opposition. Katie held her. I held her. I chased her around the kitchen table. She wriggled backways out of Katie’s grasp and under the table. Was 40mls enough? The vet hadn’t said how much was enough.

I didn’t want to wait to see if she’d vomit. I made supper for the girls, packed a few things in a bag – my book, wallet, doggy passport. My head was pounding and I could feel the world closing in around me in what felt like the start of a panic attack. I couldn’t imagine how bereft we’d be if the dog died. She’s been our rock of joy through so much in her short three and a bit years of life.

Forty minutes after I’d forced the salt water into her there was still no sign of her vomiting. I got in the car, grabbing the old sheet for the back seat, and set out on the one-hour drive to Huelva. It was a horrible night for driving. Rain on the windscreen, the inside of my old car misty with condensation, the roads wet and a seemingly endless stream of headlights of cars coming from the opposite direction.

The Google maps woman took me on a route that ultimately got me lost. I was losing precious minutes. I would have found the building easily on my own, had I looked at a map and not relied on that Google wan.

When I finally parked up, Lady jumped gleefully out of the car, expecting a walk. Her glee was short-lived, however, when she realized we were going to the vet. She’d never been to this vet before, so what was it about the place that made her stick her tail between her legs and try to escape back out the door? The vet’s clothes? The smell of the place? Whatever it was, Lady knew trouble was in store and I had to drag her in the door against her will.  

“I’m going to give her an injection that will force her to vomit,” the kindly-faced vet said. Lady struggled and screamed while one woman held her and the other stuck a long needle in the scruff of her neck.

“Where should we go?” I asked.

“Stay here. She can vomit on the floor. Animals are always vomiting on the floor here,” the vet said matter-of-factly. I sat on the long blue bench, and looked around at the blue plastic floor, imagining a room full of animals of all shapes and sizes simultaneously vomiting. Lady sat beside me, glued to my leg.

Two women came in, a mother and daughter, and natives of South America, I guessed. The older woman, red-eyed and still crying, carried in her arms a cat on a cat bed. The vet saw them into her office.

And that was when the vomiting started. Lady started to retch, making a hideous noise as she did so. First out of her mouth and onto the blue plastic floor were two packets of rat poison, still intact, both with the word ‘raticida’ still clear. The woman at reception came from behind her desk with a roll of paper towels, a bottle of bleach and a bin liner. We hunkered down together and peered at the vomit. The two sachets of poison certainly looked intact, but it was hard to tell if they’d been breached. Meanwhile, Lady was retching again and this time produced the chicken she’d had for lunch. As I cleaned up one pile of vomit, she produced another. I left the first pile where it was, for the vet to see when she came out.

The door to the consulting room opened and out came the vet and the two women, both sobbing, tears streaming down their cheeks, the cat nowhere in sight. The vet hunkered down and inspected the contents of the first pile of vomit.

Behind me I could hear the two women making arrangements for their dead cat with the woman at reception. “What name do you want?” she asked. Both women said the cat’s name a few times, but the receptionist couldn’t get it right. “I don’t want to get it wrong,” she said gently and handed the older woman a piece of paper. “You write it down.” Meanwhile, Lady stood by the legs of the younger woman, wretched and retching, and I thought, with horror, about to vomit onto the woman’s shoe. That’s all the poor woman needed – being vomited on by some stupid dog minutes after her cat had been put to sleep.

I grabbed Lady by the collar and pulled her to me, trying to keep her close – or at least away from the mother and daughter – while I cleaned up the vomit. As soon as I cleaned up one pile, Lady produced another.

The two women stood around, while the receptionist completed their paperwork. I didn’t know how to react to their grief. I wanted to console them, to say I was sorry for their loss, but the proper words in Spanish deserted me and all I could do was clean up and feel awful that they were grieving for their cat on a dog vomit-covered blue plastic floor.

“When should we come back?” the older woman asked the vet. “It’ll take a few days,” the vet said. “I’ll call you when it’s ready.” The ‘it’ I presumed referred to the cat’s ashes. The pair left, the cat basket under the older woman’s arm, empty. Their loneliness for the cat was palpable.

The vet gave Lady a second injection to quell the nausea and gave me a prescription for Vitamin K. I got lost twice or three times trying to find my way out of Huelva, despite (or because of) the Google woman. It was almost 2am by the time we got back to Sanlúcar.

In the days that followed, Lady showed no ill effects of the poison. It is likely she vomited it all up. For the next ten days, I forced her to take Vitamin K four times a day and an anti-nausea table to counteract the Vitamin K twice a day. She really hated me for those ten days, eying me suspiciously every time I went into the kitchen, for fear I’d return with the syringe or the pills.

Has she learned her lesson? Of course not. She’s a dog.

Of kingfishers…and genets

The Ribera Grande dries up every summer, leaving only pools of varying depths on either side of the channel. I like to walk the dog there. Sometimes, I pack a picnic, bring my book, and go with the children to one of the larger, deeper pools to swim. On a hot summer morning, it’s a great walk. When it’s already 30˚C by 9am, I can do a lazy slow 1.5km walk, while Lady covers three times as much ground at least, running ahead, running back to me, swimming in most of the pools we encounter. She gets a ton of exercise but stays cool and I don’t get heat stroke from doing one of my more usual 7 or 10km walks.

I rarely meet anyone. In the three years I’ve been walking that river bed, I can only remember three occasions when I met another person. The place is devoid of human sounds and full of life. Steep rock walls rise up on one side of the river – with the deepest pools at the base of those cliffs – and, on the other side, the hills are somewhat less steep. We usually disturb partridges and larks and, occasionally, I see vultures flying overhead.

A few weeks ago, the dog, the kids and I went there for a walk. A disturbance in the river to my left caught my attention. I turned to see a flash of iridescent blue and orange. Two flashes, in fact. I whispered to the girls to stop and look. Two kingfishers were in a mid-air battle over a fish. The fish’s head was in the mouth of one bird and its tail in the mouth of the other. The two birds flapped their wings furiously, each pulling in the opposite direction as they tried to stay in flight – a mid-air fishy tug-of-war. At one point, they lost momentum and both fell to the surface of the river, neither losing its grip on the fish, splashing through but then rising again from the river, with the fish still extended between them. I was in awe; mesmerized. They can’t have been unaware of our presence; we were very close to them. But their aerial battle for breakfast was more important to them than the presence of three curious humans and a dog.

I can’t be sure of what happened next, because it happened so quickly. Did one of them win the battle, turn tail and fly up river? Or did they both lose, as the fish fell from their mouths and into the water? I don’t know. But one of them did turn heel and dart up the river, zipping along about a metre above the water, with the other in hot pursuit.

Recently, as I recounted this story to some friends, I recalled another mesmerizing encounter along the same stretch of river at almost exactly the same time last year. That time it was just Lady and me. Something halfway up the hillside caught Lady’s attention and I turned to look. There, on the hill, were three cats, the most unusual looking cats I had ever seen. From that distance, all three looked identical and each was about the size of Lady – in other words, a medium sized dog. They were spotty and had distinctive long and full ringed tails, like lemur tails. They eyed Lady and me and we eyed them. I was in awe, and had no idea what they were, but assumed they must be Iberian lynx. The three suddenly turned tail and ran farther up the hill, keeping low to the ground, and eventually were over the hill and out of sight.

When I came home, I Googled lynx. They certainly weren’t lynx. And someone who knows the ecology of the area better than I do later told me that there aren’t any lynx around here. For a year, I have wondered what those strange cat-like creatures were.

And so, when I recounted the kingfisher story to my friends, and followed it up with my story of those strange cats, one of my friends immediately said, ‘They’re genets.’ We Googled them and, sure enough, the Google images were of precisely the creatures I had seen last summer. Genets are an African animal in the mammalian suborder feliforma. They are distantly related to cats, sharing a common ancestor many millions of years ago. They are native to Africa, but one subspecies, the common genet, was introduced to Iberia in historical times and is now also found in France and Italy.

The mystery was solved, I was now aware of the existence of another medium-sized mammal species, and I was delighted. Every time Lady and I go on that walk, I am filled with a sense of anticipation. I hear a rustle in the undergrowth, disturb a locust resting on a rock, delight in butterflies flitting from shrub to shrub. My heart lifts at the plop plop of frogs leaping into the pools, at the families of partridges running across our path, taking impossibly long to take to flight. I feel eyes on me as I walk. Even if I see only birds and insects, I know there are other animals watching us, keeping us in their sights, interlopers in their home.

It is a giving place. At a time of year when other much-loved walks are too hot or too cumbersome to undertake, the river dries up just enough to allow me to walk on the dry bed, but leaving pools deep enough for the dog, the children and I to cool down in. It is a place to be cherished.

Working and parenting from home? You’ve got to be kidding!

These are strange and novel times and we’re all adjusting to new ways of living that change daily. It’s a time of adjustment for everyone. Some people find themselves working from home for the first time. Not only are they adjusting to the new habits of working from their living room or kitchen table, many are doing so while caring full-time for children and/or adults. And while everyone’s situation is different and unique, I thought I’d share some of my experiences of working from home and how I’ve adapted (and am daily adapting) to this new situation.

I’ll say, first of all, that my daughters are 9 and (in three days from now) 11 years old. They are great friends. They’re also very self-sufficient (and will even make a cup of tea, a bowl of soup, or make a batch of cupcakes, if the mood takes them). I’m aware, therefore, that I have it a lot easier than people attempting to work while caring for younger children, or children with big age gaps, or children with disabilities, or children who simply don’t get on with each other. But there might be something in my daily work practices that you can adapt to your working home life to make it all run a little more smoothly.

Remember, this is a huge adjustment period for everyone in your home. Forget ‘productivity’. Forget trying to ‘home school’ your children (see my last blog post). Don’t beat yourself up. Get plenty of rest. And remember that the transition to working from home is not something that will happen overnight. It’s taken me months to find a system that works for me and to find a work-life balance that suits me and suits my family.

BC (Before Corona), my typical day involved getting an hour or two of work done before the children got up. I’d then take two hours off – the first to get the children up, fed, presentable and out the door, and the second to walk the dog, shower and get dressed for the day. My children only have a five-hour school day, so that left me with four hours. My work requires high levels of concentration, which I can only keep up for short periods of time. So, I’d intersperse 30- or 40-minute bursts of work with chores – washing the dishes, hanging out the laundry, preparing lunch, and popping to the shop to buy groceries. Doing the chores like this got me away from the computer for short periods of time, got me moving about, and gave my brain and eyes a break.

The girls came home from school just after 2pm, and from then to 4pm was work-free, when we ate lunch and hung out together. Even if they didn’t want to hang out, I was available if they needed me. Most evenings, the girls were out from 4pm to 7.30 or 8pm, during which I got back to work, again interspersed with chores when I needed a break from the computer. If I had a pressing deadline, I might find myself doing another couple of hours of work after the children went to bed.

Most days didn’t work out quite like this. A phone call from a friend, a mid-morning invitation for coffee in the village, hour-long Spanish classes two evenings a week, the girls’ friends coming around to play, could all get in the way of my ideal work day. That didn’t matter, so long as I met my deadlines and produced quality work.

As for weekends, holidays, birthdays – those were sacred work-free days. It wasn’t always that way, but over time I discovered that for my physical and mental health, taking plenty of time off, and taking those important times off, was essential.

That was then. Now we’re into new territory, and I’m adapting many of these practices to this new and evolving situation. I have made some decisions that impact my ability to work effectively and to look after my children to the best of my ability.

First, I made the decision to cut back on the amount of work I do. I’m a freelancer and I don’t earn a salary. Instead, I only get paid for the work I do. Right now, I’m spending far less money than usual. We’re not allowed to leave the house other than to buy food. So, there are no morning coffees with friends, no Friday evening gin and tonic at the bar, no mid-week lunches out when I can’t be bothered to cook. No cinema, no trips to the beach, no shopping for anything that’s not food. So, I don’t need as much money as before. Therefore, I’ve cut back on the number of work assignments I accept each week. Instead of doing my usual 30-ish hours of work last week, I did fewer than 20.

I realize that, for some people, this is not financially possible, and for others, work targets set by others must be met. But think about areas of your work where you can cut back. Is everything you currently do absolutely necessary to the effective completion of your work, or are there elements of your work that you can drop? Prioritize your most important work, and drop or postpone the rest. Don’t make yourself ill by trying to simultaneously work at full speed and care for your family at full speed.

Second, I thought about how I can organize my work day in such a way that I get to spend time with my children, when we’re all at our best. We’re all sleeping in a little later these mornings and going to bed later. I’m no longer setting the clock for 6am, but rather getting up around 7.30am and working for an hour and a half before the girls wake up. Once they wake up, we have breakfast together, followed by study time, and then some exercise (a YouTube workout, a game of padel in the yard). I spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon pottering around, cooking, baking, and being available for the children. In the last few days, I’ve saved my work for three or four hours in the late afternoon. The girls play together or are engaged in some activity, and sometime between 5 and 6pm they sit down to watch a movie. In those few play and movie hours, I pack in as much work as possible. In this way, I spend a lot of time with the children, or am available for them while I do housework, but when their energy is flagging, when fights are most likely to break out, when the chances of tears are greatest, they can curl up on the sofa with a movie.

Third, I’ve revised my thoughts on weekends, holidays, and so on. Do weekends even exist now? I have the privilege of choosing, to a great extent, not only how much I work but also when I work. I’ve decided that, over the coming days and weeks, rather than sticking to my Monday to Friday work schedule, I’ll work when it feels appropriate to work, and I won’t work if I feel the children need me more, or if I need a day to process what’s going on.

Fourth, I talk about all of this to the girls. On the day they finished school we sat down and made a plan (more about this in a future post). Included in that plan was my need to work. Every morning over breakfast I tell the girls the hours of work I will have to do that day, the times I will be available to do things with them, and the times when I will, for the most part, need to be left alone to do my work. I also ask them to think about what they want to do during my work times. Do they want to do something together? Does one of them want to do something on her own? How are they going to negotiate those different plans and come to a compromise? Clearly communicating and working out our plans right from the start of the day makes their execution all the easier.

Finally, I accept that there are going to be interruptions. Hungry children will come begging for snacks, fights will break out, knees will be grazed. I just have to accept that it’s going to happen. For those of you who work as part of a team, chances are your colleagues are in the same boat, many working from home while caring for others and running a household.

As I write all this, I realize that much of what I have written about working from home might not be true next week, or even tomorrow. A few days ago, this post would have included the long walks we go on every day. Two days ago, it would have included the solo walks I take with the dog every day. Those are no longer options for us. Right now, my girls are getting on incredibly well with each other. I don’t know if or when they will start to tire of each other’s company. And I don’t know that work assignments will continue to flow into my inbox. So, maintaining flexibility is essential and remaining open to anything that might come around the corner.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself and be kind to the people you live with.

Tomorrow’s post: Staying positive

Remember, you’re their parent, not their teacher

Over the next few days (and weeks? months?) I’m going to offer some tips and advice about home educating, working from home, and maintaining positive mental health. In future posts, I’ll focus on more specific topics – to stick to the curriculum or not, educating children of different ages and/or abilities, good communication, home educating older children, etc. Today, I’m going to start with some general thoughts about home education, so that you keep these in mind when you’re planning what to do with your children at home in the days and weeks ahead.

Many home educators resist using the term ‘home schooling’, and for a very good reason. Home is not school. We are not teachers – apart from those of you who are teachers, but even then, you’re generally not your own children’s teachers. Teachers are an incredible bunch of dedicated, hardworking people, who do an amazing job of caring for, educating and socializing our children. However, they are educated and trained to teach children in specific situations, namely, large groups of children, in classrooms, for a specific number of hours each day. They have been trained to follow or adapt a curriculum, and they have been trained to work as part of a larger team of people with a shared vision and commitment to the institution of school (in the general sense) and to their own school institution (in the specific sense). Home is a very different environment, and the dynamic and relationship we have with our children is very different to that between our children and their teachers.

Forget about trying to turn your home into a school. It’s not going to work and you’re going to end up with frustration, anxiety and tears from everyone (and, believe me, no-one wants to see Daddy crying over the conjugation of French verbs).

Instead, create an environment in your home where children are self-motivated to learn and grow:

  • Televisions, tablets and phones are the enemies of imagination and enthusiasm. Turn them all off – and that means you too, Mum and Dad. Set aside long periods of the day when no-one uses these devices. (In a future posts I’ll discuss how to effectively communicate this to children and how to maintain cyber silence while working from home)
  • Be patient. This is new territory for everyone. If your children have always been in formal education, then this is a big change for them too. Reassuring them and caring for their emotional needs is far more important right now than making sure they know their periodic table.
  • Limit the time you spend doing ‘sit-down’ classroom-style educating. My children’s teacher has set up a WhatsApp group and is now sending work for the children to do. In addition, on the last day of school, I asked my girls to bring home their geography, science and maths books, as those were the subjects I think need most work. However, rather than sitting at the kitchen table or wherever for hours on end, limit these sorts of activities to two 20-minute sessions a day. If there’s frustration after 10 minutes, don’t beat yourself up, or get mad at your child/children. Accept that it’s not going to be, and give it another shot later or tomorrow. And if, on the other hand, the 20 minutes turns into half an hour or an hour and the child is wildly enthusiastic – run with it. Because chances are, they won’t show that same enthusiasm tomorrow.
  • Accept slowness. Standing over your child and expecting him or her to complete a task in a set period of time is going to end in frustration. Be present for your child, to help and assist, but accept that it may take the child a long time to complete an activity. We’ve all got extra time on our hands right now, so what does it matter? This doesn’t mean that your child dawdles and draws out 5 minutes of maths homework over two hours. Gently encourage and assist your child, but accept that just because you can write a sentence of five words in five seconds, or can solve 6 x 3 in the blink of an eye, that your child can too. Work at their speed.
  • Accept that things probably won’t work out as you had planned. You know all those awful YouTube videos of people making crafts? You know all those nice cakes in children’s cook books? You know those photos your friends post on Facebook of the amazing things their children have made? Let’s get one thing clear. In 99.9% of cases, your activities with your children are not going to meet the vision you had for them before you started. And that’s perfectly ok. The education, the learning and the fun are to be found in the process, not in the finished product. If you imagine that by the end of a 20-minute history session, your child will know the names of all Henry VIII’s wives, accept that there’s a good chance they won’t. If you imagine that your child is going to build some spectacular castle out of cardboard boxes and toilet roll inserts, accept that it will probably be a spectacular mess and look nothing like the castle of your imagination.
  • Change your expectations. It doesn’t matter that your child knows the names of all of Henry VIII’s wives. What matters is that you sat down together (or stood at the kitchen sink together, or kicked around a football in the back yard together) and talked about Henry VIII and his six wives, and why he had six wives in the first place, and what became of some of them. It doesn’t matter that your imagined castle is a pile of cardboard and PVA glue rubble. What matters is that you and your child planned and made something together, or that you left your child to his or her own devices to plan and make something.
  • Finally, follow their lead. Listen to what they want to do. Find out what interests them. Use this time as an opportunity to learn about things they might not otherwise have time to learn about. Your child is curious about something? Dinosaurs? The First World War? How peanut butter is made? Do the research together and learn together. Many children are asking about the Corona virus right now. Well, there’s a biology lesson in virology right there. Forget about this particular virus, get out your actual or virtual dictionaries, reference books, resources of all kinds and find out what a virus is, how it works, what it does. Rather than being teacher and student, you are learning something new together.

I hope this provides some reassurance that you’re doing just fine. I’ll further unpack these ideas in future posts. Tomorrow I’m going to write about juggling working from home with home educating.

Home education? Check. Working from home? Check. Social isolation? Check.

It will be one week tomorrow since all schools in Spain closed. Schools in Ireland closed the day before and, as I write, schools in the UK are preparing to close tomorrow. I know we’re expected to say we’re bored and fed up and can’t wait for things to get back to normal. But actually, here in my house, we’re having quite a good time. (Am I allowed to say that?) It dawned on me that there are three reasons why we’re doing alright: 1. My daughters were home educated in the past; 2. We lived for six years in the confined space of a 36 foot yacht; and 3. I work from home.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether to blog about life in social isolation. Goodness knows, there is nothing but Corona virus news on every social media platform you turn to. Do I want to add to this relentless and overwhelming mass of information (and misinformation), and people sharing their personal stories?

However, over the past week, a number of friends and family members in far-flung corners of the planet have asked for my advice on home schooling. At the moment, like many others, I am home educating while working from home under conditions of social isolation.

Even though I no longer home educate my daughters (or do I?), I still give the subject a lot of thought. Apart from chocolate, sex and spaghetti bolognaise (not necessarily in that order, and not usually at the same time), education is the thing I think about most. I wrote an anthropology Masters on the subject, and a PhD on the passing on and sharing of environmental knowledge and skill between and across generations (i.e. informal education). This past Christmas, I wrapped Tim Ingold’s Anthropology and/as Education in Christmas wrapping paper and placed it under the tree for myself. That’s how much I love thinking about education. And, although I don’t have as much experience as many home educators who’ve seen their children through from babies until they left for university, I have been through the trials, tribulations and joys of home educating my girls, and what I learned from those years continues to inform how we learn together today, how we approach their school work, and how we think about learning and education in general.

I’ve also worked from home for the past number of years. I’m a freelance editor and writer, and my working life is spent at home, alone, in front of my laptop. Over the years, I’ve also learned by trial and error what works and doesn’t work for me, which practices improve my productivity (and which sound the death knell for productivity), and how to ensure a good work-life balance. What works for me may not work for others, but I have some thoughts and ideas that might be helpful, especially if you’re mixing work and education at home.

Finally, we lived on a boat for six years, so sharing a confined space with my family, while working and getting on with the daily tasks of life, is no news to me.

Therefore, starting from tomorrow, I’m going to write a series of short blog posts with tips about home educating, working from home, and caring for your own and your family’s mental and physical health at this challenging time. These will be based on my own experiences over the years, the experiences of others, and what’s working and not working for my family right now. Of course, what works for me may not work for you, but it might provide you with some food for thought.

If you want to get involved with questions, suggestions for posts, or feedback, then I’d love to hear from you.

I’ll start tomorrow with some basic thoughts and best practices for home education. Hope to see you then.

Materiality and nostalgia

Last week, I spent a few days in Coventry city centre. It’s not a particularly pleasant or pretty city, but I had reason to be there and some time on my hands. Seeking refuge from the excessive noise and busyness of the city, I took myself to Coventry Cathedral and, later, to The Herbert Museum.

Having wandered around the shell of the old cathedral, St. Michael’s, which was bombed almost to oblivion by the Luftwaffe on 14 November 1940, I proceeded to the new cathedral, also St. Michael’s, which opened in 1962. From the first time I visited this cathedral, twelve or more years ago, I have loved its modernist architecture, sharp edges and industrial style, so unlike the medieval cathedrals one is more likely to encounter in British and other European cities.

I was already in a reflective and somewhat melancholic mood when I entered the cathedral, and the sparse grandeur of it moved me even more. The Peace Chapel, to the left of the entrance, caught my attention. I saw, through the open doors, long strings of colourful origami tsuru (orizuru), paper cranes, hanging almost to the floor. I was drawn to them, nostalgia for Japan rising in me as I walked across the nave of the cathedral towards them.

The small side chapel had chairs arranged in a circle, with the altar and the hanging strings of tsuru completing the circle. I reached out and ever so gently ran my fingers through them, and I was swept back a quarter century to Japan, to first learning to make tsuru with my students, to visiting shrines and temples with my friends and colleagues, with my kind taiko teacher and his wife (whose names, I am ashamed to say, now escape me – Lisa McClintock, if you’re reading this, please remind me), and to visiting the memorials at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Waves of nostalgia washed over me and suddenly tears were streaming down my cheeks and my throat was constricted around sobs desperate to get out. I sat on one of the chairs in the circle, overwhelmed by a sense of loss for a part of my life that is no more. I have no great yearning to return to Japan, although I would love to take my daughters there some day. This was not a nostalgia (or natsukashii, as they say in Japan) brought about by a longing to be in that place again in the future, but rather to be back in the past, in a place and at a time to which I can never return.

I composed myself, spent some more time sitting in reflection in the nave of the cathedral, and then walked the 50 metres to The Herbert Museum. I knew the museum well, having often taken Lily and Katie there when we visited their grandad in Coventry when they were younger. The museum was a little shabbier than I remembered it, some of the exhibits a little worse for wear. I made my way upstairs and into the permanent Elements exhibition, only remembering it as I walked through it. It contains some beautiful natural objects – shells, crystals, fossils and, against the back wall, mounted vertically and side-by-side, two narwhal tusks. Like the tsuru in the cathedral, I was drawn to the tusks. I stood in front of them, running my hand over the swirling lines, reveling in the cold hardness of them.

I’ve never seen a narwhal, alive or dead, but they are so indelibly connected with the Arctic, that they swept me away to the winter sea ice of Hudson Bay, to Arvia’juaq and Huluraq, to beluga whale hunting in summer with Arden and Frank, to arctic char fishing with my ataata Pemik. Once again, I was a blubbering wreck, clinging to the larger of the two tusks like a drowning woman. Again, nostalgia for a time and place overcame me and I was momentarily grief-stricken. Unlike Japan, Nunavut (and, specifically, Arviat) is a continuing presence in my life, through my research, my on-going relationships with people there (one of the great positives of social media), through my daughter’s name, and through the way my lived experiences and academic research of Inuit life have changed forever the way I interact with humans and other animals and with the world around me. But the Arviat I knew has changed. Some of the people most important to me are no longer there – passed on or moved on – and I too am changed.

I composed myself for the second time in so many hours, continued my exploration of the museum and then sat in the museum café with a pot of tea and toasted crumpet. As I sat, I reflected on how the materiality of those objects had drawn out this nostalgia in me. Two objects, one removed from its cultural setting and the other from its natural setting, and set in a different context thousands of miles away. The cultural distance the tsuru had travelled was, perhaps, less great, as these delicate paper cranes have come to symbolize peace, the anti-war movement and nuclear disarmament throughout the world. But, just as the tusk of an Arctic marine mammal was far from the place and context of its origin, so too, the tsuru, placed in an Anglican cathedral in the middle of England, had been decontextualized from Japan’s long history of origami and other delicate crafts. It was the sudden and unexpected encounter with these objects out of place that caused them to grab me by the wrist and pull me back to the places of their origin, places that, for half of my life, have had meaning for me.

But my encounters with those objects also caught me at a moment when I was feeling particularly melancholic. Another day, in a different mood, nostalgia brought about by the tsuru and the narwhal tusks might have caused me to laugh aloud with joyful reminiscences of the same times, places and people. I was reminded of this a few days later when, back home again in Sanlúcar de Guadiana, I caught the smell and texture of spring in the air, and it brought me back to the springs of my childhood in Ireland. This time, in a buoyant mood, I grinned from ear to ear.

Reading, part II: If she can see it, she can be it*

*Motto of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Katie’s exciting first foray into the world of novels. As I was writing that post I was also thinking about Lily’s reading habits, and about the lack of female protagonists and heroes in the types of books she likes to read. And, as I was thinking these thoughts, it transpired that Lily herself was thinking exactly the same.

Currently, Lily is working her way through the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz. Before that, she read all the Harry Potter books and she’s also a big fan of Percy Jackson and has asked for more of those for Christmas.

So, when she got out of bed one night a few weeks ago to come share her thoughts with me, I realised we had the same concerns. ‘There are no girls in the Alex Rider books’, she announced. ‘And, apart from Hermione, there are no girls in Harry Potter. It’s all boys.’ She backtracked a bit, explaining, ‘Well, there are girls, but they don’t do anything. They don’t do the stuff the boys do.’

A couple of weeks before this, Lily had a sleepover at her friend Luisa’s house, and accidently left her Alex Rider book there the next morning. Going to bed the next night, with the book still at Luisa’s, she didn’t know what to read. Not wanting to start a new book while in the middle of another one, I suggested she read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay ‘We should all be feminists’ (here’s a link to the TED talk of the same), that I had left on her bedside locker some weeks earlier, when she’d moved into her own bedroom. She shrugged and, unconvinced, took the book from my hands for want of anything else to read. An hour later, she was out of bed, wanting to talk about the essay with me, about the hotel reception scene, about men assuming Chimamanda couldn’t have money of her own. The essay exercised her already feminist view of the world and added a new layer to it.

So now, here she was, complaining that her action/adventure/espionage books were devoid of female heroes.

I had been thinking the same thing, while also contrasting those books to another favourite author of Lily’s, Jacqueline Wilson. Although Lily is no longer as interested in Jacqueline Wilson’s books as she once was, there was a time when she devoured everything that the prolific Wilson produced. And I realised that she was, on the one hand, reading books with girl protagonists in domestic settings, with domestic problems involving families, school friends, mothers in bad romantic relationships (a recurring Wilson motif) and, on the other, boy protagonists charged with saving the entire world, involved in international espionage, the sons of gods and wizards.

She reads all sorts of books, of course, and I’m being reductive to some extent, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see the domesticity of girls and the world-saving of boys in the books that my 10-year old daughter reads. Even Susan, Lucy, Peter and Edmund, in their equal roles as kings and queens of Narnia, conform to gender stereotypes when Aslan confers on them their symbols and tools/weapons.

Because I haven’t, as either a child or an adult, ever been interested in those genres of action/espionage/fantasy that Lily is currently so fond of, I am in no position to advise her on books with female protagonists. I know the Skulduggery Pleasant series has a girl hero (who is Irish, to boot). Apart from that, I’m at a loss. Therefore, if anyone can recommend books in those genres with girl protagonists, I’d appreciate it.

Alternatively, as I’ve suggested to her, she may just have to write those books herself.


Reading, part I: Wonder

BloomKatie, nine-years old, is reading her first novel, Bloom by Nicola Skinner. She reads it aloud to me, a chapter a night before she goes to bed. We’re almost 90 pages into this delightful 350-page book about a play-by-the-rules girl who finds a packet of magic seeds that turn her world upside down.

A few nights ago, Katie stopped reading mid-sentence and turned to me with a look of wonder and bliss on her face. ‘I can really see all the people and places’, she proclaimed. ‘Can you?’

I got a lump in my throat. You’ve got it, I thought to myself. You’ve cracked the joy of reading, words creating entire worlds in your imagination of people and lives and places.

She’s read before, of course, but short books that can be read in one sitting and that don’t involve the immersion of the imagination that comes with reading a lengthy novel. She’s invested in the world of this book far more than she’s been invested in any story she’d read before.

What particularly made me emotional about this epiphany of Katie’s the other night is that she’s long held this misconception that she’s ‘bad at reading’ or ‘not very good at reading’. These are her own descriptions of her reading ability and, try as I might to dispel them, they have persisted. It’s probably younger sister syndrome (if such a thing exists). Lily, who is only 17 months older than Katie, was an early reader, and by the time she was the age that Katie is now, she had read all but two of the Harry Potter novels, most of the Narnia series, as well as a huge number of Jacqueline Wilson books (more on all of this next week). Lily is a voracious reader with very particular tastes and has been reading beyond her age level (if such a thing exists, which I doubt) for a long time. Katie, by her own comparison, is ‘not very good at reading’.

My past attempts to instill confidence in Katie’s reading ability have fallen short. She simply wasn’t ready. Her frequent mistakes, her slow reading pace and her lack of understanding frustrated her and deterred her from wanting to read more.

But something about this book has flicked a switch. She bought it herself, for one thing, choosing it and paying for it with her own money at Easons when we were passing through Cavan town earlier in the summer. Reading it every night, she has become highly invested in the characters and in the place. She is the one dragging me to her bedroom each night so she can read the next chapter.

At first, she read slowly, stumbling over words and ignoring punctuation. But chapter-by-chapter, her reading speed has increased, her word recognition has improved remarkably, her ability to understand new words based on context or pre-existing knowledge of similar words has improved, and she now reads with correct intonation and timing (most of the time). Her confidence has grown in leaps and bounds. Listening to her read is a joy. Her joy in reading is a joy.

She’s now got a pile of books on her desk, stacked in order of what she wants to read next. If this carries on, we’re in for a cozy winter ahead filled with adventures of the imagination.