Whats in a name? Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier


First published in 1938, Rebecca, was Daphne du Maurier’s fifth novel. Since then it has rebeccabeen translated into twenty languages. It has never been out of print and boasts sales of almost four thousand copies a month (source: Telegraph.co.uk). It continues to enthral and fascinate readers as much now as it did in the Twentieth Century.

A multi-faceted story it contains, I believe, all the elements of a great plot: adultery, identity, jealousy, murder and mystery. It is the story of four: two female antagonists, one man and the edifice that is Manderley.  It is the first du Maurier story I have read, and it is the first story where I encountered a nameless narrator. It is for this reason that Rebecca continues to haunt me.

Our very identities are wrapped up in our names. They are crucial to developing our sense our self, and bear heavily on who we think we are, and, is normally one of the first things we wish to learn of another.  Interestingly, in Rebecca, we are told that our heroine’s name is ‘lovely and unusual’ a name given to her by her father.  However, throughout the story, she is only ever identified as Mrs de Winter; a name given to her in matrimony by another man: her husband.  A man, Maxim de Winter, who upholds the patriarchal and class societal rules of his time. Both in the giving and in the taking, our narrator cannot embrace the one thing that may aid in steering her to a sense of who she is: her name. As a result, she willingly assumes the role of the second wife and is further erased and swallowed up in an archaic tradition. A tradition where rules are to be obeyed, a definite code of conduct is enforced, and the best that a wife can do is go along with it.

In the absence of any real sense of her own identity, it is not surprising then that our nameless narrator becomes gripped and fixated on the former, dead, first wife. The eponymous Rebecca. The woman who she believes to be the epitome of womanhood. The woman who she feels ‘…might come back into the room and she would see me there, sitting before her open drawer, which I had no right to touch’. Rebecca is the yardstick from which she appraises her inadequacies. Rebecca, she comes to believe, was everything she herself is not: a wonderful wife, beautiful, the perfect lady for Manderley. In choosing to keep the narrator nameless, Du Maurier creates a device which I believe puts the two antagonists in direct conflict.

Rebecca, though, did not follow the rules. She was rebellious, and dared to live her life as she saw fit ‘seizing life with her two hands’ and not how her controlling husband or society wanted.  She did though pay the ultimate price: death. The second Mrs de Winter allows the ghost of the former wife to haunt her.  She recognises that Rebecca’s rebellious nature was not acceptable behaviour for a woman of that time, however she remains undecided, ambivalent almost and I believe by not forcing herself to decide, a sort of admiration for Rebecca creeps in. But are they so different?  Both women have been taken to their husband’s seat: Manderley.  Both have in their own attempts tried to make it their home too.  They are both expected to conform to the strict societal norms, and conduct themselves in a prescribed manner which their stern husband expects and enforces. While it may seem that these women are polar opposites in manner and style, I think it is their crucial reactions that set them apart. Our narrator, succumbs to her husband and society, prepared to leave her identity behind forever. She chooses to believe rather than to question her husband about the real facts of his first wife’s death. After all his version must be the correct one, a man of his class would surely not deceive her. Rebecca, however fights all the way. She has broken all the rules of conduct, she was not afraid to disobey or question those rules, or more importantly the rule makers. She is Rebecca. Who is our narrator to become if she does not take charge of her own life? What type of life will she lead if she allows herself to be subsumed by everyone and everything around her?

An expert, du Maurier sums up the presence of a dead wife, through the obsession of another. She holds out a mirror where both women can look at themselves but also one another. Rebecca, in death assumes the role of a genius loci for Manderley. Her sense of otherness elevates the edifice even further, taking ownership of the once male province. I believe because she lived how she saw fit, never relinquishing her identity, she will live on. In the end Manderley will ultimately be hers.  We witness her rebellion and respond with empathy. We witness her revolt against the traditions that tie her down.   We admire her for being herself.

Our narrator, on the other hand, follows her husband into exile leaving any chance of ever finding herself behind.  She reverts to what she started out as, a paid companion, this time for a domineering man. By choosing to not force herself to ask the right questions she remains subservient in thought and action, she becomes the woman who fades away from us.  In the end it is, I believe, it is our nameless narrator who dies.

Daphne de Maurier has played with our emotions throughout this gripping tale. Which of the women deserves our sympathy? Who has really died? Who continues to live? The perils of not knowing oneself are as valid in the Twenty First Century as they were in the 1938 and I am reminded of that famous quote by Shakespeare: ‘To thine own self be true’.

Rebecca’s haunting prevails.





Where there’s life, there’s hope


The ridiculously large seed is suspended but still touching the water beneath it.  It sits by the kitchen window, still a curiosity to all those that pass, but not for much longer.  Soon its identity will be revealed. A pre-historic wonder waiting for an extinct animal to come along, ingest it and in turn propagate it. I daren’t tell it that there are no gomphothere, large elephant-like creatures, roaming about the Earth for fear of breaking it’s will to live. Instead it has me and other enthusiastic Homo sapiens that help its survival.Avocado cut in half

I’m an avid avocado fan, and will do what I can to help Mother Nature ensure its genetic programming will kick into place and grow into a tree. And, although its ancestors did flourish in the forests of Central America, I can offer it prime real-estate in the form of a warm, south-facing room. Enough? I really do hope so. In a strange way, I would like to nurture this pre-historic seed, my way of saying thanks for all the help its cousins and family have given my skin over the years.

Tip: Go mash the flesh of a ripe avocado and add two teaspoons of olive oil, combine, and spread across your face. Transforms the driest, crepe-like skin.

Of course I am sure the avocado tree didn’t just propagate to quench our thirsty human skin, its mission was and still is to ensure the survival of its kind, but to do that it depended on large ground sloths, and those big, giant elephants to do so. The fact remains that these animals no longer exist, but back in the day, during the Miocene and Pliocene eras plants and animals depended on each other’s survival: evolutionary anachronism. Yet it seems, it’s not just the avocado that are affected.  Homo sapiens are not entirely exempt from such evolutionary leaps.  Think about our appendix, what about goose bumps and then there’s facial hair.Does the 21st Century person need any of these now? No, not really.

I’ve got good news and bad news.  The good news: instead of driving things to extinction, we humans are quite adept at saving plants, animals too.  Not just the avocado, but also the pungent Ginkgo Biloba, the tree that watched dinosaurs roam, graze, play and fight. And are you ready? Even coffee, we’ve saved that too. Can you imagine a world without coffee? Coffee cake? I cannot.  The bad news? We have driven far too many species to either the brink or complete extinction-beautiful, wonderful, fantastic things. And remember, once things are gone, they’re gone: there is no bring ’em back alive. We discovered fire, played with the matches and sent a lot up in smoke – let’s hope we’re not next on the list.

In the meantime, I’m going to watch in wonder as a very old seed begins a new life.

Indiana Jones and Me

image: empireonline.com

image: empireonline.com

In four weeks time I will sit a significant exam. If successful the trajectory of my life will change. How do I feel? Like Indiana Jones has showed up at my front door and insisted I accompany him on his next hair raising, whip-cracking adventure.  Tut tut, you say. Surely I must know that I will be in good hands with Professor Jones? Yes, but what if I let him down? What if I can’t live up to his lofty expectations or meet his exacting needs? What if, due to my lack of experience in the trusted role of side-kick, our quest fails? I’m not much good with water, hate heights and deciphering ancient hieroglyphics certainly is not my forte. The dangers and risks are many: the likelihood of failure too great. I could, of course, just explain all of this to Indiana. He’s a reasonable guy.  Hey, he’ll say, we’ll do this together and with a wink he’ll whisk me into action. He too has his fears: snakes.

My fear of failure, especially in exams, stems from my experiences in the classrooms of my youth. I remember when we, students of varying intellectual capabilities, competed with each other either for good grades or other rewards. Plus ça change. I can still see the faces of my opponents: the intelligent girls, the very smart girls, and those including me, who hovered precariously above the range known as average.  As an adolescent I hated the locale of average; it made me feel like I had fallen short somehow: never quite clever enough: ordinary.   Average wormed its way through me and nibbled away at any hopes I ever had for myself. Dare attempt to raise my little average self above the parapet, aim my arrow a little higher, a little further, a little to the left, or a little the right: Heaven forbid. So, I did what any good descent average person would do: I stepped back and let those unreasonable goals to the intelligent and very clever girls. At least my dignity remained intact.

Among the faces of the eighties there were the teachers who encouraged (a handful) and those who were adept in the art of beating away any semblance of confidence in a student like me; back then it was called getting too big in your boots. So, to acknowledge their unwavering dedication for knocking as much of the good stuff out of me as possible, I would like to propose a toast: To the teacher who snapped the foolscap essay copy from me on Monday mornings, certain (without even reading) that what I presented was average: To the teacher who insisted on leaving my copy book at the bottom of the pile: To the teacher who gave me a thump in the shoulder when I accidentally sewed the hem of my skirt (a class project, that sent the fear of God into us!) crooked. Our brown and peach (I know!) uniform lacked a vital, but very necessary component; one, I believe that should have been compulsory: a cuirass.

Should any of you be still teaching: Note Bene: Confidence and self-esteem in adolescence responds to the above with a sickening thud.

We live in an inherently competitive and cut-throat culture. From early childhood we pit child against child in the classroom. We raise children who believe that in order to succeed they must be the best, the brightest: brilliant.  We score their achievements: A, B, C, D. We say things like “could do better”, or the ubiquitous “needs to try harder”. No wonder most children are exhausted by the age of twelve.  They are trying harder all the time at subjects their brains are not hard-wired for; subjects that they will never, no matter how much time and energy they pour into, excel at. Outside the classroom, we take it another step: What team sports do you play? What hobbies do you have? Who has given up chocolate for Lent? Who is doing extra Maths after school? Do you attend camp during school holidays? Which ones? It goes on and on…As a society we are placing extraordinary pressure on these young children. Yes, I do know as adults we must prepare our children for the world and adulthood. But, what about just leaving them alone to just be? Allow them to tap into their inner selves and discover who they are? What about teaching children about citizenship? What does being a citizen really mean?  It’s hard been a kid. It always has been.

When I was fourteen years old I had to sit a very important (teacher’s words) exam in Chemistry.  If I did not pass this exam, the likelihood was that I would not be able to sit Chemistry for my Intermediate Cert (aka Inter Cert).  Up to that point, I was barely keeping my head above water; picture a solider fording a river, rifle held high.  The truth was I never wanted to study Chemistry, but the class I found myself in was orientated very much towards the science subjects. I tried to prove Chemistry wrong. I could beat it.  I would be successful and win.  I studied hard. I asked questions. I remembered the answers.

The day came, a Wednesday, and into the lab I went.  I took my seat at the bench and waited for our teacher to appear.  She didn’t.  A tall, lanky young fellow walked into the lab and announced he would be our sub for a few weeks; our teacher was ill. At first, I was relieved: no test. But then, this young sprat went on to say that he knew we were to be tested that day.  He turned his back to the class and proceeded to write two questions on the blackboard (it was 1987!). I watched his long letters appear on the board, and as his words formed, I wrote the questions into my test book.  And then it happened.  The questions on the board were not the questions I had studied. I couldn’t believe it.  I knew I was finished: Chemistry had beaten me.  I couldn’t even begin to think of what to write. Then, Mary Hannon piped up: Sir, they are not the questions we’ve studied for.  His caught ye all out smirk spread like soft butter across his face: Girls, if you studied Chapter Three and Four not only would you be able to answer your prepared questions, but these questions also.  We stared incredulously at this sadist. Slowly pens were put to paper. Some wrote pages, some wrote paragraphs and then there was me: I wrote lines: Short lines. The following week my result was revealed: D-.  When our teacher returned I was bumped out of Chemistry and found myself in double Biology learning about photosynthesis.

What did I learn from all this? Not much it seems.  Throughout my school years, I felt huge pressure to succeed even when I knew my brain was not hard-wired for certain subjects. I continued pushing. There was always a finishing line that needed to be crossed.  Failing was not an option. I can’t blame for parents for this. They certainly did not sublimate their ambitions through me. They did though insist that I did my best and try: God loves a trier you know.  But, somewhere inside me, a seed had germinated.  I nurtured it as a mother nurtures her baby.  I watered it. I fed it. I played with it. I even took it out for walks and trips to the park. By the time I was ready for college my baby, fear, was strong and ready to take its place in the world. It was this fear of failure that propelled me into adulthood.  I was terrified of letting myself down.

It doesn’t matter from what exactly: the fear of failure sucks.  Since life has a tendency to poke and prod, developing coping skills and becoming resilient beings that bend with our failures rather than abandon our hopes of success is of paramount importance. But, it’s not always that simple, is it?  How do you grow skin as thick as a rhinoceros in order not to feel that thump on the shoulder?  We are, after all, creatures that feel. Fear will curse through our veins ready to emerge at any moment; ready to pulse the very moment we find ourselves becoming audacious: a new goal, a new plan, a new dream. It is often easier to assume the ostrich position: Stick our heads in the sand, don’t do anything to distinguish ourselves from the herd. Settle for mediocrity.

When we settle for less we deny ourselves the joy of daring and looking beyond the pale of mediocrity.  We allow our fears to destroy our dreams and rob our lives of hope.  I, too, am aware of the crippling effect of fear, and know that if I allow it to consume me I will be no better than the thief that comes and steals during the dark of night; I will have sacrificed above all things loyalty to myself, and will remain a minion.   This isn’t a blame game. Blaming others for how we feel, while sometimes feels necessary, is also a way of letting our pain and discomfort go. I do, though, sincerely wish that teachers, and all those who possess huge influence over us during our Wonder Years would just stop and think about that: our Wonder Years. Please don’t knock that out of us too early. Please.

Over the past few years, I have made a concerted effort to help, maybe even heal myself. I have always been on the qui vive for the help I needed. Some of the things I have tried helped, some have not. But, and I love that sometimes there is a but, I’m very happy to say that I have made a wonderful discovery on my quest. I would love to share it with you.

This treasure comes in the form of a wonderful poem. Last Night As I Was Sleeping has transformed how I feel about, and face fear.  In his great poem (see below), Antonio Machado conjures image after vibrant image.  It’s the second verse that stopped me in my tracks. A powerful, startling image that of a beehive inside his heart, and of bees making sweet honey from his old failures.  When I first read these lines, it felt like I had stood upon frozen water that cracked and broke into shards beneath my feet. They broke open a new way of seeing my life. Imagine if we could see all our past failures as so sweet that we could produce sweet honey from them? Failures can instead become the ingredients for new experiences, new ways of being, new worlds. This is simply marvellous: life affirming.

Dare we believe that if we had not encountered these failures we would not be the people we are now. Initially perceived as disasters, our failures are now “making white combs and sweet honey”. What does this really mean? Perhaps, it means that, in the end, everything was as it should have been: as it should be.  I cannot begin to tell you how much these words mean to me. They give me a warm fuzzy feeling just like cinnamon, spice my hope like the peppery scent of the geranium and comfort me like hot milk on a cold winter’s night. Like flotsam, I will cling to these words and images for the rest of my days.

Indiana need wait no longer.  I’ve done a little research on snakes; just in case we come across any on our quest. I like to feel useful. When the water comes gushing forth, fingers crossed, he’ll somehow keep me afloat. On the rope bridge suspended between the towering cliffs, he’ll find a way to help me conquer my dread of heights. As for the hieroglyphics, I’m a fast learner!  Perhaps it is true to say that in the end life is one long quest, sometimes we will reach The Holy Grail sometimes we will not.

It’s time to trust Indiana, step out of average and into possibility.


Last Night As I Was Sleeping
Antonio Machado

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

Antonio Cipriano José María y Francisco de Santa Ana Machado y Ruiz, known as Antonio Machado was a Spanish poet and one of the leading figures of the Spanish literary movement known as the Generation of ’98. For more information please click here

A duty to reproduce: Modern Ireland is a sci-fi dystopia for women


A wonderful post that deserves to be shared.

Feminist Ire

In an episode of Battlestar Galactica called “The Farm”, Starbuck gets shot during a raid on Caprica and loses consciousness. She wakes up in a hospital, where it turns out that the cylons have a lot of human women hooked up to “baby-machines”, because they can’t reproduce themselves, so they’re trying to reproduce with humans. The human women are used as incubators and the cylons are of the view that they have a duty to reproduce. The cylon doctor tells Starbuck how women of reproductive age are very “precious commodities.” The agency of the individual does not matter – they are merely vessels. Vessels do not need to consent. The women hooked up to machines for the sole purpose of reproduction are, in this case, science fiction, and it’s pretty grim.

As I type this, there is a woman who is clinically brain dead but being kept alive on life…

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Women are Back!


She is willowy, long and slender. Long chestnut coloured hair falls to one side, a liberated wisp falls across her swan-like neck, without doubt, blown by a gentle breeze that surrounds her.  Beneath her fringe hazel eyes rimmed in black kohl smile above the lush architecture of her lips, framing her pearly whites. She smiles. She dazzles. She is a winner in the genetic lottery of beauty. The hues of her mocha silk dress are set off harmoniously by patches of delicate black lace and a silk jacket falls gracefully from her shoulders: her coat-hanger frame.  By her side Mr Aren’t I Lucky leans his broad shoulder into hers: The cat that got the cream.  His grey suit, the colour of newly fabricated steel, emphasises his raven black hair. Enchanting her: Enchanting us. The epitome of chic and à la mode sophistication: the apogee of countless aspiring males and females worldwide. If I were to hazard a guess, I would declare them French, specifically Parisian; they could, though, be Roman: they are beautiful.

And then they go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like: Women Are Back.

Back from where? Where have we been? Has some global vanishing act taken place that I haven’t been aware of, a calamity that has rid the world of females? Where did we abscond to?  Did we, at long last, discover a secret female Utopia?

By now you’ve probably guessed that I am referring to a glossy magazine advert. Two weeks ago whilst waiting in a slow-moving queue for my dentist, I flicked absent-mindedly through a plethora of glossy magazines.  I say absent-mindedly because I don’t buy these type magazines: not anymore. Truth is I am a little bit weary, almost afraid of them. Why? Have you looked through some of them recently? An assortment of perplexing articles that cover a constellation of topics that don’t really help at all: Flirt like a Man, Mr Right, but not Right Now, or what about, Man up in the Boardroom. Need I go on?

Oh, but how things change. The story was a lot different a decade or two ago; an era when I regularly, almost compulsively, purchased several brand leading codices of beauty, fashion and self-help. I co-existed peacefully with modern-day guides to having it all, living it up and getting what you want when you want it.  Back then I believed, quite innocently, they were a sort of guide-book, map even, to Arcadia. I was positive that the next article would be the one that would show me the error of my ways; or, that the next personality test would highlight an unknown part of my personality that required fixing: once rectified success would be mine, the hope, that I would dodge the land mines in the province of growing up. In short I was looking for the fastest, least troublesome route to Sophistication Ville.

The official term for changing one’s patterns is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). It is a shame I wasn’t familiar with it back in the day; I could have saved myself money and instead invested my time on more deserving pursuits: learning Italian, yoga or the Tango. Most of us realise that change is not easy. For real positive change to take place one needs to invest time, great effort and occasionally possess long purse strings: obtaining scores of 20-45 in a generic glossy-mag test, or being informed that one is Personality Type A with a dollop of Type C, does not cut the mustard. Seriously though who constructs those quizzes? Have they been trained in the theories of Freud or Jung?  Do they know what they’re talking about? I wonder.

Fast forward and a new age has begun. Growing older has its advantages. It has a wonderful way of sorting out the “men from the boys” or, in this case, the “girls from the women”. Those once coveted words that I based my entire identity on are now fit for the lavatory.

Maybe that’s why I felt so cross and annoyed when I happened upon the two beauties: the pairing, marriage even of image and phrase emitting all sorts of mixed messages. The flippant use of words and phrases is rife in the world of advertising especially those adverts targeted at women, children and increasingly men; serving only to disturb and unsettle, in the case of the glossies, readers.  Why do advertisers believe that they can employ any word they choose? Do they ever stop to think of the consequences such words and phrases can have on impressionable, innocent young minds?  I don’t think so.  I believe that the subliminal messages contained within much of today’s advertising are dangerous, nefarious even. We are, unwittingly, being brain-washed; the builders have moved into our precious minds constructing all sorts of distorted ideals and perceptions. So, when an advert announces Women Are Back it drives me crazy precisely because most women already face a daily battle of invisibility, constantly trying to make themselves seen, heard and taken seriously.   When that gifted agency coined that axiom, perhaps around a glass-topped boardroom table with floor to ceiling windows, was there a woman who objected to the term? Who found it obnoxious? A man? Or, did they all just find relief in the fact that they had created a chippy one liner that would keep their clients happy? Cash rolls in.

I hate to disappoint those unenlightened agencies: Women never left nor are we planning to. Look around you. We are everywhere. We are the daughters, sisters, aunts, mothers, grandmothers and friends we all know and love; could not thrive without. We are the ones who do a higher proportion of the caring, raising and juggling.  We are the ones who tucked you into bed at night, rubbed your tummy when you were sick, wiped your noise clean and held your hand when you were afraid. We are the ones you call when you’ve done an awful interview for your dream job. The ones who say you are beautiful when you feel like crap. No advert can do that. Ever.

It would be so reassuring to know that when such decisions are being made in boardrooms across the globe, employees, the women and men who execute them, would remember the women in their lives. Maybe then so many women would not find themselves living beneath the Cloak of Invisibility.

I was very lucky.  I knew, deep down, that all that mumbo jumbo wouldn’t really make a difference. I was never Personality Type A, B, C or D: I’m me.  I had fantastic female mentors in my life; championing me, encouraging and believing in me.  I’ve had my moments when my train did arrive at Sophistication Ville. I have, though, stepped on many land mines on the way up.

I survived. I’m still here. And, so too dear reader are the women you know.

Women and the Stars


Women and the Stars

What’s your passion? The certain something you would do all day long if left to your own devices; if life did not throw all sorts of demands at you: mortgage, work, living costs: responsibilities.

It’s a tough question isn’t it? There’s something unsettling about it: unnerving, throws us off course a little. Why? I think it’s because all too often we no longer know what real passion is.  Sure, we’ve heard about it, seen it in the movies and if we’re lucky have felt it once or twice; but, the tendency to disconnect with that part of us I call passion-central grows exponentially as we age. As if growing older is the great destroyer of passion leaving only the remnants of a once felt need or desire. There’s nothing worse than being asked this question and not having an answer: even though we have probably jumped into our brains and sorted through the multi-coloured tabs like a Pentium Processor looking for it.

But no matter what, even if our processors cannot find the answers straight away, I believe that inside each of us there is an abiding sense of passion; sometimes we just haven’t had an opportunity to identify it or listen out for it. My grandmother has another word for passion: she calls it “fire in the belly” – now, maybe that’s a better way of putting it: What puts the fire in your belly?

I believe it is this wonderful ingredient passion that helps create pioneers: the ones who lead the way, the trail blazers who dared to identify, listen to and follow their dreams: saw a chance: took it. And, it is through their discoveries of new worlds and new ways of being that have in turn allowed us to pursue our dreams: a little like stepping upon their shoulders, peeping into the space ahead and daring to dream of something else.

In the 1880s a renowned astronomer called Edward Pickering embarked on a monumental project: to catalogue photographic plates that captured the spectrum of every star in the night sky.  Pickering, the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, had raised quite a lot of money from various donors to fund the study but what he didn’t have was help, or labour.

At that time, opportunities for women of any description were limited.  And since Pickering’s helpers did not need to be astronomers he decided to hire women.  The work these women carried out involved complex mathematical operations: the new workers were called computers. Also known as “Pickering’s harem” a derogatory term applied to this team of intelligent, precise women who did their job well but worked for as little as 25 cents an hour. 

Being women of intelligent mind and dedicated to their roles, some of the “computers” swiftly expanded their tasks and became respected researchers in the field: eventually making lasting contributions of their own in the field of astronomy. 

Their passion and dedication unlocked a much closed-door to professional astronomy for the generations of women that followed.  One of the women, Annie Jump Canon, developed an easy-to-remember system still used today for classifying star spectra, whilst, Henrietta Swan Leavitt discovered the period-luminosity relationship of Cepheid variable stars-stars that brighten and fade with a regular pulse-which can be used to calculate stellar distances. Such a discovery deserves recognition and Leavitt’s contributions were so that a moon crater was named after her. However, these women worked tirelessly and despite their successes were not treated equally; they were paid far less than their male predecessors but despite the restrictions placed upon them in the province of men, despite the odds, it was the fire in their belly that drove them, compelled them to experience more than society would allow them. As a collective they broke a science gender barrier that would see Valentina Tereshkova become the first women in space when in 1963 she spent three days orbiting Earth.

These are the giants on which our passions, hopes and dreams stand upon.

I’ll have some of that fire please.


War on the Weed!


Try as I did, I could not remove the invasive weed from my flower border. I grabbed it from the base and yanked on it: that didn’t work. I pruned it hard and yanked: that didn’t work. I cut it back and yanked yet again: that didn’t work. In France they have a word for this particular weed: une mauvaise herbe. No matter what I seemed to do the tenacious so and so had no notion of budging: it wasn’t ready to leave my garden. Why would it? Surrounded by beautiful Dahlias and jewel coloured Sweetpeas, it got too comfy basking in their beauty and light and decided to feed upon it: thrive it did.

As I wrestled with it I’m sure I heard a whisper: a malevolent voice: Just face it girl my roots go further down than your feet do. Give up, I ain’t going anywhere!  But this is my garden and each plant must earn its place: there’s no place in it for such an inferior sort. I have to admit, though, that I admired his confidence-it felt like a him-his audacious cri de guerre: Mutiny in the Garden. But what the weed didn’t know is that I, too, possess the gene for persistence. I, too, have a battle cry of my own: War on the Weed!

Before the battle commenced I gathered my allies: spades, shovels, trowels, and rubber gloves. I had my dog on stand-by; my aide-de-camp. A Golden Retriever who is highly receptive to the word catch; all I needed to do is call out: “Catch the weed, Stella!” her biddable nature a real boon whenever I need it. Like a solider I gathered my accoutrements. I circled my enemy just as a hawk intimidates his prey; a process I suspect all the more challenging for such a predator especially when his targets are of the moving kind; I’m thinking a mouse or a pigeon.

At first I didn’t know where to start: which sounds ridiculous I know, but the gardener in me knew –and, I always listen to Monty Don’s advice-that if I didn’t remove this nuisance correctly then parts of it would remain behind, ensuring a certain re-appearance; add to that a nice warm spring and a sprinkling of soft April rains and hey presto: Look who’s back! There was only one thing I could do: remove at least one feet of soil from around the weed and dig until I was sure I got to the end of its rhizome.  So that’s what I did. The dig-thirty five minutes and one of the best work-outs I’ve had in ages-as hoped led me to the source of all my trouble: the root tip.

I wasn’t taking any chances I wore my gloves and burrowed about the root with my fingers making sure there wasn’t any compact soil around it – I really didn’t want it to break-you’d be surprised at how little it takes for a weed like this to sprout from a fleshy part left behind, ready at my side a bin liner into which the nuisance would be disposed. Down on my knees prying the soil like an archaeologist, I gingerly released the unwavering root: the brains behind the weed.

Every living thing needs an operating system: a brain. La mauvaise herbe, without his, was powerless, ineffectual and of no use. I, on the other hand, had defeated the crux of my horticultural nightmare.

Where there was once a weed there is now ample space for a wonderful new specimen to flourish.

Wishing and Hoping


May you always …

Enjoy the peppery scent of a geranium, a fresh batch of scones
A cool breeze on a warm day, reflected glare of crystal blue lakes
Cinnamon buns, a stove, timber on a cold winter’s day

A soft towel after a warm shower, a fresh bar of soap
Knees deep in a meadow, candy coloured annuals at your side
Butterflies, ladybugs, dragonfly, to chase in the wind

Foamy waves that touch sun kissed ankles, sand between free toes
Many shiny days to sustain, during the dull ones that lie between
Smalt blue skies in your mind’s eye, charcoal grey clouds to paint

A secret, a promise, a surprise, perhaps a passionate kiss
Someone you wish to remember, somewhere you wish to go
Someone you wish to meet, a star, a friend, a brand new flower

Laughter, friends, sweet sweet music, jazz or pop
A spare room to which you can retreat, room in your life
For a new friend, dog, cat, plant, flower, scent

The joy of discovery, curiosity your faithful friend
The joy of freedom on a hot summer’s day, to walk
To run along the shimmering sands of beach and time

To hold a summer filled posy: sweet pea, cosmos, and lavender
The scent of freshly cut grass to tickle your nostrils
To swim out, to swim back, to return to your home

To be the change you wish to see in the world
Be the one who makes the difference in another’s life
And when the fury and cold whip around you
May you hold still, hold calm and be

© Maria E.FitzGerald
July, 2014

Four Waves and counting


We’re in a Fourth Wave of Feminism. Did you know that? I didn’t. The suggestion that society is feminist1-300x300-290x290in the grips of a fourth wave, saddens me. Why? Because I’m left wondering why we need a fourth wave when we have already had a first, second and third. Yes, I do know the previous waves dealt with different aspects of the same issues but it’s very sad to think, despite the mammoth efforts and life sacrifices made by previous generations, it remains the case that equality seems an impossible dream.

Discovering this new wave has left me with lots of questions, the answers to which are not easily found.  As a first step on my path to knowledge I decided to take matters into my own hands: last week I attended a conference in Dublin organised by the National Women’s Council of Ireland. I needed to find out why all these waves are crashing desperately at our shores. Before I go on, I must tell you that I’m not the kind of feminist that has or will burn her bra BUT I have throughout my life struggled to remove the corset that restricts me and countless others. You could say I have a problem with my under garments.  The corset that restricts women is not what you could call supportive: one in five women have experienced violence from a partner, 13.9% gender pay gap in Ireland, 30% gender equality target for political parties by 2016, 40% proposed gender equality target for Boards, 4,000 Irish women still travel to have abortions in the UK each year, 40,000 calls to help lines on Violence Against Women each year, 52% of women avoid certain areas for fear of violence and 98,000 are on the waiting list of social housing (Source: Women Rising/2014 Manifesto from NWCI). The facts speak for themselves.

To say I was excited to take part in this event would be an understatement. That morning, despite the very grey clouds that loomed over Ireland’s capital, I walked down O’Connell Street full of purpose. I imagined myself sitting in a room, full of people who were all dedicated to the cause – equality; people from all sorts of backgrounds, all ages, all creeds, women and men. I was in the company of two other feminist friends – educated, intelligent women who like me wanted to hear what our peers had to say. Where are we on the journey to equality? Why is it taking so long? A fourth wave, deary me are we just going around in roundabouts repeating the same mistakes?

In my opinion feminism means equality: for all. When I think of the word equality, I see an image of the Scales of Justice in my mind. A simple, yet very powerful image that needs no fancy explanation for what it represents or strives to achieve: a society of equals.  However, you don’t need to be a brain scientist to know that this is not how things are in the real world.  In our global economy, egalitarian thought is dying. In this world there is no real desire to address the re-distribution of wealth, never mind the fundamentals in life such as health care, education, housing, justice, poverty, and social inclusion for men or women. Equality has become more of an ideal than a practise – a remote god that is worshipped but not an actual experience. Not only this, but as soon as the word equality is mentioned its polar opposite i.e. inequality rears its ugly head.  Dare I say it, but has the word equality become a dirty one?  Isn’t it sad how words can become tarnished over the years? Isn’t it sad that we still say the fight for equality? Isn’t it sad that we can’t relax and assume that equality will just happenWhy is it always a fight?

At 9.15 am I left the grey skies outside and moved quickly into the warm lobby of the conference venue.  A quick glance revealed that the event was well subscribed, lots of women milling around however, one glaringly obvious fact: no men.  We entered the conference room via a set of stairs leading downstairs –as we descended the marble steps my friend whispered to me, “It feels like we’re going down into the basement, how bloody symbolic”.  We took our seats at the back, the top rows were not an option i.e. lots of eager feminists had claimed top row positions. Happy with our seats, we settled ourselves, had a cup of the complimentary coffee and a good look around.  After about ten minutes, the panel took their seats and it began: the BIG debate. The panel were introduced and one by one they took to the podium, told us their stories, their views and what feminism meant to them.  The individual speakers each raised very valid points and issues,  but I must admit I felt disappointed. They addressed an audience full of feminists – each of us converted in our own way – so I didn’t need to hear about what feminism is. All around me I saw women nod their heads in emphatic agreement. They preached to the converted.  It wasn’t a debate it was mild-mannered reflection. I wanted to hear about where we were heading, what amazing changes were on the horizon and what is the fourth wave? In my opinion, it felt too sanitized, safe and a little boring.

Towards the end there was a Q & A Session during which some very interesting issues were raised by the audience. The panellists did their best to answer those questions but to be completely honest from a panel of four speakers (not including the event organisers) I only felt and heard passion from two (young women who are making great strides in combating sexism that is found in the media).  That’s not to say the others didn’t feel passionate but in my opinion, if they did it was not imparted effectively, at least not to me. The real passion was in the audience: in the young women who had fabulous ideas on how to progress feminism through dynamic and inclusive Social Policy; I heard passion from one audience member who has worked for over 35 years with disadvantaged communities fighting for the right for women and men to have access to health care; and when an older lady spoke and explained about how she is currently working on changes in the education curriculum for our schools so that each boy and girl will learn about equality, I felt passion.

Thankfully two of the panellists knew and spoke about this new wave. What is its call to arms? Like the previous waves that began in response to particular elements, this wave is responding to a new set of challenges and notions. It appears that it is the internet that has enabled the shift from the third to the fourth wave.  In essence, it has created a “call-out” culture in which sexism or misogyny can be challenged.  In other words, challenging sexism as it appears in everyday life such as: advertising, film, TV, literature, the media etc. The internet has facilitated the creation of a global community of feminists but is that enough to mark a new era of feminism? I think it’s too early to say. On the flip side, one could argue that the internet has helped create some of the blatant media driven sexism we see all the time. It is a double edge sword.  The internet certainly provides a forum for discussion and a pathway for activism e.g. the Everyday Sexism Project and No More Page 3 campaign, two campaigns that have captured the imagination of the public.  But is that all that will happen? Capture imagination. The internet has re-invigorated feminism allowing like-minded people to connect, but will this lead to real change and transform political actions and decision making?

I left Dublin that day with more questions than I had arrived with. It is quite possible that I will spend the rest of my life trying to figure it all out. In the meantime, I sincerely hope that we can get our act together. I hope it won’t take a tsunami to change the way we treat and see each other; it might just wipe us clean off the planet and allow another species become the experts in equality.

For further information: everydaysexism.com &  nomorepage3.org


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The Shock of the Fall


Over the past month, I have attempted to read several books. I have not been successful; each book has been returned to my local library within days of being checked out.  I wonder what this means. Am I loosing my skill at picking out a good read? Or is it the case that I’ve had my head stuck in too many books for too long a time? I’ve overloaded my brain with one story too many and things have got a bit mushy in that place I store my grey matter!

Then, something unusual happened. I could call it serendipitous, a lucky-find, or even suggest that the universe conspired to send something wonderful my way: yesterday, while sorting out the pile of magazines and unread books in my office, I came across a book a friend had given months ago (soon after Christmas, I think).  I remembered how she raved about how good it was, how full of feeling it was and that she was sure I would love it; that I would be hooked by the end of the first sentence.  Sure, I thought, that would be lovely but in actual fact I know from experience THAT type of book does not come around very often (the last time a book like that came into my life it was the unputdownable The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd), but I admired her enthusiasm and gratefully accepted the book. I had no notion of reading it for some time; I had more important books to get through, like the ones that had been especially ordered for me at the library. I thanked my friend and promised her that I would get to it soon.

I broke my promise.  That is, I broke my promise, until yesterday. In my attempt to get a handle on office-clutter, I spotted the book peeping out at me from under my desk.  The memory of my promise came ghosting after me, so I leaned in and pulled the book from the sloppy pile. I caught a glimpse of the red sticker, Costa Book Awards, Winner 2013: The Shock of the Fall.

Like a pro, I turned the book around in my hands and decided immediately that I liked the cover.  Forgive me for the cliché; I know a book should not be judged by its cover, but that’s exactly what I did. I loved the tree, its branches, its lovely little delicate leaves and the little birds peppered amongst the branches, but what really got me was the little boy sitting beneath the tree, his legs tucked up into his waist, a book in his hand and a little bird flying from the book he was holding.  It has a gentle cover I decided. I like gentle covers.  O’K, I thought, I’ll give you a go gentle covered book.  That was yesterday at approximately 10.30am – its 15.00 today, and I’m writing the review.

Told through the eyes of Matthew Holmes, a young schizophrenic boy, The Shock of the Fall SOFTFdetails Matthew’s struggles with not just his mental illness, but also the grief he feels in the aftermath of his brother Simon’s death.

Since his death, Matthew’s life hasn’t been an easy one. He is home-schooled by an over-protective mother (whose own life is shattered by her eldest son’s death) and who throughout Matthew’s life has rushed him to doctors at the mere sign of a sniffle. At seventeen he leaves home to live with a friend Jacob, the now-19-year-old constantly struggles with the overwhelming grief, and guilt, at the way Simon died. His time as a care worker, helping look after Jacob’s disabled mother, further illustrates Matthew’s caring nature all the time while he struggles with an illness that is trying to define him as a person.

Matthew is someone you warm to instantly. He displays genuine guilt for what his parents and extended family go through with his mental illness. Matthew’s story made me laugh and cry. His wicked sense of humour, his honesty and his courage ensured I was with him every step of the way – almost as if I was in his very head.  The story illustrates, how even in times of grief and sadness life still goes on, and how we must pick ourselves up and move into new chapters. It didn’t surprise me to discover that Nathan Filer is a mental health nurse: throughout the story there is insight and the knowledge of one who knows what the ordeal of mental illness means not just for the sufferers but also their family and friends.

This is a terrific story. It will stay with you for a long time. My hope is that Matthew, and all those who suffer similarly recover.