Marathons and Strudel

‘How many of us have been drawn into worlds we previously neither knew nor cared existed, because a friend or loved one took an interest and pulled us in with them?’

(Modern Mrs. Darcy)

Last month Chris & I went to Budapest to mark his 40th birthday. Budapest is my favourite city. It is almost 20 years since I lived and studied there as a student, and 13 years since Chris orchestrated a surprise visit featuring an engagement ring. (There is something to be said for a man who will choose your favourite place for his big life events).

Chris being Chris, we stayed in a cool Air BnB, had thermal baths, and he ran a marathon. Me being me, we looked at the river, took yellow trams, had cherry strudel from a metro bakery stall and met up with old friends. There is something to be said for how we are shaped by the favourite things of the people we love and do life with, for marrying marathons and cherry strudel, for the daily and long haul ways we influence one another. There is something to be said for combining together, not curating alone.


I had a recurring dream before this trip in which I was in Budapest, but it didn’t feel like Budapest. In the dream I could not get to the river and ALL I wanted was to get to the river. The success of our trip, therefore, was going to be measured by one person’s target for running 26.2 miles, and one person seeing the river.

I sometimes wish everyone could be satisfied by small things. I am approaching 40 myself and (unless we’re playing cards) I am not competitive – against others or myself. I am a curious spectator when it comes to this running life. I’m impressed, I’m bewildered. I want to cheer, I want to suggest rest.


On the day of the marathon I found a spot by the Szabadsag bridge, where I could see the river and cheer on my man. Spectating does not get any better than this. I soaked in the atmosphere and I watched the diverse faces and bodies and emotions passing me by. I immersed myself in stories and dramas, imagined or real. Stories of perseverance and pain and stamina and solidarity. I thought of the pride or the disappointment people would feel later. I felt conflicted.


Our first morning in Budapest we walked out of our apartment and I felt satisfied. Here we were on an ordinary street in this beautiful, beloved city. It felt so far from home and it felt like home. It stirred memories and feelings. I marvelled at the time I had lived here so long ago. I contacted my old uni friends so we could reminisce. I felt grateful for the time then and the time now.


I am approaching 40 and I am nostalgic by default. I love those yellow trams and cherry strudel all the more because I loved them before. On the Szabadsag bridge, though, I think about what it means to love a place and why. We indulged our immaturity at 19, but everything feels more conflicted at 39.

On the Szabadsag bridge I feel conflicted about running and travelling, about community and place, about participating v spectating.


Pinned to the back of Chris’s t-shirt were the words ‘Elso Maratonom’ – First Marathon. Towards the end when he started to struggle, he got a pat on the back and some Hungarian encouragement which he understood, even though he didn’t.


So here’s to the places and the people who widen our horizons, change our experiences, adopt our interests and introduce us to their own. Let us pat backs, celebrate milestones and suggest rest. And may you be encouraged – to cross a finish line, or to stand on a city street and be satisfied.


‘I am all the ages I’ve ever been’

[Anne Lamott]


“Do you want to see a picture of my friends?” I ask my daughters, on return from a weekend away.

“Do we have to?”, they wonder with disinterest, leave me standing in the kitchen holding my phone.


Waiting for a bus that never really comes I talk to an old man and then, later, a younger one. One recounts a visit to his son, the other a stag-do. I tell them I was at a 20-year reunion. They feign interest. I talk more than I usually do at bus stops.


It felt like a risk, to be honest. To meet up with people who my younger self adored. To revisit one of the best summers of our lives.

20 years is a long time.

Except when it isn’t.

Omnia Mutantur, nihil interit.

Everything changes, nothing is lost.


Maybe there are reunions that involve comparison and showing-off, but this wasn’t one of them. Maybe if we had met after 10 or 15 years we would have tried too hard and connected less?

Perhaps we seemed so like our old selves because after 20 years we have the wisdom and grace to stop chasing a more polished version? Perhaps we are more like the crew of ‘99 now, than at several points along the way.


That first glimpse of old friends is wonderful.

We have been waiting, and now, there she is coming through the arrivals gate!

There he is in the pub.

There she is as we step off the bus.

There they are in the restaurant, keeping our seats.

It has been so long, but there you are!

Known and remembered and beloved. Hugged and questioned and listened to. Reunited.



Later, I look at photographs while waiting for the bus that doesn’t come, and in my kitchen with my daughters who do not care.

There they are, I think happily. My friends.

But also, there I am.

39 but reunited with my 19 year-old self. I glimpsed her this weekend too. I think she had been waiting for me. Known and remembered and beloved.


Here & Now

It’s June.

The shops, though, are whispering September.

I pass ‘Back to School!’ displays while I grocery shop. School uniforms alongside anoraks with fur trimmed hoods.

It’s June and there are strawberries and cherries and ice-lollies in my trolley. Should I pop a wee autumn coat in too?  Is that the smart thing to do?

It’s June and my colleagues seem so organised, so ready for September. Perhaps the school holidays can’t really begin without books labelled, without wall displays decided on?

It’s June and we have a modest but workable summer budget. The advert on TV, though, wants me to spend money I haven’t yet saved, to ‘Fast forward through the wait!’.

My phrase for the year is ‘Here and Now’,  a reminder – among other things – not to fast forward through the wait. Not to fast forward through dinner prep or through conversations with my family. Not to fast forward through middles and endings, through witching hour (4pm) or through bedtime (indeterminable time-frame). It is a reminder, currently, not to fast forward through June.

I love the autumn, actually, but we will not plan for it today. Here and now, we will plan burgers for dinner and a film for this potentially rainy afternoon. We will plan our summer bucket list (the beach and the planetarium and a sleepover at Nana’s). We will plan groceries for Donegal next week. We will pack, but not just yet.

It’s June and in a fit of organising last night I sat with my bullet journal and the calendar, with my coloured pens and my Plans. I hung the calendar back up, already turned to July. It felt satisfying. I felt ready.

This morning I turned it back.

It’s still June, let it have its ending.


‘Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord”. It is our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty may be done or grace received.’



Move Over



Photo by David Mao on Unsplash


I have a lot to do, so I go to the park.

It’s not because I am procrastinating, which I am prone to, but because being outside alone is my reset button.  And I need reset.

I like to be up before my children.  I like to have the kettle filled, the porridge on.

My youngest daughter likes to catch me before I rise, to peel back the duvet and greet me with 2 words: move over.

She makes herself comfortable, it’s one of her favourite things.

If I could curate my perfect, introvert’s start to the day, it would not go like this.  Yet I live with other people, whose preferences (morning-related or otherwise), rub against mine.  My daughter closes her eyes and bends her knees, she is in her happy place.

Later, I text my husband asking him to please, stop putting keys in my prayer bowl.  I make a space beautiful, he makes it functional.  (He lives here, too).

In the park I breathe deeply – morning sunshine and cherry blossom, birds singing, no one talking to me.  I am in my happy place.

Yet in my mind I see the girls up in the branches of the tree they like to climb, I see splashes of red rolling down the grass banks, I see them pop up on their favourite ‘mound’ and disappear again.  I am usually here with these little companions, getting grass stains on their school uniforms, thwarting my best-laid plans.  Another kind of happy place, I suppose.

“It’s a good size for small keys”, he texts back later.


We like to read books about eccentric, fussy curmudgeons whose lives are disrupted by love – by unexpected friendship, by neighbours and community.

But aren’t we all disrupted and disrupting?  Learning to move over, filling our bowls with keys and with prayers.


But now I am Six, I’m clever as clever.

So I think I’ll be six now forever and ever.

A.A. Milne


You left this morning looking like you were about to rocket into space, your school bag full of shoe boxes.  You only needed to bring in one, but if one shoe box is good, then three, surely, is better.  This is the philosophy by which you live.  You draw a sky with twenty suns.  You cover the page in penguins when asked to draw one.

‘So many penguins!’, your teacher writes.

‘So many suns!’

You draw everyone with curly hair.  Little curly queens and servants, curly farmers, astronauts with curls escaping from their helmets . You draw everyone with curly hair, apart from your sister.  You draw her by your side, more often than not.

You talk with your eyes and your eyebrows.  You talk with your finger wagging and your hand on your hip.  You skip and hum when you are happy, which is to say, when you are filled with purpose.

Your favourite number is always your age.  You were cross all Autumn because I had bought you age 6-7 tights when you were Still Only Five!  You raged at their bad fit, their lumpy toes.  Until you turned Six.  They were never mentioned again.

“Just six spoonfuls of the disgusting red stuff Mummy”, you instruct.  Bolognes is not your favourite, but you will eat your age.

Your favourite meals are all Japanese – Oyako Donbori, Teriyaki, Curry.  You keep a watchful eye on the soy sauce running out.

You upcycle everything you can get your hands on.  Sometimes we know what you are up to – the relentless sound of the sellotape dispenser.  Sometimes googly eyes mysteriously appear on things… pom-poms, washi tape, string.  Your natural habitat is the collage.  We try to sneak things out to the recycling bin before you nab them for your art trolley.

I heard someone on a podcast talking about how many books were on their ‘To Be Read’ list, how they had piles of books in every room of their house, even their bathroom. “It’s the best problem to have”, they said.

I do not know what to do with all your sculptures and projects, this creativity that takes over the house.  I do not feel equal to the internal motor that is always driving you, with all of the ways you are clever as clever, with so many suns.

It’s the best problem to have.






What I remember

What I remember, of course, is the monster munch crisps…

… from the tuck shop at the one and only summer scheme we went to, in the Arts Centre.  It isn’t there any more, but if we pass that road I’ll say something: about how it used to be an Arts Centre, about how I went to a summer scheme there, about the monster munch crisps.

It was an ordinary thing, the same old summer scheme in the same old house, that was an Arts Centre. But what it becomes is this treasured memory. This thing we always did. Remember the tuck shop? Oh yeah! Monster munch crisps.

We didn’t show much appreciation, I imagine. We just went. Years later we think, I loved that.


What I remember, of course, is how frizzy my hair would go in the sea air. How it would double in size, impossible to detangle.  It was always the same.  In Portballintrae, at the Giant’s Causeway, on the Strand, on the cliff walk past the convent, in the sand dunes, on the rocks, in the nooks and crannies.  The sea air and mizzle and big hair.  Walking, exploring, a landscape full of settings for Famous Five adventures.


What I remember, of course, is the smell of cut grass.  Practising handstands and cartwheels.  Hay fever.  Practising anyway.

I remember the rope-swing.  The tree climbing. The wasteland.

I remember the summer there were ladybirds, everywhere.

I remember the sound of the ice-cream van and the treat of being given money for a screwball.

I remember playing with our neighbours, and our cousins.


Kim John Payne says that childhood is an unfolding experience, not an enrichment opportunity.

I bear this in mind as I think about the summer, as I block off a week or 2 on the calendar, pay for a summer scheme, book a few activities.  The rest is blank space, margin.  The rest has room to unfold.

There isn’t a calendar space for cut grass or frizzy hair or monster munch crisps.  There’s just space.  I wonder what smells and snacks and places they’ll remember?  What they’ll love, in hindsight?  What will unfold now, that makes them nostalgic later?

I’m tempted to fill in July & August in coloured pen, I’m tempted by that word ‘enrichment’, I’m tempted by the opportunities that pop up on Facebook on a daily basis.  And so I’m grounding myself, in June, by rereading Simplicity Parenting, by listening to the voice of Kim John Payne – that ‘too much, too fast, too soon’ creates stress for our children.


We talk like where we live is a rubbish place in the summer, unless we get the weather.  But that’s not how I remember it.  We live in a land of settings for Famous Five adventures, where ordinary things can unfold in the mizzle and the wasteland and the queue for the tuck shop.  They don’t advertise these things in glossy brochures, but they are what we remember, of course.



One Recipe At A Time


Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

I can only change my life one recipe at a time.

I realised this at the weekend.  I had been listening to some people talking about the Instant Pot on a podcast and I knew as I heard about it’s efficiency and it’s multiple uses that I would not be buying one.

I would have, once, not that long ago.  I would have signed up, immediately, for what works for other people.

But I have learnt this thing about myself – my soul is reset making tuna casserole – and new products and methods don’t take account of that.

On a Monday morning, or after a holiday or any busy change of routine, my soul is reset in the kitchen making the food of my childhood, with the same recipes and types of utensils that my mother used.

I am not sure how much I am enriched by multi-use.  I am not sure how much I am enriched by ‘smart’.  I am not sure if the answer to a fast-paced life is something quick.

So Instant Pot, you may be the ‘Smart Multi-Use, Programmable Pressure Cooker
designed by Canadians with the objective of being Convenient, Dependable & Safe’… but I am the slow, one-thing-at-a-time, mother of 2, raised as a Mullan on Japanese food in Ireland, with deeply engrained tastes and habits and I’m just not ready for you yet.

I have a new recipe to try this week, one that is new, but familiar, if you know what I mean?

I listen to this pitch on the Instant Pot, and I think to myself, I’d love a new saucepan.


Legitimate Reasons


It’s a particular kind of cold – morning hailstones on a blustery beach on the north coast of Ireland – and it occurs to you that you have watched too much Marple, read far too much Maisie Dobbs and Inspector Gamache, to be truly at ease in a beautiful and isolated place.

You could write the setting for your murder, here between the crashing waves and the rushing river, an 18th century temple dramatically perched on the cliff edge above…

Maybe someone would see something glancing out the window of the coastal train before it disappeared into the tunnel.

You are relieved to see a dog-walker.  You trust dog-walkers.  They have a legitimate reason to walk.  (And you never hear of dogs being accomplices to murder.  Do you?).


There’s a lone seagull ‘winter paddling’ in the water’s edge, just like you are.  He’s braver than you, not scampering off when the tide comes in, or maybe he’s just more free?  You feel a bit silly letting the water wash over your colourful wellies.  The seagull looks just right though, he has a legitimate place in the sea, written into his name.


What the hailstones add to the texture of the beach is incredible. Someone should write about it, you think.  A legitimate writer.  A poet.


“So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute”, Wendell Berry says.

Take a solitary walk.  Winter paddle.  Write.

Fill in your blank.




I know, now, not to try to write as soon as I arrive at the writers’ retreat.

I know, now, to put my welly boots on and wrap up warm and head to the water before it gets dark.  I do not need to see words gather on a screen or in my yellow writing pad, just yet.  I need to see the sea, and the rocks and my own footprints in the sand.

I do not need to open the laptop in a hurry.  I need to open Jayber Crow with dinner and Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings with breakfast.

I need to walk and I need to read.  This is what I’m here for, too.


Nourishment can seem like a waste of time to me.  The amount of nourishment I require can be a source of frustration, and sometimes embarrassment, to me.  Why do I need to eat so often and with such intentionality?  Why can I not run on less?  Why can I not start my day with a quick cuppa like other people do?  Why can I not sleep without a good supper?  Why is what is enough for other people not enough for me?  I try to start and end and punctuate my day with steady fuel, with good(ish) food, because I know the cost if I don’t.  I need to eat well to function well every single day, multiple times a day.  I haven’t found a quicker fix.

As I walk along the cold beach after breakfast, I realise how closely my physical needs and my particular metabolism, mirror my soul needs and my particular introversion.  The amount of soul-nourishment I require can also be a source of frustration, and sometimes embarrassment, to me.  Why do I need space so often and with such intentionality?  Why can I not run on less?  Why can I not jam-pack my day like other people do?  Why can I not sleep without a good novel?  Why is what is enough for other people not enough for me?

Nourishment can seem like a waste of time.  Open the laptop and get writing already.


This is my third year at the writers’ retreat and I know, now, there will be regular trips to the kitchen, and to the shore and to Port William with Jayber Crow.  I haven’t found a quicker fix.


Winter Days


These are the days when Liv tries out her recently learnt skill of sarcasm at every opportunity.  So this morning, loudly: “What a surprise! Imogen being cross at breakfast!”.  (Mouths exaggeratedly across the table at me “Being Sarcastic”).

These are the days of “wintery showers”.  Last night’s snow lay crisp and firm this morning and the whole world feels quiet and cold.  It’s my favourite kind of morning.  We wear our welly boots and inspect the other footprints on the way to school, the paw prints, the tiny (dancing) bird feet.

These are the days when it’s hard to sleep, the days of winter bugs and sniffles that won’t go away, the days when someone in the house is sick.  These are the days of reading past your bedtime, tucked up with a hot water bottle and Inspector Gamache.  These are the days when Imogen likes to sneak in like a ninja in the early hours and nestle her curly head beside mine.

These are the days of listening to Kate Winslet narrate audio books.  The Far Away Tree.  Matilda.  These are the days Kate has upped the expectations from our children at bedtime –  “Do the voices!”.  These are the days my daughter notices that my Highway Rat voice is the same as my Pharaoh voice (which is the same as my Mr Wormwood voice, of course).

These are the days of Deep Questions about Life.  Liv is talking about apples and death as we wait at the traffic lights for the green man.  The Garden.  The Serpent.  Eve. “Is it true?” she asks me. I pause. “It seems true to me,” I answer slowly,  “because we want the wrong thing sometimes, we take what isn’t good for us.”  These are the days of questions that cannot be answered at traffic lights.

These are the days of porridge, every morning, to warm the cockles of our heart.  (“I have 21 hearts,” Imogen declared this morning.  “I actually do.  Stop laughing.”)  These are the days of comfort food.  A big pot of curry for dinner, or a chippy.  These are the days when the hardest thing about reading Inspector Gamache is not the suspense of who the killer is, or how worried I am about the Inspector (a lot), but how hungry it makes me.  I want to be at Oliver’s Bistro by the fire with a café au lait and a roast beef and horseradish croissant.  It is a kind of torture to read these words on a winter night: croquet-monsieur, crisp baguette with paté, coq au vin, mound of frites, crème brûlée, chocolate mousse.

These are the days of snow and sarcasm and sniffles and snuggles and stories.  These are the days of hibernation and craving comfort.  These are days when it can be hard not to take the apple.  These are the days when we need to be nourished instead, to look at bird tracks in the snow and to try out our sarcasm at breakfast.

What’s filling your days this winter?