Christmas is that time of the year when I and many others find ourselves reflecting on what the past twelve months have brought.  At least, I do when I’ve finished off my bare minimum of Christmas shopping.  Which in my case means about half-past three on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.

Usually the precarious end-of-year situation can be summed up as:  “No farther forward but—thankfully—no further back.”  I’m pretty sure that this hardly makes me unique in these times.

I usually end the year by feeling as puzzled about the world as I started it.  And who could blame me?  This is a planet where the bizarre, tortured warbling of people as diverse as Kanye West or the supremely irritating Justin Beiber is considered music.

It’s a world where people actually get excited about the exploits of some ‘celebrities’ who have voluntarily exiled themselves to a cosmetic Australian outback and then whined about it—and I find that in my ignorance I’ve never heard of even one of the B-list ‘celebrities’ involved!  I’ve checked twice now and I’m pretty sure that Robert de Niro or Celine Dion weren’t among them.  Of course, in a world so warped that de Niro is actually advertising American Express, I could be wrong…

[Jennifer has corrected me on this one, saying that I must have heard of King of jungleKian Egan of Sligo.  From what she tells me he seems to be a nice guy, so sorry on that.  I guess Inever really got into Boyzone.  Joke, Jennifer, joke. I know that he sings with One Direction. Now if it had been Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground…ah, there was a band!]

It got even stranger in the past week.  Now this has become a world so odd that—at least if you’re in the Galway East constituency—you can vote for a politician as a member of one party only to find that he’ll be representing you as the member of an entirely different one!

Alice and I, we’re down that rabbit hole again. Like I said, it’s a strange old world.

And have you, like me, given up on the amount of times that you were lied to this year by those in power?  I quickly abandoned counting how many times I heard the dreaded proclamation:  “We have turned a corner!”  Or:  “The economic crisis is stabilising and I believe that we have turned a corner this week!”

It is months now since I began to ignore anyone who spoke of green shoots appearing.  During the summer I thought that my head was going to explode with it:  “I can state categorically that green shoots have begun to appear in the desert-dry garden of Ireland’s economy.”

Yes, well…not to be contrary or anything, but for a while there I was turning so many corners and trying to avoid so many erupting sprouts of greenery that I was eventually wandering aimlessly around a jungle, spinning in circles, dizzy as could be and just looking for a place to lie down.

 

Step Forward, Yulia Kenneally!

So instead of all that insanity it’s been nice, as 2013 draws in a few last breaths, to reflect on at least two sane months of the year that were spent helping out in the Hand in Hand office.

It’s a bit late in the day, maybe– but I’ve discovered that I rather like being around positive people who are trying to do positive things.  There are only three of us in the office most of the time and one of those is Yulia.  Yulia allegedly hails from snowy, frozen SYuliaiberia.

Now I say ‘allegedly’ because there are two schools of thought here on whether or not she is telling the truth.  Part of me doubts it because she is always cold.  Yes, I kid you not. She is always complaining about how freezing it is, even when others are mopping the sweat from their brows and discarding heavy jumpers.  Perhaps Siberia has been a sub-tropical Paradise that Russia has kept hidden from us all these years.  Or perhaps Yulia is not telling the whole truth.  Perhaps I’m suspicious because her English is so much better than my Russian—or indeed my English, some would say.

On the other hand, what makes me believe that she is telling the truth is that she has been known not only to discuss the work of Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky but to have actually sat through entire hours of it.  If any of you have had the…uh, interesting experience of seeing The Sacrifice before merciful sleep overcame you, then you will know that this is something that no normal person would own up to doing.  Thus, she may be telling the truth.

“It has been nearly a year since I started working for Hand in Hand as a TUS participant,” she tells me.

“It has been an amazing year; and being part of Hand in Hand’s daily life has given me such a valuable experience.

“I am so grateful, for that opportunity, to a wonderful and very helpful mentor called Julie McGrath from Galway Rural Development, through which I was contacted about this job. 

“And it is hard to exaggerate the contribution of Jennifer.” [Hand in Hand Development Officer.]

Before I have a chance to tell Yulia that maybe we shouldn’t turn this into a Mutual Admiration Society she was off again; and seriously– have you ever tried to stop a Russian in full flight?  Anyway, she means it:

“Jennifer puts everything into the whole activity process; and this involves being able to go from filming and editing a video for youtube to erecting a display stand (it may look simple but it’s not!) and decorating a room for a fundraising event.”

I’m about to tell Yulia that I took care of the ‘Being Nice to Jennifer for Christmas’ section elsewhere when Yulia adds something that I wholeheartedly agree with:

“But it’s not just that:  she puts into her work all of her compassion, heart and devotion when supporting a family and fighting their little kid’s big problem, called cancer.  That’s some life experience you will never get from a school, college or a university…”

Yulia lets it trail off at this point; but she has me hooked.  She’s putting it, in very slightly broken English, so much better than I ever could.

*

Yulia lives in Oranmore, County Galway.  She’s married to Michael Kenneally, who hails from Clare.  And they have two children:  Leon (6) and Marc (3).  I’d like to tell you about their romantic back story, which involves foreign climes, but I’m not allowed to.  She’s shy.  I am allowed to tell you that she has a dry sense of humour and sometimes is not as laid-back and easy-going as I think she is.

“This past year with Hand in Hand taught me a lot—including painting and decorating skills!

“One of my memories of the last year was of volunteering for a Food Festival Fundraising Event, organised by Martine’s in Quay Street, Galway, which is a family-run restaurant and wine bar.  Even though it was in Easter of 2013 it was very cold.  [Uh huh… from Siberia.  Right.]

“People were so supportive and with the great help of the restaurant’s owner, Martine and her staff,we managed to raise some money that day.

“Then there were two lovely room make-over projects that we did.  One was for two little brothers from Athenry called Karol and Mattie; and the other was for girls on their bedsbeautiful little Meagan, a great lover of dance from County Clare.

“What a fantastic opportunity this year has been, to bring a little sparkle and joy into the lives of brave children!  I will never forget how much enthusiasm and passion we put into those projects, trying to do the very best that the charity could do in order to make those children happy, bearing in mind the financial difficulties we were struggling to resolve every day.”

There is less space than this newsletter permits for Yulia to comment on everything that happened here in 2013; and so I ask her if she wants to add anything to what she has already shared.

I want to give a big, big thanks to those businesses that responded and donated lots of stuff for decoration.  This was everything from toys to beds and carpets!

“It has left me with such unforgettable memories and with the big hope that your effort will make some difference in tough-enough lives.”

So beautifully put, Yulia.  Thank you.  And thanks for the opportunity to work alongside you these last two months.  It’s been a privilege.

Yulia finished her year’s work on the 18th of December.  We are so, so sorry to see her go.  And she has assured me that it has nothing to do with this article.

 

A Little Chinese Philosophy for Christmas

 ‘Way, ‘way back in 1971 there was a film released that drove normally rational people to apoplexy as they tried to out scream each other on how much they hated it. This didn’t apply to Ireland as it was banned outright.

Some people don’t find it worthwhile getting out of bed in the morning unless they have something to be offended by; and thus it came to pass that Sam straw dogsPeckinpah’s Straw Dogs became number one on their hit list.

It was a masterpiece:  a powerful and uncompromising examination of the manner in which human beings are at the mercy of forces that could, at best, be considered as random.  (Forget the remake, by the way. It’s not that bad; it’s just not Peckinpah.)

I’d defy anyone to tell me after watching it what the title means, though, since it is never mentioned in the film.

Well, I’m glad you asked me that.  It comes from The Book of 5,000 Characters by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu and reads:

“Heaven and Earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs:  the sage is ruthless and treats the people as straw dogs.”

Now there’s another reason to always read the Hand in Hand newsletter.  We will tell you so much that you never knew.  And, let’s face it, probably never needed or even wanted to know.  But we’ll give it to you anyway.

Personally, I always thought that particular ‘straw dogs’ mumbo jumbo was spot on:  you wake up one morning, feeling like a swim and the next thing you know a tsunami has hit you; you go out for a walk one fine day and someone who thinks that he drives far better with half-a-dozen long-lunch pints in him inadvertently trains his mobile lethal weapon on you.  One day you go to sleep thinking that all is right with the world and the next morning that world has been changed beyond recognition.

One day you don’t have a life-threatening illness and the next day you have.

Yes, I do believe that it is fair to say that we are sometimes treated like straw dogs; but even straw dogs can bark back.  In the last two months I’ve been trying to catch up with what Hand in Hand was doing in the ten months of this year before I graced Jennifer and Yulia with my presence.

It turned out that they have been barking quite loudly and doing better than fine without me, would you believe? I’m a little taken aback, to put it mildly.

The first event that I was aware of, even before I started, was the Shane Healy Memorial Shield.  This struck me as a wonderful way for a family to honour SHMS7the memory of a son that they loved—and by utilising a pastime, go-karting, that he loved.  It was very successful and it is hoped that it will not only be repeated next year but will become an ongoing event.

There was the Neven Maguire Cookery Demo which was organised by Team Aideen.  And there was the massive YOLLO charity cycle with Joe Gorham and Ulsterbank.

There was Stacey Hogan’s Head Shave, the Roscommon Bike Run and the third annual Ennistymon fun run/walk and many more.

As far as I can see there have been roughly fifty events this year!  Think about that: it’s near enough ONE A WEEK.  What a wonderful bounty Hand in Hand has in its extraordinary volunteers, organisers and fundraisers.

Going on to speak of that paramount reason for the existence of the charity, Jennifer says that this year they have supported forty families.

Six of these families were relapsed cancer; five of the families lost their child this year.  Twelve of these families have fundraised for us as well as several families from previous years who have run events during 2013.

“Every family in this year, as with previous years, has praised the services of the charity;  forty families are better off than those outside of our area; forty families feel supported and cared for; forty families have been given more precious time to care; and particularly for the five families noted above, that meant absolutely everything.”

 

The Path Forward into 2014

I know what Jennifer’s wish is for the New Year.  It is that Hand in Hand will somehow receive enough funding to let it expand into at least another two counties; and if Health Minister James Reilly decides to put on the Santa Claus suit (as opposed to the Santa Claws one, boom boom!) and see his way this year to giving us some lottery funding, then perhaps it will be a worthwhile dream come true.  That would be the best Christmas present that we could hope for.

To anyone who has had the fortitude (and sheer patience!) to follow this article as far as here, then you have probably guessed that it is one that is very personal for me.  I could never have imagined that I would see a time in my life when I simply could not wait to get to work.  There is energy to Hand in Hand, tiny as the charity is when compared to others, that is hard to describe.  There’s a lot of humour and a lot of laughs in this office; and there’s a lot of frustration; and quite often there are large helpings of sadness.  So: a bit like life in general, maybe?

There’s a respect for each other, I think; and I also think that has to come from the nature of the job.  You may make caustic remarks, you may poke fun; but unless you have a sincere liking for people—with all their foibles, with all their quirks—then you shouldn’t be here.  I found the atmosphere infectious from the moment thapostmant I walked through the door; and I think that others get it too.  Look at George, who sometimes delivers good news in the form of a cheque and sometimes the more regular bad in the form of a bill:  he’s flying around like a mad thing, with the season that’s in it; but when dropping in the mail he always has time for a few words and a bit of banter.  I like that.  In a strange way it keeps you focused on the fact that this is, in the end, about helping other human beings.

I wish I could talk a little more about some of our volunteers, but unfortunately I just haven’t been here long enough to get to know as many as I wish to—or, indeed, intend to.

I must, however, give a mention to Deirdre Whyte, who has been of such enormous help in two short months; and I only single Deirdre out because she’s the one I would have met several times.  I think that the expression ‘thinking outside the box’ was probably invented for her.

And Deirdre epitomises so much of what is good about our fundraisers and volunteers.  It’s not about her; it’s about what she can do for others.

Perhaps it’s not as rare a thing as I might have thought before I found Hand in Hand—but it still is pretty damned rare.

You might have guessed by now that I’m a big movie buff.  One of the directors in particular that I have an enormous admiration for is the now 77-year-old Robert Redford.  He directed one of my favourite films: A River Runs Through It.  It’s a beautiful meditation on spirituality, nature and fishing.  How could you not like that?

I came across an interview with this quiet, serious man last Sunday and thought that some words he said are applicable to many of the families who are involved with Hand in Hand:

“I’m interested in that thing that happens where there’s a breaking point for some and not for others.  You go through such hardship—things that are almost impossibly difficult, and there’s no sign that it’s going to get any better, and that’s the point when some people quit.  But some don’t.

“You just continue.   Because that’s all there is to do.”

I wrote something of this when I started with Hand in Hand:

Back in 1984 I lost my large bowel.  (Well, I didn’t lose it when I was out for a walk or anything. It was surgery.)  I more than anything wanted to quit; quit everything; quit life.  Later I lost a lot of bits of intestines.  It got to the stage where all I could do was laugh.

In something totally unrelated I lost my spleen in a car accident.  There was, as is often the case, no particular reason for it.  As it turned out, two drivers were late for some very important meeting and I happened to be crossing the road at the wrong time.

It is at this point that you have to just laugh at the hand that life deals you.  There’s not much point in crying about it. Crying definitely will make you feel better for a short while—and that first year I did a lot of whining. But in the end you’re stuck with what you have.  As Redford said above:  “You just continue.  Because that’s all there is to do.”  I’ll bet a lot of you reading this know exactly what I’m talking about.

Look, it’s Christmas so here’s a story that isn’t a Christmas one but captures the real spirit of it.

When Albert Einstein presented to the world his Theory of Relativity there was enormous interest from everyone.  It was just one of those things, incomprehensible as it was, that caught the public imagination.  Children found it fascinating, probably because they weren’t quite so overindulged in video games back then.superman

One kid was a little bewildered though; and for different reasons to other people.  So he wrote to Einstein and said that whilst he found the theory fascinating it would mean that some of the things that Superman did wouldn’t be possible.

This great man took that time out of his life to write back and say:  “But you must remember that my theory of relativity is just that—a theory.  Superman, on the other hand, exists.”

Replace Superman with Santa Claus and I’m a happy man for Christmas.

And on that note may I wish all of you reading this, all of you who are suffering this year and all of you who have helped us the very best Christmas that you can possibly have; and we will see you in the New Year.

Merry Christmas!

Charley Brady

chasbrady7@eircom.net