Coolest Saturday

The day after our historic referendum finds me parking my car outside a count centre here in Dublin at the ungodly hour of 6:30 am. As the tension builds and media gather, however, I walk past it’s doors to the building beside it in the RDS complex. Inside, I meet the hardy bunch of enthusiastic volunteers who have gathered to welcome more than 1,000 young people from all over Ireland and indeed the world to the Coder Dojo coolest projects 2018.

Coder Dojo currently teaches over 58,000 young people to code in over 100 countries through a network of 12,000 volunteers. It is an organisation that I have long admired and I was delighted to don my green tee shirt to volunteer for their annual ‘Coolest Projects’ event.

After an induction in the main hall, I was assigned to the registration team and quickly landed myself at a desk to take up my position as the first face of the day to greet entrants with surnames starting D-K. If there is more fun to be had before 9am, I am not sure what that entails. As a queue formed well before our start time of 8am, I could literally feel the excitement of these talented youngsters. Soon, I was busy dishing out tee-shirts and lanyards to excited squeals of ‘I get a tee-shirt?’ to ‘Oh wow, a lanyard’. It would defy anyone to not get caught up in the fun. In my bunch were entrants from France, Cork and Dublin. There were nervous parents and kids weighed down with boxes containing their work. We had been told how essential it was to the running of the day to get everyone registered as soon as possible. We soon worked out a very efficient system and anyone who had finished on their table helped others. Sometime after 9:30 after a flurry of activity, the team lead thanked everyone and we set about moving our tables back into a nearby tent.

Inside, the place was buzzing with areas set up for competitors, talks and demonstrations. I was assigned to helping the judges by being a runner between the judges on the floor and those upstairs collating the scores. Each judge talked to the competitors about their projects and then gave marks on a score sheet. As I walked around my areas, I was astounded by the amount of creativity and talent around me. There were what looked liked 12 year olds building models to arbitrage cyrptocurriencies and 8 year olds explaining apps they had built. The atmosphere was electric as parents looked on, as proud as proverbial punch and kids showed each other their robots, while drones flew nearby.

It is a pity I don’t wear a fit bit, as my steps that day would have been off the charts. This volunteering opportunity gave me a phenomenal insight into the future of this country and I have to say, if these excited and passionate people are what is coming through our nation’s ranks, I think we will be in safe hands.

Some things I learned while volunteering at the International Literature Festival, Dublin

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To say it was a joyful week volunteering at ILFD was an understatement. A better bunch of people I could not have met. And, at the end of the week, while my famous red tee shirt was a bit smellier, I found that I was a whole lot wiser. Here are some of the key lessons which I learned from my week meeting authors, ushering attendees, inflating helium balloons and filling gift bags –

1. Life is improvisation

There are many perks to volunteering for a festival. One of them is the opportunity to do something which you would never get to do before. I guess this is what led me to stand in an improv-for-writers workshop with the very talented Alison Jean Lester, talking fairies digging holes with spoons and Russian ballerinas. In only a few hours, we found ourselves learning to let go, listen and accept what others are saying in order to build a narrative. What a useful life skill. Nobody knows what life is going to throw at you next so what can we all do if we let go, listen, accept and build a new story for ourselves?

2. Meet your heroes and challenge other long-held beliefs while you are at it

It is hard to call meeting the amazing author, Maggie O’ Farrell and escorting her to a venue for a talk on her latest book, ‘I am, I am, I am’ volunteering. When I received a message on the Tuesday morning of the festival to take this ‘shift’, I thought I had won some cosmic lottery.  And then I instantly panicked when I remembered what I turn into when I meet famous people. An incomprehensible mess.

Somehow, I managed to muster some bit of professionalism and string some words together on our jaunt into town. A more sincere and lovely human you could not meet. This volunteering gig was fast turning into an all-access pass.

The next day, I found myself on a production shift for Documentary Poetics and a panel discussion on the essay. Again, the rise of the essay currently shows that there is a vast opportunity for everyone to challenge our long-held rules. In this case, we could change ‘write fiction if you want to make a living’ to ‘ write what you love to write’

3. People, People, People

People are the best, aren’t they? I did a last minute shift to help out in the box office on the Wednesday morning of the festival. One of the events had been rescheduled and I was tasked with calling the 30 or so people due to attend to follow up on the e-mails we sent. Another event was so popular, we had to move venue and that list was 300+ people. The author, Derek Landy was popular with teenagers and so mostly, I spoke to parents. The excitement on the other end of the phone was palpable. One Dad was very concerned:

Concerned Dad:  “So where exactly is it, the NCH?”

Me:  “No, the RDS”

CD:  ” wow, ok..will there be a lot of books there? I am bringing my daughter and I don’t want her to be disappointed. What time should I get there? Where can I get parking?”

It’s such a lovely job to be able to hear this love and excitement. Then again, I am biased, I do love books.

Two days later, I was registering people for a conference when Selina Tusitala Marsh,  came up to say hello. I had met her at her reading a few days earlier and exchanged a few words so she came to say hello again. What else but volunteering would give me the opportunity to be on first name terms with the current Poet Laureate of New Zealand?

4. Be authentically you

One theme popped up over and over again during the week. A lot of the authors spoke of this need to tell their story as this was not represented in literature when they were growing up. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie read about snow and sleds and lashings and lashings of ginger beer while growing up in Nigeria. Selina Tusitala Marsh spoke about the fact that every Samoan child can recite Wordsworth’s Daffodils, although the flower is not native to the islands.

There is an onus on us all then to be authentic, whether we write or not. For my part, although without a job at the moment, I noticed myself working hard, staying on shift until 2am on one occasion, building relationships and bringing a sense of fun to the task because that is who I am. It doesn’t go away when I find myself in a different environment

5. If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again

Turns out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a novel in a drawer somewhere that she couldn’t get published. Kit De Waal wrote a thriller before she published her first book. Even the greats fail sometimes. There is comfort in that as the CVs and cover letters gather on my desktop. Not every application will lead to an interview. When the book is the right one, written in the author’s true voice, it will be published and when the role is the right one to match my values and skills, it will be offered to me. In the meantime, there is always someone who needs a volunteer handy with a helium pump.

 

Flow

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Lady in red

Michelle, our wonderfully fabulous volunteer coordinator at ILFD (International Literature Festival Dublin) had promised several benefits of volunteering at the festival in our induction. The chance to give something back, meeting like-minded people, getting a glimpse of the work behind a festival and access to shows were, of course, all part of the pitch. However, my experience of the week made me reflect on how she had possibly undersold the experience to us. The benefits are less tangible and so hard to put into words but by the following Sunday night, I felt like I had just finished a great book. Exhilarated, inspired, emotional and lonely to say goodbye to a bunch of great characters, which had become part of my family.

 

On the day Meaghan Markle finally slipped into that eagerly awaited wedding dressed, I slipped into a new outfit of my own – a bright red tee shirt sporting the words ILFD volunteer and headed off to my first shift in the sunshine filled grounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral. My shift at the family fun day involved taking care of the face painting corner and ensuring the line of 5 and 6-year-olds didn’t get too boisterous, filling a kettle for one of those happy pear boyos (can I know put cooking with international chefs on my CV?) and meeting fellow volunteers and finding out about life in South America.

There was just time to have some ice cream between shifts with my friend Rory and his two daughters before I scooted off to my next shift across town. When I got to the venue, everybody was setting up for a number of panel discussions on Young Adult fiction. Writers and publishers were milling around, while soundchecks were completed. I was tasked with alternating between showing the audience to their seats and manning the box office. All went well until Louise O’ Neill walked into the venue while I was on the box office. I am no good at meeting people I admire. Internally there were roars of ‘OH MY GOD, SHE’S AMAZING, OH WOW’. Externally, I went to pieces. Couldn’t get two words out. It there is a blubbering idiot in her next book, at least I will know I inspired her.

My long exciting first day finished with doing box office for an event based on shorts made in a Werner Herzog masterclass. As I ticked off names and stamped people’s hands, while having the chats, I wondered if I had risen to such a position of power in only a few short hours, what would the rest of the week bring?

 

Pilgrimage

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And so it begins

I glanced around the crowded room and knew I was with my people. I was aware that at any minute, I could turn to one of the dozens of people gathered and with four words easily enter into a long conversation – what are you reading?

 

Michelle, our wonderful volunteer coordinator was taking us through our paces at our sunny Saturday morning induction for the International Literature festival. The excitement hung over us like the fog of weed at a Neil Young concert. The festival team had worked long and hard and finally, in just a few days hundreds of authors would assemble in Dublin for a really exciting ten days of ideas, fun and inspiration.

Michelle informed us that many volunteers had applied and the list had been whittled down to this lucky room. We were to be the face of the festival and would cover shifts as diverse as box office and hospitality. I don’t work in the arts. It all sounded like another planet and I couldn’t wait to take one small step…

A few days earlier, I had been out on the beat for the festival myself. Michelle had sent out an e-mail asking for help with marketing. I didn’t know what that was but was intrigued and put my hand up and secured two separate shifts. This led me to meeting Joey the festival marketing guru, who handed me a bag of posters, bookmarks and postcards and asked me to distribute them around businesses around town. Usually a pretty aimless walker around our city centre, I set off , a girl on a mission.

It was a pretty happy mission to be honest. I spent the first day in and out of my favourite bookshops, coffee shops and spaces. At cornucopia, a great vegetarian restaurant in town, as I stood finding a prime location for my important message, a man in my sixties came up to me and asked what I was doing

“Telling the city about a forthcoming literature festival – it’s on next week”

“Indeed, and what is Lomi Lomi massage?”

I looked at the little fading leaflet stuck next to my poster. I remembered my house mate going through a phase of wanting to do this, as it had been recommended by a friend

” I think it’s an Hawaiian massage. There’s so many of them now, it’s hard to keep up but honestly, I think a reading by one of the wonderful authors would be far more beneficial”

He laughed. I had done the hard sell and moved on. I looked out for him during the festival but didn’t see him. Perhaps he headed for the massage instead.

The second day, I ventured further afield and walked through Camden street and onto Ranelagh, Rathgar and Donnybrook. It was a beautiful day – the start of our summer sun. What better way to get some exercise, enjoy the weather, meet small business owners, get into the community and give a little back?

 

Reinvention

In between the job applications, while scrolling idly through Facebook one day, there it was. One of my favourite bookshops in town looking for help. The mountains to sea festival is a literary festival held in Dun Laoghaire . Busier every year, the book shop did not have the resources to deal with the amount of events they would be selling books at and were looking for volunteers. Here it was, my big break, landing in my lap. Thank you universe!

Let’s back track here. I am a reader. It’s less of a hobby and more of an obsession. I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a pile of books beside my bed. From those early days with Roald Dahl and Tom McLaughlin to queuing in New Zealand for the release of a new Harry Potter  and crying and laughing on planes trains and automobiles around the world, books have been my constant companion over the years. Indeed, a school report (which my mother still has) commented that I was a bit of a ‘loner in the school yard’. Little did that teacher know that I had a world of company, hanging out with Matilda and the twits and those girls in Malory towers.

Given this passion for words, it will come as no surprise to you that I have long dreamed of working in a book shop. It has been on my ‘if only’ list for some time. Also on that same list was a hankering to volunteer and give back to my community. With small bookstores under constant pressure to compete against Amazon and others, I am always delighted to support them in any way I can (admittedly, this usually takes the form of  adding to my already toppling book towers at home)

Arriving at the stunning library in Dun Laoghaire, I found everything I needed to set up my stall. The wonderful Martha had already been in touch and I had no trouble setting up my little bookstore, ready for the class of six year olds about to descend. My foray into the world of bookselling was not as daunting as I imagined. Proving that not all dreams have to be big, I could not be happier standing behind my little stand, having carefully rescued all the bright picture books from their cardboard cocoon and neatly stacked them in front of my little cash box to entice their new readers.

Could not be happier that is, until the wonderful Yasmeen Ismail arrived. Amazingly, here was the woman responsible for my table full of creativity. More amazingly still, she was chatting to me! Had I now entered the book world? I had to force myself to brush aside the imposter syndrome as yet another children’s author came along to peruse my stock. Wow! At first I felt that I had donned Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak but instead of making me appear invisible to others, it made me appear to be a bon fide member of the book industry. However, then I realised that perhaps my love of books is so intrinsic that I was already part of this club and so it was an easy transition.

Soon, the 6 year olds bounced in with book loving joy that did to my heart what the sun does to ice cream left on a hot car roof. Yasmeen brought the house (errr… library) down  making mischief and memories with her friends Kiki and Bobo and then launching into some crafts with the kids.

Sales were not brisk. I guess the six year olds are not a viable market with no resources of their own other than a sense of adventure and unlimited imaginations. My own purchase made up half of our takings and Yasmeen kindly signed it for two little friends of mine in Waterford.

However, despite the disappointment in revenue, my first attempt at volunteering for something turned out, much like a good book to take me to words far beyond my own daily one. Only for this, I would not have ever found the stunning Dun Laoghaire library – such an amazing resource for young an old with tremendous sea views. The experience also allowed me to make my own dreams come through and try something which I would never otherwise have been able to do. The next day, I would find myself back in the library with far better sales, this time to 12 year olds and learning about suffragettes in Ireland. What other witchcraft but volunteering could allow one such an amazing opportunity to meet inspiring people and see behind the scenes of a busy literary festival. It’s good for the soul in anybody’s book.

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Adventures in bookselling with Yasmeen, Kiki and Bobo

Change

If you are anything like me, there is a list in your head. The ‘if only’ list. Others might call it a bucket list but that supposes that you are ticking them off from time to time. My bucket list reads more like the index to an atlas than anything else – Mongolia, Argentina, Estonia, Iceland and gets added to every time another friend comes back from a great holiday.

The IO list is a different beast. This is the list that I have been carrying around for YEARS but never really get around to. The thoughts that interrupt me as I am completing a power point presentation at 11pm or setting my alarm for 5am for a meeting in cork the next day. Don’t get me wrong. I love what I do, but if only…

If only I didn’t have to spend so much time writing for an organisation, I would spend more time writing just for me. If only I didn’t have to work late nights and away from home, I would spend more time with friends and keep up to speed on how they are and what is going on in their lives. I would slow down and have fun. I would have time to dance more. If only, I didn’t have to finish this spreadsheet, I would run more and look after my health. If only I didn’t have a mountain of e-mails, I would cook more and mind myself.

If I wasn’t away from home so much, I would volunteer more and give back to my community. If only I didn’t have so few holidays in the year, I would slow down and enjoy my own country more. I would walk beaches in Donegal and take off to Clare on a whim. If only I didn’t have my career to worry about, I would try a million different things, just to see what these were like. I would sell books, I would meet people outside of my own world, I would be part of something creative.

And then someone I love very much got sick. Cancer. And as it started seeping into her and we rushed to do everything we could to stop it’s advances, something was eating away at me too. It was a wakeup call. I am 37 and have only one life. As much as I love mine, as much as I got results and beat targets every year and worked hard, had I ever stopped to think about what it was all about?

Soon after this news, I also found myself without a job for the first time in my life and without a notion of what to do with myself.  With a realisation that the expression ‘life is short’ is not simply some cliché, I grabbed that IO list and jumped into the abyss.