Finishing Strong –Simon Ricketts and Me

Sometimes, after posting one of my Sunday blogs, I might get a message from Simon saying something like, “I figured you’d be writing about this today so I swung by to have a read.” Simon would certainly have figured what I would be writing about late into last night and this morning but, alas, he won’t be swinging by to see it.

When a person dies, I like to say just like that, ‘they died’. But for Simon, I think ‘passed on’ is actually a better fit. Simon has died but he has also very much passed on.

He has passed on to a special place in the many hearts where he will be alive forever.

He has passed on into legend.

I was lucky enough to meet Simon a couple of times but our friendship was mostly enacted through Twitter and, more recently, over on Facebook too. A lot of the interaction was public but there was also the considerable underbelly of messaging where more personal truths were often exchanged.

At first, we were all part of a social media cohort. A loose community of folk who tended to drift in and out of each other’s consciousness. At the centre of this amorphous collective, there were a bunch of people who just seemed to get along really well. I imagine there were a thousand such collectives – maybe a million – across the entire social media universe. But ours felt a bit special… perhaps they all did. This fellowship gently disbanded over time, as fellowships tend to do, but a kernel of people never quite managed to let each other go. We might not have spoken every day or even every week but we remained strangely ‘aware’ of each other. Our little successes raising us all up a little, our trials pricking our collective hearts.

Simon was a firm part of that collective but, man, he was so much more too. He was a superb communicator, always sharp and witty, kind yet edgy all at once. As was the case with many of us then, his life played out a little week by week on Twitter. I will always remember his Saturdays in particular, going to the match, retiring with his great friend Glen to the pub for a couple of pints, taking in the ‘turn’ then home to the cats for a late pizza.

We always got on really well, Simon and me. I like to think it was empathy that played a part in loosely binding us together. We both seemed to have a lot of empathy for stuff. We understood how that could be both a blessing and a curse.

So that was it. Simon Ricketts. To me, a valued member of a loose collective. A free-flowing social media friendship, slowly formed. That was enough, it was plenty.

But then he went and did something that amazed me. He came to see me. He hired a car and he came to Ireland and he drove over here to the west coast to my town. To come to see me.

We had us a day. I wrote about it here. We drove around and I showed him stuff, we walked a little and sat and ate seafood and drank a pint or two at the end of the day after the driving was done. He said he had wanted to meet me and I sure as hell wanted to meet him.

I think his coming all this way to see me illustrates an important aspect of who Simon was. I think it can serve as a microcosm of his overall wonderfulness. Maybe he just wanted to see me, like he said. Maybe that was the beginning and the end of it. But I don’t think so. I think he sensed that perhaps I needed to see someone, someone real from out of all the internet relationships I have come to lean quite heavily on. I was so remote, you see, that sometimes my absence from the occasional meetups would make me feel isolated and not really belonging. By coming all this way, to see me, he did me a huge service. It was a boost that still boosts me to this very day, many years along. He made me feel a bit important.

And, yes, there it is. The microcosm. Isn’t that what Simon did so well? He made his friends feel a bit important. Regardless of whether they were online sketches of people or real flesh and blood folk. He made us feel important. And it wasn’t any sleight of hand or three card trick he was pulling when he did it. No. We felt important to him because we were important to him. He cared. He really bloody cared and we really bloody mattered to him.

I don’t want to paint him as an angel and I don’t want to paint him as a saint. That was perhaps the greatest part of it, the fact that he wasn’t an angel and he wasn’t a saint. He was a man. In person, he was earthy and mischievous and sometimes downright naughty. In our times together he said things that I would never repeat but which made me slap my thigh at the wonderful ‘incorrectness’ of them. I’ll sum it up as we do in these parts and I really mean this too… Simon was Great Crack. And in case you feel like correcting me and telling me that word I’m searching for is actually ‘Craic’ then, sorry, ‘Craic’ is for the tourists; in these here parts, we call it Crack.

Gibbzer was a great friend too and when those two found each other, it was such a delight to see. It’s not for me to type here how I know he felt about her but I know it and I’m positive she knows it too. They had a marvellous adventure in their too-brief time together and they travelled the hard road together too. They were each other’s prize.

Simon is gone today and I can only begin to guess how I will miss knowing he is out there. Sometimes he would message me, offering some private counterpoint to whatever was currently happening in the public online domain. I wish he would do that now, to tell me that what I’m seeing is not really true, but I know that is not to be. People who don’t know about online stuff think that it’s not really real but it is. It is all too real.

I think Simon has left me some important lessons about living. About owning the good things and also the bad things that get thrown at you. He’s taught me a little about dying too, I reckon, that you can bring people along with you quite a long way, until you can bring them no further.

The final lesson, though, is about social media and maybe that is as it should be.

All the Twitters and Facebooks and such are damaged goods now. They are not what they were and they never will be again. But we can still use them. Simon showed me how his social media became his bionic arm. Even as his body failed him, he utilised his social media so that he remained strong and sharp and witty and loving right up to the final moments of his life.

He used it to finish strong.

And he did, he finished strong.

He never shirked from his illness and the trials and tribulations that it brought along with it. He told it like it was. But he played the game, the game never played him. He never lost his empathy, his strength, his humour, not in this public arena, not for a moment.

And we will remember him this way. We will remember him as a beacon for what was best in all the myriad of online relationships that we weave. A force for warmth and truth in the world. A good man to know.

And me?

I will also be able to remember the bloke who waited outside the library for me though I was a little late and who smiled at me when I crossed the road to greet him.

And how I smiled back.

Christmas – Achieved

On the second day of January 2018, I ended my Christmas holiday and went back to work. 

I remember saying to myself at the time, “it’s going to be a while before you stop again, Ken.”

I was right.

(Photo by Richard Szwejkowski)

Last Friday, I locked up the office and started into my Christmas break for 2018. Since that previous January, I had managed just one day’s holiday. Don’t get me wrong, I had my weekends and I had most of the bank holidays too. Sometimes I left work early and I had a couple of days away early in the year but they were very far from being a holiday.

When I try to figure out why Christmas means so much to me these days, I think that must be a large part of it. The stopping. The being able to do something different. To slow down. To hibernate a little. Sit and read. Watch a film I’ve seen a score of time before. Take a walk.

It’s like a video game where you struggle and struggle and then win a little bonus for yourself. A little gold coin, perhaps. Christmas is that gold coin. Achievement unlocked.

I love Christmas because I’m stopped but it’s also important that the people I work with and for are largely stopped too. Nobody is after me.

The day I start these holidays is a strange dizzying time. It’s like being thrown, fully clothed, into the deep end of ‘nothing to do’. It reminds me of a goldfish we once had. He was in a little round bowl and he stayed there for a while. Eventually, we got him a bigger rectangular tank and put him in there. But, here’s the thing, he still swam around in that tight little circle inside the big tank. He couldn’t get his head around the space. That’s what I’m like on these first days of the Christmas break. I can’t sit for too long. I can’t rest. I clean the house like a maniac. It’s like I’m building a nest wherein I will hatch Christmas.

At this moment, I’m just about over that ‘lost goldfish’ stage. I’m starting to settle into this different routine. There’s still a hundred things to do but they’re a different hundred things. I’ve still got a small bit of shopping to do and the bedroom needs a good going over but the carols are on the speakers as I type this and the fridge is well stocked and nobody is calling me and there’s no place that I really have to be.

It’s a moment to savor. The holiday stretches out like an endless thing but I know that feeling will only last for the shortest of times. I have to be one place on one day, I have to be another place on another day. Soon the gentle rise of the long break will be peaked and the end will be there in full sight below. Long before the holiday is over, my mind will return to what I have to do and how I will do it.

The holiday is never as long as it seems, not in my mind.

But that’s Christmas future. For the present, there is peace in this preternaturally tidy house. The voices on my speakers proclaim a ship sailing in and the lights of the little tree here in my room are flat and white and even.

I wish you a Happy Christmas. I really do. I hope there are a few moments that are markedly different from the rest of the year.

I’m going out now, to explore the unfamiliar corners of my Christmas.

Who knows what I might find?

Saying Thanks to Nobody

This will probably be a weird one.

It’s usually a sign that a weird one is about to come out when my mind keeps on saying, “Write something else, Ken, you can’t write that.”

So, you know, brace yourself or whatever.

When I go to bed every night, I have a very simple routine. I read. I can’t sleep without reading. Well, I probably could but I never try. Even it was four o’clock in the morning, I would still be reading before sleep. As I’ve described elsewhere (in what is oddly one of my favourite posts) there comes a moment when the words on the page meld into the words in my head and I start to read a strange dreamlike story that is not in the book. That’s when I know it’s time for a kip.

That might be a bit weird but only a bit. It’s not the actual weird thing. I’m trying to work myself up to that.

After the book is put down and the bedside light is switched off, I go to sleep. I tend to go to sleep really quickly and easily. The sleep may not always continue all night but it often does and I get there pretty quick.

But just as I’m heading off out, sleep descending, I do the weird thing.

I say thanks.

I run through some of the best things that happened in that day. They are tiny things, often. Something funny, something sweet, something that deserves a little acknowledgement. Something to be grateful for. And I say thanks for them.

Then I go to sleep.

“Not so weird, Ken,” you might say, “not so bad at all.”

You’re right, of course, it’s not weird at all. It’s kind of nice really. Except… well, except to me. It still seems kind of weird to me. I like doing it and I think it sends me off to sleep in a good and positive frame of mind. But, yes, it’s still weird to me. I mean, who am I thanking, exactly?

That’s a simple question but there’s no easy answer to it.

I was brought up in the same religious regime that most of my peers were. A Catholic schooling with all the trimmings. Mass on Sundays and all of the holy days. Being a thoughtful kind of a young fella, more of that stuff may have rubbed off on me that it did on many of the others. But, then again, many of the others are probably still going to mass every Sunday and I am not. I like to think I know more about Catholic stuff than most of the people I know. I did years serving on the altar as a kid and I had a religious instruction teacher who delighted in briefing us on the minutia of the dogma, something that was always interesting to me.

So, yeah, that all makes sense. Easy, really. I’m giving thanks to God every night. Sorted.

The trouble is. I don’t believe in God anymore. I haven’t in a long time.

Even when I say that out loud, it sounds rather belligerent and confrontational to me. But it’s not. There’s a kind of dull sadness attached to my saying that, rather than any ‘stand up and I’ll fight you’ mentality. Something that was given to me as a child has been lost and I guess some childish comfort has probably been lost with it too. I think I envy people who believe in their God. They can derive strength from knowing they are not on their own in the universe. That someone will be waiting for them at the end of their road with some tea and possibly a nice piece of cake.

So, if that's the case, and it is, who do I talk to when I say thanks at night?

Well, the truth is, I know who it is and I will tell you but you’re probably not going to like it.

Yes, you may have guessed it. It’s God.

As I just finished telling you, I don’t believe in God. No great reason. At some point it just came to me that there is no tangible reason for me to believe that God exists and that there is a shed load of tangible reasons for me to believe that he/she does not. To think otherwise is to deny my own mind, my own reason. I’m not an atheist, at least I don’t think so. The definitions of those things mix me up a bit sometimes. I think I’m a cheerful agnostic. I’d be quite happy to find a wonderful existence beyond this one, where all those gone before reside. I just don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t believe it.

So, about that thing I do at night, before I fall asleep? What the fuck is that about so?

I’m not sure. It’s a sleepy thing. My theory, for what it’s worth, goes like this: In that sleepy moment, where I am cosy and warm and all wrapped up, I allow myself a moment to revert to a time when questions and answers were easier and not to be challenged. I want to thank someone or something for the good things of the day, if only to acknowledge to myself that I am at a lucky and happy time of my life, to acknowledge that this cannot last forever and that I must treasure it while I can. Because there is nobody obvious to thank, I call upon my memory and find somebody there to whom I can express my gratitude. And I do.

So that’s it. This week’s weird thing. Before I go to sleep, every night, I appear to say thanks to a God I don’t believe in.

You might scoff and say, “Get over yourself, Ken. You obviously still believe in God and you might as well stop trying to convince yourself otherwise.” It’s a thought and I do sometimes think about it. But I don’t conclude that it’s right. When I look as deep as I can, I can’t see that inside of me. Once I even wrote about how I should perhaps just decide to be a believer, despite what I think. To make it an act of faith of the kind that religions often promote. I can’t manage to do that either, though. We can only be true to ourselves and what we believe, that’s all we’ve got.

I think the main proof that I don’t believe in whoever I thank every night is this. I never, ever ask for anything. No matter how dire the circumstance, I never seek any intervention or help from on high. I just don’t think help is there to be had. No, I just run through a few good things from the day, say a quick ‘thank you’, and then toddle off to sleep.

Who am I thanking?

God only knows.

Jumping Up and Down for Sally

I want to jump up and down a bit for Sally. I think I just might.

I’ve been really good up until now. Understated, mature, that kind of thing. I’ve said things like, “That’s great, isn’t it?” and “Gosh, how really well deserved that latest award is.”

But, damn it all, it deserves a little more. It deserves a jumping up and down, doesn’t it?

I’ve known Sally Rooney since she was quite young and we’ve been pals for a long, long time. That might sound a bit odd because, you know, she’s young and I’m old but it’s not odd at all. We both liked writing and reading and doing plays and stuff and our families knew each other in a number of different ways. Sally was in - what was it? - I’ll say four of my plays and she came to the local writer’s group every couple of weeks. The first thing we did was write a little radio play together, her and a group of kids her age, and then we performed and recorded it. Once, at an open mic thing, when I was stuck for someone to read a little two-hander play of mine with me, she stepped in, sight-unseen, and read the shit out of it. The earlier posts on this very blog are peppered with her encouraging comments.

Fond memories, all.

And she dreamed a dream of writing. And she wrote. And she beat the world with her writing. The whole damn world.

And I just think it’s fucking fantastic. It makes me want to jump up and down. It makes me want to bake a cake and put candles on it and blow them all out. It makes me want to get a pinata and hang it up and thump it with a stick and eat all the sweets that fall out of it.

I’ve been good up until now but this is not a time for being good. It’s a time for jumping up and down.

I can feel proud too. Well, I feel proud whether I’m supposed to or not. I feel proud because I knew she was a great writer at a time where I think only she and I knew it. I used to joke with her that we were the two best writers in Mayo and I always knew I was only ever fifty per cent right but, man, was I ever fifty percent, right?

When she got into Trinity and was able to study English Literature, I was sure that something wonderful would result. I sent her a quote on one of these social media things, “Sail on silver girl, sail on by.” The Castlebar phase of the writing development was over. This fledgling genius friend of mine was now going away to soak up the best stuff that literature had to offer and to take it and meld it with her own natural brilliance. It was almost inevitable that something bold would ensue from all of this. Almost inevitable, mind, not inevitable. For these things to work out, it’s not enough to be brilliant. There also has to perseverance and commitment and faith and hope in copious measure.

Hang on. Let me jump up and down for a minute.

That’s better.

“Look at this git”, some might say, “prattling on about his involvement in this wonderful story. Trying to get a few more clicks on his blog off the back of the success of his friend.” Nah. You’re missing the point. I’m not suggesting I actually did anything. I didn’t do anything. When Sally came to the writing group as a teenager, she was already a fine writer and the seeds of the work she would come to do were already well planted. So, no, I didn’t do 'nuttin' for nobody' and I know it. But, wait, strike that, I did do one thing. I saw her coming, from a long way off, I saw that. I can be pleased about that, can’t I?

Another part of the joy is that Sally remains such a lovely person through it all. She is kind and self-effacing and generous and considerate as well as being colossally smart. And yet another part of the joy of it all is the thread of steel that runs through her. An unerring sense of social injustice. A willingness to pursue the argument when she knows she’s on the right side of it. A barely contained rage against many of the awful things in our world.

She’s a good person and good people don’t always beat the world like this.

So. Here. I. Am. Jumping. Up. And. Down.

And those people who look at Sally now and who say, “She’s going to do amazing things in the future.” To those people, who I know only mean well, I have to say, “Wake up!”. Look around you. Totally amazing things have already been done. If Sally never wrote another word, she has already written herself into the league of literary heavyweights. You read her books and the stories stay with you but it’s the building blocks of those stories, the thoughts, the phrases, the ideas, these are the things that tickle our subconscious and let us know that there is more going on here than just a narrative.

Sally’s life isn’t perfect. That’s not any kind of insight. Nobody’s life is perfect. There will be stress and worry and pain and trouble, just as there is with all of us. Wanting to be a writer and then becoming a wonderful one does not guarantee anyone a blissful existence or any kind of happy ever after.

But it is still something amazing. Something rare. An ambition fulfilled. A battle won. A real-life dream-come-true. It may not be everything but it is certainly something. Something really, really big. And it warrants a little more than the polite pleasure I’ve been expressing up until now.

It warrants a bit of jumping up and down.

Well done Sally, you’ve only gone and beaten the entire whole wide world.

I just couldn’t be more delighted.