“Mindfulness, to me, implies stasis. It’s like dawdling in the slow lane while life races by. “ So writes Norah Casey in her book ‘Spark’. She goes on “instead I love the idea of being vital, or zoetic, which basically means being possessed of life and energy. Being zoetic is about living with your eyes wide open, always looking to the future and the potential it holds”.
Spark looks like a bit of a self help book. Its tag line reads “how to reignite your passion for life and become the person you always dreamed of being” which sounds very much like a book that very well sit on the bookstore shelf right beside the Meditation and Mindfulness section.
But the old cliché is true. Never judge a book by its cover. For this is a not really self helpy at all (and I like self help books). No, Spark is a combination of frank and brutally candid memoir along with a rather scientific approach to getting older.
So it was with more than a little self interest that, on a rainy Tuesday recently, I sat down with Norah Casey in the warm fug of a dark cafe in Ranelagh to talk about life, love, grief, and just how we can all re-ignite our passion for life.
I began by asking why she chose to write this book? “I actually wanted to write a business book,” she says. “But when I sat down to do the outline I realised that I wanted to do this book first”.
The first chapters of the book describe, with great love and honesty, the journey both Norah and her beloved husband, Richard Hannaford went on when he was diagnosed with cancer. Richard died in October 2011. As one of Ireland’s best known business women Norah says that after Richard’s death she had become a kind of ‘poster girl’ for grief. She would often be asked by strangers how she even managed to get up in the morning. So she felt the need to explain how she had found it possible and how she gave herself permission to live again; hence the first chapters of ‘Spark’.
However they were not easy chapters to write. “I actually found I had to get out of bed and not even brush my teeth because if I did I would clean the toothbrush holder rather than write,” she explains. “I just didn’t want to back there. But when I did I found I didn’t want to leave. So I would find myself writing for 12 or 13 hour at my desk”.
Norah says she overwrote the experience of Richard’s illness and death. She pays tribute to her wonderful editor at Penguin who continually would advise her on certain personal aspects which she would not want to publish.
As Richard was also her business partner, after his death Norah found working in their publishing company, Harmonia just impossible. She says Richard was everywhere and everything led back to him. The staff were also grieving the loss of a popular colleague. For the first time in her life she hated her job.
So Norah took some time out during which she rented a house in Wicklow with her son Dara. While there she got a call from TV3 to ask if she would guest present the Tonight programme while Vincent Browne was on holidays. Amazingly she agreed. Her description of arriving in darkness to the studios in Ballymount and the terror she experienced at the prospect of presenting a live TV show when she was so emotionally vulnerable is beautifully described in the book. But she did it. And the revelation was in how she felt afterwards. “I phoned my mother and I couldn’t stop talking” she tells me “I realised you can experience this referred energy and zest for living from your work.”
The fulcrum of Spark is the section dealing with a ‘self audit’. A kind of stop and take a honest look, not only at where you are in your life but at who you are now. Norah guides the reader back to one’s original hopes and dreams and how it fits with your life now.
I wasn’t surprised that Norah refers to herself as a bit of a nerd, although it was not a term I would have used until I read her book, because this woman backs up her wisdom with research. She has chapters on Dopamine and Serotonin and also quotes one of the foremost experts on ageing one Professor Hiro Murata in Japan. Professor Murata preaches a smart ageing philosophy which involves physical activity, healthy eating, staying connected with others and keeping your brain active.
“In the end, it’s all about the mind” says Norah and this explains why, following her stint in TV3, she took on the arduous task of co-presenting Newstalk’s Breakfast programme.
“Richard was gone and so too was our future” Norah says, “I had no strategy, I was just getting through every day”. Presenting a breakfast programme meant 4am starts and on Friday’s travelled to Cork for RTE’s Today show. But filling her life with work did help get her through. “So although I was struggling with the death of Richard, I managed to find another part of my brain that I could light up with work. It was frenetic but it was so energising. I worked very, very hard for two years.”
When she finished Breakfast, Norah continued to present a weekly programme on Newstalk called ‘Mindfeed’ and some of the most inspirational interviews she conducted on air are featured in the last section of the book.
While working on Spark she was also worked on various projects for RTE the latest of which will air in January. In this series, over four episodes, Norah works with different traveller women who she describes as having a latent talent. With her business connections and personal expertise she mentors them to fruition. “It’s probably the best thing I have done” she says, “but it was exhausting.”
In the New Year Norah will begin her next book – the business book that she is sure is far more the kind of book that people expect her to write. “I have pared down my years of business experience down to just then things you need to know”.
But for now she is now taking a break. Or so she says. How does she relax I wonder, does she have hobbies? “Oh I have made up hobbies for years and over the years they got more outrageous” she laughs. “I was a keen fisherwoman and I also listed cooking especially at the weekend for friends and family. Although I got so much slagging for that particular one I had to start cooking.”
As we both head out into the wind and rain of a dark December afternoon, I have the vision of this doyenne of Irish business in a bright yellow oilskin casting off into a raging river. I bet she’d reel in a salmon.
(c) Barbara Scully
When was the last time you were really excited about your life?
We set out in life believing we will achieve great things. But along the way self-belief fades and even if we are happy, we may suspect that we have settled rather than really pushed ourselves. We let go of our ‘youthful delusions’.
But youthful dreams don’t have to be delusions! And right now is a good time to take stock of your life and to reawaken that younger self who believed you could set your mind to anything and achieve it.
Norah Casey discovered this the hardest way imaginable. Losing her husband shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer forced Norah to take stock of her life. Despite her success in business and her high profile, she recognized that she had settled. So began a journey of self-discovery that forced her to reinvent herself.
Norah shares her journey and the lessons she has learned in Spark!. Drawing on a mix of personal insight and the wisdom of twenty years as a top business woman, she explains how we can renew our passion and our ambition and become the best we can be.
Put aside any pre-conceived notions: this isn’t about blinding flashes of brilliance or razzle dazzle You don’t have to be super-clever or endlessly fascinating to recover your spark. But you do have to be prepared to work hard to be the very best you can be and to rediscover the more splendid you.
Norah Casey is a journalist and former nurse. She is owner and chairwoman of Harmonia, Ireland’s largest magazine publishing company. She was formerly a Dragon in the popular television series Dragons’ Den and is a well-known broadcaster presenting Newstalk’s MindFeed and a variety of TV series and documentaries. Norah has served on numerous boards and is currently a member of the Press Council of Ireland, the London-based Women’s Irish Network and The International Women’s Forum. She is also a former Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year.
Spark is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here.