Hope against Hope

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…which is an odd phrase – almost self-defeating, or implying delusional thinking. Hope has been much on my mind, since I picked it as my word of the year for 2017. I made a collage at the New Year, with hope as its theme.

Arundhati Roy quote

Seeds of hope

This Arundhati Roy quote, culled from Resurgence magazine, has become something of a personal manifesto. It begins “The only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you are alive.”

Yesterday I got to meet the living embodiment of that phrase. He is a young man, slim and bearded, a Syrian asylum seeker now living in Co. Roscommon in a Direct Provision accommodation with 200 other refugees. With two others, he shared his journey  from civil war-torn homeland to the relative safety of refuge in Ireland at a gathering of residents at the Loughan House Open Prison, Blacklion, Co. Cavan.

When asked what kept him going, he answered “Hope.” As long as he was alive, he dreamed of being alive and safe. Although separated from loved ones, he was one of the sole survivors of all his fifteen school friends, all causalities of the enmities bearing the bullets of civil war.

Some of you will be aware that I am a tutor on the Irish Arts Council’s Writers in Prison panel. My husband and I also volunteer to support a Toastmasters public speaking group at Loughan. Loughan House also has a coffee shop open to the public, so we have got to know several of the guys and their back stories well. And while it is an Open Prison, the misdeamours that landed them there are not necessarily insignificant.

Our friend Debbie , who invited us to the group, has worked with the refugees since it was announced that they would be coming to her town. She has been shocked by the  at times  casual bigotry she has witnesed. But she also was impressed and humbled to see the outpouring of compassion, understanding and intelligent questioning from the guys at Loughan House.  Many grasped, in only too real ways, how neighbour can have formerly been friend and then circumstances make them a foe and in a short space of time there are undreamed of consequences to actions, decisons made on the flip of a moment. There is good and bad in each of us.

Debbie also explained how Arab culture finds counselling quite alien, but that men do openly  hug and express support and affection for one another.  That’s very different from Irish culture and very, very different from prison culture.

And do you know what? As the group made their farewells there were hand shakes for sure, but also some of those awkward Irish Man Half Hugs, and even some full on hugs man to man. Which is huge. And beautiful.

” …seek joy in the saddest places…pursue beauty to its lair… Never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple… respect strength, never power…watch…try and understand…never look away…and never forget…”

Hope is in all of these. Many in that room knew about violence…even unspeakable violence. They did not look away at a man in tears. They held that space with strength and respect. It was beautiful. And that gives me hope.

Thanks to Brenda McMullen, Debbie Beirne, and all those beautiful men in the room.

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Weaving

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Writers and others in ‘creative’ careers are probably the original people with ‘portfolio careers.’ Which does not necessarily mean they have a career in the traditional sense of the word. To me that implies things such as benefits- like pension pots. While we do enjoy many benefits from pursuing our creative career path, material return is a bit like chasing the proverbial pot of gold at times.  Material gain can be both a duck shoot and an exercise in weaving known as ‘duck and dive.’ When things are proceeding smoothly, I prefer to think of this writing life as weaving a tapestry, with differant strands of colour representing those other paths that intersect and make up the life of a creative.

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National Poetry Days

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The UK usually celebrates a National Poetry Day the first Thursday in October. So I was caught off guard and the September 28th festivities completely passed me by.  Ireland used to join in with that but this year did a break away to April, which coincides with the USA’s National Poetry Month. At least World Poetry Day is set in stone on 21st March each year. But maybe even UNESCO will wobble on that date.

This basically makes me feel like a grumpy, grumbly old person. We like our routines, our schedules to rely upon and heaven help  you if you move the tinned baked beans to another aisle in the supermarket!

But I digress…

Belatedly, I note that the UK theme for Poetry Day is Freedom. Which is a big theme. So two poems,one based on Biblical story inspired by the plight of refugees. The other is practically a manifesto for social introversion.

Two ways to be free…in poetry

The Zamzam Well

Hagar, did you flee?

Or were you cast out,

left for dead in the desert

with your infant son Ismail

wailing and kicking in his swaddle clothes?

 

In a place where his mother’s milk

would soon dry, withering

like the thorn tree berries,

your inconvenient son Ismael

keening and kicking

 

at sand and stone, kicking, howling,

kicking, hollering until –

miracle of miracles! –

in answer to his mother’s prayers

her son, or some angel

 

directing his little heels

unearthing

the spring

the Zamzam

the well open to all.

 

They lived and made no one strange

where all were strangers.

 

They were blessed and praised

Hagar and her son Ismael.

They came like pilgrims

supplicants

making the Zamzam  holy

 

until even Abram came,

acknowledging his seed.

 

Hagar, did you flee the wife’s envy?

Did you fear the power to harm?

Were you cast out by weakness, or fear?

Were you left for dead for some

inconvenient truth?

 

Your son

the spring of surprise and salvation

a blessing

even as his mother was cursed

cast out, forced to flee

 

to make a new tribe

those who wander but are no strangers.


A Way to Be Free

 

getting the top deck

of a London bus, front seat, all to oneself,

soothed by intermittent ding-dings,

conveyed in stops and starts,

looking out the front window,

sulphur street light freckled with rain…

 

immersing

into the womb  of cheap stalls

a rainy Saturday afternoon

mesmerised by the actress singing

all for me down in the matinee dark

the sound of

the fourth wall falling…

 

browsing

an art gallery

especially those with portraits

with whom I can play talking heads

making imaginary friends with Francis Bacon

or  Gwen John’s

implacably impassive face

 

the bliss

of never ever to be at the beck and call

of flower arranging rotas

or deciding a room’s colour scheme

or the hell of formulating a policy

by committee

 

finding

a way to be free

to go about unmolested,

undeterred

uninterrupted

invisible

subversively

solitary

Words for Wednesday

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Every once in a while someone blogs or points me in the direction of a new poet. This is a translation from the Irish into English and is so dense it will offer new nuances with each new reading. The poet is long dead, but though he lived in the 19th century, this poem offers a rich reading from our place in the 21st century.

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Tivetshall_St._Mary_church_ruin_2_-_geograph.org.uk_-_741711

The Ruins of Timoleague Abbey

TRANSLATED BY TONY HOAGLAND AND MARTIN SHAW
I am gut sad.
I am flirting
with the green waves,
wandering the sand,
feeding reflection
into the seaweed foam.
That Shaker’s moon
is up.
Crested by corn-colored stars
and traced by those witchy scribblers
who read the bone-smoke.
No wind at all —
no flutter
for foxglove or elm.
There is a church door.
In the time
when the people
of  my hut lived,
there was eating and thinking
dished out to the poor
and the soul-sick in this place.
I am in my remembering.
By the frame of  the door
is a crooked black bench.
It is oily with history
of the rumps of sages,
and the foot-sore
who lingered in the storm.
I am bent with weeping.
This blue dream
chucks the salt
from me.
I remember
the walls god-bright
with the…

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Silences and Writer’s Voice

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A series of unfortunate technical lapses has imposed a digital silence these past three weeks. Which is not to say I was not writing, just not giving public voice to the thoughts that manifested onto the pages. My laptop and iPad and mobile phone all had ‘charging’ issues. Which led me to explore the metaphor of my becoming incommunicado. Now that I have at least one reliably working device I am not hurrying to reach for the cure for the others.

Once successfully charged, I topped up my iFone with credit; it then immediately showed ‘No Service’. I do live in a bit of a mobile signal dead zone, but even in populous areas where Vodaphone gets a good signal it still is in Refusnik status.  Allegedly a new Apple brand charger will be the solution to my original Apple brand charger that now only logs a draining of charge. I love the iPad mini for taking photos, but again, I find I am not hurrying to buy one online. I know that at some point I need to address the mobile phone issue, because how else do you get to reset my husband’s Twitter account if we don’t have one they can text the new password?!

These are first world problems and ones that are boring me already. I’ve never been one to embrace cutting edge technology or go to see blockbusters or buy touted bestsellers.  I want something that works for me and my life rather than what some corporation feels will plump up their bottom line.

While the internet offers a great deal that is positive – companionship with the like-minded, cheap communication flow across international borders, crossword puzzle cheats, quick checking of references that a nearly 61 year old memory has lost its instant recall groove – it can become a bit like an ultra-demanding toddler gobbling up all your attention.

The digital world can also be a form of white noise. Not just a distraction, but an actual shield against the deep silence from which all creativity springs. The silence is what I am not willing to give up, at least not just yet. I am rationing my white noise.

Without the ‘publication’ access of the internet, where my thoughts and feelings are broadcast, I pondered the nature of ‘voice’. Writers consider this quite a bit – the authentic voice, one that is recognisably just one’s very own instead of a clone that can be fit into a convenient category or genre. What all publishers state they want – vaguely, mysteriously, sinisterly – is ‘a fresh voice.’ This strikes me as a bit of a grail quest, since most of us are rumpled, creased, slightly soiled, sweaty, anxious and generally not bandbox  fresh out of the store’s cellophane wrapper.

Prose crisp as just picked salad. Poetry that still has compost clinging to its roots.  No artificial additives. Completely organic.

My salad days are long past. I cannot be perky enough to harvest while the morning dew is still on the leaves; damp is bad for my knees.  I am more like a hardy perennial that needs periods of mulch, comfrey feed (which stinks incidentally for the uninitiated), and periods of dormancy.

Silence is like the winter for the writer in me. Technical glitches have been my equivalent of fresh manure feed. I have no pretentions or ambitions towards being all winsomely green and succulent; I am going for evergreen. Age gives you a spikeyness that redefines what ‘fresh’ can mean for a writer’s voice.

When I was young I was a mezzo-soprano with a three octave range. I still have that range, but it has shifted right down towards tenor. Age has given my voice depth and timbre, as well as a lot more soul.

Silence is also a member of the orchestra. No composer has ever managed to notate it’s part in the arrangement, but nonetheless silence plays a crucial role in any composition’s timing and rhythm.

 

Geopark Ghosts

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New month and another inspirating jaunt out with fellow creatives on Cavan Council’s Ancient and Wild project. Journeying with the Cavan Arts Officer, we met in a remote corner in the southwest of the county. At Trinity Island we contemplated place and its impact on people, as well as the function of memory and time, and how all interplay in creating art in all genres. This project seeks to explore the relationship of artistic expression and the unique landscape of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, which straddles the Cavan/Fermanagh region.    And, as well, the subject of ghosts and haunting cropped up in conversaton.

Trinity Island is an watery outpost as the rim of the geological ribbed moraine, the largst on the planet.  A causeway links it to drier, higher ground.  Privately owned by the O’Dowd family, who steward this heritage site, we viewed the ruins of its Abbey and learned of its long history of humans inhabiting this space.

Trinity Island

Trinity Island Abbey was one of three abbeys in this ancient landscape. Founded by the Premonstratensian order of monks, it was a daughter house of the Abbey on Trinity Island in Lough Key, Co. Roscommon.  Tom O’Dowd describes them as ‘White Canons’. The ‘White Fathers’ or Augustininians had their Abbey in nearby Drumlane. Elsewhere in the Geopark Augustinians had an Abbey in the middle of Lough Erne at Devenish Island; they also give their name to the White Fathers Cave in Blacklion, West Cavan.

Trinity Island Abbey

With their white cowls it is little wonder that the lady who was the solitary congregant at Mass in the ruins of the Abbey one wild Christmas morning mistook a ghost for a real priest. Tom was told by another priest that if one of the ordained died before saying a Mass for a Special Intention that sometimes their souls suffer from a guilty conscience. And they come back looking to fulfill their promise. Because the lady could find no mortal priest who had journeyed out into that Christmas storm to say Mass that morning.

The other Abbey in the area was a remnant of the Celtic Catholic tradition that was subsumed after the Whitby Synod in CE654. So the Trinity Island area had three abbeys all within a short paddle along the tributaries of Lough Oughter.

The O’Dowds have uncovered various archaelogical treasures over the years, which have been whisked to the secure haven of the National Museum. Replicas of finds are given to the landowners and we were shown a Celtic cloak pin and a stone face of a man circa 700BCE.

We had thought provoking talks by artist Patricia McKenna and musicologist/musician Sean McElwaine exploring the interplay between landscape and art and music.  Sean also introduced me to new Irish trad band The Gloaming. Check out a sample of their work on You Tube, which includes the haunting fiddle of Martin Hayes, here.The Gloaming.

But what haunts me is that long jawed, wide, generous smile on the face of a man sculpted sometime more than 1,300 years ago. The horizontal lines across his cheeks might have been facial tattoos.  Which might have been interpretted as fierce. The weathering over time has given him a bit of a cauliflower nose, but this man looks more of a lover than a fighter. That smile speaks to me of an ancestor preeminantly happy and confident in his own skin. I would have been happy to know him and imagine him living close to the water and fenland. Perhaps he carved the wooden boat, or cot as it is called, discovered in the Trinity Lough’s mud. It was resubmerged, unlike this visage who smiles out at us from the ages.  He thrived. Possibly his descendents survived. I hope so. Who would not want to descend from such a Happy Cavan Man? Whatever his personal story, that face shines out, immortalising our ancestors long before they began to document the story.

At Home With Heritage

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This summer I have been participating in a Cavan County Council Artists in the Geopark project. Musicians, animators, a ceramicist, visual and landscape artists, and writers have been viewing various sites within Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark as a touchstone for individual projects. The wider project is the brain child of the Cavan County Arts, Heritage, Tourism and Geopark officers, and is a a great example of how imaginative an interdisciplinary approach can be, especially when it comes to supporting the arts.

For those of you who may wonder what the heck a geopark is then, in brief – UNESCO recognises certain regions around this good earth as having a unique international significance for their natural, geological features, as well as ‘built’ heritage. Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark was the first cross-border Global Geopark, in the world. Its sites extend from Louth Melvin on the Donegal boundary, through a swathe of south Fermanagh, onwards east through to mid-County Cavan. Cavan is the location of the world’s largest ribbed moraine on the planet. You can only see it from an aerial view, but it gets geologists seriously excited.

Of course, the land formed the people and the people made the built heritage. So this week I had a date with twelve other artists at Corravahan House near Drung, County Cavan. It is an example of how people used local materials to create homes of both beauty and utility. Formerly a rectory built in 1840 by a Reverend Beresford on a career trajectory toward the Archbishopric of Armagh (which is as good as it can get for a Church of Ireland clergyman), Corrovahan House is a building full of grace, as well as full of individual quirks from its succession of owners.

It is Heritage Week here in Ireland. This part of Ireland breathes an ancient and wild heritage. But it also domesticated itself, a bit like my semi-feral cat Felix. Home comforts are welcome, but there is always an air of the wildish about him. Corravahan House encompasses how there is practical adaptation of a house to social context and status, but  how it also includes certain whimsicalities that are very individual to the people who inhabited its space. While Corravahan House is part of Irish Heritage Homes and is open to the public for sixty days each year, it remains a family home with much evidence of the current layer of heritage archaelogy being built up.

I am also a Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark local guide. When I am showing certain archaelogical sites in Cavan Burren Forest I like to imagine how it was to live in that ancient time. There is a particular glacial erratic split by neolithic inhabitants. Archaelogists reckon it was a project to create a capstone for a dolmen. But plans went awry when it split at an unprojected seam.  The remains are proximal to hut site foundations. I always feel sympathy for the husband who had to have the remains of his DIY disaster in the backyard for an eternity. Literally. Possibly having to listen to his wife kvetch about it, too.

In Cavan you have many opportunities to see the layer of human interaction with landscape. You can see it in carefully conserved homes like Corravahan House. But you can also see it in relict landscapes like the Cavan Burren Park, where there was continuous human habitation from the earliest human arrivals in Ireland, right up to when Coillte, the Forestry Commission took over when the last farmer retired.  Thousands of year, eons even, have all wondrously brought us to this place.

I feel fortunate, blessed and humbled, to have had a walk on part in its ever unfolding story. Meanwhile, I need to get back to my own project. I am editting, revising and collecting my own Geopark inspired writing from over the years living here. Watch this space.