Soul Journeys

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Writing is a vocation. But so, too, is workshop facilitation; it is not so much teaching, as inviting people to play with you. The added bonus is that you make up the game. I have led many creative writing workshops to all age groups, all men, all women and mixed groups. I’ve led workshops in libraries, community resource centres, a room above a tourist office, at a Buddhist centre, in hospitals, a yurt, and prison. But what may prove my most popular offering defies the conventional creative writing tag. Yesterday, I guided twelve brave souls through a writing process I call Soul Journeys: Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography.  I have taught material on this subject many times, within varying time slots. But what keeps getting affirmed is that people want to explore their own story of soul growth.

I am grateful that the group I met with yesterday wants to continue working with the material the workshop prompts revealed for them. I am also grateful that the individuals trusted me to guide them and trusted their fellow participants to share the process  of examining their soul’s storylines. In a safely held environmemt where trust flourishes, often the themes and plot twists of a lifetime become clear. By framing a indivual story within universal archetypes, one’s own heroism shines.

While early Quakers like John Woolman faithfully recorded their experience of The Light in journals, there are many approaches to convey and frame our spiritual sojourns on planet earth.  But because we are often ‘in the messy middle'( to borrow a phrase from Brené Brown), we may think that our spiritual life needs to look something like this to be worthy of interrogating and sharing with others.

Soul journey

When actually, a soul journey is much more like this.  A Life lived passionately and authentically is likely to have a bit of chaos and mess. It probably looks a bit more like this:

Soul journey

If you would be interested in a Soul Journey  writing workshop in your locality, contact me at dowrabeesmith@gmail.com.

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Land of My Heart

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I live in an area of outstanding natural beauty and geological significance. Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark was a region stripped of much of its population through the vagaries of a century and more of famine, civil unrest and general economic penury. The Irish language clung on in the uplands, but eventually it, too, was virtually extinguished. But upland country breeds resilience. Those who stayed held firm. They were the keepers in more ways than one.

The Back Road

Each day they rise, living they may think

        small, isolated lives, dwarfed by this horizon.

        Each day they rise before this wide sky,

         watching the light rearrange the picture ,

         mountain recedes and lough is obscured.

         Each day they rise to read the sky, every shadow,

  each cloud a new line in a saga.

        

         You see it reflected in guileless eyes,

         in women who have ancient faces,

         features utterly unmodern, undisguised.

         Fingers, flesh, cheek bones hewn by

         thousands of years of family tracing their living

         in relentless, miraculous weather.

         The memory is in the peat they walk and burn,

         in the hedgerows, rowan trees, heather and fern.

 

         Each day they rise, living they may think

         small, isolated lives, dwarfed by this

         huge picture drawn across a canvas sky.

         They can read it still, alive to the shifting signs.

         The Burren stone is bred in their own bones.

         When they pass into the mist we will be left

         with wind, weather, a different cast of light.

         The skyline will be read in a language foundering

  in clefts of limestone, silent as the  fog bound bog.

© Bee Smith 2016

The Celtic Tiger attracted new people like us – ‘blow-ins’. Not indigenous to the land. Some might be the children or grandchildren returning to a homeplace from years of emigration in Britain, Canada or the USA. But Germans and Dutch fell in love with the pristine environment, the lakes that promised limitless fishing. Eastern Europeans arrived to build the houses the rode the Tiger’s back. This border country offered cheap land and rents, so artists from every kind of discipline found their way here.

Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark straddles Fermanagh, in Northern Ireland, and Cavan in the Republic. In the ancient kingdom of Ireland system, both counties were part of Ulster.  And it was from somewhere in Ulster that the paternal Smiths are alleged to have travelled to a new life in New York City sometime in the 19th century.

What my current dwelling place has in common with my migrant ancestors is that it has always hosted incomers. This place has always been a draw for those with itchy feet. In Irish myth from the Leitrim side of my village you can see Slieve Anieran (Iron Mountain) rise. It was here that the mythical race, the Tuatha dé Danaan, first landed in Erin.  After their defeat by the new incomers, the Milesians, they retreated to this homeplace before they went into the sídh, that placeless space beyond our finite three-dimensional world.

I am descended from migrants, just like the Tuatha dé Danaan and the Milesians were migrants to Ireland. The 17th century colonial Quakers and Dutch sailed in leaky wooden ships instead of boats the Tuatha burnt when they found themselves in Erin. My German ancestors sailed into Ellis Island from Franconia to set up a shoe shop in Queens. My Irish ancestors watched skyscrapers rise above the dusty grid of city streets and the Statue of Liberty would welcome Joe Smith’s future bride as she arrived as a little girl in the New World.

In a reverse journey, two centuries on, their descendent would find a sense of home in the land where the River Shannon finds its source. I live in the first village on the River Shannon. As you drive towards the village the promontory of Slievenakilla, known as The Playbank, hulks on the horizon. It is very like the sphinx and indeed, I do sometimes feel as if I live in nature’s own version of the Valley of the Kings.

Playbank poem

I feel full of gratitude that through a combination of serendipity, synchronicity, the poems of W.B. Yeats and Brighid of Ireland we were led to this place. It wasn’t our plan. But sometimes Spirit, and possibly, too, the Ancestors and the Land itself have other plans for us.

All of us who have ‘itchy feet’ – we migrants who get up and go, those walking the world from way back,  even to the eon-aged mists cloaking the ships of the Tuatha dé Danaan – the Land teaches us the same lesson. One day it will take our ashes or bones and then the Land will allow us to enter its narrative and we will become one body.

© Bee Smith 2017

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.

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.

 

 

 

Haiku Walk

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The date for my fools for poetry reunion was long ago set for 5th August. I proposed a haiku walk, or ginko, as a way of exploring both nature and stretching the writing muscles with a new poetry form. Haiku looks deceptively simple. No more than seventeen syllables, no need to rhyme. No conventional metaphor saying one thing is like another, or comparisons to lead the reader. Just three lines of nature description.Or not, in the case of senryu, where you look at human nature, rather than flora and fauna.

But haiku can also be a bit of a fiend. Three lines of 5-7-5 syllables flows beautifully in Japanese. In English it can seem stilted and over constrained. Also, while you might be able to write a snapshot, do your three lines convey a bigger picture? Because that is rather the point of haiku. It implies a larger, or greater truth. Sometimes with a sense of humour.

Then again, strict haiku traditionalists insist on a kigo, or seasonal word. So we started our workshop kicking around some words that would universally be recognised as signposting season of Lunasadh, as August is fashioned in Irish: rowan berries, blackberries, bilberries, mushrooms. All these anchor us to a certain point in the wheel of the year.

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Morag got to model some found kigo.

We had to joke about rain.  Which is kind of a default setting for the Irish. For Brid, living over in central County Cavan had been a bit sceptical about the walk given that floods of rain were cascading down the concrete walls of her home a couple hours before we were due to meet.  I had to explain how the mountains hemming us in on all sides gives West Cavan a unique micro-climate that often defies weather prognostications.

Weather gods!

Sunshine shall be had!

Haiku poets walk

Forest bathing

(That’s a nod to Anne-Marie’s and my mutual friend, John Wilmott, who is a great promoter of Japan’s shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, in Ireland.)

Glenfarne Forest Demesne, just over the boundary in North Leitrim, was the venue I chose for both the shinrin-yoku and the ginko.

We followed the trail and took in some of the sculptures that grace the forest, which also offers views across Lough MacNean to Fermanagh. We stopped and looked; the benefit of being in a group is that one of you is likely to know the name of the species that has caught your attention. Thank you, Christine!

shield bug haiku

Forests always feel magical and a bit mystical to me. I had wandered a bit ahead of the rest who paused at a boulder. “I see a face!”

Green Man leers

Now you see him! Now you don’t!

Sinks back into moss, bark, tree.

No, the photo does not convey how we all saw what looked a bit like a skull, or like Edvard Musch’s The Scream, peering from the tree.  But we all saw it!

If you would like to join me in the future on other guided haiku walks, email me dowrabeesmith@gmail.com.

Writing Inspiration 1

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Where do poems come from? (This is about as loaded a question as where babies come from, but potentially less embarrassing.) I thought I would share where the inspiration can be sourced and then show you the poem that resulted from said source.  The example is the poem “Inish”  (Irish for island), which I wrote after a boat trip to an island off the Sligo coast back in August 2015.

Inspiration and writing both have allies in observation. Notice things. Look. See. Listen. Hear. Touch. Feel. Feast. Taste.  Every sense is quivering to offer you something to prime the writing pump.

So I am going to share some photos I took that windswept day, bundled up in my husband’s thickest sweater.

Inishmurray inlet

Inishmurray inlet. The boats go from Mullaghmore harbour. There is no jetty. You have to leap at the auspicious second onto a rocky promontory.  It is an object lesson in the leap of faith.

Inishmurray was a monastic site, but also had families living there until it was evaculated in the 1940s, when the population had dwindled to an unsustainable level.

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Brady family members created this monument to their island lineage on what had been the family homeplace.

This is the poem published in Irish publication Skylight 45 in January 2016.

Inish

On an island you are always surrounded.

Not a bad thing – not necessarily, not always,

not even when lashed, cornered by southwesterlies,

the sea the colour of a gun, rock outcrop a citadel,

wind keeping you beyond reach.

 

From their front porch before their eyes

mainland’s Sleeping Giant becomes transgendered,

a paunchily pregnant Giantess,

drowsily sexy with the mountains ranging

to her north and south standing guard.

 

They have a bit of bog, a bit of grazing,

some seagull eggs, laver bread, grey mullet and pollack.

Also round stones, holy stones etched with art

for cursing, for blessing, doing the double;

a diet of dread and angelic awe.

 

How could they not come home again

forty years beyond their leaving, bringing back

the Brady nieces and nephews to show them

what was missed and missing.

On an island you are always be surrounded.

 

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So get out and about in your world. Inspiration is the next seashell you see. Or a piece of litter you pick up. Flotsam and jetsam are inspiration’s buddies. It doesn’t need to cost any money at all. It does take time, attention and intention.