We Need to Talk About Symbols

Brexit
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I have always had a certain ambivilance bordering on antipathy to flags. Flags are territory markers, symbols of possession. They are also a way of saying you are either in or out. If you are one of us you are welcome; everyone else ‘Scram!’

We say patriots wrap themselves in the flag. But really, they wrap themselves in tribalism. Underneath that tribalism is the rattle of sabers and the thunder of war drums, of winners chest thumping and losers being ground under a boot.

Flags are ugly things to me. We aren’t dogs that need to mark territory to find our way home.  To some, flags may be a symbol of belonging, but really they are also symbols of exclusion.

Living close to the boundary with Northern Ireland and, having ‘married in’ with a native of that part of the world, I know all about flags. Mercifully, those flags have become less prevalent since 1998, but there are still neighbourhoods that fly the tribal colours and we know that we can never belong. There are certain times of year where certain neighbourhoods are avoided while they have their annual tribal rites.

And seeing that profusion of tribal colours incites an unease. American-born I can go anywhere, but there are areas where  my husband would immediately feel unwelcome, uneasy if not threatened. It’s got much better, but the point is that those symbols are potent and they can instill fear, anxiety, terror.

I want to ban all flags. Because all are, in a sense, flags of convenience, ways to oil the wheels of power over, to profit the few at the expense of the many. They are symbols drenched in blood and suffering. Some glory in that sacrifice of human life. The truth is that there is never glory, only a trail of grief generation upon generation.

Resistance is more important than ever. Tribalism is pushing its unmasked face into ours. And how can you respond non-violently?

I live near to the border with Northern Ireland and there is much discussion about whether Brexit will mean that we go back to the  ‘hard border’ days prior to the Peace Treaty that created a renaissance in this region, much of it funded by the EU. No one here wants to go back to the days of delays crossing the border, customs checks, military presence.  No one wants a hard border.

A bridge between the villages of Belcoo, Co. Fermanagh (Northern Ireland) and Blacklion, Co. Cavan (Republic of Ireland) is an international boundary. During the annual summer fair an art installation by Rita Duffy was mounted right on the international boundary line. “Soften the Border” used soft furnishings and knitted work (and The Markethouse in Blacklion is host to many avid crochet and knitting sessions) to make a symbolic point.

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And there was not Union Jack or Tricoulour in sight. On one side was a small purple blanket. The other was crochet granny squares.

No tribal colours or sabers or drums. This region has had enough of that to last three lifetimes and it brought a great deal of destruction, sorrow, heartache, depopulation and emigration, and economic decline.

They embraced this idea of peace, reconciliation, coexistence, respect. You don’t have to like everyone and their beliefs, but if you want a civil society without violence you need to suck it up and not rub your neighbour’s nose in something that will make them afraid, defensive and reactionary.

Which is why symbols of triumphalism of any kind, whether it is a flag or a statue of some supposed ‘hero’, have to go if we want to walk the talk of ‘love thy neighbour.’ Integration has a long way to go in the North, but over twenty years people have found common ground, most recently in the stand against fracking operations moving into the cross-border region.

Softly, persistantly, with craft, intelligence and wit, people can unite and resist without violence.

But absolutely, symbols are provocations and have the power to incite violence as much as they have the power to unite people behind the nobler call of equality, fairness, and power sharing.

If there must be flags, let them be wooly and soft, symbols of nurture and cherishing, warmth and welcome.

We need icons like this sculpture in Blacklion that looks across Lough MacNean to Fermanagh. We need symbols of hope that inspire us to keep walking the talk, no matter how imperfect our efforts  may be.

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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!

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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!

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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.

Writer Displacement Activity

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Into every writer’s life comes the siren call of distraction and diversion from the page or screen, from crappy first draft to the editting of Version7.docx.  Suddenly, there is a pressing need to groom the cat, to separate out the recycling bin under the sink.  Don’t talk to me about social media either, it is both friendly diversion and foe-like distraction in the digital age. It’s called displacement activity and it is all about not wanting to face imperfection, failure, one’s own un-original face.

Actors have a (probably underserved) reputation as being the divas of The Arts. But I will tell you, the Pity Party that I can throw in my head makes them look like Am-Dram Night. It all goes on in my busy brain and my husband is wise to it.  Duly noted, it disrupts the brutal, flagellistic pleasure of the Pity Party. Witnessing becomes a form of diversion, but in a healthy way.

It’s at these creative/artistic self-loathing times that I turn to Anne Lamott, she whose father told her brother to take it ‘bird by bird.’ In other words, when you are overwhelmed by the big picture of a project just take it one digestable task at a time.

Her TED talk pep talk can be found at:

Sometimes you need the Pity Party, to vent your Poor Pitiful Pearl (a doll that my aunt owned, but my mother used to conjure up when cajoling me out of a sulk.), to confront your ugly. This, too, is a displacement activity. While Pity Partying and Poor Pitiful Pearling there is no writing happening. Because it is all no use! Pointless! No one loves my words!

In the same video Lamott gives us several pearls of her own wisdom now she is 61. I am approaching my 61st birthday in three months and I would add just one of my own to the pot.

You can be guilty of really heinous acts, imperfect behaviour, distrastrous decisions and be good right at your core and it can still shine through. That the last one to forgive anyone of those actions is the one who perpetrates them. That what Lamott calls radical self-care is compassion for oneself and is forgiving what feels unforgiveable.

Sometimes this compassion requires a change of scenery. Sometimes it comes in absolute silence. Sometimes it arrives with a really hearty laugh at one’s foibles, posturings, the ego-driven folly of it all.

Then I can come back to the page, the pen or the screen. It is smooth and virginally blank of words.  It has the requisite line spacing that soothes my faint heart. My special pen (writers are also deeply superstitious, not just actors) is to hand. Then it doesn’t matter if I am sitting at home with the dogs all around me, or in a cafe, or even in a bus shelter jotting down some lines before I forget them. It is time to let the words flow out onto the page, my particular or peculiar, imperfect way of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling about this, that and the other thing.

That latter is often the distraction, the diversion and can turn out to be compassion, too. Compassion that is for all of us who are both guilty and good in large and infinitesimal ways.

Creation relies on womb-like darkness and dark places can be scary. But there is light at the end of the birth canal. There is light at the source, too, that navigates the darkness.

Even displacement activity eventually finds its way back home in darkness and light.

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.

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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.

(M)other Sojourning

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My mother taught me to tie my shoe laces, balance a cheque book, the correct way to pack a suitcase for a trip. In my latest jaunt I packed Mom, too. Back in the spring I wrote a stage 10 speech for Toastmasters titled “What My Mother Taught Me.” A Canadian professor friend noticed my Facebook post about this and promptly invited me to speak at the Motherlines conference at NUI Galway this weekend.

Because Mom was particular about her packing and preparation for trips  she is, in a sense, ever present for any and all my sojourns. This time, however, she got a starring role. Which probably would have taken her aback, since she was inherently shy, but  also secretly pleased. I fretted over my wardrobe, as she would have done, too, and was a critical part of the packing exercise. I inherited her blonde hair and was reminded that her High school art teacher had urged her to wear red to stand out more. So, here I was 80 years or  more later giving that teacher some satisfaction standing before an audience in my red suit and shoes, sharing how my Motherlines had informed my own life choices. In her wildest dreams she would never have imagined her life being celebrated at a conference of feminists.

It has been an extraordinary few days making the invisible visible and giving the marginalised a voice. The academic research papers were mostly quantitative, with many direct quotes from respondents (or co-researchers as one person termed them.)  These voices from and about mothers’ experiences and mothering were wide ranging: mothers who were also addicts, working mothers looking for child carers, mothers who died while giving birth to children, mothers naming the namelessness of pregnancy and child loss, mothers experiencing cancer, separation and divorce. Mother as spiritual archetype of Cailleach and Brigid was examined in Mary Condren’s keynote address. A mother preparing sons for bar mitzvah examined at how gender plays out in rites of passage. Clementine Morrigan’s paper on a Feminist Queer Witch’s Marian devotion had me shifting around some weighty mental furniture, as well as unpacking some old religious assumptions (back to baggage!) from my own Catholic upbringing.

Not all the papers were academic. In the ‘Writing Motherlines’ presentation we heard poetry from Canada’s Laurie Kruk; (Favourite Takeaway Conference Quote: the best revenge is writing poetry.)

It will be sometime before I process all the rich offerings from this weekend –

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Elma Whealton Russell as a child

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Elma with her sisters Mary and Betty is a studio shot by their father

The new information, insights, ponderings for future mental sojourning. To sample the banquet on offer you can see more about Motherlines: Mothering, Motherhood, and Mothers in and thepugh the Generations: Theory, Narrative, Representation, Practice, and Experience at The Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement.

Feeling profoundly grateful to Andrea O’Reilly of York University, Toronto, for the invitation to speak, listen, learn and be enriched by so much story.

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Frack Off!

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AgitProp: it’s an old term I first heard back in the 1980s. It’s shorthand for Agitation and Propaganda. Which is what Resist and Persist comes down to. This week, the Republic of Ireland banned on-shore fracking. In a time where many feel oppressed by darkness and powerlessness, let me tell you a story to put some hope in your reservoir. Because people from a small county in a small country have put a ban on fracking into law this week.

In a time when people doubt the veracity of many stories, let me tell you what I witnessed these past seven years living here as I do in a village half in Cavan and half in Leitrim. I attended the very first meetings organised to resist fracking in what we felt was a profoundly toxic threat to a pristine environment, with a lot of areas of special scientific interest. You don’t put a geopark in a region that does not have 4star environmental credentials. Moreover, most of the economy was reliant on agriculture and tourism. Life and livelihoods were at stake here.

In 2010, the Leitrim Observer ran a story about how the Lough Allen Gas Basin was ripe for exploitation by international companies prospecting for natural gas using this new-fangled  hydraulic fracturing. Leitrim is rural and the most sparsely populated in the Republic; in the past it has been not wealthy and its land considered poor quality, except for raising cattle. Land was cheap, which is why it had attracted a number of ‘blow-ins’ from around the globe, many artists amongst them.

Leitrim has a proud political past, with Séan mac Diarmuda, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of Indepence, being it’s most famous son. So when the Frackers came to town these were no ordinary hayseeds. They were politically savvy, well-educated, and, with the recession, many under-employed with time on their hands. Leitrim was also a national centre for organic horticuture and agriculture training. So there were plenty environmentally aware land lovers in the demographic.

By June 2010 the first meetings were held to investigate what this might mean to our rural idyll. While I have a friend who jokes that Irish politics runs on schism, I won’t say it was all smooth sailing at the beginning. But what came about was a unified resolve to resist and each individual came to play to their strengths. Some researched legislation in Ireland and the EU. Some scoured the internet for scientific research. Some looked at planning laws. Musicians wrote songs, cut CDs and sold them to fundraise. Artists designed t-shirts and sold them to raise awareness and fundraise. Sculptors, poets, singers, Irish dancers, photographers, film makers – all used their talents to raise awareness and spread the word. School children drew pictures that were posted in local libraries. My local GP joined the fray and concerned medical practitioners also got on side. People raised petitions and wrote to TDs and just about any media outlet to get it on the national agenda. Newletters colated information and were disseminated by email.

Social media linked us and spread information on research and international developments. Social media was important in keeping us connected. North American speakers came to Ireland to share their experiences in public meetings.

But what brought a lump to my throat was seeing the Tahany Dance Academy presentation set to The Lord of the Dance at The Upset Art Exhibtion, June 2012, in Drumshambo. Irish dancers from age four right up to teenage danced a story of farmers seeing off the frackers, not falling for the lure of big cheques, and retaining solidarity with their cattle and the land. You can see a video of it on You Tube at https://youtu.be/lpzjmEZK31w?list=RDlpzjmEZK31w

When you have kids telling a story in a traditional art, you just know you are on to a winner. How could we fail these kids? But there was plenty graft ahead.

And then the Frackers didn’t come to Leitrim. They decided to try their luck out first in Fermanagh, over the border in Northern Ireland, which comes under UK jurisdiction.  Bear in mind that there was a hard border with a military presence up until 2002 in Belcoo, where Tamboran wanted to do their test drill.

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There were meetings and demonstrations in Enniskillen. There was plenty of cross-border information sharing and support. When Farmers Against Fracking held a slow-mo tractor rally from Fermanagh to Stormont, farmers in potentially affected border counties joined the ranks.

A Protection Camp was formed outside the Belcoo quarry where Tamboran were planning to do the first test drill in Northern Ireland. And the Wednesday night session at Frank Eddies pub just moved up to the camp to entertain the campers. Since it was school holidays, many children were resident. Police presence was softly, softly. Indeed, when I was up at the Protection Camp I recognised a woman police officer I had spoken to at length about the experience of fracking in my home state of Pennsylvania. Friends knew police officers who had family connections with farming, too, and felt personally conflicted about having to ‘protect’ the frackers from the Protectors.

It looked very bleak. And then there was a Ten Minutes to Midnight Miracle.

Two weeks before the deadline (Tamboran had obtained a six month extention to test drill that was just about to expire) some brilliant, tenacious voluntary researcher hit gold. The quarry had never received official planning permission. Hasty court hearings determined that a full planning hearing would have to take place. It went up to the Environment Minister for Nothern Ireland, Mark Durkin. The drill pads were on the move to start at 6pm. Tweets reported photos of the drill pads on huge lorries at the roundabout in Manorhamilton, Leitrim at 5:30pm.

And then Durkin ruled that they could not drill! Tamboran had run out of time. They had had their extention and now time was up. The lorries had to turn around at that roundabout twenty miles from their target destination.

A region that had known sectarian paramilitary tension and action a decade earlier found a unity of purpose in saying ‘Frack Off Fermanagh.’ When a Service of Thanksgiving was held at the Protection Camp, there were Roman Catholic and Anglican priests officiating and the Letterbreen Silver Flute Band made the music! To have imagined something like that happening prior to the Good Friday Agreement in 1997 would have felt sheer fantasy bordering on lunacy. But here everyone was, being respectful of all traditions, united in a love of the land.

So that felt like the second miracle.

Northern Ireland isn’t included in this ban. The frackers did a test drill in Woodburn Forest in Antrim that could not be fended off, but hit water soon enough. Which was a bit of a no-brainer since the drill site was about 500 metres from the North Belfast City Reservoir. (Yes! Let’s drill for gas right next to where drinking water is reserved. How smart is that?!) Ireland is really unsuitable for the process. The land is so soggy you can trampolene on it!

What the frackers had not taken into account were the rural communities they proposed to invade who had plenty of savvy, wit, grit and sheer graft to offer to head them off. There were also lots of people here who are very skilled at getting ‘hard at the prayin’.

It’s taken seven years to get this ban.

It’s not perfect and it’s not completely over. We don’t know what might happen ‘up North’ especially now that Arlene Foster’s DUP is propping up the Tory administration in the UK; Foster’s husband is alleged to have some prime acreage ripe and ready for frackers. There are off-shore concerns not covered in the bill, which was the first private member’s bill to pass in the Dáil.  Yet, against many odds, it has happened. It has been no mean feat.

This is a story of resist and persist that I want to share. We need to know these proud stories of people not being mowed down or cowed by those who assume they are more powerful and more entitled to have their way over our say.

Ben Okri says of story  in A Way of Being Free

In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them…We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.

The story we had inside of us was a love of the land. The story we had inside us was that it was worth protecting. The story we made was that everyone had a talent to give in some way to help make it happen.

And it happened. And that gives me hope.

 

Art in the Geopark

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Over this summer I am participating in a project initiated by various Cavan County officers – the Arts officer, Catriona O’Reilly, Heritage officer Anne Marie Ward, and the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark Cavan link officer, Grainne O’Connor.  The project brings artists from all mediums to various Geopark sites where the built and natural heritage will be wellsprings of inspiration. So it was that a dozen or so artists and writers gathered on Summer Solstice.

There are many types of visual artist represented – film, installation, ceramics, painting in various media. There is a musician, as well as poets and storyteller. By early autumn there will be a large body of work that has the landscape of Fermanagh and Cavan as both cornerstone and touchstone.

What is a geopark? Well, it’s a UNESCO designation and recognition of a region’s outstanding international significance for both the built and natural heritage that makes it a global treasure worth conserving and preserving. The Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark was the first international, cross border geopark in the world. It straddles much of south Fermnagh in Northern Ireland and a swathe of central and west Cavan in the Republic of Ireland.

The limestone geology defines much of the geopark. The dozen artists and writers visited Templeport’s St. Mogue’s Island, Cavan Burren Forest Park and Claddagh Glen on summer solstice. And more inspiration will follow in August.

Walking down leafy, calm Claddagh Glen I overheard two artists’ conversation. “I just love what you do with blues!” “Oh, but you have such mossy greens.” It made me wonder that artists are a kind and complimentary species of maker. I can’t imagine poets complimenting enjambement or elegant line endings!

This is an old poem of mine, but it is straight up versification inspired by a turlough in Cavan Burren, now known as Tullygubban Lough. There is a legend of a fairy horse associated with it. This is my telling.

Cautionary (Fairy) Tale

Young women, beware handsome men

with slicked back watery hair, ken

their fetching grins that show a lot of teeth.

For once in your ever young lives

defer to those older and more wise

who can read the reality beneath.

Handsome men that go wandering lough side,

all snake hipped swagger in full lust cry,

need heeding . Fleet foot yourself away!

For once in your ever young lives

defer to those older and more wise.

Head for home without further delay!

Handsome men wandering lough side

often lure with kisses and love sighs,

tempting young women to get carried away.

Yet at least once in your young lives

defer to those older and more wise.

Don’t yield and be led well astray.

Handsome men with their slicked back, watery hair

have a habit of making young women care.

Don’t be fooled – he’ll have you at his call and his beck.

Please for once in your ever young lives

defer to those older and more wise.

That devill’ll shake your life clear off its track.

That handsome man will turn to faerie beast.

That stallion will seek you for his own mortal feast.

He’ll love you. He’ll lave you but never’ll leave you.

So for  Heaven’s sake of your ever young lives

would you not defer to those older and more wise

who’d save you from riding to your doom.

For the skin turned water horse has only one true enclave.

Tullygubban Lough will always be his current consort’s grave.

© Bee Smith 2011