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Monday, 27 January 2014

Complexity Meditation

I was in an aeroplane, more than seven miles up, when I started thinking about the complexity of things.

For people who do meditation, one of the major goals is to achieve simplicity, that sensation when all is one, when the constant ephemera of daily experience disappear into ragged wisps of illusion, where there is only the reality of breathing in and breathing out, holding on and letting go until you transcend the duality, moving beyond thought and feeling into monad unity … Ommmm.

I have never been very good at this.

There’s a hamster in my head; a driven, energetic little bastard who gallops away on his exercise wheel all the time. I’ve spent much of my life (futilely) trying to stop him, or at least slow him down. Most of the times I try meditation – and it doesn’t make much difference what technique I use – I generally manage to get through the initial phases quite easily, into that area of inner stillness and relaxation and then, in the growing silence, I start to hear that bloody hamster more clearly.

Most of those who teach meditation counsel not to worry about this. “Don’t fight it,” they say. “Let the thoughts come … and go. They will arise and then fade away, leaving growing peace, emptiness and goalless fulfilment in their path.” Om mani padme hum.

They don’t know my fucking hamster.

He’s a persistent little bugger, and he enjoys the space provided by the initial phases of the meditation process. One his nastiest little tricks is to take the role of the observer of my progress, analysing it, commenting on it, making the process of voluntary not-thinking into an interesting, obsessive, conscious subject of thought – and thus neatly derailing the whole process.

He’s given me quite a bit of grief in my life. For many years I found I could slow him down, or even put him to sleep altogether, by using (ever increasing) amounts of alcohol.

Not a good idea. Dealing with the consequences of that took a lot of time and effort. Generally, I believe that using psychoactive substances to try to modify aspects of your personality isn’t good for you in the long term, because you’re only putting temporary “No Entry” signs on major areas of yourself, which only function as long as you’re actively taking the substance. (Disclaimer: This observation should be no way seen as applicable for prescribed and monitored medication for mental health issues such as serious mood disorders or potentially psychotic personality problems.) And, as my experience with alcohol painfully taught me, such strategies often have serious – and lasting – downsides.
So, I have learned to accept, I have to live with my hamster and develop other strategies for dealing with him.

Choose your battles, they say. Don’t get into a fight unless you’re pretty sure you can win it. Sometimes, instead of trying to wrestle my manic hamster into silence, or to ignore the constant rattling of him whirling away on his wheel in the corner of my mind’s living room, I take a different tack. I consciously open the door of his cage, inviting him to come into the room and really stretch himself. Reach for the ceiling, I tell him. Be welcome. Show me what you can do. (And, very quietly, whispering to myself so that he can’t hear the furtively hoped intention; Knock yourself out.)

And so, in a kind of anti-meditation, instead of relaxing and emptying my mind, I relax and consciously allow it to fill up.

Which brings me back to the aeroplane.

I’m in an Aer Lingus Airbus A320-200, more than seven miles up in the air, travelling at about 500 mph. Along with around 150 other people, I’m securely enclosed in a warm and comfortable environment, which is just as well; a few feet away, outside the aircraft, the lack of oxygen in the thin air would be competing with the very low pressure and a temperature of -60° C to kill me within a matter of minutes, long before I’d hit the ground at the end of my fall.

I start to think about the number of people involved in the process which has me here. There were the thousands of people involved in building this plane, which was manufactured either in Hamburg or Toulouse (or even quite possibly both – since Airbus has a very complex assembly process, the result of intricate political horse-trading). The CFM engines were almost certainly built in France, though many of the components were made by GE in the USA; thousands more people involved in building, selling and transporting the hundreds of thousands of individual components incorporated in the actual aircraft in which I am now flying.

But, my expanding thoughts about complex human connectivity realise, this is only part of the picture. What about all the people involved in making the ancillary fittings; the companies which did the final fitting for the airline, for example? It’s quite possible that some of the stitching on the faux-leather/plastic seat cover on which I am sitting was done by some Chinese woman, working a sewing-machine on a twelve hour shift in a sweatshop factory for three euros a day. The list of those involved in making my journey possible expands again to include all these people, and all those who were part of the myriad operations of packing, transporting, unpacking and installing stuff from many corners of the globe.

And then there’s the crew, and all the people working in the two airports getting this plane into the air and back down again safely. The ground-staff and the baggage handlers, those who did the security checks and signed off on the passenger, cargo and fuel manifests. The air-traffic controllers who are guiding our flight safely through the night. The people working on pumping the crude oil out of the deposits where it has lain under the ground or the sea for millions of years before those complex hydrocarbon molecules began their final journey to be refined into kerosene now being burned to provide energy for the jet engines pushing us through the skies above Germany, Holland, the North Sea, Britain, and the Irish Sea, all the way from Düsseldorf to Dublin. Was the man who oversaw the pumping of that original crude a well-paid shift worker on a North Sea oil-rig, or a much more poorly-paid Filipino migrant worker, sending remittances home to his family from Saudi or Kuwait? All the people involved in refining that kerosene and finally transporting it to be pumped into the plane’s fuel tanks.

Still more human connectivity; As I order a chicken and lettuce wrap to eat, my thoughts turn to all of those involved in producing this, from those working in a food-processing plant somewhere to put it all together to the farmers who raised the chicken (probably somewhere in a battery) to the ones who grew the lettuce and the other ones who grew the wheat baked into the wrap. And who were the people who mined the salt which was used to season it, and where did they live and work? And how many people were involved in buying and selling and transporting and assembling all the ingredients of the snack I’m eating?

Ephemeral, momentary, fragmentary connections with literally hundreds of thousands of people who have all been involved in some way in making this journey I am on possible, but connections which are none the less real for all that. Our modern lives are perfused with incredibly complex interconnectivity; in thousands of everyday situations, which overlap and fuse into each other, we live lives of wonderfully complicated interdependence.

Without noticing, my racing thoughts become weaker, quieter, fall away. I find myself becoming quieter, more peaceful, more relaxed.

The hamster has lain down in the corner and fallen asleep.

Om mani padme hum.

Fee fi fo fum.

Dum di dum.

Ho hum.

…..

Om …



Images retrieved from:
http://tristathorp.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/hamsterwheel_original.jpg
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aer.lingus.a320-200.ei-den.arp.jpg 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Om-mani-padme-hum_02.svg




Friday, 17 January 2014

Walking Slowly

I have started to practice walking slowly.

As a little boy, around fifty years ago now, I decided that there was something virtuous about walking quickly. I suspect that this is a common phenomenon among little boys who go walking with their fathers; fathers have longer legs and just cover the distance faster. And therefore, because little boys look up to their fathers and want to be just like them, they decide that it must be good to walk quickly.

At any rate that’s the way it happened with me. Walking was primarily a way from getting from A to B, and it was obviously advantageous to do so as quickly as possible.

As an adult, many years later, I discovered another use for walking; exercise. In a society in which we have become increasingly conscious of things like cardiovascular performance, body-fat ratio, the potential health dangers of obesity, overeating, and a too sedentary life-style, keeping physically fit has taken on many of the characteristics of a religious proscription. To admit, as I do, that I find every kind of sport (personally practiced – being a spectator is something quite different) supremely boring is comparable in many circles to someone confessing in medieval Spain that they were a Jewish atheist with an interest in witchcraft.

Walking then was something I saw as a possibility to combine the necessary with the useful. If I did have to walk somewhere, then the thing was to do it as quickly as possible; get the old circulation working, push the heart-rate up, get the muscles flexing and bunching, burn up some of those endless extra calories which would otherwise (in a lipid form) congeal around the waist-line or (more dangerously) within the artery walls.

Necessary. Useful. But never really pleasurable. The idea of “going for a walk,” something millions of people unselfconsciously accept as a normal form of recreation has never really appealed to me. I have always tended to see the time needed to get from A to B as a period to be practically and rationally managed in order to reduce it to the minimum possible. Which meant that if I was going to walk anywhere I planned the time necessary on the basis of a brisk – a very brisk – walk.

Last April I moved house. It was a project which was quite significant for me, in all sorts of ways, most of which I won’t go into here – not now anyway. But one aspect of my move was that my new flat was much more central than my old one. And as the summer bloomed and I finally started to feel settled in, I made a resolution; with butcher, baker, supermarket and pharmacy all just a few hundred yards away, and my place of work only a fifteen minute walk distant, I would consciously strive to walk when I could – thus ensuring a minimum of exercise and even massaging my liberal light-green conscience about the size of my carbon footprint.

Life was good, and the future was bright, bright. Only by the end of August I was forced to the realisation that I had slowly, unknowingly been slipping ever deeper into a condition which I knew all too well. Knew intimately and still not recognised in its insidious approach, even as it dug its talons deep into my soul.

I have written about depression on this blog before, a number of times, and I don’t want to go into too many details about it; it happened, it was bad, I’m slowly coming out of it again. The frightening thing about this episode was that there was no real reason for it – everything was okay, I had the feeling that I was in control of my life in a way which I hadn’t been for years. In retrospect I was able to identify certain factors which had possibly (probably?) triggered it, but I have had to face up to the unpleasant likelihood that this is a condition to which I am simply prone. I have to accept that it may happen again, and that there is little I can do to prepare for it, except practise a certain kind of relaxed watchfulness so that I am not quite as blindsided as I was this time.

Indeed, in writing this it strikes me that the roots of this last episode may be even farther in the past than I have realised up to now. It is well over a year since one of my creative wellsprings started to dry up – by this I mean my inclination to write. My essays here became more seldom, and harder to write. If I had had to explain it last April or May, I would have simply said that it was due to the increased busy-ness and heightened stress involved in moving house, a few months later, when I finally accepted that I was at the bottom of a very deep pit, the idea of writing was simply unthinkable. If this is really the case, then the fact that you are reading this is a sign that I am well on my way back to the light (though I’ll make no promises about how long it will take for me to post the next essay!).

But even at the worst of the depression in September I still walked. On the occasions when I had to leave the flat, something I found hard to do, I marched forth, desperately striding to an appointment or to the supermarket to buy groceries.

And then one day, returning from a session with my therapist (seven and a half minutes brisk walk away), I realised something. There was no reason to hurry. I had nothing planned for the rest of the day. It didn’t matter a fucking toss whether my walk home took a few minutes longer. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon and the more my pace slowed, the more I found myself appreciating it. In a seeming inversion of the logic to which I had chained myself, the more leisurely I walked, the more time seemed available to me. And the more time there was available, the more my racing thoughts slowed, my mind moving into a freer, more relaxed space, a space which it had so desperately longed for and needed.

It was not a miraculous, spontaneous healing, that would be a drastic exaggeration. It was, rather, an intuition, an inkling, a brief glimpse of a reality different to the negative, worried, obsessively and futilely circling inner world in which I was captured and held.

Like most such inklings, this one was quickly gone. I completed my short journey home (walking slowly) and then forgot the experience. But the next time I was returning from a therapy appointment I remembered it once more, and once more I slowed down. I remember consciously deciding to generally walk more slowly when I was returning home from therapy.

Initially, my thinking was still typically purpose driven. I found myself formulating the explanation that I was giving myself this extra time afforded by walking more slowly to reflect on what had happened during the hour of psychoanalysis, what insights I had achieved, how the whole process was progressing. An opportunity to increase the value of the session, to retrospectively continue to mine the depths just plumbed. For I am, indeed, a typical child of my time and culture, formed by and embedded in a world obsessed with development, with efficiency, with optimizing, doing things better, and faster, and more comprehensively, and (usually presented as the most important of all) more economically.

"Sometimes I sits and thinks; and then again I just sits."
Only, I found myself gradually realising, it wasn’t true. The therapy session may have been very productive, I may have found myself suddenly exploring a whole new area of my psyche, or achieving a wonderful new insight about the way I tick, but I wasn’t using the more “relaxed” state of consciousness I was achieving by slowing down on the way home to reflect on and deepen the therapeutic experience I had just gone through. Instead, I was using it to do … nothing. Oh, I might start thinking about something, but, I realised, my thoughts usually petered out, spreading out and thinning before vanishing into emptiness like the fractal silhouettes of the leafless winter trees I found my wandering gaze idly and momentarily focussing on before moving on.

I have started to expand the experiment. I no longer just walk slowly when I’m coming home from therapy; I now try to do it whenever I’m walking somewhere without a definite time that I have to be at my destination. Which means, for example, that I continue to walk briskly to work but when I walk home from work I do it slowly.

I usually work the night shift, which means that my journey home takes place around 7.30 in the morning. It’s an interesting time to be on the move if you have the leisure to do it slowly in a relaxed way. There’s a grammar school on my street, and a primary school at the end of it (and German schools generally begin their day at around 8.00 a.m.) so there are lots of kids underway, the small ones lugging bags on their backs nearly as heavy as themselves, most of the older ones in groups practising and living the all-important and ever-demanding teenage attitude of cool. A splash of headlights, brake-lights and rushed activity in front of the schools as hordes of parents fulfil that basic, most essential parental duty, being a taxi-driver for their offspring, the cars backing up behind halting school-buses. Adults on their way to work, moving determinedly, their faces generally closed and concentrated. At this time of year it’s dark when I begin my way; by the time I get home the sky has lightened and the day has come. And I’ve found myself noticing and rejoicing in the fact that, as the planet precesses on its cosmic path deeper into 2014, the dawn begins a few minutes earlier from day to day.

It still doesn’t come naturally to me; this strange exercise of walking slowly. The habits and attitudes of a lifetime are deep, and I often catch myself unnecessarily striding forward and have to remind myself to slow down. But maybe, for me, walking slowly is something like playing the piano or learning to drive a car; something I have to practice quite a bit before it starts to come easily or naturally.

It’s a mild January afternoon as I finish writing this – the sun breaks out frequently from behind a scattered cloud cover.

I think I’ll go for a walk.


There were lots of musical options for this topic; Dionne Warwick, "Walk on by," Fats Domino, "I'm walking," Katrina and the Waves, "Walking on sunshine," etc. In the end, it had to be Lou ...



Images sourced from:
 http://www.pittsburghlegalbacktalk.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/FestinaLenteCorrect.jpg 
 http://johnesimpson.com/blog/2012/02/sitting-silent-open-minded/ This quotation is most often - incorrectly - attributed to the baseball player Satchel Paige. Some say its author was the great philosopher, Winnie the Pooh (sadly it isn't, though it suits Pooh). In fact, the first use of it seems to have been in this Punch cartoon, over a hundred years ago.




Sunday, 24 March 2013

Back Home to Sligo


“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
(L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

I had occasion recently to visit a part of my past, a period immensely important and formative for me, a place which was, for seven years, both focus and circumference of my whole world, the centrality of which was so self-evident to me that I could not then imagine that it would ever be otherwise in my life.

I was seventeen years old when I left Sligo. The leaving was a wrench, soul-tearing, ambiguous; on the one hand I was taking a self-chosen step into a different world, a new life, for I had decided to join the Dominican Order, on the other hand I was leaving nearly everything and everyone I knew behind me. The parting was all the more radical, for at the same time, my father was transferred and our whole family moved to the other end of the country. Although I was to return there frequently in the years that followed, the basic bond was broken; the continuous connection formed by the unity of family and place was gone. It meant that the inevitable decay of most youthful friendships was greatly accelerated in my case, for home had been sundered and the most basic part of it had moved elsewhere.

It hurt, that sundering. I remember feeling very aggrieved, with the unthinking, naïve selfishness of youth, that my parents had moved away from Sligo while at the same time being perfectly self-righteous about my own move into a new life, which also took me to other places. But I recovered. After all, in the following years, I still went back there, even if not as frequently or for as long as I might have wished, and I still retained my basic feeling of identity with and love for the place. Given my peripatetic history, the simple question “Where are you from?” has always been a little problematic for me, but Sligo still remains one of the default answers.

After I was ordained a Catholic priest, therefore, in 1985, it was completely clear to me that Sligo would be one of the places where I would celebrate a formal “First Mass.” And if someone had told me that day that it would be twenty eight years before I would return, I would have laughed in disbelief.

But that is what happened. In the following year, primed by the potent fuse of love, my life exploded into scintillating chunks and shards of new directions, possibilities, preoccupations and priorities. I found myself in a different country, living a very different life, with a wife and baby daughter, and practical decisions concerning job and career to be made and carried through. While I continued to visit Ireland throughout the following nearly three decades, limitations of time and practical considerations somehow never made the journey to the north-west of the country possible.

Another in my family had made a very different choice; my sister, Máire, had found her way back to Sligo and has lived in the coastal village of Strandhill, six miles from the main town, for many years now. So when she invited the whole family to join her in celebrating her fiftieth birthday this month I finally found myself on my way back to the town of my youth, on a journey into the world of my own memories and the contrast between their local background and the reality of the present.

Ireland has changed enormously since the mid-1980s. The country I left was still, for the most part, traditional and conservative. It was poor, in recession, unable to provide attractive prospects for many of my generation, who were leaving to find decent, interesting jobs and adventure in a world of much wider horizons. But then the Celtic Tiger came, nurtured in its infancy by a massive transfer of structural funds from Europe. It grew up, roared mightily for around ten years before becoming so bloated on a diet of hubris, fantasy and speculative funny games with international capital that it crawled into a corner and died – of a strange combination of economic gluttony and malnutrition.

The traces of all this were clear to be seen on my journey, from the new motorway leading out of Dublin to the empty property developments in towns like Carrick-on-Shannon along the way. Even the approach to Sligo was completely different to that of my memories; the towns of Collooney and Ballysadare bypassed, a new road to the town itself, leading to a new bridge across the Garavogue river.

The following morning, Saturday, I spent a couple of hours walking around town. It was very strange. The basic geographical skeleton remained as I remembered it but much of the flesh on the bones had changed; new buildings, new shops and businesses in old buildings. Deeper, stranger changes too; children of African and Asian backgrounds speaking with the distinctive Sligo accent, a Polish butcher’s shop – signs of the internationalisation of Ireland through immigrants, drawn by the boom of the Tiger years, something unimaginable in the mono-cultural world of my youth in the seventies when Ireland was a country which exported rather than imported people. In the past five years the export has begun once more.

I knew, of course, that things would not be as I remembered them; I had no expectations that the place would spontaneously open its arms to me, recognising and welcoming the long lost son. It was curiosity which led my steps, a desire to see just what had changed. But as my feet led me along the streets I had walked so often as a teenager, I found myself becoming more detached. The time elapsed was just too great, the changes – perhaps, most of all, the changes in myself – too profound. Though I had already intellectually known that there is no such thing as time travel, that the past is irrevocably gone, it was something more to really practically experience it in this fashion. “Something’s lost and something’s gained,” Joni Mitchell sings, “in living every day.” Over ten thousand days had past since I last set foot in Sligo, so much lost and so much gained in all that time that it had, I thought, become impossible to regain any sort of deep contemporary contact.

And so my urge to walk further waned. There was a Sligo which was real for me, that town which had been the stage for my life during those oh so intense years of the ending of childhood and the unbearably exciting and frightening growth into increasing adulthood, but it had little to do with the town in which I now found myself. Looking at my watch, I realised that I still had an hour before the next bus would leave for Strandhill where I was saying. Finding myself at the junction of Wine Street and Quay Street, I noticed that Lyons’ Café was still there and decided to spend the time I had to wait with a cappuccino.

Climbing the stairs to the hundred and fifty year old café, I discovered that here at least much remained as I remembered it. Oh, the menu is more extensive, sophisticated and cosmopolitan but someone has been careful to preserve the basic character of the place and the small tables and wooden chairs are still the same as they were in the seventies when this was one of the favourite haunts of the teenagers of the town. There weren’t all that many places where the boys from Summerhill College and the girls from the two nuns’ schools could meet on common ground and do all those things which are so important for teenagers; preening, flirting, talking, teasing, laughing, showing off, making dates and plans … just hanging out and wasting time. Lyons’ was one of the few establishments back then which tolerated us, though we were all experts in making a Coke or a coffee last for a whole afternoon, far more interested in each other than in giving custom to the café. Today the coffee was good and the place, I was glad to see, was doing a brisk business.

As I drank a second cappuccino, I tried to understand what I was doing; what I had expected of my perambulation and what exactly I had experienced. Perhaps some part of me had been hoping for the kind of epiphany described by Proust in his famous madeleine episode in À la recherche du temps perdu, where a particular taste throws his protagonist completely into a memory of the past. If so, it didn’t happen for me; sitting there in the café, many recollections of my youthful years did come to mind, but still far away and detached from me, the teenagers of the mid-seventies populating the room around me like barely perceived, transparent ghosts. Reality, I thought, was more like L.P. Hartley described it, the past is a foreign country.

And then, that evening at my sister’s party, I had an encounter which changed everything. One of the guests was someone I had known back in the time, the memories of which I had been attempting to recall with my walkabout through town. She was another member of that clique to which I had belonged as a teenager – to be honest, I’d had quite a crush on her when I was sixteen, but had been too uncertain and insecure to ever mention it to her then, or to attempt to move it beyond the confused desires of my youthful wishes into the realm of practical action. Now we were meeting again after more than thirty five years of life and all that it had done with us during that time. I had gone away and never returned; she had left for a number of years but had come back, and married another of my friends from that time. Our children are now older than we were back then.

And as we talked, I suddenly I realised that I had somehow come to the place I had been looking for that morning. Having exchanged the broad outlines of our stories of the long interim, we started reminiscing together about that faraway world of our youth. I discovered myself (and so, in a real sense, rediscovered my earlier self) asking about people I hadn’t thought of for decades and she (who had remained in – or, rather, returned to – Sligo) knew a lot of the answers. We found ourselves sharing memories of things that we had done together, of events commonly experienced. The past, which had seemed so irretrievably far away to me just a few hours earlier, was suddenly just around the last corner we had turned, the years between not negated but somehow bridged. It occurred to me later that I’d had this kind of experience on a number of occasions over the past decade or so, a period where I have had the great good fortune to reconnect with quite a few friends with whom I had lost contact. It’s what happens when you meet old friends and discover that you can, amazingly, just pick up where you left off.

And I realised a truth – at least something that is true for me. While place is important (and one would suffer from some kind of serious deficiency not to cherish the beauty of Sligo, magnificently set as it is on an Atlantic bay to the west, framed by the mountains of Benbulben to the north and Knocknarea to the south), in the end it is people and not place which are more central to a feeling of belonging, of home. And though in memory we organise things by assigning them a location, this is only background, the setting of the stage of life on which we perform the stories of our lives in interaction with others. In my case, I would wager (and I suspect that my mistake is not uncommon) that I had tended to confuse the importance of people in my life, and the stories we created together, with the place in which these stories took place. Setting is of course important – context is everything, as Derrida once remarked – but people, not place, are the most significant component of context.

It is a realisation with which I, for one, am quite content.

"Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea."

Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill




Pictures retrieved from:
http://www.blogspot.com/_paRKpxGMuCE/Sttfal6-u6I/AAAAAAAABpw/2MOzvtaXyz8/s400/0909_HSligoTown.jpg 
http://www.askaboutireland.ie/_internal/gxml!0/2ocqn930ubywvi8z0wl9dhefnm6z926$eb12sbh0qz22rny8m0x0tay0mjelewi 
http://www.menupages.ie/images/550x344/6585_lyons_cafe.jpg 
http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_paRKpxGMuCE/StGZmggzegI/AAAAAAAABnA/8Mi7feGEPz8/s1600-h/0909_FBenbulben.jpg





Sunday, 24 February 2013

Family Histories 1: The Cowboy



It was a fine Sunday morning in early summer 1865. James Hunt opened the door of his new home and looked south over the road and the downward sloping land towards the lake. He gave a sigh of contentment and muttered a brief prayer of thanks in Irish to the mother of God.

It had been a long, hard journey to this point of his life, but he could now allow himself a feeling of achievement that he had finally managed to be standing here this morning, on his own land in the townland of Smutternagh, on the shores of Lough Key, in the county Roscommon. Though the term “his own land” was a relative one; the land belonged to the King-Harmon family as did all the land in Smutternagh and thousands of acres more all around Boyle. Indeed, as far as his own family memories extended back, through the hard years scratching a living from a barely usable Curlew mountain allotment, back to the fabled days of comfort on good land in the townland of Eastersnow on the Plains of Boyle up to their catastrophic eviction in the 1830s, the landlords had always been the King family – whose place in the Anglo-Irish stratosphere had been achieved with the noble title of Lorton.

As his gaze moved across the green wooded islands on the lake, over to Rockingham House, the residence of the King-Harmons, he reflected that beyond lay the Plains of Boyle – and Eastersnow. He had been born there, but was only a little boy when Lord Lorton had decided that the holdings there were too small for modern progressive farming. He had evicted the smallholders, including James’ father and his family, to restructure his lands there into bigger tenancies, suitable for large-scale cattle farming. The growing cities of industrial England had an insatiable appetite for beef, and prosperous cattle-tending tenants could pay better and more certain rents.

His father, Thomas, had never really got over it. On his deathbed, he urged his sons to do everything possible to regain the family holding there. It was their birthright, he always claimed, taken from them by the heartlessness of English landlords. The tribulations of the Hunt family mirrored the tribulations of all the Gael, dispossessed and persecuted in their own country by a foreign invader.

Lord Lorton doubtlessly would have seen it differently. Had he not accepted responsibility for the evicted tenants and given them an alternative, land reclaimed from the mountain in the townland of Cornameelta? Thomas Hunt could only laugh bitterly – an exchange of land valued at 18 shillings an acre for land valued at 3 shillings an acre! Land where you could barely grow a few potatoes, good for nothing else except a few scrawny sheep and cattle, who could hardly find enough grazing there to put meat on their bones.

A blessing in disguise perhaps; scratching a living from the side of the mountain in Cornameelta, relying on scrawny sheep and cattle, may have helped the Hunts avoid the fate of millions of Irish who had been living on tiny tenancies and relying completely on potatoes for their sustenance. When the blight came, three years running in the 1840s, the whole family survived where a million others died.

James looked over the fields which were now his and considered the strange connection his family had with them. For, though his tenancy was new, he had memories of this farm from his childhood; after they had been evicted from their holding in Eastersnow, the family had spent a brief period here, sharing the land with a family called Brady. But the Bradys had sucked up to the land agent and had been awarded tenure while the Hunts had to move on.

You couldn’t trust the Bradys, his father had always said. During the Famine years, a Brady had led a group of desperate hungry thieves from Smutternagh to steal a bullock from the Hunts, drive it back here and slaughter it for food. It couldn’t be proved, of course, but the Bradys knew that the Hunts had a way with cattle and that it would be relatively easy to rob a Hunt animal from the sprawling common mountainside at Cornameelta.

Well, the Bradys were gone now, along with the Monaghans who had lived in the other half of the house at the door of which he was standing. One of the Monaghans, who had given up their tenancy earlier in favour of shopkeeping in Sligo, had told him that Brady had lost his taste for farming and wanted to emigrate. James had visited him, here in this house, and had agreed to pay the passage for the Brady family from Sligo to Scotland thus vacating the farm.

Just one expense among many involved in securing this new future for himself and the family he would found. Between the passage for the Bradys, the backhander paid to Lord Lorton’s land agent, the first year’s rent, the cost of the stock which would be the basic business of the farm, and even furniture (for the Bradys had left nothing in the house but one fire-iron), he reckoned the whole venture would finish up costing him ₤100, everything he had managed to scratch together over the previous fifteen years.

For, as a young man, in the years immediately after the Great Hunger, James had decided to try to earn his living by putting the one skill he had to practical use, his knowledge of cattle. Not that he had much choice. His brother Thomas would take over the paltry tenancy on the Cornameelta mountain; James was left with the option of either emigrating or trying to survive somehow in the collective trauma which was post-famine Ireland. He’d started to trade in cattle, travelling all over the north Connacht counties, Roscommon and Sligo, Leitrim and Mayo, buying store cattle from individual farmers or at small fairs and driving them to the port of Sligo, or Derry, or even occasionally all the way to Dublin, to sell them at a profit for export to the industrial cities of Britain.

Drovers they were called in Ireland, those men who earned a living buying and selling cattle. They were the original cowboys, though the Irish version didn’t ride horses. They walked, painstakingly gathering their herds and driving them along the narrow winding roads towards the larger fairs, sleeping in barns, or under hedges, walking behind the cattle, whacking them occasionally on the withers with sally rods to keep them under control and moving in the right direction.

In following this profession, James was living and acting in a way which went back thousands of years in Irish history. At the end of the 12th Century, Giraldus Cambrensis distainfully described the native Gaels’ reliance on cattle in his Topographica Hibernica, and the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the great Irish epic, comparable with the Ramayana or the Illiad, is, in essence, the story of a cattle raid. The story of the attack by the men of Connacht on Ulster to steal Cooley’s bull, the single-handed defence of Ulster by the young hero, Cuchullain, and all the other tales and destinies decribed in the saga, begins with Queen Maeve’s jealousy of the fine bull owned by her husband and her determination to obtain a finer one for herself. The Táin is traditionally dated as taking place in the first century A.D. Maeve’s capital was at Cruachan (today’s Rathcroghan) and is less than 20 km as the crow flies from Eastersnow. If there is an historical core event at the basis of the Táin, then it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a distant ancestor of James Hunt was a member of the raiding party which set out at the behest of their warrior queen to salvage her pride and honour by stealing a bull owned by a prosperous farmer in Ulster. Eighteen hundred years later, my great-grandfather spent around fifteen years of his life doing much the same thing, though unlike his ancestor (and the Bradys), he paid for the cattle which came into his possession.

His father’s dream had been a return to Eastersnow. Given the fact that the small tenancies there had been consolidated into much larger farms, James realised that he could not achieve this; but Smutternagh was an acceptable compromise and he was content.

As he stood there, surveying his new domain, a man came up the road and greeted him. In the way of the customary easy hospitality then common, James invited him into his new home to share his breakfast of boiled potatoes and a salted herring. The stranger accepted and the two ate together. When the meal was over the visitor remarked, “I must be a very humble man to sit down to breakfast with a new tenant and I married to Lord Lorton’s daughter.”

While most tenants had little or no contact with the Anglo-Irish ascendancy living in the big houses, there was of course one major exception; those who took positions in service. Lord Lorton had something of a reputation for an appetite for pretty young servant girls, so the visitor’s comment may well have been more than just an empty boast. If I had not decided to limit this account, as far as possible, to facts which were diligently researched by James’ grandson, my late Uncle Séamus, I might be moved to speculate as to the identity of the visitor, since he was certainly one of the neighbours. I might begin to wonder about the fact that the son of Odie McLoughlin (whose farm was a couple of hundred yards up the road from the Hunt place), Pat, who was born around 1860, was shown special favour by the landlord and was assisted by him to build the first two-story house in the townland. But as Pat McLoughlin was my other paternal great-grandfather, I am not going to continue my thoughts in this direction, which is, after all, nothing more than pure speculation …

Returning to verifiable facts, James Hunt ultimately had ten children, of whom six were girls. The five oldest girls all emigrated to the USA while in their late teens. None of them ever took a position in service to the King-Harmon family at Rockingham House on the other side of the lake.

Nearly a hundred and fifty years later, James’ small tenancy of twenty one statute acres now forms the nucleus of a much larger unit, farmed by my cousin, who has built himself a fine new house beside the one James Hunt moved into. That small Irish cottage still stands, though it is no longer inhabited. And while the population of Smutternagh has been decreasing for nearly a hundred years now, there are still descendants of James Hunt there. And will be, hopefully, for a long time to come.



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Sunday, 23 December 2012

A Kind of Christmas Card ...



The (temporary) creative pause from posting regularly on this blog which I decided to acknowledge (or give myself – I’m not sure which is closer to the truth; probably both) is something that I’m actually finding very pleasant. Just tooling around, doing the stuff that has to be done, spontaneously doing other stuff I feel like doing, it’s all very relaxing. But then there are other things; the things that fall into that wide convergence zone between want to and have to, between can and must.

Including writing this. I’ve never been a Christmas card person, though I remember their contribution to that exciting crescendo of anticipation which is my childhood memory of December, the expectation which is the very soul of the season known as Advent. Back in the day; a pre-digital age, a time when we didn’t even have a telephone (imagine that, if you can!) so that communication between people who didn’t meet regularly was limited to pen and paper, envelopes and stamps, and a postman on a bicycle.

They came daily through our letterbox, first a trickle, increasing to a daily flood as Christmas grew nearer. I remember my mother making a long list of people, buying cards and sheets of stamps and then writing them all. A few would be left in reserve to be sent to those from whom cards were received who had been forgotten on the original list.

And the cards poured in, being opened and set out on every available surface, when these were all used up hung from the walls or ceiling on string catenaries. We use to decorate the house for Christmas in those days too, paper and tinsel chains and garlands hung from the ceiling. As a kid I loved it all; it turned the familiar geography of our living room into a wonderful world of glitter and magic, ruled by the twin sovereigns of the Christmas tree and the crib, Mary and Joseph, the ox, the donkey and the shepherds all gathered around a central empty focus, that space where the baby in the manger would be placed on the evening of Christmas Eve, the first certain signal that Christmas was actually, inevitably here.

I don’t know if people still decorate their living rooms in Ireland today they way they used to do when I was a child. I suspect that fewer do – increased sophistication and a more developed sense of kitch are always purchased at the price of a certain innocent naïveté, and one of the basic facts of temps perdu is that it is like virginity, once lost it is irretrievable. Maybe this is one of the deeper reasons why so many adults are ultimately so often disappointed by Christmas; it is a seductive, insatiable longing for the innocent joy of childhood – a joy which, if truth be told, was probably never as unalloyed in reality as memory likes to present it. But memory is inclined to do that, isn’t it?

However, I realise that my thoughts are wandering in a direction which I had not planned, a direction with intimations of more darkness than I want in this … this what?

I started this by mentioning that I’ve never been a Christmas card person – after I left home, where such things fell primarily in my mother’s area of responsibility, I somehow never managed to make the exercise part of my own personal self-organisation. For too long, I suppose, I was intoxicated by the ephemeral, self-centred, invulnerable immediacy of youth, for too long afterwards I was involved in struggling with my own private demons and the trip-wires they had been busy installing for me in my life.

It’s well over a decade now since I managed to banish most of those demons, or at least to cage them so securely that they can no longer urgently threaten my life or my happiness. In those early days of putting my life back together again I realised the importance of friends and people who love me, and it became clear to me that the ordinary rituals of keeping in touch, however fleetingly, are an important part of nourishing those relationships.

Although I realised that the sending of Christmas cards is one of these important rituals, I consciously decided not to take that way. There had been too many caesuras in my life, too many friends for whom I had no longer addresses, for many of whom I had no contact details whatsoever. But the realisation of these losses, and the personal impoverishment they had given rise to, fortunately coincided with the spread of general digital connectedness at the beginning of the new century.

I had started to renew contact with many old friends, often using the internet to find them. And, as more and more people acquired e-mail accounts, I decided, instead of sending Christmas cards, to commit myself to the new virtual reality and send a longer personal e-mail to all the friends who could be reached by means of a web-tag containing that old mercantile symbol - @.

So, for many years now, I have been writing my Christmas e-mail. But the digital world changes, changes, changes, and my use of it changes too. In the past decade I have made many new acquaintances and established a number of what I regard as real friendships with people whom I have never met in real life. There are people, old friends and new, people all over the world, with whom most of my regular contacts now take place through various social networks; facebook, Google+, blogger, wordpress, and all the other virtual equivalents of the Irish pub, or the 18th Century coffee house.

Therefore, my friends, I have decided to move my Christmas mail here this year. And all of this has been nothing more than my usual rambling, roundabout, long-winded way of getting around to wishing you all a very happy Christmas.

Over the past couple of years I have published a number of essays here on Christmas and I feel no urge to repeat myself – if you really feel like reading them, just type “Christmas” into the search bar on the right of the page. But there was just one idea that occurred to me, which I would like to share with you.

In the Christian version of the much older urge to celebrate mid-winter/new year which seems instinctive to humanity in the northern hemisphere, the angels sing of “peace on earth.” There is something deeply quiet, inherently peaceful, about these shortest days of the year, when nature sleeps and we follow a deep urge to seek sharing and harmony with those we love. It is, perhaps, this longing for fellowship, generosity and solidarity which we try to express in the circle of our loved ones at this time which makes all the violence, injustice and needless pain which humans are capable of inflicting on each other appear so particularly horrible and useless. Whether in Newtown, Connecticut or Aleppo, Syria, in Timbuktu, Mali or Bethlehem, Palestine, the wrongness and futility of violence, hatred and killing strike us particularly at this time of year.

This Christmas, my friends, I wish you and me, us all and the world peace. Peace in our hearts, in our families, our communities, and our countries. Peace on earth. A wish as unfulfilled now as it was two thousand years ago. And yet, a wish still worth wishing. Maybe our wishing it – our really wishing it – is the only thing which stops us from finally and completely destroying ourselves.

Happy Christmas. And peace on earth. Salaam. Shalom. 


Thursday, 22 November 2012

Ireland's Abortion Legislation Mess



It is not an easy thing to say, particularly to say publicly in a forum like this for the whole world to read. But it is the way I have been feeling for the past week or so.

At the moment, I am ashamed to be Irish.

On November 14, the Irish Times published an article telling the story of Savita Halappanavar, who died in an Irish hospital on October 28. The immediate cause of death was septicaemia, more commonly known as blood poisoning, resulting from the miscarriage of a foetus in the 17th week of pregnancy.

A tragedy. Something which commonly happened a hundred years ago, which – thankfully – seldom happens now, at least in developed countries with a generally well functioning health system.

The massive septicaemia was able to take hold because Savita spent three days in a condition of cervical dilation with amniotic fluid leaking. There is an overwhelming medical consensus that in such a situation the foetus is not viable and will inevitably die. The basic medical procedure is, therefore, to terminate the pregnancy as quickly as possible in order to avoid the kind of complication which killed Savita. As a medical professional (a dentist), Savita was well aware of this and repeatedly over the three days begged that the birth be induced so that her life could be saved – a procedure which is, technically, an abortion. According to her husband, she was told that this was not possible, because Ireland was “a Catholic country.” Savita spent three days in great pain until the foetal heartbeat finally ceased without outside assistance and the dead foetus was removed. In all probability, the septicaemia had gained such a hold during this time that it was impossible to combat.

In all probability, Savita need not have died.

Abortion has always been illegal in Ireland (well, at least since 1867). Around thirty years ago, a number of right-wing Catholics decided that this was not enough. They argued that there was a danger that the elected politicians might some day decide to change the law, that, as they saw it, the right to life of the unborn child needed to be copper-fastened in the Irish constitution. In Ireland, the constitution cannot be changed by parliament; any amendment must be approved by a popular vote. A well-orchestrated public campaign began.

I remember it well; it was extremely sophisticated and very nasty. Anyone who expressed doubts about the wisdom of such a course was immediately accused of being pro-abortion, politicians were put under pressure, questions of the wisdom of trying to constitutionally regulate such a complex area of law, morality and religious belief were swept aside. Though I was a member of the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church at the time, I remember feeling very uncomfortable about the whole thing; even leaving aside my (perhaps for a “professional” Catholic unusual) personal doubts about the moral clarity of a blanket condemnation of abortion, and my deep reluctance as a man to take a definitive position on something which I regarded as really being a women’s issue, I felt that changing the constitution was no way to deal with the subject.

I voted against the amendment. Not that it mattered – it was passed by a two-thirds majority. Four years after the pope had come to visit, the Irish people felt a need to express how Catholic they were. The fact that any Irish woman who had the courage, the necessary information (and the money) could easily travel to Britain to have an abortion was generally known, accepted, disapproved of, ignored, and conveniently forgotten. Holy Catholic Ireland had won a famous victory against the menacing forces of godless international liberal left-wing secularism.

Nine years later that victory came back to haunt the self-proclaimed “pro-lifers.” The wording of the eighth amendment had been framed to try to comprehensively express Catholic teaching in a positive formulation:

“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” (Irish Constitution, Article 40.3.3°)

The parents of a 14 year old girl who had been raped by a neighbour planned to take their daughter to England for an abortion (the so called X case). Their principle reason for this was because the victim had threatened suicide should she be forced to give birth to the child. Before going to England, the authorities were asked whether DNA from the aborted foetus could be used as evidence against the accused rapist. The state applied for a court injunction to prevent the girl from leaving the country, the issue quickly landed before the Supreme Court, which ruled that it was constitutionally permissible for the girl to obtain an abortion as the danger of suicide constituted a threat to her life and so was a case which fell under the category of “due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.” Ironically, the danger of the amendment actually providing a constitutional ground for abortion in certain circumstances had been pointed out by its opponents during the campaign leading up to the referendum (among others by Alan Shatter, who is now the Irish Minister for Justice), but this opinion had been dismissed by its proponents. (In the event, the girl had a miscarriage before she could travel to England, the rapist was subsequently convicted.)

Justicia, ironically, is female
In a wider context, the eighth amendment, the X case, two further attempted (and rejected) “pro-life” amendments, as well as a number of other cases taken through the courts all the way to Europe, can all be seen as part of an ongoing transition of values in Ireland, particularly with regard to the waning influence of the Catholic Church in the country. But this provides only part of the background to Savita’s tragic and scandalous death a few weeks ago.

In the course of the past twenty years, the judges in the Irish Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights have been explicitly critical of the failure of the Irish Dáil (parliament) to legislate concretely for the whole area of the termination of pregnancies, even within the extremely limited circumstances they have defined as existing according to the eighth amendment to the constitution following the X Case. The judges have pointed out that it is their job to interpret the law; it is the duty of legislators to make it, to give practical form to the consequences of the interpretations provided by the courts. For twenty years now Irish governments (containing every significant political party in the state with the exception of Sinn Fein [the radical left-wing party which has historically been the political wing of the IRA] in one coalition or another) have frequently promised action and done … nothing.

As a result, doctors, counsellors, and other care professionals have no clear legal guidelines when it comes to dealing with specific situations. It is possible that the doctors in Savita’s case were reluctant to terminate the hopeless pregnancy because they could not be sure that they might be acting illegally and thus exposing themselves to possible (however unlikely) judicial consequences. This is all the more ironic, given that that the termination of her pregnancy could even possibly be justified by a line of argument following traditional Catholic moral philosophy using the Principle of Double Effect (a line of reasoning which has always struck me as being just a little too clever; casuistry, in other words).

Whatever. Why have Irish politicians failed to legislate to regulate such cases, to provide legal certainty for all involved? There are two possible reasons, both reprehensible.

It may be that they are just indifferent. The situation of pregnant women with health or serious mental conflict issues just isn’t important enough for them.

Or, more deeply, perhaps they are simply afraid. Afraid of the negative image of them the vituperative groups calling themselves “pro-life” are capable of and expert in projecting of them. Any politician who supports any legislation to legalise abortion, even in the most limited of cases, will be open to be portrayed as “anti-life,” “murderer,” promiscuous, irreligious, anti-Catholic, even, somehow, not truly Irish. An exhibition of honesty and backbone might well be toxic at the ballot-box, especially if the well-organised and well-funded (there are reasons to believe that large sums flow from the religious right-wing in the USA) anti-abortion groups decide to run negative campaigns against them.

The horrible thing about it is that they may be right. I have a sneaking fear that large numbers of my compatriots are still deeply influenced by a self-righteous, holier-than-thou picture of themselves as “pro-lifers,” secure in a reality-denying mindset made possible by the fact that any woman who really wants an abortion can easily go to godless England and get it there. And we won’t talk about it honestly. A nasty Irish version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Maybe I am too pessimistic. Maybe the erosion of that particular narrow-minded hypocritical version of Catholicism which dominated Ireland for a large part of the past century has finally reached a stage where my countrywomen and men are finally prepared to be honest with themselves, to face up to hard truths and harder realities about their collective responsibility for the society they want to make for themselves in a world in which moral opinions about the rights and wrongs of what people do (especially in the whole complex area of relationships, sex and reproduction) are informed more by humility, tolerance, compassion and honest doubt than simplistic expressions of religiously grounded infallibility.

There are all sorts of things I could write here about the difficult question of abortion. About the women I know who have had one and have told me about it. About the agonising they went through concerning their decision, both before and after. About serious moral arguments in favour of abortion. About the dangers of black-and-white absolutist arguments and the use of horrible emotive language and images to browbeat those who may not agree with you. About the fundamental truth that women become pregnant and men can’t and that, therefore, this is one issue where women should be leading the discussions and decisions on the subject and men should be playing a subordinate role.

But precisely because this is primarily a women’s issue, I, as a man, won’t go into any of these points more deeply here. I will only hope that the Irish will become more honest with themselves, that their politicians will face up to their responsibilities and at least legislate for the very limited, specific cases of abortion allowed by the present constitution. Of course, ideally I would like to see a more general debate leading to the replacement of that misbegotten 1983 amendment to the constitution, but I honestly don’t think that’s going to happen in the near future.

But Savita’s case may just have started a ball rolling. The pressure of public opinion, both within Ireland and worldwide, will probably twist the politicians’ arms enough to make them legislate for cases like hers. Then this beautiful, vibrant woman won’t have died completely in vain.

And perhaps then, my feeling of shame at being Irish will start to fade.

This is not a great version of the song, but the Boomtown Rats' music is as inaccessible on YouTube as that of Bob Dylan - at least here in Germany. But it really did have to be this song!



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Monday, 12 November 2012

Listening



It’s four in the morning and I’m on the night shift. Things are quiet; the five children who are my charges are all sleeping peacefully. I’ve just been outside for a cigarette, leaving the door slightly open so that I can hear the signal, should any of the monitors to which they are all attached give alarm.

Though our little group is housed in the middle of the city, it is quiet outside. The night is slightly misty, the temperature three or four degrees above freezing point. There is plenty of light; street lamps, the neon signs on the big shopping mall next door, the illumination of the city theatre across the way. Between our little garden and the theatre is a small playground. Looking across just now, I spotted a what looked like a fat rabbit grazing on the grass between the swings and the climbing-frame. From time to time he raises his head, his ears twitching. Has he registered my presence? I move towards the fence, the distance between us finally around five metres. Now he has seen me. He raises his head head once more, looks briefly towards me, then hops slowly away. He doesn’t seem particularly concerned. Caught for a moment in the stronger light of a street lamp, I can see him even more clearly. Now I realise that my initial judgement was mistaken – from his greater size and the shape of his tail, I can see that my night-time acquaintance is, in fact, a hare.

An old acquaintance, then. I have seen him before, in the dawn light of April. Then he was much livelier, gambolling on the grass, as they are wont to do in spring. Now, as winter approaches, his life is quieter, its most dominant aspect being the need to silflay as much as possible before the dark, hard, hungry season gets into its stride.

Posts on this blog have become a bit more seldom of late. Exactly why, I am not sure. I have been playing around with a couple of ideas in my head, have even started writing about a few before giving up on them. Bored with my own ideas before I have even worked them through? Perhaps.

I feel an urge to create something special, something beautiful. Some kind of instinct to make a leap forward, move to another level, without being clear about how to go about this. Writer’s block, creative logjam, perhaps a slight attack of plain old laziness? Maybe a combination of all this, along with a significant amount of something else, some kind of factor x. If I actually knew what it was, then I might be able to do something about it.

I feel two conflicting instincts with regard to dealing with this. The first is the generally excellent piece of advice; If you’ve got nothing to say, don’t say it. Surfing the web recently I’ve been struck by a sense of how much useless, superfluous bullshit is out there. Maybe it’s just a side effect of the US presidential campaign. Although I am an Irishman, happily living in Europe, I have the feeling that, all around the globe, you’d have had to be blind, deaf and terminally stupid not to realise that the USA was choosing a new (actually re-electing the old) boss. A cacophony of shrill attempts at persuasion – of whom? A few hundred thousand voters in a couple of swing states who finally decided the election? Was all the rest of it then just the convinced preaching to the converted, modern versions of the indignation, shrieking and threatening gestures between two rival groups of monkeys meeting in a disputed forest clearing. Ritualised hind-brain aggression, formally channelled to let dangerous instinctive feelings bleed off without anyone getting the shit beaten out of him, or even killed. And in the course of this, the two tribes involved spent up to six billion dollars. Not to mention the millions of words churned out in blogs, Facebook posts and tweets. What a way to run the world! And why on earth should I add anything more to this strange circus?

The other instinct is to just start writing without any clear idea about where it’s going to go. Just type away, immersing myself into the stream of ideas swirling in my head, reflecting my own subjective perception of all the concepts and impulses and stimuli churning around in my own particular personal and cultural environment and see where it takes me. Which is, more or less, what I am actually doing now. Some kind of intuition that I generally do have something to say; one of the basic purposes of this blog being the ongoing attempt to work on how I say it – learning by doing, honing whatever kind of ability I have to create something (however modestly) worthwhile, combining form and content, media and message, into that flexible and somewhat amorphous literary category known as “the essay.”

Writing, formulating my thoughts and ideas, just doesn’t flow easily for me at the moment. That … hesitancy … I mentioned at the beginning of this piece is still there, a feeling that that I’m trying to carve this out of hard wood, with tools that aren’t sharp enough. I’ve been writing this on and off (more off than on) for more than a week now, finding myself taking directions which I then subsequently revise and ultimately reject. They don’t quite fit, though (thanks to the possibilities offered by writing with a computer) I can save these rejected fragments to perhaps revisit and use later.

One of the memes which seems to be flashing about at the moment is that of stories. Narratives. Even President Obama took it up in his victory/acceptance speech the other evening. We structure the world in which we live by creating narratives, telling stories. Crises occur in societies when narratives no longer work, when the shared collective stories become unbelievable, incapable of providing a coherent explanation of past, present and future – from families all the way up to nations.

Since 2008 the global economic story has been in fundamental crisis, a crisis much deeper than the “crash” itself. The general consensus on an economic meta-narrative, told in the language of markets, the belief in the story of the Invisible Hand guiding all to the best of all possible prosperity through free, unregulated markets, is breaking down, along with many of its themes, such as Trickle Down or Unlimited Growth. In the midst of all the doom and gloom there may just be a small hope that we can build better stories; new narratives, based perhaps on values other than those of economic worth, such as decency, morality, solidarity.

I know, I have a strong personal tendency to (unjustifiable?) optimism. Or maybe just hope.

Personally, I have also reached a stage in which I am increasingly examining my own narratives. One result of the Burnout I went through a year and a half ago was a decision to go into psychoanalysis. Currently in the middle of this process, I find myself at a point where I feel the urge to say less and listen more – to others and to myself. I have no intention of going deeper into details here – it is a process which I consider to be intensely private – but there is one realisation which I am prepared to mention. I have a tendency in many areas in my life to turn “can” and “want to” into “must” and “have to”. It is a personal characteristic I don’t particularly enjoy and one I hope to be able to give less power to in the future. Writing here is something I do because I enjoy it, because I want to do it; I will not allow it to become something I feel I am doing out of some kind of obligation.

There are themes I have briefly mentioned here which I intend to come back to; particularly that of narrative. But for now, in common with my long-eared friend, the meeting with whom I described at the beginning of this, I feel the need to listen more and, perhaps, say less. So there may be fewer posts here in the next while. But those that I do publish (and I have no intention of abandoning this project) will appear because I wanted to write them, not out of any sense that I had to publish something.



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