Monthly Archives: June 2013

Everything was beautiful there…

Lugnaquilla

Snowfield on Lugnaquilla, April 2013.

Once in a while I achieve a state of inner peace.

Not in religious terms but in the simple attainment of momentary peace of mind, an absence of stress and a feeling of calmness.

It can come at the most unusual time. On the last occasion it occurred in a packed departure lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, amidst delayed, tired travellers, scattered luggage, the smell of fast food and chatter of flight announcements.

Before that it was on a snowy plateau on Lugnaquilla, the highest peak in Wicklow Mountains, last April. Hiking across the ice flats behind my walking companions I stopped, stood and looked.

Anton Chekhov. "You wish it would always be like this."

Anton Chekhov. “You wish it would always be like this.”

Beneath the soundless snowfield the range of mountains and hills stretched out, across a clear and windless morning.

The feeling was one of serenity, the oneness of person and the environment. Buddhists call this esho funi, the inseparability of life and the environment. For me it’s simply inner peace, a feeling of existential contentment that you want to have last as long as possible.

This sensation isn’t easy to describe in words.

Two writers I’ve read in recent months have managed to do it. In both the figure who encounters inner peace is on a journey, tired, “cut loose from purpose”, as Charles Bukowski describes his protagonist below.

Diner

“He wanted to stay in that cafe forever”.
Diner, Ithaca, NY.
Pic: studio4115.com

Both resonate with inner peace. Having read each, there’s little more to be said.

The first excerpt is from Anton Chekhov’s 1902 short story The Bishop. The cleric of the title suffers an emotional breakdown at a packed evening church service in Moscow. Emotionally drained and physically exhausted, he travels home in his carriage, observing the scene.

The road from the convent into the city went over sand, so they had to travel at a walking pace, and on either side of the carriage there were pilgrims trudging through the sand in the serene, bright moonlight. Everyone had become lost in thought and was silent, while everything all around – the trees, the sky, and even the moon – looked so young, friendly and so close that it made you wish it would always be like this.”*

Decades later, in a cafe on the other side of the world, a young man sits among fellow bus passengers in the Bukowski poem, ‘Nirvana’.

“…the meal was
particularly
good
and the
coffee.
the waitress was
unlike the women
he had
known.
she was unaffected,
there was a natural
humor which came
from her.
the fry cook said
crazy things.
the dishwasher,
in back,
laughed, a good
clean
pleasant
laugh.
the young man watched
the snow through the
windows.
he wanted to stay
in that cafe
forever.
the curious feeling
swam through him
that everything
was
beautiful
there,
that it would always
stay beautiful
there.
then the bus driver
told the passengers
that it was time
to board.
the young man
thought, I’ll just sit
here, I’ll just stay
here.”**

_______

*Anton Chekhov, “The Bishop”, trans. Rosamund Bartlett, About Love and Other Stories (OUP, 2004), p 190

**Charles Bukowski, “Nirvana”, as recorded by Tom Waits, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (ANTI-, 2006)

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Sprains cost. And you start paying…in sweat

A grand stretch in the mornings.

A grand stretch in the mornings.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

I don’t listen to Joni Mitchell when I’m running.

Her light-as-air voice and folk-jazz stylings jar with the lung-exploding, grunting, existential trauma that characterises my regular circuit.

But if I did I might have paid attention to her Big Yellow Taxi warning: we don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone. I certainly should have in the lead-up to a recent injury.

Neglecting to listen to my body (until, eventually, it grabbed me by the collar, shrieking in pain) saw me out of running shoes and onto the physiotherapist’s bench. It also introduced me to cruel, unusual and wholly necessary punishment of foam rolling. More of that below.

The background to all this goes back three years to a New York Times’ article I read on the pointlessness of stretching before a run. My mistake was extending this advice to after my run too.

The result was chalking up five 10km runs a week with minimal (read: zero) warm-down stretching. Maybe a dozen times in three years, and just hams and calves to boot.

The eventual outcome of this should have been apparent in advance – not least when I found myself crawling off the table in agony after a couple of leg massage sessions last year.

But no. I jogged on and on, approaching the painful reckoning one 10k at a time. It eventually occurred when I stubbed my toe on a crack in a concrete pavement in early May.

That was painful, but still not enough of a wake-up call. So for two weeks I continued to run on a big toe which, I later discovered, was sprained.

A day after I blogged about my injury I attended my physiotherapist who, deftly masking her horror at the condition of my feet and legs, ordered me off running for a month.

Like a pulling a piece of muscular string the toe sprain had kicked off plantar fascisitis (swelling of tendon on the sole of the foot) in both feet, strained my peroneal muscles (on either side of the shin) and my vastus medialis (the muscles above the knee).

My gait had wrenched my overworked muscles so tight that I could barely walk.

And so began a programme involving various types of stretching, golf balls under the feet, leg strengthening exercises and the foam roller. Oh – and having steel needles inserted directly into my knotted leg muscles, which feels exactly as it reads.

Foam roller

Foam roller. Agonised roar not included.

The icing on the rehabilitation cake though is my foam roller, a piece of molded plastic that I roll under my knotted leg muscles, producing fist-chewing levels of discomfort and instant sweats. The roller’s improved the condition of my legs considerably, and my lexicon of swearwords.

The treatment’s ongoing and the pain’s still present. But the physio’s allowed me three 5k runs a week at this stage, which has saved me from losing my mind (and my ever-patient wife from losing hers). I’m getting back from the sofa to the street, slowly but surely.

And I’m loathe to see a moral in all this, other than ‘don’t be an idiot, you idiot’.

As Joni Mitchell might say, I’ve seen toes from both sides now.

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The gift of sounds and visions

Scene: A darkened ground floor room in a dusty house at 1133 Shotwell Street in San Francisco on an evening in August 1998. Three young men in their 20s are variously seated and sprawled on sofas and a chair, lit by the light from the adjacent, cluttered kitchen. Bottles rest and lie on the floor, alongside bags of chips and foil burrito wrappers.

Me (sipping from a 40 ouncer): This sounds great. What’s it off?

J: It’s Into The Mystic.

S: It’s from Moondance.

Me: It’s something else. Play it again, will ya?

………….

That was the first time I heard Into The Mystic.

Into the music.

Into the music.

Despite the beer (more than one 40 that night, I’m sure), the passage of time and the thousands of other songs I’ve heard for the first time since, those three minutes on that long-departed evening are still as clear as day, or a Mission summer night, to me.

They bring me back to that room every time.

The song’s one of a few dozen compositions that return me, within four beats, to the time and place that I either listened to or heard them first (I mean, really heard them).

Van Morrison has more of these tunes than most. The opening piano fill on St Dominic’s Preview puts me in Alamo Square Park on a sunny afternoon that same summer.

Beside You brings me to the house I grew up in in the Irish Midlands in the early hours during a late 1990s’ summer; Tupelo Honey to a climb of Carrauntoohil in 2010; Linden Arden Stole The Highlights to the kitchen of W’s home, overlooking the river Shannon, on an evening sometime in the past decade.

In such instances my mind’s-eye vision is such that I can almost step back into the scene, whenever, wherever. The piece of music kicks off a mental movie in my head.

Physiologically this seems to occur because our medial pre-frontal cortexes (the bit of the brain behind our foreheads) respond to both musical chord changes and, separately,  reflective auto-biographical recall. But at times the two functions overlap, it appears.

Why this happens more with Van Morrison (and a small number of other composers) is unknown to me.

Wedding

‘Together we will float…’

Fast forward 15 years to the last time I heard Into The Mystic, a week ago. There were no 40 ouncers in a dusty room on that occasion. Two good friends of ours, R an P, had chosen it for the first dance at their wedding.

It was a fitting choice – a holistic hymn sung from the deck ahead of a voyage into a wonderful unknown future.

“The song is just about being part of the universe,” Van Morrison once explained.

A universe that stretches through time, space and memory from a long-gone night in San Francisco to an idyllic wedding ceremony on an Irish country estate.

And on, and on, into the music.

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Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine

At 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine

At 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Ernest Hemingway’s ghost has long since fled the Place Contrescarpe, in the fifth arrondissement of Paris, and is likely easier found now in San Sebastian, Havana or Ketchum.

But Paris being Paris, the building where he lived in the early 1920s, “very poor and very happy” with his wife and newborn son, still stands.

I discovered this on a visit last weekend, when my wife and I walked up the winding Rue Cardinal Lemoine, away from the bustle of the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

There are more famous literary landmarks in the City of Light, and more famous Hemingway ones even.

But, on a pristine Parisian afternoon this small symbol of domesticity, hope, ambition and youth in a life later strewn with great success and personal wreckage was our destination.

The book which brought us there was A Moveable Feast, the collection of vignettes Hemingway wrote in Cuba in his last, declining years, at a remove of almost half a century from “the early days”, as he described them, spent as a journalist and sometimes-starving writer eking out a living in the cafes of Montparnasse.

The work famously contains distilled and stripped portraits of fellow writers, not least Hemingway’s fellow ex-pats Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein (revealing how the latter borrowed her famous ‘lost generation’ comment from a local mechanic, no less). But written into and between these accounts are fascinating small details of the writer’s day-to-day acts of work, love, eating and drinking.

Clare and I had travelled to Paris from Dublin exhausted, pulled taut by stress, sleep-deprived and weary. Hemingway’s accounts of a less-complicated (on the surface only, of course) domestic and working life had appealed to us for sometime. And so we found ourselves outside a chipped blue door, beneath a simple white plaque, stepping aside as a resident returned home with her shopping.

Hemingway in Paris, 1924

Hemingway in Paris, 1924.
Pic: Ernest Hemingway Collection (JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

In 1922 Hemingway lived with Hadley Richardson on the third floor at 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine, “a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities…With a fine view and a good mattress and springs for a comfortable bed on the floor”.

Lunch there was “little radishes, and a good foie de veau with mashed potatoes and an endive salad. Apple tart”.

Rising early Hemingway walked to work daily, to a garret-room at a nearby hotel on Rue Descartes, where he would attempt to write “one true sentence, and then go on from there”. He later declared: “Work could cure almost anything, I believed then, and I believe now.”

Sitting on the Place Contrescarpe, dry and bright unlike its rain-lashed, impoverished appearance at the opening of A Moveable Feast, Clare and I discussed these simple pleasures and truisms.

Very poor rarely means very happy. And the opposite is not the case, either. So we go on seeking the balance. Some days or hours or nights, we find it.

That evening we returned to our rented apartment and later walked the hill at Montmartre to look on Paris below. Hungry, we went on to Le Comptoir des Belettes on Rue Lamarck, where we ate tartines and characturie and drank rose.

Then we returned home to the night breeze on our balcony, the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur above and the murmur of the streets below.

And we were happy.

Charcuterie plate at Le Comptoir des Belettes, 18e

Charcuterie plate at Le Comptoir des Belettes, 18e


All quotes in this post are from A Moveable Feast

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