Monthly Archives: January 2015

Walking out of the body and into the mountain

Lugnaquilla, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

Lugnaquilla, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

By influence habitual to the mind
The mountain’s outline and its steady form
Gives a pure grandeur; and its presence shapes
The measure and the prospect of the soul
To majesty; such virtue have the forms
Perennial of the ancient hills; nor less
The changeful language of their countenances
Gives movement to the thoughts, and multitude,
With order and relation.

So wrote William Wordsworth, a man familiar with the ‘ancient hills’ and the trudge of a long hike (he would reputedly think nothing of walking 30 miles across the Lake District to visit his pal Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

Walking nine miles across Glenmalure to the top of Lugnaquilla last Saturday my mind was void of such majestic thoughts. I had arrived at the mountain, as often happens, with a garbaged mind – too tired or preoccupied or unmotivated to look beyond the top of my boots.

Lacking order and relation what mountain thoughts I had concerned only with the sub-zero wind and the best route up over the loose snow and rime ice on the slopes above the Fraughan Rock Glen.

An hour will surely fix me, I thought.

But that hour passed and most of the next. And still Lugnaquilla, a boon companion over the years through all weathers and moods, did not work its magic. Racing, my mind remained back in the city.

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Descending Djouce Mountain, February 2008. Pic: Cormac Looney

Descending Djouce mountain, February 2008.
Pic: Cormac Looney

Before I began climbing mountains I had little conception of the mental silence that could be achieved amidst freezing wind, driving rain, searing bright suns and movement ever, ever upwards.

This was something that rose slowly, within; a silent, solitary realisation, it came in marked moments: descending Djouce as a February sun set behind Scarr mountain; turning to look back at the summit of Mont Blanc as the sun rose over the Col de la Brenva; standing alone on the summit of Carrauntoohil.

Years after I first ventured into the uplands I read Nan Shepherd’s ode to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain –  which provides a true account of this effect.

Here then may be lived a life of senses so pure…that the body may be said to think.
Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness is in itself total experience.
This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.

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Had I lost this? Last weekend, amid doubt and disillusionment, I suspected so.

Until, cresting out onto the summit plateau onto a field of ice, it rose through. Perfect focus descended, my body and mind and breath were one.

I was thereHere I was.

Shepherd called this “walking out of the body and into the mountain”.

Wordsworth wrote of peaks whose “presence shapes, The measure and the prospect of the soul, To majesty”.

To majesty, eventually. For now: to clarity, to peace, to silence.

Summit plateau, Lugnaquilla, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

Summit plateau, Lugnaquilla, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

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‘A few will think of this day’

WB Yeats, 1923

WB Yeats, 1923

“He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.”

So begins WH Auden’s elegy for the poet WB Yeats, who died on a late January day in 1939 in his room at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in the town of Menton on the French Riviera.

A great deal will be heard about Yeats this year, due to the Irish Government-funded commemoration Yeats2015 – a 12-month celebration of the poet’s life and work.

Not that the Yeats has faded from view in the 76 years since his death. Few poets command attention like he does.

This stretches beyond the poetry to the man himself and his life – the fairy-courting mysticism, the obsession with Maud Gonne, the Celtic Revival manifested in the Abbey Theatre.

And on: the nationalist politics, the automatic writing and spirit guides, the Nobel Prize and finally, the old man of later years. And – throughout all – the poetry.

WH Auden, 1939. Pic: Library of Congress

WH Auden, 1939.
Pic: Library of Congress

Amidst the celebration of his life Yeats’ death, and its effects, may not attract much mention.

But the pure change that happened in that Riviera hotel room elicited one of the 20th century’s great elegies.

The loss was harvested by WH Auden, one at the few poets of the time who could – at his best – go stanza to stanza with the Irishman.

Like readers and writers, generations and governments since, Auden’s poem celebrates the man.

But as he casts Yeats as an fount, a culture and “a mouth”, he leaves a residue of something else – an observation of the mundanity of death.

“Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays…
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself”.

Two years earlier Auden had confronted the same subject, writing on Brueghel’s painting The Fall of Icarus.

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' Pieter Brueghel (1558) Pic: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’
Pieter Brueghel (1558)
Pic: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…”

And so no death is greater than any other, and most pass unnoticed.

Auden’s Icarus attempts something unknown, unbelievable, in trying to fly. As he fails:

“…everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure.”

But, if death is often unremarked, memory is not. So it was for WB Yeats.

Amidst the wide world’s daily drudge, in places where hearing of a poet’s passing is as momentous as walking dully along, a handful would remember.

“In the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the
Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly
accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his
freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.”

A dark, cold day.

 

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Round the Cape with Ishmael, in a one man tent

FullSizeRenderIn the end Chuck D had the last word.

For the past decade we’ve read of the decline of print and the rise of the e-book. Bookshops would close, paper was dead, the Kindle was king.

It turns out that was wrong. Or, as Public Enemy had it, ‘don’t believe the hype’.

Sales of physical books are back on the rise. According to Waterstones, demand for the e-reader has disappeared.

It seems we’ve entered a brave new world of the post-book book. All those over excited tech predictions appear to have been just that.

After being gifted a Kindle three years ago I assumed I’d grow to love it. I bought e-books, read them, used the clunky notetaking system, even synced it with my iPad so I could wistfully view the covers in colour.

But I never felt it a replacement for a book, piles of which continuing to grow – mysteriously – around our apartment.

It wasn’t just a lifelong habit of reading on the printed page, or of scribbling notes in the margins. Nor was it the feeling of satisfaction in  re-reading sections of a book to catch up, or dip back in.

It wasn’t even the physical book itself.

What kept me returning to print was the feeling of a book as an artefact, an item with a history outside of its pages, an object linked to a time or a place or a state of mind.

FullSizeRenderThe two paperbacks above are each an artefact – my reading, marking, spine-breaking and scratching of both linked to a certain time and place.

My old IR£1 copy of The Great Gatsby has margin notes for an all-but-forgotten American literature course, taken at university almost 20 years ago.

Each time I re-read it (and it’s the book I return to more often than almost any other) I wonder exactly why 18-year-old me bothered to notate that specific passage…

But I refuse to replace it.

My Moby Dick contains marks of a different order, elemental ones that Melville may have favoured more than dry academic scribblings.

Many of the pages are curled and stained by water, after the book somehow spent a wet night outdoors during a camping trip I took to the Adirondacks.

I rounded the Cape of Good Hope with Ishmael as rain and wind blew, in a one-man tent.

My memories of Midnight’s Children are drier, dating back to a beach on the shores of Lake Tahoe, where I spent afternoons of a 90s’ summer recovering from working 12 hour standing shifts at a casino the previous night.

My sun-baked copy may still have sand between the pages. Blame the heat or the slots but, alas, I never finished it. (As with books, no reader is perfect.)

Rushdie’s novel, like my Fitzgerald and Melville, lies fading on a bookshelf. It will be picked up, but rarely. Instead it will remain with the others, shelved, untouched and gathering dust.

Not read, but not replaced by an e-version either. After all, how could they be?

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And through it all the river, clearing the heart

River Shannon, Athlone, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

River Shannon, Athlone, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

A place to start.

Maybe it’s Jeff Buckley’s voice at 2 o’clock in an almost-empty Sean’s Bar: Iheardtherewasabrokenchord – broken like the afternoon.
The sun of that day, July of ’98, hanging high over the Shannon, sifting, and the green-topped Peter and Paul’s.

Or a June morning, 4am and sleepless, sitting with my mother on the porch, the light already up.
I’d trade 100 other early mornings for whatever that conversation contained. It remains, somewhere.

Then the fog, always always the fog, murk in summer, freezing in winter.
Friday nights at St Mel’s Park and no idea what was coming from the white, the dirt floors of the stands, the roars.
Feet frozen eyes blinded. Fog there and fog home.

And when there was no fog and no rain the sky, huge above the flatlands and the river, a canvas for stars, for purples and reds, marked by high cirrus and vapour trails.
When people left that’s where they went.

‘I just can’t recallll San Francisco at alllll’ sang Bob one summer, all the month long before I left the town for that city.
The afternoon I left spent with my best pal in a pub on the Left Bank, ‘one more for the road lads one more we’ve time’.

Or further back, to years sinking away from me into the Callows. 1,000s of days of childhood, classrooms, soccer, tree gum on hands, bicycles and books.
Churches, halls, pitches, paths. Chilly Christmas Eves in a hotel on the main street of a town that was the only town.

And through it all the river, clearing the heart of that country. Taking it all, all of us and all we were, west – carrying us to open water.
And I was carried too. But there I was, at the start.

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New year? It’s time to turn to Plan Be

One thing at a time... 'René Descartes with Queen Christina of Sweden' Pierre-Louis Dumesnil

One thing at a time…
‘René Descartes with Queen Christina of Sweden’
Pierre-Louis Dumesnil

Be.

Did you wake up this morning with a list of resolutions? Are you about to eat less/drink less/spend less, work more/exercise more/sleep more?

Good idea. There’s a strong chance that, in a week’s time, you’ll be fitter, happier and more productive.

Over here…I’m going to be.

Planning forward, dwelling back, trying to think through more than one task in the here and now – this is my usual daily MO.

And so for the first few hours, and hopefully days, of this new year I’ll be sitting here, or there, trying to be.

The word sits atop a multitude of philosophical and psychological concepts and practices, from Rene Descartes ‘corgito ergo sum‘ (can we trust any sense beyond thought?) to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s ‘moment-to-moment awareness‘.

In my case it means focusing wholly on a single task in a single moment. One concept, one piece of work, one memory, one sensation, one thought.

Focusing on this ‘one’ also avoids the pull of distraction, a mentally-toxic wrench which corrodes clear thinking. (And makes us unhappier as a result).

This resolution is more than the usual casual advice to ‘live in the moment’ – the moment being something ephemeral and impossible to grasp (existentialist me asks if it even exists).

It’s to focus, to notice, to accept, to process, here and now.

This is Plan Be for 2015.

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