Monthly Archives: March 2015

‘The strange courage of the second rate’

Charles Bukowksi

Charles Bukowksi

No one remembers the person who comes second. Or third. Or twelfth.

History, in as much as it remembers anyone, reserves its slots for the winners.

And yet almost all of mankind’s graft, humanity’s progress and civilisation’s march has been done by the also-rans, the forgettable others who simply got on with it.

As Charles Bukowski had it, for every Wagner there’s a Bruckner.

While the mercurial Wagner revolutionised opera and was seen as the inventor of modern classical music, his contemporary was a humbler man, who acknowledged Wagner’s greatness while producing some lesser known symphonies of his own.

Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner

Bukowski was himself no stranger to the world of uninspiring graft. Until the age of 49 he worked various mundane jobs, most notably as a post office clerk, while writing at night.

Perhaps that explains his affinity with those who did “the best they could/and kept on doing it/even when they knew they/were second best”.

Milton’s thousands, “who only stand and wait”, become Bukowski’s second raters, those of us “who refuse to quit”.

His short poem ‘Bruckner (2)’ is a tribute to their presence, their perseverance, their “strange courage”.

Bruckner wasn’t bad
even though he got down
on his knees
and proclaimed Wagner
the master.

It saddens me, I guess,
in a small way
because while Wagner was
hitting all those homers
Bruckner was sacrificing
the runners to second
and he knew it.

and I know that
mixing baseball metaphors with classical
music
will not please the purists
either.

I prefer Ruth to most of his teammates
but I appreciate those who did
the best they could
and kept on doing it
even when they knew they
were second best.

this is your club fighter
your back-up quarterback
the unknown jock who sometimes
brings one in
at 40-to-one.

this was Bruckner.

there are times when we should
remember
the strange courage
of the second-rate
who refuse to quit
when the nights
are black and long and sleepless
and the days are without
end.

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Why walk when you can saunter?

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

When was the last time you had a good saunter?

Not a bracing walk on the beach after Sunday lunch, or a sweaty stroll around the shops, but a mind-emptying couple of hours spent outdoors, putting one foot in front of another?

Can’t remember? In that case you may be risking your happiness, your mental health, your limited days of existence as a sentient being in a world that offers soul-blinding experiential delights.

Henry David Thoreau thought you were. In 1861 he wrote his treatise ‘Walking’ (neatly summarised on this Brain Pickings post), in which he described the benefits of sauntering for those who otherwise endured a sedentary life.

By Thoreau’s standards that would be most of us nowadays. (Elsewhere in ‘Walking’ he writes: “I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day.”)

The Walden philosopher, at leisure to stroll thanks to – it seems – the donut-baking generosity of his mother and sister, extols us to get up and move.

But it’s not that simple.  Sauntering is not a physical act, it’s a mental one.

You can stroll off along a beach, for an hour or more (as I often do), believing that you’re immersing yourself in nature and renewing your sensibilities. But you’re wasting your time – the act of motion is not enough.

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

How often we find ourselves strolling while distracted? Thoughts of the day-to-day easily pervade – work, appointments, plans. How much of my walk is wasted as I  fiddle with my iPod’s song selections or its ear buds?

Thoreau again: “The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

So even the great Transcendentalist himself pondered his shopping list while perambulating around Walden Pond.

Aware of this, Thoreau set to practice what he dubbed ” the art of walking”, the highest form of which was the act of sauntering: walking with a presence of mind, a focus on the body, the land, the air, the everything, and with the affairs of “the village” left behind.

It doesn’t come easy. Thoreau stated that “it requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker”.

Or just finding the right path.

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Clearances that suddenly stand open

Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory Paul Cezanne (1891)

‘Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory’
Paul Cezanne (1891)

Mother’s Day is an occasion often observed more in the absence.

No voice, no presence, instead a void. A loss.

The feeling is unique to each person in a hundred ways but it’s also shared, among family members and outwards, to friends and acquaintances.

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney saw the absence of a mother as a clearance – an emptiness where a tree had been, rooted in a homeplace.

Shortly after his mother died Heaney wrote ‘Clearances’, a short cycle of sonnets documenting her life and his bereavement.

The details are personal, like breath in a room – his mother’s voice, how she folded sheets, how he felt closest to her when Heaney, as child, would help her chop potatoes.

In the final two sonnets, below, these details gather, as we stand with Heaney and his father at his mother’s final bedside, witnessing a ‘pure change’ happen.

For many Mother’s Day is not a celebration, nor is it a commiseration, instead it’s a simple, clear, unified absence.

‘Clearances’ extends no explanations or simple comforts. It does offer up a final hope that somewhere there’s “a soul ramifying”,  forever in a place “beyond silence listened for”.

 

In the last minutes he said more to her
Almost than in all their life together.
‘You’ll be in New Row on Monday night
And I’ll come up for you and you’ll be glad
When I walk in the door . . . Isn’t that right?’
His head was bent down to her propped-up head.
She could not hear but we were overjoyed.
He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

 

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.
_____

 

 

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Drink more coffee? I’ve bean there…

A cappuccino from Kaph on Dublin's Drury Street

The  cappuccino at Kaph on Dublin’s Drury Street

So coffee’s good for you, again.

In moderation, of course.

Or with butter.

Or between the hours of 9am and 11.30am only, from a custom-made insulated mug, using only beans that have passed through an elephant, while wearing a Clooney-on-The-Riviera face. Maybe.

Because it’s another week, another ‘coffee and your health’ report. This time the advice is that five cups a day will, it’s reckoned, free up your clogged arteries.

Combine this with daily glass of red wine we’re told is good for us, the steak that we didn’t eat for 30 years but now can, and the eggs that were once going to kill us but now provide excellent daily protein, and we’re on the pig’s back again (as they say) – even pork is good for us, maybe.

I’m sceptical. As a journalist barely a week goes my encountering another food advice being debunked or reinforced, or the reinforcement debunked. If I was a cynic I’d suggest all this is geared to keep university science departments and news organisations busy.

Instant in the communal kitchen.

Instant in the communal kitchen.

Of course put-upon doctors regard the whole ‘eat/don’t eat/eat less/eat without butter/eat with your fingers crossed’ advice cycle to be pointless, sensibly arguing that the best policy is moderation.

Which is also the dullest possible approach for the sort of person who drinks five cups of coffee at day. Almost as dull as that more extreme concept – abstention.

When it comes to coffee I’ve grappled with both, which has led up some blind alleys – usually involving the dubious dark arts of decaffeination.

But well into my fourth decade I’ve hit on the cure, and it’s got nothing to do with willpower, or advice from Heart, or my proximity to a decent cappuccino.

Detail from 'Nighthawks' Edward Hopper (1942)

Detail from ‘Nighthawks’
Edward Hopper (1942)

It’s age. Twenty years ago student me fuelled up on half a dozen cups of treacly Buttery coffee daily. Now I’m on two hits, an espresso before breakfast and a latte at lunchtime. On weekends I may stretch to a cappuccino.

That’s all the coffee I need. No more desperate sipping of my ‘fix’ from crumbly polystyrene mugs at service stations, or dipping into gallon jars of freeze-dried, taste-bypassed, caffeine granules in communal kitchens.

I got old. I didn’t adopt moderation, it adopted me.

I’m liberated, free of the worry, the shakes, the stains, the burned lips and the acid reflux, the queuing and the spilling.

But most of all I’m liberated from the next breathless, heart-racing report on how and why coffee is going to kill me. Or not.

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