Category Archives: Relationships

The right side of history

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski

we are always asked
to understand the other person’s
viewpoint
no matter how
out-dated
foolish or
obnoxious.

one is asked
to view
their total error
their life-waste
with
kindliness,
especially if they are
aged.

but age is the total of
our doing.
they have aged
badly
because they have
lived
out of focus,
they have refused to
see.

not their fault?

whose fault?
mine?

I am asked to hide
my viewpoint
from them
for fear of their
fear.

age is no crime

but the shame
of a deliberately
wasted
life

among so many
deliberately
wasted
lives

is.

– Charles Bukowski, ‘Be Kind’

A little Hank, for the day that’s in it. When my time comes I’ll hope not to have aged badly.

Now, time to vote.

—–

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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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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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‘He wanted to stay in that cafe forever’

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If Christmas means anything it means home – a place or a sense of home.

The lucky ones will find themselves there today, at home, among friends, family or even alone.

I woke this chilly Christmas morning in one place I can call home, Wexford, the town where I was born. Lucky, I rose with a sense of peace, my wife alongside me, other family members stirring.

The feeling of home struck me so strongly that I was brought to another place, taken from the streets of Wexford to a snow-struck hill town in North Carolina.

A young man sat in a cafe there, in a poem by Charles Bukowski. There’s no mention of Christmas, or home, but the verse is suffused with peace, a feeling of contentment and acceptance, the Christmas spirit.

“…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.”*

—–
*Charles Bukowski, “Nirvana”.

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The eighth of December

Dublin. Pic: William Murphy

Dublin.
Pic: William Murphy

Every eighth of December rushes into one,

A memory dropping away, leaving just lights and traffic and mothers and young children

Green Dublin buses, darkening winter streets, throngs crossing.

But present always – a blaze of lights, which I still see, 30 years later.

That drew us, pushing, hand-in-hand, across Grafton and Henry and O’Connell Streets

One more shop, one more cup of tea.

‘Do we have time, before the train?’

Every eighth of December was a rush to the 90 bus, at teatime, down the long Liffey to Heuston.

This is gone, as is she, as is the ten-year-old who was with her.

But the lights remain, every eighth of December.

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‘Burned by my vision of a world that shone’

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard

Some time on November 1 a 29-year-old woman in Oregon will take medication to end her life.

Brittany Maynard’s decision went global over the past couple of weeks. She has an untreatable brain tumour and faces a certain and debilitating death.

Faced with this Maynard decided that “death with dignity was the best option”. She intends to end her life, with legal medical assistance, later this month, shortly after her husband’s birthday.

Now an advocate for America’s leading end-of-life choice organisation the coverage of Maynard’s story has, understandably, precipitated a debate on assisted dying/suicide (take your pick), medical ethics, and the existence and role of a God.

At times the commentary, again understandably, has overshadowed the tragedy of Maynard’s diagnosis, the fact of a life unlived, plans unfulfilled, the cruel cost of mortality.

Reading her story I tried to focus on that, rather than the mechanics of her death.
_____

Two days after I first encountered Brittany Maynard’s case I was sitting in work when, on a radio in the background, I heard the familiar, now fainter, voice of the writer and critic Clive James.

James has, like Maynard, an aggressive cancer which he acknowledges will soon claim his life.

Clive James. Pic: RubyGoes

Clive James.
Pic: RubyGoes

Interviewed two days after his 75th birthday he spoke of his surprise at still being around. “I do have a brand of leukaemia that will come back and get me, but nobody knows when,” he stated.

While Maynard has faced her illness by becoming a public activist James, a long-time public figure in Britain, has turned inwards, writing poems that address his mortality and assess his life.

“I had a new subject, death itself…It’s all very interesting. It’s adventure. And writers are usually a bit short of adventure,” he explained.
_____

Maynard will die with the help of medication, James will not.

When I foresee their passing it’s not the pain or distress, the ethics or the tablets, that come to mind.

Instead it’s the last stanza of one of James’ final poems, Japanese Maple, in which he foresees his death, lying in his room and looking upon his garden, his “slow fading out” complete.

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

Japanese maple, Musée Albert-Kahn, Paris. Pic: Line1

Japanese maple, Musée Albert-Kahn, Paris.
Pic: Line1

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Lifehack #1 – the human chain

"...part of the great human chain." Beneath the Parrotspitz, Alps, 2010.

“…part of the great human chain.”
Beneath the Parrotspitze, Italian Alps, 2010. 
Pic: Cormac Looney

“Only connect” wrote EM Forster. But with what? What is it that links us, that bridges the gap between each of us as we exist, in Patrick Kavanagh’s words, “alone in our loneliness“?

Does such a comfort even exist? If so, does this common thread transcend place, language, gender, even time?

How easy is to access this ‘oneness’? Is it as simple as a look or a conversation, or is it realised only after a long period of communication, by way of friend- or relationship?

Identifying, describing and celebrating this human connection has always preoccupied writers and poets, of course.

But seeking and finding the connection often comes easier, in my experience, to musicians. Perhaps this is because music can be, for many, a more direct and immediate form of emotional transfer that the written or spoken word.

It’s apt then that one of the best descriptions of human connection, its origins, reality and reach, came from a man who has spent a life singing his poems.

Leonard Cohen, 1988. Pic: Roland Godefroy

Leonard Cohen, 1988.
Pic: Roland Godefroy

On being asked if melancholia produced better art  Leonard Cohen, who turned 80 this week, took the question and answered with hardened, learned insight.

His response is a description of what links us, often despite ourselves, as we push on through – the feeling of a ‘human chain’.

“We all love a sad song. Everybody has experienced the defeat of their lives. Nobody has a life that worked out the way they wanted it to. We all begin as the hero of our own dramas in centre stage and inevitably life moves us out of centre stage, defeats the hero, overturns the plot and the strategy and we’re left on the sidelines wondering why we no longer have a part – or want a part – in the whole damn thing.

Everybody’s experienced this, and when it’s presented to us sweetly, the feeling moves from heart to heart and we feel less isolated and we feel part of the great human chain which is really involved with the recognition of defeat.”
_____

Note: I like the idea of ‘life hacks’ – pieces of advice, knowledge, insight, admonitions; discrete mind shots that improve life and produce an awareness of living.
The Lifehacks section of the blog is where I’m collecting and collating them.

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Meeting Hemingway above Howth

'Even the surface had been burned off the ground.'

‘Even the surface had been burned off the ground.’

There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.
_____

Six years after the First World War Ernest Hemingway wrote his short story Big Two-Hearted River.

In 1918, on his first day posted in the village of Fossalta in northern Italy as an ambulance driver, the 19-year-old Hemingway found himself combing a field for body parts, following a munitions factory explosion.

Days later he was seriously injured when a mortar shell exploded close to him. He was hospitalised for six months in Milan and left Italy on his discharge in early 1919.

Ernest Hemingway fishing at Walloon Lake, Michigan, 1916. Pic: USNARA

Ernest Hemingway fishing at Walloon Lake, Michigan, 1916.
Pic: USNARA

What he witnessed in his brief time in northern Italy provides a context to a number of the writer’s early works.

It’s perhaps most explicit in Big-Two Hearted River, written in 1925. The story documents a hunting trip in Northern Michigan, undertaken by newly-discharged narrator Nick Adams.

It is is read as a parable for the rejuvenating powers of nature, as Nick leaves the burnt-out town of Seney behind to hike and hunt into the uplands, to locate a place where “nothing could touch him”.

It also introduces a trope that would recur in Hemingway’s later writing: the juxtaposition of mountain against the plain, one representing purity, healing and principle, the other baseness, danger or corruption.

_____

Last Sunday my wife and I left the city and travelled to Howth, a coastal village 15km north of Dublin’s centre. It had been a long time since we’d hiked. Weeks of the day-to-day had led us both to simultaneously suggest the trip.

Leaving behind the crowds of visiting students, strolling families and traffic we hiked out and above the village to a coastal trail which winds along the cliffs overlooking the Irish Sea.

An hour in, walking the cliff path, we turned a corner and hiked into Nick Adams’ Seney.

The hillside all around was scorched and blackened and the sea air smelt liked cinders.

Days or weeks earlier a fire had been set, burning the grass under the gorse off the ground and much of the gorse itself, with the exception of some golden leaves above the fire line.

All that remained below were burned-up beer cans and glass, and an expanse of dusty black earth.

We walked on, up and out through the desolation to where we turned and there, from a height and in the distance and the clearing air, was the sight of Dublin Bay and the Baily Lighthouse.

We had reached our destination, a hillside washed green by recent rains. The sun shone on the water, the Dublin mountains framed the bay, nothing could touch us.

_____

Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned. He knew that…
Two hundred yards down the hillside the fire line stopped. Then it was sweet fern, growing ankle high, to walk through, and clumps of jack pines; a long undulating country with frequent rises and descents, sandy underfoot and the country alive again.

_____

'Nothing could touch us.' Dublin Bay and the Baily Lighthouse.

‘Nothing could touch us.’ Dublin Bay and the Baily Lighthouse.

_____

*The excerpts above from ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ are from The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Editon (Scribner, 1987)

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‘Next parish America’

Slea Head

The Blasket Islands from Slea Head.

IS there one single place that sums up Ireland?

Some people have their own, some may have one from a guidebook and others might think of a long gone location from their youth.

Most of us could easily list off a dozen contenders: the Ha’penny Bridge, the Giant’s Causeway, the mountains of Mourne, Shandon Church, the GPO, Croagh Patrick. You know the rest.

For me it’s tiny lay-by off a section of the crumbly R559 road, just past Ballyickeen, in Co Kerry. And as lay-bys go this one surely has one of the best rest-stop views in the world.

That’s because it sits atop Slea Head, the furthest point west in Ireland and the most western point of the European mainland.

The headland looks out over the Atlantic, west towards the windswept and now uninhabited Blasket Islands and south to Valentia and the Skellig Islands.

As my grandmother would say: “the next parish is America”.

I first visited this place as a toddler. Our family returned almost every summer of my childhood, travelling west from Tralee and picnicking past Dingle before reaching Slea Head.

One of my strongest memories of those years is my mother handing out ham and tomato sandwiches from the car boot, wrapped in tin foil, at the same spot we’d pull in at each year.

Over time my visits to Slea Head dropped off. I think I’ve been there once in the past 20 years, if that.

Slea Head for the first time. For one of us.

Slea Head for the first time. For one of us at least.

Until I returned last weekend.

I’d forgotten how the view looked, and felt.

I’ve been lucky enough to breath the air at the highest summit in Europe but I still think the draught off the Atlantic at Slea Head tops it.

As I stood there again last Saturday, on a rare fine day, it occurred me that this place is Ireland. Or as close as I’ll ever get to it in a single spot.

The sun, the mist, the rocks, the green, the sky, the sea, the place names (Ceann Sleibhe, Corca Dhuibhne, Dun Chaoin), the people who battled out a living here, buffeted on the edge of Europe, for centuries.

Some might call this concept ‘Mother Ireland‘. And this would be apt in my case.

Because Slea Head has always been a female place to me – my memories of visiting there are entwined with those of my mother and grandmother.

It was fitting then that when I travelled there last Saturday it was to show my wife Slea Head for the first time.

She’s not Irish by birth but she’s seen plenty of the country.

I doubt though, as she stood over the Atlantic, faced with the sweep from the Skelligs over the Blaskets to Dun Chaoin, if she’d ever seen anything as Irish as Slea Head.

Taking in the view, 1960. Pic: MJ Richardson

‘On the edge of Europe’. The rest-stop in 1960.
Pic: MJ Richardson

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Japan is…(in pictures)

Describing Japan in 500 words is difficult.

A few weeks since I returned from my first visit I am still trying to process the sights and sounds, the hundreds of small impressions that make up the memory of my trip.

Having previously set down a take in words I figure that now it’s the turn of pictures. Here’s ten that sum up what I saw of the country over the course of a busy 12 days.

I’ll get back to Japan, sooner rather than later. These impressions are part of the reason why.

_____

10373736_10152908947622178_4745746173785539010_nThe Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine is a major Shinto landmark in Kyoto. Like many such shrines it’s watched over by a fox – seen in the Shinto religion as a messenger.

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10334277_10152908952182178_4149215068209749102_nTen minutes from the busy Umeda commercial district of Osaka lies the river Yudo. Despite being on the cusp of a city of 2.6m people only a few runners hit the riverside running trails in the morning.

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10300116_10152908952012178_2493308882644777009_nFrom the Toyko subway to the famed Shinkansen to a tiny local in Kamakura we rode the rails all over. With every train on time.

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10308451_10152908962772178_1072611473128084820_nYamakazi single malt and dried shrimp from the 24 hour konbini store – is there a better way to end the night?

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10261961_10152871147301562_4664971002810964931_nWe ate big, we ate small, we ate sushi, we ate yakatori, but we always ate together. This was at an izakaya in Osaka, one of a number we visited.

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10380303_10152896397587178_8632450224177713798_nThe Japanese love their dogs, and their dogs must love them. The famous Hachiko landmark at Shibuya Station in Tokyo commemorates Hachiko, a Akita dog who famously turned up daily to greet his deceased master for nine years after his owner‘s death.

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10388120_10152871153751562_4689159811570022304_nAttention to detail is taken for granted. Whether it’s street sweeping, ticket collecting or making simple store-bought sandwiches.

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10369194_10152871156011562_3277657691173660722_nThere are 6,000 people per square kilometre in Tokyo. And it feels like most of them are waiting by the lights at the famed Shibuya Crossing. People, people, people: up, down, left, right, forward, back.

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IMG_4095Amazingly we had little sushi during our visit. An hour before we flew home we rectified this, at breakfast, at Narita Airport.

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10370440_10152898596932178_7926672014977243993_nThe language: I wish I could read it. But part of me wonders how I’d ever manage to comprehend the bewildering array of symbols used. Maybe one day I’ll tackle this translation.

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