Five years have passed
And chat, and have you there,
With a thought, or a prayer.
Five years have passed
The world’s bookshelves – not to mention its places of worship – are filled with attempts to uncover the meaning of life. Not only is it hard to find (let me know if you have), it’s also hard to write about.
In terms of fiction, at least. While philosophers and the religious can deploy a chosen strategy or belief system in their attempts to pin down and formulate it, novelists have no such overt frameworks to hang their theories on.
Sometimes it’s best approached in a roundabout way. The gangster Pinkie Brown from Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock” comes to mind in this respect, a killer whose surface actions appear to motivated by understandable criminal hatreds, but whose cold-blooded willingness to kill underlies the great empty pointlessness of his situation.
On other occasions, it’s tackled head on – the “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name…” lines that the narrator speaks in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place“; the nothingness that the old man in the cafe in the story seeks to avoid, through brandy and company.
I recently came across a more positive – or less hopeless at least – outlook in George Saunders’ “Lincoln In The Bardo”. At its core a novel about death and bereavement, one of the main characters, a ghost who’s speaking as he’s about to ascend/descend into heaven/hell, provides as clear an account of the meaning of life as I’ve read in fiction in some time. Whether it enlightens, or provides consolation, is a different matter, of course (personally, I’ve looked to poetry for that), but it reads as good as any.
“None of it was real; nothing was real.
Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.
These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and , in this way, brought them forth.
And now must lose them.”
Seamus Heaney died five years ago, on August 30, 2013. I remember hearing about his passing as I drove from Dublin to the small nursing home in Co. Wexford where my mother lay grievously ill. She passed away five weeks later.
At the time the two events didn’t seem connected. Then, a month after my mother’s death, I bought a copy of Heaney’s “Selected Poems”. In it, I came across “Clearances”, a set of sonnets the poet wrote following the death of his own mother.
One – sonnet 8 – stood out, and came to be an evocation of my own mother, an elegant summation of grief, and a confirmation, a reassurance. (I now think of Patrick Kavanagh’s lines, “others have been here and know, griefs we thought our special own”.)
It needs little exposition, or none, in fact. It should simply be read, as I now do on occasion, when I want to remember, return, or be thankful.
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.
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”.
What other way to greet the end of a relentless year than with relief? And also with happiness that it’s over; and with a hope that I won’t encounter another like it again.
I spent long hours in unhappy places over the past 12 months and, despite this, happy hours in others.
Today I’m thinking of the better times: my niece’s birthday party, a nightcap with my wife on the terrace underneath Sacré-Cœur Basilica, and, most of all, the warm afternoons in June spent with my mother at Johnstown Castle.
I am writing this thousands of miles from those places, remembering and looking forward. To everything there is a season and surely the next season will be better than the last.
Until I find out, happy new year.
I imagine peace
I imagine sun
I imagine her garden in May
I imagine her hiking into the blue on Curra Hill above Rossbeigh Strand
I imagine her underneath a row of cypresses by a Tuscan chapel
I imagine her always saying ‘I hope the weather holds’.
As for the rest, that can look after itself.
I just imagine she’s there. Always, in all those places. At peace.