Saturday, 4 March 2017

Eight reasons to make a trip to Bray

My favourite singer Clara Rose hangs out with the coolest of people. 



This weekend Clara was in the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray with Flo Mc Sweeney, Emma Nicolai and Jhil Quinn.  The four Ladies in the Blues were accompanied by blues band veterans Ed Deane on guitar, Garvan Gallagher on bass, James Delaney on keyboards and Kevin Malone on drums.

These eight maestros put on a live music theatre show honouring pioneer women in the blues - like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Big Mamma Thornton, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Memphis Winnie, Vera Hall - and boy did they do them proud.

Alan Monahan Photography

It was really hard to choose a favourite - every number was stunning - but Emma Nicoli's 'Trouble so Hard' and Clara Rose's 'Ball and Chain' made my heart stop.

For a big treat check out these recordings of our modern day Ladies in the Blues side-by-side with the original Divas....

This is VERA HALL (1902 – 1964) singing Trouble so Hard HERE
Now listen to EMMA NICOLI sing Trouble so Hard HERE

Check out BIG MAMA THORNTON (1926-1984) singing Ball and Chain HERE
Now listen to CLARA ROSE sing Ball and Chain HERE

Can't wait for next year to hear it all again - thank you Mermaid Arts Centre - well done!






Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Want to know how to keep rats away from your shoes and survive algorithms?

Question: Where would you go to hear in one conversation about the Hindu Festival Diwali; how Thomas McDonagh kept the rats away from DeValeras shoes; Internet memes; post truth society; algorithms: coptic monks; echo chambers and clickbait?

Answer: Into any Irish pub - or maybe onto the Late Late Show!

This conversation featuring writers Stephanie Preissner (Can't cope, won't cope), Michael Harding (Talking to Strangers) and Artist and Rubber Bandit Blind-Boy Boatclub is so 2017 Ireland. 

Well worth watching HERE.






Friday, 30 December 2016

Cohen Candles


Leonard Cohen died on Monday, November 7.   The world did not know until the wee small hours of Friday 11th when the news started trending on social media.  Driving on the N4 to my Friday class I tuned into RTE radio.  Sean O’Rourke was reading a letter Cohen had written earlier this year to his muse Marianne when he heard that she was dying:

‘Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t have to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road’.


My teacher had heard it too.  When I arrived she was deep in remembering how, in the early 70s, her brother had taught her child-self to play ‘So long Marianne’ on the guitar.  She was remembering him bringing home vinyl from Dublin.  Remembering falling asleep in the room next door to the record player.  Remembering the night after he had gone out when the needle got stuck. Becoming hypnotised by an all-night rendition of ‘One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong.’ 

She is still hypnotised. 
She sang it then so beautifully then that I too became hypnotised ……
I lit a thin green candle to make you jealous of me,
But the room just filled up with mosquitoes, they heard that my body was free
Then I took the dust of a long sleepless night and I put it in your little shoe
And then I confess that I tortured the dress that you wore for the world to look through

I showed my heart to the doctor. He said I'd just have to quit
Then he wrote himself a prescription, your name was mentioned in it
Then he locked himself in a library shelf with the details of our honeymoon
And I hear from the nurse that he's gotten much worse and his practice is all in a ruin

I heard of a saint who had loved you, I studied all night in his school
He taught that the duty of lovers is to tarnish the golden rule
And just when I was sure that his teachings were pure he drowned himself in the pool
His body is gone but back here on the lawn his spirit continues to drool

An Eskimo showed me a movie he'd recently taken of you
The poor man could hardly stop shivering, his lips and his fingers were blue
I suppose that he froze when the wind tore your clothes
And I guess he just never got warm, but you stand there so nice in your blizzard of ice
Oh please let me come into the storm.






Later I got stuck in traffic in Maynooth.  I was stopped at the bottom of the town at the right angled bend.  The one which presents a choice to either to follow the road to the National University or to continue straight to the Pontifical one.  I tuned into RTE Liveline.  This time the car filled with the harmonious tones of the writer Michael Harding.  He was paying tribute to Cohen and he was at his best.  He described him as a priest. ….. A Jewish, Christian, Zen priest….. A master of resistance…. He didn’t need a Nobel Prize…. He was a priest who incarnated what remains when the fire goes out….

I cannot find now find his beautiful words online – please, please Michael publish them for us @hardingmichael

When I finally got to my destination I tuned into RTE again.  This time the poet Mary O’Donnell was speaking in the tones of my childhood.  She was remembering a summer holiday when she was 13.  She was remembering hearing for the first time the song Suzanne and becoming entrapped forever in Cohen’s lyrical web.  The song awoke the poet in her.  That summer she wrote her first poem. He danced her into poetry.  He touched her perfect body with his mind ….

I cannot find her beautiful words online – please, please Mary publish them for us @maryodonnell03

Later I decided this day belonged to Leonard Cohen so I curled up on the couch with his life story.  The book ‘I’m your man’ by Sylvie Simmons was a present given to me by the wisest man I know – a treasure not yet opened.  As I settled I tuned into the RTE one more time to find that the programme Arena was dedicated to Cohen – I listened to Dave Fanning describing him as a philosopher – and the best interviewee he had ever talked to. And then there she was - Sylvie Simmons live and sharing her thoughts with the nation.  Sometime I just love our national broadcaster. Thank you @RTEARENA and a million thanks to Sylvie Simmons for writing this book.
You stand there so nice in your blizzard of ice…..

Today I am back on the couch - this book – ‘I’m your man’ is my compulsory New Year reading

Today I also found this treat - a magical recording of Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen talking about their life together.  She describes him HERE as ‘a man with a tongue of gold.’


I cannot think of a better way to see out 2016 than to try to decide which is my favourite poem….


Maybe - If It Be Your Will HERE by the Webb Sisters

Or maybe Theo Dorgan’s favourite - Alexandra Leaving HERE with the amazing Sharon Robinson.

In the meantime - I want to know - which is your’s?

Friday, 28 October 2016

Absinthe

I’m in poteen country. 

No I’m not.  Not really. There’s no such thing as poteen.
But, as I sit on my Ottoman and gaze out the window, I have learnt a beautiful new word –
Absinthe. 

the view from my ottoman



According to Wikipedia - Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Aleister Crowley, Erik Satie, Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Byron and Alfred Jarry were all known absinthe drinkers. 

Did this result in their Absenting themselves from their families?

On Saturday last, former literary editor of The Irish Times and eminent author John Banville told Kathy Sheridan, who was interviewing him for the said Irish Times, “I have not been a good father. I don’t think any writer is. You take so much and suck up so much of the oxygen that it’s very hard on one’s loved ones.”

This quote – particularly the six words ‘I don’t think any writer is’, has made writers go a bit mental on social media….
This has in turn provoked Martin Doyle of the Irish Times to gather no fewer than 23 pieces from writers on Monday 24th in an article entitled, ‘Do writer’s make bad parents?’.

Walsh’s Love Letter from her Scriptorium

The first and most moving piece is by Triona Walsh.  Hers is a veritable love letter to her husband and children. She has ‘four of the beautiful, unique, fascinating little creatures,’ and she describes, ‘It is not just the pram in the hall that is the enemy of good art but also the nits in the hair, the mouldy kit in the sports bag, the 2am vomit on the bedroom floor, the squabbles in the living-room, the ketchup on the ceiling, the house phone in the toilet bowl.’

As you read her struggle to write alongside her fascinating little creatures you know, and you know she knows, and you know that John Banville rightly knows too, that none of these things are the enemy of art.

O’Connor's Reflections from his Ottoman

The funniest piece, by Joseph O’Connor, is a mock conversation between a teenager and father:

Father: Mmn?
T: It’s me, dad. Your daughter. I’m at the door of your office.
F: Term it my scriptorium.
T: Your, er, scriptorium. Sound. Can I come in for a sec?
F: Enter.
T: I’ve brought your absinthe.
F: Leave it on the ottoman.

Funny though - when I went back to my ottoman and read the John Banville article, it was six other words that jumped out at me, written when he was asked to contribute to a collection of six-word ‘stories’ –They were: ‘Should have lived more, written less.’ ”

So - what epitomises Banville?

Banville went on to tell a story that, according to his interviewer Kathy Sheridan, perhaps epitomises him.

B: “I tripped one day and fell in the street, and about six people were around me almost immediately, and I thought they could not have been more kind,” he says. “And my second thought was that in different circumstances they would be herding me into a cattle truck going to a death camp. ”

S: Really? That’s what you were thinking as people helped you up?

B: “We are an appalling species. We are capable of the most glorious things. For every Hitler there are two Beethovens, but for every two Beethovens there is a Hitler. So every silver lining has a huge black cloud around it.”

There is so much in this Banville interview, so much profundity, so much vulnerability, so many quotable quotes, one cannot help thinking that it is the choice of headline that provoked the furore.  But that’s another story.

So anyways –the two articles taken together have made me resolve to shirk on the Absinthe to make for a clear head.

Because now I must be sure to read all of these great writers - starting with Banville’s ‘Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir.’ So thank you Irish Times for all this provocation.

Monday, 3 October 2016

The Garage


Two godly things happened in September.  I read Fergus Armstrong’s article in the Irish Times ‘Rite & Reason: Let’s talk about God, whatever that means.  And I was at a funeral.

There’s something about a funeral.  Even if your feel peripheral to church things there is an intimacy about a funeral that draws you in from the margins.  Members of the congregation become involved.  They go ‘up’ onto the altar. They speak about relevant things.  He (still he), the priest, is not narcissistic, it is not about him, not about rules, he talks about someone you know, he might even refer to his own loved ones, he is empathetic, he comes ‘down’ to the people.  At the end he steps down from the altar completely and bathes your loved one in incense. He says comforting familiar words that draw you in.  He leads the way outside and onto the place of rest where he stumbles on the earth like everyone else, all together, to inter one of ourselves to their eternal rest.

It was after a funeral of a loved one, 20 years ago, that I began my real search.  I became drawn to meditation.  After many years of ‘Practice of Presence to Self and Others,’ in Eckhart House with the wonderful Dominican Sr. Joan O’Donovan, that centre closed.  I knew by then what I needed to do.  Practice every day.  Just Do It.  I knew also that it is very, very far from easy and that I am like an old car.  I can keep going as long as I remember to top up with oil and water and have a regular service. 

I have changed garages a good few times since. (I hope my teachers do not mind the likeness to a garage).   I struggled with Zen for a while and then did some great courses in Tibetan style meditation taught by the Mindfulness Association.

Fergus speaks about ‘The exponential growth of mindfulness training and practice in Ireland’. Many universities in the UK and now here in Ireland have developed Masters programmes in Mindfulness.  I notice the one in UCD is titled Masters in Mindfulness Based Interventions. In this programme, delivered by UCD School of Psychology and St. Vincent's University Hospital, students learn how to teach mindfulness based interventions in clinical or educational settings. I think the key thing, when you look deeply into all good mindfulness training, is that it is the practice that is the teacher. The good instructor is like the mechanic - they are versed in the interventions that put the car back on the road when it falters. We need to practice all the time, like we need good food, or exercise, it’s life-long. 

I must dance with the one that brung me

After two decades of all of this I have begun to uncover and articulate (badly) my own key principles.  One big one for me is this:  ‘I must dance with the one that brung me’.  I don't know my tradition well enough to reject it.  I know at some deep intuitive level that the mystics had it right, and that Meister Eckhart and much later Thomas Merton, for example, had it in spades. It seems to me that all traditions, at a base entry level, are fundamental and divisive – and when one goes deeper and deeper into them and closer to their core they become the same.  If we have a primary school appreciation of our tradition then we will be fundamentalist. - So I must dance with the one that brung me.  And my first abiding principle is that I must practice every day.

But....

But I am not drawn to the mass as a daily practice.  I am old enough to quake a little as I put that in grown-up written down words.  I wonder will I be struck by some punishing bolt, will this statement cause my car to break down or worse?  I am old enough also to know these thoughts of punishment are immature and ignorant. As, of course, is the notion that male domination of anything is a good thing – or that homosexuality is wrong.  So – for me, it’s ok to be pissed with the one that brung me, and it’s ok to hang out at the fringe and not to want to dance. 

It’s ok to be a wallflower

What I’ve begun to realise that I’m not being called to leg-it either.  It’s ok to be a wallflower.  In truth, the fringe is a wonderful place to be, it’s swinging, and the internet is a mighty resource for us wallflowers.

From where I am right now I can continue to learn that ‘I do not have to engage,’ that I can ‘remain here and witness’ to quote the Mindfulness Association’s Rob Nairn.  He speaks about mindfulness as ‘Knowing what’s happening, while it’s happening, without judgement.’ He speaks about going into our ‘Observer’ place and watching the ‘undercurrent’ of our thoughts.

Thank you Fergus for reminding me in your article about the lovely theologian Vincent McNamara who speaks of a further step on the road, “a result, for some of those who search, which is, that the inner orientation of their spirit does not terminate in itself but leads to a personal faith in a transcendent being”.

There are some other really cool guys out there calling us to our contemplative tradition.  Thomas Keating is one.  He says ‘Silence is the language God speaks, and everything else a bad translation. 

Richard Rohr is another.  He says, “When you get your, 'Who am I?', question right, all of your, 'What should I do?' questions tend to take care of themselves”.  Reading Fergus’s article has sent me on a trail which makes me want to read Richard Rohr’s new book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

And Fergus has also made me remember the work of eminent philosopher Jacob Needleman.  He begins his book What is God?, with, ‘To think about God is to the human soul is what breathing is to the human body.’ And one of his most memorable quotes for me was “…I learned from my own years of inner work that the great questions of life cannot be answered by the mind alone, but only when they are asked with the whole of one’s being’.

One of the apps on my phone calls me to dwell on daily words of wisdom courtesy of Ram Dass.  Often I follow them up by reading articles he has written.  I cannot find where he said this, so forgive me Ram Das if I misquote you, but I’m sure you have made this statement.  ‘Intimacy is when God in me meets God in you.’  And I know you have said this, ‘Inspiration is God making contact with himself,’ because I wrote a variation of it on my wall, ‘Inspiration is God making contact with itself,’   
Picture shows my favourite poetry anthology 'Soul Food' - Mary Oliver's Wild Geese features on page 36.

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly

Ultimately though, the people who speak best to me about God are the great writers, poets and artists, and usually it is not their goal, maybe even because it is not their goal. 

The first time I experienced this   I was reading the novella ‘Le Petit Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, when the little Prince said ‘Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’ My heart gave that little leap that knows it is hearing the truth – the one that sends that certain unmistakable tingle down ones spine.

At university, when I heard Peter Connolly read from the great works of literature, I had that experience over and over.  And it was always when he read that it happened, not when he talked about the readings. In Eckhart House, Joan O’Donovan caused this to happen to me dozens of times.  She had a gentle way, without any contriving whatsoever, of quoting literature that powerfully supported her point in the effortless manner of the truly learned.  


When I hear Mary Oliver reading Wild Geese -  I have a sense that what she knows most is how to get out of the way and let the flow happen.


The end

SO there you have it  – the two godly things that happened in September.   

And the end of the story is always the same. There’s no getting away from it, no matter how interesting the drama, what we are called on to do, by every single tradition, is to sit.  To spend time every day doing nothing. Not engaging in the drama of life.  Not even reading poetry. Just settling, grounding, resting. In silence.  Every day. 


Have you tried going into the church when it’s empty to do your practice?  They are very special places when they are quiet.  We should go there.  Maybe someday a friendly priest will notice us and see that we are struggling to do it alone. S/he might even be running a garage out the back.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

What better way to probe the Irish psyche?

of course - A WAKE.


I was so speechless after seeing Tom Murphy’s Wake in the Abbey earlier this summer that I haven’t found my voice till now.  I think the brilliant set had a lot to do with it.  It was so simple, stark and clean you felt no boundary between you and the characters.  You really were at this wake-which-wasn’t-a-wake - it was more of an inquest.  And even though it was truly awful, the 3hrs5mins flew by. 
Had it stopped after the first half I think it would have been even more powerful.  But maybe we needed the second half as a sort of debriefing, so that we could emerge back out into the balmy Dublin roadworks reasonably intact. If I had any quibbles it would be to wish that Vera’s accent had been ordinary.  There was no need for an accent… but that’s just a quibble.


Because Aisling O’ Sullivan was the proverbial ‘tour de force’. As Vera, she shirked from nothing.  You ended up spinning with her in cycles of fear, desire, a capacity to outrage and to show vulnerability in rapid shocking successions. 
But it was her venal clan and how they responded to her that mesmerized me.  Every character was a study.  Which of us doesn’t know her ex? He is in all our DNA. As is her spacer sister-in-law. Her manipulative sister.  Her victim sister.  Her buffoon brother.  Which of us doesn’t know that priest? He was massive. There was real tragic comedy in how each character struggled to respond to her. Their inadequacy was terrifying, these people were mean AND endearing. How did Murphy manage that?  I loved them. 
This play captured ordinariness and inadequacy more masterfully than anything I have even seen live.  Well done Mr. Murphy and Abbey Theatre.


It’s important to go to wakes. 


After my Abbey experience my regret this summer is that I missed another wake – this time a farcical masterpiece.  A Wake in the West by Michael Joe Ginnelly performed by the Kilcloon players, would have been a perfect antidote to the Abbey experience. 


At least I can enjoy and share this.  Click on this  ALBUM to view a beautiful photographic memento captured by Alan Monahan.  And see what my favorite singer does in her downtime.

Well done Mr. Monahan and the Kilcloon Players.