Friday, 28 October 2016


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 –

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 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.