Anam Cara

Just spent a week filled with grace at a writers’ retreat, Anam Cara, in Eyeries, on the magical Beara peninsula, Ireland. This was a treat for all the senses, five acres of woodland to wander freely in to find the waterfall and to cross the wooden bridge to the island in the middle of a stream and to follow the ducks to a gap in the hedge to circle the mown labyrinth. I felt as though I were nine years old again and rambling in my grandfather’s garden in Wales, a child’s secret garden where no grownups could see me hiding in the shrubs and the blackcurrant and redcurrant bushes gave me their tangy smells as I brushed past them. The hand of the gardener lies very lightly on this setting that nature has blessed. It’s still Ireland untouched on this peninsula. We wrote and workshopped poetry and  Celtic mythology in the mornings with poet and writer Adam Wyeth. He has a lucid way with words to explain poetry that breaks through any blocks and provides inspiration. The house Anam Cara is a bibliophile’s delight–bookcases teeming in every room, and usually filled with signed books. Reading the inscriptions in some of the books, I felt I was in the company of the greats who’d stayed there: Billy Collins, Krista Tippett, and Jhumpala Lahiri to mention just a few. The owner and host, Sue Booth-Forbes, created this sanctuary twenty years ago after a dream she’d had.

During the afternoons, we replenished our creative wells with visits to standing stones and wedge tombs, a Buddhist temple for meditation, and a cheese farm. One of the standing stones is the Hag of Beara. She stands looking out to sea and waiting for her man to return. As she is the spirit of Ireland, the mother, the triple goddess, I left her with a wing torn from a kestrel that I’d found near the labyrinth on my morning stroll; maybe she can unite and heal the world as well as the bird. Others had left chocolate and tokens and messages for help. In the spirit of tradition I kissed her. It seems to be a male fantasy that if you kiss a hag, she will turn into a beautiful maiden, but I liked the idea of woman containing all forms of womanhood. In Ireland, they seem to accept the crone aspect of women. Time is not linear, but circular, so woman can be maiden, mother, and crone at any one time.

One “crone” I visited was the wise woman of Eyeries, Mary Maddison, who reads the small pebbles that stick to your feet as you tread in them, as well as the crystals you choose. A tiny, twinkly eyed woman in her 70’s, Mary plays a bodhran at sessions in the pub, as well as dancing until 2 a.m. some nights. While Mary is reading your crystals, she occasionally closes her eyes and gives you a message from the shades who are around you, wishing you well, she says. She was unnervingly accurate about a few of my relatives.

Another pleasant walk was to the farm that makes Milleens cheese, apparently the late Queen Mother’s favourite and which is exported around the world. Quinlan Steele, the ex-journalist son of the original cheesemaker, showed us around and explained cheesemaking and his philosophy. He cannot make much difference in a world full of problems, but he can do what he can in his corner of Ireland, and that is to help the dairy farmers and produce world-class cheese that keeps them going. Small dairy farmers are put out of business by vast corporations, agri-business, and Quinlan is fighting for the little guy. If an army marches on its stomach, then Milleens cheese has the right weapon to stick it to the man.

Ah, Ireland, magical mystery land where time may not go slower but it does flow circular.



Words of power

Whenever I’m able to, I attend services at historic churches. T. S. Eliot gave voice to my feelings when he says in Four Quartets, “Little Gidding,” that:

If you came this way,

Taking any route, starting from anywhere,

At any time or at any season,

It would always be the same: you would have to put off

Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

You can find “the intersection of the timeless moment” in the sacred places of the world, whatever they may be: churches, temples, and mosques that are built on top of springs or wells; or towns built on ley lines; or in ancient forests or caves. Sacred places have one thing in common, their sites have been blessed by the thousands of ancestral people who have worshipped and praised there before us. So much concentrated worship must be a benediction conferred upon the atoms in that spot and I believe we breathe and absorb those atoms when we visit quietly and with open hearts. The Romans called this spirit the genius loci, the spirit of place.

(Conversely, when we visit sites of atrocities, such as Auschwitz, we feel steeped in cold misery. There, the very atoms that make up the stones and rocks are impregnated with despair and suffering.)

Yesterday, Whitsunday, I attended the monthly service at Foulden village church constructed in 1786 on a medieval site where a meeting of English and Scottish commissioners in 1587 followed the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The church stands next to a Tithe Barn, one of only two left in Scotland.

The service was about Pentecost, the birth of the Holy Spirit. This great wind rushed through the disciples and enabled communication even between those who didn’t speak the same language. Communication is pretty important to authors and Romantic poets longed for this inspiration, this Muse which they saw as coming with the wind to inspire them. Remember Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” when he implores the wind to “Make me thy lyre”? In that poem he is also longing to embody the wind and have it: “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe / Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth.”

Of course, to in-spire is to be alive, to take in breath, and from the Latin inspirare, just as to ex-pire is to breathe out, to sigh one’s last breath, from the Latin exspirare. As the living, we need to be in-spired in every way we can.

Interestingly, the sermon mentioned enthusiasm as a religious word (from the Greek enthous) meaning to be possessed by a god and thus able to inspire others. I’ve always been inspired by the enthusiasms of others, whether they be teachers or not, so this word pleases me.

So, going to church gave me lots of inspiration and time to reflect on words.

Words that Pierce

More Words that Pierce

As someone who has put others before self and served family all her life—and who works in the education sector, serving students—I have a hard job in finding time to be myself, indeed, who am I? Inside my weathered body, a young girl is still wandering in meadows filled with wild flowers, bluebells, mayflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace, buttercups, daisies, and feeling at one with the world. Or she is following a meandering stream and listening to the water splashing through stones and feeling utter peace. Sometimes, when I get a glimpse of this child, she seems like a stranger, while at other times, I know her. Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey” set me free to begin to release the girl frozen in time:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

Words that Teach Me How to Live

I’m drawn to books and words that offer me new ways of looking at life and teach me how to live in a good way. I dip into the ancient Greek philosophers and some modern ones, but reading novels and poetry resonates with me more than theory. For instance, in Middlemarch, George Eliot has Caleb Garth say something about “’tis the duty of us old ‘uns to help the young ‘uns….” ‘Tis true—or what’s the point of life? The Garths are the model family in this book—even though they do espouse Victorian values of hard work and morality and as a child I yearned for a family like this, with right values. I see now that I felt at odds with my birth family’s values but had no means of articulating my feelings. (My one wish as a child was to be sent to boarding school to be with soulmates, like the Four Mary’s. Yes, yes, I know…) Caleb Garth’s words remind me of my paternal grandparents, who helped me and were the steady foundations of my childhood. They and the words in books helped me survive. Maybe one day I will go through Middlemarch and note all the wise sayings and it will be my manual for the rest of my life.

Mary Oliver is a contemporary poet who never fails to give wise guidance for life. Poets say things that we ordinary mortals feel but don’t have the words for. You read Mary Oliver and are stunned by a blow to the belly as the words unlock your frozen heart–the sudden blow that sends us reeling—for someone else has witnessed our pain. One of my favorites is Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” in Dream Work. It’s like the voice of God as she says to you:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

I’d like to be a modern Caleb Garth, capable of giving wise advice like the poet’s to myself and others. There is a sad lack of wise sages and mentors in real life and we must turn to books. I wonder if our lack of wise mentors is because we pay no respect to the middle-aged and elderly and don’t value their experience?