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.



I hear the nightingale sing

I hear the nightingale sing…

As a child growing up in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, I’d read the Brontës and Enid Blyton from behind my window curtain, but not many other female writers. Since then, I’ve studied a lot of literature, all the way up to a terminal degree (a PhD), and discovered many female authors who resonate with me. A detour into Greek mythology led me to the story of Philomela, who was transformed into a nightingale after she’d had her tongue ripped out so she could not tell how her brother-in-law, King Tereus, brutally raped her. She had told of her sorrow by weaving her story into a tapestry, so it’s easy to see why Philomela and the nightingale have become feminist icons for rape, silencing of women’s voices, and empowerment through women’s arts. Margaret Atwood, a feminist and great transformer of myths, has a novella Nightingale in The Tent.

 During menopausal years, I used to have recurring dreams of children who could not speak and so this myth became a beacon of inspiration for me, during my years of teaching. I have tried to mentor and support those who have been silenced through gender, ethnicity, lack of education, low income, etc. and have taught first-generation college students at a community college and a university in East Tennessee, USA, and a technical college in Buckinghamshire, England. I have taught English to undocumented immigrants, the invisible ones who don’t speak the language.

My love of poetry and melodious prose came from my Welsh mother, from the lyrical words she read to me in childhood. I repaid this gift by reading poetry to her during her Alzheimer years, when the rhythmic words pierced the plaque in her brain and she could join in enthusiastically. She taught me to love the sounds of words in harmony and the lilt of her language, then I went on to study linguistics and learnt how to describe the mellifluous sounds.

Some of my favorite authors are the Romantics who were heavily inspired by the sweet sounds of the nightingale’s beautiful song and they, like feminists, found it empowering. (Refuting the myth, sorry to say this but only the male nightingale sings in the real world.) In A Defence of Poetry, Percy Bysse Shelley (1792-1822) invoked the image of a nightingale: “a poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.” In “Ode to a Nightingale,” John Keats (1795-1821) used the nightingale as a muse who achieved the poetry and music that he longed to write. In “The Nightingale,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge didn’t see the nightingale’s song as melancholy and full of pain; instead he thought it conveyed the joy in nature.

So I am not the only one to load this bird with the heavy symbolism of sweet sounds and empowerment for the silenced.