Friday, April 30, 2010
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Once I had said my goodbyes to Jan at the airport in Memingen, my motto became, “It’s all part of the adventure!” Not enough leg room on cheapo Ryan Air? “It’s part of the adventure!” A long, expensive cab ride to my first B&B? “It’s part of the adventure!” At home I live at points “A” and “B,” and “C” etc, and the transit times between them, I regard as annoying interludes to be kept as short, uneventful and expeditious as possible. In Ireland, I overruled this attitude, and allowed even these intervals to carry their own import and become a rich part of my experience. Have to get up at 4 am, take a cab to a bus to take me from Belfast to the airport in Dublin and then wait two hours? No worries, “It’s all part of the adventure!”
Hopefully, elaborating on my pledge will illuminate how I happened upon the most significant experience of my time in Ireland and stumbled upon the words that have haunted me ever since.
The full day of sessions held out at the School of Ecumenics was over, and the Re-Emergence conference was relocating to the Black Box downtown for an evening concert with Vince Anderson and then Foy Vance. I had started chatting with a delightful couple from Northern Ireland, and by the time we had come up for air, everyone else had gone to find something to eat. The Irish emergent couple had a date with their son, who was studying in Belfast, so they generously offered to drop me off near the Black Box. At first I was disappointed that I would be on my own until 8 pm, having enjoyed meeting and conversing with several other participants, but I decided that I would savor some time alone to have a good meal and reflect on the abundance of words I had already heard that day.
To this end I slipped into the Four Corners restaurant, one of the few which was not overcrowded with St. Patrick’s Day revelers, and was waiting to be seated after the two women who had come in just before me. Having been led to a table not far from theirs, I had hardly laid my little pink notebook on the table, when one of these women, who had obviously been celebrating St. Paddy’s herself, approached me with an invitation to join them and the two male companions who would be meeting them shortly. Taken aback, I scanned my brain for a tactful way to decline: maybe that “I needed to go over my notes from the day and was glad for some alone time, before I met up with others later in the evening.” Or that “I had the H1N1 virus, and would instantly self destruct, if I came into contact with drunk people, whom I’d never met before.”
But just as I was about to say all of that, my pledge intervened, “Lee, you’re in Ireland! It’s part of the adventure!. Do something you’ve never done before, and who knows, maybe something will happen that has never happened before.” It seemed apparent from her friends reaction, that inviting strangers in a restaurant to join her was something this well dressed woman, about ten years my senior with short but styled reddish brown hair and high heels, had never done before either. We were all quite surprised that I said yes, as was our waiter, who admitted, when we asked for a new and larger table for all of us together, that he had never had that happen before. The men that joined my host and her blond Finish sister-in-law were equally quizzical about my presence at the table, when they arrived a few minutes later.
Introductions were made, and you know, I can’t remember a single one of their names! So, I will call my intrepid, tipsy new Irish friend, Maggie, if for no other reason than I have grown to love that name and have been looking for “Maggie” ever since I’d gotten to Ireland. Maggie’s brother and a Scottish man, who was not her husband (silly me for asking) had also obviously been honoring St. Paddy that day. Of course they wanted to know what an American, living in Germany was doing in Belfast without her family. When I told them about the conference, and tried to explain what “The Emergent Church” was, Maggie had a vague idea of what I was talking about. She told me about growing up pentecostal, and that their parents were actually pastors. She also told me that unanswered pleas for divine intervention during a long, unsuccessful battle to save her marriage with an unfaithful husband had robbed her of her faith in a “happy-ending God.” But recently she had seen a speech by someone on tv about this “emerging way of faith,” which really caught her attention.
I couldn’t help myself, but had to ask them about the conflict. Had they been touched by it personally? Maggie’s brother jumped on that question, “You don’t want to hear about that do you? Do you really want to hear about my friend getting shot in his own home by an IRA dressed up as a Postman? No, you don’t want to hear about me standing shoe deep in his blood in the entrance of his home. Or about me going upstairs to fetch his father, who was shakin’ like leaf all over his body. You don’t want to hear about me laying him in my bed next to me, just to keep him warm and to get him to stop shaking. You don’t want to hear any of those stories. Of having to choose which bar you can go to by whether you’re catholic or Protestant.” I smiled, “No, at least we didn’t have that problem between our denominations in the states!”
How were things now? “Things are better now. For about the last ten years, with each year, things get better. Every year is better than the last.” Why do you think that is? What has helped to bring peace? I asked, wondering if he might mention grassroots efforts for reconciliation. Then Maggie’s brother looked at me with his clouded over, red eyes, making sure he had my full attention and said, “Imagine Al-Qaida, who have bombed and killed American citizens. Now imagine putting one of the head leaders of Al-Qaida in a top position of your government. That’s what we did. We put a terrorist in a top position of our government. That’s how we started to make it better.”
Seeing that I was drawing a total blank, Maggie took over, “We took one of the main leaders of the IRA and made him Minister of Education.” And after waiting for that to sink in, she added, “and you know what? He was the best damn Minister of Education we ever had!”
And though I don’t think I have grasped their full implication even now, these words have stalked me ever since that night. What Maggie and her brother tried to convey has only gained in significance, as I have sought to fill out my embarrassing lack of knowledge about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Maggie’s brother was talking about the implementation of a power-sharing executive as part of the devolution of Britain’s control. Maggie, I believe, was referring to Martin McGuinness, who was a leading member of Sinn Fein and had been a noxious and seditious IRA thug, as the title of a biography about him might suggest, “From Guns to Government,” and who became Minister of Education in December 1999 and deputy First Minister on May 8, 2007. More amazing is that Ian Paisley, co-founder of the DUP, who called Pope John Paul II the Anti-Christ and who in 2006 said, "[Sinn Fein] are not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland and it will be over our dead bodies if they ever get there," became the First Minister. The two of them represent the most extreme and aggressive positions on their respective sides of the conflict! On 8 December 2007, while they both were visiting President Bush in the White House, McGuinness said to the press "Up until the 26 March this year, Ian Paisley and I never had a conversation about anything – not even about the weather – and now we have worked very closely together over the last seven months and there's been no angry words between us. ... This shows we are set for a new course." Indeed, “Paisley and McGuinness subsequently established a good working relationship and were dubbed by the Northern Irish media as the "Chuckle Brothers."
When eight o’clock drew near, I excused myself, thanked them for inviting me to join in their lives for a couple of hours, and went to pay for my dinner, only to find that the two gentlemen had already taken care of the bill. I left the Four Corners Restaurant with a fond admiration for these strangers who had shared a meal with me, a deepening respect for the people of Northern Ireland, and in awe of the courageous steps they had taken to pursue peace. And I find myself still amazed at the mystery, as if it were the first time I had encountered it, that within the very souls that exert a horrifying propensity toward violence and destruction, it is also possible to find a divine potential to self-sacrifice for peace.
What better gift could I have asked for from the Irish? I must look no further for my Irish inheritance, Maggie’s mit-gift to her American descendants, something I can salvage from a family that has not survived the rough storms at sea. This is why it is so bloody good to be Irish! They have given me words; ancient words (Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization), written, spoken, recited words; words sung; words in a quiet, powerful, chance conversation; words that can challenge me, change me, and words that can guide me home. They have given us all a treasure of language, a language with which to embrace each other.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
They are everywhere. All around me. Every where I go, restaurants, along the roads, airports, trains and train stations, stores, bathrooms, cafes, taxis, B&B and buses. And they are all English! Blessed, beautiful English. Blessed, beautiful English WORDS. (Absence really does make the heart grow fonder.) And the best ones have an Irish accent!!
I can’t help but notice that the Irish seem to celebrate their writers and give homage to the written word. Little rhymes or quotes from literature kept winking at me from unlikely places. Above the seats on trains, at train stations, on the doors to restaurants. Some made me wonder if Dr. Seuss was Irish: “The seats are not for feet.” Or “Going to the game? Take the train!” But mostly the quotes caught me off guard and were in places I didn’t expect with no apparent context. Wrapped around a kiosk in Drogehda I read:
“You’ll never see the man again, who sat across from you,
better to look away.”*
and in the train:
“There was really nothing else to say
it was an awkward silence
I read the back of someone’s paper
I stared out the window.*
At first I thought it was just in Dublin, to attract tourists to the Writers Museum (exhibits @ Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Yeats, and Brendan Behan), the James Joyce Museum or the birthplace of George Bernard Shaw. But even as I left Dublin, I kept noticing these little epigraphs. As if Ireland was calling out, “have you read the works of our sons yet?” Upon hearing that C.S. Lewis, who was Irish, has been one of the most significant authors to me personally, an endearing Irish couple, during one of the breaks at the conference in Belfast, emphatically recommended that I read the Irish poet John O’Donoghue (which I intend to do, once I’ve finished the ten other books I’m in the middle of!). There are many more Irish writers that will join that list.
The Re-Emergent conference afforded another onslaught of words:
From Phyllis Tickle, a living religious encyclopedia, who used no notes and whose words went from her brain, through her larynx, and gushed out of her mouth at a freakish speed, I heard more than just the live rendition of her book, The Great Emergence. Words to put things into perspective, place ourselves in history and paint the grand scheme of things. Some disturbing words, some mind-boggling ones:
“There are over 39,600 distinguishable denominations (not religions, but Christian denominations!).”
“We still have to answer the question, “What is a human being?”
“A big part of this new spirituality is happening in virtual space...with about 70 million people whose only religious experience is on the net in one of the 800 virtual churches.”
and bingo: “If you reduce God to a proposition that you can articulate, you just lost God!”
Samir Selmonovic’s words drew water, when he illustrated Miroslav Wolf’s stages of Embrace (Exclusion and Embrace) through a story of the exclusion and embrace from his own Muslim family, after his spiritual journey led him to follow Christ. That story can be found in his book, It’s Really All About God. Some of his words that stuck:
“When I left Islam to become a Jesus follower, I had many adjustments to make.. I started to become bitter, because the “Christians” made no adjustments from their culture to become Jesus followers.”
“The Emperor might be naked, but he has a very nice body...”
“Bible study is like a marriage: sometimes you are angry at the text, sometimes you don’t want to talk to it for a while, sometimes you make up again.”
Dave Tomlinson had an English accent when he said, “If you don’t have doubt, you don’t have faith; you have certainty and fundamentalism.”
Beki Bateson, who I’ve quoted the most since I’ve been back:
“The kingdom of God is where Faith, Art and Justice intersect.”
As Christ followers, we should be “creating just spaces.”
“How do we move from injustice to justice? Exactly where we stand!”
“Art can help people imagine an alternative future and inspire them to actively move toward it.”
Kester Brewen’s words would also make a good lecture for the tv series “Lost.”
“the world is exploding in strangeness and it is causing us stress!”
conflict is “the failure to properly engage the other...”
...”God is much stranger than that.”
“...penetrated by the marvelous....”
“You are not a gadget”
That evening at the Black Box, IKON wove words together around the theme of choice... recited homespun words, gave us words to say in unison:
“We have been caught between
one thing and another
We have had to choose
between sister doubt
and her uncertain brother.”
And then the words exploded with melody and rhythm and voltage, when first Vince Anderson and then Foy Vance took the stage. Foy Vance’s words were funny, melancholic, perceptive, personal and Irish. Being transported by his phenomenal music, they were often deeply affecting. By the end of his concert, he, like a pied piper, had corralled us all into the much smaller foyer singing these words over and over again as one big unpracticed choir,
“When I need to get home, you’re my guiding light, you’re my guiding light.”
The next day after the closing session and some time eating and conversing at Common Grounds cafe, I had the unexpected opportunity to hear words from the first and only female Justice on Britain’s supreme court, The Lady Hale of Richmond at the MacDermott lecture in the Great Hall at Queen’s University. Her words were about the pursuit of justice and the complexity of applying the law in discrimination cases.
“I’m here to talk about the neglected virtue: Equality.”
“At the current pace, it will take 75 years to close the gender pay gap.”
“...the Human Rights model is better than Anti-discrimination laws...”
As rich and delicious, moving and challenging, informative and thought provoking all of these words were, the words that left a truly indelible impression on me were spoken outside of the context of the Re-Emergent conference altogether. The words that, though I never wrote them down, keep grabbing my attention, purring their way into my stream of thought, like a cat who wants to be stroked, were spoken in what at first seemed to be a parenthetical adventure, a detour from the charted route. Words born out of a truly Irish experience, which I would like to tell you about in my next blog entry.
*(Can anyone tell me who the above quotes are from?)
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
The Re-Emergence conference in Belfast was mainly my excuse to finally come to the magical land of Leprechauns. I have no explanation for why it has taken me this long to get to where I have always had a fancy to go (I’ve made it to England three times now, Australia twice, PNG and even Hawaii), but now that I am here, I have the silliest notion of needing to finish this sentence: “The Irish are _______.” I want to know who our people were, who Maggie was, who I am. And that in a mere five days!
Not knowing anyone in Dublin, my first whiff of Ireland came from my “chauffeurs.” Quite literally, the taxi I took from the airport to Skerries, just outside Dublin on the coast, smelled as if it might double as an escort service. The driver was unsure how to get to my B&B and was secretly using a navigation device, which he had on the seat between his legs. He could now afford to buy a more expensive cologne, because the ride cost me a fortune, double what I was told it would. The next day I took a train into Dublin and indulged in the Hop on, Hop off bus tour, which would have been out of the question had I been traveling as a family of five. Most of the drivers seemed to be auditioning for a stand up routine, peppering their tasty nuggets of Irish lore and factoids about historical landmarks with puns and punch-lines. One driver left out the lore and factoids and just told saucy one-liners about his “ex-wife.” Another tour guide told us that St. Patrick didn’t actually wear green. He wore royal and navy blue clergy colors. Green was, as Santa and his sleigh, thrust upon the religious holiday to make it more commercial, more appealing to a culture that was growing ever more secularized, a marketing scheme.
Looking for a place to have a coffee, I happened to walk into Bewley’s Oriental Cafes, which is home to Harry Clarke’s world renown stained glass windows. The building which once housed Whyte’s Academy, where the Duke of Wellington and Robert Emmet both went to school, became Bewley’s Cafe in 1927 and was the “hang out” for some of Irelands most famous literary and Artistic figures including Patrick Kavanagh, Sean O’Casey and Samuel Beckett. I was very pleased to hang out there and do some writing as well, and felt recompensed for not affording myself a glimpse of the Book of Kells, while I was at the beautiful Trinity College.
But for the architecture and the Guinness signs everywhere, the shopping district offers the same here as the world over: Gap, Gucci, Armani, The Body shop, McDonald’s and Burger King, with the later tempting me to forgo the culinary adventure of fish and chips. What frustrates me is that it seems no matter where I go in the world, I always find something American there. And indeed, in Dublin, anyone passing me by or sitting next to me in a cafe was as likely to have an American accent as an Irish one. The people waiting on me at my B&B, at restaurants, train stations, etc., however, had neither American nor Irish accents. They were mostly polish who had come over to earn money during Ireland’s economic boom and then go home again, but had gotten stuck when Ireland’s economy busted. It was a notable contrast to Belfast where it seemed everyone in service positions was Irish, and things were also less expensive.
My last stop of the day was in Malahide, another coastal town on the way out to Skerries. Getting there after the shops had closed, and having a bit of time before the next train and very tired feet, I stopped in at Duffy’s Pub after a quick walk down to the waterfront. Being too late to order something from the menu, I ordered a Becks (you don’t have to go all the way to Ireland to drink a Guinness, and drinking one in Ireland doesn’t make them taste better), and got out my little pink notebook. Of the 25 or so customers, there are five other woman besides myself. None of the men are younger than 45, rather quite over 50, white, with grey hair and casual, conservative dress. Malahide is obviously a notch or two above Skerries on the social scale. The bartender knows almost everyone in the house by name. They are all regulars except for myself and one other table. “These are the evening drinkers,” he responds to my question of whether the Irish drink a lot, or more than other folks; “ they’ll go home and then the night drinkers will come out.” He doesn’t know too many, that “drink straight through.” I understand him to mean that the Irish believe in moderation: they drink only once a day.
Now Lionel Ritchie is playing. The only place I’ve heard Irish music until now was in Burger King, where I stopped to use the restroom. I don’t spend a lot of time in bars now a days, so sitting here in an Irish pub, a horse race on the wide-screens, the salty sea smell of a coastal harbor town mingling with the savory sweet smell of malt, and this fill-in-the blank question gnawing at me like a dog on a bone, I am easily transported way back to the days when I did spend a lot of time in bars: as a little girl no older than six. The “Show Boat” and “Millie and Al’s,” were bars that my biological father, that precious Irish blood coursing through his veins, frequented daily. I’m guessing he didn’t have the knack for moderation, and am thinking he was more the “straight through” kind of drinker. Pistachio dispensers on the bar, dancing in front of the jukebox, gambling, poker games, trips to the horse races, the smell of fish and dirty water from the wharf in DC, large stuffed tuna and swordfish on the walls of Millie and Al’s, Shirley Temples (ginger-ale and grenadine with a cherry) were a few of the brighter spots of those years.
I sure would like to find some other traits to fill in the blank with, intriguing connections between the Irish and myself, more noble heirlooms that Maggie might have bequeathed to her American decedents, something worth salvaging from a family that shipwrecked on poverty, alcohol, crime and insanity. But I should be patient, this is only day two... I still have another three days to find out why being Irish is a bloody good thing. Ah... is that the theme music to “Shipping News” I hear.....