Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Same-Sex Marriage

Looking at the traffic flows onto this site, and seeing that I'm getting an unusual amount of traffic from other Catholic sites, it occurs to me that a few people might be logging on from abroad to see what I have to say about the same-sex marriage referendum that passed here two days ago.

I haven't said much about it on this blog. I've said a lot about it elsewhere. I've written about it in The Catholic Voice, on Facebook (especially in the comments section of the page of the Iona Institute, the flagship social conservative organisation in Ireland), in letters to the editor, and even in my little Chesterton column in The Open Door magazine. It hasn't been by design that I haven't touched on it so much here. But maybe, unconsciously, I've been avoiding it on my blog, where I try to write about joyous things.

It was an extraordinarily bitter and acrimonious campaign, as you can imagine. Feelings ran high. And I'm very depressed that Ireland has become the first country to introduce same-sex marriage by popular vote.

It's not a debate I particularly relished. I don't hate gay people. It hurts when you are told you are psychologically damaging young people who are homosexual and who feel personally invalidated by any opposition to same-sex marriage, or when they hear anyone say that homosexual acts are sinful.

But I am also a controversialist by nature, so I do tend to launch into debates, and to do so even more spiritedly when I am representing an unpopular and villified view.

In doing so, did I sometimes forget the humanity and feelings and sensitivities of homosexual people? I'm sure I did, though I tried not to. Mea maxima culpa indeed.

I don't understand why God seems to have made some people attracted to their own sex, when acting on this attraction is-- according to orthodox Christian morality-- opposed to His law. It does seem like a crushing burden to bear. And it's too glib to simply point out that all Christians are called to chastity. A heterosexual who chooses to become a priest or a nun, or to remain celibate for whatever reason, has made a choice. Even a heterosexual who is involuntarily celibate can hope to meet somebody in the future. But a gay person who wants to live their lives according to orthodox Christian morality must shoulder the cross of self-imposed celibacy. And that cross must be very, very heavy. And very, very lonely. I don't claim I would be able to bear it. Nor do I judge anybody who cannot bear it.

I believe God has good reasons for asking some people to bear such a cross. It's a mystery. But saying, "It's a mystery" does not feel very helpful when a child dies, or when a disaster strikes, and I'm sure it doesn't seem very helpful to people who are born with same-sex attraction. (Nor do I doubt for a moment that most gay people are born with these feelings.)

None of this makes me doubt for a moment orthodox Catholic teaching on sex and sexuality. But it does make me very aware that this is an extremely sensitive subject, and that we are talking about real people with feelings and sensitivities. And I am not sure I have always been tender enough towards those feelings, especially in the heat of an acrimonious debate.

I pray that we will all (me especially) journey on our Christian pilgrimage with respect for each others' crosses-- in truth, always. But truth with charity.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Michelle

I have mentioned my beloved wife Michelle a lot on my blog. But I've never really written anything directly about her. I feel inspired to do so, although this is to be understood as being by no means a definitive essay.

She is an American. This is far from unimportant to me. I have always found American women attractive. There is a kind of gusto and vivacity, a tanginess, in the very way they speak which appeals to me tremendously. I love American women, and Americans in general, and America itself.

Michelle grew up in New Jersey. I love listening to her put on her New Jersey accent-- an accent I've always found appealing. I tease her about being a 'Jersey girl", and I also tell her I like the idea of her being a 'Jersey girl'-- a cultural stereotype that European readers might not know about, but one that is essentially seen as being sassy and spunky (amongst other things). Once, when she was annoyed at me, she said: "You want the Jersey girl? You get the Jersey girl!". At that moment I didn't want the Jersey girl, needless to say! (That moment has become a running joke between us.)

There is a term that people use to describe their spouses and lovers that I've never really liked:: "My other half". I see its romance, but I still don't like it. I value otherness too much. I would never presume to call Michelle my other half. Nor would I want to. She is too much her own person.

Reader, I don't know if you've been reading my blog long, but you probably know I have a lot of opinions. A lot. I have a lot to say about everything. And I am very passionate about all my opinions and ideas. I suppose, if the theory of opposites were true, my ideal wife would be a rather quiet woman who agreed with me about everything and who was practical and efficient where I am theoretical and high-flown.

That is not Michelle. She is practical and efficient, but she is....well, almost everything else, as well. She has as many opinions and views as I do and they are by no means always in lockstep with mine, though our deepest beliefs are the same, and though our views on many more minor and incidental matters are also similar. She is passionately Catholic, and passionately pro-life in particular. (But even here, her approach to faith and her spirituality are sometimes different from mine-- but complementary, I think.) She grew up in a Catholic family, like me, but only really embraced her faith as an adult, like me-- though she came to it earlier. She actually helped to build up a young Catholic adult community in Richmond, Virginia. She has sung for church choirs.

My problem in writing about Michelle is that you will presume that I am doting on her, or exaggerating, but I'm really not. And when I say that she is remarkable, it's not a platitude. People remark on her. A lot. She makes a big impression wherever she goes. She makes friends. She makes things happen. She finds jobs for people. She's even made some matches. She makes things, full stop-- cakes (professionally), paintings, jewellery, budgets, repairs, pretty much everything. Somebody recently described her as 'superhumanly competent' to me. It's a good description.

But, as soon as I write that, I realise that I am making her sound awful. One can't hear a description like that without picturing someone who is a perpetual whirl and makes you want to lie down in a dark room just by looking at her-- a kind of Girl Scout leader. But she's not like that at all. (I would run a mile from such a person myself.) She doesn't dominate gatherings. She's not always 'on'. She is as much an introvert as an extrovert-- indeed, she might be rather more of an introvert than an extrovert, though she's certainly a lot better at talking to strangers than I am. And, in the literal sense of somebody who takes their energy from inside and needs to 'recharge' after too much interaction with others, she is indeed an introvert.

Another thing that draws people to Michelle-- me included-- is her eagerness to help. In terms of good works, she is a thousand times a better Christian than I am. I always remember the time when we were in London, utterly lost, and footsore from pounding the pavements for hours, and another tourist-- a young lady-- came to us with an open map and a confused expression. My automatic response was to say: "We're lost too". But Michelle did her best to help her-- and probably did, too. (I forget the outcome.) That is the least of her charities. Very often they involve things that are much more consquential.

Most of all, she is interesting. I couldn't fall in love with someone who was not interesting. When we attended a pre-marriage course together, one of the men there called us "the quirky couple". Michelle wasn't all that thrilled by the name, but I treasured it-- I still do.

Actually, we have a running debate about which of us is the funny one. Readers of this blog, of course, will know that I am the funny one. I frequently explain to Michelle that she's funny, but just not the funny one. She doesn't get it. She actually thinks she's the funny one. It's cute.

All my life I have been a romantic, and have craved romantic love. From the time I was a little boy, looking at the pretty housewives on packets of washing up powder in the supermarket, I knew that I craved romantic love with all my heart. I have an almost mystical-- no, an entirely mystical belief in the complementarity of man and woman, in the eternal otherness of man and woman. Before I embraced my Catholic faith, I had a deep interest in Judaism. I admired it, and still admire it, for lots of reasons. But one was the emphasis it placed upon marriage, and its lack of any real tradition of celibacy. I hated the idea of celibacy. I believed man was made for woman, and woman was made for man; that every Jack should have his Jill, and that celibacy was a kind of self-mutilation, a tragedy. I hated hearing about anybody being single and I liked hearing about anybody (past or present) getting married, or at least mated. My own shyness with girls and women only deepened this conviction.

The fact that I have come to have a very high esteem for consecrated celibacy-- to the extent that I'm against any relaxation of the celibacy requirement for priests-- does not mean that my mystical view of man and woman has changed, or diminished, or cooled. It hasn't.

The first time I saw Michelle we had already been corresponding for a long time. I knew when I saw her that we belonged together. Given my inherently conservative nature, it was still a long time before I told her I loved her. I was going to tell her one day when we were at a baseball game, but every time I went to kiss her she sucked in her lips and burst out laughing at my reaction, even after assuring me she woudn't do it again. (I told you, she thinks she is the funny one.) This frustrated me and I felt in no mood to make my revelation that evening.

 I often find myself thinking of a thousand little moments spent with Michelle-- from shopping for shoes together, to watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade on TV, to writing Christmas cards with Christmas music playing in the background, or even (especially!) watching DVDs together--and I'm surprised at the underlying sense of something like euphoria or bliss that pervades them. Even when a moment like that feels very happy at the time, this other thing-- this euphoria-- only seems to manifest gradually, in retrospect. Readers who have read my purple notebook series might note that these are all 'purple notebook' type moments. The distinguishing feature of such moments being, that no amount of remembering them and pondering them seems to lessen their magic.

The same applies to things that I associate with Michelle, or to which she introduced me. They can be things I love in themselves-- like the movie The American President-- or things whose entire appeal lies in their assocation with Michelle-- like the song Wrecking Ball as sung by Miley Cryus. (Not one of Michelle's favourites, I hasten to add. She just happened to play the video for me once, to show me how much the gal had changed from her Hannah Montana phase, and my imagination pounced on the moment.) Or then there is the Christmas-tree shaped Advent calendar that stands in my office-- the very colours and shape seem to glow because they speak to me of the one I love. Or the mere mention of the Divine Mercy Chaplet, which she told me about when we were first corresponding. Or all of the Saturday Night Live sketches to which she introduced me. I could list examples forever, and these are almost random. An atmosphere-- a glamour, a magic, I don't know how to describe it-- seems to hang over all such things. It is akin to the way somebody who falls in love with a particular country will feel about the language, the place names, the mannerisms, the noise and scent of its streets. Every one of these lets loose a cataract of deep emotions.

Is all this compatible with my being sometimes irritated, inattentive, indignant, peeved off, and so forth? Well, of course, it is. Just as I lose attention at Mass, even though I know it is quite literally Heaven on Earth. Or just as my mind wanders during my rosary.

Actually, the analogy is a very apt one. I like the EWTN programme 'The Journey Home', because I like all stories of journeys home, and because that is what my Catholic faith feels like to me-- home. Every tabernacle is home. The rhythms of the rosary are home. All the governing assumptions that are there when Catholics talk to each other are the language and accent of home. Indeed, it was the home I longed for all through the many years I only ever went into a church out of social obligation. But 'home' has to be understood, not only as a place of respose, but even more-- though it seems like a paradox-- as a place of adventure and exploration.

The poem that I wrote for Michelle and read out at my wedding reception is my own favourite of the (hundreds of) poems that I've written-- for its poetry as much as for its personal meaning. It came to me so easily. My father saw my manuscript of it, the morning of my wedding, and said: "Are you converted to free verse now?" I wasn't converted to free verse, but free verse seemed like the right style for that particular poem.

The last line is: "When I see your face, what I am looking at is home". And that is one of the rare, rare occasions when I feel I managed to express perfectly what I wanted to say. To me, the most powerful word in the language is not love, or yes (as James Joyce believed), or even God. It's home.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Musings on my Purple Notebook and Mortality

Now that I've published all of my famous purple notebook, and that it seemed to get pretty good readership 'statistics'-- as well as some kind comments-- I find mysef feeling mingled satisfaction and regret. Satisfaction, that such an idiosyncratic and personal treasury should be of interest to anyone. Regret, that I did not expand upon more of the entries. I know many of them are cryptic in the extreme, even with explanations. I think many of them would have taken a whole essay to explain. And I think it might have been a good essay in many cases. Still, I might have taken a month or more elaborating on them all. (Or-- to use the hideous contemporary term-- 'unpacking' them.)

The whole thing is an interesting subject to me. I was very lonely and withdrawn growing up, so I spent a lot of time engaged in my internal dialogue. And one of the constant 'debates' in my internal dialogue was-- should writing be introspective, or more outward-looking? Writing about one's own preoccupations is in constant danger of becoming navel-gazing. On the other hand, always trying to guess what other people will find pleasing or interesting can lead to soullessness and dullness, because there is no spark. Of course, the ideal is to strike a balance, but what balance? The surprise to me, on this blog, is that sometimes, when I am most personal and eccentric-- when I push the boat out the most-- it seems to go down particularly well.

My suspicion is that those inspirations that are most personal and elusive and difficult to explain are often-- if you track them to their lairs-- the ones that will speak to other people the most.

My articles in The Catholic Voice (which are under the title "The View from the Pew: Diary of a Catholic Layman") are usually a little over two thousand words long and, for the most part, are similarly personal and rather introspective, though of course, on appropriate subjects, and not nearly as eccentric as my blog.

Professing Christianity adds another dimension to this question. Christianity certainly seems like a religion of self-renunciation. "And now I live, not I, but Christ in me". "He who seeks his life shall lose it." So at times I have thought, Enough of the chasing of personal will-o'-the-wisps-- proclaim the Word! And yet Christ also said, "Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of Heaven brings out of his store-house things both old and new."

Attending my friend's memorial service yesterday had (inevitably) a big effect on me, and is fuelling my musing on these matters-- well, on everything, really. It was a humanist funeral and I posted this on Facebook:

Having been to a humanist funeral today makes me muse on the reason I find the secular, materialist or rationalistic account of reality unconvincing. There are lots of reasons, actually, and some are purely philosophical. But at a basic existential level it does not convince me. The mountaineer and Catholic apologist Arnold Lunn expresses it well:

"I still remember vividly the moment when I threw aside materialism for ever. I was nineteen at the time. I was just returning from a glorious day among the mountains. The rope had been discarded and we were smoking a quiet pipe on a little pass a few thousand feet above the valley plunged in the rich gloom of the Alpine twilight.

"The evening breeze served as a soft pedal to the music of a glacier stream which faded into piano when the wind rose. Sixty miles away the white bar of the Oberland snows saluted the setting sun. The golden glow of evening subdued the strong lines of the mountains, and confused the issue of separate and successive slopes. A white speck that was Chilon showed against the purple of the lake. The whole vast shadowed landscape seemed to be haunted by an all-pervading sense of something of which visible beauty was only the sacramental expression. I thought of Hackel’s dusty nonsense and laughed aloud. And from that moment I discarded materialism forever."

Lunn says later: "Such an experience has no apologetic value. The Alpine sunset was important, not as evidence of truth, but as a sign-post pointing to truth." I'm not sure it has NO apologetic value. I will say that the naturalistic account of existence seems TINNY to me-- like a small, cheap radio-- as compared to listening to a lush soundscape, like the dawn chorus. We have a sense of the sublime, transcendental, exalted, numinous, sacred etc. Where on earth did we get it? Why? How can the greater have come from the lesser? How can colour come from black and white? How can depth arise in a two-dimensional universe? I suppose this is a variant of C.S. Lewis's Argument from Desire.

I have been to two secular memorial services in a row now. (The first was my cousin's. There were no clerics present-- it was conducted by someone from the funeral home. My friend's was conducted by an officer of the Humanist Association of Ireland.) Both of them were tasteful and sober, but they leave one with a sense of emptiness. In both cases there were pop songs played instead of hymns. (I use the term 'pop songs' in its widest sense.) In that context-- especially in the Christian chapel where my friend's memorial service was held-- one can't hep but feel conscious of pop music's banality. Thinking about this made me want to never listen to pop music again, but that's a resolution I've made often in my life.

When I'm right up against it-- against mortality, and the fact that every day might be my last-- I just want to spend every moment living up to the high dignity of being human-- of being the only self-aware, rational, imaginative creature that we know about. While I am breathing, I am the "heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time"-- my mind can probe every mystery, survey the utmost extent of time and space, push the boundaries of thought and imagination as far as they can go, try to encapsulate the entire human heritage. It seems a kind of vandalism to spend any time, or least much time, watching game shows or doing cross words or-- listening to heavy metal music.

Maybe the worst thing about life is the way moment runs into moment so that you can't tell them apart. I've always been a champion of the routine and the everyday-- heck, Groundhog Day is my favourite film, and I rather envy its protagonist his predicament. But there's a difference between outward routine and inward routine. Surely every moment should be lived intensely as its own unique experience, even if it's something you've done thousands of times? But I don't achieve this ideal. My purple notebook is a record of memorable inner moments. I wish I had so many more. Maybe it's something that just happens and you can't bring it about. But I sometimes think that, if I was more cultured and more observant and more well-read, I would experience the world in a more nuanced way.

Of course, it's not your internal life but your external life that matters in the end. And of course, as with every memorial service, I left feeling intensely guilty about my own failures to love. But loving, too, seems to be as much a matter of the head than the heart, of judgement as opposed to pure will. It's not just self-conquest or self-renunciation or good intentions. It would be so easy if it was.

I often imagine that an experience of death (and, even though it was the death of a fairly close friend, I won't presume to say 'bereavement') puts life into perspective and gives you a new clarity. And it does, to an extent. But only to an extent. Even when the curtain falls on a life, there is an ambiguity about what exactly happened, what it meant, and what moral there might be for you.

To give an example-- the Irish writer Nuala O'Faolain was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2008 and gave a famous radio interview where she discussed her decision not to be treated. I didn't hear the interview, but I've read about it. In that interview, or somewhere else, she mentioned her regret at the amount of time she had spent in pubs rather than actually living. That reminds me of an interview I read with the screenwriter and director Shane Black, who had resumed making movies after a long hiatus. He described a protracted period he had spent partying in night-clubs, and admitted that, when apparently living it up in such a way, "you're actually dead"-- and words to that effect.

And yet two of the speakers at my friend's memorial service mentioned the wild nights they had spent with her in a particular Dublin night-club, back in the day, where she had met many of her friends and around which their social lives had revolved for a long time. And it didn't sound like a waste of time or a waste of life at all. It seemed like one of the high-points of a whole life. It seemed like an idyll.

Coming face to face with mortality, proverbially, should motivate you to 'seize the day'-- but how? What do you seize? Do you drop out and become a street poet? Or work harder to provide for your family? Do you aim for the stars, or do you learn to be happy with what you have? Do you live for the moment, or set your sights higher and sacrifice ever more to reach that height? (In Dead Poets' Society, it never seems to occur to Mr. Keating that his students might best 'seize the day' by honouring the discipline and spirit of their school and concentrating on their careers.)

And even if your faith gives you the answer-- "serve Christ and proclaim his Kingdom"-- the question, How? doesn't answer itself. The only answer you come away with is, "Try to make every minute count, whatever you are aiming to do. You don't have any minutes to waste."

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Beginnings of a Question-and-Answer Pamplet about Catholicism

I'm interested in street evangelisation. I'm not the kind of person who can approach strangers, but I have been chatting with a friend about a form of street evangelisation that won't require bothering anybody who doesn't want t be bothered. If this comes about, and isn't yet another of my crackpot ideas that come to nought, it won't be any time soon. But I thought I would start working on a question and answer pamphlet that could be handed out. Tell me what you think.

"Religion is based on faith, and faith means pretending to know what you don't know. Faith means not asking questions, not thinking."

Religion is certainly based on faith, but not on blind faith.  There are plenty of rational arguments for the existence of God and the truth of the Catholic faith.

“Can the existence of God be proven?”

Yes. The Catholic Church teaches that we can be certain of the existence of God, through the use of our reason. There are many philosophical arguments for God’s existence. The most famous are the Five Ways of St. Thomas Aquinas. These are detailed arguments, very often caricatured and simplified by atheist writers. They need to be explained in detail and cannot be presented adequately here.

“Can all Catholic doctrine be proven?”

No, the Church does not claim that it can. Some of the things the Church teaches have to be taken on faith. Again, this isn’t blind faith. There is evidence for all Catholic teaching, but—unlike the existence of God—the Church does not claim that we can know the truth of everything it teaches just by using our reason. Faith is involved.

“Surely faith is irrational?”

Not at all. Our day-to-day lives would be impossible without faith. We have (to some extent, at least) faith in doctors, faith in government officials, faith in the bank, faith in the news reports that come to us from around the world, faith in the airplane that takes us thousands of feet in the air. Our faith in these things is not blind or irrational, but based on experience and judgement. The same goes for the Catholic faith.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, don’t they?”

Absolutely, and the evidence the Catholic Church presents is extraordinary. It can be argued that the Catholic Church is the oldest continuing institution in the whole world. In a history of more than two thousand years, it has never changed its essential teachings, even in the face of many persecutions. It was spread by an obscure group of preachers—Jesus Christ’s apostles (followers)—who were willing to be be killed (and most of whom were killed) for telling the world that Jesus had died and risen from the dead. If this was a lie, they would have been extraordinarily stupid to stick to it even in the face of persecution and death.
There are many other extraordinary evidences for the truth of Catholicism, including the lives of the saints, well-documented miracles (in modern as well as historical times), and the fact that the Catholic faith flourishes in every part of the world. Many books could be written on this subject. Indeed, many books have been written on this subject.

“I believe in some kind of Supreme Being, but not an old man with a white beard sitting on a cloud.”

Join the club. God is beyond our understanding. There are things we can know about Him—some of them based on reason, some of them based on faith—but we can only have a very basic understanding even of these things.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The End of the Purple Notebook

First, an explanation of what it is for anyone who happens on this without context.

Keeping a little purple notebook is an odd thing to do. Writing about it is even odder. Reading about someone writing about a little purple notebook is the crowning oddity. So we are all odd together. Excellent. Let's finish this thing!

Oscar would have liked that. A line from The Book of Lists, which is a fun compendium of lists on unusual topics. One of the lists involves Oscar Wilde, and it mentions a plaque that was erected to him somewhere, finishing with the line: "Oscar would have liked that." Isn't it odd that people tend to refer to Oscar Wilde as Oscar rather than Wilde? I love the way his story has become such a legend. When I happened to be reading this particular entry in the book, I was struck by how odd it is that certain things-- like the story of Oscar Wilde-- are common knowledge, not only amongst highbrows or upper middlebrows but amongst everybody. And it struck me as strangely comforting that such patches of common knowledge exist. A part of me is always a little bit scared of complete social, mental and existential chaos-- unlikely though that seems. Hard to explain this one, really.

Coffee, marmalade and james shelves in supermarket. Domestic idyll.

Imaginary safari picture, Hot Press, Ennis mantlepiece. OK, how to explain this one? Do you know the how, in English literature of a certain period (or set in a certain period), Darkest Africa is a kind of exoticism that is always present amongst the green and pleasant shires of England-- the tribal mask on the wall, the stuffed tiger head, and so forth? I was in my sister's house in Ennis, Co. Clare, I remember looking at a cover of the Irish music magazine Hot Press that they had mounted as a poster, and I remember thinking (completely unconnectedly) of Darkest Africa, safari, the jungle etc., as a kind of daydream or legend or flight of the imagination. I also found myself also imagining a rather ornate mantlepiece, the kind that might be in the London abode of a retired big game hunter or African explorer. Can't explain it any further, I'm afraid.

Con Kiely, first communion. I was in the house of my step-grandfather Con Kiely and I saw a photograph-- a beautifully textured photo, as old professional black and white photos tend to be-- of what I took to be Con in a First Holy Communion suit. The fact that there could be photographic evidence of such a long-ago event shocked and delighted me, as did the continuity of identity between the boy and the old man. It was so unexpected.

Grandfather toy, N. One Christmas, my sister N got a mechanical doll of an old man, with a pipe and a cap and little discs that you could slot into him and which would make him say different things. Nobody else in my family seems to remember this, which grieves me as I seem to remember a lot of laughter about it.

C.S. Lewis essays, SnowmanThe Snowman was the third novel I wrote, and the first (and only) horror novel. I still think it was pretty good, at least in parts. I was really getting into it and felt a deep satisfaction at how it was coming along. I paused to read some C.S. Lewis essays and it felt like such an earned recreation-- and my literary exertion seemed to make me more receptive to ideas, too. I felt so alive.

Daffodill meadow in Limerick. A memory of childhood-- whether a memory of something real, dreamed or imagined, I don't know.

O&D, orange, boyhood. Two older boys I knew in my childhood. Their conversation and activities seemed like a Huckleberry Finn idyll of boyhood to me, and have seemed so ever since. Boyhood is such a distinctive spiritual territory-- full of a fascination with things like pen-knives, fighter planes, death, decomposition, spontaneous combustion, heavy metal, pencil torches, very hot foods, very strong mints, and so forth. I always associated this spiritual territory with the colour orange; maybe it's the orange of the General Lee and I'm mixing O and D up with Bo and Luke. I was never that kind of boy, but I wanted to be.

That antacid tablet ad classical music. There was an ad for an antacid tablet, when I was a kid, showing a montage of people in Edwardian dress over classical music. It seemed like the classiest thing ever to me.

Pippin comic. My little brother had a comic for very small children called Pippin, which seems impossibly quaint now, and I think did to me even back then-- though I wasn't much older. He doesn't remember it.

Original Star Trek after London. After a visit to London, I returned to Dublin and, a few days later, bought two series of the original series of Star Trek. I hated them! I ended up giving them away to a charity shop. But that's incidental, just the hook of this memory. The really important thing was my sense of disorientation after returning to Dublin. I'm not sure travel really broadens the mind, but one thing it does-- for me, anyway-- is make me realise that other places and other countries actually exist, that the places you are familiar with are a tiny part of an enormous world, which exists even when you're not thinking about it. Of course I know this in my head, but knowing it and really feeling it are different things. I felt such a sense of weirdness and disorientation for a few days post-London. The sheer vastness of London was part of this, too. Strangely, this was an unpleasant feeling at the time, but it's pleasant to remember-- that pattern often repeats itsef, actually.

American truckers, dusty roads, baseball caps. Whether it's something I saw on TV, or just something that came into my head, I've always had an idyll of American truckers travelling endless dusty roads, wearing baseball caps. I've always loved the insularity of America. There seems something eternal, infinite, self-sufficient about it. The dusty roads of America seem to stretch beyond the world.

Cornfield poster in Scoil Caitriona. Real or imagined.

Flu, GKC Autobiography. Have you heard of post-flu depression? I think I had it some years ago. I was recovering from flu, and to be honest, nobody seemed to care very much that I was sick. And that depressed me. But my depression widened out from that-- it seemed to me that nobody cared very much about anything. That life didn't really matter, the world didn't really matter, nothing mattered. I read Chesterton's Autobiography-- not for the first time-- and his hearty gusto and love of life brought me immense comfort. Here was someone who cared about life very much indeed!

Someone to watch over me. The title of a song and, more importantly, a Star Trek Voyager episode that I watched just today. It's what everybody craves. And its presence in my notebook is more a reminder to myself to BE that for others, rather than anything else.

Hidden panel, kid's book. When I was a kid, I had a picture book about two well-off kids who dressed in slacks and pullovers and shirts, and had neatly combed fringes, and who discovered (as part of a bigger adventure) some kind of hidden door in a house where they were saying. This utterly enthralled me, as all hidden panels and hidden doors and caverns and tunnels in stories have always enthralled me. It's probably something to do with sex.

Airplanes, Comortas Gaeilge. I went to an Irish language primary school. We were meant to speak Irish all the time, but of course nobody did. So the headmaster organised an ongoing competition to see who could speak the most Irish, in school and out of school. At the end of every week, we all filled into the assembly hall, and broke into our regular teams (which were made up of kids of different ages). The winners every week were the team who spoke the most Irish, based on a chart that each child kept all week. (For a system based on self-reporting, I'm surprised how honest it all was. I remember once being made to apologise to my team-mates for letting them down and not speaking enough Irish. I wonder if I've ever recalled that incident before now, since it happened over twenty years ago?) There was also bingo at the same assembly.

At one of these sessions-- which were the last school business of the week, and always had an air of release and celebration to them-- my older brother, who wasn't on my team, came to me to tell me he had bought some paper airplanes for us and my younger brother. This airplanes (more foam than paper) came in a packet, were assembled by slotting the various pieces together, and had plastic propellors and noses, and could glide-- kind of. There were many different models, and they were based on actual fighter planes. My brother was fascinated with fighter planes and I felt it was the kind of thing that boys should be interested in (though I wasn't really). I think this was a weekend towards the summer holidays.

The whole memory has an atmosphere of brotherhood, boyhood, the weekend, the summer,  release, excitement, and so on.

"Ah! This is the life!". Billy's Boots. The only entry in my little purple notebook that I've written a poem about.

From Bismarck to De Gaulle, field outside school. The first part of that entry is the title of a very fine textbook on European history I had when I was seventeen and eighteen. One history class, we were reading about the Franco-Prussian war from it, and I was sitting by the window looking out into the playing field. I thought of how small that field was compared to the enormous tracts of land at play in text-book history-- and yet, all those vast tracts were made up of little patches of ground, and there were innumerable quiet afternoons in between all those momentous events. I found this an exciting thought. I felt I could hear the music of history-- very low, almost inaudible, but not quite.

Coffin sweets, hospital. My cousin was in hospital getting his tonsils out, or his appendix out, or something. He had-- or somebody had-- some horror-themed sweets (candy) that came in quite an impressive coffin-shaped plastic box. They contained badges of various horror characters. I asked my brother about this only days ago and he remembers them. We were all crazy for horror. We still are.

Doctor and Seven of Nine in Voyager. Two characters on Star Trek: Voyager. Voyager has been described as 'the red-headed stepchild of the franchise'-- which, given my propensity for underdogs and contrarianism, might partly explain why I like it. The Doctor (he has no name) is a character who starts out as a medical hologram and gradually becomes more of a person in his own right. Seven of Nine is a member of the Borg, a race who are governed by a 'hive-mind' and who seek to 'assimilate' other races-- she was captured by the Borg as a little girl. She is freed from the Borg and, for the rest of the series, we watch her very painful and tender journey towards reclaiming her humanity and becoming an individual-- discovering how to navigate all the parts of being human that most people mastered in their childhood, such as social interaction.

I find these characters fascinating because they are both learning to be human, painfully and in unusual circumstance. Apart from finding this dramatically compelling in its own right, I identify with them. Other than reading or writing, I was a slow starter in nearly everything-- sometimes to a spectacular degree. Tying my laces, flying on a plane, leaving the country, having a job, making friends, drinking alcohol, going to a party, dating, experiencing a first kiss-- I did them all later and often way later than most people. So much so that it's often hard to find my experience mirrored in fiction, other than Seven of Nine and the Doctor. And the fact that their story is interesting, that they are sympathetic and admirable characters, makes me feel better about my own story.

Reading Ronald Knox in the Odeon. I was waiting to meet my friends Paul and Liz in the Odeon pub in Dublin. In the meantime, I was reading A Spiritual Aeneid, Msgr. Ronald Knox's spiritual memoir. The Odeon is a very ornate and big pub, with lavish upholstery. How often in my life I've been reading in such a place, and the place and the book have taken on a colouring from each other, and have given me a vivid sense of life's drama!

Pannenberg, Bamboo Café. Wolfhart Pannenberg is a Protestant theologian who died recently-- RIP. The Bamboo Café is a café in Richmond, Virginia. I was reading a book of essays about Pannenberg while eating a corned-beef sandwich in this pleasantly shabby café. Reading and eating is the best combination in the world. Or close to it.

Millennium stained glass. This is the memory of a trip into the city centre with my art class in school. We were going in to look at stained glass. Someone jokingly pointed out a piece of stained glass-- very rudimentary-- that had been put up on a shop front for the Dublin Millennium in 1988, about six years before. I was in one of those phases of my teens when I decided I was going to burn with a hard gemlike flame, a la Walter Pater, and open myself fully to the aesthetic ecstasy of every experience. And it worked for minutes at a time, including this one.

Home made Christmas card, Philadelphia. This is a home-made Christmas card that I made for Michelle in Philadelphia Airport. Not only could I not find a Christmas card in any of the shops in the airport-- on Christmas Eve!-- I couldn't even buy any paper to make one. So I tore a flyleaf from my Bible and used that. I felt very happy making it.

Solemnity of the National Museum.

Flapjacks. A memory from childhood. My schoolteacher was absent, so I was sent to join my brother in his class. They were making flapjacks. This seemed so grown-up to me.

Newman's sermons, Nealon's. Nealon's is a pub in Dublin. I read Newman's sermons there. It was a memorable experience.

Angels of light, National Museum. A dream, from childhood (I think). I saw an angelic figure (or figures) and it was either set against the backdrop of the National Museum, or the atmosphere somehow reminded me of that institution. The funny thing is that, though this was a dream, it doesn't feel like a dream-- it feels strangely real. I sometimes think we all have an intuitive knowledge of the supernatural world.

Warm glow of exertion. Hard work feels so good, so why don't I do it more often?

Creepshow. The movie based on Stephen King stories, featuring Steve Martin. I was intensively writing at the time I watched it, and felt very fertile and fruitful-- like a colleague of Stephen King.

Wings. I like the music of Wings and I also like what I can only describe as the 'atmosphere' of their albums and story. I keep thinking how nice it must have been for Paul McCartney, after all the madness and pressure of The Beatles-- and knowing he would always have The Beatles to his account-- to have his own project that was still very successful, but not as pressured or traumatic as the Beatles.

Sheriff of Huddersfield. A b-side by Iron Maiden, written about their manager Rod Smallwood. Very good lyrics, but mostly I prize it for all the in-jokes and its behind-the-scenes atmosphere. I've always wanted to be involved in something where I'm behind the scenes and can enjoy in-jokes.

"For anyone, anywhere, with whom I have ever enjoyed a laugh."

"Build it up again. Brick by brick." Something that Bruce Wayne says to Alfred the Butler at the end of Batman Begins, a movie I first saw in Brighton, on my first trip to England-- indeed, my first trip anywhere outside Ireland. The scene comes in that delicious part of the movie-- of any movie-- when all the madness and chaos and crisis is over, and the characters have time and space to mull over it all. He's talking about Wayne Manor, a place that gets destroyed in the course of the movie, and that he'd earlier claimed he'd be happy to see torn down. Years later, Brighton was to be an important scene in my courtship of Michelle-- rather unexpectedly. We even went to the same cinema. But that's another tale...

Christmas tree lights. Clean room. Rules of Attraction. A memory from a recent Christmas. Everything was going wrong-- not just with Christmas, but with my whole life-- and I was beginning to crack under the pressure. And then a few things got better, and suddenly I felt much more hopeful. I cleaned the sitting room. I put colourful, blinking fairy lights on the Christmas tree. I watched a bit of the sit-com Rules of Attraction-- a terrible show, and one I don't like at all. But what I like about all sit-coms is that the houses are always miraculously, immaculately tidy, and nothing that bad ever happens-- there is a stability to it all. Suddenly I felt on top of things.

Poe bedroom. I was staying in my sister's house, and sharing a bed with my older brother (we were both kids). He had a copy of Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allen Poe, and was telling me about it with some relish. I had never heard of Poe. Even his name was somehow spooky. But I could tell the stories were not only spooky but literary. The idea of literature was something that always entranced me as a kid. It's ridiculous, but I somehow got Poe before I had read a word of him. I really did!

And that's it!! That's the end of the little purple notebook!! (For the moment. It's always expanding. But very slowly.) And now, reader, I draw a sigh, and I feel a profound sense of satisfaction. Why, I couldn't exactly say. I just needed to get it all out.

Thank you, folks!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Sonya

Just as I was about to leave the library today, someone came to my office and gave me some shocking news. My colleague and friend Sonya had passed away.

This was completely unexpected. We knew she was ill, suffering from breast cancer. But I've known many women who recovered from breast cancer. I'd almost got to thinking it a matter of course that women made it through it eventually.

Sonya actually shared an office with me, although she never occupied her desk. It was assigned to her after she'd gone on sick leave. She was going to be sitting in the desk just across from mine. Her name is presumably still on our office door. She had actually been a tenant of that office previously.

I knew Sonya since I started working in the library in 2001. At first I didn't really expect we would be friends since she very much seemed to be one of the 'cool kids'. I was even shyer then than I am now. We interacted plenty, and had lots of conversations, but she seemed distant and reserved. Later on I was to learn-- indeed she told me-- that she gave this impression unwillingly, and she was actually very shy too.

We got to know each other better through my best friend in the library, Alan. Eventually we ended up going for tea-breaks together, usually just us three, on a regular basis. We'd talk about everything, including me and Alan's latest crushes on women. (Sonya was married.) Music was a big topic. Books, too-- Sonya studied a distance learning English degree for several years. She once drove to a different city, to her tutor's home, to hand in an assignment on time.

We even went out socialising together a good deal-- with other library people, mostly, but sometimes just us three or a few other people. I remember one night when we stayed very late in The Odeon in Harcourt Street, which becomes a night-club in the early hours. We were shouting to each other over the music and we were all a bit tipsy. I remember Sonya hugging us and saying, "My boys!". I was very touched.

When Alan left the library, myself and Sonya continued going on tea-break together. But we were both rather shy so conversation was somewhat more strained. We really needed Alan. I can't remember when we stopped going on tea-breaks, whether it just petered out or whether we kept it up until she left the library. I can't even remember why she left the library-- on a career break or maternity leave, I think. (She had two daughters, Isobel and Rosanna. I heard a lot about Isobel, the eldest.)

I was surprised when she eventually came back to the library, after years, as I'd assumed her 'career break' was just a formality at that stage. She was only back for a little while when she disappeared again, and we heard that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. True to form, she didn't want to announce it. (She was very private. When she was first pregnant, she didn't tell most people until it was obvious-- she said it wasn't a secret, she was just embarrassed to talk about something so personal.)

She was very lady-like. From the way she spoke, walked and bore herself, you'd think she'd attended a girl's finishing school. I think I might have told her that once. I liked making her laugh because she would be seized with laughter, shaking, but hardly making a sound. She used to wear glasses but got laser eye surgery later on. She was pretty, with very dark shoulder length hair, but not stuck up about it.

This isn't an attempt to sum her up. I hate the idea that you can sum up a person, a life, in a few words. These are just the thoughts that happen to come into my head.

When I heard about her illness, I sent her a get well card. I always write a lot on greeting cards-- what's the point of a few lines?-- but on this occasion I decided to throw reserve aside. I told her that we were both introverts and I sometimes felt I hadn't been as friendly to her as I wanted to be. That I liked her very much and looked forward to becoming better friends in the future, and that she would be in my prayers. She sent me an email saying it made her a bit teary and thanking me. She seemed cheerful and positive. Or maybe I just read it that way.

Then she stopped responding to my emails, and didn't acknowledge my Christmas card. I didn't know why. I wondered if my regular assurances that I kept her in my prayers were irritating her, since she was not a Christian. (At least, not the last time we spoke about it. We had a few conversations about religion. She wasn't a Christian but I think she had some spiritual beliefs, because she was quite critical of Richard Dawkins once, and seemed to be criticizing him from a believer's perspective.)

Of course, now I can guess why she wasn't responding. To my shame, I prayed for her much less frequently in recent months. I assumed she was recovering.

A famous Irish TV presenter also died today, in the same hospital where Sonya died. The hospital is only fifteen minutes walk from the library.

Please pray for her, her daughters, her husband, and her family. She was a very gentle, kind, generous lady. It seems unreal that I am writing about her in the past tense. We will always be friends, and I do look forward to becoming better friends when I meet her again. Eternal light grant unto her, oh Lord. May perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace.

The Complete Purple Notebook Part One

Sometimes the muse calls and you just have to answer. I was glancing through my famous purple notebook today, and I suddenly felt the urge-- the imperative urge-- to write the whole thing out in the form of a blog post. (Even though-- I add this later-- it took several posts to do so. I felt I couldn't attend to anything else until it was finished.)

(Futher note: As a matter of fact, it took a lot more words and effort than I'd expected. I was almost finished, but I just I got word that my colleague and friend Sonya had died-- a shock, though she was ill. I am going to leave off now out of respect to her. Please pray for her soul.)

What is my purple notebook? A notebook of inspiring memories, of various kinds. I describe it here, and list the first few entries, explaining what they mean to me.

Then I lost it, and replaced it with a blue notebook, but with pretty much the same contents. In a later post, I journey deeper into the purple-then-blue notebook.

(Sadly, the cousin Billy mentioned in that post died last year, at a tragically young age. RIP.)

I subsequently lost the blue notebook, and found the original purple notebook, which has since been greatly expanded. Tonight I purpose to transcribe everything in it, except a few moral and motivational exhortations to myself. My descriptions are going to have to be savagely short this time, since I could expand each of them almost idefinitely. I might expand them in the future.

My infinitely indulgent readers have actually shown a surprising interest in the purple notebook. Someone even hoped I would revisit it! So maybe some people might find this post interesting. Either way, I feel a consuming need to write it up. Here goes, starting from where I left off: 

N----'s star sign book: My sister had an illustrated astrology book when she was a teenager. The paintings in it captured my imagination, especially the air, fire, water and earth imagery, that symbolised the elements.

221B Baker Street. A Sherlock Holmes board game from my childhood, that my whole family played. From the happiest Christmas morning of my childhood. It had a very classy design, too.

Irish School of Motoring Sign. Childhood memory. Showed a cartoon outline of the map of Ireland, as a human being sitting at a steering wheel. Made the national cosy and personal.

Bed/duvet packaging with picture of woman. Childhood memory. The first women I fell in love with were models of housewives on various pieces of packaging. I fell in love with the idyll of domesticity as much as the women. The woman was lying in bed in this particular picture.

On Through the Night, train station. A billboard in a train station showing a woman in dark glasses at a party, while I waited to take a train with the rest of my class for a class trip. Delicious contrast of glamour and the mundane, making both more delicious.

Chick-Fil-A in shopping centre after having my watch fixed. My beloved wife Michelle bought me a good, manly, metal watch for my birthday-- after first confiscating the cheap pink wrist-watch I had been semi-ironically wearing before that. It made me feel very loved. We had to get the strap altered, and we had it done in a watch repair shop in a shopping centre in Richmond, Virginia. The fellow who did it was a cool, laid-back young guy who looked like Matt Damon and was reading a Stephen King novel. Then we went to Chick-Fil-A and had milkshakes. I had ice-cream and cookies flavour. I felt so happy.

Young Sherlock Holmes in cinema. My childhood was very lax in many ways. Me and my brothers were always playing truant from school. One schoolday, my mother brought us to town and actually took us to the cinema. Ha! We saw this movie, which is a fine movie, and I had been to the cinema so seldom that it really stirrred my imagination.

Night we bought Billy Liar again. Striker. Candyman. Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse was a novel that me and my younger brother loved when we were kids. Then it went missing. This was the pre-internet age, when you couldn't just order something on Amazon. We couldn't find it anywhere, until one day we were in the city centre with my mother and found it in a bookshop. It felt like such an epoch. That evening, I remember us playing the soccer-themed computer game Striker! and watching the Clive Barker horror movie Candyman. And next day we were going on holiday! Life seemed all roses and everything was possible.

Buying Bailey's after finishing A Hundred Nightmares. I have published many of the horror stories from my unpublished collection A Hundred Nightmares here. The day I finished the epilogue, I bought a bottle of Bailey's Irish cream to celebrate. Actually, that very day I fell into a deep spiritual depression that lent great urgency to my journey to faith, and stopped me writing fiction at the breakneck pace I had been writing it (three novels before that book of short stories!). But this particular memory is very happy, especially with its sense of accomplishment.

The School of Athens. My favourite picture. It seems to glow with wonder.

How to Write Stories of Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy. Halloween. I always wanted to write. This was a book of advice to writers that I read in my late teens-- several times, as I enjoyed the book itself so much. And I read it at Halloween, so it has a Halloweeny atmosphere.

Foucault documentary, coloured glass, white.  I saw a documentary about the philosopher Michel Foucault when I was in college. Now I think he is a fraud, but back then I was captivated by the boldness of his ideas. There was one particular scene where a talking head was talking against a backdrop that was all coloured glass and antiseptic white. I found something very clinical and otherwordly about this.

Beaumount Hospital Chapel. My mother died in 2001 and she was in and out of hospital for years before that. Once, I was visiting her with my father, and we all went to the hospital chapel. It was a modernist chapel, the sort that most people hate (rightly, no doubt) but which I quite like. It was the first (and would be the only) time I had been in a place of worship with my parents solely for the purpose of worship, rather than for any rite of passage or social event. I had a very strong experience of the transcendent.

Daffodills banners in Ilac Centre. There were huge banners containing pictures of daffodills and lines from Wordsworth's poem in a city centre shopping centre, when I was too young to know much about poetry. I assumed 'The Daffodills' was THE greatest poem ever, if it got such an honour, and this stirred my imagination.

Movie-watching room in Scoil Caitriona. We watched 'inspirational' feature films as part of my religious education in a Catholic school. I have publicy disparaged the religious education we got, but the truth is that a part of me has remained in that screening room all my life.  Because watching movies with a serious purpose makes them more than just movies.

Jesus tree decoration in Scoil Caitriona. Sometimes a memory is dim and vivid at once-- and vivid because it is dim. There was some stylized picture of a tree in my secondary school that illustrated some aspect of the Christian mystery. That's all I remember. But it still caught my imagination.

Christmas preparations in religious class. When I was fifteen, two teachers pooled their classes and embarked on quite an extensive preparation for the Christmas season, involving various charitable works and other projects. On the last day, one of the teachers said: "You've all done a lot of work and now you can enjoy Christmas." This notion of an earned recreation has appealed to me ever since-- everything in its place, and a place for beer and skittles too.

Snow and Star Trek. This refers to an evening that it started to snow very heavily and my younger brother was watching Star Trek. Star Trek and snow feature heavily in my happy memories. I had just emerged from a very difficult predicament and the sense of release was enormous. Snow is rare in Ireland. I love snow.

Snow and Surprised by Joy in Arts Café.  A memory of reading C.S. Lewis's memoir in the café in UCD, while it snowed outside, in work one morning.

Van Helsing, Christmas tree. This was during my intensive fiction-writing phase. I was in the sitting room with my oldest brother. The Christmas tree was up and he was watching Van Helsing-- a film I hated in the cinema, but came to lie for its sheer eye candy. The light was off and the Christmas fairy lights were flashing. The moment appealed to me so much that it became a personal tradition to have this movie on the DVD player while I was writing!

Faith and Culture studio. Very cosy, comfy studio of an EWTN show. My ideal sitting-room.

 Going to the South Dublin County Council interview. A public library job I went for before I started working in UCD. I didn't get in. It was a very dark morning as I went in. I've always found dark mornings exciting.

A drink on Christmas morning. My sister told me that, when she was a teenager, she would have a glass of some liqueur or other on Christmas morning. This seemed the most deliciously grown-up idea to me. I can't remember how old I was.

The coloured lights in bar beside Michelle's placeA ratskeller called Chiocca's. My favourite eatery in the world-- so cosy and down-to-earth-- but the coloured lights are gone.

Cake in the oven, flowers in the field. Two early childhood memories superimposed-- or maybe the second memory was just my imagination. Looking at cakes on a grill, seeing the flames underneath, and thinking of daffodills in a meadow. A dreamy, haunting memory that comes to me when I listen to slow classical music.

Matchstick men and women in credit-union type brochures. What it says. Domesticity idyll.

DCU sports club. I have never been athletic but I have always loved playing sports. One day in school we went to a local sports club. It seemed like heaven to me. Not only for its function but its bright colours and atmosphere-- a place devoted to play!

All Saints Mass, horrorthon.  Somehow, watching several horror films in a row and then going to All Saints Day Mass seemed to go together perfectly. You don't know Halloween until you know All Saints Day.

Black Swan books. A classy bookshop in Richmond VA that plays jazz music and has very erudite volumes. I spent about an hour there once, with Michelle, and marvelled at the thought that every book was about something, a doorway into a different world. I felt I was standing in the centre of the universe.