Saturday, March 24, 2018

Some Purple Notebook Moments

It's a very warm and sunny day in Dublin, like a day at the height of summer. It's reminded me of some "purple notebook moments".

Anyone who isn't familiar with my purple notebook can read about it here.

The introduction to my saints book (which you can buy here!)  is pretty much based around a purple notebook moment. I'm not sure if my purple notebook is pure navel-gazing, or whether it might have some public value. Jung's Red Book has public value, it would seem. Why should not my purple notebook? (I'm not suggesting it has public value in itself, but perhaps its entries can serve as inspirations for me to produce works of public value.)

The first purple notebook moment I'm put in mind of is a hot summer's day on my aunt's farm in Limerick. Me, my brother, and my mother were sitting outside on the grass, reading. My mother was sitting on a chair and me and my brother were sitting on a rug. This was a complete novelty to me, since we lived in an apartment, and the idea of sitting on the grass in Ballymun was ludicrous-- you'd be likely to attract unwanted attention and derision, if not a kicking.

I've always been much more a winter man than a summer man. I like the cold and I dislike the heat. Summer (in my view) exists to be the counterweight of winter. But that alone makes it very important.

I was at a funeral recently. (I attended the wrong cremation, but that's another story. And it wasn't just me, but me and three of my friends.) The reading from Ecclesiastes was chosen, as it almost invariably is now: "Unto everything there is a season..."

I think this must be one of the most powerful flights of lyricism ever written. The idea of seasonality is, in itself, inherently poetic. Take these lines from Lewis Carroll, which come from a humorous poem but which I've always considered to be drenched with pathos:

In winter, when the fields are white,
I sing this song for your delight -

In spring, when woods are getting green,
I'll try and tell you what I mean.

In summer, when the days are long,
Perhaps you'll understand the song:

In autumn, when the leaves are brown,
Take pen and ink, and write it down.

Summer has always seemed a bittersweet concept to me-- or rather, a concept tinged with melancholy. A picture taken on a bright summer's day is almost impossible to look at except through a layer of wistfulness. "Summer's lease hath all too short a date", indeed. I am reminded once gain of Burke's description of the life of man, sundered from tradition, as "little more than the flies of summer".

And yet, lurking within this sad transience, there is another idea-- the idea of a never-ending summer, an eternal summer. A photograph taken on a summer's day partakes of this atmosphere, since the picture itself is timeless, a framed eternity of its own. And, even without being captured in a photograph, a memory of a summer's day is just the same. It's timeless...sort of.

The idea of eternity, also, is the idea of a summer's day without end. I think we are all drawn to this idea, in one way or another. We are all trying to hit the jackpot, in one way or another. We are all looking for the gift that never stops giving, whether that is a life-long romantic love, the creation of an imperishable work of art, or undying devotion to some cause. An endless summer's day...that is the dream. Even for people who prefer winter, summer seems to serve this metaphor (even if it's an unconscious metaphor) better. It's the anticipation we all remember from the beginning of the school holidays, captured perfectly in the French phrase "les grandes vacances".

Have you ever noticed that coming-of-age stories are nearly always set in summer?

Well, to return to myself and my brother and my mother, sitting on the grass. I remember the moment so well because I was so aware of it as a moment-- the sun seemed to be performing a role, creating a vignette for our sake. I felt as though it was engraved on a medallion.

The second vignette is from the summer after I left secondary school. I thought I had messed up my school-leaving exams, and that I wouldn't be going to college. I heard an interview on the radio in which a composer of some sort was talking about his life story, the development of his musical taste. The conversation turned to some particular composer, and the interviewee said: "I became a big fan of him in college...well, everybody becomes a big fan of him in college..."

I felt a sense of desolation at that moment, because I was worried I'd missed out on the whole college experience-- which, romantically, I saw as an intellectual odyssey. Of course, when I went to college, I was thoroughly disillusioned in this regard, but it's still a pleasant idyll....doubtless it is true for some people...

This particular memory, however, lingers pleasantly in my mind, long after that sense of desolation became irrelevant. (This is a fairly common phenomenon when it comes to purple notebook moments.) It pleased me immensely to think of a course that people's musical education usually takes-- that there are particular composers which appeal to music lovers at particular moments of their lives, or at particular ages. The same applies to lovers of books, philosophy, or any other subject. Somehow, this idea greatly assuaged my existential loneliness, my fear that life was simply an empty space, a random flux, with no particular up or down, left or right, in our out.

This is why I take tremendous pleasure, always (or nearly always), in listening to enthusiasts of a particular art-form, or writer, or field of interest, talking to each other. It is the furthest thing from the awkward small-talk prevalent in so much of everyday life. Everything they say to each other drips with significance. They recognize each other's experiences-- often, even the mention of a particular name or incident will make them break out into a sudden and shared smile.

The final summer memory is one of the oldest items in my purple notebook-- I think it's a memory, but I can't remember it exactly. I have the image of a yellowed sheet from a newspaper (yellowed, but not very old), which I think was lying at the bottom of a drawer, being used as lining. It featured a photo of a glamorous woman wearing a bikini, perhaps on a beach, beneath the headline: "Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer."

I had never heard this phrase before. I thought it was the most poetic phrase ever, and it set my imagination on fire.

I tried to write an essay on this image many years ago-- in fact, when I was still in college. So that's at least eighteen year ago. I never finished the essay, and even now, I'm not sure I can convey this image's significance to you.

And also...I'm all written out. But I suspect what I have written already goes a long way to explaining why that moment made my purple notebook.


  1. Autumn/Winter had a special feel when you live in a dry, hotter climate. Rain has a nice feel, even when it comes too darn heavy, when it does come. Holy Week arriving when the weather cooling and darkening might seem like a complete reversal of the proper symbolism- and so it is. But it does have it's own ethereal aspect

    1. Well, many things must be the opposite way round in Australia, at least from a European perspective. Christmas especially. I don't have much of a wanderlust, but I wouldn't mind seeing Australia. The land of Joh Bjelke Petersen and the Trivago girl.

  2. I wonder why a German based company decided that an Australian was better for advertising in other countries?

    Some (European/ northern hemisphere) visitors like Australia; others find it a bit boring, especially if they didn't quite comprehend the distances. I had an aunt who lived in Melbourne (she emigrated after my parents, unlike them she never re-emigrated and re-re-emigrated) when two other aunts came to visit then and us... They,sort of, saw it as Dublin to Belfast, in reality it's more like London to Moscow, they weren't prepared for that.
    With regards to seasons though- some ' Irish things' have perhaps a better feel in the Australian winter, like reading DORIAN GRAY at nightfall or listening to Clannad's FROM YOUR HEART at dusk, in a dimly lit room.

  3. I wish I could internalize the love of summer. Coming from a hot and dry climate, Summer is simply the norm. But it isn’t just the norm, it is actually somewhat hostile and forbidding: things dry up and die, the local authorities open up air conditioned “cooling centers” for the poor and elderly, and drought looms as a constant threat.

    Even when I go to cooler climates, which I do whenever I can, I can only appreciate the coolness and wetness of their summers. Ireland’s summer is similar to California’s winter in many ways. Occasional rain, coolish temperatures, green landscapes. (The only really hot day I’ve experienced in Ireland was also the day I climbed Croagh Patrick...great timing...I got a terrible sunburn.) Oregon and Washington are similar: I love going there during the summer, but only to pursue an “endless winter.”

    I’ve lived in Ireland in winter, and visited Washington and Oregon in winter, and Boston in autumn. None of them were bad: they all just felt normal. I find cold to be a pleasant kind of suffering, assuming there’s a place to get warm.

    The one thing I do like in my Central Valley climate is the fog. As far as I know, it’s the only place in the world where school is regularly postponed a few hours due to fog (which is a wonderful thing for a teacher: I get to either sleep longer or have a generous breakfast and a cup of tea on a cold foggy morning). The fog is extremely thick, and actually very dangerous. A few years ago there was a 103 car pileup (that isn’t a typo) in which people were killed. So objectively I know the fog is not a good thing. But the feeling of a completely still, foggy morning, where all you can see is misty whiteness and the fields across the street aren’t even visible, is evocative.

    In the Central Valley, the time that feels like the summer I would want is early spring. The orchards bloom white and pink, the hills are still green from the rain, puffy clouds float from west to east, where they shroud the tops of the mountains and (hopefully) produce snow. But unfortunately, rather than this season being a brief and beautiful respite from cold, it’s the precursor to the hellish heat.

    Now, the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer” does have some appeal to me (and the haze is real here...kind of an evil counterpart to the clean winter fog). Even though I hate the heat, there is a certain excitement of the possibilities of the summer time. For instance, I like places like Hawaii, even though I would never be able to live in constant heat like that, for precisely that feeling of “lazy, hazy, and crazy.” The appeal of a margarita or a mai tai on the beach is understandable, even if I aesthetically prefer a pint by a fire in a pub with rain pouring outside.

    Sorry, I’m just rambling about climates. Your posts almost always call to mine my own experiences and preferences and it’s hard not to say everything I think. Maybe I need my own blog, but when I have tried I end up at a loss for anything to say.

  4. Thanks for that, Optatus. I can easily believe that intensely hot summers would be so much worse than a cold winter. I agree with you that winter is a pleasant kind of discomfort; especially coming into the warmth out of the cold. I love everything about it; people dressed in layers, steam rising from a hot cup of tea or coffee, getting up while it's still's deliciously cosy.

    You know, the summer I was thinking of in this post isn't really an Irish summer or an American summer or an Australian's a kind of dream summer, like a picture in a school-book or a holiday brochure. It's an idyll...

    I wrote a poem about my love of mist and mistiness, called Dreams:

    Why does she tell him them, every day?
    And what on earth is he meant to say?
    In forty-five years-- much more, it seems--
    Not once has he spoken about his dreams
    If he has them at all; for they fade away
    And disappear in the light of day.

    His daughter stares into the misty street
    And butters toast that she will not eat.
    A convent of nuns that must feed on blood;
    He wonders how that should be understand.
    She had no nuns at the private school;
    No fairy tales, was his golden rule.
    No stories of angels to fill her head
    Or telling her dead people weren't dead.
    No men in robes when her mother died;
    The only father who never lied.

    But nothing is true where nothing is lies
    And nothing can happen behind closed eyes.
    He looks at that mild face, that auburn hair,
    And wonders if madness is hiding there.
    Those soft blue eyes, and that soft red blush,
    A tender flower that the world will crush.

    Elizabeth looked in her father's eyes
    So stony grey and so worldly wise
    And thought about offices full of men
    Who lived there lives in the there-and-then
    Their faces touched with a deep regret
    For something they couldn't quite forget
    But gone forever. Would she go, too,
    To that cold world of the real and true?
    The kitchen filled with a gentle dread;
    She was already drifting where all life led.
    From the garden that every soul calls its own
    To the world of others, the place of stone.
    She hugged her knees to her body's heat
    And gazed back out at the misty street.
    Why did they fear what doesn't exist?
    The world is beautiful, seen through mist.

    I love getting comments, by the way! Thank you!