noise and haste

November 18, 2012

I’ve been with my husband-unit since I was fifteen. The first time I went over to his house, his mother served corned beef, cabbage, boiled potatoes and parsley sauce. It was tasty. After dinner I went out to use the toilet in the utility room, not dissimilar to the one in my own house (rustic, old tank that you flush with a chain, stone floor, rough wooden door, freeeezing) and as I sat down, I saw this on the back of the door:

Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy.

Basically every time I’ve gone to the toilet in there since (many many times), I’ve read it again.

I’m sure you’re familiar with it. It’s called Desiderata and it was written by a guy called Max Ehrman some time before his death in Baltimore in 1945. You can read a bit of its interesting history here.

Anyway, it’s nice and well written and I like it, but it’s schmaltzy and whatever; it isn’t what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to talk about is that there are some prisoners that bring this poem to mind when I am with them: listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Man, are some prisoners hard to talk to. They’re few and far between, these ones, but I have to keep checking myself back to the present when they’re droning on. I have one who studiously writes down long lists of what he thinks are funny or clever phrases and reads them to me, one after another. (Yes really.) Another has massive flecks of spittle that burst continuously from his mouth as he speaks, and the bursts of spittle land on my face and even in my mouth. 

You think you’re a nice person…and then you find yourself crossing the prison halls to avoid Dermot the Dull and Sammy Spitface. I tell you, it’s not the murderers that are hard to love, it’s the smelly ones.


friends, circles and followers

November 15, 2012

I had a Facebook account and about 450 “friends” up until last March. I eventually deactivated my account and haven’t returned. I didn’t close the account because I didn’t like Facebook (I loved it); I closed it because checking Facebook was interfering with my normal life. If it’s the first thing you do in the morning and the last thing you do at night, you’ve probably disordered your priorities.

I stayed on Twitter and Google+, though. Both of my feeds were a hell of a lot less busy, so they were less compelling and less distracting.

During the eight months of unemployment last year, Facebook was a strong link for me to others in the blank staleness of my days. I have realised that Facebook was not only a form of entertainment for me, but a very real way of alleviating the loneliness that comes with not having a job.

Despite my now absolutely hectic people-packed life, I often feel very isolated from others. I think most people experience this to varying degrees. It’s not disabling for me in any way, and I do value my own company, but I often find I stand alone in my passions and perspectives, whether that would be within the church or without. It’s not so much about not having people in my life – I do – and wonderful people at that. But I can count on one hand the people that I feel a deep connection with. I recognise as I write that that I am lucky and privileged to have those few. But I have certainly been using social media to numb that sense of disconnect with others. Getting positive feedback loops from witty comments or interesting articles is surprisingly gratifying, for something so unimportant. But numbing that disconnect is all well and good until your feed is full of messages from people in your life that highlight ever more starkly the ways in which you are worlds apart. Getting negative feedback loops is also surprisingly bruising.

So in a way, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ have made me feel lonelier than ever.

I’ve deactivated all the accounts now. I need to address my sense of isolation in other ways. I need to read for pleasure. I need to make more coffee dates with friends. I need to spend more time outdoors. I need to acknowledge my feelings instead of hoping the bad ones just go away.

Sometimes I feel a bit poisoned by the shittiness of the world. My husband-unit says that sounds pious. I’m sorry about that. But I feel like social media allows the shittiness of the world to be hooked to my heart all the waking day. I think reading the news just once a day (right before praying) is probably a practice I should make a habit, instead of making my mind a storehouse for every horror story going.

This is making me think about writing a paper on existentialism and social media. If I stay off Twitter, it might actually get written.


girl interrupted

November 13, 2012

Two posts in one week! It must be your birthday. All of you. All of you were born today. Happy birthday!

Before I begin, I’d like to apologise for the banner ads that WordPress have so unkindly put on my site. I do not earn money from these ads. Please install Adblock (an extension for the browser Chrome) if you want to get rid of them.

Now. Official business over.

I’m posting for two reasons: (1) I am avoiding doing my homework and (2) since I last posted, God has intervened in what I can only describe as my despair.

Although I am a reformed Christian, every week at the moment I attend Catholic mass. This is because I work in a prison on Sundays, and the Christian service there is a Catholic one. I love it. I miss my own community’s Sunday services sometimes, particularly the gusto with which they sing and the intensity with which they pray (not to mention the great coffee and cake), but I spend time with my community in other ways, like at ‘home group’ – a weekly bible study with about 10 others where we eat and talk and pray.

On Sunday morning I worshiped at mass with the prisoners as usual. But for me, it was not usual at all. For me, it was a moment of profound spiritual connectedness, experienced in the humblest setting imaginable. There were a number of elements that somehow came together in a silent crescendo in my very being that both chastised and comforted me. The experience turned my heart back in the right direction. I hardly know how to put words on it. Allow me to try.

The first reading was from I Kings 17:10-16. It tells the story of Enough. A woman is afraid to share, because she has so little. In her giving, she receives enough, and plenty more. The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry. The Psalm was 146:7-10. This psalm is, simply put, a song of a thankful heart. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. The Gospel reading was from Mark 12:38-44. Jesus suggests that his listeners to be wise about those who need to be seen to be important and successful and righteous, but to pay attention to those who, however humble, offer everything that they have, for others. Then, the prisoners’ choir sang a song that I didn’t know. It was based on Matthew 6:21: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Avid fans of Harry Potter will note that this was what was written on the graves of Harry’s dead parents, although Harry didn’t know what it meant.) And finally the sermon: it was just five minutes long and simple enough for a dull child to comprehend. The priest  invited us to consider that Christ stands in solidarity with us when we suffer and, that it is in giving, not receiving, that we receive.

And the only way that I can describe how I felt through this service was “ministered to”. It was as though the world around me began speaking to the needs of my heart. It is difficult to describe a spiritual experience, but that is what it was. Every piece of scripture spoke deeply to me, girding me with truth. The songs spoke deeply to me, singing lullabies to my grumbling. The sermon pierced me in my self-pity; my “what about me” monologue. The Eucharist nourished me. And the Spirit comforted me with a kind of warmth that pushed tears up out of nowhere to tumble into a prison pew.

My dear friend Eoin asked me recently what it means to have an “identity rooted in Christ”.

It means identifying with Christ before and above and beyond anything else. Before I am a wife, I am a follower of Jesus. Before I am an Irishwoman, a feminist, a daughter, a sister and a friend, I am a follower of Jesus. It means that my worth becomes rooted in what God says about me, in what God has done for me, and not in what I can achieve. My worth is not in my job, or my size, or even my intelligence. It is not in how nice I might be, or how horrible for that matter. It is not in my “good deeds”. My worth  is in and from my Creator, and that is completely liberating.

As this crescendo was bursting in my heart on Sunday morning, I was freed in a large part from my anxiety about this job, that I so wanted (and still so want). I saw with clarity that it really is okay to fail. I saw that I cannot be defined by my job, or my joblessness. My jug of oil is not going to go empty. My God lifts up those who are ‘bowed down’. I can’t join the ranks of those who wish to be successful in the eyes of others, but I’ve got to keeping giving my efforts and convictions everything that I am. And I have remembered (rightly) what my treasure is: it is the unquenchable love of my Father, and I want to live out of that reality, not of the reality that counts PRSI contributions and the age of my car. I am rich beyond measure. I not only have enough, but plenty. And I do not stand alone in suffering, at any moment, however self-indulgent that suffering might be.

And so I was ready, when I did, to get up off my knees, to go and minister to those broken-hearted prisoners, come what may.

And it is just as well that God intervened when he did, because I received the call this evening to confirm that I did not get that job.


November 10, 2012

I got my first job when I was eleven and I stuck with it for four years. I had  a paper round in my housing estate, and in the next estate over. It was good going and I made pretty decent money out of it, for my age and the time (1994). It was my first experience of creating a customer base. The paper was relatively new, and local to our area. It was priced at 45p and published once a week. I walked door-to-door around approximately two hundred households every Tuesday night for a couple of weeks in a row and tried to convince people to buy the paper. I had a good few initial subscriptions and then when those fizzled out a little, I was left with my regular customers: 36 households who bought the paper every week for years. The paper was called “The Echo” and everyone called me “The Echo Girl”. Everyone gave me 50p, and allowed me to keep the 5p change. On top of the 11p I received for every newspaper sold, I was raking in the fine sum of £5.76 per week, sometimes more: occasionally someone would give me a pound and tell me to keep the change (jackpot!). That’s a lot of sweets and teen magazines in 1994. At Christmas time, most of the neighbours put £2 – £5 in an envelope for me and I was staggered and delighted to go home on a frosty December 20th in 1994 with my pockets bulging with cash and Christmas cards. It was my first experience of a Christmas bonus.

Since then I have had a lot of jobs, and until 2008, I was never without work. You may already have read about some of my struggles with unemployment.

So now I am once again facing down the barrel of unemployment. I have been lucky enough to have full time work since April 30th of this year. It was a maternity cover contract, and she’s due back November 26th. I’m really sad at the prospect of having nothing to do again. I’m also sad at leaving some of the work friends I’ve made. It’s all made more complicated by the fact that my husband is no longer working either. I started making applications for jobs a few weeks ago.

On Tuesday of this week I snuck out of work at lunch hour and had an interview for a new job. I am normally quite confident, but I was absolutely sick with nerves. The reason I felt so ill was because, for the very first time in my reasonably long history of employment, it was a job that not only matches with my experience and skills, but also with my passions and hopes. It’s a job that involves working with ex-offenders (I have been training as a prison chaplain since September 2011). I am qualified for the work and could be very good at it, I think, and it would provide huge scope for me to grow and develop in a number of areas. Genuinely, it is the first job I have ever really wanted. Some of my current colleagues had a particular expertise in certain areas of this new job, and they spent hours coaching and advising me. And I nailed the interview.

The employer contacted me on Wednesday to invite me to round 2. I am among the final three candidates. My second interview for the post was yesterday and it was tough; very tough. And now, I play the waiting game. I am physically ill waiting for the call, which I presume will come some time on Monday. I am right out on a limb here, and it feels dreadful. I’m not excited, only fearful. My only sense of how my chances are is that I feel if I was their chosen candidate they probably would have called me on Friday evening, as I know that they’re in a hurry to hire. Usually the successful candidate is given a day or two to formally accept before the unsuccessful candidates are informed. So I reckon my chances are low.

Why am I putting this on my blog? I don’t know exactly. The more people who know about it, the worse it is for me if I haven’t made it. Oh how I hate sympathetic faces! But I can’t think about anything else right now and it helps to put the words down on paper (well, digital paper).  It is hard to want something so much. I have never gotten the marks I wanted in college, I have never gotten the jobs I’ve wanted that I’ve applied for (or even interviews) and being “in the top three” is a recurring theme that doesn’t matter at all…it will never matter coming second if first prize is the goal. Don’t get me wrong – if there were medals to be had, I would gladly accept the bronze in any arena. The problem with being in the top three for a job is that there is only one medal going.

Anyway. Watch this space for updates on the Chip Monk’s faltering career. Maybe I’ll have good news or, failing that, a good attitude. Anything to stop this goddam diarrhoea!

there are no foreign lands…

November 3, 2012

… It is the traveler only who is foreign. ~ RL Stevenson

When I was a kid, my parents used to run market stalls on a Saturday or Sunday. We’d load up the car and the trailer the night before, covering our wares with canvas sheeting to keep off the inevitable rain, then rising at 4am to travel to the site and get our stall set up. There was a kind of rustic magic in the whole process. Despite being such unglamorous work, there is something a bit special about working in a market, particularly a working-class market. Cold hands, tea from a thermos, chips from a dirty van with a generator. Rain, chatter, coins. I loved it. I was also free to make my own money if I sourced my own product. I raided my childhood book collection and sold them all off for fifty pence or a pound apiece. Bonus.

My parents however weren’t doing it for the love of it: they were doing it out of sheer necessity. We used to pull in seventy pounds (€90) on an average day: this was around 1993-1998. That was nothing to be sneezed at for a low-income family and easily bought food and household groceries for the four of us for a week.

There was a single element that ever marred it for me. There were some people who regularly showed up at the markets who, I was warned, were violent thieves: people to be watched, but avoided, and certainly never to be crossed. I nervously sidestepped their kids, preferring to wander by myself, and avoided lingering at their stalls. These people were travellers or, as my entire family and community referred to them, knackers.

And just once, a traveller man threatened to beat my dad up if we set up our stall on a patch he had earmarked for himself.

The story above is the single negative experience I have for you from my experience with the travelling community.

This bright Saturday morning, a traveller and his son were extremely kind towards my husband and me. They did us an unnecessary favour that has had a very pleasant pay-off. That’s not all that surprising, because as I am now an adult, and free to decide about people for myself, I have had many positive experiences with the travelling community, and have found them to be, well, human beings. Beautiful, broken, normal. No longer an unknown entity to be feared and avoided; “othered”. There is nothing profound in any of this.

I just wanted to make the little point that it is a welcome relief to be unburdened of my prejudices. It’s a relief to be able to tell people apart and not view them as a type. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be the recipient of their grace and kindness. Being unburdened of prejudice means getting primed for love. This is part of what Christians call “sanctification” – being made more and more like God in his extravagant welcome. It’s good, like.