a good shake

November 2, 2014

Part of my job is visiting churches around the city, taking a little slot in the Sunday service to talk about my work. I like it and I don’t like it. Sometimes I am offered five minutes, squeezed in between the children’s address and the announcements. Sometimes, like today, I am virtually handed the whole service and asked to preach, pray and bless. The good bit is the curiosity of visiting different traditions and seeing how they do things, and (honestly, very rarely) being touched by the teaching or worship. It’s nice to make links and attract new volunteers for my charity. It also helps me to understand this place better, and I recognise how joined-up my life is becoming here when I meet people who ask me if I know so-and-so from x school or y church or z charity and it turns out that the answer is yes.

Then there are the parts I dislike. The husband unit is usually kind enough to accompany me to these services (repayment for all of those years of my tagging along with him) and, from time to time, the church I visit is so overcome to have a theology PhD student/ministry candidate  in their midst that they forget that I am the guest, and they spend my entire visit fawning over him, and I wonder why I am there. These are usually the churches that are unknowingly anti-women. Then there are the ones that are clearly and distinctively anti-women and they make a big song and dance about how whatever message I bring is not a sermon, but a ‘word’ or ‘announcement’, and I watch from the pulpit as they sweat with vague regret about having invited me in the first place. Then there are the bitter old dears who’ve been singing the same hymns for 60 years and don’t like the cut of my jib. It is essential that they say something to let me know that my work (with young offenders) is not their cup of tea. “Oh, I’d just like to give those thugs a good shake!” <insert tinkling wealthy old-lady laugh as she adjusts her poppy brooch> “Oh yes,” I reply, “A good shake is exactly what they need. Forget love, compassion and good humour. Roughing them up will solve their problems!”

They have absolutely no idea how violent they are.

But then there are days like today, you know, where post middle-aged people come with tears in their eyes and say how someone gave them a chance once and it changed everything, or the people who grip your arm and say they’re inspired. Whether the inspiration can last beyond the church doors I don’t know, but hey, time will tell.


a little hello

November 1, 2014

Autumn has breezed by. For the past three weekends the husband unit and I have been hosting friends from home. It’s been bliss.

This weekend we are hosting nobody.

It’s bliss.

One of my friends says that guests bless you twice: once when they arrive, and again when they leave. We planned some ‘us time’ (vom) to the tune of some early morning cinema and a gander about town. We saw Effie Gray, a fantastic period drama about a feisty, intelligent Perth-born woman (Perth Scotland, not Perth Australia) trapped in a sham marriage. I related strongly to her character. This is a cry for help.

Then we wandered down to the International Market by Union Terrace Gardens for some street food (here for one weekend only, so you gotta catch it while you can). As we approached, there were lots of people dotted about on the street, eating their lunches of bratwurst and paella. In silence. As we moved past these eerily quiet figures and further on in, people jostled about grumpily in the hubbub and we joined some long queues for a delicious bite, where people elbowed one another and harrumphed.

This is the kind of thing that drives me crazy about this place. It’s like they don’t know how to have a good time. In any other city there would be buzz, and music, and people laughing and enjoying themselves, pink-cheeked and jolly. There’s a kind of magic that lingers over winter street markets serving piping hot food in paper trays with plastic forks: here though, it just seemed a bit sad, as we ducked and dived between the smokers and the people with massive bags from Argos.

And that is my way of saying that this place is no better now than a year ago. But I am feeling better, because I am feeling more secure in my friendships here, and that really does make a place home.

We drove home via the beach and have nested up for the afternoon, with plans involving a bowl of home made guacamole and a bottle of Cava. I am feeling grateful today, which is the enemy of my usual companion, discontent.

I’ve thought a little about NaNoWriMo and for the first time truly considered giving it a go. I won’t though – not this year. I think a project like that takes preparation, and I am grossly unprepared. I may however, in the spirit of the thing, blog a little. Perhaps daily. I make no promises though. Watch this space.


reflections on having a permanent job

May 24, 2014

For over six years in the midst of the Irish recession I struggled and strived when it came to work. Short, badly paid contracts, long bouts of unemployment, course after course, thousands of unanswered job applications. Occasional interviews where confused executives asked why such a well educated person was applying to be a secretary. Pleading with restaurant owners for a waitress position, only to be told I “would never stay”; dropping my CV into MacDonalds, Tesco and local cleaning companies. All to no avail. Crying, depression, despair, hopelessness. Anger.

Now, I have a secure job that almost certainly will, later, lead to another secure job, and instead of the job being the thing that I want it to be, it simply is the thing that it is.

Having a meaningful job, due to the not-having, became something that lost all proper perspective for me. It seemed so impossible and so out of reach. Others around me suffered the same fate but they floated to the back of my consciousness, while my employed and career-focused friends were right there at the fore, living lives of purpose and meaning and enjoying the fruits of their labours. It became the holy grail for me: the promised land. It became the answer to my sense of desperate unfulfilment.

And now, for the precise reason that I packed up and left the country of my birth, I have the elusive job, and suddenly it’s possible and within reach, and I am living the possibility and touching it, and it’s not the holy grail and nor is it fulfilling. It is a job, that is worthwhile, and I do it, and I feel tired after it, and I get the Sunday night dread, and we still count every penny each month to make the rent (while, admittedly, padding the fund for The Grand Summer Holiday – something not enjoyed in a few years).

Undoubtedly I am far less unhappy than before. But, you know, the job is being put back in its place. Where it should have remained all along, instead of becoming bloated with years of swollen anxieties about paying the bills and having worth as a human being.

It is terribly wrong when a person cannot find labour to fund their living. It is morally wrong when a society has been so ordered that their search becomes pointless. It corrodes a bit of that person: it really rots your interior life. I had times where I almost gave up looking and resigned myself to staying on the dole forever. Shortly before landing this job, I suggested to my husband that I simply stop looking. I felt I was approaching a nervous breakdown due to the unflagging disappointments and perhaps needed to allow myself to become a housewife. Have some children and keep a house. He said that was okay by him – he’d watched me suffer and fail for a long time. But then I remembered that we have moved to another country so that he can do something that requires someone else to be working. And so I kept seeking. And lo I did find. But as for those who have stopped seeking? I understand why. I do, and deeply. Looking for a job in the midst of a recession is like spending every waking hour scouring the floor, walls and ceiling of a pitch black tunnel for treasure, all the while knowing that there’s only enough treasure hidden in this tunnel for one tenth of those who are looking for it. It’s tedious, lonely and exhausting beyond compare. And you begin to despise yourself. What is wrong with me? you ask, over and over, year after year. Nothing, say your family and friends. You’re great! I’d give you a job if I had one!

As usual I am not sure what my point is. I wish I could wind my reflections into neat little packages, but I never can. I think I have said what I came here to say. It is good to have a job. It is bad to not have a job. But having a job is just having a job. It isn’t changing the world and it doesn’t address your deepest self, whose worth comes from somewhere else. So, you know. Remember that.

 

 


the ten series: two songs

October 14, 2013

If I thought choosing four books was hard? Well that ain’t nothin’ on choosing two songs out of all the many songs that have moved me. I don’t know how to make these choices. It would have been much easier to have ten songs and two secrets, although that probably would have been much less interesting for you the reader.

This whole ten-series thing is very ego-centric, so I hope you’ll forgive an indulgence where I talk about two songs that I love that I’ve sang at special moments. Having said that, I did not write the songs so can take absolutely no credit. Your relationship to a song changes when you participate in it rather than just listening. Its story becomes a bit of your story.

1. She Moved Through the Fair

Like many others, this song has been a party piece of mine for years. I have one or two friends who love to hear it and always ask me to sing it, and I love to oblige. I love the vocal trills and the sad storytelling and the lilt and the invitation to everyone present to join in at the key moment – it will not be long, love, til our wedding day. It’s a folk funeral ballad, based on an old poem altered by Padraic Colum, and sung to a traditional medieval tune, popular with travellers, and often mistakenly sung at weddings up and down the country.

One very sad day, a strange funeral day, I somehow found myself on the beautiful stage of the round auditorium of Old Cabell Hall in the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, a thousand seats rising up and around me, singing this song through tears as the faculty bluegrass band strummed behind me. The audience was just a handful friends.

I will never forget that moment as long as I live.

Here is a haunting version by the inimitable Sinead O’Connor.

2. The Trumpet Child, by Over the Rhine

This is an apocalyptic or eschatological song – in other words, a song about the end of the world. Its focus is the child who blows the trumpet that signifies the renewal of all things… in short, the hope of the Christian.

I’ve been asked to sing at over a dozen weddings over the years but this is the one that stands out in my mind. The bride and groom requested it for the church service, and I had the great privilege and pleasure of singing under the direction and guidance of the immensely talented Craig Skene and his band and the hired string quartet. The song itself is a carefully crafted work of art and their performance, and mine I suppose, was such that the whole congregation burst into spontaneous applause at the end (if you’re not a regular at church, applause during liturgy is very unusual). Spine tingling – and a complete privilege to be part of it. Oh to write a song that good!

The actual performance itself was kindly recorded by someone in the third row with their phone, but the phone couldn’t capture it fully and as a result it’s fuzzy and distorted. But here it is in any case; you get the idea.


the ten series: five foods

September 18, 2013

Today has been a difficult day. I had some bad news after which I found myself traipsing the streets looking for work, attending a dismal employment fair and sitting through tedious meetings with recruitment agencies. It culminated  in me sitting on a bench and temporarily crying my eyes out. I came home, took off my shoes and made gambas pil pil and now, to quote Maria, I don’t feel so bad.

1. Gambas pil pil. This is the most spectacularly delicious and soul-soothing Spanish dish that ever took 10 minutes to prepare. Take a handful of raw prawns per person, peeled and de-veined. Pat them dry. Heat a very generous glug of olive oil (not extra virgin; that is better eaten raw) in a pan and add plenty of chopped red chillis and some crushed garlic (for today’s lunch, I used 4 cloves of garlic and 1 medium-heat red chilli for two hungry adults). Season with sea salt and ground black pepper and don’t let the garlic and chilli brown or burn. Toss in your raw prawns and cook until curled and pink, just a couple of minutes will do it. Divide the prawns between two warm bowls and drizzle the delicious spicy garlicky oil over the fish. Serve sizzling hot with warm crusty bread. The fresher the prawns, the better this will taste.

2. When I was 21 I visited Capetown and the surrounding areas, on a trip focused on learning about the culture. I spent a few weeks exploring and tasting and adventuring led by a pair of South African hosts, who are friends of mine. The food was a revelation – schnook on the barbecue, boerewors sausage, roasted root vegetables, fresh ginger beer, ‘chocolate’ porridge, delicious stews made from the cheapest cuts of meat. I ate in homes, restaurants and shanty town cafes. In the poorer places what was lacking in choice was more than compensated for in flavour. One meal stands out in my mind. I’d been to visit a community centre in Khayelitsha – you might have heard of this place as it is one of South Africa’s largest and most notorious shanty towns. The community centre was a grass roots initiative to provide free childcare and nutrition to children in the area so that their parent or carer (often an orphaned sibling who was still a child themselves) could earn something to feed them. Myself and my friends had the privilege of a meal at the centre, prepared by the ‘Mamas’ – a team of older women who worked there. My plate had three items on it: a rich meat-on-the-bone stew, milli-pop (a cornmeal staple) and a pile of delicious cooked greens. I remember sitting there savouring this feast when one of the Mamas sat next to me. She asked me how I liked it. I said it was incredible. She leaned in and said to me, her eyes twinkling, “I want to tell you a secret. Those greens you are eating…the farmers don’t know they are good to eat. They leave them behind, and we go after them and pick them up.”

3. The crisp sandwich. Two slices of delicious fresh white Brennans bread, batch optional, buttered generously with yellow Irish butter, with a packet of King cheese and onion crisps as the filling. Best eaten with a big glass of ice cold milk, or on a very cold day, a cup of strong milky Barry’s tea.

4. Chicken biriyani. I don’t even like this dish. It is loads of bother and work and the end result just doesn’t do it for me. But for the Husband Unit, this is quite literally perfect food. I make it for him occasionally, saving it for special occasions or when he’s very sad. It never loses its power to cheer and comfort him.

5. You might think it corny or obligatory for a Christian to write this, and if so I apologise. But it is true that the one food that nourishes me above all others is Eucharist. I have experienced God’s presence in tangible ways when partaking in this sacrament, at unlikely times and in unlikely places. The experience is as though my mind is illuminated and it is by this light that I can see other things. As Augustine said, ordinary food is consumed and becomes part of which consumes it. But in the Eucharist, we consume God, and become part of that which we consume. It’s a mystery and I don’t pretend to understand it. But I consider it true. Soul food.


the ten series: six places

September 17, 2013

Okay, these are in no particular order.

1. Dublin. It’s my town. I was born there and I lived there until I was 17. I’ve been trying to get back there ever since. When we return to the republic in 2019 we are settling in Dublin, hopefully for good. I love it. I love its disordered buildings and the rawness right there in front of you on the street. I love the mix of people, the tangle of nationalities. I love Moore Street with its fresh fish still flapping and feisty women selling you fruit as did their mothers and grandmothers; its cafes and junky phone repair stores. I love the hum in the streets. I love how awake it is, all the time. I love the lights at Christmas, the tinsel and bustle. I love its markets – from the hipster fleas to the antiques and rubbish to the farmer’s produce to the artisan craft. I love the eurosaver stores, the restaurants, the good humour with strangers. I love the marches, parades and protests. I love its coffee culture and its pub scene. I love the people who paint on the pavement. I love the city’s extravagant history. I love the live music everywhere, the street sculpture, the museums.  I like the cobbled streets and wide-paved streets and the walking tours. I like the cheese and the hand-made chocolate and the open-top bus and the Liffey river cruise. I love the macabre edge: the storytelling, the Ghost bus, the folklore. I love how it is a real place and that as soon as the sun comes out everybody strips off and soaks up every drop of heat and light. I love how Dubliners turn out for everything: nothing is a flop – they oblige at every festival, every market, every free show and workshop. I love the theatres, from the huge performances to the fringe shorts. I love its cinemas; something for every taste. I love the activism and the projects and the commitment. I love that you can always get a taxi. I love the Luas. I love the Nitelink. I love the train stations and the bus stops. I love its parks and nooks and crannies of green. I love its comedians and the cheap comedy shows. I love the old ladies who tell me I remind them of their daughters. I love its beaches and its fish and chips. I love its apartments and its flats and its ramshackle houses with the bathrooms that you have to walk through the kitchen to reach. I love the busking. I love the street performers and the human statues and the poets who self-publish and sell their work on the street. I love the stalls on O’Connell Bridge and the ability to find a cosy spot at any moment. There are things about it that I don’t love, but I don’t love those things only because they are destructive to a city and a people that I love.

2. Around my kitchen table. I’ve lived in a few places and I haven’t always had the same kitchen or the same table. In fact the kitchen in my current flat is so small there’s no chance of sitting round anything or sitting at all. In fact the flat had no table when we moved in, so we bought a table and four chairs and squeezed it into the living room, because what kind of home doesn’t have a table in it? So yes, around my kitchen table. Over the years there has been some serious rejoicing and some serious mourning done round that table with neighbours, family and friends. It’s the heart of any home: endless cups of tea and bowls of soup and boards of cheese and grapes and great vats of beef stew have been consumed at that table – nourishment not just in the food but of course in the company too.

3.  Malta, and its Hilton Hotel. A few years ago the husband unit broke both of his arms in two consecutive accidents. What followed was a lot of surgery and recuperation and six weeks when he could not wipe his own bottom. During those six weeks we completely missed out on Christmas and on my dear friend’s wedding in Texas, where I was to be bridesmaid. We recouped some of the travel costs (although we lost our flights) and booked a hasty trip to St. Julian’s in Malta for five nights. What ensued was the best holiday of our lives. Every last detail was perfect. We were collected from the airport by the hotel  chauffeur and were in the Hilton within twenty minutes of landing. We were greeted with complimentary cool drinks which we enjoyed while our bags were taken to our room. Our room had a view of the marina and boasted the most comfortable bed I’ve perhaps ever slept in. We spent our days exploring the island on foot and by boat, eating local delicacies of rabbit stew and drinking fine wine. We ate in a restaurant that had a river running through it full of live carp. Everyone we met was gracious, kind and courteous. The sun shone on us for five glorious winter days and we felt like honeymooners. (Our actual honeymoon having been several years previous, was an unmitigated disaster, the misery from which we still have not fully recovered. But that’s a tale of woe and warning for another day.)

4. I say this tentatively…Aberdeen. Years ago I remember reading a quote from St. Theresa who was grappling with her faith. She said, God I don’t love you. I don’t want to love you. But I want to want to love you. Not to compare Aberdeen to God, but that sums up how I am feeling. I don’t love this city and in fact, I don’t want to. Maybe I am afraid I will grow attached to it only to be forced somewhere else in three years’ time. But in a way I do want to want to love it. It does have things going for it, this place. There is a very wild ocean that roars and is exhilarating. The worse the weather, the more thrilling it is. There are huge hidden parks that alternate between natural forest and grassland, and manicured lawns spilling their guts with beautiful flowers of every colour. It has fortified castles and a salt-smelling harbour and most importantly it offers an opportunity for my weary husband unit to expand his thinking and talents in a community that is both academically brilliant and socially vibrant. Aberdeen we’ll get there.

5. Prison. I’ve never been locked up in one (well actually, I have, but I have never been convicted of a sentence and served time in jail). But I have had the privilege of sharing in the lives of a lot of people who live in prison. More than this: I have met with God there – in sacrament and in person and in liturgy and in tears and laughter in sterile hallways and poky offices and bare wooden chapel pews.

6. The dole queue. No, I don’t love it. But it has been a significant place of learning for me. It has certainly been a leveller. My five year struggle to secure a permanent job, which ultimately failed, gave me an opportunity to reconsider my identity. I literally cried with distress for the first few years of having nothing meaningful to do. Being cut off from opportunities and money and the important social interaction that comes with working, only to get a three month placement here and a six month placement there, each one snipped just as I was getting comfortable, taught me something about myself:  I am not what I do for a living. If my meaning comes from what I do or what I earn, then what message of hope do I have for those who cannot work? My worth can’t be counted by Anglo or measured in the GDP. I’m pricey, yo. 


and so it has come to this

September 13, 2013

Well, this is probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve sat down in the last month to try and write an update here on living gently, and failed. And it’s now that I’ve set myself a twenty minute window before I *have* to get to bed that I’ve decided I’ll take a leaf out of the book of mimi smartypants who does a weekly No Delete Thursday and have myself a little No Delete Friday right here right now. Celebrity Big Brother is on in behind me, providing plenty of satisfyingly inane background noise.

So we’ve moved from Ireland to Scotland. This is week six. I can hardly believe how quickly the time has gone. I am, as I expected I would be, quite homesick. Homesickness, I’ve found, has very little to do with how good or bad the destination is, and all to do with what you have left behind.  It is also a bit of a catch-all word for a shit-ton of conflicting emotions. Nobody told me that sometimes, a symptom of homesickness is feeling REALLY ANGRY at mild to moderate inconveniences. And it’s not about the inconveniences themselves: I am unemployed (agaaaaaiiinnnnn) and so have plenty of time on my hands for standing in lines for bureaucratic rubbish. It’s about how each of the little inconveniences (like standing in line in the job centre only to be told you have to ring to get your national insurance number, then ringing the place in which you are currently standing, then waiting on hold on the line to make an appointment for a national insurance number, then waiting a week for your appointment date, then turning up only for your appointment time being ignored, then waiting weeks for the number to arrive in the post) – it’s about how each of those little inconveniences isolate you and highlight your status as stranger, as inconvenience, as someone of whom the locals should be suspicious. And it’s just a small thing, but Aberdonians don’t smile all that much – at least not the one in service industries. I wouldn’t have described myself as chirpy or (God forbid) bubbly, but it turns out I approach most people with a big gormless smile on my face that quickly slides off as my plebeian status becomes apparent. People are generally helpful, but they do not grin in the way that Irish people do. But then sometimes, I can’t even trust my own perception of things, as perhaps as soon as I landed on the bonny shores I immediately slapped a giant pair of rose tinted spectacles onto my big gombeen face? In any case, things appear skewed vastly in favour of home at the moment, in spite of the many clear pluses here, and I am a walking ball of stress and rage and occasional contentedness.

Charlotte, in spite of her farting and alcohol-induced bed-wetting, has won (I know you were itching for the result), and now it’s time for my leaba. I’ll return. G’nite, dear ones.