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: nine loves

September 15, 2013

1. The Harry Potter books. Oh man. Forget the movies: they’re rubbish. (That didn’t stop me watching them all in the cinema on opening night, having endured weeks of hopeful anticipation in advance.) They are a supreme escape, full of all the thrills you desire as a child: being able to fly, magnificent food, four poster beds, living in a mystical castle, your homework being practicing magic. Adventure, romance, success, failure, pain, loss, heartache, fun, joy, celebration. Surprise twists and turns, grotesque horrors and exquisite delights. It’s magic.

2. Festival. Christmas, Easter, birthday, firsts, lasts, fine beers: I’m up for celebrating all of it. Growing up in a house devoid of traditions and scant celebrations, I’m up for a party and you’re all invited. (Except…you.) Feasting, drinking, dancing, singing, talking, laughing and being silly a must.

3. Silence. Oh how I love silence. I need a pocket of silence in every day or I go a little bit nuts. I didn’t always know that I needed that and spent more than a little time feeling aggravated and vexed because I didn’t make space for it in my life. Quiet, you!

4. Friendship. It is the most important thing that life has to offer us and it is the only context for virtue. It illuminates everything and makes the most wounding experiences livable. It is rare and it is soul-nourishing like no other thing. It is the perfect soundtrack to every experience.

5. Old fashioned desserts. Tapioca, creamy baked rice, semolina, bread and butter pudding…stodge, warmth, vanilla wonderfulness. I associate them with my grandmother, who was rather ungrandmotherly* overall, but was good at tapioca with a lump of HB ice cream in it.

*She once found a rat in her bedroom, grabbed it in a towel and broke its neck, and other stories.

6. The Counting Crows. It has never been cool to like this band, at least not in Ireland. It is probably less cool than ever now. I went to see them for the first time in the summer of, I think, 1999, with a boy I was besotted with, and his friend. No gig before or since has topped that experience and their music will for me be forever tinted with nostalgic memories of sun and wandering my city’s streets at night and feeling young and unfettered and alive.

7. Sunglasses. Every bit as universally cool as cigarettes, but without the ash-breath, yellow fingers and cancer. Slap ’em on any nerd, and they’re transformed into an adonis-like state.

8. Sleep. I don’t get that much of it, so I enjoy it when I do. Enhanced by the warm presence of the husband-unit.

9. The nineties. Like most teenagers of the nineties, I am obsessed. The terrible fashion. The unforgettable dance music. The new dawn of breakfast television. The economic boom and the sense of endless possibility. The Britpop. The Spice Girls. The movies – the legacy of Jurassic Park, Titanic, Terminator 2, Home Alone, Saving Private Ryan, The Matrix, Mrs. Doubtfire, Forrest Gump and The Sixth Sense. The inexplicable feeling that those of us who identify with the era as being able to take credit for that stuff (you’re welcome). The Alanis-Morisette-Tracy-Chapman-Tori-Amos-Bjork-Sarah-McLaughlin-Beth-Orton-fever that gripped all us young women. The hot summers, the music festivals, the piercings and the purple hair. The oversized tshirts, listening to Longwave radio Atlantic 252, My So Called Life, Dawson’s Creek and Party of Five. Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese changing the political landscape for Irish women forever. Good times.

you don’t have to say

June 30, 2013

I’m at my kitchen table listening to a mix-tape L made me, sniffing the sweet scent of lillies and eating chocolates the prisoners gave me, and I am feeling happy and sad. Half of the electricity has been turned off because the sockets are crackling and we think the toilet might be leaking down into the walls. The glamour! Tomorrow a Man with KnowledgeTM will come and look at the problems and fix them without me understanding how, but until then only the back half of the house can have lekky.

As you can see, I’m determined to squeeze my monthly post in for the archives before June disappears and it will be quality as always!

My work contract expired on Friday. In the end I was very sad to leave. And then my two year placement in the prison finished up today. In five weeks I am moving to Scotland. (Boom, boom, boom.) I am as emotionally constipated as ever, although a little salty waterfall did emerge from my face this morning as I was embraced over and over in the prison chapel and many men who are not my husband told me they love me. I was given the privilege of sharing the homily at worship and who better to talk about than Wade Watts? That was a man who understood freedom.

I am anticipating a day of rest tomorrow where I don’t do anything of significance except make a sandwich and a cup of tea for the Man with KnowledgeTM. There is so much stuff to sort out and I have no idea where to begin, so I am beginning with a rest to get ready. I’ll come back and visit this week with thoughts on food, frugality, solidarity and being a permanent basket case. Laters!

i was looking for a job and then i found a job

January 20, 2013

Ah, Sunday night dread. You’re looking well; thanks for stopping by! Come on in, take a load off.

My stupid weekend has been full of diarrhoea, dullness and disappointments, with a short interlude at a lovely restaurant today (goat cheese, steak, creme brulee, stayed in), followed by a shedload of annoying assignments and now, the anticipation of the working week slides like wet cement down my gullet.

No time off is ever enough; no rest sufficient to properly process and catch up: am I ever bloody happy?

I feel like someone should have awarded me a six month holiday after the miscarriage. Maybe the president? There you are, aren’t you a great girl. With a giant novelty cheque of spending-money for strong cocktails, sun umbrellas and jumbo fried shrimp. A few days in Portugal just didn’t cut it. What do you do when you’ve lost your joie de vivre? I think maybe I am just a bad adjuster. I give all my energy to the adjustment so there’s nothing left for me. The day begins at 5.45am and never seems to end. By Saturday I’m like Dilbert’s ego: a little shrivelled rag. College is doing my head in. I am very ready to only have one thing to worry about: monostress > multistress. Knowing me, I’d still find something to get worked up about. Like that auld one in the restaurant today. Does her voice really have to be that nasal?

I want parties and socialising and being with friends because I want cheering up, but I am so tired that by 9pm I’m all withered like old lettuce; flat, damp and brown around the edges. While everyone else is just getting ready to go out, I’m getting into my jammies. Bed has developed this magnetic appeal, and not just for sexy reasons I might add. I dream about it on the bus home. Oh to lie down…and the duvet, so warm…and a nice hot lemon…

Right, it’s time for wine and The Smiths and swaying around the house in a melancholy fashion to the amusement of the neighbours.

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.

is it safe to come out now? and thoughts on communion

September 15, 2012

Hello crunchy children! I hope we’ve all recovered from my previous post and can carry on as though nothing has happened, simply squeezing all of our collective rage into a bitter little ball to be released at an appropriate time, like that day I hit the referee with a whiskey bottle. Remember that day?

It is a grey Saturday in my town and I am in my winter pyjamas eating red velvet cupcakes and drinking tea at the kitchen table and recovering from a challenging, busy and somehow still-beautiful week. Free Saturdays always fill me with this unbridled sense of possibility. Not for the day, but for the world. It’s like, suddenly, anything could happen. And it could be really good. It’s a great feeling.

I was lying in bed this morning listening to David McRory’s All Time Greats show on the wonderful Dublin City fm and David had a guest. I don’t know who she was: I tuned in too late. Her name, though, was Annmarie. I got the impression that she was an Irish musician, who was maybe in her early sixties. Annmarie was sharing some of her favourite pieces of music, and related anecdotes. She spoke of being a music student in Dublin in the sixties and buying poor-people’s tickets with her friend to an upcoming concert due to be given by the legendary British mezzo-soprano, Janet Baker, in the RDS, and the utter excitement that preceded the show. She recounted going to the Golden Spoon in Grafton Street with her friend the evening before the concert, for a cup of coffee, with piles of sheet music on the table between them, brimming with anticipation at the prospect of seeing one of their idols live in person. As they gushed, an elegant woman and her husband stepped into the restaurant and walked past them. Certain that it was Janet Baker and her husband, Annmarie nervously got up and approached them. She said, “Mrs. Baker, I am so looking forward to seeing you in concert tomorrow night.” Janet, taken by surprise, and wearing a large fur hat and dark glasses replied, “How on earth did you recognise me?” Annmarie simply replied, “I just wanted to welcome you to Dublin.” Janet and her husband were very touched and invited the young women to visit them after the performance the following evening.

At the end of a spectacular concert, during the encore, Janet Baker said to the listening crowd, “Last night I experienced one of the most wonderful things that has ever happened to me. A young woman took the time to approach me and welcome me to Dublin. She is here this evening. Annmarie, I dedicate this last song of the evening to you.”

At this point in the story, tears were pouring down my face, and I heard David McRory say softly, “Oh Annmarie.”

And I had a moment of worship in my heart, because I thought yes. That is communion. A moment of stepping out, making welcome, receiving warmth, and responding in grace. That is communion. Come in, come in, come in.


swings and roundabouts

May 27, 2012

A post about nothing much.

So I’m struggling a little in work. I can’t settle. I have one eye perpetually on alternatives and of course, now that I’m working, there are suddenly interviews and little side-projects aplenty. Of course there are…famine or feast, eh? It’s only now that I am back to work and have something with which to contrast my office that I realise just how positive and mellow the little world which I inhabit actually is. I’m not joking when I say that visiting the prison in which I have my chaplaincy placement is like going to a funfair followed by the circus followed by pints in a cosy pub compared to a day at this office. O the dreariness, O the attitude, O the lack of windows. I sink a little lower with every passing hour. Thankfully my workdays do get book-ended with pleasantness by travelling with my friends, which is a very gentle and manageable way to begin and end my days in there. I am, despite appearances, a complete softie, you see.

Now I will, as if on the first day of school, write an essay akin to “What I Did In My Summer Holidays” except you can exchange “In My Summer Holidays” with “This Weekend”. :D

What followed my miserable working week was three days of absolute soul food. I cannot remember a weekend so good in so long. It just might have been perfect. I’m all filled up again and ready for the onslaught of the week. I am fed.

On Friday night, we drove for a few hours to share in a dear friend’s 30th birthday celebration at a little craft brewery north of the border. We ate our body weight in local sausage, steak and an angrily-prepared birthday cake, as well as a few choice beers. We sat in the blazing heat of the evening outdoors, with the best music from the last 30 years and real conversations and the sun setting behind us and the stars rising above. The husband unit and I stayed that night in a local hotel and our room was quiet and cool and in the morning, full of sunlight. We slept in luxuriously, travelled a short way to meet lovely and artistic Dave and Helen for coffee and pancakes and cinnamon scones, and then left for a day of sunshine, sea, sand in my shoes and theological debate with the beautiful and interesting feminine feminist at Seapark. She prepared for us delicious Greek things and taught us to make (and drink) Dark and Stormy rum cocktails (a revelation!) before we raced homewards for a night of rollicking-camp Eurovision frolicks with numerous like-minded Eurovision lovers. After several hours of laughter, and having exercised our democratic right to elect our new all-singing all-dancing overlords, we headed reluctantly for home just as the wee hours approached, but the weekend insisted on continuing! Today, Sunday, was my last day at the prison until September…and after worship there were tears, gifts, cards, chocolates, hugs and kisses all round, and even some lazing in the sun that broke into the grey concrete yard where the prisoners can get a little air. I left feeling like the richest woman in Ireland. I was greeted at the prison gate by the husband unit, who took me for picnicking in the park under a giant oak. We ate empanadas and pasta salads and ice creams and eventually wandered homewards for an afternoon nap, before meeting the extended family for reunions with the long-lost American brother, meat and beer and salad and cake and small children with burnt noses and bouncy castles. Home again by 8, curled on the couch with a glass of wine as the husband-unit revises for his last exam of the year, and the plan is to be in bed by 11. All is well in the house of Chip Monk.

It’s official, you know…I am alive!