how much is enough

November 15, 2014

So my plan to have a productive blogging month went right down the swanny when my work suddenly exploded with dozens of referrals in the last two weeks. But I don’t want to talk about that: I was working all day today and that’s quite enough of that for a Saturday. On the upside, I have a day off in reserve now, which will be enjoyed with indecent frivolity during next weekend’s three day off extravaganza of feasting and celebrating with American friends who are having a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving. This year I have turkey responsibility. I feel honoured. My gravy is gonna be good. Real good. I plan to prepare a vat of the stuff, to try to keep up with the most current advice of medical doctors to drink eight glasses a day for optimum health.

But enough about my vittles.

In September I went to Thailand. We were ten years’ married so we planned a big trip to celebrate it. Our original honeymoon was three miserable days in Paris in a terrible hotel with a broken bed. We were overwrought and tired as toddlers at the witching hour and argued the whole time. This was the do-over. We went to the travel agent, named our (relatively small) budget and enquired about a honeymooner’s resort in Corfu or something. The travel agent asked if we’d be willing to go far, far away to get more bang for our buck. The answer, clearly, was yes.

The flights were very long and terrible.

But then we arrived. And the hotel was very not terrible. ‘Hotel’ as a word can’t really do it justice, but ‘resort’ doesn’t do the job a whole lot better either – rather it was a beautiful cluster of private residences surrounding lush landscaped gardens, replete with water features and a spectacular outdoor pool, perched on the edge of a tropical beach. Yeah. It was something else, with coconut trees everywhere, alive with chipmunks and lizards below a blazing red sky; the songs of crickets ringing in our ears. It was late and humid and we were tired and smelly. We were greeted with lavender scented ice cold towels. Our bags were taken to our suite while the facilities of the resort were explained to us over cool drinks – library, gym, beach bar, restaurants. I was presented with a banana leaf bouquet. The room was an air-conditioned haven with an enormous, not-broken bed and several ways to shower and bathe. Everything was covered in flower petals. Everything smelled real good. Then there was the private outdoor pool and garden, just for us, and the 24 hour room service, and the sparkling wine with the complimentary all-day gourmet breakfast, and the beach, and the Thai massages, and the library full of books and movies for us to enjoy.

And we were not tired or angry and we did not argue or cry like the first time. It was bliss.

And still, unbelievably, I was not happy.

I felt like a Brontë character – an aristocratic tosser with literally every luxury and pleasure at my disposal, and still – I was not happy.

And I had a revelation. Not that I am a completely miserable and soulless fool who can’t be pleased no matter what – not that I am a pampered princess with standards that simply cannot be met – but that external circumstances don’t and can’t soothe my soul. My problems of disquiet and anxiety are not because of circumstances – they are something more fundamental. Arguably, something spiritual.

And I found this oddly comforting.

When you’ve had it all, however briefly, and you still haven’t garnered any satisfaction, the need to hunt out it all in an endless frenzied pursuit lessens – or at least is revealed for the fruitless search that it is. I’ve often thought that if I wasn’t a Christian I’d be a Nietzschian – a fatalistic hedonist hell-bent on pleasure and commitment to the self (true nature leaking out somewhat there). But now I’m not so sure. We had a lovely time – best holiday ever in fact – and it was a fitting way to mark ten years of something privileged and special – but you know, it just wasn’t all that.  

Advertisements

the trouble with facticity

July 16, 2014

To the philosophers who got here via google looking up facticity for your essay: move along. This won’t help you.

To the regulars who check in here every day risking almost inevitable disappointment: thanks. I think about blogging a lot, and there are several half-written posts in my drafts folder, but as you know, I rarely can gather my thoughts together effectively.

We are approaching our one year Aberdeeniversary. I realised this a couple of weeks ago with a jolt of shock. Since then I have been telling this fact to everyone who will listen. They seem less amazed by this incredibly speedy passage of time than I am.

Speaking of time’s illusion of rushing speedily onward, the husband unit and I will be celebrating our ten year maritalversary  in two months’ time. Well. That escalated quickly.

We spent the first year of our marriage fighting and cursing the heavens for our horrific mistake. This came off the back of a tough couple of years with family problems and illness. Then, year two rocked up and a switch flicked and we settled into that marital bliss everyone else goes on about. It’s been good ever since (although I admit we did spend the last 24 hours arguing through snot and tears over something that we have been arguing about for the entire duration of our 16 year relationship).

I am hoping that a similar switch is going to flick in my relationship with Aberdeen (nuptial bliss + occasional fallout). I had really hoped that by now I would feel settled and established here: that I would know this city’s corners and sweet spots and how to wriggle myself into them. No such luck. I feel un-anchored and not in the unlimited-wide-open-ocean-anything-could-happen kind of way, but in the I-am-totally-lost way. Freed but limited. I miss my soul friends. I miss not being a foreigner. I miss the visual landscape of my homeplace and many other things besides. I thought the heartsickness would shift and melt and fade but it hasn’t. Part of the problem is my indulgence of the homesick feeling – I am flexing its muscle and making it stronger, maybe. But then I still have these unsolicited disappointments, where I wake up on a Saturday morning and think immediately of meeting a particular friend, or going to brunch with the husband unit in a particular favourite restaurant, and then I remember I can’t because I am not at home. And that there aren’t any friends like that here that I can call on, on a whim, and that there aren’t any brunch places, cos this isn’t that kind of city. And then I feel sad. And then I feel annoyed with myself for how pampered and self-indulgent I am, and that doesn’t cross over into a sensible ability to laugh at myself, but rather into self-loathing and despair.

And all the while God continues to show his hand in providential encounters: guess who is moving to Aberdeen and who is going to become my husband’s new PhD supervisor? Stanley Hauerwas, that’s who. He wrote Living Gently in a Violent World, a book that changed my life. And such is the university culture here that we are going to get not just to meet him and hear him teach but we will be part of the same community, probably even the same local church. The husband unit gets to be schooled by the master: the master that inspired him to study at this level in the first place. Wtf. So again I see another clear purpose in coming here, but I don’t know how to reconcile those wondrous kinds of coincidences with my general feeling of unhappiness. Of course these coincidences centre around the husband unit, but is my contentedness really so utterly centred on me? We all know the trope of the father (or mother for that matter) that works tirelessly at a crappy job for the needs of their family and it’s all worth it because their family is taken care of. Well, essentially that is my role here. Work to take care of my (two person) family. And I am just too selfish for it to be satisfying.

Is my problem that I am addicted to an idea of something that is just honestly unattainable? I used to think I didn’t want much (ha!), but now I see that I actually want so, so much, and that this reality was hidden to me because I had most of what I unconsciously wanted in advance. The appetite I have for the things I think I don’t have is a cavern. I am in existential crisis, man! Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche ain’t got nuthin’ on me, yo. I thought I had discerned what I wanted to do when I grew up: become a prison chaplain. I did a lot of hard work to make that happen. That’s just not possible here. The only prison for a massive radius is 30 miles north of Aberdeen and already has a chaplain. So I am doing something else and like everything else I’ve tried, it just hasn’t satisfied. So I find myself asking – how do I learn to be content? What needs to change, my circumstances or me, or both? What do I add in to my life, what do I take out, what is within my control and what isn’t? Or ought I to accept unhappiness as inevitable? Is everyone as troubled as me by this shit? A lot of the things that I took for granted were actually central to my happiness – a stable church community, close friends, quiet home, easy access to a rich social and cultural life. Those things are gone and can’t be forced here. They might happen at some stage but they are not happening now. That’s the trouble with facticity: the thrownness of our existence. Chucked hither and thither. Go with or resist?

Answers on a postcard plz. (No sympathy, thanks. Obscenely rude jokes an acceptable substitute.)

 


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.

 

 


i had to put this somewhere

February 9, 2014

where my bruised reeds at? he says, looking for the walking wounded, the bent-over men and women, the smoldering wicks. where are my people who don’t even know up from down anymore, who can no more suss out what is sustainable than they can solve the problems of the world? where are my people at, he says, the ones who are beating back addictions, dysfunctions, lies that slink in and out around our ears? those are my people, he says, the ones i will not break. they are the ones i will not snuff out.

~ D.L Mayfield: mercy > sacrifice


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: three films

October 13, 2013

In the same way that a retweet isn’t an endorsement, featuring in this post is not necessarily a recommendation.  Three memorable ones of the hundreds and hundreds:

1. The Exorcist. When I was fifteen this movie was re-released in the cinema in Ireland. I was absolutely desperate to see it. As a kid I was quite afraid of my parents so did not tend to step out of line or do naughty things very often. On this occasion, however, myself and my buddy S broke all the rules by sneaking out of her parents house at night while they were out and we were supposed to be in, to take the 66 bus into Dublin city centre and watch this movie in the Savoy cinema on O’Connell Street. Well. We were rightly shitting ourselves. It was a horrifying ordeal that was only partly enjoyable at the time and not at all enjoyable later on. We screamed and clutched at each other and trembled all the way home. I had flashbacks for years!

2. Dancer in the Dark. I have always loved Bjork and found her a bit mad and mesmerising. When I saw her in this movie I was simultaneously transfixed and all at once filled with dread at the appalling injustice suffered by her character Selma, who is charged with a horrific crime that she was not responsible for and sentenced accordingly. I sat on the floor of the living room of my rented student accommodation at the time and cried for a good twenty minutes after it was over. I think that was the beginning of me choosing my movies more carefully. Not that I wish that I had not seen it, but the misery of it stayed with me for a long time after I stopped crying. It showed me my own sensitivity and I have not been as willing to watch just any old thing since then. I am more discerning because it’s just not practical to go into mourning after watching a movie and find yourself not fully able to do your job or string a coherent sentence together.

3. High Fidelity. Based on the novel by Nick Hornby, but immeasurably improved by being set in the US instead of in the UK, I include this movie because it is a tonic on a sad day, and there are quite a few of those. Everyone should watch it at least once.


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.