the ten series: one picture

October 15, 2013

noodlehead

Who is this fine, strapping young lad you might ask?

Look: I don’t care what anyone says – there is no way you could tell this guy has a hairpiece made of noodles that turned out badly when someone was cooking them one night for dinner. Nope. 100% all natural hair.

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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: four books

September 19, 2013

Okay, it is pretty much impossible to select four of the books out of all the many, many of the many books. I’m not even sure about the choices highlighted below. I am picking books that you may not have read, to encourage you to read them, rather than picking the astonishing books that you are almost guaranteed to have read (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, The Catcher in the Rye, A Christmas Carol, etc. etc.). Also I choose them not because they are brilliant (which they are) but because they had a big impact on me and left their imprint on my psyche. This post took the longest to write of any of this series, and I think it’s the shortest one, too.

Let’s go.

I am not much of a reviewer. I am unable to do justice to the kind of work that gets poured into writing a book, so forgive me if my language is inadequate. Disgrace takes an unflinching view of post-apartheid South Africa through the lens of the broken foolishness of David Lurie, a disgraced college professor. David is a white man, a group which though still dominant, is seen to be floundering. Disgrace explores in its way what it means to be human in the context of personal suffering and a wounded society. I read this in 2004 and it was both an education and a deep shock to me. Recommend.

In this light treatment of love, Jackers takes us on a matter-of-fact exploration of the subject from a Christian philosophical perspective, examining storge, phileo, eros and agape. It was adapted from a series of controversial radio discussions in 1958, where it was criticised in the US for being too forthright about sexual matters, which seems pretty funny now. It’s lovely. I first read it when I was eighteen and it sparked my interest in phileo proper. A few years later I went on to write a long paper on the subject. Ultimately I am not in full agreement with Lewis on friendship, because he defines it in essence as characterised by pleasure – interest in a common subject (for example). I would consider that a lesser kind of friendship to a friendship characterised by virtue, which of course encompasses pleasure as one of its components. Beautiful book; worth reading.

I received this as a gift in, I think, 2001. At the time I had not heard of Lawson and had not yet seen any of the television programmes that have made her so famous. This is more than a cookbook: it is a manifesto on appreciating food for the good life. Not all of the recipes I have tried from it were successful: that could be my failure (and I’m sure is, in some cases) but I have a feeling that Lawson is an instinctive cook, and that she may work backwards in trying to calculate what she has put into a dish. A less instinctive cook, following her advice to the letter, might find that in fact they do not produce as good a result. Since becoming a much better cook myself in the last five years, the recipes of hers that I have tried have improved, as I have cooked more instinctively myself. But saying that, she is a beautiful writer and her gusto for food and pleasure are very infectious. I also really enjoy her confidence – one of her key principles is that it is better to serve a lot of a small number of things (for example a mound of rice, a mound of greens and a good piece of meat) than to serve small amounts of loads of things. I have found this such an effective and appealing principle in cooking for others. It only fails in the presence of picky eaters, and there are one or two of those in my life. I remember one day serving up a bright and flavoursome fish dish with steamed green vegetables and buttered potatoes to a group of eight. I was gutted to see that one woman at the table only ate a couple of plain boiled potatoes. But hey, you can’t please ’em all. It is not so much a recipe book as a thumping good treatise on, as she so so beautifully puts it, the pleasures and principles of good food. A keeper for every cook.

And now for the obvious one.

Living Gently in a Violent World – The Prophetic Wisdom of Weakness, by Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, two of my spiritual, moral and intellectual heroes. I didn’t know at all what to choose for my fourth book. I himmed and hawed and hesitated over it. I asked the Husband Unit what he thought had been one of the most influential books on me that I had read, as far as he could see it. Without even looking up, he said, “Living Gently in a Violent World.” Eh, duh. That’s the name of the blog and it hadn’t even crossed my mind. So here you go.

This book is comprised of four essays that were presented at a conference organised by the Center for Spirituality, Health and Disability at…the University of Aberdeen. I actually only recently found that out.

This book punched me in the heart. I’m not going to say anything about it, I am just going to give you three quotes from it and say once again – if you have not read this, you ought to.

“In a world determined to cure those who cannot be cured, Christians should refuse to do anything other than be with those Jesus taught us to be loved by – that is, those we ‘help’ by simply being present.” – Vanier, p. 56

“Today in France they are saying that within a few years there will be no more children with Down syndrome because they will all have been aborted…. The heart of L’Arche is to say to people, ‘I am glad you exist.’ And the proof that we are glad that they exist is that we stay with them for a long time. We are together, we can have fun together. ‘I am glad you exist’ is translated into physical presence.” – Vanier, p. 69

“Long story short: we don’t get to make our lives up. We get to receive our lives as gifts. The story that says we should have no story except the story we chose … is a lie. To be human is to learn that we don’t get to make up our lives because we’re creatures… Christian discipleship is about learning to receive our lives as gifts without regret.” – Hauerwas, p. 93.


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. 


the ten series: seven wants

September 16, 2013

1. To not want so much. When I was a teenager and I first opened a copy of the New Testament for myself, I remember reading the letters of one of the authors – a guy called Paul of Tarsus – who was writing to a community of Christians in Phillipi; friends of his. He was in prison at the time and bound in chains, for the crime of heresy – teaching something different to the law, and bringing filthy Greeks into the Jewish temple. He didn’t strike me as fanatical or delusional, and yet despite his chains he communicated this intense joy and peace. Reading it almost stung me. I am petulant, dissatisfied and selfish and I live in freedom and luxury. Since then I have wanted to know that peace, regardless of circumstances. I have tasted it occasionally, but I’m after a permanent fix if anyone can help me out.

2. To work in a paid position as a prison chaplain or to be able to work full time in a prison on a voluntary basis and be funded by a rich husband. I suppose what I want is to be able to do this work that I enjoy and feel that I am good at and that I feel is crucial to society and still be able to pay rent and bills. Failing this I want good, meaningful work of any kind that stretches me a little. I would also love to have a period of time free from money worries and be in a position to be financially generous to others.

3. To put this endless saga of not being able to drive properly behind me. HALP.

4. To have full health and recovery from Eating Distress. This is a complex condition that has gripped me for many years and from which I am almost fully recovered, but not yet completely free. Recovery takes a lot of time, work and commitment and in difficult times it is often the first thing to slide.

5. To improve in my ability to self-care. This is linked with the previous want but not exclusive to it. I have become more aware of my values and emotional, spiritual and mental health needs, but this does not always lead to positive action. I’d like to develop healthier, happier routines that are fulfilling and don’t involve four consecutive hours sitting at a computer hitting refresh on Twitter. I’d also like to become better at playing the guitar (I would consider playing the guitar to be self-care) and take up yoga. In fact I have taken steps towards both of these things only this week.

6. To become one of those wise old ladies that everyone looks up to for home-spun advice and tea and sympathy. That I want to become this kind of excludes me from ever achieving it. Sigh.

7. To become a better student. Despite having a load of pointless letters after my name I have kicked and screamed my way unwillingly through rivers of assignments and exams and assessments. I am a lazy-ass shortcut student who would rather read the cliffnotes than the actual textbook. What I am really saying is that I would like to learn the virtue of self-discipline. I am not a natural academic but really, who is? It’s 5% talent, 95% hard work. Ah feck it, this is boring. Let’s just play Hungry Hungry Hippos.