'What I do is me: for that I came.' G M Hopkins

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Facing Out

Yesterday, my colleague and I headed off to Dublin in a bus with fourteen A level pupils. We visited the WB Yeats exhibition at the National Library and then went to see Wayne Jordan’s production of The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey in the Abbey Theatre.

As we sat in the auditorium I tried to imagine the scenes at the Abbey in February 1926 when the first production of the play was greeted by riots of a similar kind to those which had greeted Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in 1907. Then it was the use of the word ‘shift’ on stage that did it but with O’Casey the objection was not moral but political.

The problem started in the second act. Incidentally, did you know that this was originally written as a one act play called The Cooing of Doves? It slotted right into the middle of the story of ‘little red-lipped Nora’ and her husband Jack Clitheroe, who in Act One is sulking because he ‘wasn’t made a captain of’. Act Two opens with the prostitute, Rosie Redmond, setting the scene in the public house. This was shocking enough but provoked nothing like the reaction caused when three men in uniform, Clitheroe (now promoted and in the thick of revolt), Langon and Brennan entered carrying the two flags of the combatant Irish forces: the tricolour of the National Volunteers and the plough-and-stars of the Irish Citizen Army. On the fourth night of the 1926 run there was present a large number of women closely associated with the men who had fought, died or been imprisoned in the 1916 rising. The sight of the flags sparked off massive resistance to what was perceived as an insult to the patriot dead. Women screamed and hurled shoes, they invaded the stage and were thrown into the orchestra, blows were exchanged and one young man swung on the curtain which was being hurriedly lowered. The pandemonium caused a panic among the audience, who dashed for the exits and added to the confusion.

In the days that followed, Yeats gave a public lecture at which he said that the rioters had ‘rocked the cradle of genius’. Just ten years after the Easter Rising, people believed that O’Casey had failed to honour the sacrifice of the Irish heroes. In the current run of the play the bar in Act Two cleverly doubles as the platform for the speaker addressing the crowds gathered on the streets of Dublin in the days leading up to the rising, usually presented as a silhouetted figure in the window. It is he who declares: ‘War is a terrible thing, but war is not an evil thing’ and that Ireland should welcome war as the ‘Angel of God’. Echoing the words of Pádriac Pearse, he justifies rebellion against the British: Ireland, unfree, shall never be at peace.’

The play focuses not on the events in and around the GPO, but on the suffering of a group of people living in poverty in a dirty Dublin tenement. Jack rises to the call and dies an ignominious death, leaving his pregnant wife to grieve the loss of her husband and stillborn baby. In this, as in every conflict, it is the working-class poor who hope for the most and suffer the most. It is the socialist, Young Covey, who closely reflects O’Casey’s own views: ‘If they were fightin’ for anything worthwhile, I wouldn’t mind.’ For exposing the futility of the politicians’ pursuit of lofty ideals in indifference to the plight of the poor, O’Casey was lambasted as bringing a slur on the names of the martyrs. The Easter Rising was over before it had hardly begun and the quick executions of its leaders sowed the seeds of years of bloody conflict in Ireland.

I cannot think of the Easter Rising without remembering a chapter in my own life. I was the ghost writer for a church leader’s memoirs, Paul Reid of Christian Fellowship Church, Belfast. In 1993, the publisher gave it the title A New Easter Rising, rather pretentious I thought, given that the 1916 one didn’t go too well. Portentous, even, because although Paul’s story is a truthful account of his journey into faith and church leadership, CFC also failed to produce what it promised.

The book's origin was in an Easter gathering of churches north and south, Protestant and Catholic, at Mosney called 'Together for the Kingdom'. Great crowds, great worship, great preaching, great everything, apart that is from the amusements which were a health and safety nightmare! In his forward to Paul’s book Roger Forster called this cross-border, cross-community congregation an ‘historic conference’. The declared vision was to see ‘new churches springing up through the length and breadth of Ireland’. In that spirit of hope, Paul predicted that CFC would plant 400 churches in Ireland by 2010, not to mention one in Europe. Paul stuck his neck out in print and I was party to it and we were soon sorry. Paul has had an amazing ministry in Belfast and beyond but to date we have only one church plant in its infancy. Sadly, 'Together for the Kingdom' was also short-lived. In just a few years the event was cancelled amidst murmurings about 'pushy northerners' and cultural differences.

And the lesson? Don’t put your trust in the rallying calls of princes, politicians, or pastors! They cannot, in fact, see into the future and they are often wrong. The Church is not about what we can achieve or build but about facing out towards a hurting world. There has only been one successful Easter rising. On my desk sits a smoothly weathered granite stone from the majestic Matopos Hills in Zimbabwe. On it a friend has written:

He has risen! He is not here.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Into Narnia

It’s been a wet weekend – the kind of rain that’s ‘on for the day’ and makes gardening impossible. There was nothing for it but to tackle some of those inside jobs that have needed doing all summer. Fourteen years ago we packed much of our lives into boxes and headed off to Africa with what we could carry in our car encased inside a forty foot container. What remained was stored in our very own Narnia and some of the boxes haven't been opened since.

At the back of the closet set into the eaves in my son’s bedroom is a door leading into another small room above the front return of the house. It is a perfect place to put the stuff we don’t want anyone to see. It was wet weather that forced the Pevensie children to play hide and seek and led to Lucy’s first adventure through the wardrobe where she met Mr Tumnus and time stood still. As the rain drummed on the roof we ventured at last into the dark recesses to clear away the ‘pruck’.

It’s amazing what memories are released by forgotten treasures: old university files (I’m teaching The Tempest and thought I’d never read it until I found notes on it in my own fair hand!); a copy of Sex in the Real World which I wrote for the Presbyterian youth department; precious drawings penned by our own four at primary school; an entire community of Sylvanian families; a bedraggled owl which fell out of a tree, was resurrected by a taxidermist and then mauled by our puppy; books and books and books and a menagerie of stuffed toys.

I found a tiny pair of red Dunlop wellington boots which I know Joshua wore as a toddler but which didn’t originally belong to him. I can remember it so well. It was 1975. I had gone to a university pre-term weekend in Portrush and the day I was due to leave was also the first anniversary of my romance with ‘little blue Richard’. I looked out of the first floor window of the boarding house where we were staying and there he was leaning out of the car window holding aloft a life size model of Paddington bear wearing a yellow hat, blue duffel coat and, yes, red wellies! In a big box at the back I found poor Paddington, rather the worse for wear and neglect, and he was reunited with his boots.

As for letters and photos and papers and cards! I came across a shoebox containing faded pieces of paper. Among them was the only surviving copy of the constitution of the Spinsters’ Union, convened in the library of Regent House School during a sixth form ‘study period’ when a group of us had no boyfriends. It is hilarious, advocates moderation in all things and eschewing the ‘gross moral turpitude of marital relations’. Club members were not allowed to be seen conversing with the opposite sex without a chaperone and we pledged to wear only skirts that ‘rendered the knees invisible’. I was the president and there were three named members. The document details the misdemeanours of one Pearl Clarke (Miss) whose membership had been withdrawn for yielding to temptation. Of course, in the years that followed, we all embraced marriage as soon as we were asked – one member twice!

Another card that raised a smile contained a poem written by a friend which chronicled an incident that took place a few years into my own marriage. We were holidaying in a caravan in Donegal with two infants and to while away an evening we resorted to playing cards. What happened next went down in history, as the boy who managed to fail A level Geography because he was honing his poker skills at the back of the classroom faced total humiliation.

There was a young couple from Ards
Who fancied a quick game of cards
‘Oh honey,’ she cried,
‘Let’s play some rummy,
And we’ll have a bet on the side.

He said, ‘I’m no choker – let’s play some poker
Where the loser takes off his clothes.
He was so smug, ’cause he thought, ‘She’s a mug,’
So they dealt the first hand fully clothed.

He first lost his shoes, his socks and his sweater,
Next came his shirt and it didn’t get better,
She lost not a hand to the guy from the band,
As her clubs and diamonds they blended
Till he sat there naked as God intended.

If there’s a moral to this saucy tale
Due to desires between male and female,
Don’t play cards with one who’s a prude,
Cause it’ll be a waste of time if you end up in the nude!

I always find that newspapers are much more interesting when they’re spread out on the floor about to be scrunched to set the fire. So it is with the past. It’s been slow going in Narnia as time has stood still and the debris of my life has been strewn at my feet. I have laughed and wept at the years that are gone and wondered what the young woman I was would make of the person I have become. The past probably wasn't as much fun as I remember and the future will look different from what I expect when I get there. Now is all I have. Sue Monk Kidd says that, 'Time isn't a straight line along which we travel, but a deep dot in which we dwell.' Like the children who first discovered Narnia I too want to go ‘further up and further in’.

‘This is your life. Are you who you wanna be?’ Switchfoot

Sunday, September 12, 2010

'Plate of Eyes'

On Friday, I got up just after dawn and emerged bleary-eyed into the misty morning. The air was heavy with damp and auguries of autumn. I donned my daughter’s wellies and plunged into the hedgerows, plastic container in hand, in search of blackberries, my only company a wary driver on the early shift and insomniac insects.

I wasn’t preparing for a crumble with Braeburn apples and cinnamon but collecting a visual aid for a Year 11 poetry class. Good old Seamus Heaney! His own boyhood experiences gathering wild berries have been captured for posterity in his poem Blackberry Picking. He describes the childish enthusiasm of trekking through cornfields and potato drills and collecting blackberries in jam-pots and pea tins. His imagery is alive with colour: ‘a glossy purple clot’; ‘thickened like wine’; ‘summer’s blood was in it’ and ‘the red ones inked up’. By the time I had finished allowing the pupils to taste the pulpy fruit and had squeezed a few berries between my fingers, my palms too were ‘sticky as Bluebeard’s’.

As I reached up and plucked the fruit from the bush I was thinking about what it means to be ripe for picking. The days are shortening and there are red and green berries still on the bush which will never fill up with wine-red colour – it’s too late. The summer is over and they will wither where they hang, some already wrapped in webs and moulding leaves. If we go at life’s experience too hard we can end up with a handful of shrivelled moments which never actually come to anything. Life’s best things take time. Other berries are too ripe with a faintly alcoholic whiff and these bleed onto your fingertips before you can eat them. Like the ‘What ifs?’ and ‘If onlys’ of life their time has passed and they will never be jam.

The blackberry whose time has come is dark and full-bodied and leaves the twig with just a tiny pull of resistance before tumbling gladly into the receptacle - open mouth or pyrex pie dish. It’s ready for anything and will fulfil the purpose for which it was created.

Would that I could do the same! I often feel that I’m green and cowardly or ready too late. Yet I neither want to wither nor go to waste. Seamus and the boys carried their hoard of blackberries to the byre and emptied them into the bath, rushing off for more and more until discovering to their dismay that the fruit was rotting – the feast had decayed before it had even been enjoyed. Heaney recalls his bitter frustration, ‘I always felt like crying.’

At the end of my class, the not-yet-ripe berries lay untouched on the desks, ‘hard as a knot’, or were kicked along the floor, and the rest have been left festering together in the dark on the shelf at the back of the room. Next Friday I will hand the container round again and the pupils will gag at the sour smell of fermenting fruit, gazing in horror at the ‘rat-grey fungus’ which will inevitably form.

I asked the class what they thought the poem was about and one child suggested, ‘Disappointment’. Can life’s disappointments be avoided? Probably not. However, we can try to be alert to all possibilities and say yes more than we say no. If Shrek were a blackberry he would be jumping up and down shouting, ‘Pick me!’

I can’t remember who said how sad it would be if we reached the point of death only to realise that we had never really lived. Let’s seize the day as it comes. Oswald Chambers talks about us being broken bread and poured out wine for other people if we speak and act at the right moment. I suppose that means an alertness to really listen and a willingness to be harvested and crushed so that the juice of kindness flows. Let’s not allow pessimism and fear to rob us of belief. We cannot put our talents in store – now is the accepted time.

‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.’