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

Friday, January 21, 2011

Softly, softly

January – the time of new beginnings! One of the things I love about teaching English is opening a brand new book and reading from chapter one. It’s an exciting moment as I and the eager (and not so eager) pupils embark together on an adventure of discovery. And such variety! From Digory and Polly bursting into the attic where Uncle Andrew rises like a demon from the chair to Scout, Dill and Jem daring each other to touch Boo Radley’s house and, with sixth form, wondering about the mysterious Gatsby reaching out towards the green light across the bay and meeting the troubled Meursault walking behind his mother’s coffin in the raining sun. From Narnia to Maycomb, to the American Dream and Existentialism, it’s entering new worlds and knowing we will never be the same again.

I was handing back a homework essay yesterday to a Year 13 boy when I informed him that I was going to tell him something which he would never forget – something that would live on in his memory after I was dead. He was intrigued; the whole class was intrigued. I wrote the word ‘full’ on the board and explained that this is the only time that the double consonant ‘ll’ occurs at the end of a word; all other words ending in ‘ful’ have only one ‘l’ – beautiful, joyful, thankful, hopeful… By the way, did you know that there are only four words in the English language which end in ‘dous’? I’ll let you think about that.

Speaking of new worlds, TV offers the same opportunity. This week I watched the documentary on RTE 1 about Ulster songstress of the 50s and 60s, Ruby Murray, who wowed crowds with her husky tones until her crooning career was cut short by the advent of filthy Rock n Roll and she descended into alcoholism. Her name may live on as rhyming slang for an Indian meal but she still holds the record for having five hits in the charts in a single week in March 1955.

The programme was called Ruby and the Duke and Peter Wilson (aka Duke Special) interviewed Ruby’s son and daughter and others who knew her in her heyday. Her story has been repeated so many times in the show biz/music industry: a meteoric rise to fame and success followed by a collapse into self-destruction and obscurity as the next new thing deposes the old. The highlight of the programme for me was the magical moment when Brian Kennedy sang one of Ruby’s hits, Softly, Softly accompanied by Duke on the piano. Absolutely gorgeous!

People may come and go; we will come and go, but some things are eternal – like good literature and good tunes. This is supposed to be the bleakest and darkest week of the year. Read a book or sing a song and live long.

Softly, softly come to me
Touch my lips so tenderly
Softly, softly turn the key
And open up my heart

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ever After

It’s the first day. Whatever wasn’t achieved or accomplished last year won’t be. Not now. Scary isn’t it?

It’s been great to have the family home over the holiday. Christmas for me is about key moments: my son-in-law making parsnip soup with veggies gleaned from the field beside us now scattered with the yellow trumpets which were abandoned by the farmer hurrying to keep ahead of the encroaching snow; my daughter suggesting that we pause to recount memories of granny who died this time last year; me standing in the dining room with my arms raised in worship as James Taylor sang his hauntingly beautiful version of In the Bleak Midwinter:

Heaven cannot hold him
Nor can earth sustain
Heaven and earth shall fall away
When he comes to reign

The best Christmas moment was when my youngest daughter’s boyfriend arrived on Christmas Eve with a big present for her – a pair of Hunter wellington boots. In them she strode with him up virgin white Scrabo Hill where they had their first date five and a half years ago. At the exact spot where they sat then he drew her attention to a hamper containing a champagne picnic hidden behind a rock. When she turned back in surprise he was on his knees in the snow with the perfect ring. Romantic! She is our precious ray of sunshine. We’re delighted and wish them a lifetime of love and laughter.

Getting engaged is an act of hope and optimism – like gardening. After a frozen Christmas the thaw has turned everything to mud, but at least you can dig. My husband planted a beautiful Acer Tree this week and lots of bulbs. It’s a statement that there’s life after winter.

One of my favourite presents was a copy of Seamus Heaney’s latest collection Human Chain. Through his poems he explores the natural links between husband and wife, life and death, the past and the present, then and now. We are all part of this great chain as we spill over into another year.

Sometimes when I’m really busy I disappear into a soporific state when I do what has to be done without much feeling or enjoyment. I hate that. Life is for living and loving and noticing the people and the wonder around you. I’ve just been for a jog and watched swans in flight and the Brent geese standing guard by the roadside. If we don’t pay attention we miss things. My New Year’s resolution? To keep awake.

Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it,

It came and went so unexpectedly
And almost it seemed dangerously,
Returning like an animal to the house,

A courier blast that there and then
Lasped ordinary. But not ever
After. And not now.

(Seamus Heaney)