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

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Arise and Go

I saw a woman this week whose very stance moved me. We were driving through Rosses Point in Sligo when I caught sight of her standing on the shore. She had little regard for the traffic which surged past her – holiday makers on the way to the beach on a rare hot sunny day in April – because her focus was out at sea. Her dress and hair are blown back against the gentle contours of her body as she waits, summer and winter, mindless of the elements. Her arms are stretched out in anguish, fingers grasping the air and eyes closed in longing and prayer. The sculptor has called her ‘Waiting on Shore’ and I could feel the pain of her aching heart, encased in bronze. She stands in memoriam for men and boys missing at sea and wives and mothers who await their return.

Coming and going are part of the natural rhythm of life. Sligo is Yeats’ country and, before we left its rugged beauty, the man and I trod the narrow road which leads down to a tiny jetty and gazed through the misty rain in wonder at the tuft of land which inspired his best-loved verse. The little isle of Innisfree in Lough Gill is covered with trees and it’s hard to imagine a glade there, 'bee-loud' or otherwise. Yet it’s not difficult to understand how a genius mind, charged with thoughts of politics and theatre and the occult might long for a place of quiet rest.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

Peace is a rare commodity, especially when you’re far away or people you love are far from home. We’re on our own this weekend. Daughter and son-in-law are back in South Africa embarking on their grand tour. We enjoyed having them here with us for a few months – they are an inspirational couple whose dedication to life, health, fairness, creativity and excellence are infectious. They push boundaries in each other and unwary companions and we love having these amazing people in our lives. But they’re away again, leaving us waiting on shore. The others are in Milan, London and Reading – living life without us and growing up and away.

Moses knew the feeling. He stood on a mountainside gazing into the valley below where his adopted son was fighting a battle. And yet the patriarch was not entirely useless – while he held up his hands the young man was winning and when he grew weary and gave up, the youth was overwhelmed. Sometimes I think that the waiting with outstretched arms is harder – but it’s mine to do and like the lady on the shore I want to remain steadfast.

In the ancient churchyard of St Columba’s in Drumcliffe stands Yeats’ grave. I cast a cold eye on life and death and laid a bluebell on the headstone in gratitude for the beauty of his poetry and then, although not on horseback, I passed by. For as long as he lived, Yeats heard the call of Ireland. My children travel with my blessing. May none of them forget who they belong to and where home is, no matter how far they roam.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
(WB Yeats)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Jesus and Chocolate

It’s the end at last. With Easter falling so late, this has been the longest term ever. Who moves these feasts? Last week, pupils and teachers alike were overwhelmed with coursework, essays and deadlines and now it’s the holidays!

I spent the weekend in beautiful Donegal with friends. The views were wonderful and I strode out in the early morning along one of the many paths crossing the peat bogs around Carrigart. It was a grey dawn with the kiss of a crisp breeze but it was so good to get out into the real world and away from the press. Ahead of me lay a small, glassy reservoir into which the bracken-covered hills peered to see their reflection. Errigal’s head was poking above the horizon.

I was thinking about valleys. In the last few weeks we’ve finished all the stories begun with such enthusiasm in January. No happy endings: we left the gorgeous Gatsby (the image of Robert Redford in a pink suit is engraved forever on my mind) floating lifeless on a lilo with his arm tracing a red swirl in the autumn leaves, Holden Caulfield is holed up in a sanatorium and Meursault and Francie Brady are facing the consequences of the murders they committed – one in cold, and the other in very hot smeared-all-over-the-wall, blood. It’s Francie who sums up the sense of complete desolation, ‘How can your solitary finish?’

We were discussing symbolism in the Great Gatsby and wondering about the tragic Valley of Ashes. I mentioned the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ and only one pupil recognised it as a biblical allusion. Does no one go to Sunday school any more? The valley is a metaphor for the low place, the place without light or hope. It’s the place inhabited by most of the characters we met this term. My sixth form told me they were suicidal after reading these bleak texts. I also felt like I needed my soul restored, hence the walking alone in Donegal.

Psalm 23 talks about still waters. As I gazed at the surface of the water rippling ever so gently in the morning’s breath, I meditated on who does what. The shepherd leads, restores, comforts, prepares, anoints and blesses and all that is required of the sheep is to recognise his master’s voice and follow. Sounds like a great deal to me!

My feet were wet as the black bog juice seeped into my walking shoes but my jarred nerves began to settle and some sense of peace returned. Perhaps we appreciate nature more when we’ve been cooped up with books for too long. Perhaps we appreciate life when it comes after death.

It’s Easter this week. Jesus and chocolate – what more could anyone want? Good Friday is all about death and horror and sacrifice – I’ve promised myself that I will watch The Passion. But on Sunday it’s about life and hope and morning…if you believe. My solitary can finish.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.