Tag Archives: loss

Absolute Beginners

It’s been emotional.

20160107_143950

Fly on, little wing. Image: sjohart Artist unknown

The past week and a bit has seen my baby spend several days in hospital. The care we received – all if us, not just Junior – was impeccable, and a full recovery is imminent,  but still. If I never have to call an ambulance for my tiny child again, it will be too soon.

The picture above is one I took in Baby’s hospital room. The tiny bird reminded me of the child in the cot beneath it in better, healthier days – all wide, sparkling eyes, the mouth barely open in wonder and curiosity – and I found it hugely comforting. As kind as the nurses and doctors were, however, it was exhausting, both practically and emotionally, to maintain a bedside vigil and I was glad to be allowed home again last weekend.

I listened to ‘Lazarus’, a track from David Bowie’s latest album, on one of our trips to or from hospital. How incredible, I thought. Bowie is still a relevant, creative genius.  I loved the track. I resolved to buy the album.

And then news broke of his death.

I haven’t been so broken at a celebrity death before. Not even the loss of Terry Pratchett, who I adored, hurt as much as this. I can’t process the idea that Bowie, the chameleon, the otherworldly, the unspeakably beautiful, is dead. I prefer to think he has returned home. He will never be gone. He is part of the air now, and the night sky.

I don’t have a favourite Bowie track. I love pretty much all of them equally. (The video for ‘Let’s Dance’, however, is dearest to my heart). I wanted to share the video for ‘Absolute Beginners’, though, not only because I think it’s a fabulous song, but mostly because it was in my head a lot as I looked after my sick child.

I absolutely love you, but I’m an absolute beginner.

I am an inexperienced mother, but I hope I’m doing an OK job. ‘Absolute Beginners’ lets me know I probably am. I wish David Bowie knew how much his music and image have meant to me, and how much he has helped me just by existing and creating and showing us all how to turn our lives into art.

I loved him. I will never forget him. And my child will know all about him, in time.

Like I said. It’s been emotional.

 

Wiga, Wintrum Geong

One year ago today, the man about whom this blog post was originally written was lost to the world. All that is in my heart today – and believe me, I’ve tried all morning to blog about something, about *anything* else – are my memories of him and my sorrow at his loss, and my disbelief that it’s been a year already. A year.

My friend’s name was Neal. Today, I will remember him.

SJ O'Hart

Round about ten years ago now, I started studying for my Ph.D. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s effort, and it represented everything I had ever wanted to achieve. I loved my subject, I adored reading about it, I loved to write about it, and I was thirsty to learn.

I wasn’t too hot on getting up in public and speaking about it, but I figured that stuff would come later. It did, and I happily lectured and taught for many years.

But, back at the beginning, one of the things I took as a module that first year was Latin.

Image: rylandscollections.wordpress.com Image: rylandscollections.wordpress.com

I wanted to be able to read and understand the beautiful manuscripts I had the privilege of studying, and I wanted to be ‘fluent’ (if one can use that word about a language that isn’t really spoken, at least as a vernacular, any more); a lot…

View original post 785 more words

Wednesday Write-In #81

This week’s words for CAKE.shortandsweet’s Wednesday Write-In were:

drawn :: sitting comfortably :: sag :: hiss :: ship-shape

image: sittingwithsorrow.typepad.com

image: sittingwithsorrow.typepad.com

I Am As I Am

I am sitting, comfortably tucked into my favourite chair.

I am watching the world pass, the people outside like clouds on a breezy day.

I am here. i am here i am here i am here

My house is ship-shape; I know where everything is, and nothing takes long to find.

When it comes dark, my curtains will be drawn, and nothing will disturb them until I do.

My bookshelves sag with tomes read and unread, and my walls are clean and bare.

My fire is a bright and jaunty hiss, and I am warm. I have enough.

I am fine, just as I am.

You’re fine, just as you are. Sure, you’ve plenty of nephews and nieces and they’re nearly as good as having your own, aren’t they? And you’ve a gorgeous wee house, you couldn’t keep it like a new pin if you had a clatter of youngsters running about getting their sticky mitts all over everything and knocking things over and widdling on the carpet and throwing up all over the place and coming in from school with a big hug for you and throwing wrapping paper everywhere on Christmas Day and winning prizes and gaining degrees and getting married and going on holidays and writing to you and sending you pictures of their lives and bringing their own children to meet you – ‘here’s Granny!’ – and emptying the fridge, now could you? Wouldn’t you rather have a bit of comfort in your old age and a bit of peace and quiet and as much you-time as you could ask for? I’d kill for a bit of a break from it, all the madness and the rushing and the phone-calls and the dramas and the weddings and the christenings and the birthdays. You don’t know how lucky you are, so you don’t!

lucky lucky lucky am i

And I am fine, just as I am.

I have no other way to be.

 

Wiga, Wintrum Geong

Round about ten years ago now, I started studying for my Ph.D. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s effort, and it represented everything I had ever wanted to achieve. I loved my subject, I adored reading about it, I loved to write about it, and I was thirsty to learn.

I wasn’t too hot on getting up in public and speaking about it, but I figured that stuff would come later. It did, and I happily lectured and taught for many years.

But, back at the beginning, one of the things I took as a module that first year was Latin.

Image: rylandscollections.wordpress.com

Image: rylandscollections.wordpress.com

I wanted to be able to read and understand the beautiful manuscripts I had the privilege of studying, and I wanted to be ‘fluent’ (if one can use that word about a language that isn’t really spoken, at least as a vernacular, any more); a lot of older scholarly texts in my subject, medieval studies, quoted passages of Latin without any translation as their authors would have expected anyone who read them to be able to understand them without difficulty. I also wanted to master a command of this beautiful and important language, just because it was an intellectual challenge.

One day, as I sat with my ‘Wheelock’s Latin’ trying to catch up on the previous lesson’s homework, a new student strode into the classroom. Tall, and handsome, dark-haired and blue-eyed, there was an air of friendliness and humour about him. He looked around the room, smiling broadly, and eventually settled on a vacant chair not far from me. He nodded a greeting as he took out his own book, and among his notes I saw some photocopies of an Old English text that I was also doing research into.

‘Are you doing Old English?’ I asked, excited to meet another person like me.

‘Yeah,’ he replied, still smiling – for this boy always smiled. ‘I love it.’

And so, a friendship was born. Our mutual incomprehension of Latin and our fear of the instructor and her impossible class tests gave us something to laugh about over coffee; our shared love of Old English meant we’d often sound out one another’s grammatical knowledge over lunch, engaging with the multiple meanings of certain words and the effects this had on the texts we loved. We’d work through translations together, discussing the beauty of the language and the blood-stirring stories. Sometimes, we’d just hang out and talk about the same old nonsense anyone talks about when they’re in good company.

He was fascinated by my Ph.D. thesis, then in its barest infancy, barely wobbling on its badly-researched legs. I shared ideas with him and drew strength from his enthusiasm. In return, I engaged with his research, which was on the Old English word ‘mod’ and its uses in different texts over time. This word has many meanings: Courage. Heart. Mind. Soul. Spirit.

He embodied them all.

At the end of our academic year together, my friend left my university to begin working on his own Ph.D. at Durham, and I bid him farewell with a heavy heart. I missed his good-natured banter, his scholarly excellence, his determination to get to the bottom of any linguistic or grammar-related issue, and his sheer enthusiasm for life. I looked forward to watching his career progress, and I hoped – one day – to meet him again. His smile never dimmed and his good humour never failed, and he was the sort of person who carries sunshine in his pocket – everyone was glad to see him, and he always made the day brighter.

Last Friday, I discovered through a message posted by my friend’s aunt that he had lost his life, suddenly and tragically. He was still living in Durham, far from his family in Connecticut. He had been ill, but his death came out of the blue.

The news stunned me. I sat at my computer, weeping, scrolling through the many messages left by his friends and loved ones on his Facebook wall, all of them saying the same things that were in my heart: ‘Too young,’ ‘What a wonderful man,’ ‘One of the greats,’ ‘Will be missed so much,’ ‘Brought joy wherever he went.’ It didn’t lessen my own shock and grief to see how deeply he was loved, but it did make me feel a little less alone.

I thought of his long-ago MA research, and the word ‘mod’, and how it had been the perfect thing for him to write about. He was heart, and soul, and courage. He embodied fullness of spirit. He was one of the best people I have ever known, and I will always regret that I allowed so many years to pass without seeing him in person.

The title of my blog post today means ‘A hero, young in years.’ It is written in the language my friend loved – Old English – and taken from one of the poems we discussed over those long-ago coffees, ‘The Battle of Maldon.’ I can’t believe the world has lost someone as bright, loving and intelligent as my friend, and I will miss him all the days of my life. All I can do now is hope he will live on in the memories of those who loved him, and keep the flame of his ‘mod’ alive in my own heart.

In Ireland, we have a saying when someone dies. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann. It means ‘Never will his like be seen again.’

In my friend’s case, it’s absolutely true.

A burial fit for a king. Image: alexpogeler.wordpress.com

A burial fit for a king.
Image: alexpogeler.wordpress.com

Storm in the Heart

The wind is high, and cold rain is being driven against the glass. The streets are awash with water. It is angry weather, pained weather. Sorrowful weather. It is also powerful weather, renewing the earth.

Today, I will be accompanying someone I love very much as she says her final farewell to someone she loves very much. In that sense, today’s blustery storm is entirely appropriate weather.

Love, once shared, can never die. Nothing severs it; nothing ends it. It is not tied to the physical presence of a loved one, but it is a presence of its own, a presence which envelops and protects, and a presence which endures. Remembering someone after they have died is a remembrance of love, both the love they offered you in life and the love you had, and have, for them; in that moment of shared love, they are with you.

In that love, they will never leave you.

And love does not come to an end.

Image: comesitbythehearth.blogspot.com

Image: comesitbythehearth.blogspot.com

 

 

A Poet’s Passing

Today, at 11.30 a.m., in a beautiful church in a suburb of Dublin, the funeral Mass of one of our most dearly beloved citizens will take place. Later this evening, he will be brought for burial to his birthplace, far in the north of my small country – a town in Derry, called Bellaghy.

He is Seamus Heaney, and I can hardly believe we’ve lost him.

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

I think I am among good company when I say that my first real introduction to the power of poetry came at school, when we studied Heaney’s ‘Mid-Term Break’. This poem, taken from his first collection Death of A Naturalist (1966), made a massive impression on me, and I think it’s fair to say on most of my peers, too. Telling the true story of the death of a young child from the point of view of his older sibling, it is a slender piece of writing, one that slips between you and your soul and twists, slightly, revealing to you your own fragility. I wept the first time I read it, and even though a great many years have passed since then, the poem’s power is undimmed.

This gentle evisceration was what made Heaney’s work so powerful, to me. His poems looked so delicate on the page, strung together like lacework, but the reading of them went straight to the heart. The images he could create would sometimes take a line or two to fully develop inside your mind – you’d have read past the hook of a particular stanza before the impact would hit you – and then you’d have to re-read, awed by the newness, almost frightened by the sense of unfolding inside your own head. Heaney understood people, and he understood thought, and he understood emotion. He wove his poetry out of all these things, and he added the uniqueness of his own intellect, too. His work is unlike that of any other writer.

There are few poets whose work I love. Poetry very rarely speaks to me: I am a harsh and demanding reader of that particular genre. So much of it seems contrived, or fake, or ‘for the sake of it’, that when I read a poem which rings a bell inside me, I know I’ve found a treasure. Emily Dickinson’s work does this for me, as does Sylvia Plath’s, and I also love the work of Medbh McGuckian and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Seamus Heaney, however, was always top of the pile. His work shaped my introduction to great literature as a child at school, and his work helped to forge me as a medievalist, much later in life, through his translation (or, perhaps more accurately, ‘modernisation’) of the Old English epic poem ‘Beowulf.’ His version of this poem still stands as one of my most dearly loved pieces of writing, despite the issues it has from the point of view of accuracy. In a way, it doesn’t even matter that Heaney doesn’t keep to the exact sense of the Old English, and that he brings in words that are not there in the original, and that he is, or was, not a scholar of Old English. Perhaps one might even say ‘that is the point.’ Heaney brought life to this ancient poem. He woke the sword’s song, and he mapped out the whale-road, and he showed us the battle-lightning. He breathed humanity into Grendel. He made a powerful political statement through his word choices. He made the poem relevant to his own age, and that is worth more, to me, than dryly sticking to the exact sense of the Old English. There are those who hate Heaney’s ‘Beowulf’, and there are those who love it. I love it.

On Friday, when the news of Heaney’s death broke, I sat at my computer and wept. I read the news articles over and over, hoping that it would all be a mistake; I read the words of those who loved him, who knew him, and realised that while I did not know him, I loved him. I think our whole country did. The six o’clock news broadcast on the day of his death was extended in order for us to start coming to terms with our grief, and his funeral will be broadcast on live television. The president of my country, himself an acclaimed poet, was among the first to eulogise our fallen hero, and to speak of the depth of regard in which he was held. His face has been all over the newspapers. People from all over the country, and from all walks of life, have been talking of their sorrow, and how awful it is that he was taken from us so suddenly. He has been taken from us – from Ireland, both north and south – and we shall miss him like no other.

Of course, my thoughts are with his wife Marie and their children, and the rest of his family; the country’s loss is, naturally, secondary to theirs in every way. In a very real sense, though, Heaney’s death has torn a hole right through the heart of Irish intellectual and cultural life, and it is a hole that can never be repaired.

I don’t think there’s a more appropriate way to honour Seamus Heaney than by reproducing his own words. Here is a section of the end of his ‘Beowulf’, after the mighty king has fallen, and his men are left to mourn:

Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,
Chieftains’ sons, champions in battle,
all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,
mourning his loss as a man and a king.
They extolled his heroic nature and exploits
and gave thanks for his greatness…
So the Geat people, his hearth-companions,
sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.
They said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.

Heaney may not have been, like Beowulf, a man ‘keen to win fame’ through his good deeds and wisdom (he was both good and wise merely because it came naturally to him, not because he wished to be praised for it), but he was gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people, and he was a great man. I am sorrowful at his passing, and long will I remember him.

Seamus Heaney 1939-2013 Image: en.wikipedia.org

Seamus Heaney
1939-2013
Image: en.wikipedia.org

Writing Ethics

Today, something slightly odd is on my mind. Despite this, though, I’m confident that someone, somewhere, has thought about this very same issue and has come up with some conclusions, so I just want to throw this post out into the ether and hope for the best. In a lot of ways, today’s question is related to the ideas I talked about here, but I think it deserves its own post.

Here it is. Do you ever worry about the ethics of what you write?

A couple of days ago, I started writing a short story. It began innocently enough, with my narrator reminiscing about a lovely summer she’d experienced as a child, where the sky was always blue and most of her time was spent on the beach, or hanging out with her friends. However, as the story progressed I realised I was doing something rather larger than writing a short story. I was, in fact, talking to myself about something that had actually happened, a real-life tragedy; I was writing a fictionalised memoir of a very sad event that took place in my home town a long time ago. As a result I began to wonder if it was right, or fair, or proper, for me to take an event like that and use it as I saw fit in order to create a piece of writing out of it. I’m still not sure.

Image: amazon.co.uk

Image: amazon.co.uk

The very sad event in question involved a tragic accident where young lives were lost, suddenly and terribly. Of course, I realise that the story I wrote may never (and, for a variety of reasons, probably never will) be read by any eyes except mine, so the issue is largely moot, but the question is still nagging at me. Is it fair, or right, to make use of real-life events, particularly sad events, to create a story?

The story I wrote doesn’t slavishly follow each detail of the event as it actually happened, but creates a world where a similar accident takes place. Characters are invented, timelines are shifted around, and the people in the story are older than the real-life players. Nevertheless it is, I suppose, my attempt at fumbling my way through the jumble of emotions that I obviously still carry with me surrounding this event. I know most stories have a grain of truth somewhere in them, and may be sparked off by a real-life happening, but I’ve never before written a story which had such a firm basis in fact. I’m not sure it’s something I’d like to do again. I feel, in some ways, like it’s a violation of the memory of those who passed away, and that it’s disrespectful to their families and those who dearly loved them. Now that I think about it, I’m not even sure why my feelings run so deep. Perhaps it’s just because of the emotive subject itself, and the particular loss that I remember experiencing at the time.

Another story I’m currently working on features a child – probably about twelve or so – who is being bullied at school. I’m trying to create a story where the child finds the courage to stand up to his bullies, but I’m concerned about whether that’s the ‘right’ thing to do or not. Should a story ‘teach’ a child to take certain actions in the face of aggressive behaviour? Should the story fall in line with whatever is stated in the official guidelines provided by schools, or failing that, the State, or whomever else? I’ve written this story, and I’m happy with it, but I’m hesitating to send it around to publishers. I’m just not sure it’s right, and I’m also not sure if I should be worrying so much about this issue.

I realise writers can’t tailor their work to suit an agenda, and they have to write whatever they feel drawn to. Despite this, do any of the questions I’m raising here make sense to anyone else? If you’ve experienced an ethical dilemma in your work, how did you solve it? Do you even agree that what I’m describing counts as an ‘ethical’ dilemma? Writing shouldn’t be didactic, of course, but I think it can sometimes be a fine line when the audience you’re writing for is composed of children and their parents. While what you’re writing shouldn’t teach, or preach, I’m not sure it should exhibit behaviours or thought processes which would be alien to the children’s experience or their parents’ wishes either.

I think I’m going to put away my story about the summer, and leave it to posterity. It will be my private memorial to a quiet, personal pain. Even if it’s not unethical to write a story based around a sad event like this one, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to make work like that public. Perhaps I feel this way because of the nature of the event itself; I’m wondering if this whole issue is bothering me so much because the event is one that had an impact on my life when I was at an impressionable age. Perhaps tragedies that are devastatingly personal (as opposed to historical events, for instance) shouldn’t be made use of in order to create art. Having said that, of course, I didn’t set out to write a story around this particular event – it came, fully formed, out of my brain. So, if there’s something in my mind that needs to be said, who am I to deny it the chance to be expressed?

*sigh* Back to square one.

Opinions? Comments? Flying tomatoes? I’d love to hear your views.