Thursday, February 16, 2006

Stardust

Stardust

My mind is full of words always.  That’s essential for a writer, which I claim to be, and probably one of the defining characteristics of being human.  These days the words “star” and “dust” and “stardust” are haunting me.  It’s some years now since I read the astrophysicist John Gribbin’s marvellous book entitled simply Stardust.  I love especially his enthusiasm and his passion for his subject.  The first few lines of his introduction are worth quoting here: “Life begins with the process of star formation.  We are made of stardust.”  Simply and beautifully put.  Then there are other combinations of these words that float around in my mind:  “What is the stars? What is the stars?”  These are the words of Seán O’Casey’s character Captain Boyle (and repeated by Joxer) from his famous play Juno and the Paycock.  A big question no doubt – on a par with the philosophical one, “what is life about anyway?”

Then these words from a recent report from NASA spring to mind:  "We sang our spacecraft to sleep today with a melody of digital ones and zeros," said Tom Duxbury, Stardust project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "Stardust has performed flawlessly these last seven years and 2.88 billion miles and deserves a rest for a while, like the rest of the team."  As you will have gathered, Stardust is, in fact, the name of a now famous spacecraft that successfully returned to earth samples of a comet via its sample return capsule on January 15, 2006.  This spacecraft has logged almost seven years of continual flight and has gathered much data.  By being placed in hibernation it may be re-activated at some future date if needs be.  See the following link if you wish to read more about this: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/stardust/news/stardust-20060130.html

And yes there are many more combinations of the above three words chasing their tails around my mind these last few days.  Other resonances are the words from the Nat King Cole song “Stardust”, a few lines of which run: “Now my consolation is in the stardust of a song/ Beside a garden wall/ When stars are bright.”

And finally as it is so close to Valentine’s day, I cannot help remembering the horrific fire at the Stardust Nightclub in Artane, Dublin, on Valentine’s Night in 1981 when 48 poor souls lost their lives to the holocaust of a tragic fire.  This infamous night is forever engrained on my memory as my two brothers and I who lived barely five minutes’ walk away went down to lend a hand as the poor wretches attempted to escape from the inferno.  At approximately 1.15 a.m. we heard and series of explosions which we interpreted as either bottles or cans or paint tins exploding.  We looked out the window of my bedroom to see the night sky illumined by flames over the ill-fated Stardust night club.

I offer this brief “blog” of words and associations in memory of the 48 young souls who died so tragically in that horrific inferno on February 14th/ 15th 1981.  May your precious memories be forever engraved on the memories of all who loved you.  May your dust of flesh and bones become the stardust of tomorrow.  May you be remembered fondly by all safety-minded people.  May your families be consoled even now after all those years of mourning.  May the light of stars shine in our hearts as we remember you all fondly.  You have not died in vain.

To read about recent news and updates on this tragic fire see: http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/0107/stardust.html I could not think of what to put in by way of illustration, so I chose just a simple piece of clip art which shows simply two open or compassionate hands - i ndilchuimhne orthusan a fuair bás go h-anabai agus go tubaisteach. Leaba i measc na naomh go raibh agaibh!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Keeping Body and Soul Together



Body and Soul and Ageing

I have always been haunted by these lines on ageing in W.B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” (written in 1926):  “An aged man is but a paltry thing / A tattered coat upon a stick…” When I read or hear these lines expressed I conjure up pictures of scarecrows to represent old age.  I see old men walking about with legs like matchsticks in clothes that just hang off the body.  This is not a pleasant image to ponder and I shudder at the thought of ending up so decrepit.

However, to give Yeats his due he does add a balancing clause namely “unless / Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ For every tatter in its mortal dress…”  This second clause is very important because it balances the first.  Yeats seems to suggest that unless one concentrates on the intellect of soul and by doing so seek to escape from the constraints of the human body one can in no way cope with ageing. Consequently he has resolved to attempt a metaphorical voyage-: “I have sailed the seas and come /To the holy city of Byzantium.”

I realize that this is a poem, and that as such it can in no definitive and exhaustive way discuss the reality of ageing.  In short it is not a specialist article on ageing.  However, we do not all have the wherewithal of a middle class poet and senator to chase after the beauty of art in Byzantium.  Yeats’ poem is for me very ageist – I suppose that’s the way things were in 1926 Ireland.  Old age does have many redeeming features beyond those dreamt of by Yeats in this poem, such as wisdom gained from experience, greater knowledge, a broader mind (hopefully), patience, equanimity, shortcuts in doing complex tasks etc.  Nor are things as depressing as Yeats seems to suggest.  No modern psychologist would “put all his eggs in the one basket” of art – namely that only in art can we somehow get beyond the inevitable breakdown of the body.

In a way, we in the West are inheritors of that bad and forbidding philosophy which took off with St Augustine (354-430 A.D.), namely that the body and its desires are evil, while the things of the spirit are wholly good.  Augustine himself had been a Manichee, a member of a sect that believed in two principles of creation – Good and Evil – two strong beings or realities in themselves that brought about our world.   (This sect was founded by Manikhaios Manes or Mani, 210-275 A.D.)Obviously Augustine spurned these beliefs when he converted to Christianity, but their hatred of the body with all its evil desires never left him.  

Then much later in the history of Western philosophy René Descartes (1596-1650) came on the scene and brought about a long accepted separation of body and mind - the mind is in the brain which is in the body or the spirit or soul lives in this body etc.  This is referred to in philosophical circles as Cartesian dualism.  We don’t even realize that we are constantly victims of this dualism in our everyday speech. I suppose ignorance is bliss!   A lot of us are unwitting dualists, unaware of the consequences of our simple beliefs.

So what has all this got to do with ageing or with Yeats?  Well obviously Yeats was both Manichean and Cartesian in his way of thinking – in separating out body and soul, and in seeing body as bad and soul (in this case art) as good.

Such separation of body and soul has led to many existential problems and to much angst-ridden moments of desperation by modern humans.   As we grow old let try to integrate both body and soul.  Let’s not see the latter as some strange inhabitant or lodger in the former.  Let’s try to return to the value of our bodies.  Let’s treat our bodies as part of the whole human being, not just an outer crust or garment.  Let’s not so over-spiritualize the soul as to make it some ethereal thing, even some ethereal no-thing.  Maybe when we meditate we realize that our body-soul is all we’ve got.  (Please note the careful use of language here – I didn’t say “our body is all we’ve got” as this is sheer materialism.  Nor did I say “Our soul is all we’ve got” which to me is complete nonsense in that it denies the body.  By body-soul I mean that whole reality both body and soul which is me now in this instant.

Finally I should like to finish with a reference to an article on geriatrics, which is inspiring. See this article on creativity and old age by a young Doctor about to specialize in geriatrics at this link http://www.tcd.ie/tsmj/2000/LateLife.html .
The picture I'm inserting at the centre top of this post is a picture of my mum who is 88 years of age and is suffering from dementia. She isn't totally demented and can recognise me and my brothers on occasion. She is happy in her own world, and can still smile at life. Maybe old age is not such a bad thing after all!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

In this post it is my intention to write some words about the heart – both physical and metaphorical - as we approach St Valentine’s Day.  Let me begin with a short quote from the famous mathematical genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash.  We probably all know of him because of the popular movie called A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ron Howard. Of the heart, John Nash says:  "Perhaps it's good to have a beautiful mind, but an even greater gift is to have a beautiful heart."
What put this in my mind was being part of a publicity campaign on behalf of Heart Children Ireland, whose home page can be viewed here:  http://www.heartchildren.ie/ .  Last Friday, the 10th of February 2006 all the local schools came together on Dollymount beach to form a big human heart in an effort to raise awareness for this very special charity.  I had the pleasure of being introduced to a little boy called James, only four years old who had just recently undergone open heart surgery.  What a brave little man he is.  Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me to capture the sheer magic of the day.   It was a triumph of organization on behalf of the committee.  All went to plan down to the gloriously fine day.  There was a strong Garda and Coast Guard presence as well as many helpers, teachers, and of course, the 1,000 or so pupils from all the local schools.  Several helicopters flew overhead, hovered and took many photographs of this unique event.

It felt good to be part of such a marvelous publicity campaign for such a good cause.  What we today call the “feel good factor” was certainly to the fore.  I’d rate this to be 10 out of 10 on all possible scales of “feel good”!  Foolishly I had no camera with me as I was preoccupied with the logistics of getting my class from school to the venue, getting my own and another teacher’s classes covered back at base etc.

I’m inserting a throbbing image of a heart at the top of this page courtesy of the Irish Heart Foundation, whose marvelous site may be viewed at this link here: http://www.irishheart.ie/iopen24/catalog/  

I would like to finish this post with a quote from Pablo Casals, the famous Catalonian Cellist:
“The capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest
meaning and significance.”

Thanks to all those men and women, parents, relatives, friends and carers of children with heart problems for allowing us to share in their vision of a world which really cares.