Sunday, January 08, 2012

And what's it all about, anyway 1?

Street artist, Taormina, La Sicilia, Agosto, 2006
That's the question I was posed many years ago when I began my working life as a brand new, very much "green about the gills" teacher.  And the poser of that very relevant question was a man called Ger Smith, another teacher, dead now for over twenty years, RIP.  I don't know what I said by way of answer to Gerard on that particular morning, but I'm positive that it was a vacuous retort as I am never the sharpest in the mornings.  The same could be said for these postings in this blog here - that is, what are they all about?  As I review the six and a half years I have been writing in these pages, I can ask the same question of myself with respect to the musings that make up this blog.  In othe words: What am I all about?

Like everything in my life. I seem to have just stumbled upon blogging totally by chance and then grew addicted to it!  Why? A good question, that, but so is the question, Why not?  I suppose no writer really knows the exact answer to these questions, because the task of writing is itself the answer, if not the therapy, the very shaping and moulding of one's own soul.

And has it been worthwhile?  Another good question.  Definitely, yes.  It is also quite humbling to know that there are others out there, practically all personally unknown to me, reading these meanderings as indeed, that is what they actually are - literally my mind wandering here and there all over that rather interesting patchwork quilt which anyone's life seems to be.  Indeed, there has been no plan with these posts outside I suppose getting to know myself (cognitively) and getting more acquainted with the deep down inner self (a conative or an affective knowing in this case) which resides within.

Looking Back

For most of my working life I have taught the Irish language (mostly) and Life Skills and Religious Education (to a lesser extent).  As a young man I sat my Intermediate Examination through the medium of Irish (Gaeilge), but sat my Leaving Certificate through English because the school I then attended did not offer that examination through the medium of ou first language.  Be that as it may, a language contains so much of the culture of which it is an expression, as well as being one of its communicative mediums, that I have always carried deep Gaelic-Celtic sensitivities within my heart.  When I was growing up for instance when a native speaker would ask your name they would often use an expression like "Cé díobh thú?" which translates literally as "whose are you?"  So if I were to reply, "Is Tadhg Thomáis mé," they'd know not alone that my name was "Tim," but also that Tom was my father.  This was and is the way today in most Gaeltachtaí,"  that is regions in Ireland where Gaelic (Gaeilge) is spoken as a working language.  What I am getting at here is that I was and am very much my father's son and indeed he was his.  Obviously, I could say the same with respect to my identity and its relationship with my mother.

And who are you, anyway, little boy?

This is a question that has rattled around in my mind ever since I was lost as a three year old in Rosemary Square in the small town of Roscrea, Co. Tipperary where I was born on January 5, 1958.  I remember a stranger's strong manly arms around me trying to stop from running out into the square and his kindly voice asking the question that forms the title to this paragraph.  And in a way, I have been attempting to answer that question since then - over the past 51 years - in various ways.

Who am I now, or who are we now?  And in that first person plural I include you, dear reader!  In a sense we are layers and layers of memories laid down upon one another in our brains.  In other words, perhaps we are just a compendium of all the memories and of all the people we have met and all the experiences that have gone to make up our own particular lives over the years.  The sort of wisdom behind this speculation, which, while I subscribe to a certain truth in it, is not obviously our full identity.  However, having visited my mother (who is practically 100% demented of recent months and is almost 95) and having witnessed that horrible, gradual diminution of both her memory and cognitive skills over those last ten years, I am often convinced that that's all we are, merely a large memory chip which will eventually be wiped clean one way or another.  This is more an existential feeling than an argued philosophical point, I admit, as this is the result of reflecting on practical lived experience and the concomitant pain.

All Biography is Autobiography

I have heard the expression that forms the above subtitle many times in my life, and it is true indeed.  After all, we do see the world, and all the people in it, including the subject of any biography, not as it is in itself, but rather as we are.  Philosophy and indeed lived experience have taught this writer here that it is an almost impossible task to be objective as my lived experiences, including all my presuppositions and indeed prejudices keep dulling my vision.  The challenge always is to question my objectivity about X, Y or Z and indeed to question sharply and critically my motivations  in doing actions A, B or C.  Not alone is all biography autobiography,  but all creative writing, in a very special sense, is, too.  After all, the experts tell would-be writers to write about what they know, to mine their own experiences, to reflect on their own lives and find plots and characters there.   In a sense, also, all literature is biography.

Learning How to Die

I remember reading a book entitled On Literature  by Umberto Eco wherein he opined that the function of stories, as indeed of all literature, is to teach us how to die.  It is hard to disagree with this contention.  Having experienced the deaths of several uncles as a young boy, I was well accustomed to the profound mystery which death, and indeed suffering, pose for every thinking person.  Luckily enough I never experienced hugely tragic deaths in my younger days.  Readers of these pages will be familiar with the fact that I am a lover of general and popular psychology and read widely in both those areas.  Freud had said that sex with many of its associated desires were the ultimate subjects or indeed objects of repression, but with Irvin Yalom I thoroughly agree that death and dying are now indubitably the modern repressions par excellence.  In coming to grips with the profound existential questions that dying and death pose of the human animal, the ground breaking books of Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler Ross, On Death and Dying and Death The Final Stage and Dr Michael Kearney's wonderful Mortally Wounded, all of which I have mentioned at one stage or another in these pages, are must-read books of pofound influence.

We are Story Tellers

The Irish have always been good story tellers.  Having studied and taught Irish language and literature, I have long been aware of the oral nature of many of our greatest legends and folklore stories.  We identify ourselves through the stories we tell.  Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland pledged herself to listening to the stories of others in her inauguration speech, and true to her word, that she did do.  Everywhere she went she listened in solidarity.  After having spent one term of office (7 years) in Áras an Uachtaráin (as our President's residence is known in Gaelic) she went on to listen to the stories of the poor, the starving and the suffering all around the world in her role as High Commissioner for Human Rights.  That our stories tell a lot about who we are is a truism if ever there was one.  That your unique story tells a lot about you is similarly true.  That we can learn to creatively tell our life stories is also true.  Each one of us is a project or work in progress.  Each one of us is a person in search of a unique identity and in search of an original way to tell the story of that unique identity.

Who can tell the Singer from the Song or Dancer from the Dance?

In the eight and final stanza of Among Scool Children, our great Nobel Poet Laureate William Butler Yeats wrote:
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
There are times, and we all know this, when our very identities become fused with our activities or functions.  Sometimes the dance dances the dancer, the song sings the singer and the poem writes the poet - all creative artists have stated this phenomenon in some words or other.  Our identities are often fluid realities, deep and intricate, always in the making and far from any defined or precise formulation of it that the all too recent phenomenon of individuality would have us believe.

To be continued.  

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