What is life?
Oh, Maggie May. It’s question after everlasting question.
It is a tumble of words and a throb of sounds; music to lift you and gift you and steal you and fill you. It is the quiet of empty roads, the silence of choice, the smell of night and the pull of the sea.
It is love. It is Mama’s hand on your head all the times you’ll want her, and all the times you won’t. It is Deaide singing through every day of your life; tales of you and yours and all you might do and how you make their hearts stop. It is all of us, here and gone, all of us who are part of you and somewhere with you in the silent flutter of a butterfly’s wings.
Once upon a time, at Christmas, I went with my mother to see John Moriarty in the chapel in UCG. John Moriarty was a philosopher, a storyteller, a seer, a visionary. To me he was a prophet and a holy man, and I don’t say that lightly. I was home for Christmas and he was going to speak for three nights in a row in a tiny candlelit chapel. I had no idea who he was and was blown away. Some of the things he said and the stories he told over those nights profoundly impacted me, changed me as a person even.
He leans against me, fast sleep. I can’t see his face but his nails are long and not entirely clean. His back leans against me. Tentative at first, then entirely trusting. I wonder if he’s dreaming. If it were daytime I’d move away, but it’s the middle of the night on a station platform. The world is dark and silent and this stranger next to me is sleeping. So I let him lean.
I wonder if he’s a gardener, if that’s soil under his nails. I wonder how tired you have to be to fall asleep somewhere like this; neon-lit, unguarded, cold. Seven minutes to my train. Seven minutes of dreams I’ll never know about.
The shops stay closed here in Berlin on Sundays, with a few small exceptions. Bakeries and cafés are open (yay) and so are the markets. I wandered by the giant Flokmarkt am Mauerpark with my camera today, and then, too cold to take it out again later, I took these snaps on my phone in the odd little shops near the flea-market. It was like walking into an Aladdin’s cave of DDR relicts. I’m not sure how these little places get by the no-Sunday-opening rule, but I was glad to hide away from the motheragod it suddenly got very cold in kitsch heaven… or hell, depending on how offended your eyes are by the overwhelmingly garish colours.
I have an awful memory for certain things. Names, for instance, I’m abysmal at remembering. I’ve traced it back to about six years ago when my thyroid became under-active, though possibly that’s just a big fat excuse and actually I’ve always been a bit crap at it. Other things stay with me, though. My brain is, as my Professor of Classics used to say back in the day, a department of useless information.
But not all information should be useful, should it? Some information is meant to be sipped, savoured, wondered over. Some information will lie dormant in your mind for a decade, and then one day it’ll swim to the surface and you’ll throw your head back and laugh, or gasp, or sigh; and you’ll walk into another room to find someone to share it with.
Ten years ago I moved to New Zealand. Well, I didn’t so much move there as go there with a backpack and a sleeping bag. I ended up staying for two years and, yes, it’s an incredible place.
In the months before I went to Kiwi-land I got two jobs, prepared to do my last acting gig (the decision to stop being an actor, which I’ve talked about here, had prompted my move) and generally tidied up my life. Now, while I’m not quite one of those scary hoarder people you see on tv I do have a habit of keeping things. Books, cds, china cups, old jewellry that a boyfriend gave me fifteen years ago (that I never wore to start with, yet still I kept it), shells, stones… and every card that anyone wrote me, ever. So, I found myself with a backpack and a trailer-load of … stuff..
So last night I did a short ‘loving kindness’ meditation. I’ve found this American radio show called On Being and am a bit hooked on all the stuff about human spirit and curiosity. Well, that’s my take on it, the producers might put it differently. They have some really great talks and I came across this meditation. And as a non-meditator (is that a word?) I thought I’d give it a go.
This is where I live at the moment. Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. I feel such gratitude that when the notion takes me, late at night, to go for a walk in this small part of a huge city, I can. The streets are quieter and softer. Lines blur and footsteps are silent in the snow. It’s midnight, and it’s Berlin.
Yes – gratitude, and not a small amount of joy.
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Today I went to visit the Jewish Museum in Berlin. It’s a pretty famous building, designed by Daniel Libeskind. Actually, it’s two buildings: the Collegienhaus, through which you enter, and the Libeskind Building next door. The two are joined underground.
I wake at night. Not every night, but often. I wake with a start, with a definite thought in my head. Sad things or stressful things have me sitting bolt upright at four am, wondering how to solve them. But sometimes – rarely – a moment of great kindness comes knocking instead, hazy and dreamlike.
For a lot of our lives we wander, head down and shoulders to the wind; following a road we chose or one that seemed to choose us. We tip our hat to life’s rhythms: we breathe, work, eat, blink, sleep and wake. We live and fight and love and get jealous and laugh. And the odd time, out of the blue, something brilliant comes.
This is not a sad story. This is a story about a life filled with good things and bad things but always, always, an open heart for the great things. That’s why I look up.
I was sitting at a table outside a grass-roofed restaurant in Malaysia when I realised I’d already had my perfect job.
It was July and hot, hot, hot. The table was bright with candles, the food was good and the sky was brimming with stars. It had been a day of of white beaches and blue seas and now we were sitting, my fella and I, at a big table with six or seven happy strangers we’d met up with. An evening you might write songs about, if you were that way inclined and hadn’t given up the guitar after one blister.
On Saturday I went to Inis Bearachain in Conamara with my sisters, their husbands, two small people and a friend whose father came from the island. We were going to visit a very particular art exhibition as part of Tulca, a multi-venue visual art festival. This is our afternoon in pictures.
We drove to Leitir Calaidh, got on a boat at the pier and sailed out to the island.
On a grey Sunday in early November I finally dug out the last of my potatoes. They were beautiful – big, pink oblongs of luscious spud buried in the incredible soil I’d bought from a company in Donegal at the start of the year. I live on a hill, more or less in the bog, and have soil beloved of none: acidic, wet and compacted. It’s also full of rocks.
Gabh i leith a’ siúl liom faoi na gáslampaí
Má dhúnann tú do chuid súile
Aireoidh tú peitil chumhra ag titim orainn sa dorchadas
Aireoidh tú ceol ársa i bhfad uainn; Oirthearach nó Gaelach seans
Aireoidh tú m’anáil á ligean amach go mall
Aireoidh tú leamhan ag eitilt eadrainn
Ag cleitearnach sa spás idir ár gcuid méar
The travelling man’s bags were filled to overflowing, and although our mothers turned their noses up, we children recognised the smell of adventure. The cheap baubles were gems from Persia where the king was called the Shah and women wore silk and smoked cigarettes with filters, like you saw on the silver screen. One of the hats was from Mr Holmes’ London, with more than a whiff of danger and opium, and the spurs were worn by whooping cowboys chasing after Indians.