Wednesday 6 October 2021

Feathers and stones

For my birthday, I was given Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh to read because it is about landscape and language. I really should have slowed down and started with more care and attention because I found myself giving a judgmental <tsk> when the word unimaginable was used 3 times in the first 10 pages. That's a lazy word, I thought with my copy-editor's hat on. But ní Dochartaigh was quite right: for comfortable middle-class patriarchal me, the terrors meted out upon a younger Kerri in Derry during the twilight of the last century are indeed unimaginable. At the age of 11, petrol bombs were pegged through her bedroom window and her family fled in the night leaving everything behind. There was no obvious safe-haven because one parent was catholic the other protestant. The family fractured under the pressure and the rump of it left Derry for the rural idyll of integrated and inclusive Ballykelly. At the age 16, Kerri's boy friend was murdered and buried in a shallow grave in the woods. Too late, the Good Friday agreement which had been signed off a year earlier but not implemented until 7 months later.

No snowflake, she, Kerri battled on through school [recurrent chickenpox during her A-Level exams!] and secured a place in Trinity College Dublin vowing never to return to Derry. Sojourns of exile in Edinburgh and Bristol followed: consuming her 20s pursued by the Black Dog and unresolved, indeed undiagnosed, denied,  PTSD. Her restless, disfigured soul sought solace in Thin Places - where the spirit world was separated from quotidian 'reality' by shell of a robin's egg. She had been introduced to such places in Donegal by her beloved slightly off-kilter grandfather who was both Seanathar and Seanachaí. Wherever she washed up for college or work, Kerri made time to roam, not always alone, in wild places where curlews uttered their plaintive cry and waves smashed against the cliffbase.

For a city-girl she learned to pay attention to moths and dragonflies and frogs. And often she'd pick a sprig of gorse, a perfick stone or a bright feather from moor or foreshore to hold the memory of a flaming sunset or a buffeting wild-water swim. Sometimes these found treasures would travel with her on the next stage of her not-Derry journey; sometimes they became another entry in the catalogue of loss.

Now here's the thing; some pretty other-worldly events have impinged on Kerri ní Dochartaigh's life. I found myself asking if that was just because she was paying attention and so opened the doors of perception or if her teetering about on Thin Places somehow opened a crack in the fabric of the universe. I have two daughters. One of them strides through the world making her way to purchase cheese and return home to cook: she often stops to talk to the homeless guy on the bridge between her quayside home and The English Market, where she chats away to her friends the cheese-mongers. Otherwise she walks invisible. Her sister, OTOH, will frequently be asked for directions to the station; or at work be a magnet for questions about the catalogue, Excel, tomorrow's weather or the favorite for the 2:30 at Newmarket. Is there something in her demeanor which says bother me?

Thin Places is poetry, and it's not always clear to this reader if crows, foxes or butterflies are out there or in her troubled mind; but she seems to attract 'wild' animals in the way that Sts Francis and Clare did in 12thC Italy. There's one cathartic incident when she is sitting on the stoop reading a book and watching the day when her phone beeps <where there is no coverage!> on the kitchen table within. She gets up to answer and a window, complete with frame shatters out on the still warm step. The poor chippy responsible lets out a synchronic howl of despair thinking he's killed the girl downstairs. Maybe, it's the unexplainable unaccident that we can all expect once in a life time. I had mine in 1992.

Soon enough after that NDE, Kerri is called home, not by her family but by the unresolved trauma that her family had been unable to cope with, let alone help her. Help comes in the form of a man, who has patience, compassion and a sort of unconditional love; against this rock the fear, self-hatred and anger break in waves until their energy is spent. Weekly sessions with a professional therapist helps, too.

So in contrast to my other recently read see the nature, hug the trees books [Dara McNulty - Nan Shepherd;- Andrew Grieg - John Burns] Thin Places is not fluffy. But Thin Places shows that what kills not fattens for taming the savage heart. Those who go the edge and return can tell us something worth knowing about the human spirit and what courage can achieve.

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