A Walking Shadow

Sitting down to write about Shakespeare is like a toddler confidently announcing his neurosurgery skills while wielding a knife. But it was his birthday this week so I feel the need to focus on the Bard. I’ll never win this fight but he is the worthiest of adversaries. 

I’ve always loved words and the effect they can have as we stumble through life. Bookworm childhood was my story and then, when the terrible teens struck, I found him. Just in time.

The 1989 RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Belfast’s Grand Opera House quite honestly threw me to the ground and shook me awake. It was as if my eyes had opened for the first time to see all that life had to offer.  And obsession was the inevitable result. Any time we went to visit my aunt in England, I begged Dad to drive me to Stratford upon Avon whereupon I would traipse around the streets, visit the grave in Holy Trinity, watch the swans and buy teeny tiny copies of the plays so that they could always be in my pocket. I bought pencils and pencil sharpeners and bookmarks. I even got a sweatshirt with RSC emblazoned on the front and wore it every day. I painted a watercolour of Anne Hathaway’s cottage. I think I had some real friends in school too. 

Astonishing to think of this glover’s son first sharpening a quill. What possessed him? How did he create such worlds when he (doubtless) had never travelled far? Most of all – how did he know so much about life and love and loss? He wrote through the Black Death, he wrote for a Queen and then a King, he wrote as his 11-year-old son lay dying. He wrote words beyond compare. Could he have imagined his ink-stained hands reaching this far into the future? Over four hundred years, centuries of change and humanity rolling ever on, and still his words endure. 

I’ve stood in the room where he was born, sat in Anne Hathaway’s garden, read in the alcoves of Shakespeare and Company in Paris, gone behind the scenes at the Globe theatre in London, stood on Juliet’s balcony in Verona, even walked the Danish banqueting halls in Elsinore with Hamlet, and still I don’t feel like I know the writer. He is remote yet close, real yet intangible. No sooner have you grasped onto him than he flits away.

Therein lies his magic and it is the man himself. Bard, playwright, legend. William Shakespeare.

My reading of Sonnet 116

Silence is Golden

Pipe down out there. Life is loud, there’s no denying it: traffic, roadworks, dogs – it’s all happening. Silence is becoming so unusual that it’s almost mythical, the thing a lot of people long for but don’t know how to capture.

Noise pollution is a major concern, especially for city planners. Excessive noise can affect physical and mental health with heart disease, stress and sleeplessness on the increase. Even wildlife is affected with birds unable to hear a mate’s call.

I’m sitting by a lake in Austria. It was VERY QUIET.

You’ll probably not be surprised to hear that I love things to be quiet. I don’t mind those awkward silences in conversations either. We’re all wired differently, of course, but I’m one of those people who can’t really function without it. 

I went on a silent retreat to Corrymeela some years ago and felt as if I’d fallen into a pool of calm. No small talk chit-chat over the shared dinner breaks, no need to fill the gap, the pressure to talk taken away. It was glorious. 

And incredible things happened. For the first day or so I felt strange, hardly recognising myself. Who am I when I’m not talking? Uncomfortable truths started to emerge too, as if they’d been shouted down for years and had never been able to speak up. I looked at them, looked at the sea, and sat still. I was turbulent yet calm, settling into it and feeling my shoulders drop as my breath deepened. And I know that God sat next to me in this stillness.

This is the power of silence. It is full, meaningful, precious. It is both heavy and light. It’s no coincidence that as a society we hold a minute’s silence when the need arises to reflect and remember. Or the therapeutic intervention that sits in the room with someone who is in pain and says nothing – when words fail, silence speaks. 

Peace and quiet go hand in hand. Finding stillness in the rush of modern life is challenging but even a few minutes here and there can allow us to catch our breath. 

Silence is golden. Let it shine.

The Sea, The Sea

Whitepark Bay

I miss the sea. Trips to the shore have been less frequent lately and I’ve noticed a distinct gap in my soul. Standing at the water’s edge, watching waves curl, listening to gulls shriek, feeling wind in my hair – really, there’s nothing like it. Most of all I miss Whitepark Bay on the north coast.

Why are we humans drawn so often to the four elements? I could watch a flame flicker for hours too. It’s as if we’re connecting on some level with our ancestors, or maybe we’re aware in those moments that we are small and our time here is short. After all, this is a blue planet.

Watching a gentle tide lapping is hypnotic but a wild sea crashing onto rocks is somehow fearful. The majesty shakes us out of ourselves and brings ancient wisdom to daily human foibles.

The myths and legends that are attached also call to us: the shining palaces of Atlantis in the depths, a mermaid’s long hair and haunting song, Poseidon’s trident. Greek, Celtic and Norse myths are all swimming in the sea, ruling over it atop white horses, and us puny humans can only dream of being so powerful.

Those dreams tend to translate into art instead. There are countless novels, paintings and poems in which the sea is the protagonist. There’s something inherently pleasing about Hokusai’s famous wave paintings from 1830’s Japan. Also pleasing are novels where the sea is a character in its own right: try John Banville’s ‘The Sea’ or Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Sea, The Sea’ (Iris clearly wondered why have one sea when you can have two?)

Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’ Photo: British Museum

Writers and artists have tamed the wild beast and captured it for us to enjoy from a safe distance. But there are still those who, like the medieval men who first stepped off the shore to find new worlds, wish to fight it.

Surfing giant waves or making solo yacht journeys around the globe are surely an attempt to face a mighty foe and win. But the sea is a wild creature that merely puts up with those tiny figures on occasion. It will win in the end. Maybe that’s why we’re so drawn to the vast swathes of blue, whether within its arms or safe on shore.

In its presence we defer to something bigger than ourselves and it feels comforting somehow. An ancient sound and sight that shrouds us in fearful calm – someone else is in charge here.

I’m surely not alone in hearing the call of the sea most days. I can’t wait to answer.

A Walk in the Woods

Going for a walk is so much more than just forward momentum or aiming for a destination. It’s your state of mind that usually asks your feet to get moving. Who’d have thought that placing one foot in front of the other would have such mental health consequences?

So in honour of National Walking Day I’ve complied a list of my favourite walks. In ascending order:

5. In at number five is the Blackhead path at Whitehead – recently re-opened just in time to allow lockdown-easing jaunts along the path; waving hello to sleeping bats in the caves, climbing hundreds of steps to stand beside the lighthouse looking out at the pier disappearing into lough mist. It’s official: I heart lighthouses.

4. Non-mover at number four is the route from Dunseverick Castle to Whitepark Bay via Portbraddon at the Causeway coast. Oh how I miss the north coast! Nothing can compare to causeway waves and that big, grey sky.

3. New entry at number three is a rainy saunter around Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, preferably with autumn leaves strewn romantically about the place. A haunting and hallowed place all its own.

2. Not able to push number one off the top spot but holding firm at number two is a walk in the woods at Mossley Mill in Newtownabbey. Put simply, this place kept me sane during lockdown. A wee gem in the neighbourhood. 

1. Nothing can shift this from the number one slot – it’s the Norwegian glacier at Dalsnibba. Astonishing viewpoint over the fjords, bright green glacial melt and a sense that nowhere else on earth is this beautiful. And was that a wolf howling in the distance?

To all five, from the bottom of my heart and the top of my head, thank you.