Stones, Butter, and Stories: Reflections on Ireland

At our opening reading in Cork, Gail reads an essay (Fitzgerald Park)

At our opening reading in Cork, Gail reads an essay (Fitzgerald Park)

Gail enjoys traditional Irish music in Glengarriff

Gail enjoys traditional Irish music in Glengarriff

We welcome Gail Simmons as our guest writer for the next two posts. She will recount memories from her participation in our Ireland Workshop.


by Gail Simmons


Like a moth to the flame, I was drawn to Ireland, but not without inspiration from the mother/daughter teachers Meg Eberle and Kaia Sand. The visual trip spelled itself out in a waterfall of images clicked off with my index finger pressed to the camera release during the sojourn from Cork to Glengariff, then, Galway and Inish Mor by bus and ferry boat. 


Seconds in the mind’s eye captured.


Our main goal was writing – impressions of the mind.  And I returned with notebooks full of journaling, a poem or two and a full prose piece that I read in back of Casey’s Hotel in the seaside town of Glengarriff. The people on the trip connected me to place and to my stories, conscious and unconscious. There was Leanne O’Sullivan’s poetry, the Ogham stones, the Butter Museum and my curiosity about how something as soft as butter could have been transported in big ships without refrigeration.  I found an exhibit with modern dance and ballet right next to the museum.  Across the street, a plaque dedicated to Mother Jones.


 The storyteller Mary Maddison, with her peacocks and delicate Irish teacups, tempted me to feel Ireland through crystals and metaphysics. Marki and I had our fortunes told.  “You can have any man you want,” Mary said and “animals are attracted to your aura.”  She was a beaming Irish woman you wanted to believe.


 Joanne, from Seattle, spent a day with me combing over the traces of Megalithic civilization left at the archeological site Bru na Boinne, north of Dublin.  Our female bus driver from Dublin, a phenomenal historian, confided in me on our walk to the site that she had cancer, but she was too passionate about this place to give up her job.  Clearly, no one could tell its history like she could.


After midnight one night in Cork, Manuela and I sat and discussed feminist politics at the kitchen table of our B & B. She was studying in London and in search of an Island rumored to exist off the coast of Ireland – Hy Brasil.  Layers, brick by brick with words and images conjured and carried her to this place, created fertile ground. There was something so young and modern in her approach that attracted me. 


The last night in Glengarriff, our company ate a sumptuous dinner at a restaurant called Martello’s.  I carried my camera because I wanted to document, savor and bottle the joy of the engagement of time well spent greeting the new, experiencing the old and appreciating the effervescent present. 


I had enjoyed conversations and listened to the deepest longings and thoughts of my group.  The next day, I’d pack my things and board a bus to Galway, a city in a foreign land where I knew not what to expect.  Joanne and I got on the same bus, but the driver didn’t have her name on the list; they weren’t going to let her ride.  I begged him to call the station, which he did.  Finally. We rode together to her destination, Limerick. We’d met in Dublin before the workshop and parted together strangers once again...


This is the first of two parts. Stay tuned for Gail's description of painting her memories, which we will post in a few days....

salvaged orchids

The first day Jules, Jessi, and I landed in Rio de Janeiro, we walked most of the day. We arrived in the morning and knew we couldn't risk naps. Sleep deprived, my vision slightly wavy, magic was everywhere. It would be, anyway: this was the beginning of an adventure.

But when we first saw an orchid peering down from a tree, we were astonished. Did these trees blossom in orchids? We looked closer, and saw the orchid roots tendrilling around the trunk. Then we noticed bits of plastic containers pinned to the trees by those tendrils. Someone had set the plants to grow there, parasitically perhaps?

We saw them everywhere, these orchids.

A friend offered an explanation so beautiful I hope it is true: the porters who stand guard at each apartment building in Copacabana and Ipanema began salvaging orchid plants from the dumpsters when people in the neighborhood trashed the orchids they received as gifts. They set the plants in the trees to give them a second life. The climate, the trees, all served the orchids well.

Living in Brazil, I could begin to write a prose collection that had previously evaded me. Much was new to me: those orchids tendriled to tree trunks; bikinis crocheted by artisans vending wares from sidewalk stands; poetry spraypainted on streetside walls and doors with word play in Portuguese (escrevo, esqueco; I write, I forget).


Has this happened to you? Where unfamiliar encounters dislodge what is familiar from its usual slots?


"I write, I forget"

"I write, I forget"

Yesterday I read an essay by Pagan Kennedy in the New York Times titled "How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity." "As people dredge the unknown, they are engaging in a highly creative act," Kennedy writes, describing how people engage in those stunning insights though wandering, but with some intention, too: "You become a super-encounterer, according to Dr. [Sanda] Erdelez, in part because you believe that you are one — it helps to assume that you possess special powers of perception, like an invisible set of antennas, that will lead you to clues." The writer wanders with an attachment to the beautiful whimsy of dreams.

Maurice Blanchot described the writer as "daytime insomniac." I am interested in that kind of wakefulness: wakenessness within wakefulness, which, I like to think, becomes dreamy, like a poetic multiplication. The "super-encounter."


Our patterns, our routines, can give our lives form that also can greatly assist the writer. But to do efforts to shake things up just a bit, such as by traveling. That bit of intention toward our creativity is just what we aim to do with our traveling workshops (want to come join us in Ireland this June?)

chipping portraits

Note: Kaia is writing from Rio de Janeiro through December 2015, where she is writing and making art.

We walked out onto the balcony of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro with our friend Gilmar. Beyond the pier was the Guanabara Bay, in the news recently for the high levels of pollution confronting water athletes preparing to compete in the 2015 Olympics. On the pier, a structures stretches out like a fish skeleton.


What caught my eye, though, was a man's face: someone had chipped paint and plaster on a large wall--maybe 10 meters wide--to depict a man, not young, squinting in the distance, his cheeks covered in a stubble, his chin in a goatee. I turned to Glimar.


Quem é esse? Who is that. Gilmar explained that the man wasn't someone famous, that the artist was striving to make art out of faces in the city, not those with so much power they would be depicted elsewhere.


There are six million people within the city limits of Rio, 13 million in the metropolitan area. Maybe a fifth of the population live in favelas: neighborhoods built up the hillsides (Rio is wedged between hills and the sea). People construct buildings from what materials they have, and then augment those buildings as they gather more materials, and as their families extend. This is what gives the the favelas the look of layered cakes, this adding on, finding ways to fit expanding families by builiding up and out, bit by bit.. These are neighborhoods that are illegible to the outside, with winding, nameless streets that postal workers mostly forgo. People often jerryrig water lines, sewage, electricity.


Chipped into a corner of the wall are shapes reminiscent of the stacked houses in favelas, a sense that this man might be surrounded by his community.


When I returned from the museum to the Copacabana flat we are renting, I tried different search terms: "Rio de Janeiro, chipped plaster, portraits, murals, anonymous." Eventually I arrived at Alexandre Farto AKA Vhils, a Portuguese artist who particularly works with people who live in Rio de Janeiro favelos to chip these portraits of inhabitants. I began to play the most recent video: 


"You can feel the history of the city ... " began Vhils, "in its walls and all the layers they have accumulated. But all these layers accumulating on these walls are also reflected in the people and the way they are shaped. This often chaotic cycle of influence between the city and its inhabitants is something that has interested me greatly because in the end we are something of a product of chance." I think about who he decides to memorialize, and who usually is memorialized, who I expected to see: The famous, the infamous.


"When you work on a wall you see how this matter affects all of those who live in a place," he continued. "It's almost as if you are touching the material that affects and makes people the way they are." This idea is at once profound and very familiar. He uses, as his artistic medium, the materials of the city in which people live.


But so, in a way, do we as writers. We use language, the language that we have used in the most prosaic and profound ways with the people we love. And when we turn to write our memories, our vignettes and verses, of people, we still have it. That language.


There are seven billion of us on the planet. We look toward each other, and we yearn to remember each other, the less famous, our beloved. So we take the task upon ourselves, creating something anew, writing portraits the way Vhils created his from chipped paint and plaster.


Memory prompt

Think about someone you would like to write about, and jot down the language that you associate with this person. Were there particular words that this person used? Phrases? Manners of speech? Expressions? Jokes? Just as Vhils makes his portraits from the city materials that are a part of its inhabitants, how might you use the words that are a part of the person you care about?