Posts Tagged ‘Ireland’

Dialogue and Dublin Billy

For a few days in June, Billy and I ate breakfast at the same café. It’s in the working-class neighborhood of Dublin where I was staying for the annual conference of the International Listening Association. I only knew Billy’s name because someone shouted a good-morning to him in the street, the way people do in that neighborhood.

Billy was very old and stooped and evidently near blind. He held his morning paper an inch from his face. We had only one interaction, and I won’t soon forget it.

That morning I wanted to catch up on some news, so after ordering my Irish breakfast (a carnivore’s delight) I looked through the papers on the front counter and picked up the Irish Times. From what I could tell, it’s a solid newspaper, with good in-depth reporting. I turned to go back to my table, which required me to walk past Billy.

He sort of growled at me.

I’m not sure whether it was his diction, his accent, or my hearing loss, but I could not make head nor tail of what he was saying. He said more and, while doing so, pushed his newspaper toward me. The proprietor gently informed me that he wanted me to take the paper, so I did.

It was the Irish Mirror.

The Irish Mirror is a tabloid, with stories often associated with tabloids. There was a news item on the Taoiseach (the head of Ireland’s government) on the front, and then page after page of celebrity news and local murders and what beaches to visit and a great sports section in the back.

This is the sort of paper I don’t pick up when I want to catch up on world news. Yet there was Billy with his hand outstretched, maybe trying to say, “You don’t want to be reading that liberal trash in the Times. Here. Here’s a good paper.”

I wasn’t about to refuse Billy’s offer, so I took his Mirror. And I couldn’t help grinning to myself as I walked back to my table, because Billy had retaught me an important lesson in dialogue.

Here’s the lesson: if I want to understand people who disagree with me, I have to read their newspapers. Or watch their TV news. Or check their internet sources. When I do, several things happen. I get a deeper glimpse into the way they think. Often I find that their opinions make sense within their own worldview.

And sometimes, I find that their opinions make sense to me—or at least I can imagine a “reasonable person” thinking the same things. All of a sudden my mind, and my heart, are just a little more open to them.

That openness of mind and heart, of course, is exactly what’s missing from our American public square. Imagine what might happen if millions of us had more of these Billy moments, or at least were open to them. How far could we go in healing the rifts and bridging the divides that are damaging our country so?

Walking in the Spirit, Not the Letter

The teaching is merely a vehicle to describe the truth. Don’t mistake it for the truth itself. A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.    –Thich Nhat Hanh

 

I am wild about the works of James Joyce. I’ve read Ulysses four times. I got halfway through Finnegans Wake. If that doesn’t qualify me as a fan, I don’t know what does.

You may have heard that Ulysses—all 783 pages of it in my edition—takes place in a single day in Dublin. The protagonist, Leopold Bloom, walks the city’s streets from about 8:00 in the morning to maybe 2:00 the next morning, and the pages of Ulysses are stuffed with what happens around him and within his mind. Besides the dozens of colorful characters and the often baffling prose, Ulysses is (from where I sit, anyway) a paean to the everydayness of being human, warts and all.

For many years, devotees have traveled to Dublin to walk Bloom’s circuitous path and mark the events of that day. Having to attend a convention there recently, I departed with my head full of doing the same. I would visit the pubs he visited, track the funeral procession in which he took part, etc. It would be, without question, the climax of my trip.

I never really did it.

Instead, I couldn’t stop making my own wanderings. The walk between City Centre and my room at a Ringsend guesthouse was filled with charms and eccentricities: the serenity of the Grand Canal, the grin of Mattress Mick on his store’s sign, the stone bridges, the Padraig Pearse pub (named for a key figure in Ireland’s struggle for independence), the hardscrabble apartments that lined the way, the stone church that fronted the cobblestone street—one block long with two barber shops—where I slept each night.

Yes, I visited (and thoroughly enjoyed) the James Joyce Centre. I did pop in on a couple of pubs mentioned in Ulysses. But most of the rest never happened.

Was I missing out?

At first I thought I was. But then it occurred to me: I wasn’t walking where Bloom walked, I was walking as Bloom walked. I was wandering and wondering through the streets of Dublin. Different streets, same kind of wander. The spirit of Ulysses but not the letter.

It got me thinking about the journey of faith.

Amid its rollicking bawdiness, exhilarating final soliloquy, and profound depth, Ulysses has become a kind of sacred text for me—not in the sense of telling me about God, but in the sense of (like the Bible) helping me grasp what it means to be human. My walks taught me that the book, though brilliant, is a touchstone. I use its wisdom to find my own path.

This, to me, is the way the spiritual life works. We read the texts, we draw out the wisdom contained therein (helped by the Spirit behind all things), and we let it guide us as we find our own way. We live our own lives, not the lives that came before.

Perhaps that’s why many sacred texts are so bewildering. The Bible is rife with cross-currents, many of which clash with one another. The Tao Te Ching and Sayings of the Desert Sages are often cryptic though unutterably deep. Mystics speak in image and metaphor. A Buddhist text cautions against excessive attachment to anything in life—including one’s conception of the Buddha himself—by saying, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”

Perhaps these texts shock and baffle to point the way—sort of—and then let us find our specific path. Maybe by treading this way, we learn to hold the texts and ourselves lightly. We look where the finger directs us, and walk toward the moon.