towpath/ racism / not fitting in

050210-1023(001)Originally I started this blog as a sort of notepad to explore the Lagan towpath, a  path that ran very close to our last house. It is also the reason I ended up calling the blog ‘Canal ways’.

We had moved to Lambeg and it was a 40min walk on the towpath into Lisburn. I did the walk at some point most weeks and tried to look out for points of interest, stuff that might inspire me or noting things that came into my mind as I walked along. It was going to be a sort of art project or platform for other things, perhaps I would get a few more bird songs.

Now that I’ve moved away for a year I can say that I generally found it a dark and oppressive walk and as a consequence found it hard to find inspiration. The way the hawthorns hang over blocking out the sunlight, the green of everything and the stillness of the canal water which barely moved. The smell of the water treatment plant at Hilden on summer days, the derelict linen thread factories, the occasional rat running across your path. Even the moorhens and mallards seemed a bit menacing.

I’m not saying that the path was evil, but when I walked  along it felt to me like a heavy atmosphere hung over the place, like one of those haunted landscapes described by Tolkien in Lord of the Rings. Perhaps it was just me projecting my depression and heavy heart on the area.

I  thought I had finished my thoughts about the towpath, but then I heard about an African man suffering a racist attack on  Saturday afternoon .
How can 3 lads just decide to attack someone out for walk? Why the violence?
Perhaps it is heightened by the fact that just before we moved an African gentleman moved into the house beside us. We chatted in the brief time we lived beside each other, he cooked me a lunch that he considered ‘mild’ yet nearly made me never want to eat food again – it was so hot! . He seemed out of place after 3 years of living in town that had very few Africans. That makes we wonder how he feels if he is still there. The last minister in our church (from Sierra Leone) describes in his book how he nearly died on Botanic Avenue:-

‘I never knew how black I was when I lived in Africa. Living with mostly black people around me, it was impossible to know this. Then one day in Belfast, surrounded with white people everywhere, I suddenly discovered that I was very black. Ireland in those days hard very few non-white people and still fewer black people. I still remember one day when I was nearly knocked over by a car as I tried to cross University Road to meet the first black person I had seen since I arrived in Belfast. This was in the university area. On getting to this man, I vigorously embraced him as I greeted him….I released him from my smothering embrace and explained that he was the first black person I hard met since I arrived in Belfast about six months earlier. I went on to tell him how lonely and alone I had been as a result’
Between Africa and the West, Sahr John Yambasu

My personal experience as white man in Lisburn and Belfast was that I was watched merely for looking scruffy and bearded. Every time I went into Eason’s the security man would follow me. H noticed it as well so I’m not making it up. I got tired of it.
I was walking up the Castlereagh Road once and someone eandomly yelled out of a moving van ‘Get your hair cut‘. Perhaps not a big deal but it annoyed me because it’s just typical of my experience growing up in Northern Ireland.
I can hear relatives saying the same thing, and it wasn’t a joke, they seemed to take a bushy beard or long hair as something that conveyed the wrong sort of behaviour. There was something not right about it, it was a sign that the big bad world of  sinfulness was knocking  the door,  it was a threat to norms which they considered as good norms, good Protestant British norms.

The first week I move to Lisburn I decided that I would get my hair cut and went into a barbers. She basically took the piss out of me in the same sneery way, as if a man with hair longer than 0.7mm is the village idiot. Basically looking a certain way in certain places is something that draws out inner scorn with very little effort.

So I’m imagining what it’s like to be an African around some parts of Belfast. If someone takes the time to yell at me out a van window whilst driving down the Castlereagh Rd just because my hair is long are they going to let someone from say Jamaica pass by without passing comment?

Of course racism is down here as well.

One morning on the way to church I watched a group of men standing outside the hotel beside our church. They watched one of our African ladies walking into the church building then one of them turned to his friends and did a stupid, sneery face. Something about this godly lady walking into a church building on a Sunday morning seemed worthy of a sneer. Was she somehow a threat to that group of grown men?

Then there are some of the election results across Europe and Italian fans turning up at training to hurl abuse at Mario Balotelli, or monkey chants from football supporters.

And of course racism or fear of the other is in my heart. I could give a list of people that I wouldn’t particularly want to live beside. Are all those people kicking up stick about Nigel Farage and his comments about not wanting to live beside say Romanians being honest about their tolerance levels? If  they are they are better people than me because there is fear or contempt for other ethnic groups lingering inside me, which doesn’t make it right of course, but that is the truth.

So I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here other than racism/sectarianism/ is a terrible thing and what are we, or more what am I going to do about it?

 

 

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praying with eyes open and three men in a boat

Continuing my journey along the  River Thames with “Three men in a Boat” I came to this passage

The Cistercian monks, whose abbey stood there in the thirteenth century, wore no clothes but rough tunics and cowls, and ate no flesh, nor fish, nor eggs. They lay upon straw, and they rose at midnight to mass. They spent the day in labour, reading, and prayer; and over all their lives there fell a silence as of death, for no one spoke.

A grim fraternity, passing grim lives in that sweet spot, that God had made so bright! Strange that Nature’s voices all around them – the soft singing of the waters, the whisperings of the river grass, the music of the rushing wind – should not have taught them a truer meaning of life than this. They listened there, through the long days, in silence, waiting for a voice from heaven; and all day long and through the solemn night it spoke to them in myriad tones, and they heard it not.
Jerome K. Jerome

This called to mind a chapter in a Eugene Peterson book that talks about Annie Dillard, John Calvin and the wonder of creation

There are two great mystical traditions in the life of prayer, sometimes labeled kataphatic and apophatic. Kataphatic prayer uses icons, symbols, ritual, incense; the creation is the way to the Creator. Apophatic prayer attempts emptiness; the creature distracts from the Creator, and so the mind is systematically emptied of idea, image, sensation until there is only the simplicity of being. Kataphatic prayer is ‘praying with your eyes open’; apophatic prayer is ‘praying with your eyes shut. At our balanced best, the two traditions intermingle, mix, and cross-fertilize. But we are not always at our best. The Western church is heavily skewed on the side of the apophatic. The rubric for prayer when I was a child was ‘Fold your hands, bow your head, shut your eyes, and we’ll pray.’ My early training carries over into my adult practice. Most of my praying still is with my eyes shut. I need balancing.
Eugene Peterson, The Gift

That certainly rings true with my experience of Protestant Christianity, the closing of eyes and bowing of the head each time we pray in church to block out the distractions of the world.

When we do that we are less distracted by worldly things and can concentrate on the spiritual. Yet it all seems very gnostic or something and in a way is saying that the things that we see with our eyes are corrupted and on a lesser plane than the things we think or have in our heart.

There is something wrong there.

On the other hand, praying with your eyes open might be easy in the wilds of Donegal or looking down the valleys of Switzerland in spring but how do you pray in Lambeg or Lisburn on a wet, windy dark January night when you’re feeling low and frustrated with life? For me that has been a puzzle that I haven’t cracked in my time here. How to pray with eyes open beside the Lagan Tow path when the hawthorns are closing in on you and you have only a moorhen for company.