Monday, June 21, 2010


As some of you may know, I grew up near Glendalough, just outside a village called Roundwood in Co.Wicklow. Glendalough was, in a sense, our back yard. We used to go there with our mother and set up a camp beside the river, build a fire in which we would put tinfoil wrapped potatoes so they cooked in the embers and Mum would set up a kettle over it to make lovely smoky tea. We would splash about in the river, explore the woods, sing songs and gambol about. Of course, nowadays you can't light a fire and you even have to pay exorbitant fees just to park near the lake. It makes me furious in a way. I went there recently and was so incensed that I had to pay some ridiculous amount of money to only stay one hour (you can't pay by the hour!!) and felt it was like having to pay to get into my own garden.  I left in a huff.  

Despite that, Glendalough has to be one of the most wonderful places on this planet. Everyone who goes there feels it.  If you spend any real time there, it seeps into you bones and gives you magical dreams.  When my mother dies, which might be soon, we have promised to spread her ashes in Glendalough, one of the places she loved the most. I know she will be at peace there and it will make each journey back even more special, knowing that a part of our mother rests in the breezes and ancient mystical nooks there.
The river by which we picnicked as children. Take by Maya Oct 2009

Here is a wonderful poem written by Orna Ross called At Glendalough:

At Glendalough
After walking through the ruins of seven churches
head tilting back to look
to the top 
of the tower that took the round of Kevin’s steeple, 
and jutted it up three times as high, 
from earth to sky
to mark the ground you walk upon 
as holy;
after circling green lake-paths
that urged you up to top the waterfall, 
or higher, and being stopped 
and stopped again, 
by sightings of bare mountain 
dropping sheer, sliced 
by a mesh of rivers and falls emptying 
into the two, long lakes 
that somehow take 
their gush and hold it
then you will know 
the allure of here,
as of all the places we call sacred,
is the silence,
and you will hear the voice 
of your own blood 
into the deep.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Drowning in Fear

As part of my participation in Bindu Wiles' 21 days of Yoga and writing, we are tasked today with writing about fear.  I could write about all kinds of fears and have been ruminating about that all day today.  I decided to write about something I am really afraid of that is more external.  

Falling into water.

There are two separate, or combined, theories about why I am afraid of falling into water.  The first one is pre-verbal.  I wrote about this in a much earlier post about the death of my brother, called The Drowning of Diarmuid. I have no doubt that this affected my twin sister and me on a very deep level as she also has fears around water.  We were only about 6 months old when it happened but the trauma of that would have been embedded in our mother's body. sShe was still breast feeding us at the time.  How that transfers I don't really understand but there is no doubt in my mind that it did.

The second theory is about something that happened to me when I was about 3 and a half.  We were living in Cobh, Co. Cork at the time and one day my older sister and her friend took us to Cuskinny, the beach nearby.  There were small waves splashing about and I remember we were near a slip.  My sister put me sitting in an inner tube from a car, a great flotation device.  A wave came and knocked me over so I was upside down in the water with my bum stuck down in the hole of the inner tube.  I breathed in a lot of water and when she finally grabbed me and put me upright, I was filled with water and terror. I hated the sensation of water going up my nose and burning and the horrible choking feeling of it.  She comforted me as best she could and I don't remember much of what happened after that. The actual event is etched in my memory and gets re-kindled every time I try to get comfortable in water.

The Slip at Cuskinny where I fell in

The funny part is that I love the sea, lakes, rivers, being on boats and anything to do with water. I just can't bear the thought of falling in.  When I was younger and we would go to the beach I would have to tell everyone to please not mess with me in the water as I might drown them in a panic if the pushed me under or played around like that.  I found that the more time I spent in water, the less afraid I would get but then another year would go by till it was warm enough to swim again and I would have to start all over again.


Being out of my depth terrifies me. I did get to a point, when I lived in Sweden, of being able to swim from the metal ladder pinned on a cliff, out into the open sea for a few yards and back, without panicking.  But I would often find that  I would be going along fine and then panicky thoughts would start and my breathing would tighten and then I would have to rush to grab something as I was sure I was going to sink immediately.

This is how I want to feel

The one time when I finally felt I was getting somewhere with this fear was with a friend who had an indoor pool.  She got me to get goggles that covered my nose too and she showed me how to swim with my head in the water. With my nose covered, my fear of the water going up it and choking me went away. I found I was very comfortable under the water, more so than on top of it! In fact, I was so comfortable that I had an almost irresistible urge to breathe under there.  I could see the deep end, all 8 feet of it, further down the pool and it looked perfectly benign.  Yet, when I had my head above the water, that 8 foot depth seemed terrifying and dangerous.  I even learned to duck dive a bit and loved it.  If only I had had more than one day there at her house.

I can actually swim, very badly.  I would love to find someone with the patience to help me over this fear.  I wish so much I could just jump off a boat or a diving board into the water and not be afraid. It would be one of the most liberating things I could imagine.

It's on my list of things to do before I die. Hopefully, I won't leave it too much longer. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Tibetan Breakfast and Ethiopian Dinner


Last Friday, June 4th, my sister, Jacquie and I were invited to have a traditional Tibetan breakfast with old friends of my sister. Their names are Genyen and Tashi Jamyaling (I hope I spelled them correctly).  We arrived at their house in the Markham area of Toronto and were ushered into the immaculate living room. All the available wall space had 'thankas', Tibetan silk painting with embroidery, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, famous scene, or mandala of some sort. The room had a really peaceful atmosphere and I had a yen to just sit there but we were ushered into the kitchen where breakfast was being served. 

A Thanka

Out in the garden, they had hundreds of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. They criss-crossed the whole area from the fence on the left to the fence on the right. They were also bright and new so very colourful and eye-catching. Later on we spoke about them.

I had heard from Jacquie about Tibetan breakfast but was not sure what to expect. What I really appreciated was that Tashi, the husband, took the time to explain each step to me and showed me how to do things. I have been in many situations with foreign customs where the locals don't know or maybe don't care if you understand what's going on and you flounder around trying not to make a complete ass of yourself.  This was the opposite and it made it a lot more fun than I was expecting.  I have often felt tense in these situations in case I do  something unintentionally rude or stupid.  

First they served us 'tsampa', a roasted and ground barley flour.  It looks just like wheat flour in the bag but the taste is something totally unexpected.  The bowl is half filled with tsampa, some dried cheese added and then weak tea is poured on top. You can either mix it all up together to make a thick paste or you can scoop up the tea with a bit of tsampa in each spoonful. I chose to mix it all up and try it that way.  I took my first mouthful and was very pleasantly surprised to discover that, rather than being glutinous like wheat, it was dry and nutty.  The texture was soft but crunchy from the dried cheese, the flavour somehow benign and relaxing.  It reminded me of the feeling of eating porridge, which is always feels gentle and healing.  Other than that, the flavour and texture were not like anything I had eaten before.

The Makings of Tsampa

Tashi was surprised I liked it so much and then he went to the fridge and brought out a dish of some salsa he had made with tomatoes, onions, coriander and very, very spicy dried yellow chillies that he told us were from only one valley somewhere in India.  Not being chicken when it comes to hot and spicy food ( we called it pili-pili growing up, to distinguish from hot heat; our parents both spoke Swahili so that's where that came from!), I took a big spoonful and Tashi showed me how to make balls out of the tsampa and eat it with the salsa.  We used our hands for all of this, of course.  The salsa was seriously pili-pili I can tell you but, wow, what a flavour.  I have noticed that hot chillies tend to do a variety of things in your mouth depending on the type of chilli.  This one even made my gum tingle!  Despite the tingling and my lips almost going numb, I couldn't stop eating it.  It was one of the most delicious things I've eaten in a long time.

On top of that, they served us some of the tofu stew they had had the night before. They were observing a month long vegetarian 'fast' in honour of the Buddha's birthday which, this year, happened to be the day before mine!  The stew was also delicious, not spicy at all but very flavourful.

With the whole meal, we drank Tibetan tea, which my sister tells me one gets used to with time. I think she may be right but I still don't really like it. It's buttery and salty.  An acquired taste. I must say, though, that it completely suited the rest of the meal.
Sitatapatra - The White Umbrella

While we were eating, I asked about the prayer flags in the garden and they told us the story behind these particular ones. I was wondering what the prayer on the flags actually said. It turned out that the prayer covered ten flags before repeating itself. It's called 'Dukgar' in Tibetan or Sitatapatra in Hindi, which means White Umbrella and represents the goddess with the thousand arms and thousand heads with small white umbrella at the top.  The prayer was used by a Lama in Tibet to help create world peace. According to him, it is the only way we will ever have world peace and we need to spread the word by everyone having the prayer flags in their gardens and back yards.  Tashi and Genyen had been at his monastery in Tibet and found him and some other monks laboriously printing the prayer by hand with giant stamps on very low quality material that disintegrated quickly.  Tashi approached the organisation he was working for at the time, A German organisation called The Tara Foundation, about funding the mass printing of the flags.  He laughed when he told us that the Chinese printers in the nearby town was delighted to take on the job and they did an outstanding job of printing literally millions of flags.   On top of that, it turns out that Chinese business people will print anything that they're given very efficiently even if it's totally against Chinese government policy.  One man ended up in jail, finally, after printing thousands upon thousands of copies of Tibetan material that the government deemed seditious.  Tashi's comment was that the Chinese are so industrious that they are happy to create anything and do it very efficiently, if it will make them money. They don't ask questions.  Perhaps they should!

Once they had printed the millions of prayer flags, they were flown to the US and other countries and distributed.  I love this idea. The thought that this wonderful prayer could help change the world by the wind carrying it up to heaven, is simply beautiful.  Tashi and Genyen gave me a set of ten flags to hang in my garden when I get back to Europe. If anyone wants some, let me know.  You could make a donation to the cause and get as many as you want.

We left Tashi and Genyen's house feeling replete but very comfortable. I was dying to write this to tell you all about the flags and world peace.


That night, my sister and my niece, her boyfriend and my nephew were taking me out  for my birthday. We had intended to go to one place on Queen St but ended up at Addis Ababa, an Ethiopian restaurant. I had wanted to eat Ethiopian food since I got here as I have missed it.  The restaurant was expecting a huge group of 40 people so we were put on the stage area at the front and told that a band was arriving at 9pm so we might have to move.

For anyone who hasn't eaten Ethiopian food let me explain a bit about it.  They make a bread called Injera which is made from barley and teff, a grain grown only in certain areas of Ethiopia.  The dough is fermented and then the bread is cooked something like a pancake. The bread is spread out on a big dish and the various recipes you order are laid out on the bread. You use the bread as the utensil to pick up the food.  A lot of Ethiopian food is spicy but not all of it.  The whole meal was delicious.  

At 9pm, we moved to another table and the place was packed to the gills. They then brought us the traditional coffee.  First they arrive with coffee beans roasting on a small tray and they waft it around the table. They disappear off with that and come back later with a pot of coffee made from those beans, some small glasses and sugar and an incense burner with frankincense smoking. The smell of frankincense is, of course, familiar to people who go to Mass or other churches so it gives the whole experience the sense of ritual.  Some people across from us were intensely curious about what was going on and one of them came over to ask what the smell was. It's very enticing. 

A great day with so many culinary experiences. One I won't forget in a long time.


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