Unburdening at the Heinrich Böll Cottage, by Annemarie Ni Churreain

deserted village

“Behind every word a whole world is hidden that must be imagined. Actually, every word has a great burden of memories, not only just of one person but of all mankind. Take a word such as bread, or war; take a word such as chair or bed or Heaven. I’m afraid that most people use words as something to throw away without sensing the burden that lies in a word”
Heinrich Böll

Beyond my window, it’s raining. Big, soft drops of Achill rain. I’m at the Heinrich Böll Cottage in Dugart (north of the island) for a two-week residency to complete edits on poems and to finish a short story. The rooms are filled with signed books, shells, sketches left behind by previous residents. The dog sleeps under my desk. Each day I have to walk to the local hotel, at the foot of a mountain, to access the world wide web.

Limited internet means limited access to certain kinds of new information and recently I feel that I’m being challenged, not to learn anything new, but to attune to the knowledge I already have. Hamed my German teacher says that language is not learned, it’s recalled from the deepest recesses of ancestral history. Mrs B, my psychotherapist, says that therapy is the process of letting what we already feel to be true to rise to the surface of conscious awareness. On a walk back from the beach I’m unable to get any mobile-phone coverage, but I do find a gate with a word emblazed across the bars: R-E-V-E-L-A-T-I-O-N.

‘Revelation’, now there’s a word behind which lies a burden. I spend a morning thinking about religion, books, spontaneous awakenings, but it’s self-revelation that interests me most. Is there anything more loaded with poetry than self-revelation? If you’ve ever sat in a therapist’s chair (which is not totally unlike being a writer in a writer’s chair) you’ll know that a most curious thing is the distinct agony of letting what you already know about yourself to be revealed. I remember sitting in Mrs B’s room, sweating and trembling and holding the edge of a table not because I was being asked to say or do anything unusual, but because I’d been invited to confront my own feelings on a particular subject. In day to day life, with all it’s distractions, we can think we know ourselves when actually we know, or even want to know ourselves, not much at all.

Last year I enjoyed dinner-dates with someone I hold in high esteem: someone who speaks very passionately about injustice in his life. It’s maddening, he said, that some people just “turn a blind eye”. It was a broad comment about the duty of care we have to each other, and I admit I climbed up onto the moral high-ground for a moment and enjoyed it with him. Not long after, I was horrified to have to watch from the sidelines as the same person proceeded to blind his own eyes to a similar injustice as it was being perpetrated on another. My champion had revealed himself to himself as afraid and unable; a perfectly flawed human. I discovered that there’s only one experience quite as disconcerting as self-revelation, it’s being forced to witness the unfolding self-revelation of another.

So far at Böll’s old haunt, so peaceful. I’ve been thinking about how Böll experienced the island here in the 50’s and 60’s, and about how the islanders experienced him. By local accounts, Boll and his family were well-liked, and although the Ireland he saw was very much the Ireland of an outsider (with a soft focus lens) something about his way of seeing was generally agreeable to the people he lived here alongside. Of comments by his neighbors, this one about the Böll’s attendance at the local church mass intrigued me the most “sure, you wouldn’t need an alarm clock, you’d know the time when you saw the Bölls heading up there”. In that ordinary and unselfconscious observation, so much is revealed about the German writer and of the world people imagined behind him.

Writers, artists and creatives can apply for a two-week residency at the Heinrich Böll Cottage before end of September 2015. Annemarie Ni Churreain is a writer and poet from Donegal.

repost from The Thin Air.

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