A.’s car wouldn’t start this morning. It might have been the cold. When we were small, five Hail Marys got our car going when the temperature dropped and the engine hacked like a 30-a-day smoker and refused to budge – it worked every time. Its clogged up mechanical throat cleared and it spluttered to life in the driveway. Occasionally, it was stubborn, more prayers were called for, and always a burly passer appeared to give the old Ford Cortina a push down the hill and bring it to life. I still carry my five Hail Marys with me, they never wear out. I draw upon them for either an emotional or physical kick-start, or prayer-push, to my day. I’m sure you have your equivalent from your own religious tradition, non-religious, humanist; however it is you bolster your strength.
When my late husband (K.) was young, he attended a boxing club in Montreal where his family lived. Just like in Ireland, many of the boxing clubs at that time were run by priests; this was one of them. K. was set to box a heavier lad from Quebec City. He wasn’t too nervous. He was nimble, fast, fit; thought he could out manoeuvre the bigger kid by keeping on his toes. Sitting in his corner, getting his pep talk from the priest, he looked across the ring and noticed the other boy had blessed himself, kissed a set of rosary beads and placed them back into his kit bag. Not being a Catholic, K. didn’t have these rituals available to him, and he said to the priest, panic rising, confidence draining, “Father, did you see that? Will that make him better than me? Will he knock me out?” The priest held him firmly by the shoulders, locked K’s eyes into his, and gravely told him, “Not if he can’t punch, son, not if he can’t punch.”
We all have our equivalent of the boxing ring; those tasks for which we have to turn up, train, put in the hours. When it gets hard we grit or teeth and keep going, even when the Hail Marys don’t seem to be paying out. Writing can be like that for me; sometimes it feels like fun, other times it turns into the greatest drag imaginable. I often reach a point where I fully empathise with Dorothy Parker, who said: ‘I hate writing, I love having written.’ When C. asked me what tends to set me off, where I get ideas from, I forgot to tell her, ‘I start with three Hail Marys’. Instead, I told her that ideas come from anything and everything: a old shopping list found in the pocket of a coat I’ve not worn for three years, the list transports me back to the butchers in Framwellgate, County Durham, where I can see the tiles painted with pigs and bulls; a snatch of a Katrina and the Waves song has me dancing at the disco in Donegal in 1993; a lady with a high swinging ponytail on Montgomery Street looks like M. from Belfast, and suddenly I can hear her laugh blow through the trees; the smear of marmalade on the butter dish that would have driven a person I once knew to distraction; the homeless man outside Iceland with a few coins in a battered Costa coffee cup reading a copy of Ian Rankin’s, The Hanging Garden; the woman washing her hands at the toilets in John Lewis, holding a conversation with an invisible friend in one of the cubicles about her summer house, a converted pigsty in the Cotswolds; calling my nephew ‘a heart scald’ and then having to explain the unknown expression to him. I sit for an hour (it might turn into more) in one big – often forced – exercise of trust, and gather, peel back layers, make connections, move dust around, say five Hail Marys.
Yeats wrote a poem towards the end of his life using the analogy of deserting circus animals to describe his failure in finding inspiration for poetic creation. It’s hard to believe inspiration ever dried up for W.B.; surely he had a prayer push for this to rise out of his heart?
The Circus Animals’ Desertion, by W.B. Yeats (excerpt)
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.