Shane Mac an Bhaird

Quiet Little Spaces 

by Shane Mac an Bhaird

 

I’ve spent more of the last two years outside of Ireland than inside it. I’ve spent some time in Paris, Birmingham and Toronto. These are a few of my thoughts on the matter.

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Always be strung out in airports. It’s the only way to live. Either be hung-over or, preferably, drunk. Otherwise the weight of all those journeys, all those people ’getting places’ will crush you. At any given moment, the airport is full of people, the planes are packed to capacity, and the world is urgent to be elsewhere. What’s worse, if you’re in an airport, you’re part of it.

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Loneliness changes quality when you’re abroad. At home loneliness is an inward, private affair. Living in a city where you don’t know anybody pushes that outward, fixes it onto the people around you, onto the peopled streets and the strangeness of the culture. It becomes more bearable and less yours.

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The French game of pétanque is less a game than an elaborate excuse for older French men to wear moustaches.

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Airports briefly turn us all into Beckett characters. We drink coffee, read papers, and stare endlessly into our phones, wishing this small segment of our life would be finished with. Airport waiting areas are a great place to observe people will time out of existence. What percentage of our lives do we will out of existence in this fashion?

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It is possible to think about cities, not in terms of space, but in terms of contested attitudes of time. Most cities are a great catastrophe of counting. In the business towers of La Defence for example, time is counted as profit; the turning of the clock is the ticking of bank balances. It is a sour time, but a certain, self-assured one. The challenge is to find wild, remote time, often hidden in small flats among soft-spoken people lounging in their memories and thoughts.

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There is something ornate, artificial and intoxicating about the version of yourself you discover in the eyes of others when you travel. The lightness of your life can make you forget.

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All cities have moments, and they are moments specific to the place, where it feels possible to step straight out of existence. In Birmingham they are harder to find than in Paris. I did discover the Dudley Canal No. 2. Walking along the mucky path that traces the canal from Selly Oak into the centre of the city, dodging the occasional joggers sweating themselves into perfection, a moment descends. The moment makes life feel as thin as a blade of grass. The dark water, the abandoned industrial warehouses, the pottering geese, all combine to gather your life into an extraordinary lightness. You think that your next step might not touch the earth but rather touch silence itself.

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The only thing I did while in the U.S.A., while on a half hour stopover to Toronto, was block a toilet. I consider this to be a political act.

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Paris, through a sheer effort of beauty and excitement serves as definitive proof that a human life is enriched from a different source than either beauty or excitement. It is such a muchness of place and still not enough. If in Paris, you are still fidgety, uncertain and full of want, then no place can solve you. The city is an argument for the impossibility of living a necessary life until you’ve confronted the question of home.

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It was in Coventry that I first seriously considered the possibility that my life would be a complete catastrophe.  I intend never to return to Coventry.

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There is a persistent perception that travel is good for creativity. Any big city will have a community of drifting artists who indulge in this belief and will scurry from Berlin to Bilbao, searching for a lifestyle and a vision of themselves that they are happy with. The truth is, it is living with sincerity that’s good for creativity. That challenge doesn’t become any easier while travelling. Very possibly it is harder.

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When the storms come to Paris, and they seem to come plenty, and you are drenched in the fall of the sky, and the people who wander are shocked into wonder, the people who wander are lit in the glow of the fact: time is passing and we are creatures who know it, and we haven’t a notion what to do with this life.

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Once you’ve spent time away and returned, something has changed. The old facts, the stuff of your world, which once loomed with such certainty and weight, have been thinned.  The undulation of the hills, the brown lakes and wet fields, rough with reeds and gorse, assume the quality of a lit candle flickering in a draft. You notice how your family has aged. Children are covered in spots and speaking with deep voices. Your old life has been steeped in the pathos of change.

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This is certain: when the plane takes off and you are hurled into the clouds and the sky, a change happens. You will not touch the ground again without knowing the sweetness of ache and loss.

Shane Mac an Bhaird is from Ballybay, Co. Monaghan. He has had work published in wordlegs presents: 30 Under 30The Irish TimesThe Bastille, The Bohemyth, The South Circular, Ropes and wordlegs. He came second in Doire Press’ 2013 Poetry chapbook competition. As well as writing, he works in theatre, has just completed his MRes in playwriting from the University of Birmingham and will be part of Rough Magic’s 2014-2015 Seeds programme.

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