Hildy Tails 10: Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine – by John Valters Paintner

Hello, gentle readers! This series of 12 essays were composed during John & Christine’s Jubilee Year (which began pre-pandemic, but some of which was written during varying degrees of lockdown). They were dictated to John by the Abbey’s mascot, Hildy the Monk-ey. Hildy is a bit of a free spirit who likes to entertain and doesn’t normally feel constrained by conventional story structure . . . or grammar, in general. She lives by the motto that “all stories are true; some actually happened.” We wanted to share them with you, our wider Abbey community, to give you a small monkey-sized window into life on the wild edges of Ireland. They will take the place of our Monk in the World guest posts until May when those will return.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.

Blessings to one and all! I hope this story finds you safe and well. We certainly live in strange and trying times. I know my little tales are usually on the whimsical side, but this one might be a bit different. John and I have started and deleted and restarted and re-deleted and re-restarted this one a couple of times now. You see, just last week the Taoiseach (basically, the Prime Minister) of Ireland declared an official national lockdown for the next two weeks (which we’re both pretty sure will be extended until at least the end of April). Scary stuff, but all very important and necessary.

Now on a personal level, I’m a monkey. But professionally, I’m a monk, an urban hermit, the Abbey’s quasi-anchorite, if you will. So, being asked to stay inside, where I spend most of my time . . . super easy, barely an inconvenience. Although my Irish core bristles at being TOLD to not go out, it is something that I can do standing on my head (something I literally do a couple of times a day, just for the craic). Like, I’ll gladly stay home to help with the pandemic. The way I’m trying to think of it is not being afraid to catch it (I’m young and healthy and would likely survive it); I’m assuming I already have it (just not symptomatic yet) and am bravely sacrificing to keep from spreading it.

But (you heard that one coming a mile away, did ya not?) if you’re like we Irish (Irish monkeys doubly so) you are not great with being made to do something. After centuries of oppression, we tend towards rebellion as a default. It’s not necessarily a bad trait. But fierce independence isn’t always the solution.

And that brings me to today’s Irish expression which translates to, “Under the shelter of each other, people survive.” I find it ironic that in this time of isolation that I’ve realized just how much I depend on other people. Sure, I knew it before . . . but I also kinda, sorta, a lot . . . took it (and people) for granted. I may live on an island, but I’m no island. My parents liked to say we were self-sufficient growing up, raising some of our own food and fending for ourselves. But, we had quite the extended family. (It’s always a point of contention at family gatherings exactly how many cousins we have.) And our village was always as supportive of us as we were of them. I’ve always been independent, but I also acknowledge that I am able to be independent because of the support of family and friends . . . and a relatively strong social safety net.

Now I may not like authority figures and am naturally suspicious of institutional structures, but I am a very sociable monkey. Family is very important to me. A common question I ask in greeting is, “how are your people?” or “who are your people?” if I’m getting to know someone new. And I love a nicely crowded gathering, whether it be the pub or church . . . whether it’s a baptism or wedding . . . oh, and I love me a good wake. John says that in the States people will “wedding crash” (try to sneak into a wedding they weren’t invited to in order to get free booze and to dance with strangers). In Ireland, people will scour the obituaries (which are still read on the local radio) and go to any nearby funeral, not only to ensure that more people will likely attend their own when the time comes, but for the free sandwiches and a bit of craic (fun).

And here in Galway, we have what John has started calling #GalwayProblems. That’s when there’s a number of shows or gigs on the same night (usually with people you know in each of them) that you want to attend, but unless you can bi-locate you’re going to have to miss out on something. And then there’s the Festival Season! All summer long, Galway City has overlapping festivals that bring in hundreds of thousands of people to an already packed little city. The place is usually hopping on an average Wednesday in winter, but come the end of May . . . There’s a reason Christine and John don’t do any live programmes during the summer months: just not enough space to breathe or move!

So to be in Galway, even as an introvert, during a shelter-in-place order . . . it’s bizarre. It’s not this quiet in some small villages. Besides the silent pubs and music venues and theatres, the actual theatre festival has already been cancelled. The literary and film and various art festivals will likely follow suit. Again, it’s one thing to willingly embrace silence and stillness as a way of life . . . it’s another altogether to have it thrust upon oneself. I never realized how much I depend on the background hum of the city to keep me company. Even if I don’t go out, it’s reassuring to know that life is being lived out there!

Some of my friends are trying to find opportunity in the new gift of time that the lockdown has given us. A friend is learning to dance from online tutorials. Others are taking online yoga classes. And we offered a special novena here at our little online monastery. But when I read people mentioning that Shakespeare wrote this while in quarantine and Newton discovered that during quarantine . . . I get a bit overwhelmed. Am I supposed to be doing something big and important right now? Is everyone supposed to be writing the next great novel or making the next huge scientific discovery? That seems like a lot of added pressure in an already very stressful time.

It’s great if you’re finding a new creative outlet during all this. But maybe, like myself, you just need to actually slow down and really stop for a bit. I don’t normally have deep thoughts, but John and I have been discussing how this pandemic is putting so much of what we, personally and collectively, valued into perspective. Or maybe you just need to take care of yourself during all this. You don’t have to come out of this thinner or smarter or with THE answer to all the world’s problems.

I’ve gotten back into some yoga and going for daily walks, along with some reading and even watching some silly shows friends have recommended. The physical activity is goal oriented towards getting in shape as much as it is to blow off some steam, to help ease the cabin fever. My daily prayer and writing routine has been helpful to pass the time as the lockdown goes on. Again, these are things I was already doing, but I’m trying to be more mindful about it. A daily schedule has really been helpful. I had a regular pattern or rhythm to my days before, but I felt it was important to double-down on the intentionality of it all.

What has been most helpful for me, is realizing how united we all truly are and how much our lives are interconnected. I’ve been reaching out to friends and family I haven’t spoken to in a while. I find it helpful to be helping, if only to chat. I find it lifts my own spirits.

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