Hildy Tails 12: Is ait an mac an saol ~ 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. Our Monk in the World Guest Posts will return next week.

Is ait an mac an saol.  

Hello and God’s peace be with you all. My name is Hildy and this is the last Jubilee year story from me, your online abbey mascot.

Today’s Irish expression translates to “Life is strange.” And life certainly has gotten stranger in this last year. (Not that it hasn’t always been a bit weird, am I right?) The idea for my stories was to be a playful look into life in Galway and a little behind-the-scenes look at Abbey of the Arts. But then a global pandemic broke out and the world all but stopped. Silly stood aside as Serious took centre stage. But as a hermit living with a couple of introverts who run an online monastery from their home, life didn’t change too drastically for me. However, I think things are clearer to me now.

I don’t want to down play the severity of the pandemic, the lives lost, the suffering and anxiety of so many . . . and like John and Christine, I’m not a big fan of the “everything happens for a reason” mentality. Yes, there have been some silver linings out there . . . but also a lot of dark clouds and fierce rain. So I’m not going to say that this has all been for the best, because it hasn’t. It has, however, highlighted some real cracks in society and in ourselves (or at least myself).

Don’t panic. I’m not about to go on a political rant. I’m just a wee monkey . . . not even old enough to vote. My main involvement in politics to date has been giving out about all the posters put up come election season here in Ireland. And for better or worse (worse I fear), I’m not a big-picture person. I’m more focused on the trees than knowing what’s going on in the rest of the forest.  So, I’d like my last story to be more a reflection on caring for the trees around us, in order to protect the forest . . . for there’d be no forest without any trees. (And trust me – a lack of forest is something we Irish know all too much about. Don’t get me started . . . )

I appreciate that the Jubilee helped prepare me, in an odd way, for the pandemic. What I mean is that I was already contemplating what was most meaningful to me, what were my priorities, what was I being called to focus on, how did I want my life to change. And then BAM . . . the question of what is and isn’t “essential” went from theoretical to very, very practical.

Again, I’m just a wee Irish monkey. I don’t have all the answers. But as John likes to point out, as a professional theologian or someone working in the field of spirituality, good questions are better than having all the right answers. So (with a grain of salt about the size of a 20 centimetre tall monkey) here are some things I’d like that I, and society in general, could use some work on . . . not that I necessarily have solutions (or even all the right questions), just the suggestion that we all spend more time thinking about how we (individually and collectively) can do better in some areas.

Now John and Christine will tell ya, for a monk, I pamper myself pretty well. Self-care has never been an issue for me, but I’m seeing more and more people dealing with anxiety and stress. I’m a contemplative introvert and so welcome the quiet and solitude. But I’ve got extroverted friends who are going stir-crazy. We all need a wide range of healthy coping methods, including ones that may not have been our first option but would come in handy as a solid Plan C or D when the world gets thrown off kilter. (As an aside, I’ve tried to reach out to people I know may not have my coping mechanism or support. People in need are often the last ones to reach out for help, so I’ve tried to be pro-active during the pandemic and hope to continue it long after it’s over.)

Of course, one good coping method is a good friend or close family member. But with self-isolation, we can find ourselves cut off and alone. The internet and modern communication offers a real blessing in our ability to reach out to those not physically with us. But that’s no substitute for human contact. I miss hugs and a good handshake, or just sitting in the same room with friends or the occasional crowded music venue. Those may not be healthy options at the moment. But once this pandemic is behind us, I may not turn down any invitations for quite a while. “Why, yes! I’d LOVE to come to your cat’s birthday party.” (I usually avoid cats . . . and many dogs . . . for obvious reasons; but going forward, I’ll take the risk.)

Of course staying healthy isn’t easy. We can’t do it alone and too many of us don’t have the same, adequate access to quality health care as others. This pandemic has made that clear to even a simple monkey like myself. I don’t know that the best solution to it is. We can’t just throw money at the problem and hope it goes away. Neither can we ignore it and pray “the free hand of the market” takes care of it. (I’m not even sure what that last phrase means, but whatever we’re doing now isn’t working.) What it comes down to for me, is that if we aren’t all taken care of . . . none of us are.

Now as I keep saying, I’m a wee monkey. “Crashing on someone’s couch” for me is the equivalent of one of you humans house sitting in a mansion. But so many of my friends are struggling to find adequate and affordable housing, even before the pandemic hit. It’s not just students and “starving artists,” but families. It’s particularly galling in a country that has more empty houses than homeless. I don’t want to demonize landlords, many of them independent homeowners renting out a spare room or second, inherited homes . . . but there has got to be a better way to get people off the street. I heard that conservative-leaning Utah (a beautiful looking spot of America I’d like to take a road-trip through one day) solved their homelessness problem by simply giving people homes to live in. Is it that easy? Maybe more practicality and less ideology is what’s needed.

But the pandemic has also got me thinking about other things, too. Like what is “essential” for living? Can even I, a humble monk-ey live a simpler life, so others can simply live? And what is an “essential worker?” What jobs really have to be done, both personally (do I *need* to make my bed every morning?) and professionally (which businesses and employees do I actually depend on for my survival?)? I’d like to think I was appreciative of the clerks at the local grocery store before all this . . . but I have a new found appreciation that I hope I never lose. I’d hate to find myself taking them for granted at some point down the line.

And speaking of essential – what about the arts!?! We know a lot of artists here in Bohemian Galway. And many of them are struggling, because of closed venues and cuts to funding and lack of audiences. And yet . . . how many of us have been relying on their gifts, their talents, their time, and their work to make self-isolation bearable? I’ve certainly been binging more programmes, whether they’re old shows on a streaming service or a play posted for free or musicians sharing their music to lift our spirits. How is their work not “essential” to our wellbeing and to our daily lives?

These last few months of the Jubilee, in lockdown because of the global pandemic, has made me really contemplate our interconnectedness. Just as the virus had no regard for artificial national borders, so does our shared personhood know no borders. We might live locally, but we need to think globally (if you’ll pardon the bumper sticker rhetoric).

The stranger things get, the clearer what is essential becomes. I knew it before Jubilee and before the pandemic. But I know it-know it now. I hope I appreciate it more. The world isn’t in a great place right now. But I feel like I’m in a good place right now, because I have John and Christine . . . and all of you.

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