Turtle on its Way to a Rave

I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to differentiate myself from my older sister. She was a cheerleader, so I was a tomboy. She moved to Hawaii, and I moved to Ireland. She chose the sun and I chose the rain—I’ll let you be the judge of who got the better deal (I still think it’s me).

Since my sister essentially lives on an island paradise, I’ve visited her a couple times and she recently repaid the favor by visiting me in Ireland. She packed the 1 sweater she owned and layered 3 rain jackets to serve as her ‘winter coat’. The leather leggings from her ‘Sandy from Grease’ Halloween costume were her warmest pants, and she wore a green hat, gloves, and scarf the entire trip—I teased her for looking like a turtle on its way to a rave. I suppose I shouldn’t judge her too harshly since the last time I was in Hawaii, I got an uneven sunburn reminiscent of a knockoff Jackson Pollock painting.

Other than the climates, the islands we live on both have thriving music scenes. In Hawaii, we saw Mike Love perform, and in Cork, we experienced live traditional Irish music in pubs. We also took the bus up to Galway and encountered live music pretty much everywhere we went.

Ever since I got to Ireland, several people have recommended that I travel to Connemara and I convinced my sister to go there on a day trip while we were in Galway. We planned it out (a rarity on this trip) and hopped on a bus to Connemara. The bus was making some strange sounds, but what bus doesn’t? Soon our bus driver pulled over and was gone for about 30 minutes, but I just figured he was getting something to eat. Yet, 20 minutes later, he pulled the bus over again and notified us that the bus is broken, we will not be going to Connemara, and there are no other busses going to Connemara that day. He showed us back into a nearby town and told us to catch the next bus back into Galway in a couple of hours.

I was already a bit bummed we weren’t going to make it to Connemara, and then it started pouring rain. Most shops and stores, including the tourism office, were closed. The town was called Oughterard (your guess of pronunciation is as good as mine), and it was supposed to have a nice walking path along the river. Anxious to salvage the trip, we walked all the way to the path only to realize the river had flooded over the entire walkway. Then, my sister stepped in dog poop and my phone died from the rain and cold.

A bit disheartened, we walked back into town and found a cute little pub where we got some tea to warm up before the bus came. Our waitress must’ve noticed our bedraggled appearance because she brought us approximately 12 biscuits with our tea. When the bus back to Galway finally came, the very same bus driver we had earlier could be seen chuckling at us from behind the wheel of a new bus. Honestly, I think I gave my sister a pretty authentic Irish experience.

The pub that saved us from exposure.

Us inside the pub after many biscuits.

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International and Ireland: Lessons from Irish Politics

In my childhood, I aspired to be a public servant. A politician, maybe. I wanted to serve my communities and to get involved in American politics right after college. Yet as I read political research, listened to talking points, and followed events around the world, something changed.

I began to believe that there are countless ways of looking at and organizing our attempt to solve our political challenges. That we have a lot to learn from other perspectives and we are often blind to them. This approach is not relativistic. Instead, absolute truths require a high bar. More importantly, we must always contemplate and challenge them.

This process brought me to study how communities — governments and citizens — interact and change through international affairs. I have spent much of my career working globally to improve governance systems and the policy that flows from them. One of the reasons I came to Ireland was to learn from the country’s international relations and from their local and national politics. These are lessons I can share with my own communities and others I encounter along the way.

The conversations started with taxi drivers who had strong opinions about Donald Trump. I talked with my Trinity classmates about the European experience. I attended Dublin City Council meetings, shadowed in Ireland’s parliament, and spoke with diplomats. Ireland might have some lessons for how political systems affect communities and how we can shape them for good.

Ireland believes in engaging beyond its borders. While most foreigners I have met fear Brexit, they are optimistic, albeit cautiously, about the European project. At a campus event, even the leader of one of Ireland’s nationalist parties, Sinn Fien, asserted that the EU has done some good despite needing reform. This common struggle through differences is refreshing.

At the same time, I have found the Irish are still deeply committed to their own communities. I have watched the Dublin City Council take up issues ranging from a housing crisis to city infrastructure. As they function on national funding, their connection to national politics seems more noticeable than in U.S. politics. Of course, this approach is more manageable in a country of roughly 4.7 million, but it seems all levels of government are important and somewhat valued.

Like many parliamentary political systems, Ireland’s national executive roles are filled by elected officials, which theoretically increases democratic accountability. The government is also susceptible to a new election at almost any time, reinforcing representatives’ motivation to engage communities regularly. Ireland’s rank-choice voting system might also hold lessons. Voters can rank electoral candidates, limiting concerns they will lose their vote by casting ballots for a preferred choice that is less likely to win. In America, Maine has recently explored this system.

Many Irish I have met are politically engaged and somewhat open-minded. One public servant proposed that Ireland is less polarized because everyone is more connected. Perhaps seeing people as more than group stereotypes and numbers might help us work together. Undoubtedly, I might be wrong. Of course, Ireland’s hyper-democratic project is not perfect. For example, some Irish citizens are skeptical that people are educated enough to vote in referendums and worry a “centered” politics will not always suffice.

These are realities all democracies must face. And they warrant a firm commitment to the principles of dialogue and learning that my experience with international affairs first taught me. Ireland will continue to teach me. I still want to be a public servant, but I will always have a lot to learn.

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Places to Live, People to See

A few days ago, I received a wonderful Christmas present in the form of an email. My aunt, uncle, and two cousins wrote that they had booked tickets to spend their spring break in Dublin. In addition to the news, they asked for advice on activities and an AirBnB they were considering. I wrote back immediately to say that I cannot wait to see them and fired off a list of recommendations.

This present came a few days after another gift in the form of a text – two high school friends telling me they were coming to Dublin in March. “I’m so excited to see you!” I texted back. “There’s some brunch places here I know you’ll love.”

A few weeks before that, I sat with my boyfriend in one of my favorite Dublin pubs, listening to a trad session. I had just gotten word that one of my friends from undergrad had booked tickets for a long weekend in Dublin in February. I shot a quick video of the musicians and sent it her way with the caption, “when you come, let’s go here!”

Fatou and I had the chance to show her husband, Kofi, and my boyfriend, Michael, one of our favorite things about Dublin – the cliffwalk at Howth, which I believe made an appearance in my first blog post too!

I returned to Dublin yesterday after four weeks of bouncing around Europe. A few days each in Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, Athens, Nafplio, and Sicily. The chance to travel so easily to so many diverse places is a gift that I cannot express enough gratitude for. But when I compare my travel over break to the joy I feel about the upcoming trips of people I love, I can define the difference between visiting somewhere and living somewhere.

When we visit places we make lists, usually seeking the advice of various online 5-star rating platforms. We run through activities and streets and restaurants to sample as much as possible. This sampling offers valuable experiences with different peoples and cultures, but rarely do we experience the same thing twice.

Living somewhere is different. Living in Dublin means I have time for deep exploration. It means making repeat visits and developing favorites based on personal experiences with the city’s offerings.

At the beginning of winter break, my boyfriend Michael and I went to tour the Christ Church Cathedral. It was a new experience for me in Dublin, one that I hope to share with others soon!

Living in Dublin means that when a friend extends an invitation to a certain pub, I can get there without Google Maps in my face.

Living in Dublin means that when I sat on a plane, wearing my last pair of clean socks and unsure which country had claimed my hairbrush, I felt a rush of confidence and security when the pilot announced our landing in Ireland.

And living in Dublin means that when people I love say they are coming to visit, I feel thrilled and honored to share my life in this city with them.

The longer I stay here, the more grateful I am to be involved in a program that goes beyond visiting. We should, of course, explore the world broadly. But only time and effort – only living – grant real depth of understanding. I plan to spend the time I have here pursuing that depth and sharing it with intention at every opportunity.

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Reflections after Longer Exposure

In all my limited time on this earth, I have never particularly appreciated casual photography. For much of my life I have attempted to avoid being in photos, largely in order to best prevent the horror of my visage from being inflicted on others. I have also largely avoided taking photos, partially because I’ve only had a smartphone for a few years and partially because I generally think if I desperately need to revisit some stunning vista the internet has probably captured it better than I can. Further, when I can, I avoid looking at other people’s photos of scenery or family, though I secretly suspect this to be true of others. I don’t even have an Instagram, a serious problem for keeping up with people in my age demographic.  To be fair, I sometimes attempt to enjoy photography as a visual art form, despite completely lacking any serious knowledge on the topic, and I certainly respect any attempt to ignore the frighteningly ephemeral nature of our reality. Nevertheless, in almost any instance I avoid both the consumption and action of photography.

Or rather I did. Since being in Ireland I’ve done my best to take as many pictures as I can. I’ve taken pictures of my campus, of my local haunts, of my favorite trees, of my least favorite trees, and of any other number of mundane or mildly exceptional objects. I take pictures when I’m home, when I’m traveling, and only refrain from doing it when I’m sleeping because of practical constraints. I even have largely committed to appearing in photos, gracing many candid and planned photos with the dreadful weight of my presence. This change of heart has a few practical causes, like the unlimited data plan I can afford in Ireland and my current access to semi-modern cellular technology, but the largest change is less discreetly physical. Instead, it’s more a feeling that I am obligated to share the experience I am currently blessed with as a Mitchell Scholar.

I don’t actually save almost any of the photos I take. Instead they are almost universally deposited into a shared family Snapchat, which is embarrassingly titled “Peeples Phamily. No one else in the group chat has ever been to Ireland, or even really left the United States. They’ve never had the opportunity to see the sights I’ve seen in the last couple months, let alone do the things I’ve done. Since, unlike me, they don’t have any weird vendettas against photographs, they simply want to see as much of what I am up to as they can. It’s the closest they can get right now to the unique gift I’ve received for the year. For me, this commitment to documentation has served as a sort of small scale reminder of the need to spread the impact of the Mitchell and of the importance of Mitchell Scholars’ coming from communities of particular need. Families who haven’t been to Europe are not exactly the most oppressed group in America, and even they are underrepresented in many of America’s top scholarship cohorts. In a sense my evolution on photos is just a snapshot of my time in Ireland. You could say that my changing sensibilities about photography have left me shaken, shaken not unlike a Polaroid picture.

UPDATE: I remain bereaved as I mourn my friends the cows.

 

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A Little Feeling of Home?

A few months ago, I was sitting in Nando’s with two of my Mitchell fellows getting ready to have my first ever experience at the “Afro-“ Portuguese chain restaurant, when I heard a familiar song—“La Guinee Sore” by Fode Baro, also known as King of zouk in West Africa and one of the most popular artists in Guinea. At first, I thought I was imagining in my head, but no, really in the middle of Dublin City, a song by Fode Baro was actually playing in Sousou (one of my native languages). As a Guinean-American in Dublin, of all places, hearing a song in a public restaurant in one of my native languages, you must have imagined how excited I got.

Although it may be part of Nando’s strategy to play only Afro-beat/songs from Africa in their restaurants anywhere in the world, I still could not tame my excitement of hearing a familiar (non-English) language in a new found country. When I was preparing myself to come to Ireland, I had zero expectation of interacting with someone from Guinea or any Mande People (ethnic groups from Guinea, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Mali), especially after spending 13 years between the Bronx and Harlem and fusing with a diverse immigrant population who spoke similar languages as me. Granted I still haven’t met single a Guinean-Irish, however, over the last few months, learning, connecting and working with African immigrants in Ireland through my work with AkidwA and Wezesha (two Irish NGOs working on im/migrant issues) have been an intriguing experience. Particularly, planning a conference with 10 other EU partners to discuss im/migration and integration in Ireland.

Over the past 3 months, I have been corresponding with various stakeholders in Dublin from the Dublin City Council to the Justice Department, to the Human Rights Council, to the European Migrant Network, to convene Irish community in discussing some of the stigmas held against im/migrants and integration efforts for the newcomers. The conference, taking place on January 25th will be at Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) and will engage Irish/Dublin leaders including head of IHREC Emily Logan, Dublin City Councilor Ciarran Cuffe, Secretary of Gender Equality at Justice Department Carol Baxter, and Head of European Migrant Network Ireland, Emma Quinn. Even though there were moments of setbacks (i.e. securing all the major speakers, high attendance, and last minutes unforeseen tasks), it has been a great learning experience to hear about the various im/migration stories (those that are often similar to mine), speak in a familiar language (Francophone French), and connecting spirituality with a Kenya-Bengali Muslim colleague.

Though I looked forward to working with an Irish non-profit organization focused on im/migrant issues such as AkiDwA, I did not expect to quickly pull together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss an important topic relating to im/migrant integration in Ireland and other EU nations. The experience has proven to provide a sense of connection to Ireland I did not anticipate—giving me a familiar space somehow (though very little) similar to NYC, as I am surrounded and fueled by the experience and stories of newcomers, like me, in Ireland trying to find comfort in their new home.

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On Resolutions

Much of the fall semester, I felt drawn back to the U.S. through applications and other projects I had carried with me to my new home. Having completed all of my applications and nearly all of my transatlantic projects now, I’ve breathed a Spire-sized sigh of relief in this new year. I don’t usually make resolutions, but now that I’m nearly halfway done with my Mitchell year, I felt the need to reorient and recommit myself to this experience.

 

This semester, I’ve resolved to become a more active participant in my community here and to “suck out all the marrow of” my life in Dublin. Quoting Walden may constitute a cliché, but Thoreau’s statement of purpose, despite being undermined by his less-than-rugged context, is still one of the passages I return to most in American literature. I intend to “become present” in my time here through a number of engagements: by devoting more time to a significant research project I have joined that is focused on promoting mediation and transitional justice, by joining friends for pickup basketball on a weekly basis, by spending more time in pubs, and by continuing to play in as many soccer matches as possible.

 

I was reminded of the importance of savoring our time this past week when one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, passed away at the age of 83. Her death was a somber memento mori, but it was also cause for me to return to her poems, which have inspired countless periods of reflection in my life. I cherish her works not only for their graceful grasp of the relationship that binds mankind and nature, but for their insistence on the examined life. Throughout her career, critics decried Oliver’s body of work as “simplistic.” But the clarity with which she captures the world around her is beautiful because it is unadorned, unembellished. Her poetry does not require ornamentation, but derives its incisiveness from its unique capacity for intricate observation. In the poem “Bone,” she writes:

 

Though I play at the edges of knowing,

truly I know

our part is not knowing,

but looking, and touching, and loving…

 

Throughout my life, and particularly in the last few months when I felt inordinate pressure to decide what I would do as soon as I returned from my year in Ireland, I’ve had a tendency to overthink things. Mary Oliver’s words are imbued with an understanding tranquility that quiets my thoughts and compels me to relish the “idleness” of the present moment. In “When Death Comes,” she writes:

 

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

 

In one poem, she tells me to slow down; in another, her words call me to action. Both awaken in me an appreciation for the time I’ve been given and challenge me to spend that time immersed in the joys of human and natural connection.

 

In this spring semester, I hope to rededicate myself to Thoreau’s mission and to embrace Oliver’s contemplation of the preciousness of life in the face of death. I still have at least five (and hopefully seven!) months to grow closer with the scholars around me, with my classmates at UCD, with my teammates on the soccer team, and with my fellow researchers and advocates on the transitional justice project. Here’s to resolutions, to using these months wisely, and to making many more memories like the ones below.

Hiking the Great Sugarloaf

Friends and family getting in the Christmas spirit at a pub in Dublin

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Ciaran’s Question

What are we teaching our children?

This was the question repeatedly asked by our guide, Ciaran, on my family’s visit to Belfast earlier this month. We were on a black cab tour of the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods of Belfast in an effort to better understand the deep communal divides that still permeate the city.

After stopping in front of a mural honoring Stephen McKeag, one of the deadliest unionist gunmen during The Troubles, Ciaran highlighted two important details. One, the mural had only just been installed in 2016. Two, it was right across the road from an elementary school.

“What are we teaching our children?” he asked.

The mural honoring Stephen McKeag

We drove past the gates separating the Falls and Shankill Road neighborhoods—the predominantly Catholic and Protestant communities—that are still locked every evening, interspersed along the 10-foot-high peace wall that separates the two communities.

“What are we teaching our children?”

We stopped to view the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden in the Falls neighborhood next to a home with a metal cage enclosing its back porch.

“What are we teaching our children?”

A house with a metal-caged back porch next to the peace wall

Many Protestants in Northern Ireland still grow up never knowing a Catholic, and many Catholics grow up never knowing a Protestant. Combined with narratives glorifying the sectarian violence of The Troubles, Ciaran saw no other possible outcome other than the perpetuation of misunderstanding and hatred.

Ciaran highlighted the work some in these communities are doing to fight against these trends. The Women’s Quilt mural in the Shankill neighborhood now promotes the voices of local women and their calls for peace, equality, and hope where a paramilitary mural once promoted division and sectarian resentment. To him, however, the murals and peace wall and interface gates represented the failure of Northern Irish society to reckon with its past and actively promote cross-community understanding. By perpetuating and glorifying division, how could society ever hope to find peace?

The Women’s Quilt mural

Listening to Ciaran describe the struggles of his city, I could not help reflecting on the divisions present in our own society in America. We in the US are more likely than ever to grow up among, consider friends, and even marry people who share the same political views as us. In fact, we are more geographically polarized than at any time since 1860—the year before the Civil War began. We are quick to paint those we disagree with using broad generalizations because we rarely make an effort to get to know those we disagree with. It is easier to stick with what we know, to remain in our ideological comfort zones. It is easier to promote the narrative of “us versus them” than to promote “us with them.”

Just like most in Northern Ireland, many Americans claim to be disgusted by hyper-polarization. But what are we teaching our children if we do nothing about it? In a thousand ways, the solutions to social division in Northern Ireland and the US are not the same, but I can say this: when we are incapable of recognizing the humanity of those unlike us, we forfeit the ability to form a productive society.

There are many questions that must be answered on the road to peace in Northern Ireland, and there are many too that must be answered as we seek to fight against divisions in America.

We would all be wise to start with this one: “What are we teaching our children?”

 

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Lucky

The crowd of sixty that gathered in front of the Dublin immigration office chanted according to the commands of an indefatigable migrant activist named Lucky, whose pursuit of justice is matched in optimistic intensity only by his thunderous voice.

 

“Migrant rights!”

Are human rights!”

“Migrant rights!”

Are human rights!”

The protestors were fighting a problem affecting all who immigrate to Dublin, Mitchell Scholars included: the clogged (and soon to be replaced) technological infrastructure created to allocate scarce appointments for residency permit applications. Not only does the need for slots far exceed the supply made available, but the fee-free system has been preyed upon by hackers who code bots to snatch available spaces, which are then sold online to desperate migrants for profit.

 

Having secured legal residency in this very building earlier that day, I realized, perhaps for the first time, that I live in Ireland as an immigrant. Since then, I’ve found myself reflecting more deeply and personally on the central question that animates my research: What does it mean to be a migrant?

 

The answer is unsurprisingly variegated. There exists tremendous distance between me and many of the people who are similarly assigned the conditional, revocable label of “migrant” in Ireland, and that space is created by the privileges I embody and enjoy. My whiteness, U.S. citizenship, class and educational backgrounds, and countless other identities uniquely insulate me from challenges that are experienced by certain migrants here. This applies, mutatis mutandis, to the United States as well. The very real thoughts of friends and classmates in both places I call home—of being targeted by police, of requiring explicit state approval to enter or leave or return to the country, of encountering violent racism—quite literally never enter into my consciousness as serious threats to my safety or freedom.

 

The ease with which I am moved through various geographical, social, and cultural borders forces me to consider how much lies beyond the purview of my perspective. Imposing realities of oppression and exclusion exist outside the orbit of a world that continually makes space for me, wherever I go. This blindness makes me question how capably I can fulfill the purpose of the Mitchell Scholarship: to promote an enduring bond between the United States and Ireland based on shared cultural values. To what extent can I presume to know either place?

 

I have loved my time as an immigrant to this nation I know to be beautiful, happy, and friendly, even as I recognize that my perspective orients me towards a particular and incomplete image of it. In the face of a changing America and a changing Ireland, however, I can’t help but wonder if the perspective I inhabit, or the perspectives inhabited by my disproportionately white, male, educated cohort of Mitchell Scholars, captures the shifting dynamics that will define each nation in the future.

 

I chatted with Lucky after the protest. He affirmed our common immigrant identity upon learning that I was from America. He is right in the sense that we both come from different “theres” and find ourselves “here.”

 

But what does it mean for me to be here?

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I Am, I Am, I Am

I have a complicated relationship with the United States Postal Service. The story begins back in Boston last June, when I realized delaying packing up my belongings would not in fact delay my departure from college. In a stunning rush of procrastination-fueled urgency, I compressed the sprawling last four years of my life into a few sturdy suitcases and valiant duffle bags. My books, however, stood stoic on a familiar shelf I couldn’t bring myself to start to clear.

My mom suggested I take advantage of Media Mail, a lower cost USPS shipping option for books, to spare us the drama of transporting every item in my collection across the country after Commencement. I packaged up the companions that had been only arms-reach away whenever I needed them during the highs and lows of college into a box, wrapped it several times around with packaging tape, and printed my address on the top, feeling a little like my books were leaving home rather than heading towards it.

Here’s the part where the USPS lets me down—my books never made it back to me. The enormous orange textbook I had held onto since first beginning my EMT training, El Alquimista, which kept me company on the way to my Mitchell interview, and two dozen other books that reminded me so specifically of certain people, places, and times in college, hang somewhere in limbo between Boston and Iowa. Specifically, they are likely buried under other missing mail at the USPS Mail Recovery Center, which, half a year later, has yet to locate a single book.

Life goes on. Over the summer, I embraced the magic of the weightless, impossible to lose e-book, and I moved to Ireland in August with luggage several pounds lighter than anticipated. When I wandered into my first Irish bookstore in Kinsale, I lingered over a set of two short stories by Samuel Beckett, recognizing the Irish author as the source of the oft-quoted lines “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” I impulsively exchanged a few Euro for my first Irish book.

It’s a tiny tome. Flipping through it now, I’m reminded of my initial reluctance to accumulate items in Ireland, knowing that as much as I’d like to stay forever, I’ll be reliving that last-minute moving out experience at the end of my Mitchell year. One semester later, my collection has already grown to nearly a dozen books. I’m always looking for a metaphor, and rebuilding my bookshelf in Ireland reminds me that permanence of residence isn’t a prerequisite for making my life here big.

I visited Belfast in November with two friends, one of whom spontaneously gifted me a memoir titled I Am, I Am, I Am, written by Northern Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell, after we spent a morning perusing local bookstores. O’Farrell ended her winding personal narrative of seventeen brushes with death with an epilogue comparing memoir to the Japanese art of kintsugi.

Memoir, she points out, is the literary analogue of this practice of fusing broken ceramics back together with gold lacquer. The end result is more than a simple reconstitution of what once was.

I don’t think you need to wait until the end of your life, or until you’re ready to write a memoir, to thread your life with gold. If what holds you together makes you more than the sum of your parts, if your gaps are filled with gold, the past doesn’t wear you down—it builds you up.

This picture was taken from behind a small fence, where I sought shelter after Mitchell basketball got a little too enthusiastic (read: they hit me in the head with the ball).

 

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Gestalt

There’s a compositional idea in some 20th– and 21st-century music known as gestalt, referring to the perception of a larger structure created by many unique components. In composition, it basically means the juxtaposition or superimposition of different ideas without connective tissue, letting the listener build associations and interpret on their own terms. In the last month I’ve had some radically divergent but intensely meaningful experiences in Ireland, and am having a hard time drawing one reflection without omitting something important. Instead, I’ll provide a reflection in development—exploring each moment, laying them next to one another without stitching them together and seeing what gestalt awareness might emerge.

  • The Cork scene

Since November, I’ve received a string of amazing opportunities to make music in Cork. My MA cohort finished off our first term with a successful improv gig at The Guesthouse, I have my first paid gig next month after connecting with a local musician at a Christmas party (always accept invitations to parties!), and I’ve just begun a collaboration on a devised theater performance. There’s an intensely experiential, “get your hands dirty” approach to art at UCC that is simultaneously reinvigorating my musical practice and forcing me to reckon with my understanding of sound, of contemporary music, and my role as an artist. And it’s getting me involved in the amazing fringe arts scene in Cork.

Improv set by the MA in Experimental Sound Practice with guests [Front: Jeff Weeter (professor), Caleb Hall, Fiona Sheil. Back: John Godfrey (professor), Arran Bradstock, me!, Mick O’Shea (curator)]

  • Christmas in Longford

“This man here’s father was a cousin o’ yer granny’s!”—so went an introduction to someone after Christmas Eve Mass. I spent the holiday in Co. Longford with my great-uncle and aunt, Eamonn and Bredge Quinn; Eamonn is a younger brother to my late grandmother Dee and lives in the farmhouse where they grew up. The house fulfills a lot of stereotypes I thought I had left behind me in the States: the kitchen warmed by the multi-purpose range, buckets of turf for the fire, the kettle always warmed by the flame. One morning Bredge brought out a stack of old (OLD) photo albums and I saw, for the first time in my life, photos of Dee’s childhood and early adulthood. Seeing pictures of the history I grew up hearing about while meeting nearly a dozen family members for the first time was thrilling, a reminder of where I come from and why I’ve always been drawn to come back to Ireland.

My grandma Dee (seated, in the striped polo) with friends and family.

A faded photo of my grandma (back, left) and some of her younger siblings: Pat, Michael, Kevin, Roisin, and Eugene. My grandma was the middle child of 13!

Jacksy huddling by the range for warmth.

  • DR3017: Cultures of Voicing

January 7–11 I took an intensive Theatre Studies practicum on vocal technique and experimentation. This class is one of few experiences I’ve had where, while it was happening, I realized I was possibly in the midst of a life–changing experience. Dr. Yvon Bonefant blew open my world of expectation for what I can do as a vocalist, the possibilities at my disposal as a composer, and the ease with which all people can be empowered to use their voice loudly and proudly. Or softly. Or sadly. Or like a Victorian Duchess. We covered those too.

 

 

So, what is the emergent gestalt from these disparate events? Oddly, I think this—I could fully appreciate these experiences only because I’ve found my place in Cork. The last month simultaneously grounded and challenged me, but I had to pass through the touristy “visiting student” mentality before engaging in such an impactful way. I have close friends and colleagues, favorite coffee shops, running routes, and a Cork City Library Card. Moving to a new place is exciting and I learned a lot in the first few months—but it’s not the same kind of growth possible when you actually feel at home.

Oh—and I also got engaged! Here’s to more adventures!

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Sinecure

I learned the word “sinecure” this semester. 

Sinecure: a position requiring little or no work but giving the holder status or financial benefit.

Now entering the second half of our Mitchell experience, I’m programmed to start looking for what’s next. I know I don’t want a sinecure. I also know that without attention uncertainty seeks security, which often comes clothed in complacency and comfort. I’m ambivalent about the idea that I’ll take something until “x” occurs; even though, I know such if-then logic is dangerous if my predetermined conditions never manifest.

When I seek out perspectives regarding my next steps, I often receive a variation of the following: “you have to strike the right balance…” 

I don’t adhere to a teeter-totter notion of balancing my life. Note, some of that stems from being a husky child who no one wanted to play with since few kids enjoyed sitting in the air while I planted roots.

Really though, I don’t understand balancing work and life. Balance seems to imply placing ideas apart as counterweights to oppose, not support, one another. In this way, balancing seeks stasis through bridled nudging on multiple fronts, while being careful not to give too much on one out of fear it will take away from another. Given that time, energy, and attention are finite, spreading myself across mutually exclusive endeavors diminishes my ability to make meaning. I know I should instead seek significance on fronts that mutually support one another.

Just because I know doesn’t mean I do. My doubts, my desire for public validation, for a paycheck that provides comfort, all of these and more foster doubt, further separating my knowing from doing. 

Ultimately, I’m not talented enough to balance my way to fulfillment. I really mean that; it’s not feigned self-deprecation/modesty. Thus far, the process of committing, not balancing, helped me toward “success.” Commitment looks like clarifying my expectations, placing my assumptions in front of me, questioning the legitimacy of my excuses, scheduling “by-whens” with actual people, not just myself, because for some reason, keeping our word to other people acts as a stronger incentive than keeping it to ourselves.

I shared my balance pontification with my buddy who told me to also abolish the idea of “busy”: 

I never say I’m busy. To me, saying I’m busy says I’m out of control.

Busy implies a lack of order, unclear commitments—priorities/balance v. commitments. I don’t believe my idea of significance comes from “balancing” my profession and the rest of my life. 

All of these are good problems. They are problems of privilege. Worries of an incredibly fortunate white kid who looks like a wannabe Backstreet Boy. When I spoke with one of my home-town buddies the other day, he reminded me of my privilege. He also offered me some plagiarized, tongue-in-cheek advice from a classic piece of cinema:

I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really, Ted. Get busy living or get busy dying.

The ironic reminder was appreciated. 

Here’s to fortunate problems, getting busy being unbalanced, and making the most of the latter half of the Mitchell. 

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Sláinte: Cheers to the Future of Health Reform

I had set my sights on studying in Ireland to see firsthand how another country took on major health reform, hoping it might provide a powerful example for the American health system. Just a year before I arrived, Ireland’s parliament (known as the Oireachtas) passed a plan for the future of healthcare. Known as Sláintecare (sláinte is the Irish word for health), the reforms would provide universal access to all kinds of health services for all Irish people, at no cost to them.  
When I attended a September meeting on the future of Irish health reform hosted by Trinity College Dublin, one of the Sláintecare architects mentioned how challenging it had been to reach cross-party consensus on what universal healthcare in Ireland would look like, how universal it would be, and how it should be financed. My ears perked up when Trinity health policy researcher Dr. Sara Burke remarked that the Sláintecare committee members often used the George Mitchell model for reaching consensus. She spoke of bringing the group back to the core values agreed upon at the beginning of the process in order to bridge any divides and keep the work focused on the end goal: providing better healthcare access and services to the Irish people. 
As I work on research on Irish health reform with some bright minds from the Oireachtas Committee on Health, I am struck by the similarities of the barriers to reforming both the Irish and US healthcare systems. Both have entrenched public-private systems, where the public system is left underfunded in comparison to the private health care industry, where those with means can pay for quicker access to care, and sometimes better care. 
One key difference, however, is that Ireland has decided that the status quo is no longer acceptable, and all Irish people should have access to “universal, single-tier health services where patients are treated on the basis of health need, not ability to pay.” In the US, the health system is a common topic of debate, but I believe we will see no real progress in achieving meaningful health reform until there is widespread agreement that all Americans should be able to access high-quality, low-cost healthcare, regardless of income, race, or background. Perhaps the US should draw on the George Mitchell principles as well – not for crafting a Good Friday Agreement, but rather, for coming to consensus on our values and how we will keep our nation healthy for generations to come. 
With an idea for the future of healthcare in place, Ireland now wrestles with how to fund such an ambitious plan. It will be no easy task, but hopefully consensus-building and critical policy analysis can be coupled in order to realize the goal of providing care for all Irish people. I continue to be daunted by just how complex healthcare can be, but my time in Ireland has strengthened my resolve to return to the US and continue working for a health system that serves all Americans.
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