Into the dark

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I’m a summer girl at heart. I love warmth and light, but there is something delicious about cozying up by the fire on a wild night and making warm nourishing dishes for dinner. And before you know it, the silly season is upon us and we’re racing round like loo-laas trying to create the perfect Christmas experience for one and all.

I was recently on a wonderful women’s yoga retreat in the sublime Cliffs of Moher retreat centre. It was led by an extraordinary teacher, Mari Kennedy, who took us through a weekend of learning about the Celtic calendar and female empowerment. It was called the Samhain Sovereign Women’s weekend. I was hesitant to go on it because it sounded a little to pagan for this nice Christian girl but I was delighted to discover a deeper path into my own spirituality and faith.

This time of year in the Celtic calendar is Samhain (sow-win). It’s the dark time, a time to let the ground lie quiet, let the earth rest as it centres down to wait for spring. It is a time to let things go that no longer serve us, take stock and possibly face up to things that need changing. It’s a time for hibernation, rest and stillness.

Being a Jesus follower, Christmas is obviously a special time but too often all the Christ can get shoved aside in the mad consumerist dash to the finish line of December 25th (not actually Jesus’ birthday, obviously, but a convenient adaptation of ancient festivals of light to point to the Light of the World). Every year, I long for the sacred but too often get swept up in the secular, frantically making many, many Christmas cards and spending a fortune on stamps (I tell ya, it ain’t cheap to send a letter these days!) and panic buying gifts that no one needs or wants.

So this year, I’m making the conscious decision to go into the dark. I’m switching off Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This site will be quiet for the next six weeks. There’ll be no new podcasts before Christmas (but please feel free to listen again to all the previous wonderful interviews!) I’m going to limit my perusal of the internet, because let’s face it, after the events of recent weeks there’s only so much fear a person can absorb before they go bat-shit crazy.

I’m going to intentionally attempt to meet some real needs in my local community where I can and for those crises that call to my heart further afield, I’ll donate the money that would otherwise go on Christmas cards and unnecessary trinkets. I think those I normally send cards to won’t be offended and even if they are, well, no one will die!

I’m going into the dark, into the quiet, keeping things close and simple. I’m not afraid because truth and light can always be found in the darkest of places. I will celebrate the Advent virtues of love, hope, joy and peace and Emmanuel, God with us. And as the days begin their stretch toward the spring, I’ll use the renewed energy to create some wonderful new work.

May I invite you to light your fires, stay warm and have a blessed Christmas season.

Melanie

 

The Dark Man

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This is me and one of my oldest, truest friends the writer Aoife Maguire in our purple stockings for the Waking the Feminists meeting at the Abbey on November 14th. Fifteen years ago, she and I wrote a play together called Missing Stars that she directed me in at the Finborough Theatre in London. It was a story of three generations of Irish women and their relationship with an archetypal Dark Man, the personification of depression. As a new immigrant to London, in a high profile role on a British soap, I experienced near crippling depression. It was embarrassing because really what did I have to be depressed about; I had a dream job, I had money, I had a relationship and I had good friends. I dealt with it by going to the doctor and, though I refused chemical help, I did do six months of weekly counselling and dealt with issues that arose.

When I felt better, I was intrigued, talking to other Irish immigrants, about the prevalence of depressive episodes in their lives. I started to do some research and discovered that over the years there were a large proportion of Irish women in English mental hospitals. Aoife and I decided to write about the experience of dislocation, diaspora and the Irish female immigrant.

It was a dark and intense play and it was very female. It wasn’t flawless. One review stated that it would take ‘three generations of rewriting’ to make it better! Many of the men who came to sit in the tiny theatre were visibly uncomfortable (a dear friend brought her boyfriend and his soccer team, bless!) but I spoke to a lot of women after who said that it fleshed out their own experience and to me, that made it worthwhile.

Shortly after it ran, the reality of the Magdalene Laundries became apparent and put a whole new slant on the fact of English hospitals being filled with mentally ill Irish women. Irish women have been running from the Dark Man for decades, if not centuries.

Fifteen years later, and I’m still running and recently, for the first time, I’ve decided to take the chemical help needed to keep me functioning as a wife, mother and artist. It’s amazed me that it’s taken me this long to go on antidepressants but I realise now that attempting to outrun depression can be a bit like trying to dodge a bullet. It’ll get you in the end.

There we were, together again on Monday, at the Waking the Feminists event wearing our purple tights in support of our great community of Mothers Artists Makers. Aoife and I have been talking feminism for nearly twenty years through all our various permeations of wife, mother, teacher, actor, writer, facilitator and I think I can speak for both of us when I say that being in a theatre full of women, and men, who are speaking feminism loudly felt incredibly empowering.

So why, the next morning, after slipping my little white pill in my mouth do I feel nothing but a profound sense of sadness?

I think it’s because it’s 2016 and the Dark Man still seems to be in charge. The patriarchy, in its most recent horrific manifestation of tangerine, is alive and well and as determined as ever to quash anything that speaks out against the status quo. And the fight against it is depressing and exhausting and, more than ever, imperative.

I started this blog and the accompanying podcast because I was desperate to hear more of women’s voices and experiences. I wanted to hear about their processes as artists, their spiritual walks and how they balance their lives and work as women in the 21st century. I chose the words Strut and Bellow because I felt women needed to do both a bit more. I feel more strongly than ever that ‘a bit more’ is an understatement.

We need to strut and bellow a whole lot more. Dodging, ignoring and attempting to suffer  the Dark Man is no longer an option. The patriarchy needs to be stood up to, dismantled and destroyed because it is not good for women or men. The status quo needs interrogating to a greater extent. That the three most visible theatrical institutions in our country (The Abbey, The Gate and the Dublin Theatre Festival), who receive the lion’s share of funding from the Arts Council, are the worst representatives of the female voice is shameful. And before you say that this is a very middleclass gripe, the female voice is the voice that suffers the most under patriarchy.

It’s female stories and perspectives on disability, gender, homelessness, direct provision, addiction, poverty, violence that are too often ignored or dismissed and it’s those voices that need to be heard on our stages and in our theatres. As Mother Artist Makers we also need to hear stories of motherhood – the good and the bad. We need to hear perspectives around birth, reproductive autonomy, parenting. We need to see mothers who struggle as well as mothers who delight in their role and these stories can only authentically come from mothers themselves.

I am tired of seeing women imagined rather than embodied and I’m tired of not getting the chance to embody three dimensional, complex women with stories that deserve to be shared with a wider audience. When stories from the margins are brought on to the main stages, when we see experiences and perspectives different from our own, we learn empathy and compassion. With empathy and compassion, real change on a societal level is possible. This is the great power of the theatre.

The Dark Man might be looming but in truth, as with all darkness, it’s most toxic when it’s under threat. Being among the women yesterday reminded me that we are a force to be reckoned with. The Dark Man needs to get good running shoes.