'It's a threshold for stepping into something new and unknown'


What does the new year mean to you? We ask three nuns who are seeking to inspire us all to live sustainably, a scientist who writes poetry and an economist who believes quality of life is more important than money, writes ARMINTA WALLACE

Another year, another new beginning. And while some people relish the idea of dipping a toe into a pristine field of untouched days, there are many of us for whom it makes the heart sink to even think of it. Maybe that’s the problem. We human creatures think too much. Look around you: the earth does the “new year, new you” thing every year without fuss or chatter or large quantities of alcohol. Out in your garden and in the fields and city parks of Ireland, the buds and shoots are already curled up, calmly waiting for spring. Though it may not feel like it during the short, frenetic days before Christmas and the gloom of early January, the year has already turned past the point of greatest darkness. We’re heading back into the light.

But if you need help recharging your batteries this new year, there’s plenty of that around too.

Sister act

Teresa Devine, Ethna Kelly and Marian O’Sullivan are nuns from An Tairseach eco-centre and farm shop at the Dominican convent in Wicklow town. They run courses in organic gardening and cosmology, use solar panels and have planted 10,000 trees and counting.

Do you look forward to 2013 with dread or delight?“I look forward, I would say, with hope,” says Marian O’Sullivan. “Much more important than my personal hopes or fears, though, is the longer-term future which I will not be around to see. My hopes are for peace in the Middle East, for the eradication of extreme poverty, food for everyone – in other words a more just future.

“My big fear is that we humans will not take the necessary steps to limit climate change and that the results will be catastrophic for humanity and for all life. We have taken great inspiration from Miriam MacGillis at Genesis Farm in New Jersey. Her new year’s letter on their website quotes Yeats, TS Eliot and the Sufi poet Hafiz as it urges people to engage with environment and sustainability issues in 2013. I have some hope that ordinary people are waking up to the seriousness of the situation and that events like Hurricane Sandy will bring this truth home to those in power.”

How do you usually spend New Year’s Eve?“Like most religious, I spend Christmas with my congregation,” says Teresa Devine, “and then for new year I join my family. I’m from Tyrone and I’m the second youngest of 10. New Year is a celebratory time for us. We have the second and third generations calling in; some of the younger ones go out, but they ring back at 12 o’clock. We look at photos of the past year, and we always see the new year in with music.

“There’s always a bit of a lament for the old year, and for those of us who had death or illness in that year. But there’s hope for the new year as well. No one would go to bed before 12 o’clock: that would show total disrespect for the old year and the new one. It’s a bit like this place, An Tairseach: it’s a threshold for stepping into something new and unknown, and it’s exciting.”

At this time of year, do you find yourself thinking about new beginnings? Do you find it difficult? “I must say that when I see something like Al Gore’s film, An Uncomfortable Truth, and also when I experience the way politicians talk and behave, and all the talk of growth and market forces and capitalism, I do find it very difficult,” says Ethna Kelly. “I find myself nearly paralysed by powerlessness. However, I’m also aware that at all times of great change people have come up with new ideas for how to live on the planet.

“But it is a struggle. It’s almost like learning a new language; for example, speaking about the earth from a human-only point of view is no longer appropriate. For me every day is a new beginning. Of course there are particular times when we stop and look more deeply at the darkness in our lives. I think the image of the light coming into Newgrange has a very powerful effect.”

Any suggestions as to where people might look for inspiration?“There is a green force,” says Devine, “a current, almost, underneath our visible current affairs that’s working very peacefully and in solidarity, and ready to do without, in order to bring about change. There was a time when there was concern about upsetting the apple cart and worrying about what people in power thought. I think that day has gone.

“The powers that be will continue. Most likely our patriarchal system will continue, but that doesn’t mean that we’re hopeless or helpless.

“For me it begins with the way I relate to myself and to those around me, and to the earth that nourishes me, and the biodiversity of that earth. If we all took that on board I do believe we would have a peace that is not economic-based; and if we could change our economic base, I believe we could change reality.”

Poetic licence

Iggy McGovern is a lecturer at the department of physics at Trinity College, Dublin; he is also a poet, and editor of the book 20/12, in which 20 Irish poets respond to science in 12 lines.

Do you look forward to 2013 with dread or delight?“For me the word should be ‘challenge’. This will be my last year as a lecturer at Trinity, and I really don’t know what retirement will do to me. And the wider situation in the country is a challenge as well.”

How do you spend New Year’s Eve?“We usually have dinner with friends. They always have an interesting mix of people, and not the same crowd, and there’s a great sense of occasion. We’re hopeful of our invitation again this year!”

At this time of year, do you find yourself thinking about new beginnings? Do you find it difficult?“I’ve always liked the ‘new year’ idea, I must say. I’m from the north coast, and in that part of Ireland the boundaries are very fluid. It’s Scotland as much as Ireland, and I always felt I had the benefit of the two worlds. So where we had Halloween, we also had Guy Fawkes; and while Christmas was our central feast, there was also first-footing and all that stuff.

“My friends were all from the other community, and we ran free between the two. Perhaps that gave me an interest in boundaries and in the liminal – in science and poetry, for instance.

“I’ve often been surprised at how permeable the boundary becomes. I’m currently finishing a sonnet sequence based around the life of the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, who was also a poet and a great friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge. That will come out in 2013, so that will buoy me up and keep me busy.”

Any suggestions as to where people might look for inspiration?“I would advise people to think small, and to think different. Don’t do the resolutions and things they’ve said they’ll do every year – which are always very big, such as, ‘I’ll walk 10km a day’ – and then by the end of January they’re back on the couch. And of course I’d be advising people who’ve always said that poetry isn’t their thing to maybe take a little quantum leap into poetry. Or into science.

“There’s some great science writing now and some fantastic television programmes. Two poems people might read are Miroslav Holub’s What else – it might frighten the readers and have people writing in about cruelty to dogs, but it’s a cracker – and Begin, by the evergreen Brendan Kennelly, which ends with the lines:

Though we live in a world that dreams of ending

That always seems about to give in

Something that will not acknowledge conclusion

Insists that we forever begin

Economy drive

Andrew Simms is the author of Cancel the Apocalypse: the New Path to Prosperity, which will be published in February 2013, and a fellow of Nef (New Economics Foundation).

Do you look forward to 2013 with dread or delight? “There is as much point dreading the next year as there is fearing the sunrise. None, in other words. We are thrown into the future like people born into canoes caught in an irresistible river flow approaching rapids. There’s no going back, so we might as well paddle with as much skill as we have, enjoy the view and draw exhilaration from the journey.

“History offers few moments when people would not have legitimate reasons to feel trepidation about current or potential events. War, upheaval, migration, oppression – times can be more or less threatening, but there is always something to worry about. The astonishing thing is that in spite of this, most of the time we spend our time in societies that produce great art and music, lovingly raise children and, by and large, are good, co-operative and care for each other. Indeed, contrary to mainstream economic theory, our uncanny degree of empathy and co-operation could be humanity’s distinguishing feature as a species.”

How do you spend New Year’s Eve?Or how would you in a perfect world? “Once I would have enjoyed large, loud and joyful crowds, illuminated with fireworks exploding overhead. Now I enjoy conversation and games, music and a good meal in the company of close friends or immediate family. My mother now lives alone so this year I will be with her.

“I might some year soon like to find a hut, in a clearing, on the top of a wooded hill, overlooking the sea, with a sky unpolluted by urban glow. I would cook and read, look, listen and wonder: What if, by some extraordinary fluke, we are, in fact, the only form of life to evolve with consciousness, the only way the universe has to know itself?”

At this time of year, do you find yourself thinking about new beginnings? Do you find it difficult? “If anything, I feel some impatience. Yes, every time has its challenges, but this is a genuine moment of flux, in which unquestioning, incurious confidence in an old economic model has broken down. Such times are immensely challenging and provoke insecurity, but they are full of possibilities for re-assessment, experimentation and the chance that a new, better economic model might emerge. We are already on a new path. Where it leads will be decided by each step we take.”

Any suggestions as to where people might look for inspiration?“I’m inspired that a teacher, in spite of everything, will get up each morning, smile and caringly teach a class of 33 eight-year-olds. Or that, with the accompanying life-and-death intensity of their work, nurses do what they do. I find inspiration in the kindness of strangers and the endless, bewildering variety of life on Earth. The economic, social and environmental challenges we face urgently require collaboration much more than competition. In 2013 we really will be better off together.”

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