The hopefulness of dance and the dangers of lettuce

‘When we sit down to eat, we need to make sure that there’s blood running out of whatever is on the plate,’ said the General

The General considers lettuce particularly dangerous – ‘especially if you’re driving a car’

The General considers lettuce particularly dangerous – ‘especially if you’re driving a car’


I was at the Dublin Dance Festival last week to see a beautiful work called Tundra by Irish choreographer Emma Martin. It’s hard to say what it was about. It didn’t offer any clear narrative or storyline. The dancers moved around in moody scenarios full of anxiety on the surface, and yet, deep down in their movement was a sense of longing, a connectedness between different bodies, as if they were trying to admit to their enduring love for each other. I read it like a poem, a kind of love story in a time of cholera.

I suppose we’re always looking for signs of love in the darkest hours. It reminded me of films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr that on the surface portray the tragic comedy of human incoherence, and yet at a deeper level resonate with a texture of love and longing.

As I sat in the theatre watching the dance, I felt an intense connection with the dancers; as if we were a single being feeling the same disturbance, and that they were just expressing in their bodies what was buried in my heart. I suppose that’s the best thing about art – it’s also a sign of hope in a dark universe.


‘We are beasts’

I tried to explain all this to the General at lunch the following day on Exchequer Street, but it wasn’t easy.

“Are you writing anything lately?” he inquired, from under bushy eyebrows.

“I’m trying to finish a new book,” I said, “but I keep falling asleep. I go to my desk after lunch and I’m like a cat on the sofa.”

“It’s the salad,” he suggested. “You might be eating too many lettuce leaves.”

The General is convinced that anything green is always dangerous, even on the dinner table. “We are beasts,” he declared, his eyebrows floating up his forehead. “When we sit down to eat we need to make sure that there’s blood running out of whatever is on the plate.”

Sometimes I think he’d be even happier if he saw the flesh moving on the plate. But he considers lettuce particularly dangerous. “Especially if you’re driving a car,” he added. “A lot of accidents happen in the afternoon. People don’t drink at lunch, but they stuff themselves with these salads from bowls as big as wash-hand basins. Then they get into the car and they’re nodding off at the first traffic lights.”


Memory lane in Maynooth

I wasn’t afraid of nodding off as I drove home, but I did stop in Maynooth, because it was the end of May and I wanted to sneak into the old college where I spent years as a student wandering around the manicured lawns and beds of roses and down long avenues under hardwood trees. I suppose I had hoped that religion might offer me a sign of love in my own universe.

In those days organ music flowed down the corridors and out on to the lawns, where stooped professors sauntered between the flower beds on June evenings as the students in rooms around the square studied for exams.

It was okay back then to seek refuge among dark, sumptuous icons and wooden pews and stained-glass windows in the college chapel. In fact it was normal enough even for lay students to pray beneath the red sanctuary lamp when examination time came around.

The summer evenings resonated with the sound of lawnmowers, shouts from the distant football pitches and young male voices singing hymns in Latin as the sun slanted in through the great rose window and the pews were lanced with shafts of a setting sun.

Back then my most treasured possession was a blue prayer book containing the poetry of the psalms. I touched it and cared for it as if it were a living thing or a portal to another world. Each one of us carried a copy, and we used it when we sang together in the evenings. At night I reached out and touched it on my bedside locker before falling asleep. I held it to my breast as I walked to the oratory on dark winter mornings, across the snow-covered square, past a life-sized crucifix that stood in the rose beds – a cold, dead Christ in white marble with his arms outstretched.

We thought the crucifix was a kind of compass, a hopeful sign in the snow. But as I remember it now, it was the roses that were beautiful in June, and it was the roses that have remained in my life as the sign of love.

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