‘The secret to a happy marriage? Avoid magical thinking’
Michael Harding: Darkness envelops me in the evening but my beloved does not fear that demons haunt the house
“My beloved knows a tomato to be a tomato. She calls the potato a potato... This practicality may be a mark of all women in their multitasking virtuosity, or it may be unique to my beloved”
Over the years the beloved has developed a faculty of critical thinking. She has flowered as a rationalist, a realist, a person who sees the world as it is. Her mind is free of magical thinking, superstition, romantic views of nature or the fear of angels.
She knows a tomato to be a tomato. She calls the potato a potato. When darkness envelops me in the evening she does not fear that demons haunt the house, but rather she lights the fire and closes the curtains.
This practicality may be a mark of all women in their multitasking virtuosity, or it may be unique to my beloved. But it is a comfort to me, as I go about the world choked with delusions, demented by religious fantasies and terrified of old gods, to have at my side a person who knows that a tomato is truly a tomato. That bread is only bread. And that the houses we live in are not haunted by the ghosts of our ancestors.
The only difficulty is when we walk abroad. Her confidence in the reality of the world, the empirical truth of things, inclines her to walk ahead of me, like a 19th-century botanist, examining what she meets with rational curiosity.
She has a tendency to walk ahead of me by about 10 paces and so our conversations become jagged shouting matches
Which is fine when we’re walking in the woods. There is nobody to disturb us apart from crows with enormous twigs in their beaks trying to convince other crows that they could build a mighty nest.
But it is in town that problems arise. She has a tendency to walk ahead of me by about 10 paces and so our conversations become jagged shouting matches. Me usually five paces behind her, shouting at her back.
In Ballyshannon recently she was walking ahead of me up a steep street towards the Abbey Arts Centre and I shouted at her to slow down.
“You have me bloody well worn out,” I declared, but she was too far away to hear. Unfortunately a frail little lady at my shoulder thought the comment was addressed to her and she glanced at me with horror before fleeing into a nearby coffee shop.
I had come to Ballyshannon to look at a manse on the Mall that was for sale; an imposing square build in excellent condition, freshly painted, and which has been standing on the Mall since the late 1830s, adjacent to a Presbyterian church built in 1833.
The Mall in Ballyshannon is cluttered with many empty or derelict buildings, but it is a haunting and beautiful landscape of river, ocean and history. I could visualise it in the 19th century when all the grand houses were home to wealthy merchants or distinguished clergymen, and boats were built on the far side of the river, and salmon brought ashore on the pier could find their way to tables in London the following morning.
But I’m always sad when I come upon derelict churches. My therapist says I project my own psychic disturbance on to religious buildings. When I see an old stone church in disrepair it becomes for me a metaphor for my own ruined psyche. And there’s a lot of decaying church buildings in Ireland nowadays.
I was standing inside the back door of a church in the midlands one Sunday morning recently, where I could observe the service without feeling involved.
The church was half empty but he clearly had a preference for this spot
A scattering of grey-haired people coughed gently in the pews as they waited for Mass to begin. And then suddenly an old man entered and saw me in the corner at the back wall.
He looked annoyed and I realised I was standing in his favourite corner. The church was half empty but he clearly had a preference for this spot. So he squashed himself in behind me and squeezed his arse up against the wall, and I realised it was time for me to leave.
At the gates of the car park a woman with a white bucket was collecting coins from the cars going in.
“Are you not staying for Mass?” she wondered.
“No,” I replied, “My therapist tells me I should avoid magical thinking altogether. I think it might be the secret of a happy marriage.”
She seemed a bit disappointed, so I put €2 in the bucket before scuttling away. When I drove home the beloved was standing in the kitchen with a pot of deep red pasta sauce. The aroma filled me with memories of Italy in 1985 and a monastery in Subiaco. “This is amazing,” I exclaimed. “What is it?”
“Tomatoes,” she replied. “Just tomatoes.” And I was shaken yet again by the clarity of her mind.