There will come a point in my life, as there inevitably must in all our lives, when the pulsing of my heart, which began at some stage in my mother’s womb, will stop. The closer I move towards that moment, the more I become convinced I should be preparing my mind for it. To pass from this life without the confidence that some other, more peaceful destination lies ahead must be terrifying. I am convinced the human mind (well my own mind at least) often fools itself into thinking that it understands the concept of death. It does not. It is impossible to grasp, with any real sense or understanding, the concept of eternity as it relates to space and time. I have tried – twice. It is truly the most terrifying of experiences but one which I would recommend everyone attempt – at least once. It is easier to absorb and internalise a feeling that has been experienced rather than read about it in the meandering bloggy musings of a stranger!
I realise my thoughts are most probably similar to, if not derivative of, others that have gone before me but, having received all my education in the field of engineering, I am more versed in how machines work than the metaphysical wonders of the human condition. I accept the innumerable multitude of things I do not know while simultaneously searching for answers to the questions I perceive to be most salient to my life – a tricky predicament at the best of times! Nonetheless, my thoughts are my own.
I am, however and without any doubt in the world, a thinker – often uncontrollably distracted, lost in an attempt to follow a fleeting thought through to its logical conclusion. Sometimes that path is not so logical. That’s just fine too. I allow, much less fear, the frequent randomness of my thoughts to take hold and prosper. I am of the opinion that later is too late when seemingly important ideas, instantly and without warning, fire the synapses of my brain.
It makes very little difference if I happen to be in company when these inner flights take place. In fact, friends and family have often (correctly) accused me of being absent-minded, of spouting seemingly irrelevant utterances in the midst of conversations on some completely unrelated topic. They are simply paying witness to the leaving of my thoughts from the present reality, off to some far-flung planet of the inner universe and back again – often in the blink of an eye, more often not. They are journeys frequently coloured with the royal (and once expensive) purple velvet of magic, wonder and awe.
Thinking recently of my approaching birthday, I recalled a day in 1997 – the year I took a train from Heuston Station in my native Dublin to Athlone. It was the week before I began my pursuit of a Software Engineering degree in what was then known as Athlone RTC. The ethereal Princess Diana was tragically killed in a car crash in Paris that same week. Through the good devices of Prof. Ciarán O’Catháin, the management, staff and students, the RTC has since become an Institute and has prospered beyond all recognition in the intervening years. I visited recently and barely knew the place.
My years in Athlone were blissfully busy. I spent my days studying, writing reams of both good and bad computer code and my nights socialising with new-found friends. There was a lot of socialising! Intermittently, typically of a Sunday afternoon, more often during the summer months, I would walk alone in the country. In late July of 1998, on one of those walks, I happened upon a dense pine forest at the edge of a meadow near a bog just outside the town.
I had become fond of rolling my own cigarettes, more out of forced-economy than anything else. The first packet of tobacco I bought was the same brand I had watched my grandfather smoke in his pipe when we would visit the house on Monkstown Farm for dinner on a Sunday evening. It’s amazing what comes to mind when you actually stop to think about the past. I remember vividly the fridge where ‘Nana’ kept the big (blue and white striped) jug of milk with the chip on the spout. The fridge was outside the back door, perched on a rickety old table, relying on the weather rather than electricity to keep the essentials cool and fresh. The second toilet in the house wasn’t in the house at all but a short walk down the garden path – through the gooseberry bushes and apple trees from which we picked fresh fruit every year.
Sitting by the fireside, ‘Granda’ would reach up and retrieve a penknife from the mantelpiece. He would proceed to shave off a few slivers of tobacco from a rectangular wedge of Old Holborn. It was only years later I discovered the brand. He would then take to rubbing the shavings between his hands, tamping them into his pipe before asking one of the grandchildren to light the match – taken from a huge box he kept on a shelf within reach but out of harm’s way. I was 6 years of age sitting cross-legged on the floor at his feet. 40 years later, I can still sense the wondrous awe at the ritual. Ned White lies six feet under in Deansgrange Cemetery now but in my memory will forever be sitting upright in that creaky old armchair by the fireside – puffing away on his pipe, intermittently choosing one of the grandchildren to strike another match.
The ground at the edge of the forest was carpeted with dry pine needles. I sat down (cross-legged) and took out my own pouch of tobacco. No penknife required anymore – the shaving is done by machines in the factory now. I lovingly, and with the precision of one who takes pride in the work, rolled a cigarette and took the first puff. That smell – that bitter sweet, lifelong smell of my grandfather’s tobacco smoke – wafted on the slightest breeze as I sat looking out across the panorama of the meadow. A thought occurred to me and I traipsed alongside it as it took flight, fearful it would escape. A few minutes later, my cigarette quenched, I headed home and wrote my first poem. I was 28.
It is 4am now as I write. I woke an hour ago having dreamed I was back in that meadow with the sun flickering on the forest floor behind me and cotton heads swaying in the grasses. I cursed the break in my sleep and dragged myself downstairs. The clarity of the dream faded as my mind cleared. Sitting in front of my computer I closed my eyes in an effort to recapture the dream. I started typing – asking myself the reason for that particular afternoon at the edge of the forest becoming the setting of tonight’s dream – for the first time in almost 20 years.
At the time I was motivated to write the poem, I was simply describing a perfect moment – a private moment – most likely in an attempt to capture and immortalise the scene.
The poem now means something completely different and is encapsulated in the title – Set Soft My Thoughts To Rest.
When the time comes for the machinations of this mortal coil to grind to a halt and pulse no more, I hope that my thoughts about the unknown journey (beyond this inexplicable life I am living) set themselves soft upon my mind and bring me rest. Perhaps at that time, I will recall again the forest at the edge of the meadow. Perhaps some other, even more restful moments still lie ahead. Who knows? Who really knows? Most certainly not me.
SET SOFT MY THOUGHTS TO REST
Set soft my thoughts to rest:
The evening sun in late July
A flicker on the forest floor,
Where once I sat in wondrous awe,
The panoramic plain in fullest flight
And on toward the time-suspending twilight.
Where specks of lamb-white cotton spring,
A dancing wisp of silk-thread left
Upon the whispering breath,
The breeze among the lime-green,
Purple, earth-brown, arid moss,
Crunching crisply underfoot,
A heather-cushioned mattress,
Where long ago I lay
And drifting clouds were canvas
And swift I could create
With such imagination as to say
The world did not exist,
A dewy droplet glistens,
Like a diamond laid in velvet
And somewhere in the distance
A church-bell tolls the hour.
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