The first time I crossed the border into Northern Ireland (maybe 1996, after living in Ireland for nearly two years), I experienced a frisson of excitement. The road surfaces were familiar, so were the building materials, the red pillar boxes, and the housing developments reminded me of home. It could be the North of England, I thought, and immediately, felt at ease. When I moved to Cavan in 2001, I regularly crossed the border for work, often late at night. I drove along dark, rural roads bordered by bushes, fields, and cloudy night skies where only one menacing bright star would gaze down at me. I would sigh with relief to see the yellow paint of the Southern Irish road markings; Then, I would feel safe. It’s odd, but crossing the border, in whichever direction, became a valued milestone, and provided me with security of some kind.
Recently, it occurred to me, If the border disappeared, I would miss it. Why? I guess because it delineates a space I call home – on both sides. This realisation startled me. I was reared in London as a European liberal, on a diet of rights and responsibilities. As far as I was concerned, borders, class systems, gender, hierarchies, boundaries were there to be breached, crossed, broken. That was their value. But, as I get older and more vulnerable, I find those very boundaries increasingly comforting. I even find myself erecting more. I have daily routines which have become restrictive in their every day occurrence.
Right from the beginning our DNA forges a being which our parents or guardians set upon a road. Sometimes, we are guided or forced to break boundaries. Some of us become emigrants, others change class, some change gender. As we grow, we cross boundaries and break barriers, and in these modern times, there are so many more to breach: civil, criminal, moral, physical, mental, economic, scientific. Today, there are few limits. Yet, in our global, ‘everything within our fingertips’ world, we end up creating more boundaries for ourselves because we find comfort in the space they provide. And those spaces, both physical and mental, seem to become smaller and smaller.
So, what are boundaries: they can be physical, mental, they can be simple as routine activities. They can be family, they can be anything that impedes us or, ironically, makes us feel safe. I used to enjoy crossing or challenging boundaries. Now I don’t. Why? A number of factors are involved: my age and vulnerability (ageing is not for wimps), recent grief (bothering is a bother) but I also feel stymied by the never-ending stories, statistics, viewpoints, arguments, the endless stream of invective and sanctimoniousness that stream these days into my threads of operation. I am a rabbit caught in headlights.
I listen to the radio, arty podcasts, read probably 20 plus books a year, enjoy poetry, watch the news and too much crap on TV. I walk and swim daily. I love to cook. Occasionally, I get to a writing workshop because that is what I do, writing. I follow politics less and less, though I have a keen interest in Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, Brexit and Repeal the Eighth. But that is the extent of my engagement. I have erected boundaries that are restrictive, but, having got them in place, I am not happy to breach them! They are comforting.
At the moment, I am taking part in the Irish Writers Centre’s XBorders Accord project and we discuss borders and boundaries. We have a FB page and we all share information, articles, research, books, blogs and because we are creative writers, the definition of border has extensive boundaries. When I was working as a peace facilitator or co-ordinator in Peace II and III programmes, the work was about silence, cross community, the legacy of the conflict, the ignorance of different traditions. The peace programmes were tools of introduction, instruments to bring people together, to cross the border, to learn and engage with difference. Today, we are learning to ‘unsee’. At the first meeting of the Xborders Accord project, David Landy of UCD discussed how we all ‘unsee’. In Ireland, we avert our eyes from the homeless, the slave sex industry, the corruption of the financial system, inequality. We ‘unsee’. We adjust.
So, with the British soldiers gone, the border is now easily crossed, and relations are more relaxed, but, we still have a North and South, a rich and poor, a Protestant, a Catholic, a Muslim, a Jew, a rural and urban, white and black, men and women, educated and poorly educated. And each of these groupings still have their value systems, their beliefs, their anger, their righteousness, but today their principles are more easily, and noisily, promulgated through social media. To quote Louis Macniece, ‘the world is crazier and more of it than we think’, for now all that ‘crazy’ is narrated everywhere – it is the early morning chorus that starts our day. We see and hear everything, so, to protect ourselves, we try to ‘unsee’, create our own boundaries where our newsfeeds serve only to bolster the narratives we want to know.
Narratives. This word also has a new meaning which is akin to fake news, maybe a cousin. A narrative has the implication of truth, a chronicle, history. David Landy, the UCD lecturer, showed in his talk that the Israeli tourism initiatives in Jerusalem, and the archaeological digs taking place in the Palestinian areas all serve a common purpose: to narrate and depict a one-sided history. ‘Narrative’ also implies a static listener, which, indeed, reflects the status of the face booker and twitter pundits.
Social media, governments and corporations have limitless boundaries which, personally, make me feel insignificant, and worthless, unless I add a voice, like I am doing now, and add to the ‘crazy’ so I can feel engaged. An alternative is to erect personal boundaries that make me feel secure: writing poems, reading, walking, swimming, cooking. All of these take place within a five mile radius. And the more I do them, the more restrictive they become, and the more I want to ‘unsee’.
I suppose all this ‘reduction’, this ‘unseeing’, these ever decreasing but safe boundaries, do correlate to the fact that as I get older, I feel more powerless. I am told that this does happen and in one sense, I am no different to any other generation. I sigh as I watch the news, my heart sinks when I read the papers and swipe quickly through the on-line media. I worry for my children. My grandmother, and my mother did too. So, all this could be normal, I could just have reached the ‘the grumpy old woman’ stage of life because whatever I have to say isn’t usually nice, but I don’t like to say nothing at all. Not after all this living. However, I do sometimes say nothing, because, If I’m honest, because I cannot be bothered. The end.
Update: having written and re-read this, I thought to myself, ‘screw that’ and booked a week in North Cyprus (what is it about division that intrigues), talked to my publisher about my new poetry collection and I’m about to head off to Doolin Writers Festival for the weekend to learn and engage. Just to spite this blog, I’ll be crossing lots of borders yet, though I may be grumpy. Louis MacNeice was right. ‘The world is crazier and more of it than we think’ and this blog is no different.