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How We Live Now: Kerri ní Dochartaigh on the mystical everyday
There was a mistake in last week’s Substack - the correct date for my forthcoming event at Seven Fables in Dulverton is Sat, 24 Jun. Find out more and book here
Where I grew up, women saw ghosts. It wasn’t particularly remarkable, just part of the culture. There were stories, of course, about strange sightings in old houses, the smell of a familiar perfume drifting into the kitchen after someone died. But most often, I heard people say that their long-gone mothers visited in the night for a chat.
For most of my childhood, I thought I had to decide whether or not to believe these accounts. By my late teens, I had decided that the most rational explanation was that these people were dreaming, and hadn’t even realised they were asleep. That made me feel comfortably superior to these credulous adults, and it achieved the neat trick of quelling the fear that spectral visitations really were taking place, and that I might be at risk of experiencing something similar one day in an unpredictable future.
But as I got older still, I realised how unsatisfactory that tidy explanation had been, and how patronising. These women knew very well the difference between dream and reality, but they were choosing to tell a different story altogether. The ghosts were lightly-held, in the same spirit as the psychic readings they often attended on drunken nights out, or the tabloid horoscopes they discussed each day. All of these things lifted them out of intensely mundane lives, making their experiences and their routine suffering seem like part of something bigger, more meaningful. The ghosts were a narrative convention for talking about terrible, ordinary things, and for externalising pain. But they were also real in a very simple sense: they were perceived.
I thought about those ghosts when I spoke to Kerri ní Dochartaigh last month. Kerri’s work rings with a sense of connection between this world and the otherworld, and nowhere is it expressed more clearly than in her latest book, Cacophony of Bone. Here are pages full of subtle signs that are legible only to those who practise seeing them. It’s a work of plain mysticism, a very personal representation of direct contact with the sacred. At its roots, it’s about perception: how we allow it, honour it, foster it. How we can let ourselves encounter transcendence in the everyday.
But there’s also a hidden political dimension to Kerri’s work. She’s showing us a way of life that’s largely been lost, a mode of perception that has been deliberately crushed and denied. It’s a spiritual mode that’s democratic, resistant, dangerous. It’s specifically resistant to patriarchal authority, and it calls us to tend to our world, to engage in acts of communion and care and to disengage with a culture of violence and destructive growth. Kerri would never state this so bluntly, but immerse in her writing and you’ll feel its sedition.
Is Kerri’s mode of perception open to us all? I’m not sure; it seems to me to be a specific adaptation of a mind, a landscape, and a desire. But what she offers instead is an invitation to understand our own unique perceptions, our own legible signs, our own knotted meanings. It is our choice whether to engage with those things.
I hope you’ll all enjoy this thoughtful interview.
All good wishes,
Links from the episode:
Kerri's book, Cacophony of Bone
From the transcript
But actually that's a nice way to lead into talking about the sort of psychological value of writing as you did. Were you recording this time in your observations as a way of self-soothing or way of processing or connecting or was it simpler than that, were you just writing about it?
Kerri ní Dochartaigh:
I think probably all of those things. I feel like I'm someone who really suffers deep anxiety when there's a extreme level of change. I think because I've gone through so much upheaval in my personal life for so long, I respond to change that's really out of my control in a way that brings me back into sort of deep-rooted childhood stuff. I think that by having... I mean, stuff of course across the world was so ever-changing, but I think we did have a very specific situation in Ireland with the way that it was governed. I mean, stuff changed so regularly and promises were made and weren't kept at government level. I think I just... I find that the only way that I could try and mind myself and be okay was to find a way to make sense of things that had their own order and their own cycles and their own regulation that was out with all of these other changes.
Mm-hmm. Yeah. The more cyclical changes, the changes like the phases of the moon and the seasons and the introduction of new plants and birds and how that flowed its way across your year.
Kerri ní Dochartaigh:
Totally. Exactly. I think that became even more important for me when I was then in a body that had changed so completely as well through pregnancy. My pregnancy involved an awful lot of loss of control because of the maternity restrictions being so extreme in Ireland, and I was quite a high risk pregnancy and I sort of... So much was out of my control, bodily, sort of socially, culturally, all of that. I just feel like something about marking... I've always kept more or less sort of a weather diary as well and I've always found it to be of great solace.
Yeah, I think it was just really an extension of that, just this walking in the same fields and in the same stretch of bogland for such a huge stretch of time. It was something I'd never done before. I'd never been in one place for such a long time and not been away working and not been away traveling and not been sort of running away from my day-to-day existence, so there was a lot of trying to honor the parts of life that I felt were still providing such solace and such nourishment. There was a lot of also just trying to remain grounded enough to make it through.
Well, one of the things that I thought about your book was that there was this sense of the value of staying and of repeating and that kind of iterative creativity that shows you the same view every day but highlights how it's changed. I know that you've moved around a lot in your life and you're still moving around probably more than I think you want to quite often because of the housing situation as it is at the moment, and that repetition seemed to be almost like an incantation, like a way of casting a spell.
Kerri ní Dochartaigh:
Yes. Completely. Absolutely. All of what you said rings true. I remember very early into keeping these specific journal entries, I remember knowing that I would never go back to who I was before that time, that it was a real way marker, it was a real sort of turning point in the landscape of my existence. It felt very, very important to have these memories written down and these experiences made ceremonial almost, made ritualistic in a way through repetition and through honoring and through making space and giving reverence to.
That would be important for me, and looking back over that time that I would grow less aware and my memories would grow less affected by things like how long we were locked down and how long had gone between seeing people and how long had gone between [inaudible 00:33:30]. Those things would lose their importance for me somehow if I were able to give space in my day and in my inner life and in my writing to the things that felt so powerful, so how many birds visited the inside of our home in that time, how many nests we found, how many bones we found, how many types of seeds pushed through the ground. That felt important.
Yeah. A confluence is something that comes up in your work over and over again and their meaning's held quite lightly, but these instances of the world presenting you with a symbol that... It seems to me you're very comfortable with that being open to your interpretation, the meanings aren't given to you, but it's that act of meaning making around those things that arrive that are vital
Kerri ní Dochartaigh:
Completely. Completely. The thing is that it's not been that long. I talk in the book a little bit that it's not been really that long in the scale of human history since all of us would've been in touch with those things and since all of us would have been finding meaning in things like bones and movement of birds above trees or water movements and would've been interacting with the landscape and bringing our own ritual and our own serving of the land and of each other into the landscape around. That wasn't that long ago. I feel really strongly... I think becoming a mother as well has really contributed to that sense in me of how we were raised.
We're here and we have become who we are as a species based on the interaction of person to person, person to landscape, and person to other kens of non-human. We're still craving that because that's in our makeup, it's in our blood and in our bones. I feel like we are repeatedly given these chances to lean back into that lineage, to lean back into that becoming, because that's what it was. It was us becoming who we are. You hear again and again with particular groups and, say, for instance with new mothers or women who have been unable to become mothers or women who haven't become mothers through choice just this sense of isolation and feeling of separation from other women because of these divides that are created within our society.
It didn't used to be like that. We all feel that ache and we feel that loss and the lack of crossover between elders and the incoming generation. We're all craving it. When my son was born, I remember because he doesn't really have that many family members. He has two grandparents. He doesn't see either of them that much. I remember he would just... We'd be walking down the street or we'd be at the beach or wherever and the second there would be an elder, an older person, he would just be like a moth to flame. He just wanted to be around them, and he still does because it's in him.
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