Michael Harding makes new journey in search of peace
Mary McEvoy on latest book from the author of the bestseller 'Staring at Lakes'
Living: Hanging with the Elephant: A Story of How Not to Meditate by Michael Harding. Hachette Ireland, tpbk, 300pp, €14.99.
The elephant in question comes from a Buddhist adage that compares the mind to an unruly elephant that, if true peace is to be experienced, must have manners put on it.
The book opens on the eve of the departure of Michael's wife to Poland. She will be gone for six weeks, leaving Harding alone for the first time since his breakdown a few years back (an experience which led to his huge bestseller Staring at Lakes). A frightening prospect for anyone in the first years of recovery.
But Michael has a project. He will turn his six weeks alone into a spiritual retreat. He will tame his elephant, find serenity, tend his body and generally clean up his act. He will greet his beloved at the airport on her return, sleek, serene and enlightened, a paragon of spiritual and physical discipline. Of course, in the tradition of all best laid plans, the elephant has other ideas.
I read the first few chapters with delight, tittering to myself at Michael's efforts to become a mahout. He attends yoga classes in Mullingar, the only male in a room full of nubile young women. He gives himself migraines from sitting cross-eyed too long, due to a misunderstood instruction about where to fix the gaze during meditation. He sits in his studio staring out the window and indulges in all kinds of metaphorical arse scratching having determined to follow his spiritual regime to the exacting letter. "This is a hoot," I thought.
Then slowly and with startling detail we are drawn into the days and weeks following his mother's death in 2012. We are taken to his mother's house in Cavan town as Harding comes to terms with the woman his mother had been, his relationship with her, and his grief at her passing.
The writing is simple; no inventive similes, no heart-rending expressions of sorrow. The detail is forensic. The smells, the sounds and the memories of the house and its chatelaine described beautifully and without embellishment, one word following another, perfectly judged and placed, like literary feng shui. It is the simplicity that makes Harding's description of his bewilderment about what his mother wanted from him and his sorrow at having let her down, so searing.
The book is perfectly paced, however. Just before the memories of that house in Cavan become too intense to bear, we are transported back to present day Leitrim, to the ashram that is Michael's cottage as he argues with a magpie, inadvertently hits the postman with a stone that was meant for said bird and, when on a drunken spree, makes apple tart for Simone Weil who comes to visit one night in Harding's imagination.
In the end the beloved returns. Was she met at the airport by a cross between George Clooney and the Dalai Lama? What do you think?
The end is as unfussily moving as the rest of the book. Harding's honesty about the loss of his mother and the question of whether he ever found her is brutal. He is self revelatory but never self indulgent. In a strange way that brutal honesty is comforting.
Popular culture is full of the expectation of "aha moments", of happy endings and closure, but life is not the Oprah show. For Michael Harding, life is not so neat, nor is it, I suspect , for most of us.
Hanging with the Elephant says "I'm here, I'm lost, I don't really know anything, but I'm mining riches of the heart and it's OK." Not a happy ending, but it's good enough for me.
Mary McEvoy is an actress best known for playing Biddy in Glenroe. She is now on tour in The Matchmaker. Her memoir of her struggle with depression When The Light Gets In was a bestseller. Her new book Ordinary Beauty will be published next month.
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350