Wednesday 17 July 2019

Beating melancholy with the lure of the lakes...

I must admit that when first asked to review Staring at Lakes, I didn't want to. I know Michael Harding; what if I didn't like it? I'm not very literary; what if I didn't understand it?

And anyway, I only read Scandinavian thrillers with grisly content and very high body counts. In short, although I have written and spoken about my own depression frequently, and depression is also at the centre of Michael's book, I still felt that Staring at Lakes was not my thing.

However, a free book is a lovely thing and I agreed to do this review.

I read the book in one sitting. Not out of duty, but because it held me and wouldn't let me go.

In case you haven't come across him, Michael Harding is a highly regarded writer, newspaper columnist and playwright (six of his plays have been on at the Abbey). But in spite of a good degree of success, he has lived with a pervading sense of emptiness throughout his life, something that afflicts many people, although not all of us are brave enough to articulate it.

Michael tried to fill the void, first with religion – entering the priesthood when he was 24, after which he spent 17 years practising Buddhism. But through faith, marriage, fatherhood and his career as a writer, the sense of darkness and unease remained.

A couple of years ago, when he was 58, he fell apart. He became physically ill, and slipped downwards into a deep melancholy. It prompted him to reconsider his life, where he had got to, and why he felt the way he did.

This beautifully written memoir is the result and in it he talks with humour and honesty about his journey: leaving the priesthood in his 30s, settling among the lakes of lovely Leitrim with his artist wife, the depression that eventually consumed him in the months during and following a debilitating illness, and how he ultimately found peace and redemption through the acceptance of love, and recognising the importance of now.

Staring at Lakes started out as a book about depression – a middle-aged man living in Ireland in the wake of the Celtic Tiger. Then it became a story about growing old, the essence of love and marriage, and sitting in cars, staring at lakes.

Michael's collapse in 2011 was physical, emotional and spiritual. His memoir loops and spirals around this major life event.

His extraordinary story is chronicled with an honesty that sometimes is shocking. Michael's life takes him from priesthood to lover, from lover to father and husband, and through all these incarnations he writes and tells stories – his own and other people's. His journey is not an easy one, however, because of the dark companion he has with him all the time. His longing for meaning and faith. His sadness.

In his book, Michael stares unflinchingly at what most of us struggle to ignore – loneliness, exclusion, feelings of inferiority, sexual feelings that, though quite normal, tormented him with guilt; well, he is Irish.

In describing his book, I am aware it sounds like some kind of literary Golgotha, but nothing could be further from the truth. He writes with charm, simplicity and sometimes with a humour that elicits not just laughter but guffaws.

Staring at Lakes is at once an inner journey, a love story and a travelogue. We go from Leitrim to Rome, Mullingar to Ulaanbaatar, stopping off at Roscommon and Mumbai.

It is also a personal history of the Troubles. As a priest ministering in the border area, Michael lived in fear of his life because of an act of charity that was seen through the prism of the time as being politically provocative.

The memoir contains some extraordinary scenes. Michael celebrating Mass in Notre Dame in Paris drew an OMG from this reviewer. A pivotal scene in Mongolia where he helps an elderly Lama to cut his fingernails made me marvel at how so much love could be expressed in such a simple way and in so few words.

This book teaches us that an enduring relationship is not about hearts and flowers and visible romantic gestures; it is about marrow and sinew, witnessing, and true companionship.

Most of all, I think Staring at Lakes gives us permission to be lost, sick, sad, creative, happy and compassionate – in short, to be human.

It is a literary work, but it is for everyone. Even if it isn't your thing.

Mary McEvoy is an actress, best known for playing Biddy in Glenroe for almost 20 years. She was born in Westmeath where she still lives, dividing her time between working her farm and acting. Her book How The Light Gets In – My Journey with Depression was published in 2011.

Irish Independent

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