How small events can change the course of our lives
This is a poem I wrote thirty years ago, give or take. I like to think I’d do it better today, but it still contains something that was a lesson to me then, and still speaks to me now.
Back in the 1970s, like a lot of young lads I knew, I was carried away by the Kung Fu and Karate craze that seemed to sweep the world, popularised by the films of the late Bruce Lee.
When a Dubliner named Paddy Doyle (driving down every Wednesday night from Santry) opened a Wado Ryu (Way of Peace) Karate club in the ballroom of the County Hotel, a gang of us were quick to sign up and ready to learn the arcane and deadly martial arts. Turning up to train among the stacked chairs and glass shards of the previous weekend’s revelry, all we wanted was to perfect our spinning back-kicks and leap, ninja-like, through the air. Never sporty in other ways, I was passable at Karate, being tall and with a long reach, but in sparring sessions I almost never won, lacking, I suppose, the drive and desire that leads to victory. In truth, I think I was there more to enjoy myself, to make the most of the camaraderie and exercise, to indulge a fantasy in a relatively harmless way.
Among the older members of the club I was drawn to Eamon Keating, a friend of my parents, then I suppose in his mid 60s and possibly already retired. A somewhat portly, always good-humoured man, he was a mainstay of the club, first in, last out, ever encouraging of even us young messers, and always watching out for the smaller number of female members – a gentle gentleman, by any reckoning. As over-confident 14, 15 and 16-year-olds, we did wonder sometimes if he was really up to our level of fitness and flexibility, and some struggled to understand when he graded faster than most of the rest of us, despite his more earthbound martial techniques.
Then one day, probably after an argument with my father (trying to ‘recruit’ me for yet another pointless job up our back yard), I slipped away for a walk to the small local woodland known as The Downs, and, out of the corner of my eye, spotted something startlingly white moving slowly up ahead. I snuck up to spy. It was then I recognised my fellow club member Eamon, in his starched, heavy-duty Karate suit, all on his own out there in nature, quietly rehearsing, over and over, the forms we had been taught the previous week.
The moment made a huge impression on me. And I often think of it, and him, since. Balancing the euphoria of being with others of my own age, of imagining we might one day, like Bruce Lee, jump over parked cars or from rooftop to rooftop, I saw in Eamon’s painstaking solitary effort the reward of committing to one’s own path, whatever it might be, of giving time, away from the eyes of the world, to the things that are truly important, the things that sustain us.
Training for Karate or writing a poem seem like very different things, at first glance. In fact they have a huge amount in common: both require, among other things, a certain balance between action and observation, an openness, a precision … And repetition, maybe repetition more than anything.
As I approach my 60s myself, I have less and less time for those who see writing, and the arts in general, as careers: in fact, they are or should be a way of life. We may all wish for visibility and the admiration of our peers and audiences, but the real work of is very often done entirely alone, in a small clearing, away from both praise and distraction. Birds singing, leaves and small branches crunching underfoot …
It turns out that this earthedness is what gives our forms, and our visions, their lift, their life.