Shame and Sighing on Iona

Living on a remote island for the past few months, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I already have a reputation. Apparently I have two: driving people off the road, and sighing. In fairness, only one person has complained of the former and if I did as charged (on the one occasion when I drove further than a few yards) I didn’t notice and neither did my passenger, as we were too busy talking. The latter reputation has been noted by several individuals here and a cloud of witnesses throughout my life. So it’s a New Year’s resolution to stop sighing.

As I sigh meditatively, to mark transitions, rather than resignedly, I feel I need a less weary-sounding sound. I know I just can’t quit cold turkey. Fortunately, I do have a ready mentor: my dog. When Ben is pondering some change of situation, and doesn’t know if he’s best pleased, he makes a sound like ‘hmmm’. Sharing this fact with others here has led to a communal outbreak of hmmms – during otherwise solemn moments of silence – so I’m not sure all concerned will be best pleased at this attempted change.

A wiser and braver soul than I is conducting a series of seminars on Shame (in Scotland, in January) focusing specifically on shame induced by certain brands of religion. The kind that makes you feel rather run down and wearily resigned. It’s a theme I’ve explored obliquely in drama and prose. If the first play I produced could be described as Barchester Towers meets Greenham Common, the first novel I published was more Graham Greene meets Armistead Maupin – in Glasgow – at the instigation of Mystic Meg.

Although I’m quite convinced that the sole complainer of my driving was exaggerating in fun, it’s an image of the religious that is as disturbing as often true: too busy with our own discourse to notice who’s being forced to change speed or direction – to avoid the juggernaut bearing down on them, on a one track road. Church synods may be such vehicles with such unmindful momentum.

There are, however, passing places. Sometimes in unexpected locations. In rural areas they are often places of conversation and in urban situations unexpected exchanges may also occur – especially in contested space. Shock Doctrine staged a ménage-à-trois apparently composed of a vicar, a tart and an activist. Stereotypes were shoved in the face of the ‘spect-actors’ (using immersion and promenade theatre to encourage participation) then subverted. Tricks of the Mind (first and worst of the Bruno Benedetti Mysteries) plotted the internal and perhaps external conflict between monsters from the protagonist’s Id and his conscience – in locations as diverse as the bourgeois serenity of a rabbi’s parental home and the strained camaraderie of the waiting room of an STD clinic.

The island of Iona has certainly been contested space over the centuries and continues to be a place of unexpected encounters. Though famously a ‘thin place’ steeped in mysticism of various sorts, the mentality of the island community is extremely practical. Yet, still, the wisdom seeps through. Trudging back from Columba’s Bay the other day, it struck me that the main resolution of the feisty forty-two year old exile (who had caused bloody battle in his native Ireland – over a copy of the Psalter) would surely have been ‘don’t mess this up!’

Not all invocations of his name have proved as peaceful as its translation, ‘Dove of the Church’, but his cheerfulness and mindfulness are legendary. Despite shame, despite (or even because of) being in Scotland in bleak midwinter, Columba kept his resolution. That’s something to ponder. Hmmm.

Ben Hmmm