Want to succeed in journalism? Photograph yourself with a tree

“Me a financial journalist?”, an Austrian lady with lively eyes exclaimed, tearing into her steak. “I thought; never!”

She was over here two years ago to report on the economic crisis and had stopped by at my house for dinner. It was the first time my parents and I had met her but she had come highly recommended by her Viennese aunt, a friend of my father’s. I was in my third year of college and still under the impression that the world was my oyster.

“How has the recession had an impact on you?” she asked between bites.
I thought. “Wealthy parents no longer want me to teach their children Irish”, I mused “and as a result I’m more conscious of the price of coffee. Coffee is my main source of expenditure”. She scribbled this down in her notebook.

I was about to explain to her that Insomnia’s €3 coffee and mufffin deal (do you remember?) was topping my list of recession busters but that were the food not so disgusting, the “Weekly Madness” deal in Londis would have come out tops, when she asked “What would you like to be?”

“I would like to write feature articles for newspapers” I said.

She poured herself some juice and sat back. “You need to be open”, she said, “and you need to stand out. I never saw myself writing about economics.. I mean, me and finance come on”..

“You need to send good photographs to editors”, she continued. “Not boring ones. Ideally you should be out in nature. The photograph I used to get this job was of me with a tree. It’s important that you be different from the crowd”.

In the days, weeks and months that followed that conversation, I considered setting the self-timer of my camera and wrapping myself originally around one of the sycamore trees in my garden, but weather and the proximity of my neighbour’s back window to my creative space did not permit.

I did however take on board her advice, and the photograph that I use in the “Who Am I” section of this blog features me with a Slovenian tree which I accosted on the shores of Lake Bled during an interrail adventure with my LSB two summers ago. Though I have been a hard-working teacher for a week now, I’m keeping the old literary passion alive and my big toe in the door by accepting the position of editor of a new literary website: www.writing.ie, which launched last night after months of hard work by a small group of driven and creative people from whom I am learning to multitask. For the “about us” section of the site, I have chosen to feature a photograph of myself beside a large sunflower, as my sycamore tree wouldn’t fit on the photograph. Who would have thought that a financial journalist could inspire such a circuitous plug. I guess her editor would agree with me that she is one hundred percent natural…

The Jibbertalky

I have few accomplishments to recommend me; I cannot draw, my recitals on the pianoforte are clumsy at best and I have neither a talent for embroidery nor the gift of graceful movement. The one area in which, after much searching, I have found myself to excel is in the ability to produce plausible-sounding Gibberish at will.
Though it is far from my best, you may have a listen here.

I have found that the children I babysit for nextdoor can speak Gibberish fluently but that older, more refined people sometimes struggle with the language. My Long-Suffering-Boyfriend (LSB) for example, speaks only pidgeon Gibberish, but enough to get by in most situations. I can only aspire to match some day the eloquence of Charlie Chaplin, the world’s only native speaker of Gibberish as he introduced the world to Sauerkraut.

I think my good friend Stephen Pinker would have a lot to say about Gibberish. He mentions Lewis Carroll’s 1872 nonsense poem The Jabberwocky in his book The Language Instinct as appealing to our hard-wired knowledge of and acquired predictions about language. If he were to condescend to read my blog and then stoop even lower to follow its links, I imagine he would point to the patterns of intonation in my speech as consisting of a mad mishmash of the grammatical structures of the languages I have been exposed to and that he would herald subtleties in prosody as indicative of uniformity in the portrayal of emotion through language.

I believe that my penchant for Gibberish is also connected to my tendency toward deceit. Let me explain. In order to compensate for my shockingly limited general knowledge, I periodically fabricate bizarre facts and relate them to my nearest and dearest. Once, for instance, on a rather dull bus journey from York to London, I turned suddenly to my LSB and said, “Did you know that T.S.Eliot was the first known poet to use the word peanuts in a poem?” A look of intelligent surprise crept over his face. I knew he would remember it for life.
“Really?”, he asked rhetorically.
“No”, I said, “I just made it up”. He looked at me, searchingly.

On another occasion, I broke a comfortable silence with the slow, dramatic outburst: “On gelded wheatgrass glides the linnet’s wing”.
“What’s that?”, he asked.
“Oh, just Milton”, I said with the nonchalance of a pouting fish.
“Really really?”
“No. Sorry.”

Since I always confess my wrongdoing within seconds of a Gibberishish utterance, I rarely suffer the consequences of my perjury. Having pondered the matter privately at length however, I have come to the conclusion that at the root of my silly amusement lies my inability to see the trees for the wood.

Looking for the Trees in the Wood.

You see, as I’ve mentioned before, I like to take a fly’s eye of the world. I find pleasure in understanding how people work, how language works, how the brain wires itself. My ineptitude resides in my lack of interest in the details; I am perfectly content to marvel at brain plasticity, but I’d be damned if I memorise the precise nature of the neurotransmissions that allow me to type this prepostrous post at four in the morning.

I may never be afforded the opportunity to advertise my unconventional charms to Mr Darcy, as Lizzy Bennett was, but were the opportunity to arise, I would do my very best to present my bad habit as an … impediment.

Nun The Wiser

A google image search of ‘nun’ reveals a plethora of results: some humorous, some sordid and some artistic. After all, the ‘veiled’ has a tendency to appeal to the imagination. A veiled remark can cause consternation and when an identity is unveiled its suggestive power is lost. Ireland may not experience the image of a nun as pervasively as it once did but she remains a solid presence in the consciousness of the population. Maeve Binchy who was educated at the Convent of the Holy Child in Killarney realised that “nuns are great box office material” and added that “people are very entertained by nuns’ stories and we all make them much more horrific than they were”. The inclination is to view nuns as characters in costume rather than women in a lifelong habit.

I bear this in mind as I climb the steps into a grand Georgian Convent House where I am to meet Sister Bernadette who entered the sisterhood 48 years ago, at the tender age of 18.

She exudes an extraordinary dignity and is not dressed in a veil, or any form of religious garment. She welcomes me with unconditional warmth and I sense only the smallest trace of guardedness. I am surprised by the surroundings of the convent house. There are no dark corners and no hard wooden benches. All is bright, colourful, cosy. She leads me downstairs to a beautiful basement sitting room where she has prepared a tray of tea and muffins. I sit down and we talk. Not as a prying journalist to a religious instructor but as a young woman to an older and wiser one.

Sister Bernadette had known from the age of 13 that she wanted to become a nun. But what effect did this decision have on her family- especially her brother and two sisters? “I suppose they would have missed me a bit”, she considers modestly. There were four or five from her class who took the same route. “It was an option”, she says simply.

It is an extraordinary decision to make at 18 and one that puts today’s drama of filling out the CAO form into perspective. She agrees that the present-day 18 year-old is far ‘younger’ than it was in generations past. Nevertheless she muses, “It is a time of searching”. Hers was a life-changing decision. Was she not scared? When she made her final vow: yes, a little bit.

Having trained as a primary school teacher, she spent many years teaching at the school attached to the convent. She would encourage all incoming sisters to pursue some form of study or training before entering an order. Her approach is both practical and honest and she doesn’t shroud her life in a religious mystique. I ask her if she would encourage a young woman today to become a nun. She pauses. “It’s a question we ask ourselves constantly”.

The honesty of the response hits hard. I consider the religious outlook of my contemporaries. Would there be any candidates for the religious life? Of the young people I associate with, some are born-again Christians that believe the world was created in seven days somewhere around 6000 years ago. Others are atheists, ardent in their non- belief. Most are just not sure. In our media-driven, western world, we have the opportunity to challenge the meta-narratives in which the generations before us were steeped. At least, we like to think so.

The conversation moves to the place of religion in global politics. I mention Tony Blair’s recent conversion to Roman Catholicism and the constant reference to God in the rhetoric of the candidates in the American election. Is it dangerous for the world’s leaders to bring God into politics? “It’s hard to know”, she says. “On one hand, it is good that they stand up for what they believe”. She points out that Americans have a much more public outlook to faith: “In Ireland, faith is a more private matter”.

However ‘private’ faith may be, the convent setting surely organises its routine around it. So what does the daily life of a nun entail? Sister Maura, a Belfast-based nun with whom I speak on the phone explains that “it varies from convent to convent”. She rises at around 6.30 and engages in “some light exercise before meditating for an hour”. The sisters then pray and have breakfast together. She is a trained teacher and counsellor and spends two days a week working with the community. There is regular communication with their sisters in England and America and at the end of each month regional assemblies are held where themes such as communication and leadership are discussed. She and others are interested in broadening the idea of ‘vocation’ to include the secular professions.

I ask her whether her order has any new incumbents. “There is a young woman about to join us”, she tells me. What must she do to become a nun?

First she must pursue a period of candidacy that can last anything from 9 months to 2 years. Interestingly, she must also pass a medical and psychological assessment.

As a ‘novitiate’ she spends two years living in a convent after which she makes her first professions. The final profession usually takes place a year or two after the first profession. She stresses that the woman may pursue training for other qualifications during this time.

The idea of experiencing life beyond the convent walls was fuelled by Vatican II, Sister Bernadette tells me. With greater emphasis on free- thinking in the Roman Catholic Church, a spirit of independence among its followers was incited. Herself far from single-minded, Sister Bernadette has certainly not been shielded from the world. She speaks of her experience as a missionary in Georgia after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. There she had to cope with a language barrier and the reality that there already existed the well-established Orthodox religion. She cites the appeal of music in establishing congregations. “The organ was one of the biggest appeals to new members”. For her, there are no limits to the art forms that should be executed in the expression of faith- so long as rituals are maintained.

After an hour’s chat and still comfortable in my squishy armchair in the convent house, I finish my tea and thank Sister Bernadette for her time. As I am leaving, she offers me an impromptu tour of the building. In the room next to the magnificent drawing room is a chapel. She opens the door tentatively. We poke our heads inside, only to retract them quickly as we find a nun sitting there in contemplative silence. walk home in the crisp autumnal air and look back at the convent house with a new, unveiled reverence.