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Pádraig Ó Tuama Leads From The Heart
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Pádraig Ó Tuama Leads From The Heart
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Pádraig Ó Tuama Leads From The Heart
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11 March 2019

Pádraig Ó Tuama Leads From The Heart

Interview by Julie Perrin
Photography by Elaine Hill

“I don’t think the future will be interesting enough unless we do something now that actually begins to make it.”

This story originally ran in issue #59 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

I first met Pádraig Ó Tuama in 2012 when he was visiting Australia from his home in Belfast. He was speaking at a gathering called “Sacred Edge, Spirituality in Diversity” in the Victorian seaside town of Queenscliff. Pádraig is a poet, a storyteller, a theologian and a peace worker—the perfect speaker for this gig. He spoke about the sea and the chaos in the stories of the beginning of the beginning. The lilt of his accent and the poetry of his language were enough to make me swoon, but at the same time I was riveted by his scholarship and capacity to invoke big themes. I still have the screeds of notes I took that day.

A friend introduced us after his talk. I had been an oral storyteller for years but I was so swept away by this person who spoke astonishing artful words that I was quite beyond myself. I remember telling Pádraig a story I would never tell someone I’d just met. That’ll either be the beginning or the end, I thought.

Since that day, Pádraig and his partner Paul have become beloved house guests when they come to Melbourne. They have introduced us to marvellous recipes and enhanced our taste for whiskey. No one could want for more depth, hilarity, astute observation and thoughtful listening around the table. Whenever they are over we invite the neighbours in and have a house concert with stories and poetry.

Pádraig and I share a history of churched childhoods. His, Irish Catholic; mine, Australian Protestant. He grew up in Cork, one of six siblings and lived with the silent shame of same gender attraction, alongside a passionate interest in writing and religion. In conservative Christian groups during his teens and early twenties there was no safe place to belong to himself without risking a complete dismantling. He endured several exorcisms and two conversion therapy “counsellors.” Eventually, he sought out skilled psychotherapy that enabled him to come out without losing his capacity to articulate his relationship to the faith traditions he had been immersed in. As a theologian, he has an instinctive eye for powers at play, for the marginalised and silenced witnesses in the ancient texts. Having been on the edge for so long, he is fearless about sitting with people who have been shamed, ignored and rebuked, and helping them claim a voice.

Corrymeela in Ballycastle is Northern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organisation, a place for conversation about difficult conflicting truths. Pádraig has had a long association there, first as an artist-in-residence and for the last four years as the Director. For many years, Pádraig tells me, it was thought that the word Corrymeela meant “hill of harmony,” but more recently the community learned it means something closer to “place of lumpy crossings.”

I love how Pádraig can weave his way through the language and beauty offered by a religious faith and at the same time name the creeping compromises and lost clarities that arise through fear. I’ve felt invited to take hold of my strange history as the child of a Baptist minister and to dance with the stories I have dwelt in. I love the lament and laughter in his poetry. Every time I read, “The task is ended./Go in pieces,” it makes me smile. How often we yearn for peace but are in pieces. Pádraig is able to put language on experiences in a way that literally helps you stand up into your own.

This story originally ran in issue #59 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #59 of Dumbo Feather

JULIE PERRIN: When I thought of talking to you about courage, I thought about the times I’ve watched you lead groups through conversations of conflict. I’ve witnessed how fearlessly and carefully you listen to people who say things that I find really confronting. And I’m impressed by your capacity to name fear without entering into combat. So I wondered if we could start there, in some of those places where you’ve been holding the space open for dialogue?

PÁDRAIG Ó TUAMA: Sure. While I have done some qualifications in conflict resolution, groupwork and group mediation, there is nothing like being in the context to teach you who you can be in those rooms. And I use the word “who” very deliberately, because it is about coming from the deep sense of self. I think when people in a room sense that you’re just being skilled, that can feel not rich enough. It has to be more than skill in a room where people are speaking about things that really matter to them. At Corrymeela and other environments when people are coming together about a topic of difference—whether that’s a difference in how they view morality, politics, who they see as the perpetrator of a civic unrest, et cetera—in those contexts people really, really care. And skill isn’t enough. There has to be a presence of the heart. For me

there’s always a striving, from the moment you start, for an encounter with the heart and a communication from the heart that isn’t using fancy language—language that isn’t being deceptive to the self or to the other.

I think that requires a certain kind of bravery and open-heartedness. I remember years ago being part of a gathering of people who were all from Bradford in England. There had been some riots in Bradford in the early 2000s I think. A friend of mine was one of the people involved in a citywide engagement with all kinds of civic leaders. It was a training event and everybody was lining up to get their food—there was a nice buffet laid on. As we were lining up, one of the participants turned around to the group leader and really launched in at him with a serious critique about something. After they moved on, the guy who was the group leader turned to me and said, “Everything is information.” I remember thinking, That is such a helpful muscle to flex. Because defensiveness is so easy in that context. I really like the simplicity by which he said, “It’s information.” And that the first thing shouldn’t be who’s right and who’s wrong—which can lead to either a sense of apology, which might be appropriate, or defence, which also might be appropriate—but that it’s information. So for me when I’m working with a group of people, everything is information: their time of arrival, their anxiety, sometimes people will want to interrupt you very quickly. I led a group once and within four words somebody had interrupted me and said, “You haven’t asked the right question yet.” It was like, well, here we have some information. And it’s not just information about what that person thinks the right question is. It’s information about how they feel the room is, whether they feel like there’s space, they’re testing whether the room will listen to them, maybe they’re testing whether I’m an insecure leader or a defensive one. The thing is, you often don’t know what the information is about. And you won’t know. But still it’s a matter of holding it.

Wow that’s a magnificent response, isn’t it? Just to hold.

Yeah, like being the Mother of God who “treasures all these things in her heart” [laughs]. Half the time the emotion is there, you feel attacked or you feel defensive or you feel like, “Fuck, you didn’t listen to me,” or “You’re wrong.” All those things are there. But it is a matter of saying, “No, hang on, I need to treat the room with more respect than just allowing my mouth to fly off. These people have come for a reason. And they have respected the room by coming into it. And defensiveness is unlikely to let the room open up.” So one key word for me is “information,” another key word is “surprise.” Presumably, people have a predictable set of outcomes in their mind when they enter the room. I bet you this group or this person will say the following thing. And they might even have their responses primed and prepared for the thing that they’re predicting. I’m always interested in how we find the courage for something unexpected and surprising to be said, where people might go, “I don’t know what I think of that, because I haven’t thought of that before.” And that’s more difficult than shouting pre-prepared insults at each other.

You mentioned, when you’re sitting with groups of deeply divided people, the importance of coming from a deep sense of self. I’ve wondered whether your early experiences as a gay man in the unsafe territory of ultra-conservative Christian church groups developed these capacities in you for courageous conversations? I think of when those groups subjected you to exorcisms—20 people yelling at the supposed devil in you. I’m amazed at how you can still speak of the people who did that to you with insight and even humour. Do you feel that having survived this harrowing time is part of your capacity to be grounded in who you are and to speak from a very deep truth?

Well I certainly look to those experiences—the years and years of silence, of being gay and knowing I had no one to talk to, and then in a very awkward way it being forced out of me and then going through therapy and exorcisms, so-called therapy I should say—I suppose I look at all of those as a profound schooling in fear. My guess is that a very significant percentage of the population has a schooling in fear. So there are people who’ve said, “Oh I haven’t suffered that much in my life,” some of that is due to luxury and privilege. Some of that is due to disposition and circumstance. But I’ve met a lot of people who have had a profound schooling in fear—and that teaches you an enormous amount. The thing about it is that even though a huge amount of people have had such a schooling, it always feels isolating. Ha! Fear always makes you feel alone. My experience with fear was certainly isolating. Many of the people I’ve met who’ve had a profound experience of fear felt the same.

I started to write poetry and keep a journal when I was young, maybe 11. But I always carried it with me. And I kind of wrote in code. I don’t mean a code I made up but I had code ways of talking about being gay. I once spoke about “the hell behind my eyes”—that was a way of speaking about all the things I knew about myself. One of the things about fear is that even when it’s lying to you, and fear often is lying, it is confronting. Therefore when there is the safety, or when there’s at least safety enough, it can lead us to the possibility of a conversation with it. I mean, that didn’t happen alone for me. A friend of mine said to me, “You’re a bit fucked up. I think you need a therapist” [laughs]. It’s only a certain kind of friend who can say that to you.


So when she said that, I really believed her. ’Cause she’d been in therapy herself and I knew her very well. And I knew she was benefitting from it. I thought, I’m going to start to look for, what she called, a “proper therapist.” She said, “somebody who has supervision.” [Laughs]. I did make sure that when I found a good therapist that I asked him, “Do you have supervision?” I wouldn’t have even understood his answer properly. But I could see that he was like, “Yes, it’s good you’re asking. Yes I do.” So for me the only way that I could learn how to face fear was in the company of somebody else. And that was the only place of safety I had—somebody I paid and who, for legal contractual reasons, had to keep things to themselves. That’s an indication of how lonely I felt.

It occurs to me that from that part of the journey out of fear there’s some self-forgiveness involved. I heard you talking with Krista Tippett about the exorcisms and the sense that at one level you must have been compliant to actually enter into it. Which I found a bit confronting in itself. But was part of that journey also the capacity to look at what had happened and forgive yourself? Like it’s so understandable to be in fear in that circumstance.

I suppose every corrupt power seeks to divide and conquer the thing that it’s trying to have power over. So when you look at the history of colonisation, part of the macabre genius of colonisation is to seek—and often it was successful—to get people to do their own selfhatred for themselves or between themselves by dividing people up. So you look at how the Belgians divided the Hutu and the Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi and you see that these were utterly arbitrary distinctions that let the actual corrupt power continue on unnoticed while something terrible was going on. And I think some of the misogyny and homophobia that you find housed sometimes in very conservative points of view can create victims who hate themselves so much you don’t even need political or religious leaders to say abhorrent things, ’cause you’re saying it to yourself. It’s been put into your DNA. I suppose in that context there was part of me that was culturally conditioned, so I don’t blame myself for it. I do recognise I was complicit in it, but I can’t imagine how I could not have been. When you grow up hearing, you know, that you’re an intrinsic moral disorder or an abomination or disgusting, all these various phrases, well then of course I sought to rid myself of those things.

The word in Irish for forgiveness is “maithiúnas” and that is the same word for good. So in Irish, to forgive yourself is to “good” yourself.

Oh how beautiful.

I love the word “maithiúnas.” ’Cause I think forgiveness comes laden with so much complexity. So to be able to look at my frightened self and to good myself, it has the capacity of some kind of lullaby. You can say to yourself, “It’s okay, how could you have known any different? And aren’t we glad we got out of there alive? And what can we do to make sure other people do?” It creates a conversation in yourself.

That is a most wonderful way of sitting with it. It doesn’t carry all of the implied judgement that sometimes the word “forgiveness” can.

I love the word “maithiúnas.” ’Cause I think forgiveness comes laden with so much complexity. So to be able to look at my frightened self and to good myself, it has the capacity of some kind of lullaby. You can say to yourself, “It’s okay, how could you have known any different? And aren’t we glad we got out of there alive? And what can we do to make sure other people do?” It creates a conversation in yourself.

That is a most wonderful way of sitting with it. It doesn’t carry all of the implied judgement that sometimes the word “forgiveness” can.

Yeah. Because forgiveness does carry the idea of wrongdoing and blame. “You should have known better.” Those things. I don’t look at it that way. I mean, I do. I am in need of gooding [laughs]. All of our pasts are where we’ve been terrible to ourselves.

There’s a beautiful sentence in your book, In The Shelter: Finding A Home In The World. You said that courage comes from the same place as fear. And so where there is fear there is the possibility of courage. And then you talk about sign language for fear and courage, which I loved.

Yeah. So my mum’s sister Mary is deaf. And I grew up around a lot of deaf people. We didn’t have much money in the house and my mother used to sneak us in to the free hour for deaf people in the local swimming pool. My aunty used to pretend that we were her deaf children [laughs]. So…! [laughs]. There was always a lot of deaf people in my life. And I love language. I was always fascinated to be in a room where there was a lot of sign going on. So I got a sign language dictionary and taught myself how to spell in Irish sign language. And in Irish sign language, the sign for fear is you take your five fingers, or even maybe your ten fingers, and you put them against your chest in a kind of slightly rapid touching motion. Like your chest is fluttering. The sign for courage does that fluttering and then moves your hands into a fist for strength. So in sign, literally, courage starts with fear. I’ve always found that very moving, and very consoling. Because fear is true. It’s there. It might be substance-less but it’s nonetheless there. And sometimes fear is correct. Sometimes there are threats that are going on. I meet people sometimes and they’re about to make a courageous step in their community. And you go, “Yep, there actually are risks here. And there’s no point pretending that there aren’t. You might lose some friends or your job security might be in jeopardy if you do something that will feel like you’re being unfaithful to them by calling out an injustice.” So

it’s worthwhile sometimes going, “Yeah, there are risks and fears, that’s okay. And now let’s talk about the movement from fear into strength, which is the act of courage.”

It all comes from the heart, that’s what I love. Courage in English coming from the Latin word “cor,” meaning heart. And that courage is often portrayed as something like, “Rarr!” or valour, something that a knight on a horse does, do you know? But I love that it’s about heart. And that it is about enacting a language of the heart.

[Sighs, laughs]. Yeah. I find that enormously encouraging. Often people make a duality and say we can act out of love or fear. But perhaps we need to come from the recognition that yes, we are always in fear. We are acting in fear. And we can build from there to a place of strength. I noticed that at the front of In The Shelter you’ve got that lovely quote from Joseph Campbell that where you stumble, there lies your treasure.

Yes, and maybe this is a good point to share a little of my past and living in the north of Ireland, or Northern Ireland, however people wish to speak about it. I prefer to talk about the north of Ireland. But living here there’s a lot of talk about the shared future. How we can create a shared future given a divided past. People here disagree about who the blamed party is when it comes to the conflict. Some will say, “Well if you start at 1969, you blame the IRA.” “If you start in 1920s then you blame the British for partition.” “If you start in the 1840s you blame the policies behind the famine that meant a million people died in four years.” Et cetera. So there’s always this question of seeking who ultimately the perpetrator and the victim is. And in an age of talking about a divided past, people often talk about trying to get to this very distant shared future. What I think that bypasses is the fact that nothing is done unless it is enacted in the present. When we stay with only an imagination of the future, it means we’re not thinking: “Today, at this meeting, I have to be prepared to say something unexpected; to make a gesture across a political divide; to make some kind of movement; to make some kind of indication of change; to be willing to expose the vulnerable heart of my own identity and my own political identity; to be willing to speak out against my own rather than just speak out against those who I see being on the other side of my political divide.” To be able to say, “Here is what I think the problem with my group is.” When political and community leaders have done that, it has spread an extraordinary story that galvanises the possibility of people thinking, Yeah, that was really courageous. Maybe they’ll get some flack for it from others. It’s part of the unfolding. I don’t think the future will be interesting enough unless we do something now that actually begins to make it. That’s what I’m always interested in when it comes to group work: can you say something interesting now? Something unexpected? Or even can you ask a question to which you know you don’t know the answer? It’s really interesting when somebody says, “What’s that like?” And you can genuinely tell they want to listen, and they’re not listening to pounce. One time a man—and this can be really complicated in an LGBT dialogue—a man who had never had an opportunity to meet with LGBT people said to me, “Can you answer me this question: do gay couples actually love each other?” And he had never had the opportunity to take that seriously. I’d say he was a man in his late forties. On the one hand the question was profoundly offensive. But on the other hand he was asking it truthfully because his life, his circumstance, and the fear that he had been schooled in, had not led him to consider this. So he was asking a question to which he didn’t know the answer. I said, “Yes, we do.” And I told him some stories of Paul and stories of other people I knew who loved each other. And he said, “Thank you. I’m so glad to hear that.” The entire thing was so indicative of something horrible at work, that I couldn’t change that massive culture he was part of. But were I to have shamed him for asking the question I don’t think he would have made a shift. And I think he would have had more capacity to educate others than I would ever have. You do feel complicit and a little corrupt by taking part in that kind of engagement—it’s certainly not for everybody. I don’t think it’s a great moral height or a virtuous ascent to be part of that. It’s just one of the pieces of work that has to be done. And you don’t have to do it. Some people will find their deepest integrity in protest and in calling things out, so I don’t take that away. I think there needs to be all kinds of responses.

It struck me when you were saying that, and I think that’s so compelling, that we live in a culture that’s really aspirational. You can spend all of your time forming these marvellous far-reaching goals and all of this energy goes into what you’re aspiring to rather than actually beginning from the truth of where you are here and now.

Yeah. I often find when I’m working with groups of people who are profoundly divided—I’ve done some of this work in Ireland and Scotland and Uganda and the States and Australia and elsewhere as well—I usually do try to have some kind of gathering of just telling the truth about where we’re at: “There are people in the room here you disagree with or find difficult. You are possibly wondering how you can make a speedy exit. You’re possibly waiting for somebody to say the very thing that’ll give you the excuse to justify your leaving,” et cetera. To just say, “Well here we are. Listen to all of these things. And these things are true for many of us. Some of your fears are echoed with somebody with whom you profoundly disagree, but actually they have the same tactics up their sleeve for deciding whether or not they’ll stay. Also, what’s impossible is that anyone can force you to change your mind. So you can leave with all of your thoughts and opinions as intact as they were. Lovely. Great. Now let’s do something interesting.

Let’s ask questions the likes of which you never imagined you’d ask and hear answers the likes of which you never imagined you’d hear.

And exercise the deepest muscle of your integrity, curiosity and surprise. And let’s see what happens.”

Oh. I’m just smiling listening to this. I have seen you introduce activities into a group of people that disarm them in the most beautiful way. I remember once you were leading a storytelling group that I was with. And you invited us all to write just two lines about a moment that had happened to us that day. To write it down and then fold it up and we’d put them in together and each read out a random piece. And the only rule was that you weren’t allowed to express recognition of your own and not give that pride of, “Oh mine’s the one that’s going to make people laugh!” Or, “mine’s going to be the most interesting one!” It was so disarming and allowed so many other things to happen.

You know, I remember that workshop intimately. I think back on that day regularly and of the things people shared and the way that that room held the mystery of who we are together. Because having a room be safe enough that we could hold our anonymity together in a very personal way was beautiful. In Corrymeela there’s this understanding that the quality of what happens in the room is entirely down to the courage that people have brought. And sure, maybe the group leader has done a nice thing or two. Fantastic, congratulations. But that’s only ever a bit of salt on the ingredients. And it’s the participants who are the ingredients. You always need to have that point of view of respect and gratitude and interest. ’Cause that protects from pride. It also means that when there is profound resistance in a room and a room just erupts into chaos—as that sometimes does happen, and people just express their reluctance to take part, to do anything new—knowing that you’re only one of the ingredients in the room helps you realise, “Actually, it’s not my fault.” Either if it goes brilliantly or terribly [laughs]. Well it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes it can be your fault if it goes terribly, you know, if you’re a dickhead. So.

[Laughs]. I’ve found some conversations with you about that really helpful. That to actually be in front of a large group of people there’s a sense in which you need to expand yourself to be able to reach people. But also not to stay larger than life and not to be in a puffed-up state. But to stay grounded and return to yourself. I loved what you told me how in China that the act of clapping was to dispel the daemons…

Yeah! I love that. Their understanding in Chinese tradition is that when you’ve performed you’ve become possessed by a daemon. And the act of clapping is an exorcism for that. It is a taking off of the robe you’ve had. So when I’m performing poetry or anything, if there’s a clap for me, I have learnt there can be this false humility. Whereas what I loved in reading about that from the Chinese culture is to go, “Thank you.” And thank you, A, for the recognition if you’ve done something well, and thank you, B, for your helping me to step down now. I’m taking the energy, the noise that you’re making and I’m using that to ground me rather than to make me surf something.

I remember Ursula Le Guin writes about a particular character who’s in a very grandiose role. And she says that he kept every compliment, every acknowledgement people ever made of him and wrapped them in his cloak. And held onto them so that he grew into this kind of huge persona. But it was just full of a wrong-footed power that was really damaging. And there is this hilarious David Budbill poem where he writes, “I want to be famous so I can be humble about being famous.” That’s one of the things I’ve just delighted about in knowing you. Becoming well-known hasn’t changed you a bit. I feel like you’re the same person I met all those years ago.

Down in Queenscliff. And one of the things that’s helped me enormously with having more of an audience is thinking that anytime I meet someone, I’m meeting a potential friend. If I have the time—and usually you can make the time—to go, “And tell me about you.” Because people are so interesting. And somebody has given you the dignity and the respect of coming along to something you’re doing to engage, to agree, to disagree, to think, to listen, to take part in some kind of group empathetic experience of art. When I go along to something, a piece of art, music, poetry, I am trusting with great love the person up the front. And I really like it if I have the opportunity to talk to them where they say, “And why did you come?” It’s not saying, “Tell me why you think I’m brilliant.” It’s saying, “Tell me about your life that we’re gathered around this same thing together.”

I’d like to talk a bit more about your poetry actually, what you’re working on at the moment perhaps.

So one of the things I’m trying to explore in the next book of poetry, which is called, There Is No Such Thing As The Past.


And it’s mostly finished. One of the things I’m exploring is the question of the past and the way that we tell the past. As Irish people for instance, we can tell the past of Ireland in a way which reflects some of the atrocities done here by the British Empire. And some of those atrocities are atrocious [laughs]. When you look at the famine, you know, 1845 a potato blight ravaged Europe and arrived in Ireland. Eight million people living in Ireland, there was food enough to feed us that was being exported the whole way through the famine. The potatoes failed but there was beef and corn being exported the whole time from Ireland to England, often by people who were literally dying of starvation. And they did die. ’Cause in three years a million people died and a million people left. And that is a terrible thing. There are famine graves all around the place. So the famine is a profound living memory in the Irish consciousness. When it’s called, “The potato famine,” Irish people sometimes gristle; we prefer to call it, “Gorta Mór,” the Big Hunger. Because that is a much better description of it. I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as a natural disaster famine. There’s always policy and power behind it. There is usually the impetus of something that might be a natural disaster, a drought, a blight, et cetera, but there are decision-makers behind it who can use it for their own betterment. So that is all true. And what’s also true is that of the million who left during that era and continue to leave over the rest of the 1800s, so many of them when they went to other places—Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Jamaica, Montserrat—participated in the colonial projects and slavery projects as white people. Discovered that we’re white! So for me there’s courage in looking at the past as well. And not being satisfied from the point of view of Ireland to just look to the past where we exacerbate the stories of our victimhood, true as they are. The truth of the reality of Irish suffering is not eradicated by recognising the truth of the reality of Irish racism that we exported all across the world. I think when you look at some of the things that are happening now in policies around the world, in the way that refugees and asylum seekers are being spoken of, leaders talk of recently arrived peoples (and by that I mean peoples who have arrived somewhere in the last 300 years, that’s recent) as if they’ve been there for far longer. And they act in a way that Indigenous people have not. So I think

there needs to be courage to name the supremacist addictions of our people’s pasts in a way that confronts us with the luxuries “we” as white people just take for granted now in lots of places we call the Western world.

I think there’s a lot in Australia’s past that could be really spoken to by that awareness. There’s just so much unmet and unacknowledged grief about our relationship with Indigenous people and the massacres that many still refuse to admit occurred. So I really agree, a courageous act to confront the past in this way. Because if we can’t we’re just continually locked in opposition of defending our own point of view and demonising the other. Which, you know, leads us worse and worse down these paths of extremism.


I want to also talk about your work as a theologian. I noticed you used a beautiful piece of language when talking to Krista Tippett where you said that religion was something you’d been both haunted and consoled by. And that really resonated with me with and made me think of the thing you say, that we can be both shelter and shadow to one another.

I think one of the things that religion does is it provides a gathering story. When it’s working well. And a gathering story is an extraordinary thing, whether you believe it or not. Because it is an attempt to put narrative around the experience of the human condition. And if that narrative is good enough, that narrative has great honour for the stranger, has great honour for the person who has courage great enough to leave, has great honour for the person who is the whistle blower, has great honour for, et cetera, rather than saying, “Fit into the group and all will be lovely.” If that narrative is good enough it has a profound relationship with courage and virtue and friendship now, rather than addictive relationship to certainty about the future, or the hereafter, whatever that means. And I think that religion can provide a powerful gathering story. The awful thing is that in the midst of providing that for many people it has at the same time harmed as much as it has healed. You can say the same for stories about gender. You can say the same for stories about nationality.

With any gathering story, I’m always curious about the borders it creates and whether those borders are hostile or whether those borders are soft.

It’s okay to have a story that you feel gathered in by. But the question is, what’s the morality of your relationship with people who live outside the borders of your gathering story? And that for me is always the test about the quality of a religious narrative.

I remember you quoted this magnificent piece of work I think by Cecelia Clegg and Joe Liechty who said that “sectarianism is belonging gone bad.”

It’s genius. Because belonging is so powerful. And there can be some forms of belonging that really, really make a big difference to your sense of self. And they can be terrible for other people who don’t belong to that. And that isn’t to say automatically dismantle that belonging. But it is to say, “You can improve that belonging.” Ha! By speaking about the “not-us.” There’s always the “not-us,” you know? So there’s all kinds of ways in which the gathered, the belonging story we have in our groups—little, large or massive—has to be open to being better. It’s not to say dismantle it necessarily; it is to say, “Flex it!”

Ah, I’m hearing a language of flexing. When we began you talked about the awareness that “everything is information” being a helpful muscle to flex. And now our borders and boundaries of who is in and who is out. I love the way you find language that invites us to new ways of being. Do you have a poem that comes to mind that you’d like to bring to us as we come to a close?

So one of the poems that’s always surprised me how far it’s travelled is “The Facts of Life.” I should say actually the poem arrived when I was sitting in the library writing an essay for my Masters in theology. I was looking through a book and looking through the index of a book and seeing all these other books they mentioned. And there was a book mentioned called, The Facts of Life. And because that phrase, the facts of life, four words, just seemed to be so out of place in the midst of this book of theology, it made me go, “What are the facts of life?” The poem for me is a consolation to just say, “It’s okay.” This is the way things are in your life. And it’s okay that maybe the story about your family doesn’t feel like the best story. Or that you’re filled with regrets. And that you’re filled with recriminations and that you’re filled with things where you feel like you don’t have control. Okay. Here we are. Here we are, here we are. And the landing of the poem into the music of the repeated last lines, “So you might as well love,” for me is also saying, “Despite all of this you’re capable of love.”

Learn how to find poetry in your everyday life with Pádraig Ó Tuama at Small Giants Academy‘s upcoming retreat in Melbourne from Friday 12 to Saturday 13 May 2023. Secure your place by booking today.

Julie Perrin

Julie Perrin is a Melbourne writer and oral storyteller. Her non-fiction stories, essays and interviews appear in The Age, Eureka Street and Dumbo Feather.

Sixty of these stories now appear in Tender: stories that lean into kindness, published by MediaCom

Photography by Elaine Hill

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