Padraig O Tuama and the Simple Act of Saying "Hello"

Sep 13, 2020

Padraig O Tuama, author of "In the Shelter"
Credit Trevor Brady

Irish poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama’s work centers around themes of language, power, conflict and religion. He is the author of four books of poetry and prose and will be our guest for WMRA’s first Virtual Books & Brews, September 15, 2020 at 3pm on Facebook Live.

WMRA’s Matt Bingay reached out to him at his home in Ireland to ask more about the personal stories and journey shared in Pádraig Ó Tuama’s book “In the Shelter”.

TUAMA: "In the Shelter," is a few things at the same time. It's a bit of a spiritual memoir of myself of being too much involved in religion and then stepping back to give myself a bit of safety. It's also a memoir of books that I've loved, some books that I've hated and needed to learn to love, some books that I love too much like the Bible, and finding a bit of safety by stepping away stepping into new ways of reading the Bible. And it is, I think, a long love letter to language as well.

BINGAY: Obviously you very purposely chose that title, but I'm a bit more curious about how it fits in with that memoir, exploration, travel, discovery and everything else this book is?

TUAMA: "In the Shelter," does come from an Irish proverb, "It is in the shelter of each other that the people live." In Irish, "Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine," and the word, "scáth," is translated as shelter, it can also mean shadow. And what I loved about that proverb is that what's sheltering for some is shadowing for others, and that every experience always has at least two stories to tell about it, maybe even three, maybe even 300. And I loved the ambivalence and the plurality that was implied in that gorgeous proverb. Sometimes a person loves their country, sometimes a person dreams about leaving their country, sometimes a person loves who they are, sometimes a person dreams about becoming someone different, and sometimes a person has both of those experiences in themselves at the same time.

BINGAY: I was struck by one review I saw on Amazon that stood out... it hit me that the person who wrote, "Deep, but Strangely Accessible," was speaking to something when they wrote that review, and I just loved the way they put strangely accessible. And I'm curious if you have a reaction to that?

TUAMA: [Laugh] I get that a lot. I'm terrible at philosophy. I have a Vatican degree in theology, and I got that when John Paul was pope. And he had two PhDs in philosophy, and like not honorary ones, actual ones. I don't know why anybody would do two PhDs in philosophy... anyway he did. And I was terrible at philosophy. I do not understand things like, "the essence of the being, of the object of the event," I just think, what on earth does that mean? What I'm really really interested in though is story. And I think story is the treasure chest of all human meaning. Not that there is one single answer but stories present you with so many answers. And so I always see that the possibility of putting words into the public is as simple as a conversation on a bus. And conversations on a bus take place about all kinds of very serious topics, and so I want to have conversations about serious topics using language like you'd use on a bus, when you're talking to someone next to you.

BINGAY: You wrote this long before our current global pandemic, but I actually think your explorations of yourself and others relationships, connections, anxieties, fears, all of these and how they play out, as you put it, "in a conversation on a bus," have you been revisiting this work, or rethinking this work, recently in light of our current circumstances?

TUAMA: Part of the conceit of the book, In the Shelter, is that there is a repeated refrain the whole way through of, "hello." In fact the book was written under the title, "Hello." The idea was, is that finding a way to greet things in our lives can be an important thing, especially the things we don't want to greet. So hello to old wounds, hello to our lack of capacity to control, hello to this circumstance that doesn't seem to be ending quickly, hello to the unexpected phone call, hello to the unexpected sadness, hello to the unexpected happiness and consolation. And by saying hello to something, you're saying, "you're here," and, "I'm here with you, here." And what does that mean? It asks us to do a radical act of naming the simple truth of the present. You know, my profound anxiety, my worry, my grief, the way that I don't like crying in front of other people, the way that I do like crying in front of other people... whatever is happening. It doesn't ask you to have complicated degrees in psychoanalysis, it just asks you to have the capacity to listen to what's happening in your body and to greet it. Not to control it, but also not to let it control you. To simply let it be and to speak within that context. One of the things that is really important to me is turning to literature. And literature can be what you're watching on television, or literature can be graphic novels, literature can be religious literature, it can be what you read in terms of a book as well. A piece of literature that you turn to. That is a long love song through the course of this book. Finding a way to identify the stories of our lives and honoring them for being the stories of our lives. Not because somebody told us that they have to be, but because we keep on turning back to them with great love, and in great need, and that they meet us in a kind way. BINGAY: Beautifully put, beautifully put. Thanks so much, and you take care. TUAMA: Great, you too. I look forward to talking to you further. 

Irish poet and theologian, Pádraig Ó Tuama, author of In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World, will be our guest for a Virtual Books & Brews, September 15th at 3pm. 

Watch live on Facebook as we discuss the various meanings of the word, "shelter," and how we accept and welcome what life presents, plus the power story brings to our understanding of a troubled world.

This is a special Books & Brews made possible in collaboration with Eastern Mennonite University.    

WMRA's Books & Brews series is sponsored by Gaines Group Architects. The Gaines Group has offices in Charlottesville and Harrisonburg.

While this is a virtual gathering, we deeply appreciate our ongoing partnership with Pale Fire Brewing Company, and will return to holding our events at the taproom once it is safe to gather in person.