Whatever you say, say nothing. The Irish Referendum

no voice

I came to a coffee shop to write about something I have been avoiding writing about. Coming here reminds me of my final year being a student in Zagreb, Croatia. Years ago, when I studied for my undergraduate degree, near the end of the studies I needed to prepare for my final exam. I loved what I studied but by that stage I was ready to end the student era and do something else. I was no longer able to study at home, or at the university. Very diligent student that I was I would just fidget in the chair, unable to learn a single thing. But I had to study a bit more in order to complete this exam. I decided I needed to change the scenery in order to be able to make some progress, so I started going to the National Library in Zagreb and study in that very scholarly environment. It helped.

In the last few weeks something has been emerging from within, something that until recently I was not able to articulate. Then a few sentences that were merely ‘my own’ surfaced and clarified for me what my views actually are. But I was feeling rather uneasy saying anything about it to too many people, and even more so quite terrified writing about it. I knew my view would not be popular, and I think that caused the sense of fear and unease to escalate. And yet, my conscience or something within me has been knocking and demanding I actually write it down. I’ve been quite good in putting into practice the good old Northern Irish saying, “Whatever you say, say nothing”. But the time has come for me to say ‘something’. You can’t be silent forever. I tried writing this at home but I just ended up avoiding it. I think the fear was blocking me from writing and saying anything. That’s why I came to this coffee shop to try and write it here.

I want to write about the Irish Referendum that is coming up on 22nd May. For those of you outside of Ireland, let me explain that in a few weeks time the Irish citizens (which I am not) will vote on the issue of marriage, in other words whether they consider marriage to be between a man and a woman, or if it can be open to any two people regardless of their sex. So they will either vote No to the proposed change of the Irish Constitution (for marriage to remain between a man and a woman) or Yes to the change of the Constitution (for marriage to be between any two people regardless of their gender).

This is an area where I have not been vocal almost at all, not just recently but ever. Why? It’s a very sensitive area. While it addresses a concept of marriage, and people’s different understanding of it, it also mentions a group of people. Because the language used has often been rather unhelpful, to say the least, until Pope Francis managed to redeem some of it, I thought I may not have the right words to express where I was coming from. So I decided I better keep my mouth shut lest I offend someone. Also, it took a while to fully know where I stand and though instinctively I have always leaned towards the traditional side, I didn’t know how to articulate my own position. I wanted to find ‘my own words’, my own voice, before I ‘borrow’ someone else’s words to further clarify and inform my viewpoint. That took time, and frankly it was not a very pleasant process. I would hear people being quite vocal, heated and strong on this issue, and I wasn’t going to utter my few unintelligible words in front of them. No way. My excuse to myself was that we don’t always need to be experts on every issue, and there were plenty of people who have already been very vocal. Also everyone knows where my church stands (I’m a Catholic). It’s just, not everyone knows I’m a Catholic, and not every Catholic thinks the same; so that’s that excuse gone. Basically, I realised that not being able to speak I had no voice in this area. Seeing the posters saying “If you don’t register to vote your voice can’t be heard” didn’t help; I cannot vote anyway. So I listened and remained silent for the most part. Only in certain circumstances I would admit my inability to express my views. My conviction wasn’t strong, so I didn’t really feel like expressing it before those who had strong views (read ‘nearly everyone’). That being said, my view even though not strong, was deep. I just sat with it, and while it was unpleasant waiting for words to emerge, that’s exactly what I did. I waited to hear my own voice to tell me what I actually think. Perhaps this is what listening to your own conscience means. And only a few weeks ago, the first words began to come. To me, words matter. Their meaning, matters. Their usage, matters. I believe in a God who is the Word. Anyway, you get the point: words matter.

So these are my tuppence on the issue, I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. Because words matter, ‘marriage’ as a word holds a very specific meaning. Not every relationship can be called a marriage. There are some characteristics that are intrinsic to the nature of marriage: it is a commitment for life between one man and one woman, it is fruitful meaning the couple is open to having children (though I think this should include the way they live their lives together too), and it is free meaning that none of them was forced to enter into marriage but they chose it freely. If your view is that it is not essential for marriage to be conducted between one man and one woman, I probably lost you at this stage. You see, I think it is a matter of a worldview and for some of us as we understand what marriage is, the gender of those who are entering into marriage is going to matter, and it won’t be negotiable. Other relationships, such as same-sex relationships, deserve protection of the State, but they cannot be described with the word ‘marriage’. Perhaps they deserve another word, unique to the nature of the relationship they represent.

I believe gay people need to be protected by the state, not just those in a relationship but all. I don’t think it is necessary to change the Irish Constitution in order for that to happen; the state should do that anyway. Civil Partnership already protects the rights of gay couples. Also, every gay person should be treated with dignity, and surely those who are not gay too. Being human I know we fail to affirm each other’s dignity from time to time. I know I do, when I fall out with someone. Yet those instances should not be the norm, and when they do happen there is always a way of correcting it (apology, confession, acting better the next time). I’m not necessarily saying this because I think this contributes hugely to the conversation, but rather because I think we all fail to affirm someone’s dignity from time to time. Not that that’s good, it’s just our reality.

The Yes campaign presents their view as an issue of equality, and the No campaign points out that another important issue in this debate is children’s rights to a mother and a father. We are all equal in dignity as human beings, regardless of our gender, but if you base equality on the relationship status you are bound to exclude some people, gay or straight. What about those of us who are not married, are we not equal?

What is more, from Christian, Catholic point of view marriage is a ‘vocation’. And while some people will see this differently, I do not think that a vocation is a human rights issue. Often in (any given) vocation there is something we need to give up, there is a sacrificial element to it. I don’t know why the text that says that Jesus did not hold equality with God was on my mind in the last few days. I looked it up now, it’s Philippians 2:5-7 and this is what it says:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form.”

I am not sure what to do with this text and I will not try to stretch it to support my view. It is perhaps there for me to stay with it and see what it has to say, to me first, before applying it to any issue. However, the initial reflection that it inspires in me is that equality is not the most Christ-like characteristic to pursue, humility is.

I think it is not easy to reconcile the differences that the Yes and the No side hold, and the fact there is a difference is unpleasant in itself. But at the end of the day no matter what the result of the referendum will be, we will still have to live with each other, with our different views on this and other matters, and I guess my desire is that we could do it together, and not in separate isolated pockets that will polarise our society. In the middle of writing this I had a conversation about this issue with a friend who is gay and who is coming to this from a different point of view. He is a great guy and one of the first with whom I was able to speak openly and in length about where we both were coming from. Why was this so important to me? Because my experience is that respect is often lacking when two very different views are presented, and my friend helped me experience that at least sometimes that is not the case.

To be honest, I was literally scared putting my view on paper and also vocalising it to those who think differently. Even imagining saying “I would be voting No, if I could vote” terrified me. It’s a very limiting kind of fear, and it made me understand a little what those who are gay might feel before they start to come out about it. But I don’t think that kind of fear is good. In the same way that it’s not good to bully someone because they are gay, people should not be afraid to say how they will vote. My experience is not isolated. Here you can listen to the experience of Heather Barwick who says “I was raised by two mothers – here’s why I would vote No”. She was raised with a lot of love, but she was missing her father. She was also bullied for her views.

I guess I decided to put some of my thoughts in writing because it is not good to allow fear to win, whether it’s source is justified or not. What is the worst that can happen? Some (many?) will not agree with me – but I don’t expect them to. Some will. I’m already standing (OK, sitting at the moment) so if I ‘fall’ there’s not much distance to the floor. But I may as well remain standing, and keep walking (living, breathing, whatever you want to call it); this time not in hiding, afraid to say what I think, but in dignity, finding my voice for the first time.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 4th May 2015)
Photo from Internet (this is not the poster I saw, but it’s the only one I could find online)

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Writer’s block

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It’s a rainy day. One might think that a rainy day lends itself well for writing. But I have struggled with writing in the last week. I don’t think that writing should always flow, sometimes it is an effort, other times you just need to sit and do it. Occasionally, however, it does flow without much effort. Yet, I find it intriguing when ‘writer’s block’ visits you. Writer’s block is usually not about writing, not necessarily anyway. At least that’s my opinion. The first and biggest one I had was while doing my doctorate a few years ago. It was a summertime and I needed to write, but I couldn’t. I was stuck. I spoke with one of my supervisors and something quite unrelated to my studies had surfaced while we spoke. I had something on my mind that I didn’t know how to deal with and it was distracting me, creating a blockage if you like. He told me, “Can you park that thought for now and come back to it at a later stage? You don’t need to deal with it now”. Yes, I could. That helped. I got so caught up with something which showed itself ‘very important’ that I was not able to think properly about my studies. As soon as I decided to let go of that thought, ‘to park it’, as soon as I decided not to engage with it at that stage, I regained peace. And later on it didn’t seem so important after all.

I am not sure if it would be fair to say that I encountered another writer’s block in the last week. It probably isn’t that serious to let it have this ‘profound name’. But I have been avoiding writing about something. I wanted to write an opinion piece on something that is quite relevant in Ireland at this time, but I was scared to put my thoughts on the paper and so I avoided writing. Again, I have no problem with writing, see, I am doing it. It is something external that has been on my mind, something that I have been hearing about quite a lot, but not something that I have been vocal about. And so it created a ‘blockage’. Not being able to put it into words is affecting me, or rather not having courage to do so. My view would not be popular, and my desire to be sensitive on the topic has prevented me from saying anything on it at all, so far.

I have been doing a writing course here on the blog called Writing 101. Every day in the last month those of us who took part would get a prompt what to write about. One day recently it said, “Your voice will find you”. My voice. It immediately triggered thoughts about this area where I have no voice. It took me a few days to write about that prompt, and naturally, I wrote about something ‘unthreatening’ and nothing too challenging. Then a few days after another prompt said, “We all have anxieties, worries, and fears. What are you scared of? Address one of your worst fears”. Ha. Skip. No way will I write about that. I am too scared to write about that. But I wrote the whole piece in my head already, it’s just not on the paper yet. And even if I write it on the paper, I mean on the computer, I don’t need to ‘publish it’ on the blog. Right? Then came another prompt: “Today is a free writing day. Write at least four-hundred words, and once you start typing, don’t stop. No self-editing, no trash-talking, and no second guessing: just go. Bonus points if you tackle an idea you’ve been playing with but think is too silly to post about”. I can do that. In fact, I just did that. It’s like going around your writer’s block, instead of addressing it head on. In other words, it’s like working in the garden when all of a sudden you come against a big stone that you cannot move. Writer’s block would tell you how this is a reason to stop writing. But I think that you can keep gardening, keep writing, just around the stone. There is a good old Northern Irish saying, “Whatever you say, say nothing”, say nothing about the stone (if that is where the blockage is coming from), but you can still write about the garden. For now.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 2nd May 2015)
Photo by © Iva Beranek

The heart of clay

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It was the summer 2006. I was in Croatia for the holidays after finishing my first year of Masters programme in Ireland. While in Croatia, apart from visiting my family, I spent three weeks in a little village in the mountains at the gathering that focused on reconciliation. ROM, short for Renewing Our Minds, is a gathering for young leaders who come from countries where there was conflict. The programme is based on the ‘principles of Jesus’ and it is open for people from all religions (and none). That year was my first time at ROM, I came as a participant. My motivation for taking part was simple. I wanted to deal with the pain from the war we had in Croatia in 1990’s. I knew I had never dealt with it properly prior to that summer, and was convinced that if I didn’t face the pain from the past, it would haunt me in the future, whether I would be aware of it or not. I cried a lot during those three weeks, but it was good. It was like my heart and soul were being purified through the tears.

The little village was thirty minutes from the sea. A nearby lake was a walking distance from the house where we stayed. The whole area was quite beautiful. The programme was rich, from various speakers that shared their wisdom and challenged us, to group discussions, a few trips around the country. We also had a lot of fun. The team that organised the gathering used creative ways in addressing very difficult topics.

However, among all this richness two things stand out for me as I reflect on that time. One of the participants was a young Muslim woman from Iraq. She impressed me. Living in the country that experienced conflict was not a thing of the past for her. Her country was being thorn with the conflict at the time, and yet she showed much grace. I never saw her cry, I never saw her angry, she exuded peace and hope was written all over her face. I do not know what hurts and fears she carried within her heart, and I don’t doubt she had some for we all do, even in times when there is no conflict. Yet she showed courage and love. One day a few of us were at the lake, chatting, and another wave of tears came over me. This young woman, fully dressed in peace, looked at me and said, “Don’t cry, you have to be brave”. A woman from Iraq, country that was at war then, and unfortunately still is, was comforting me?! I will never forget the gift she gave me, comfort filled with grace.

The ultimate blessing at the end of those few weeks happened in the church. It is one of those memories that I cherish as if Heaven itself gave me a pearl to put into my treasure box of memories. Already exhausted from all the tears, not seeing the end of pain, and yet longing for relief, for joy that will last, I walked into the church on the way to the house. It was the only Catholic church in the village, quite old and filled with kitsch, but the Lord was in it, so I came there for some rest. I cannot remember what I prayed for at the time, but I longed for hope, the one that will be deeply rooted inside my heart. Then I saw it. On the shelf at the back of the church. A heart of clay. It was beautiful, made of white clay it fitted nicely in the palm of my hand, and it was soft under touch. Quite pleasant both to look at and to hold at the same time. On one side it had rays carved from the centre spreading out like the rays of the Sun, in the shape of the cross. The other side was smooth and it had a blessing from the book of Numbers written on it. These were the words that I read:

“May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you his peace.”

(Numbers 6:24-26)

It was signed “St. Francis”, and to this day I don’t know why, with a year 1995 written at the end of the text. That year the war in Croatia ended. Whenever I hear this blessing spoken, it always blesses me; as if God is speaking it directly into my heart and it generally brings tears of gratitude to my eyes. That day in the church I picked up the white carved cross in the shape of the heart. Somewhere within me I heard, “This is for you”. I knew I was not supposed to take things from the church, but there was no way I could leave that gift behind. That beautiful heart of clay brought me joy. Looking at it I even laughed! Later I gave it to a friend who needed comfort more than me, but I still have this memory to remind me that even deep pain has the end. When all the tears are cried out, and our longing thirsty, unsatisfied, there comes hope with God’s grace, shining like the Sun; it rises gently like the dawn within our souls, within our hearts.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 29th April 2015)
Photo by © Iva Beranek

When the book wants you to keep reading

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I wonder if you have similar experience with books as I do. Sometimes the book appeals to me immediately, from the cover, the title, through the first page, it grabs my attention almost instantly and I am hooked till I close the book after reading the finishing line. Those kind of books become part of my life, for a short period of time.

Yet, there are books that need to persuade me that they are books I should really read. I take this kind of a book, I start with the first few pages and somehow cannot get into it, not fully. These books especially need to work on me a little harder if they come after the first category of books that I mentioned above. If I have just read a book that captivated me from beginning to the end, and then I come across a book that fails to do the same, I will soon give up on the second book. I will leave it, for now. If I come back to it a few days or a few months later and it manages to captivate my attention then, it merely meant that earlier wasn’t the right time for me to read it. Some books that initially fail to satisfy my needs as a reader, occasionally manage to allure me at a later date and persuade me that they in fact belong into the first category of books; those that you would list as your favourites. I think that some books are appropriate for different seasons of life, and they certainly won’t satisfy our thirst for words before their time has come.

Yet at times that doesn’t happen. I either don’t come back to the book or it fails to satisfy my curiosity the next time as well. In this case I will most likely leave the book aside and forget it was ever even written. Those books leave me totally unimpressed, and I doubt they can convince me to give them a try the third time. I do not recall coming across many such books, but I am sure they do exist. And the fact I don’t remember many of them may as well be due to the fact that they lend themselves to oblivion. Why clatter your memory with something that was utterly unimpressive? Naturally, in this category are books that are simply not meant for me, or for you, due to either their topic, or the genre, or any other number of reasons. Are they bad books, I mean badly written? Not necessarily. But they won’t do anything for me so I don’t need to force myself to engage with them.

Now, there is another type of a book, the one that is ‘unique’. This kind of a book is outside of any category merely because it would not be fair towards other books to be compared with it. Recently I came across one such book. It was a book I heard about only by the title, knowing it was famous, loved, but I knew nothing of what it had hidden among its pages. That book intrigued me. I wasn’t sure if I would like it, and I made sure not to ask too much about it in order to let the book show me what it’s got on its own, without external influences. I went into the bookstore and bought the book. I even got the title slightly wrong, that’s how little I knew about it. “50th Anniversary Edition”, it said on the cover. There was another edition with a different cover, without that ‘celebratory sticker’, but I went for the edition that had it. I started reading the book, and I must confess I cannot recall its initial effect on me. I think I was too amazed that I was finally reading it, that I failed to notice how the first pages allured me. I was already captivated, even before reading the first few pages, so there was not much effort needed on the book’s part to make me want to read more. Somehow the book has already done that work from the distance. How? I have no idea, but whatever skill it used, it was a good one.

I took this book into my hands now, as I am writing this, and read the first few pages again. I think I read them in a new light, and now they do allure me. Almost as if the book is inviting to read it again. But let me get back to reading it the first time. See, I even call it the first time. I did’t really know what to expect but when I got into it, the experience was like drinking one of the best cups of coffee. Or even better, reading one of the best books ever while drinking the best cup of coffee (one doesn’t need to exclude the other!). The characters become so familiar, almost like friends. It was as if I moved into their neighbourhood, uninvited, and rather invisible too. I observed their lives, their behaviour, I loved every word, every sentence and every twist in the story. One of the main characters is among the most exciting persons I met in the last few months, surely if reading about someone in a book counts for a ‘meeting’. The problem was that the book wanted me to keep reading even after the last page was over. And I wanted to oblige. I missed reading the book in the same way that you would miss a person whom you got to love. No other book has managed to persuade me to keep reading it after this one, and I tried. Which book was it? I will tell you only if you promise to treat it with reverence should you ever come across it. If this book does not produce such reaction in you as it did in me, if it does not allure you in the same way, do not dispute my experience. It is between me and To kill a mockingbird, after which my reading will never be the same.

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© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 29th April 2015)
Photos by © Iva Beranek

Mrs. Browning

(sequel to The second letter)
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I was in the kitchen, reading and sipping my third cup of coffee, when my grandfather came to the house. He never knocked, even though he no longer lived here. He looked for me in the living room and then when he couldn’t see me, he called. “Joan, where are you?” He followed my voice and came to the kitchen door smiling. I thought the gentleman from the past had a weird influence on him. My granddad never smiled in such a strange way.

“I hear you have a letter for me”, he said. It took me a minute to gather my thoughts. I had no letter for him, the only letter I had was for an unknown mystery lover whom Mrs. Browning wrote to many years ago. Oh! I looked at granddad in amazement, speechless. “Well, do you have a letter for me, or not?”, he insisted. “I have a letter that belonged to certain Mrs. Virginia Browning, but I am quite sure it was not meant for you. She would have been much older than you, and she wrote to her long lost love”. I said, resolutely, not quite knowing myself why I was trying to convince him that the letter was meant for someone else. Surely I didn’t know who it was meant for, why pretend like I do? I sighed. Granddad noticed I was not at ease so he came and sat next to me, pulled the chair towards the kitchen table, looked at me and explained. As he was speaking calm entered the room, not only from his words but the way he was uttering them was filling the space with unusual sense of peace.

“I knew Virginia when I was a young lad, before I married your grandmother. She was much younger than her brother, whom you met earlier I believe. His father married a younger woman after his first wife died, and so Virginia was born many years after George, the brother you met. My family was selling one of our properties at the time, that’s how I got to know her. Virginia and I fell in love but I recklessly went away one summer, to pursue my own career. I was going to come back the year after and marry her but she took my departure as a sort of a goodbye. She was already married by the time I came back. I left a note in her favourite book, the one she read and reread many times, explaining why I had to go and promising I will be back. She must have never seen that note, or else she saw it too late. If you have that letter, it would mean a lot to me to read it, Joan. I loved your grandmother, never doubt that, but Virginia was my first love and I need to see her before…”, he had to fight the tears before he was able to continue speaking. “George told me she is ill, these are her last months or weeks or even days on this earth. I must see her and ask forgiveness. I never meant to let her go, certainly not the way she thought I did.”

Again I could not really think and it was all a bit much for me to take in, but I run to my room and took the letter out of that box. I gazed at it for a few seconds and thought, “how much love must be hidden in these words, half a century of wondering about your once lost love”. I rushed down and handed the letter to granddad. I wanted to go with him, to meet Virginia, to witness their encounter after so many years. But I knew I couldn’t, it was their story and their moment alone to share. I fought back tears myself as I saw him leave the house and hoped and prayed it will not be too late.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 25th April 2015)
Photo by © Iva Beranek

The second letter

(sequel to The wrong postbox)

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The doorbell rang and I saw a gentleman in the black and white suit standing at my door. He looked like he came from 1950’s. Not that he was born then, no. He looked as if he just came out of a car from almost eighty years ago and landed at my door. He was in his 60’s, his manners were distinctively polite and he seemed to smile a lot.

I rubbed my eyes and pinched myself, just to check if I was dreaming, but I wasn’t. Apparently Virginia Browning was his sister and he came to collect a letter that she sent to this address. It was a mix-up. He said she had put the letter into a wrong envelope and so it got sent to the wrong address, never reaching its proper destination. She wrote another letter, which was meant to go elsewhere, and it seems that she has mixed up the envelopes for these two letters.

I was holding one of the letters, I was squeezing it in fact being nervous because of what I just heard and not sure how to talk to someone who came from the past. My hands started to feel watery and the envelope crumpled at my touch. The gentleman had another letter. He opened it and showed it to me. I didn’t really want to read it at this stage but I had no choice:

Dear Mr. B…… (the surname was blurred)

I looked into the matter of selling your house, the one across the river, further from the centre of the town. The family of five decided to buy it, but due to unforeseen circumstances they had to withdraw their offer. I then decided to buy it myself, but I am having trouble reaching you. Every letter I send seems to come back. I will send this one to your aunt, and should it also come back, I will come in person and hand it to you myself.

Yours,

Mrs. Virginia Browning

This letter was intended for my grandfather, who was a young man at the time. I had no idea if the family still owned that house but what did it matter now, I wondered? She must be long gone. Unless… I swallowed a few word before I was able to speak. “And how can I help you, Sir?” He smiled, which was no surprise. “Is your grandfather around?”, he uttered. I wondered if I should say the truth or not, but my words were quicker than my mind and so I responded, “Yes, he is sitting there reading newspapers in front of the house across the street”. The man thanked me and walked over to my grandfather. My grandfather’s face lit up when he saw the gentleman approaching but I have no knowledge as to what they spoke about. The man also forgot to ask for the letter I had, the one his sister wrote to her long lost love. A few unsettled questions formed in my mind, but I soon decided to let them go. I still had no sufficient understanding who this letter was for, nor why it landed at my door. I went into the house, and walked upstairs to my room. I stored the letter in a box. Perhaps at some later stage this mystery will be solved.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 24th April 2015)

At the Flower Square and how it all started

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The story I am going to tell you about took place at the same square in Zagreb, Croatia, where I once had ice-cream as a child, my first time getting drunk. Not intentionally; it was the ice-cream with a tinge of alcohol that happened to be too strong for me at the time. Some years after, around this time of the year in the early 1990’s, a friend and I went for a walk into town. It was Saturday evening. We were at the Main Square when we heard the music a few streets away. We followed the music and it led us to the so-called “Flower Square”. There was a group from abroad singing and giving testimonies. They were Christians. I remember they sang, “Hey Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you could know, ho ho ho.” My journey towards God started a few years before yet this would be a decisive moment. But let me start at the beginning.

My family didn’t practice faith when I was born, though they raised us well and with a lot of love. Due to the complex reality of communism in the country and its influences in some parts of the family, the fact that I was baptised as a child was a secret. Thankfully, my aunt who also happened to be my God-mother, created another secret that only her and I would share. She told me about God, but I was not allowed to tell anyone that we were talking about it. This must have been very appealing to me as a child. I believe her influence watered the seed of faith in my young heart and it stirred the flame planted at my baptism. Many years after, my faith would flourish. This seed would spend a long time being hidden, unnoticed underneath the soil of my heart. I always had ingrained curiosity and longing towards God. God is close to children and I believe that as a kid I knew that, even though I wouldn’t have said it so clearly then. I think that somehow instinctively I knew Him by heart, and later, after many years, this instinctive knowing will reach a level of understanding that we call faith. However, apart from my aunt’s influence and my grandmother teaching me some of the basic prayers, my childhood was quite removed from any religious influence and from the Church.

Even with almost no religious influence, I prayed. I remember being in bed and saying, “If you exist….”. I can’t remember what I said after nor what I actually prayed for, but I did say, “if you exist”. I was talking to Him even before my faith was consciously awakened. But perhaps God starts working in us even before we are aware of His presence. As I said, my family didn’t go to Church at the time. A few of my friends did, but not many. Those few that were going to Church were preparing for their first Holy Communion and we ended up talking about it at school. I remember having the desire to go to the Holy Communion as well, but I doubt I knew what I wanted nor why I wanted it. I asked my parents if I could go and they said I was too young to make that decision. I presume I was around ten years old. I would need to wait another few years before I will ask them again and then they will let me. Now I would say that it was Jesus in the Eucharist who was calling me, my longing towards God wasn’t one-sided. He longed for me too.

Let me now get back to that evening when in my early teens I was in Zagreb with a friend. We followed the sound of music and came to hear testimonies about Christ. By this time I already started going to Church and I already knew about Jesus. I am sorry if this sounds ‘preachy’ but this is how it happened and I don’t know how else to say it. Anyhow, in the middle of their singing and sharing stories from their lives one of them, a man, said “If someone among you wants to give their life to Christ, lift up your hand?” I was already prepared to say ‘yes’ to God, someone just needed to ask me in order to help me make a conscious decision. I lifted my hand, without thinking. There was no doubt in me that is what I wanted to do. The man then told us to kneel, if we were comfortable with it, and he prayer for us. It was raining, softly, like a drizzle, but I didn’t care. I knelt and knew, again instinctively, that this was a decisive moment in my life.

You never know what you are getting into when you say ‘yes’ to something bigger than yourself, and I could have never guessed where this journey would take me. Yet Someone I longed for since I was a child, now called me by my name and He was my friend. And yet, I found more than a friend. The time has come for me to explore this relationship and to grow in and through it. Now my faith would no longer be only a tiny seed hidden in my soul; the seed started blossoming into many flowers, not just into one. This journey would challenge and mould me in ways that were sometimes uncomfortable, but at least from now on I knew I was never alone. It was a journey on which I would find my true self, a journey into love, a journey Home.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 24th April 2015)
Photo by © Iva Beranek

The scent of…

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The scent of vanilla. I love it. A friend gave me a candle with vanilla fragrance and it fills the room with a very refreshing aroma. I was talking about it to one of my housemates and said how I don’t want to use it too much, so as not to use it up too quickly. This short conversation will get me another gift.

I use the candle while writing. For some reason, I developed a habit of having a candle or even a lantern lit when I’m writing. Tonight, I lit both. The flame sometimes burns calmly, other times it dances as if it is stirred with a breeze. And it gives a nice glow to the room. It can be quite soothing to observe the flame. I love taking photos of it, too, as you can tell.

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Now there is something interesting. Did you know that the bottom part of the flame is its coldest part? I think it’s incredible that something so hot as the flame can have the coldest part. The ‘foundation’ of the flame, the part nearest to the wax, that blue light that you see when you take a close look at it, is least warm. Then it gently turns into yellow and it rises up like the wave, a single wave leaving the melting wax below. I put the candle closer to myself to observe it while writing, and the strong scent of vanilla reached me. It’s intoxicating. I closed my eyes and let the fragrance enter through my nostrils; this is what beauty smells like. If I allowed it, it could take me far away, to a dream land, a bazar somewhere in the Orient, a surreal place, non-existent, with a charming story that is ready to reveal itself.

Earlier today I walked into a bookshop, scanned through a few books and then went upstairs to see what was there. As I was walking I could see tulips standing still in the vase, and fragrance of such sweetness was filling the air. But tulips don’t have any particular smell. I looked around and then I saw it; another flower with a scent of spring and a touch of summer in full bloom. This is what seasons smell like.

Do you have a scent you particularly love? What does beauty smell like for you?
I have another favourite scent of which I can tell you nothing about. Yet, my vanilla candle keeps burning deep into the night. And the gift I got after mentioning the vanilla smell in my room is another candle, with the same scent, so now I can use these candles over and over again.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 20th April 2015)
Photo by © Iva Beranek

The house of peace in the country of war

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Around the time I was twelve years old my family moved from a small flat in Zagreb, where we lived with one of my Grannies, to a house in the suburbs. I complained, I didn’t want to move. I had good childhood friends there, I loved the neighbourhood, I went out for walks in the nearby park with people who had dogs, while we had none. Both the dogs and their owners were my friends and I loved that. I liked the part of town where I grew up, I was there since my birth. I didn’t want nor need a different home. ‘Home’, a word that would in my late teens deepen and change meaning, and the external image that I will in the future associated with it will shift outside of my native Croatia, at that time was still none-negotiable.

I had two years of primary school to finish and I didn’t want to go to a new school. We would move to a village in the suburb of Zagreb and I didn’t want to live in a village. As you can tell, for one who was a rather happy child I was quite unhappy with the decision to move somewhere else. I said I will not study and I made sure to make it very clear that I will protest before and after we change our address. But with all the hustle I created verbally, I was the first one to settle. Strangely, I got to love it there.

First of all, our new house was exactly that, a house. It was not big but compared to the flat where we lived until then, it was a palace. What is more, I had my own room. The house had the ground flour and the top flour. The living room downstairs had a fancy sofa on which we often watched TV. In-between other rooms there was a corridor out of which a set of wooden stairs led upstairs to the attic where my brother and I had rooms, each on one side of the house. The window in my room looked towards the sky. Beneath it was a desk where I studied, and since I would soon-after turn into a diligent student, that desk was well used. My room in that house was a room where many of my dreams were born.

Outside, leading to the front door, was the front yard, with a beautiful cherry-blossom tree just near the house. At the back was a small garden where we initially grew vegetables. Later on my parents decided to plant the grass there instead, but we first tended to the garden for a few years. I hated working in that garden, and naturally my parents thought it important I helped in that area of house-work too. How I ended up being someone who loves gardening now, I do not know. If someone told my ‘teenage-me’ that I will develop green fingers and become a-self-thought expert in indoor gardening, she would laugh and say “tell me another joke, this is a good one”. Perhaps in all my complaining a little seed from the garden of my youth fell into my heart and it blossomed many years after, when I moved to the country of my dreams where I live now.

Yet this house from my childhood would soon be overshadowed with war, missiles and the sound of bombs. I must have been twelve when Croatia voted for the independence and when the war started. I was pretty much sheltered from it all, unlike many I could still keep my childhood and was not forced to grow up over night. But I did hear the bombs, saw the news, and the terror got soaked within my skin-pores. The emergency sirens would notify us that danger was near on a very regular basis. If I was at school at the time, which was fifteen minute walk from my family home, the whole class, in fact the whole school would seek refuge in the basement of a nearby house. For us kids it was a time for celebration, for it meant less time spent at school. Play was one of my ways of escapism, I guess, but I didn’t know it at the time. You do need to find ways to remain sane in the time of war. Thankfully sometimes the ideas would come out of our childhood innocence, somehow naturally, as if imagination and survival were very obvious options to take as a child. If the sirens were sounded while I was at home, we had to go to the centre of the house, at the bottom of the wooden stairs, and wait there until the danger passed. That was the most secure part of the house, and we spent many hours there.

I must have been around fifteen or a bit older when the war was over, but life goes on, even during the war, and so year after year growing up in that house my deepest dreams were born. A vision of the country far away from where I lived started to grow within me. Those dreams inhabited the word ‘home’, and even though I loved the house where my teenage room was, deep down in my heart I knew that is not where I belong.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 20th April 2015)
Photo by © Iva Beranek

Childhood memories revisited

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Childhood. Memories of childhood are often stories we heard over and over again, told about things we did, things we said, events that happened. Some of them are probably real memories, but I presume that among them are those that we don’t actually remember, though we have heard the story so many times that it appears like we do.

This one I am going to tell you about is one such ‘memory’ since I cannot for certain say whether it is actually a memory (though it does seem like it is), or it is a set of images in my head formed from hearing the story so many time. I don’t know how old I was, but for sure less than 10. My mum, dad and I were going to see my favourite (great) aunt. She was my dad’s aunt, to be precise. The fact that she was the only aunt I knew does not minimise the fact she was a ‘favourite’. I always loved our visits to her. We went on the tram from our apartment to hers, yet we split the journey into half and on the way we stopped for some ice-cream. It wasn’t a long journey but I suppose we were not in a hurry. It was a nice sunny day, summertime perhaps, and we went to one of the ice-cream places near the main square in Zagreb and ordered ice-cream for each of us. I remember it was a side street that led to a so-called ‘Flower square’. We sat outside and ordered our ice-cream, just it wasn’t merely ice-cream, it was a cocktail, a cup, which not only looked nice and was richly presented but on top of it each of the cups had some alcohol in it. Mine was supposed to have the weakest beverage, and naturally the cup for my dad had the strongest. We could never tell whether these two cups were mix-ed up for I in effect got drunk! Not drunk in a way that I wasn’t able to walk, talk, or that they had to carry me. Drunk in a way that I laughed uncontrollably, loudly and at everything. Fits and fits of laughter interspersed with my mum trying to put her hand on my mouth to hash me from saying something inappropriate, which I was just about to say as we were back on the tram, the second leg of the journey towards my aunt’s house.

I wish I knew what happened after, but that is where my memory stops. It is like a photo or a film from the past zoomed into this one event from that one day of my early life. The rest was somehow cropped through the retelling of this tale and fell into the oblivion. I tried to recreate the rest of the journey, especially my aunt’s reaction by asking my dad about it, but he doesn’t remember either. For a proper lady that my aunt was, it must have been a shock when my parents brought a ‘drunk child’ to visit her, but knowing her good-hearted humour I would not be surprised had she joined me in laughing.

When I think of my childhood, I think I was a happy child. Not much was needed for me to be satisfied. Later one could say I developed a contemplative nature of admiring beauty and enjoying silence, but as a child I knew nothing of those things yet they seemed to have been ingrained in my own personality. I loved my own company even then, and I never lacked creativity to fill the space with imagination. I had a few favourite toys and they were my regular play-mates. As for meals, I find it hard to tell which was my favourite one. For breakfast I loved pâté on bread with onions or tomatoes aside. I no longer like onions, but it could as well be that while growing up I stared to ‘think’ more of what I eat and not merely eat what I liked.

Recently I was talking to one of my housemates while she was making an improvised dessert and remembered how when I was a child my dad used to make a quick dessert for us. My mum has always been an expert when it comes to culinary things, but this particular sweet treat was reserved for my dad to prepare. Don’t think of anything fancy, it would in fact go under a category of ‘low-budget’ desserts, but we loved it. Do you know what it was? An egg yolk with a bit of sugar whisked for three to five minutes until it was ready to eat. The fresher the egg, the better this dessert was. It was yummy! When the bubbles started to create from whisking that was a sign the ‘whisked egg’ was ready. We had a name for it that does not fully translate from Croatian into English, but what does translate is beauty of a memory of a small child who very early on learned to appreciated little graces in life.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 20th April 2015)