January 28, 2009

A Life Unlived....

One of the books that I am reading at the moment is the mystic John O'Donoghue's Anam Cara. Well, I say reading, but it's more of a book that one can dip in and out of for inspiration when the mood fits. I came across these pages last night and I thought them worth sharing with you....

"[O]ne of the greatest sins is the unlived life. We are sent into the world to live to the full everything that awakens within us and everything that comes towards us. It is a lonely experience to be at the deathbed of someone who is full of regret; to hear him say how he would love another year to do the things his heart had always dreamed of but believed he could never do until he retired. He had always postponed the dream of his heart. There are many people who do not live the lives they desire. Many of the things that hold them back from inhabiting their destiny are false. These are only images in their minds. They are not real barriers at all. We should never allow our fears or the expectations of others to set the frontiers of our destiny.

We are so privileged to still have time. We have but the one life and it is a shame to limit it by fear and false barriers...If you allow your nature to come alive then everything will fall into rhythm.

The shape of each soul is different. There is a secret destiny for each person. When you endeavour to repeat what others have done or force yourself into a preset mould, you betray your individuality. We need to return to the solitude within, to find again the dream that lies at the heart of the soul."

January 25, 2009

NYC - Cultural Capital of the World?

On my way downtown on the subway the other day, I overheard one middle-aged woman remark to another "Well, aren't we lucky. We live in the cultural capital of the world". I hadn't really been listening to the context of the conversation, as you find when you live in a city of this many million people, you often have to tune out what's going on around you in order to be kind to your ears. In the midst of my day-dreaming though, I caught this snatch of the conversation on the air as I deboarded the 6 train and went on my way.

I suppose there aren't many who could argue with this statement...maybe the Parisians would like to lay claim to the title, or perhaps the Londoners...but New York can certainly put up a good fight, if not win the battle hands down. I've only been a visitor to London on a handful of occasions, and have just whizzed through Paris for work, not having the time to stop and really savour the city. So, I can't say if they would be contenders or not, but I can tell you about some of the exciting things I have done this past year here in NYC!

When I am in search of things cultural, I tend to look towards Europe for obvious reasons. "Culture" is not a word I have generally associated with America in the past, but in this new home of mine, I find myself with a myriad possibilities for something interesting, exciting and soul-nourishing to engage in on any and every night of the week. The trouble is whittling down the endless list of performances, shows, concerts, readings, films, restaurants, bars and clubs to some sort of schedule that is both manageable and affordable! Never before have I had such exposure to the great composers of our age, the orchestras of the world, famous screen and stage actors in the same room as me, meters in front of my seat on Broadway!

During 2008,I saw some wonderful performances, including Madama Butterfly at the Metrpolitan Opera, world reknowned pianists Maurizio Pollini at Carnegie Hall and Lang Lang with the New York Philharmonic. Towards the end of the year, I went to see Mahler's famous Resurrection Symphony with the Philharmonic, which was conductor Gilbert Kaplan's New York debut and therefore a very exciting event! For an aficionado of classical music and opera, New York City is heaven!

And then there's Broadway! Both on and off Broadway there are just so many theatrical treats to choose from. In June last year I saw Morgan Freeman in The Country Girl. It was bizarre to suddenly be in the same room as this man who seems as familiar to me as anyone I know. Recently, a friend and I got tickets to Arthur Miller's All My Sons, starring John Lithgow, Diane West and Katie Holmes.

And it's not all to be found in the centre of Manhattan. A short train ride out to Brooklyn one evening took me to St Ann's Warehouse, one of the most impressive playhouses I've ever been to, to see Black Watch, a really powerful piece of theatre that has been filling venues worldwide.

Coming up in the first quarter of this year, I'm planning to see Chekov's The Cherry Orchard, Beckett's Waiting for Godot and the pianist Murray Perhaia with the New York Philharmonic, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

It's no wonder the New Yorkers don't want to leave New York!!

January 24, 2009

Obama Ushering in a New Age of Hope

It's been something of an eventful few months recently here in the US. Banks are toppling, Wall Street is see-sawing schizophrenically, and not least the country has been waiting, literally with bated breath, to watch the baton of power being passed from George Bush to Barrack Obama. Tuesday, Inauguration Day, felt like one of the most significant days in my life so far, and now four days later, I find myself still in the same reflective mood I was then. I'm sure the whole world watched as Obama took his oath of acceptance on the steps of the National Mall in Washington, but I wondered if my family and friends at home in Ireland were experiencing what I was here. I had an enormous sense of the importance of the occasion. Somewhere deep in my being there was a feeling that this day was going to be hugely historic, one that I would look back upon and remember in years to come.

My day got off to an unexpected start, as I woke to a text from my cousin, a radio presenter with a local radio station in Ireland, to ask whether I would be interested in going on air for a quick interview about the atmosphere here in NYC leading up to the inauguration. At 7am, and having not yet had my morning coffee, I wasn't too sure if I would be up for the task, but decided that this was one of those opportunities in life for a new experience and decided to do it. I actually found it hugely enjoyable and it was a lot of fun talking to my cousin Paul live on air! Somehow that seemed to set the tone for the rest of the day. All day at work, I watched the inauguration being streamed live on CNN, and it was impossible not to be affected by the joy and positivity of the onlookers being interviewed down in Washington. In the past, I have kept a close eye on the presidential elections and inaugurations in the US, but there is something uniquely different it seems about this one. Barack Obama has captured the imagination of the American public in the way perhaps that Kennedy did in years gone by. Leaving the fact that he is the country's first black president aside, an enormous achievement in itself, he has come from nowhere, having almost no experience in the political corridors of Washington. Not only that, he is an entirely likeable personality - Democrats and Republicans alike are behind him, America's black, white, hispanic and other communities love him equally. He has inspired adults and children alike. It feels as if America's citizens, wounded by the last decade under George Bush and by the vicious attacks of 9-11, are looking at Obama as something of a presidential Messiah!

One can't help but be inspired by this man. Born of a white mother and a black Kenyan father, his father left when Obama was a young child and he was raised by his mother. All his life he has worked for what he believes in and has achieved his goals tirelessly. His youthful vigour and nationalistic pride are, I believe, the reasons he stood on those steps in Washington on Tuesday. I can see no obvious hunger for power in this man. In the openness of his handsome face, I see goodness; I see a person who wants a better life for everyone, not just for Americans, but for the whole world! It was poignant to see the media shots from around the world, particularly one of little kids in Kenya waving American flags and wearing Obama t-shirts. He seems to have gotten the attention of every country on the planet and for all the right reasons. Yet another poignant moment was watching an interview given by the singer Beyonce after she sang for the First Couple's first dance at the Neighbourhood Ball on Inauguration Day. She was very emotional, fighting back tears when she said "He makes me want to be smarter. He makes me want to be a better human being. I'm so proud I could burst. I'm so happy to be here today singing for him!" And she wasn't the only one who felt that way. It seemed as if everyone I met on Tuesday was imbued with hope and joy. It was infectious here that day!

As I walked down 5th Avenue later that night on my way home, past St Patrick's Cathedral, I looked up at the huge American flags waving gently overhead and I sensed that a new era was dawning in the United States and felt real affection for the Americans. We have all at one time or another bought into the idea of the American Dream. We have all loved that something special that America used to promise, and I like to think that all of us, on some level, would all be glad to see the country rising up of its knees again and being the great nation that it once was, and better! Barack Obama wants that for America, he believes he can achieve it. He faces an uphill task undoubtedly, but I believe he has the support of the entire nation willing him on, and I, for one, am certainly rooting for him!

Food for Thought in Canada

Another year is upon us. 2008 ended up being a very busy year for me, and I found myself in the final months of the year with little or no time to devote to blogging. In the true spirit of Resolution Season, I have vowed to set aside time once again when the interesting escapades in my life are worth recording.

One thing I have been meaning to record for many months now was my trip to Canada in the autumn of 2008. My first time to Canada, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect of it, apart from what I may have picked up in travel publications and online, and to my shame I had supposed it to be almost idential to the US in terms of its culture, people and so on. I was pleasantly surprised.

Something that is always desirable when travelling in another country for the first time is to see it through the eyes of the natives and not through the blinkered view of a tourguide. (no offence to the tourguides reading this :D). On this occasion, I was visiting my brother who had been living in the British Columbia and Alberta regions for about a year, and was well settled in with the locals and the Canadian way of life. During the two weeks I spent there, I was lucky to meet a good cross section of Canadians from many of the country's states. Common to all of them was a lovable roguish sense of humour and an inherent warmth and welcoming nature. On my own travels around the globe, I have met many Canadians before and my general impression of them was of a very chilled out people with a can-do approach to everything. However, most backpackers tend to be like this, so I was surprised to find that the average Canadian in his own land was exactly that also.

Of course, when you are just visiting somewhere for a short time, it's easy to view everything through the snap happy eye of a tourist, but I only had to look to my brother and his love of his lifestyle and surroudings at Lake Minnewaka, high in the moutains outside Banff. He seemed to love everything about this country and it was easy to see why.

I spent the majority of my visit in the Banff National Park, but also ventured into Jasper and Yoho parks at various times. Leaving the absolute mind-bending beauty of the Canadian rockies aside, these parks were a source of fascination to me for the sheer efficiency and strictness of how they are regulated. Parks Canada seems to be, in my opinion, expert at wilderness management. However, there are many Canadians who would disagree. So, I set about finding out something about when and how these parks came into being and what the Canadians really think of how they are run.

The Canadian Rockies National Parks are in their entirity designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and deservedly so. Parks Canada is responsible for managing and protecting close to 40 regions right across the country, including many national historical sites. It's remit is two-fold - firstly, to safeguard the ecological integrity of these protected regions, and secondly to facilitate the public's exploration, education and enjoyment of the parks. But however simple that might sound, it is a huge task, fraught with controversial issues and stumbling blocks. It is never going to be easy to act as the buffer between the unpredictable wild, and irresponsible and unthinking humans beings.

Canada's first national park was originally called Rocky Mountains Park, later to become known as Banff National Park, and the story behind how this park came into being is a fascinating one. Too long and interesting to detail here, it all hinged around three brothers who, when walking into the woods one day, discovered the hot springs not far from the town of Banff, and in the true spirit of entrepreneurship opened the first hotel close to the site called, naturally, Banff Springs Hotel. Subsequent to this important discovery was the creation of the National Park, as the Canadians began to realise that they needed to protect local resources such as the hot springs. As time elapsed and technology advanced, people also began to recognise the threat to the wildlife in the parks. More cars were appearing on the roads, more tourists were populating the beautiful regions of the country and human life started to have more and more of an impact on the wilderness of the country. And so, over time, more and more regions of the country were sectioned off into protected areas and called National Parks.

To the unschooled visitor, it seems the Canadians must be doing something right when you see with your own eyes species of animals that have long sinced disappeared from Europe. Probably the most thrilling aspect of my trip to Canada was catching stolen glimpses of the elusive wildlife. There is something magical about rounding a bend in the road late at night and coming upon a statuesque elk surveying the forest below.

On one afternoon, my brother took me to visit a wolf sanctuary located in the Yoho National Park, and this was something truly new to me. Entirely ignorant of wolves, I found this to be an extremely enlightening experience, as we learned about these mysterious animals and their social structure, which is so similar to our own as humans. I've since developed something of a fascination with them and I'm in the middle of reading a very interesting book called The Company of Wolves, which, if you are an animal lover, I highly recommend. Our guide at the sanctuary, however, was very critical of Parks Canada and their negligence in taking care of Canada's dwindling wolf population.
Before leaving the sanctuary, we were treated to something very special, as the five wolves we were visiting began to howl in unison, their ethereal harmonies rising on the air through the pines above us - truly beautiful. I had never heard anything like it before. The sound is with me still.

The part of Canada I travelled through on this occasion was one of the most awe-inducing places I have seen in the world, the majestic beauty of its peaks rivalling those of Patagonia. It was for me the perfect antidote to my busy noisy life here in New York. I left Canada feeling recharged both physically (after lots of spectacular hiking!) and mentally. I can't say it was easy to leave behind the pristine air and peace of Lake Minnewaka and arrive many hours later into the mayhem of Penn Station once again! That's just New York though, and I love it just as much but for very different reasons. Canada was an adventure and an unexpected eye-opener for me in many ways, and I am looking forward to going back at my earliest opportunity!

Thanks to the lovely Canadians I met while I was there and who shared their thoughts and experiences with me.