“When the air is wild with leaves”: Re-imagining seasons & symbols

autumn in belfast

Walking from Ballyhackamore to Belmont Rd at dusk

“That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.”

― Ray Bradbury

There is something overwhelmingly romantic about the autumn, the way the leaves cascade to the ground with an elegance and grace that brings beauty to change. I’ve been re-imagining life here in Belfast; my preconceptions and notions have been challenged in a way that has given me fresh eyes and a perspective for my new home.


A lucky rainbow sighting eating lunch at the Vine Centre

The other afternoon I ran home from work because the autumn weather was at its peak: a brisk breeze swirled the crisp leaves around my feet, sun shone through the hollowing branches and dry foot paths ran the entire way from Garnerville to Belmont.  Halfway through my run I realised I wasn’t even thinking about where I was going anymore.  That’s the first sign of settling in and making a new place your home.  You don’t have to worry about making the right decision or going the right direction because your mind just takes you there. I’ve noticed a similar trend in regards to my placements at Garnerville and the Vine Centre.  IMG_4378I’m not stressing out about having the room set-up for mums & tots anymore, confusing the names of those at Coffee with Joan, losing sleep thinking about teaching a lesson at Knocknagoney or worrying about the kids at J.A.F.F.A. enjoying having me around.  I just show up, prepare to serve and work with others, and let the rest be.  It’s a transition from summer to autumn as the newness of my surroundings have fallen into place around me. It’s incredible how much can change in 6 weeks.


The Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery resting among the hills

A month ago the Bathgate crew and I spent the day at the Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor with a group of Americans associated with Grace Presbytery in Texas (assorted pastors and elders of the PC[USA]) who were visiting Northern Ireland for a week to learn more about reconciliation and peace-making processes.  While there, we spent some time with one of the brothers who talked about his initial role in Northern Ireland: to pray for reconciliation.  When asked what he expected to accomplish or see happen, he responded by explaining how it’s unrealistic to expect to see the result of prayer, but today’s Christians (specifically the younger generation) are shaped by a society that is obsessed with productivity and seeing the fruits of our labour. Often we don’t see what God is doing through our prayer; it’s not up to us for Him to change lives and situations. This really resonated with me, as I often find myself getting caught up in the desire for immediate results, whether it’s prayer, introducing healthy habits, applying for a job/school, or practicing an instrument; we often don’t take the time for the change to happen naturally like the transition from summer to autumn, developing overtime into a fine wine (preferably mulled). [Side note: I love how the lessons I’ve been teaching in the Personal Development & Mutual Understanding (PDMU) class at Knocknagoney are still relevant in my life today (unrealistic vs. realistic expectations).] 

In addition to discussing his role in the peace process praying for the Catholic & Protestant communities, we also touched on the issue of defining one’s identity. Signs and symbols have become an integral part of our identity as humans.  What starts as an innocent representation of our origin, beliefs, interests or personalities becomes convoluted and distorted to stand for offensive, obtrusive and dangerous signs that create metaphorical walls – and sometimes literal – that divide people and their communities. 

The first trip I made to Belfast in December 2012 was affected by riots surrounding city council’s decision to limit the amount of days the Union Jack flag is flown outside of City Hall (from every day of the year to 18 days out of the year).  I remember being confused about the whole situation, because I wasn’t completely aware of Northern Ireland’s political history.  Most days we were unable to explore in the city centre because of road blocks and protests on the streets surrounding city hall.  This experience is one that I’m continually reminded of when questioning what define’s a person’s identity. 


Paramilitary murals in East Belfast, September 2015

Living in East Belfast, which is predominantly Protestant, the representations of identity I’ve become accustomed to are flags and murals that line the streets; these include the Union Jack (red, white & blue), the Northern Ireland flag, and numerous other flags that represent the Orange Order, local football clubs and various Loyalist paramilitary groups such as the UVF, UDA and UFF.  In West Belfast, which is predominantly Catholic, their streets are decorated with the Irish flag and murals honouring the IRA/Provisional IRA, the Gaelic language, and other images that commemorate events in the history of the country that negatively impacted the Irish community.  Seeing these, one has to wonder whether or not we let images define us and speak for us. Do we really need to wear a cross to identify us as Christians, or likewise the Star of David to identify us as Jews? Do we really need to fly a flag to feel British or Irish? Or the Confederate flag to feel Southern pride? These flags and murals act as security blankets marking territories and properties, giving power just by being present in the public; they acknowledge that there are still deep-seeded sectarian roots that are dragging out the peace process, both parties unwilling to forgive but never forget.  So once these inanimate objects become more dangerous than our actions, isn’t it time to let go of them?  And when these symbols become disconnected from their actual intended meanings, are we willing to move on from them?


The YAV house cross used for worship on Mondays

Having been at my placements for two months, I’m teaching myself to understand that I won’t see many results of my volunteer work while I’m here.  I won’t see all of the murals in East Belfast change from paramilitary paintings to Titanic memorials overnight or see identities in Northern Ireland non-physically represented.  I won’t know tomorrow if the children I lead Bible club with on Wednesdays will grow up wanting to love Jesus, or love people from different backgrounds. Change takes time; prayers require patience.  I’m learning it’s important to be proactive, and present where/when/what/whoever I find myself with, but even more important to stop worrying about the outcome of the work I’ve been called to this year.  Be still and watch the leaves turn; Be still and trust God.

I leave you with the best phrase learned so far in my Irish class: Ná bí buartha! (Don’t be worried!)

xx Hillary


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