DURING THE late 1970s when we had a bookshop in Maynooth, there is a memory of a young student who was the wittiest, most cynical, and most laid back person I had ever met. He was the quintessential bohemian and seemed to be totally at ease with, and somewhat disdainful of, the world around him.
It became quickly evident though that Michael Harding was not the relaxed, confident, person he appeared to be. Behind the quick repartee, the easy way of the man about town who knew exactly who he was and where he was going, there was a restless spirit looking for a spiritual identity that was eluding him.
After completing a BA he left Maynooth and became a teacher only to return two years later to study for the priesthood. After ordination, he left for Europe on a holiday with friend and fellow student John O’Donoghue. Before he had returned to take up his clerical duties, he knew the priesthood was not for him.
His work as a priest did nothing to dispel this: “The priesthood embodied my depression. It was the glove. The wrap-around numb bodysuit that I put on to isolate myself from ordinary life.” In his recently published memoir Staring at Lakes Harding takes us through his personal Calvary with total honesty and not a little pain.
Inevitably, he leaves the priesthood, gets married, and has a daughter. The magic soon disappears from the marriage. It was not that the marriage went wrong it was that “time sucked the freshness out of it, as it sucks it out of everything”. At 52 he wanted to leave his wife although still loving her. He pushed himself to do so and became ill and depressed spending six months in bed. For the first time in his life, he became totally dependent on somebody else and ironically, the person who showed up was the person he wanted to leave.
The second person who provides the energy for the redemptive odyssey to begin was his 11 year old daughter. During one of their ‘Conversation Club’ talks she admits her great ambition is to do competitive horse show jumping. His response was that while there were no schools that did equestrian sports in Leitrim, she immediately googled it to discover such a school in Mullingar, whereupon father and daughter leave for Mullingar and thus begins the long journey that is the book.
What follows is an extraordinary memoir charting the path of a man who, finding it impossible to live without faith goes in search of his inner self. The journey takes us from the hills of Leitrim through a Buddhist monastery in India to Newfoundland and back again to his home in Leitrim where Harding goes through the dark year of the soul, most of which he spends in bed with an intense depression.
One of the more charming aspects of the memoir is the forthrightness of the narrative. Consistently down to earth, always honest, often brutally so, there is an energy in the prose that belies the darkness of the depression. There always seems to have been a positive element to the story - “I cried for a year. It was a good cry that allowed me to remember who I was” – which keeps the author’s feet firmly on the ground and which becomes an important part of his eventual redemption.
In Staring at Lakes Michael Harding gives us a deep rich intimate and honest account of his soul’s difficult journey to an inner knowledge. It is a deeply generous, unselfish and uplifting gift.
Michael Harding will be taking part in this year’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature Kitchen Readings in Ballybane and Westside. For more information contact Ballybane Library (091 - 380590, [email protected] ) and Westside Library (091 - 520616, [email protected] )