The House of Pure Being

After publishing At Five in the Afternoon, My Battle with Male Cancer, I was eager to relate what had happened during the intervening years of my recovery, and what further wisdom I could glean from the competing strands of the story when I had put it into words.

In The House of Pure Being, I also wanted to write a love story that would resonate beyond gender, and time and place, to embrace the many personalities, particularly the women, who people my book with such a positive approach to life. My friends in Spain, Anna and Helen, have recovered from cancer also. I empathised with the everywoman dilemma of Anna: ‘I like to give everything,’ Anna admitted, ‘and this has become a problem for me, on many levels: it’s no longer working for me as it used to do.’ I laughed out loud with the shock of recognition at how she was able to overcome this through finding her voice, despite her oppression in a world ruled by men. Helen has handled the everyday issue of a woman’s appearance dexterously. She demonstrates the way to cope in a land not her own with the solitude and sudden invisibility of no longer being young: ‘An older woman, although presumably she’s wiser from having lived longer, she doesn’t have the resilience of youth to recover easily or quickly. She deserves a respect, where the beauty of youth can still be found, written within the aging process on her skin.’ It was enlightening to watch her influence on me, and how through gentle example she brought the truth behind the appearances to my attention. It’s clear that these wise women have learned the insistence of turning trauma into triumph, and in turn, I have learned from them how best to cope.
The love story between Anne and Aengus is viewed through the prism of his cancer. The incalculable loss that the robbing of a person’s hope by a doctor’s words is the fatal injury that both of them had to endure. A motif in the book is the devastating effect that cancerous words can have on people, seen also on Mira from the MC Café, and in the stories about Stefan Schmidt, the renter, and Uncle Robbie and Aunt Mary. Finally, the silence created by not being able to put something into words, or holding onto the secret, is seen in the stories of the two mothers in this book. Words and their absence play such a huge role in our lives.
Towards the end of the book, there’s a scene detailing an apparently innocuous interaction with a Galway man. I placed this important sequence about dislocation, really, because Clonbur is in Galway, in the final few pages of the book. The theme of the outsider, me living in the house next door, Helen feeling on the margins, Terry’s notion of family being undermined, Aengus being viewed as the object of a specialty, the exclusion because of sexuality, or even because the author has published a book, these are displacement motifs that recur throughout The House of Pure Being.
Always there is running alongside in their words, that transcendent, creative spirit which my friends express in the midst of catastrophe. It is an ability to get on with it, and it shines like a beacon of hope throughout The House of Pure Being, which is why I love them.

Michael’s second volume of reflections and memoir deals with; the progression of those we met in his first book. Or in some cases, their failure to progress. The voice of love sings softly throughout the book. Love of friends, especially when their lives and happiness is unravelling. Love of place and time and the capacity to work. What makes Michael Murphy singular as a writer is his ability to re-create an emotive scene or event, right down to the feel of the wind on his skin, or the movement of a curtain against an open window.
Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science.

Address by Anne Harris, Editor of the Sunday Independent (read by her daughter Constance) on the occasion of the launch of The House of Pure Being. The event took place in the Herbert Park Hotel, Ballsbridge, on Thursday 26 September 2013.
This story of Michael and Aengus is a powerful one. Two men who met as strangers in a hospital room. One is immensely skilled, eminent in his field, yet he approaches the other with trepidation, fear even, but ultimately changes the course of that man’s life. And death.
The other is a wild spirit, laid low, by shock and cancer. Shunning human contact. In the end he gifts to the first man the greatest of gifts, a glimpse, a revealing of that wild spirit. There is no greater gift from one human being to another.
But we will come to Aengus and Michael. First there is this profound book. Pure Being is the moment, the Now, which has no past and no future and Michael’s mother who has Alzheimer’s embodies it in one way.
But in another way Pure Being is the condition to which we all aspire and the one that Michael embraces in the wake of his cancer. ‘ I hadn’t realised that I had to be oh so careful of my being in the world,’ he says, ‘So that it truly can become a house of Pure Being in the present. Clean, clear and unmixed.’
And this is not some passive state of detachment. On the contrary, it is a state of commitment, a determination to take the battle to those who would encroach on him paying minute attention to how he interacts with his surroundings.
It’s an exciting concept, rather like the way Michael’s post prostatectomy impotence is transformed into a soaring desire at the sight of a young man’s casual erotic display. This causes painful reflection but ultimately offers the possibility of some further development of the senses. But above all, the desire is transformed into life giving words that are free floating, that also has the sovereign power to consciously collaborate with his future.
And since words are what Michael is all about we have to see his cancer as a transformer.
Yes, the book is deeply reflective. And as such it’s one of the most searingly honest you will ever come across. But it’s also an account of a joyful caravan a life that ranges between Dublin and Spain and peopled by a happy band, privileged to be loved, entertained and tolerated by Michael and Terry. Let’s take Terry. Michael’s beloved. Inspector Terry I think of him as. After the inspector in an Inspector Calls by JB Priestly.
That inspector, as some of you will know, was the moral arbiter, the voice of good or of God, as you will. ‘And you let him get away with that!’ he says of Michael’s uncle who announces his intention of never reading Michael’s book. ;And you let him away with that.’ It’s a voice we all need in our lives.
But he’s also Terry of a special chapter in the book which tells of the shocking revelation on his birthday that he has an older brother. This throws seven decades of his life into disarray and profound dishonesty from people whom he has loved. It reads like a thriller and a tragedy but he shows the redemptive power of Terry’s appropriate anger, anger at and final forgiveness of his mother.
There are those wonderful women Helen and Anna who get so much time from Michael and Terry and have much to teach Irish women about living in Pure Being.
There’s Conor, the photographer whose mission in Spain was to capture Michael and his subjects in the brilliant white light of Spain until Michael notices that he waited until evening to take his pictures. Just before sunset in fact. When it was a filtered light, just like Ireland.
And there is Spain. It’s no accident that Terry and Michael chose for a second home this country of passions and extremes, whose culture; singing, dancing, painting and poetry flinches from no human emotion and where even the torero (the bullfight) is the most powerful, the most explicit dance to the death, between the masculine and the feminine that exists in all of us.
If, as Michael says the big questions of life seem to be answered by the simple existential practise of living it, in this joyful caravan, all of whom live exemplary lives in one way or another he provides the rest of us with a map of living. A sort of secular catechism.
And then there is Aengus, the deeply charismatic editor coping with cancer, who finds himself stripped of the comfort of flesh on his bones by a careless remark by a medical person not on his immediate team. In one sentence a world fell apart.
Hope and optimism are two very different things. In Aengus’s case there wasn’t much to be optimistic about. But there was everything to be hopeful about. Because in terminal illness there is life, sometimes very intense wonderful life. Which is why the people who work with people with cancer say expect the worst but hope for the best. Hope is the very breath of life. Before he died Aengus said. ‘I can’t believe you could find happiness in a situation like this but I’m happy.’
Michael Murphy had a hand in that. Just by accompanying him on that path that Aengus allowed him to.
Dr Michael Kearney, who had such a deep connection to the hospice movement, said of the terminally ill that time had a different meaning to them although Michael and Aengus’s walk lasted only a couple of short months, a life seemed to be lived in it.
They were very different men. Aengus did not observe rules. Michael did. But perhaps their meeting of minds was guaranteed by the fact that both had poetic souls. Michael a published poet. Aengus an occasional songwriter. Study of the human condition delighted both.
But Aengus saw his identity as editor and on the last afternoon of his life he said to Michael ‘I’m going to say something I’ve never said to anyone, I don’t think I’ll ever be an editor again.’ That truly was Aengus letting go. Because he was the consummate editor, a true libertarian, a believer in freedom of speech, who brought his whole life to editing.
I don’t think I’ll ever be an editor again he said and having dealt with that cataclysmic acceptance they went on to talk and quote poetry and Aengus died within a matter of hours. If this book reveals one thing it is that there are no barriers to love. Not dementia. Not death.
And ultimately we leave this book in that most sought after state of being less deceived. About ourselves and our human condition.

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‘Imagine!’

That’s what my mother used to say. ‘Imagine, just imagine . . ‘ It was her favourite exclamation of surprise at something suddenly made visible, a version of ‘fancy that!’ which she’d made her own. She would picture mentally what wasn’t present, what she hadn’t experienced, and speak about it, clothe it in words, as once she deftly fitted her eldest boy with up-stretched arms into an overcoat. She was filled with wonder and delight at the miracle of creation which happened seemingly without her participation, but which nevertheless had somehow involved her: ‘Well, imagine that…’ she’d say. Today, as I write in my study in Spain, I can see her come out of the kitchen and walk diffidently down the hall, because she’s never been in La Mairena. Her ghost calls out to me: ‘Imagine!’ The invitation is a personal one from a mother to her son to join her in telling a story, and make an emotional connection with her in setting forth in words a fantasy which is unrestricted by reality, and write a fiction that comes flying out of the air from nowhere: ‘Imagine!’

The contract requires that I bear her in mind. So here I am on top of a mountain at four o’clock in the morning, with the lights of Fuengirola glittering like the brightest stars down below me in the darkness, my mother’s mouthpiece in this dual endeavour, giving voice to a narrative that has known the two of us over the years, and that has also shaped both of our lives, as we strolled around the Mall in Castlebar in Mayo, playing within the protective pathways of its gentle and nudging words, which set safe limits to our known world. Unlike Helen and Anna, those stylishly beautiful women who are my friends in Spain, my mother is an unlikely muse, but I feel safe under the protection of her azure cloak, her cobija, which now covers the vast, velvet belly of the sky with softness, pregnant with the possibilities of new life, because I know she has the knowledge that’s expressed in memory, best practice, and above all, the miracle of the human voice.

‘Imagine . . .’ she says.

‘ . . that there was once . . .’ I whisper back, continuing on her story as she strokes the side of my face with her finger, marvelling at the softness of my beard. And I see the sun begin to shine out strongly from her clear, blue eyes.

‘Michael,’ she calls, ‘I have something to say.’



‘What is it, Mum?’ as I move even closer to her. She’s examining my face intently, and her eyes suddenly fill with tears.

‘I don’t know what comes next . . .’ she says.

I am thunderstruck. ‘I know that, Mum.’ And I take hold of both of her hands. We remain held that way in the silence, looking at each other, then the clouds arrive again and darken the sunlight, and my mother leans back into her chair, and I let go of her hands. I realise that I’ve sunk to my knees beside her.

My mother has gifted to me the awareness that she’s lost, that she’s without her ability to imagine. I can understand from the outside what a fearful tragedy that is. A fatal flaw in the workings of the brain has led to her downfall, and I grieve with her. But there’s also something that he been left unsaid in the dialogue between us, and there are still possibilities within that gap. I shall continue to visit with her in the nursing home until she’s able to say it, or at least until such time as she enters the family home on the Mall in Castlebar for the last time, and closes the hall door in my face forever.