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How a Galway accountancy grad became Sr Colette of the Poor Clares

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SR COLETTE OF THE GALWAY ENCLOSED ORDER ON EMBRACING A LIFE UNIMAGINABLE TO MANY, INCLUDING HER FAMILY

A curved driveway leads up to the imposing institution in Nun’s Island. Long grass to the left, Galway cathedral –from an unfamiliar angle – to the right, an empty shopping trolley near the door. An intercom voice bids enter.

As I stand in the hallway sanitising hands, a voice comes from behind: “Is that you, Deirdre?” Decades after last hearing it, Marina’s voice is instantly recognisable. On turning, it’s the same face: beaming, wide-smiled. The face is now framed in white, her body is robed in the voluminous brown Poor Clares’ habit, with a black veil.

Sometimes we fall into things, other times conscious choices shape our paths. I’ve known Marina since primary school. She was the older sister of my classmate Nicola. We had similar backgrounds, our mothers knew each other. I could be her; she could be me. Years later, on hearing she had entered the enclosed, contemplative order, it was like news from a parallel world, an unimaginable choice, taking an extreme, other-worldly, path. How did this happen?

As a young woman Marina was in a charismatic youth prayer group, visited the Marian shrine at Medjugorje, was a daily Mass-goer; activities not entirely typical of her generation. In Medjugorje with her friend Maura, who also later entered the Poor Clares, she had an intense religious experience. She wrote about a sort of prayer ecstasy: “Suddenly I was swept off my feet … I was totally overcome and could not believe the intense feelings of love I had for God … Nothing in my life compared with it.”

Marina before entering the Poor Clares and becoming Sr Colette
Marina before entering the Poor Clares and becoming Sr Colette

Today Sr Colette, as she is now known, talks about this “big experience of God’s love. I was blown away by it, and thought – I’ll do anything you want, even if it’s to become a nun. I got a big grace of prayer, a desire for prayer, a taste for prayer, a love for prayer. It came in an instant. One particular moment. Oh my God, and I knew this was Jesus, and I was overwhelmed with feeling love for him. It was very real.”

This intense experience propelled her, slowly, towards religious life. But not just any religious life. “I knew, if I was going to be called to be a nun, it would be an order devoted to prayer.” All the same, “part of me hoped I wasn’t going to be a nun. I did struggle with it.”

The radical step wasn’t taken overnight. After Medjugorje “I knew I was on a high”. On advice, she stalled consideration of vocation, and threw herself instead into college, social life and relationships. “I went out with fellas, because I’d given myself permission to park it.”

After university she worked, slogging through accountancy exams for years. Colouring her outlook, “faith and prayer was an integral part of who I was and was fulfilling me”. The day after eventually passing her finals was anti-climactic, with a “deep sense of emptiness”; after years of study, “it meant nothing to me”. She interpreted little things as hints, “Like the Lord saying, ‘Right, you’ve had that time, would you consider?’”

Entering religious life meant forgoing her family, boyfriends, children, career, social life. “Any of the fellas I went out with, you always kind of wonder. But I suppose I never felt ultimately: he’s the one. You might think it for a while, but I just wasn’t fulfilled enough.”

Also, “I always imagined I would have children. That’s something every woman has to face. We all lose fertility at some stage. I had to face it earlier – and realise I’m not any less the person I was just because I don’t have children.”

Sr Colette, mother abbess at Poor Clare Monastery, Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Sr Colette, mother abbess at the Poor Clare Monastery, Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

She put off telling her family. “I knew they wouldn’t want it, becoming a nun, of any kind, but especially contemplative.” For a long time they didn’t discuss it, for fear of upset. “It was like this big elephant in the room.”

Late one night her youngest sister “got really angry and said, will you just make up your mind. We don’t want you to go in there, but until you make your decision we can’t come to terms with it. If you go in, we’ll deal with it. I knew I wasn’t being fair to them.”

After her finals, in the 1990s, and  five years after “the Lord broke in on me”,  at age 29, Marina entered the Poor Clares.

All her middle years have been inside. While others built relationships, careers, families, homes – while Ireland changed immeasurably – Sr Colette had a parallel existence behind walls.

The Poor Clares, following saints Clare and Francis, have “a long reciprocal relationship with the city of Galway, people coming for prayer and leaving their cares here. And they support us, bringing food or other things [hence the shopping trolley, during Covid]. There’s very little we have to buy. It’s unpredictable. You could have a whole load of fresh veg and then none for ages.”

View of Galway Cathedral from the garden of the Poor Clare Monastery. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
View of Galway Cathedral from the garden of the Poor Clare Monastery. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

The oasis receives callers and letters daily, for Mass, seeking solace or prayer, or petitions requesting prayers for big and small challenges – illness, break-ups, exams. During the pandemic contact has been through an open window rather than the hatch inside. Token dividers in parlours separate sisters from visitors. (“That’s not keeping me in, it’s not keeping you out. It’s symbolic of the life I’ve embraced.”)

Access is usually confined to the front, but Sr Colette leads me through a long, glazed corridor and outside. Beforehand I’d asked if she would like anything. Maybe a takeaway coffee, she said. A latte. We sit in the secret garden. Warm, engaged, frank, open and chatty, Sr Colette belies all mother abbess cliches. The request for coffee tickled me, I say. I thought it might, she grins. We walk around the garden: trees, vegetables, a shrine. Each sister has a flower bed. There’s a clothes line, and large, free-standing Stations of the Cross.

Sr Colette is currently Mother Abbess of the community of 10, including ‘a good few nurses, another accountant’

Sr Colette gestures up to the large grey building, pointing out the bakery and cutting room. They no longer make altar breads, instead importing them to supply the diocese.

Is that the accountant in you, I tease, outsourcing? It wasn’t a monetary issue, but too few sisters. “It’s lovely work, both supplying and baking. It suits our way of life because it doesn’t tax the brain, it leaves you free to be in a spirit of prayer. But the number of sisters has gone up and down. Employees working with us would change the dynamic. So we keep the spirit of silence with supplying it.”

They don’t take a vow of silence. “Contemplation is a deeper form of prayer. Also, it’s more down-to-earth than people think. It is mystical prayer. For Francis and Clare, the fact that Jesus became human, everything in our lives can be permeated. In here or not, everything we do has a knock-on, and people are more conscious of it. Every time you choose to wash this [takeaway cup] and recycle it. They’re small things but they all have significance. And if we try to live our lives united to Jesus. We believe our life has value.”

Front of the Poor Clare monastery at Nun’s Island. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Front of the Poor Clare monastery at Nun’s Island. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

They take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure. It took Marina years to enter, and more before full profession; discernment allows for a decision freely made.

There are paths not taken, what-ifs. “It wouldn’t be normal if you didn’t. Also, there are junctions in your life” before commitment. A year as postulant was a transition, wearing her own clothes. Novice for two years, wearing full habit and white veil, was a shock. “Suddenly you’re a nun. I remember the first time someone outside said, ‘Hello, Sister.’ ”

The abbess cutting novices’ hair doesn’t just happen in the movies. “For a woman coming in, part of your femininity is your hair, your appearance.” This isn’t taken. “It’s for you to hand it over. She’s not forcing, it’s something I’m giving to God, a surrender.”

First Profession to the Order involves vows for three years before Solemn Profession. Those stages of formation, which now take at least nine years, are milestones in decision-making.

“You grapple with that [decision-making]. But I did make my vows each time. I had a conviction this was what I was being called to do. This way of life really is one of faith, because overtly, we’re not doing charitable works. Well we are, listening to people, that’s a huge thing, and being a place they look for solace. But we’re not nursing. So either God is who he is and prayer works, or he isn’t. And if he isn’t, it doesn’t make any sense. I think our way of life particularly is one of faith, and if you believe in it, it’s very fulfilling. I believe the prayer I make is not just talking to myself, that in some way I’m standing before the all-powerful God, lifting up these people who look to us for prayer, and carrying them.”

Six years after Marina entered the Poor Clares, Sr Colette made her Solemn Profession.

The abbess gave her 10 names, to pick three; Colette was first choice. Batista’s feast day was coming up. “I said, I don’t care what you call me, but not Batista or I’ll be Batty for the rest of my life!”

The austerity was actually part of the attraction. There’s the discipline of early mornings: 5.15am daily; Sunday lie-in to 6.15 or so – and days parsed by prayer. But more fundamentally, it’s a sort of subsuming of self into something greater.

“There was a part of me coming into the Poor Clares that was attracted to the radicality of the way of life. I felt, ‘I only have one life. You may as well go the whole hog.’

“Every nun is the whole hog, really, because you’re surrendering your free will. The radicality of the habit attracted me, in that I loved clothes. It was a radical giving of myself, not having that ability to wear the clothes I wanted. There was also a freedom in it. I don’t have to worry about fashion, or what I’ll wear in the morning.” But “just because you’re in an unflattering dress doesn’t mean you lose your femininity”.

If you were coming in here to escape, you couldn’t survive here. You might escape some problems, but you can’t escape yourself

Becoming a novice was, “I won’t say traumatic, but a bit of a shock to the system. Before, I knew how a bad hair day affected the way you felt. But I didn’t realise until then how much who I thought I was, was determined by things connected to my physical appearance. That was one of the times I had to grapple with: who am I? But that was like a blessing. All of us have props for the image we want to present to the world.” There’s another look now, she acknowledges, and new props.

Though enclosure cuts off past lives, Poor Clares leave the convent for “useful, evident, reasonable or approved purposes”: medical appointments, courses, voting. In the past sisters didn’t attend parents’ funerals, but now “it’s left to the sisters how to handle that”, and they often attend.

Like birth families, Poor Clares live with others they have not chosen. “Our spirituality is family-oriented; we are not just people who cohabit.” You must get on better with some than others? Yes, “but how do you grow otherwise? The lord chooses our companions, and it’s those sisters that will make me look at the things I have to try and deal with. Any vocation: marriage, single, religious life – intrinsic in it is a certain death to self. Real love means you’re not totally focused on my own needs and wants. There are calls beyond ourselves, to what’s best in ourselves. That’s painful.”

“There’s a legend in Galway, if you hear the Poor Clares’ bell that they’re desperate or something. But we ring it several times a day, when we go to pray!”

Sr Colette during the choir (Adoration). Photograph: Joe O Shaughnessy
Sr Colette during the choir (Adoration). Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

The day is punctuated by prayer: Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; all day, every day in the choir; taking turns to rise at midnight; Divine Office seven times daily.

Does she still bliss out on prayer? “It’s like any relationship. Sometimes it’s just same-old, same-old, but there are moments where it’s deeper. Our prayer life is also fuelled by people that look to us. You can be humbled by people’s entrustment of themselves to us, things that are difficult to say or write.”

We talk about the mechanics – does she focus on the words, what she’s praying for, the sound? “Different things. Scripture works at a dynamic level. Psalms cover the whole gamut of human emotions, situations of distress or joy. So I may not necessarily feel joyful, but I can pray a joyful psalm (or the opposite). I feel we’re bringing humanity before the Lord in that. A mantra settles you to another level. Psalms can be mantraic if you chant them.”

The day’s balance is prayer, work and community. Sisters have individual time. Sr Colette likes to sit in the garden and read. She has learned guitar and organ/keyboard, a challenge. She reads, often later into the night than she should.

It went viral. In the first two weeks we had two million hits or something

Poor Clare congregations are autonomous, and affiliated with the Franciscans. The sisters vote for abbess every three years. Sr Colette is currently Mother Abbess of the community of 10, including “a good few nurses, another accountant”, ranging in age from 40s to 90, all but one fully professed. Some entered straight from college, others worked; the most recent entered five years ago, in her 40s.

“A lot have come and might stay a few years, then discern it wasn’t for them. I think it takes great courage to even consider, and then to take the plunge. It also takes courage to leave.” They’re still in contact with those who left: “It was part of their journey.”

I ask, probably too diplomatically, what she thinks about the horrors exposed at the heart of the church, and its changed role in Ireland since she entered. She answers diplomatically, too.

“That is so devastating, because for all of us it shakes our trust in humanity. When someone is in a position of trust, and trust is eroded, it’s much more painful. It has damaged people’s trust, and cut them off from a source of grace and support. And it’s terrible, because everyone is tarred with the same brush. ”

While a world apart and unworldly, the Clares are more connected than might appear. They started a website in 2003, when it was unusual for an enclosed order. “We needed to be out there, to offer some of what we have to the wider public. And also for vocations.”

It’s a treasure trove, with sisters’ life stories; in Sr Colette’s entry there are photos of Marina, vivacious and glowing. (That woman hasn’t disappeared.) And prayers for everyday and special intentions, “the fruit of our own prayer, to try and make prayer more accessible for people on the go, for a relationship with God without having to read tomes. It’s easier than people think.”

Sr Colette, mother abbess at the Poor Clare Monastery, Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Sr Colette, mother abbess at the Poor Clare Monastery, Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

An eye-catching photo from the launch – involving sisters, a laptop, a grille, reflections – got international attention. “It went viral. In the first two weeks we had two million hits or something.”

And proving “how the providence of God is ahead of us all the time”, the prayers they had gathered and written were a head start for a book of prayer, when Hachette Books approached them. Calm the Soul, published in 2012, reflects Psalm 93: “When cares increase in my heart, your consolation calms my soul.”

She marvels still at the response. “The letters we got. It was touching people’s hearts, giving them peace or comfort. A book on prayer was the ninth bestselling Irish book that year; it was 15 weeks at No 1. That blew my mind.”

They have family visits. “We are not in a vacuum, we hear about their lives, nieces, nephews, current things.” Galway sisters meet other monasteries at federal assembly (her parents travel with her sometimes) and on courses.

They don’t get newspapers or listen to radio, bar a news bulletin daily, but read the Irish Catholic and religious periodicals. She mentions the St Anthony’s Messenger’s wide-ranging articles. At Christmas and Easter they can watch TV and films.

Letters flow daily. “When I came in, I became more aware of what was really happening in people’s lives. People looking on wouldn’t have a clue about some of the reasons they’re asking for prayers. You see what’s really going on. People don’t have a pretence; they can be vulnerable.”

I wouldn’t say I never had doubts. Even after I entered, sometimes I wondered

Many perceive enclosed orders as turning their back on what’s most challenging in life, but which is also most fulfilling. “If you were coming in here to escape, you couldn’t survive here. You might escape some problems, but you can’t escape yourself. Whatever hang-ups you have, weaknesses, shortfalls, you bring with you. You’re confronted. You have to work through it.”

With deeper commitment comes challenges. Though responsibilities are shared, the abbess has to “keep the show on the road”. She recalls when she was first voted abbess, and planning a renovation of the front building: “We didn’t have a quarter of the estimate – I remember being overwhelmed for a while.”

She seems serene, and fulfilled. But “I wouldn’t say I never had doubts. Even after I entered, sometimes I wondered. Loneliness is part of the human condition. There’s part of us, St Augustine says, you have made us for yourself, our hearts are restless until they rest in you. There’s a part of us that is incomplete without God, on a faith level. Lots of people are living their lives without God, but I do believe. That’s why heaven is blissful, because we are complete. That’s my faith vision.”

Before I leave, we climb the fire escape at the back to take in a panoramic view of the city. Sr Colette points out surrounding landmarks – the Bish (St Joseph’s Patrician College – the sound of lads in the yard at break), the Pres, hospital, university, cathedral – that encircle this place apart.

Another perspective on a parallel universe seems somehow appropriate for the otherness of Sr Colette’s world.

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Music festivals: The unpredictable hell of Woodstock 1999: Burning stages, sexual abuse and a stream of feces | Culture

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Woodstock 1999 began promising three days of “peace, love and music.” It ended with stages in flames, sound towers reduced to smithereens, tents razed to the ground, the press and performers running like hell, promoters barricaded in their offices, and thousands of hungover and exhausted young hooligans wallowing in a stream of feces. The San Francisco Examiner aptly called the event “the day live music died,” alluding to the day the music died, which Don McLean sang about in ‘American Pie.’ On August 3, Netflix released Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99, a documentary directed by Jamie Crawford. In three chapters of about 45 minutes each, Trainwreck offers a grisly post-mortem of what many consider one of the most chaotic music festivals in history.

Between Friday, July 23 and Sunday, July 25, 1999, in Rome, New York, a crime was committed against music, sanity, and decorum. If Crawford’s documentary makes anything clear, it’s that there were multiple perpetrators and even now none of them seem willing to take responsibility for the sorry episode.

Michael Lang, who created the Woodstock brand (and passed away last January), and John Scher, the event’s main promoter, were the first to pass the buck. Both had already been interviewed for Woodstock ‘99: Peace, Love and Rage, the HBO documentary that premiered last summer. In the earlier film, Lang and Scher blamed each other. In Trainwreck, both blamed the audience. They alleged that the generation of young people in the late 1990s was “irresponsible, aggressive and anarchic,” far removed from the original (1969) Woodstock’s spirit of peace and love. However, almost none of the other people who participated in the film support the pair’s self-serving version of events. The documentary’s other interviewees include journalists who covered the event, such as ABC News’s David Blaustein and MTV’s Ananda Lewis; performers Jewel, Fatboy Slim, Gavin Rossdale (the Bush frontman) and Jonathan Davis (Körn’s lead singer); production staff; public health officials, civil servants and Rome’s mayor; and a dozen attendees who were between 14 and 25 years old at the time.

The rain and the mud

The background of Woodstock ‘99 is clear. The 1969 iteration was an organizational disaster but an indisputable cultural success. The original Woodstock featured peace and love, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Grateful Dead, Santana, and hippies mobilizing against the Vietnam War. Michael Lang promoted all that in a display of quixotic countercultural entrepreneurship, but he took heavy losses and only recovered his investment over ten years later through sales of the film’s soundtrack and merchandise.

Michael Lang, the creator of the Woodstock brand, and John Scher, the primary promoter of the ill-fated 1999 iteration, on the festival stage on July 24, 1999.
Michael Lang, the creator of the Woodstock brand, and John Scher, the primary promoter of the ill-fated 1999 iteration, on the festival stage on July 24, 1999.John Atashian (Getty Images)

To coincide with the original Woodstock’s 25th anniversary, Lang and his new partner, Scher, launched the peaceful and artistically satisfying sequel to Woodstock in 1994, but they lost money hand over fist. In 1999, they conspired to capitalize on the Woodstock brand once and for all with a professionally conceived and executed event, minus the naïve idealism that had turned previous iterations into ruinous business.

The 1999 festival was held at Griffiss Air Force Base, a decommissioned military base just outside Rome, New York, over 100 miles from Woodstock’s original location. Griffiss was an unsuitable venue for a three-day music campout. It had a huge lot full of asphalt and unkempt grass, and the two main stages were nearly four kilometers apart.

That weekend, the state was experiencing an extreme heat wave; temperatures reached 102.2 F (39 C) degrees that felt like 104 F (40 C), slightly hotter than the heat wave the East Coast is facing this year. An estimated 400,000 people paraded through the ugly, inhospitable outdoor venue that weekend; on Saturday night alone, there were over 250,000 attendees.

From an alternative tribe to an angry mob

According to Heather, who attended the event when she was 14, many began to feel that they were being treated “like animals.” The exorbitant prices at which the commercial tents sold food and drink particularly upset attendees. They charged four dollars for a bottle of water (the equivalent of seven today) and between eight and 10 dollars for a slice of pizza, a sandwich, or a burrito (today, about 18 dollars), at an event that had prohibited bringing provisions from outside and for which concertgoers had paid 150 dollars (266 dollars today).

They were also indignant because of the woefully inadequate waste management service (“we woke up on Saturday morning in a sea of garbage that nobody picked up,” explains Heather), and the portable latrines, many of which burst after a few hours because of overuse, flooded the place with human waste and an indescribable stench.

Woodstock ’99 attendees in the front row wave to the camera on July 22, 1999.
Woodstock ’99 attendees in the front row wave to the camera on July 22, 1999.John Atashian (Getty Images)

Moreover, as one of the health service workers acknowledges in the documentary, the free fountain water that people used to quench their thirst, shower, and brush their teeth became unsafe to drink. Feces from the latrines contaminated that water. Not only was it undrinkable but in many cases mere contact with it caused skin rashes or lip and gum infections.

The festival lineup did not help improve the mood. Hard rock and nu-metal (a style that mixed hard rock and hip hop and briefly took young white Americans by storm) bands dominated the delirious program. Among those acts were Korn, Creed, Kid Rock, and Limp Bizkit, the big stars of the moment. Additionally, there were bands, such as Offspring, Metallica and Rage Against the Machine, whose abrasive sound and visceral discourse were totally alien to the first Woodstock’s spirit of peace and love. Thirty years ago, fans of Joe Cocker and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had happily and stoically faced the inconveniences and inclemency of a precariously organized mass event. Janis Joplin had even worried from the stage about their welfare and urged them to complain if they felt they were being treated disrespectfully (“you don’t have to go take anybody’s shit, man…So…if you’re getting more shit than you deserve, you know what to do about it, man.”).

However, as early as Friday, July 23, 1999, it was clear that fans of Korn’s charismatic lead singer, Jonathan Davis, shared with the hippies of three decades earlier only a propensity for public nudity. That concert, described by Ananda Lewis as “an insane explosion of energy,” already demonstrated that the Woodstock ‘99 crowd was not going to be a docile one. Indeed, they were vehement, aggressive young people who were quite willing to push the limits of an atmosphere of freedom and impunity and had little tolerance for the discomfort they experienced. The turning point came during the Limp Bizkit concert on Saturday night. As David Blaustein put it, “three different versions of Fred Durst [the band’s singer] competed on stage.” Durst’s instincts told him that something big was brewing among the crowd of ecstatic and hysterical kids, many of whom were naked. His common sense told him to try to lighten the mood. His ego urged him to become the revolt’s high priest. His ego won. Durst gave a frenetic performance, inciting his audience to give in to their rage and “break everything,” to not resign themselves “to the conformist shit that people like Alanis Morissette [also in the festival’s lineup] want to sell you.” They listened to him. Some audience members stormed and smashed a sound control tower.

A Woodstock ’99 festivalgoer sleeps in the sun on a concourse littered with garbage.
A Woodstock ’99 festivalgoer sleeps in the sun on a concourse littered with garbage.Andrew Lichtenstein (Getty Images)

Just off the stage, Durst gave an interview that was as brief as it was revealing:

-Have you ever seen anything like this before, Fred?

-No, I’ve never done anything like that.

-I suppose you’ve seen from the stage that there have been serious incidents.

-Well, yes, but that’s not our fault.

Hours later, the climate of violence moved to the electronic music tent where Norman Cook, better known as Fatboy Slim, was performing. At 2 a.m., a van suddenly drove onto the dance floor, forcing Cook to stop his performance. When security personnel gained control of the vehicle, they discovered a half-naked and drugged teenage girl inside who exhibited obvious signs of having been gang raped.

Illuminated by fire

But the real disaster occurred on Sunday night during the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, which ended the festival. It was triggered by an absurd decision that most interviewees attribute to Michael Lang: handing tens of thousands of lit candles to attendees and asking them to perform a spontaneous homage to the victims of the mass shooting at Columbine, which had taken place months before.

Instead, the audience used the candles to set fires. The band ignored the promoters, who’d suggested the band ask for calm on stage. Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer, told an increasingly overwhelmed John Scher that “they wouldn’t listen to me, I’m a musician, not a prophet.” The Red Hot Chili Peppers simply said that the fire at the foot of the stage reminded them of Apocalypse Now. Then, they decided to perform Jimi Hendrix’s Fire as the band’s encore, an inopportune choice.

In the barely three minutes that the song lasted, the three or four existing fires became a dozen. A pitched battle involving thousands of young people followed the concert. The pyromaniac impulse gave way to euphoric violence befitting the novel Lord of the Flies. They razed everything to the ground, leaving the venue in a state that one organizer likened to war-torn Bosnia. They destroyed the commercial tents, broke into cash registers, toppled sound towers, razed the hippie-inspired murals covering the security perimeter, and tried to force their way into the VIP area and the organizers’ offices.

Woodstock ’99 attendees set fires to protest the music festival’s poor organization.
Woodstock ’99 attendees set fires to protest the music festival’s poor organization.Andrew Lichtenstein (Getty Images)

Judy Berman of Time magazine notes that “they vented all the anger [they had] accumulated during three days of aggressive music, inflammatory messages and systematic mistreatment by incompetent and unscrupulous organizers.” Berman contends that “the festival was a complete trainwreck from the beginning; it assumed that 250,000 people could function for three days as a community capable of self-regulating, under conditions of total abandonment by the organizers, [and that] no serious incidents [would take place].”

The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson similarly interprets the events, adding that “Woodstock [19]99′s most sinister legacy is the sheer number of rapes and acts of sexual abuse and harassment that took place over those three days,” a consequence of both “poor security” and the “climate of impunity and toxic masculinity that pervaded the rock scene of the late 1990s.” The glorification of nudism, recreational shamelessness, and free love hid “an atrocious machismo and a nauseating lack of respect for women’s sexual freedom.” Ananda Lewis goes further to say that, to some extent, the Me Too movement is “a reaction to the culture of misogynistic abuse that was brought out, very forcefully, at Woodstock ‘99.” But perhaps Heather’s reflection is the farthest reaching. A teenager at the time, a couple of decades later she acknowledges that Woodstock was one of the best weekends of her life. But she also notes that “we don’t accept what happened any more … I’m glad that my daughters will never have to see that and think that is just the way it is.” The disastrous night that live music died 23 years ago still casts a long shadow.

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Music history: Little Axel: The sad story of the boy who grew up with Leonard Cohen | Culture

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For the past few years, Axel Joachim Jensen has lived in a small, wooden house with a porch, where he likes to go out for a smoke, and a window with a view of meadows and pine forests. The house is part of a psychiatric facility near Oslo (Norway), in a tranquil location where bird songs and chirps are the only sounds to be heard. Jensen lives there voluntarily.

The 63-year-old Jensen has been in and out of various mental health facilities since he turned 19. His mother was Marianne Ihlen, who was one of singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen’s great loves and muses. Jensen tells the story of growing up with Cohen in the documentary film, Little Axel, directed by Fabien Greenberg and Bård Kjøge Rønning. “It can be a bit difficult to remember the things you just want to forget… but now I live in a nice place,” he says in the film.

The documentary was filmed shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic and could only be released in Norway and the US, but plans are now underway for a broader, international distribution. One autumn morning, around the time of the film’s pre-pandemic premiere, Jensen agreed to take a car trip with me and his legal guardian to Larkollen, the coastal village in southeastern Norway where his mother was born.

Jensen was serious for most of the trip and said little, perhaps because of his medication. Little escapes his stony, piercing gaze, but his face occasionally lights up with a tender and childlike delight. A heavy-set man, he shaves his head and wears a scraggly, gray beard. He walks briskly around the town once we arrive, but once we are sitting at a bar, he seems indifferent to our conversation, his mind in some other place. “Cohen had a dark side,” he blurts out suddenly. “But I miss being with him.” He says little else. Behind his rough demeanor, I catch glimpses of a stunted sensibility, scattered thoughts, and a lifetime of inner pain.

His father was Axel Jensen, sometimes called the Jack Kerouac of Scandinavian literature. His other father – Leonard Cohen. Two prominent figures of the counterculture who set out to light the world on fire through literature and poetry. Nonconformists, tormented, narcissistic, mystical, thirsty for adventure and lust – the creative process was the only thing that gave meaning to their lives.

Little Axel, as he was nicknamed, arrived on the Greek island of Hydra with his parents when he was only four months old. A few days later, his father left Marianne for another woman. Marianne soon met Cohen, another artist living in the island’s bohemian, expatriate community, and so began one of the most romanticized relationships of recent times. Leonard and Marianne, doomed to failure from the beginning but immortalized in song – So Long, Marianne. It was a turbulent relationship, full of ups and downs, that lasted eight years. Cohen assumed the role of Axel’s stepfather, providing financial and emotional support to the child. Long after his breakup with Marianne, Cohen continued to help Jensen, sometimes taking him into his home.

Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen, in another frame of the documentary.
Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen, in another frame of the documentary.

Little Axel is the story of a life told through harsh, personal testimonies backed by melancholic guitar chords and punctuated with old photos, mostly taken in Hydra. Jensen grew up in a small colony of expatriates that disdained conventional mores and pursued an Arcadian dream of idyllic innocence tarnished by human flaws. Axel tells how he grew up in complete freedom, smoking and getting drunk at the age of seven. When he was nine, he traveled over 160 miles (260 km) across the seas to the southern Greek island of Crete accompanied only by his 12-year-old friend, Jeffery Brown. “They [our mothers] loved us, but they also loved their own freedom. We had to be adults at an early age,” said Brown. At 15, Jensen was smoking hashish and had tried LSD. The next year, he traveled alone to India, returning from the trip depressed and aggressive. Jensen moved to California to be with Cohen two years later when he was 18. It was the last time they would see each other – his 19th birthday was spent in a mental institution.

When he was seven, Jensen was dispatched to Summerhill, a British boarding school and bastion of anti-authoritarian education, and later to a strict, Swiss boarding school. His tender and desperate letters home to his mother and Cohen are heart-wrenching. Little Axel seems to lay most of the blame at Marianne Ihlen’s feet in this sad tale of neglect, lost souls, and festering wounds. Curiously, the film does not allude to a genetic predisposition as a potential cause of Jensen’s mental illness, even though his paternal grandmother had been committed to a mental institution, according to Torgrim Eggen, who authored a biography of Jensen’s father. In Axel, Eggen writes about frequent, aggressive outbursts by Jensen’s father who was once treated by David Cooper, the father of anti-psychiatry, and administered LSD in their first session. “You could say he was borderline [mentally ill],” writes Eggen.

“Hydra certainly took its toll on many of the foreign children who lived there, because of their unstructured, unfettered lives,” notes Helle V. Goldman, editor of When We Were Almost Young

(Tipota Press), an anthology of short memoirs about the island, where she also grew up. The children were witnesses to the lives led by the adults – to their infidelities, their parties, and their alcohol and drug use. Some say that Ihlen was too focused on her own life adventure, but Goldman believes that it’s all too easy to blame the young and lonely mother.

Leonard, Marianne, and Me (Backbeat Books), Judy Scott’s insightful and honest memoir about her days in Hydra during the sexual revolution of the drug-fueled 1970s, tells an anecdote about taking mescaline with young Axel who starts hallucinating that he can see Cohen’s ghost. Scott remembers Ihlen as a careless but devoted mother who ultimately blamed herself for her son’s suffering.

In August 1970, shortly before Cohen famously succeeded in calming a rowdy audience at a music festival on the Isle of Wight (UK), he received a letter from a patient at Henderson Hospital, a psychiatric facility near London, inviting him to give a concert there. “I hope you like So Long, Marianne,” said Cohen as soon as he walked in. For the next two hours, Cohen played for about 50 young patients at the facility, and told them about his fading relationship with his muse, about how he took 300 acid trips to write the song You Know Who I Am, how he wrote One of Us Cannot Be Wrong in a shabby hotel room while he tried to kick an amphetamine habit, and about the crushing loneliness he sometime felt.

That was the first of a series of concerts play by Cohen in various mental health facilities to wildly appreciative audiences. “When you are committed to a mental institution, voluntarily or not, you are admitting to a tremendous defeat. You’ve made a choice,” he would later say. “And I felt that my songs had elements of that choice, of that defeat, that these audiences would empathize with.”

Axel Jensen has started playing chess again, as he used to do with Leonard Cohen during those carefree days on Hydra – and still listens to his songs.

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History: El Argar, the great society that mysteriously vanished | Culture

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3D recreation of La Bastida, near present-day Totana (Murcia), one of the main settlements of the Argaric culture.
3D recreation of La Bastida, near present-day Totana (Murcia), one of the main settlements of the Argaric culture.Dani Méndez-REVIVES

El Argar, an early Bronze Age culture that was based within modern Spain, is one of the great enigmas of Spanish and world archaeology. After emerging in 2200 BC, it disappeared 650 years later. Experts debate that it collapsed in 1550 BC either because of the depletion of the natural resource that sustained it – which resulted in the population fleeing or dying of starvation — or because of a massive popular revolt against the ruling class.

The Argaric culture was “the first society divided into classes in the Iberian Peninsula” – as defined by the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) – and the creator of the world’s first Parliament. Following its demise, the civilization vanished from memory… until an archaeologist named Rogelio de Inchaurrandieta came across Argaric artefacts in 1869 and began to ask questions.

Inchaurrandieta exhibited his discovery at the International Archeology Congress in Copenhagen (1866-1912). He spoke of an unknown civilization from the Bronze Age that he had found on a steep hill in the municipality of Totana, in Spain’s Region of Murcia. He displayed gold and silver objects and spoke of a large, fortified city that lacked any type of connection with known historical societies. Nobody believed him.

But in 1877, the Belgian brothers Luis and Enrique Siret arrived in Murcia in search of mining prospects. They ended up confirming the existence of the unknown society, including what had been its large urban center, which extended 35,000 square kilometres through the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula. This site was methodically excavated: agricultural tools, precious metals and even the remains of princesses were preserved.

The study El Argar: The Formation of a Class Society, by archaeologists Vicente Lull, Rafael Micó, Roberto Risch and Cristina Rihuete Herrada from UAB, points out that El Argar “is one of the emblematic cultures of the early Bronze Age in Europe. The large settlements on its hills, the abundance of well-preserved [tombs] in the subsoil of the towns, as well as the quantity, variety and uniqueness of the artefacts, have since attracted the attention of numerous researchers.”

Vicente Lull, professor of Prehistory at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and one of the world’s most recognized experts on this society, admits that the Argaric “is in fashion.” “Specialists come from all over the world to take an interest in this unique civilization… it is unparalleled, with first-rate technological development, which left nothing in its wake, but advanced everything. It’s like searching for the lost civilization.”

Experts agree that the discovery of El Argar marked a break with respect to the preceding Copper Age, regarding technological development, economic relations, urban and territorial organization patterns and funerary rites.

The Sirets, at the end of the 19th century, excavated ten Argaric sites and opened more than a thousand tombs, resulting in the destruction of the human remains. However, they carefully drew everything they found.

“The culture of El Argar is the first [class-based] society in the Iberian Peninsula. The central settlements accumulated an important part of the production surpluses and the work force. The effects of said control are manifested in the normalization of ceramic and metallurgical products and in the restricted circulation and use, above all, of metallic products,” assert the experts from UAB.

But not all the inhabitants of these cities accumulated wealth to the same extent, as evidenced by the exhumed goods of the ruling class. In 1984, Vicente Lull and Jordi Estévez distinguished three social groups. The most powerful class – made up of 10 percent of the population – enjoyed “all the privileges and the richest trappings, including weapons such as halberds and swords.” 50 percent of individuals, meanwhile, were of modest means and had recognized social-political rights, while 40 percent of residents were condemned to servitude or slavery.

“One of the characteristics of this society is that it was closed in on itself. Its defenses not only served as protection, but also created a cloistered society dominated by an oppressive ruling class,” Lull notes. Such aristocratic oppression likely could have triggered the end of the civilization.

The end of El Argar gave way to the late-Bronze Age. The causes of the collapse of Argaric society seem to have been various socio-economic and ecological factors. Possibly, the overexploitation of the environment led to ecological degradation that made economic and social reproduction unfeasible. The end of El Argar is characterized by the depletion of natural resources, work tools and the workforce, the latter in the form of high infant mortality and more diseases. Perhaps this situation led to an unprecedented social explosion and complete disappearance of this civilization, as evidenced by the fact that many of the unearthed buildings show signs of having been burned on all four sides.

Following the destruction, there was complete silence, only broken by the permanence in Alicante and Granada of some small Argaric groups – populated by the fleeing ruling classes – that survived another century.

Of the hundreds of Argaric tombs studied, one stands out that archaeologists call the Princess of La Almoloya, a young woman who died in the year 1635 BC. She was buried at the head of a unique building with her linens, ceramics and thirty valuable objects made of gold, silver, amber and copper. Beneath her grave, the body of a man who had died years before was found.

About 100 kilometres from Pliego, in Antas – the economic and political center of El Argar – a building was found that included a large room, with benches and a podium. It could accommodate 50 people. The researchers assume that it was a kind of parliament, perhaps the first in the world.

“We will never know what was discussed there,” says Lull, “because the Argarics, despite their development, did not master writing. It’s a mystery about a mystery.”

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