Not two poems today, but prose by the prolific German-language poets. Rilke was born in Prague in what was at that time called the Austro-Hungarian empire. His earlier work evokes a sense of romanticism, but after two life-changing trips to Russia, Rilke’s work evolved into what would become his predominant approach to writing: [these trips provided hims with] “poetic material and inspiration essential to his developing philosophy of existential materialism and art as religion” (Poetry Foundation).
Throughout his life, Rilke interacted with key artists of the period, including Tolstoy, Pasternak, and Rodin, for whom Rilke worked as secretary (1905-06). Although best known for his German language work, Rilke’s ouevre included 400 poems written in French. Additionally, he was a prodigious letter writer, especially to the significant women in his life, and many of his letters reflect the poet’s continual search for meaning through art and his desire to determine poet’s overarching role in society.
In 1912, Rilke began writing Duino Elegies, so called because Rilke began the collection while visiting Duino Castle on the Italian Adriatic coast. The collection, considered to be his magnum opus, took him ten years to write. Rilke, who suffered from health problems his entire life, including stifling depression, died of leukemia in 1926.
Go here or here for more information on the poet and his work. The selections below are from Rilke’s only novel, which was considered to be semi-autobiographical, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910).
All the lost fears are here again.
The fear that a small woolen thread sticking out of the hem of my blanket may be hard, hard and sharp as a steel needle; the fear that this little button on my night-shirt may be bigger than my head, bigger and heavier; the fear that the breadcrumpbwhich just dropped off my bed may turn into glass, and shatter when it hits the floor, and the sickening worry that when it does, everything will be broken, for ever; the fear that the ragged edge of a letter which was torn open may be something forbidden, which no one out to see, something indescribably precious, for which no place in the room is safe enough; the fear that if I fell asleep I might swallow the piece of coal lying in front of the stove; the fear that some number may begin to grow in my brain until there is no more room for it inside me; the fear that I may be lying on granite, on gray granite; the fear that I may start screaming, and people will come running to y door ad finally force it open, the fear that I might betray myself and tell everything I drea, and the fear that I might not be able to say anything because everything is unsayable,—and the other fears . . . the fears.
From “For the Sake of a Single Poem”
. . . Ah poems amount to so little when you write then too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn’t pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else—); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet, restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars,—and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labor, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
As of just a short while ago, Florida is headed for a mandatory statewide recount in not one, but three races: governor and senator, as well as agricultural commissioner (the recount includes two state house seats in dispute). According to The New York Times:
As of noon on Saturday, the deadline for the state’s counties to hand in unofficial results, three statewide races remained under the 0.5 percentage point margin for a legally required machine recount: the Senate race between Mr. Scott, a Republican, and Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat; the governor’s race between Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, and the commissioner of agriculture race between Nikki Fried, a Democrat, and Matt Caldwell, a Republican.
The statewide recount is unusual, even for a state known for contested races, most particularly the 2000 race between George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore.. Political consultant Matthew Dowd, who worked on Bush’s campaign, tweeted, “Not counting all the votes in Florida in 2000 was a grave injustice and caused many to question the legitimacy of Bush election. Let us not repeat that injustice in FL and AZ this year. Count all the votes.”
The machine recounts must be completed by Thursday. Of course Trump had nothing but positive things to say today regarding the supposed fraud: “As soon as Democrats sent their best Election stealing lawyer, Marc Elias, to Broward County they miraculously started finding Democrat votes.”
In the gubernatorial race, Republican Ron DeSantis has seen his lead over Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum narrow to .41 percentage points. The gap in the senatorial race between Republican Rick Scott and Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson has narrowed to .15 percentage points; by law, a margin of .25 percent or less mandates a hand recount. Those results will be due by noon on November 18.
Just a note to any of you who don’t know my blog very well, I do not write solely about politics. This just happens to be a very important political week in our country’s history. I’ll be back to more of my usual fodder very soon.
More later. Peace.
Tonight Hazard’s father and stepmother are having
jazz for McGovern. In the old game-room
the old liberals listen as the quintet builds
crazy houses out of skin and brass, crumbling
the house of decorum, everybody likes that.
For decades they have paid for the refurbishing
of America and they have not got their money’s worth.
Now they listen, hopeful,
to the hard rock for McGovern.
The ceiling in this palace needs fixing,
the chalky blue paint is like an old heaven
but there are holes and flaking.
They had movies here when grandpa was solvent.
Hazard desires his wife, the way people
on the trains to the death camps were seized
by irrational lust. She is the youngest woman
in the room, he would like to be in bed
with her now, he would like to be president.
He has not been to his studio
in four days, he asks the bartender,
a college boy with a ponytail, for more gin.
He stands in the doorway. Forsythia and lilac
have overgrown the porch, there is the rich
smell of wood-rot. What twenty years will do
to untended shrubbery and America and Hazard.
“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realize that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realize, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.” ~ Helen MacDonald, from H is for Hawk
Thursday evening. Partly cloudy, a bit unseasonably warm, and very windy, 67 degrees.
Hello. Very, very long time, no write. I hadn’t realized exactly just how long it had been until I looked at the date of my last real post, you know, one with more than someone else’s words — three and a half years almost. If you’ve stayed with me, I thank you. If you’ve dropped by a time or two, I do so appreciate it. If you’ve despaired of me ever writing another original word, well, that makes several of us.
So . . . onward, as it were.
Greetings from the mountains of Virginia. The last time we visited, I was still living on the east coast of Virginia. This past summer, after many aborted starts and stops, we (my husband and 2 dogs and 1 cat (relatively new addition)) brought the final truckload to our acres of tree covered land in a small town in southwest Virginia.
Life changes even as we do . . .
I needed my mistakes in their own order to get me here ~ W.S. Merwin, from “Wild Oats”
To the matter at hand: Where have I been, and perhaps more importantly, why?
The first is much easier: I have been nowhere. I have been sitting. I have been stewing. I have been composing in my head and putting nothing down permanently. I have been contemplating, and I have been questioning. Between there have been many tears, recriminations, regrets, harsh words, and unbelievable support. And the end result is a whole lot of nothing and a whole lot of . . . well, I’m not exactly sure.
But as far as my writing, my composing, my creating? Nothing. Not. a. thing.
I never intended to be away this long. It was a dry spell, one that I thought I would conquer as I had before, be away for a few weeks, and then I would return. But weeks turned into months, which morphed into a year, and then another year, until I was embarrassed by the delay. Mortified by the failed declarations of return. And ultimately, I feared that I really had nothing to say nothingtosay nothingtosayyyyyyyyy . . .
So there was the writer’s block, the epic writer’s block, and then there was the election (far too many words for this), and then there was the depression, and then there was . . . well . . . I’ll have to think about that part a bit more.
“Alas, the vices of man, as horrifying as they are presumed to be, contain proof (if only in their infinite expansiveness!) of his bent for the infinite.” ~ Charles Baudelaire, from Artificial Paradises
I imagine that I will delve into things much more as I go here. After all, I’m still getting my feet wet here. I need to update my site, get rid of all of the broken links, create a new header, find a new theme, decide if I want to pay to get rid of the WordPress ads . . . Also, I have to say that the whole idea of social media (which I suppose is the category into which blogs still fall) stymies me. I mean, it’s so divisive, so full of venom and vicissitude. The discourse is more often than not, well, coarse. I just don’t understand.
From what I’ve observed in visiting other sites and places, people are not very kind on social media. In fact, this modern form of connecting and communicating seems inhabited by many people who like nothing better than to incite and accuse. It’s not for those who bruise easily, and quite honestly, I don’t know if I currently fall into that category.
“The virtue of angels is that they cannot deteriorate; their flaw is that they cannot improve. Man’s flaw is that he can deteriorate, and his virtue is that he can improve.” ~ The Talmud
I’ve had to look back at previous posts just to try to remember how I used to do things, which doesn’t mean that that’s how I’m going to continue to do things. I still hope to incorporate other’s quotes, selections of images that are free of copyright or for which I have obtained permission, music maybe, but I also hope to do more of my own photography, show some of what I’m looking at these days.
So much to do, so much time in which to do it. That’s a bit different, isn’t it?
I must admit to conflicting feelings: trepidation and excitement. Trepidation — do I really want to do this again? What will it mean? How will it go? Will people still find my words interesting? Is it too late to come back?
Excitement — This feels quite natural. I think that I actually have things to say again. I want this platform, this freedom, this exhilaration that comes from the risk of putting myself out there.
Ultimately, only you can tell me, and I don’t even know if you’re still out there. Let me know, won’t you?
More later. Promise. Peace.
Music by Lady Gaga, “I’ll Never Love Again” (love, love, love this song)
“I want to be lifted up By some great white bird unknown […] And soar for a thousand miles and be carefully hidden Modest and golden as one last corn grain, Stored with the secrets of the wheat” ~ James Wright, from “The Minneapolis Poem”
Thursday afternoon. Partly cloudy and cold, 39 degrees.
Another bad night. I forgot to apply a new pain patch before bed, and as a result, the ache in my legs awoke me every few hours, which only fueled the dogs to keep pestering me to go out, even when I knew that they really didn’t need to.
I had a very weird dream in which Corey’s sister was balancing our checkbook, and we lived in a different big house that had a sunken tub, and all I wanted to do was escape and soak in the tub, but people kept asking me to do things, and then someone wanted to know why I was having the drapes in my mother’s house altered, and how it only cost $40, and I just didn’t have answers.
And last night as I was watching something, can’t remember what, I realized that my head hurt, and I wonder when I passed over from being acutely aware of my headaches to the point at which their omnipresence has become status quo, so much so that I don’t quite feel them? How does that happen? I mean, I know that the body adjusts its threshold for pain, but this? To actually have to tell myself, “hey, your head really hurts . . . perhaps you should take some medicine for that”?
It just blows my mind.
“There is something maddeningly attractive about the untranslatable, about a word that goes silent in transit.” ~ Anne Carson, from “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent”
At some point during one of my awake periods, I had a fragment of a poem appear, and I rolled over thinking that surely I would remember it, but then I realized that I would never remember it, so I jotted it down in pencil on the first thing I could find, which was the wrapper for my pain patch, and now I have to find it. I have another fragment somewhere, but for the life of me I can’t remember if I stuck it in the middle of one of my countless drafts here, or if I actually opened Word and put it there.
So obviously, forcing myself to write down what I told myself I would remember was a good thing . . .
I had Olivia on Monday and Tuesday of this week, which is always a treat, but since Corey left Monday afternoon, I did not sleep much at all that night. That’s how it always is on the first night after he leaves again. I have to try to remember (that word, again) not to schedule anything for the day after he leaves because I am physically and emotionally useless.
After all of this time of him shipping out, you would think that I would be used to it, but not so much. I mean, I have adjusted much better to the period when he is gone and being her by myself with just the dogs, and only once in a while does it cause me to fall into a tailspin, but the actual physical separation as represented so starkly in our half empty bed? That gets to me every single time.
“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain By the false azure in the windowpane I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov, from “Pale Fire”
Yesterday I took care of some Christmas returns and exchanges. Brett and Em went with me, so it made it a bit easier. We actually got a tremendous amount done, and we were all done in afterwards.
I had bought myself some dinner at Costco, but only ended up eating a slice of bread. Before you think me too spartan, I have to confess that every time I get up in the middle of the night into the morning, I eat something, whether it’s a piece of chocolate or an Oreo. It’s an abominable habit, one that I would really like to break. The only time I haven’t done this in recent memory was when I had bronchitis, and everything tasted foul.
Anyway, another leftover from the bronchitis is my unabating hankering for Typhoo tea with lemon and honey. I go through phases with my tea, and most of the time I take it like workman’s tea—strong with cream and sweetener, but the honey/lemon combination helps so much with chest congestion. That, or it’s completely in my mind, which has been known to happen.
“My heart always timidly hides itself behind my mind. I set out to bring down stars from the sky, then, for fear of ridicule, I stop and pick little flowers of eloquence.” ~ Edmond Rostand, from Cyrano de Bergerac
Let’s see . . . what else is going on in my fun-filled adventurous life?
I’m gradually getting the house back in order after Christmas. Right before Corey left he finally set up the single bed for Olivia, and we began to sift through the boxes and piles that have accumulated in that corner bedroom. There is just so much. It’s never a good idea to let one room in your house become a junk room because it just gets away from you too easily. I can vouch for that.
He was also able to set up but not finesse the house backup system I bought us for Christmas. This thing has 4 terabytes of memory. Remember when 2G was a big deal? Hell, I remember being happy with megabytes. My how far we’ve come in such a short time.
I have at least two tubs worth of books that I need to sort through and pack, and my reason for not doing so before is silly: I want to record them on Goodreads. It’s not the number of books that I’ve read, but the fact that Goodreads gives me a free repository of the titles in my personal library. Years ago, before PCs, I had a handwritten list of my books, in particular, my poetry books, and it came in very handy after the one place I worked caught on fire. So there’s that.
But there is also a mess of strange cords, loose tools, two bags of shredding to be done . . .
“But in those days what did I know of the pleasures of loss, Of the edge of the abyss coming close with its hisses And storms, a great watery animal breaking itself on the rocks,
Sending up stars of salt, loud clouds of spume.” ~ Mark Strand, from “Dark Harbor”
Well, the end of January is creeping up on me, and I have to admit that I am terribly afraid. My mom has been on my mind so much lately, and she haunts my dreams almost every night. And as much as I wish it would snow, I think that having a snowstorm at the end of January would just about do me in because one of my acutest memories of last year was walking to the hospital in the snow.
Anyway, I’m trying to keep my mind occupied, but who knows . . .
I still haven’t done anything with the now dead poinsettias that I had bought for the cemeteries, and they serve as a constant reminder of what a failure I am at honoring my mother and father. I know. You probably think that I’m exaggerating, trying to get sympathy. But truly, no.
I have never hidden my long-standing love/hate relationship with guilt, but this is something more. I well and truly feel as if I have dishonored and failed my parents by not going to the cemetery at Christmas, by not even visiting Caitlin at Christmas. And yes, I had bronchitis, but still, the feeling looms large, and it pierces my heart, and I just don’t know what else to say, so perhaps I should stop now.
More winter pictures. More later. Peace.
Music by David Beats Goliath, “Maisie & Neville”
Death and the Moon
(for Catherine Marcangeli)
The moon is nearer than where death took you
at the end of the old year. Cold as cash
in the sky’s dark pocket, its hard old face
is gold as a mask tonight. I break the ice
over the fish in my frozen pond, look up
as the ghosts of my wordless breath reach
for the stars. If I stood on the tip of my toes
and stretched, I could touch the edge of the moon.
I stooped at the lip of your open grave
to gather a fistful of earth, hard rain,
tough confetti, and tossed it down. It stuttered
like morse on the wood over your eyes, your tongue,
your soundless ears. Then as I slept my living sleep
the ground gulped you, swallowed you whole,
and though I was there when you died,
in the red cave of your widow’s unbearable cry.
and measured the space between last words
and silence, I cannot say where you are. Unreachable
by prayer, even if poems are prayers. Unseeable
in the air, even if souls are stars. I turn
to the house, its windows tender with light, the moon,
surely, only as far again as the roof. The goldfish
are tongues in the water’s mouth. The black night
is huge, mute, and you are further forever than that.
“Indeed. People think the name of this island means ‘blessed,’ and so it does, but ‘blessed’ does not mean what people thin kit does. In the old tongue it was bletsian and before that blotsian, and before that, just blod. It means sacrifice.” ~ Marcus Sedgwick, from Midwinter Blood
Saturday, late afternoon. Partly cloudy and not so cold, 51 degrees.
I just read the most amazing book: Midwinterblood (2013) by Marcus Sedgwick. The painting above, which was created for the central staircase hall of the Stockholm’s National Museum, figures prominently in the story, or rather, stories, seven to be exact.
It’s a fast but intricate read, tracing the tale of Eric and Merle through hundreds of years, and seven iterations. I was fascinated by the deft mixing of mystery, fantasy and history that links the seven stories, beginning in the future, and traveling back before time on record.
Apparently, it’s a book for teens, but I find that classification a bit useless. What defines a book? That’s a whole other post. But what aggravates me about that category for this book is that while the stories would appeal to teens, it takes a bit of life to understand and appreciate that love through seven different lives does not have to be passion-filled love between lovers in order to be important. I’m not sure if I’m making much sense, perhaps because I literally just put the book down and walked over to my desk to write this.
Alex Brown of tor.com wrote a wonderful review, which you can find here. And here is a short YouTube promo for the book that I found intriguing:
More later. Peace.
Music by Delerium (featuring Azure Ray), “Keyless Door”
When I awoke this morning, I was mulling over the last line to Robert Browning‘s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. Which brought to mind (a non sequitur, I know) bits of the following, which I had to search for before finding the actual poem, and then hours later I realized that I had gone of on some tangent and had completely forgotten (once again) to publish the post . . . anyway:
Come to me in my dreams, and then
By day I shall be well again!
For so the night will more than pay
The hopeless longing of the day.
Come, as thou cam’st a thousand times,
A messenger from radiant climes,
And smile on thy new world, and be
As kind to others as to me!
Or, as thou never cam’st in sooth,
Come now, and let me dream it truth,
And part my hair, and kiss my brow,
And say, My love why sufferest thou?
Come to me in my dreams, and then
By day I shall be well again!
For so the night will more than pay
The hopeless longing of the day.
” . . . they would tell me nothing, except that they had been commanded to travel over Ireland continually, and upon foot and at night, that they might live close to the stones and the trees and at the hours when the immortals are awake.” ~ W.B. Yeats, from The Adoration of the Magi
Wednesday afternoon. Cloudy and humid, 81 degrees.
I just read the most remarkable essay in Parabola, “The Search for One Thing,” by Betsy Cornwell.
Please understand: This is more than one of my casual reblogs. Cornwell’s words hit so close to home, almost too close. Everything she says, I have felt. All of her words have been my words at one time or another, but not in such a beautiful, linear fashion. This essay explains Ireland for me—the green that I have long dreamed of—all of it, it’s all here.
The Aran Islands have been in my dreams since I first saw them in some forgotten movie eons ago. The cliffs, the green, the sheep, the sky—everything that I have ever wanted in one place.
I don’t have Cornwell’s past with her father, yet I can understand her need to break away, to search on her own. For so many years I wanted to break away, but the curse of the only child is that your life is never your own, at least not until your parents are gone, not unless you want to bear the label of being selfish, and it was a label I couldn’t bear.
I don’t think that anyone has ever completely understood my dream of Ireland. Corey tries; he knows that it’s someplace I have always wanted to go, but it’s more than just wanting to visit. I want to spend time there, days, weeks, months. I want to walk and bike and, well, mostly I want to think about my life.
It’s not escape I seek. It’s clarity. The kind of clarity I will never have here, not here in this house in this city in this state in this country. Don’t ask me why I know that to be true, but I do.
This is the biggest truth I know: I need to go to Ireland, and soon, otherwise, I fear it may be too late.
The Search for One Thing
by Betsy Cornwell
“Give it one week of hard frost,” my new husband says, “and all the green will be gone.” He has slowed the car to let two adolescent does cross the road, and we watch them vanish neatly into the ditch on the other side. In the 4:30 November gloom, the perfect white of their rumps is nearly all we can see.
As they pass through the high brambles of the ditch, Richie admires their fleetness, their nimble feet. I say the deer must risk the danger of the road only because it’s winter and they are hungry, but he says they wouldn’t be wanting yet; that’s when he warns me about the week of frost, and the green.
But here, even in winter, Ireland is so green that to walk through the countryside is almost to think you are underwater. And here a ditch is not a hole, not an absence, but its opposite. An Irish ditch is a raised thicket, a dense living tangle of blackberry and ivy and gorse. Twining through the ditch are innumerable tiny tunnels—through them mice and spiders wind. No snakes here, of course—remember St. Patrick—but the tunnels mimic their absence, their silent, assured sinuousness.
When I first came to this country, I remember thinking that even if I jumped from one of its many cliffs I wouldn’t fall, but float, until the cool wet wind of this place carried me back, softly, onto the grass that is so green it is like water, like every kind of life pulled together into one.
I came here to renew—something, although I didn’t yet know what. And to escape, well, everything.
Two years ago, at the end of my MFA program, I was broken down and burned out, spent twigs for a spent fire. I did everything quickly, heart in my mouth, because I felt sure that if I took any extra time I would collapse into ash. I was teaching three times the prescribed student limit, tutoring, writing, finishing my thesis and my classes, and editing my first novel for next year’s publication—all jobs that filled me with whiplash joy and panic and soul-crushing insecurity. A person I loved had shown me such grinding ambivalence that I’d had to let him go, and I spent far too much time imagining our never-to-be future together. There was a cushion-laden corner of the floor in my cheap apartment that was alternately a nook for grading papers and a nest to curl up in and cry until I fell asleep. I ate whatever I thought would make me feel better, mostly
cheese and Vernor’s ginger ale. My heart was broken and my belly ached.
I had a particular dream that kept me working: I wanted to go to Ireland. I’d come in second for a Fulbright arts grant to write about selkies in Dublin, and the near miss had left me determined to get there on my own. But when the summer came and I looked at my finances, I realized that even with my book advance I would have to choose between Ireland and more earthly concerns like healthcare and rent.
That day, my father called and said he wanted to know my schedule for next year because he was taking the family to Africa. We would go on safari and sleep in tents together.
But I have spent much of my life figuring out how to avoid being in the same place as my father, especially at night. And for the first time, that day, I told him so. One advantage of being so very tired, on the threshold of adulthood, is that your childhood nightmares start getting tired too, and it is harder for them to frighten you.
“I can’t go,” I said in a voice that shook but was still my own voice, coming out of my own body. “I can’t sleep in the same room with you.”
The other end of the line was silent. After a few seconds he said, “All right. That doesn’t make me happy, but I understand.”
We hung up soon afterward, and one weight was strangely gone from the fears I carried.
A few days later he called again and offered to buy me a ticket to Ireland instead, since I wasn’t going to Africa. It felt like hush money—if I was brave enough to tell him I remembered, whom else might I tell? I said I would have to think about it. I felt sure I would say no, but that dream was a hard one for me to give up.
I went into town to have coffee with Trish, a woman twice my age who feels like someone I grew up with, a friend whom I often call my spiritual guide. The Catholic school we attended, with its Planned Parenthood protests, homophobia, and rape apologism, tempted me to throw up my hands at even a nebulous, agnostic God—but it was Trish’s faith that kept me searching for my own. She combines her devout and somewhat radical Catholicism with dashes of Buddhism and a sharp flair for the intersectionally feminist, and I’ve always loved her for it. I liked to say that she was “Tapped In To Something,” because it was the only way I could find of explaining her radiant wisdom and kindness, the light that shines through her. (When she’s not giving spiritual counsel to frightened young women, Trish is a professor of sociology and a brilliant poet.)
As soon as she sat down I started crying—big, gasping sobs from a shy woman who can rarely even manage to raise her voice in anger. I don’t know if I’d ever shown that much emotion in public before.
Trish stroked my arm. I wept into my giant bowl of latte.
When I quieted, she laughed and said “Honey, I wouldn’t go through my twenties again for anything.”
Suddenly, I felt much better. I wiped my eyes, and she asked me what was wrong.
Trish is third generation Irish-American; three of her grandparents were born on the island where I now live. And it was she, in the end, who brought me here. I told her what my father had offered, how it felt like a bargain I didn’t want to make, and that I never wanted to owe him anything ever again.
She looked at me steadily. “You never will,” she said. “He could give you money until the end of the world and you’d owe him nothing.” He’d taken more, she said, than he could ever give back; and though some well-trained part of me thought I was being a Bad Daughter, I admitted she was right.
“But . . .” said the Bad Daughter, on the verge of tears again. I found I couldn’t finish my sentence, and I took a deep, shaky breath. “God, I’m so tired. I’m sorry about this.” I waved at my eyes.
Trish shook her head. “Go to Ireland,” she said. “You’ll rest there, you’ll write your book. It’s where the world keeps its magic. And don’t go to Dublin. In fact . . .” She pulled out her tablet and did a quick image search. “You need to go here.”
She showed me a Google page thick with pictures of green cliffs, dark waves, and small stone-bound fields. A girl’s feet dangled over the edge of one cliff, her legs mid-swing and
“The Aran Islands?” I laughed. “It’s mostly sweaters there, right?”
“The Aran Islands,” she said. “See? You’re happier already. Go there,” she thought for a moment, “for at least a month. It will heal your soul.”
My soul leapt out for healing, and I knew that I would go.
Three months later, I am sitting in the warmest corner of Tigh Joe Watty’s, one of only two pubs on the whole island. I am smiling, and every part of me feels light. Tall, redheaded Uinseon McCarron dances a beautiful Australian girl named Sjonelle across the dark wood floor, and the rest of us at the table watch and admire them, their easy grace and easier smiles. Dave, the handsome, acerbic owner of the hostel where we all work, comes back to the table with pints of cider. I haven’t written anything in weeks.
I did not understand, when I first came to Ireland, why I wasn’t writing. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t feel overworked, and suddenly I couldn’t work at all. I’d been manically, neurotically productive for years, trying to scratch my way into prep school, college, graduate school, New York agencies and publishing houses. And now here I was, not a student for the first time since I was three years old and my parents enrolled me in university preschool. I had my master’s, and my book wasn’t coming out for almost a year. I could support myself until then, meagerly, on my advance and hostel work-exchange.
All my life I had wanted “to write full time,” but here I had all the time in the world, and I wasn’t writing at all. I would wake up early every morning determined to work, and I would hover over the Cinderella retelling on my computer, making small changes that meant nothing. I always ended those sessions at least a little disgusted with myself.
My afternoons, though, I set myself free, wandering through the cobblestoned Latin quarter of Galway City to the rushing gray mouth of the Corrib. I would walk the promenade from Galway to Salthill and back, looking out at the quiet bay, cold wind slipping over my face and silvering my hair and skin with salt, breathing air clean as miracles.
I’ve spent most of my life inside my head. In childhood my body was the site of fear and confusion at the hands of an adult protector; I became expert at curling up inside myself, where my senses would know and remember nothing. The desires and doubts of adolescence only made me retreat further. My body hardly ever did what I wanted it to; I have never even been good at sports.
As I grew older, this disconnect led me to think that my body had no needs of its own, and certainly not much value. It carried my mind and my heart around, and that was all. When I felt worn out at the end of school, I thought it was only my soul that hurt. I didn’t notice the knots in my back.
I struggled over my writing in Ireland, and as Trish had instructed me, I worked to heal my broken heart. It was my lungs and my legs, though, that first grew stronger, walking along the promenade, making beds and mopping floors at the hostel.
Salt and clean air, and enough work to make you need them.
Healing was in my body, was stitching into my very cells, before I could even see it working, before I could see new words on the page. When I came here I thought I was failing, but something was already starting to grow.
In college, I studied literature and fairy tales. Some—”The Selkie Bride,” “Cinderella,” “Red Riding Hood,” “Tam Lin”—I’d read in different translations and retellings since I was a child. I have always loved, more than anything, stories. Stories helped me escape those parts of my childhood that I could talk about only years later. I told myself stories, too, even as I progressed into adulthood. I thought I knew what I wanted, whom I would love, how my life would lead. I was a good student, a follower of rules. Whenever I searched for something, I believed I knew what I would find, and when, and how.
I write fairy tales for a living now, and like many feminist writers I try to give my heroines the agency that they sometimes lack in older versions of the tales. The aims of women of my generation and the one before—and many, many brave and hard-fighting women before us—are all for choice and action. By action I mean achievement, agency, doing. I believe in these ideals; they keep the world moving forward, and help to give it some chance of (maybe, someday) being just.
But lately I have been thinking that these older princesses and witches and peasant girls have a kind of wisdom to offer us that has lately been lost: the wisdom of passivity, of stillness.
Those seemingly un-feminist stillnesses are nearly always there, in the most enduring of the old fairy stories. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood curled up in the wolf: what are they thinking, unthinking, as they lie there un-doing? Are they glad, un-chosen as it is, for the rest?
Whether they are or not, the stillness is part of the narrative, and therefore is itself part of the moving forward, the doing of the story. Even when they are still, their stories go on. And I have found, in the time that I have spent in this place, that stillness has a strength and power of its own. I believe now that I needed not to write for that time. There are many fields here that lie fallow.
Soon after I met my husband on Inis Mor (the largest of the Aran Islands—oh, Trish, how right you were) he told me something that has twined itself through my heart ever since. In Irish, he said “faigheann iarraidh, iarraidh eile.” In English: the search for one thing leads to another.
I came to Ireland to write a book. I could not write, but if the soul is a place of quiet and stillness and peace inside oneself, I found mine, and the island and I healed it where it had been starved and broken. I met my partner, and I found my home. And nine months later, in the spring, living in East Galway with Richie, I began to write again.