“It was a scene which seemed the heart of this land. The lowing sun and the one star waking, white wings on a black water, and the smell of rain, and the long lane fading where a voice comes in the falling night.” ~ Jamie O’Neill, from At Swim, Two Boys

The dark horse, Liscannor, Ireland J0sh FCC
The Dark Horse, Liscannor, Ireland by J0sh (FCC)

” . . . 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.

Sea thrift and the sea by slkovjr fcc
Sea Thrift and the Sea by slkovjr (FCC)

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.

Irish Cliffs minniemouseaunt FCC
Irish Cliffs by minniemouseaunt (FCC)

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.”

Gap of Dunloe, County Kerry, Ireland by Jackie L Chan FCC
Gap of Dunloe, County Kerry, Ireland by Jackie L Chann (FCC)

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.”

Galway by Shadowgate fcc
Galway by Shadowgate (FCC)

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.”

Galway, Panoramic from Claddagh and River Corrib WC
Galway, Panoramic from Claddagh and River Corrib (Wikimedia Commons)

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
relaxed.

“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.

Inishmann Teach Synge by Arcimboldo WC
Inishmann Teach Synge by Arcimboldo (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Galway gpoo FCC
Galway by gpoo (FCC)

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.

Road through the Burren EoinGardiner FCC
Road through the Burren by EoinGardiner (FCC)

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.

“And a softness came from the starlight and filled me full to the bone.” ~ W. B. Yeats, from “The Wanderings of Oisin”

John Edward Bale, watercolor November-1874
“November” (1874, watercolor, found in an unpublished manuscript by Surgeon Major A. F. Elliot)
by John Edward Bale

                   

“…the desire for love, the one
that costs everything, that shocks you
when someone else casts a shadow on the map
of the earth for the first time larger than your own.” ~ Deborah Brown, from “Reprise

Got shots all over my head and back today. Feel like a very sore pin cushion. Sorry, no real words.

However, ran across some bits and bobs that struck me as particularly beautiful.

For example, this passage:

“I hear you putting on your night dress. But it doesn’t stop there by any means. Again there are a hundred little actions. I know you are hurrying; clearly it is all necessary. I understand: we watch the mute gestures of animals, amazed that they, who are supposed to have no soul, line up their actions from dawn to dusk. It is exactly the same. You have no awareness of the countless moves you make, above all those that seem necessary to you, and remain quite unimportant. But they loom widely into your life. I, as I wait, feel it by chance.Love is also apparent in feeling, marveling, enthusiastic, tender hearing and observing.” ~ Robert Musil, on his wife Minerva, as quoted in 1913 by Florian Illies.

and then this short poem:

For You

For you I undress down to the sheaths of my nerves.
I remove my jewelry and set it on the nightstand,
I unhook my ribs, spread my lungs flat on a chair.
I dissolve like a remedy in water, in wine.
I spill without staining, and leave without stirring the air.
I do it for love. For love, I disappear.

~ Kim Addonizio

More later. Peace.

Music by Scarlett O’Connor and Gunnar Scott, “Fade into You”

“She was a genius of sadness, immersing herself in it, separating its numerous strands, appreciating its subtle nuances. She was a prism through which sadness could be divided into its infinite spectrum.” ~ Jonathan Safran Foer, from Everything Is Illuminated

Nikolay Nikanorovich Dubovskoy Silence has Settled 1890 drohende Stille oil on canvas
“Silence has Settled or Drohende Stille” (1890, oil on canvas)
by Nikolay Nikanorovich Dubovskoy

                      

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” ~ William Shakespeare, from Macbeth

Alexis’s friend Jennifer died today. Jennifer, who had so many reprieves, who lived to share another Christmas and another Christmas with her young son, and even, almost a third Christmas.

When I first wrote about Jennifer it was in September of 2010, and everyone was so certain that she would die before the end of the year. I include myself in that everyone. But Jennifer fooled each of us. She left the hospital, went home, and lived. She lived through two more (three?) of her son Reilly’s birthdays; she lived long enough to come to Alexis’s baby showers and to take a bus to the hospital when Alexis was in labor.

She lived, and then, she didn’t.

As if I needed yet another reason to hate November.

“Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.” ~ William Faulkner, from The Wild Palms

You see, I feel nothing but guilt about Jennifer. I was not a good friend to her, and even when Corey mentioned that I might want to call her because she was sick again, I chose not to. I just couldn’t do it, couldn’t put aside my own feelings of dread at facing another young person’s death, couldn’t find a way around my own discomfort to call this sweet, sweet girl. God, she could talk your ear off, and the drugs made her ramble even more. I am not patient with such things, witness my attitude with my own mother.

And the whole time Alexis was pregnant, Jennifer would find things for her that she might be able to use. Jennifer was a world-class thrifter. But that’s how she was, truly, thinking about other people. Looking out for others even when she already bore so much more than she deserved.

I thought about Jennifer a lot since that September in 2010. I was beyond happy when she was around to spend Christmas with Reilly that year and then the next, and then that thing happened that always happens: complacency. Just as with my brother-in-law Patrick: you get so used to the person being in a certain state of health that that state becomes normal. So when Patrick got sick again, it just didn’t occur to me that he would die. Neither did it occur to me that Jennifer might actually die this time, even though within my heart I knew that it was a strong probability.

“How could I have been so ignorant? she thinks. So stupid, so unseeing, so given over to carelessness. But without such ignorance, such carelessness, how could we live? If you knew what was going to happen, if you knew everything that was going to happen next—if you knew in advance the consequences of your own actions—you’d be doomed.” ~ Margaret Atwood, from The Blind Assassin

Funnily enough, today I was watching Sesame Street with Olivia, and I had a flash of memory: When Lex was younger and one or more of her friends had spent the night, I used to go in and jump on the bed and use Elmo’s voice and yell at them to get up. Weird, I know, but true. I thought of that today, before I got the news. And then a few hours later a got a text that Jennifer had died.

And so I wept. I wept hot tears of hate. Hatred at myself. Hatred at fate. Hatred at cancer. Hatred at whatever it is that decides to inflict such pain upon a sweet, talkative young girl who never had all of the comforts that Alexis had, who came from a broken family filled with dysfunctions—how that girl moved beyond that and became a wonderful mother to her son, the kind of mother she never had.

I wept at myself for failing to do the right thing, and then, I realized that my tears were also selfish tears, appropriating Jennifer’s life and death to add to my own litany of loss, and I am repulsed by myself. How can I cry for Jennifer and turn it into tears for my own losses? Who does this? I am sickened, and so I weep more, weep until I cannot breathe and am on the verge of hyperventilating because the overwhelming sensation that I feel is guilt: guilt over not calling Jennifer, guilt over not keeping in touch with Patrick, guilt over not being more patient with my mother, guilt over not going back to the hospital in time to be with my father so that he did not die alone, and always, always, always, guilt over Caitlin.

“Youth offers the promise of happiness, but life offers the realities of grief.”Nicholas Sparks, from The Rescue

I won’t scream and say that it’s unfair, that it’s unfair because she was young. Death holds sway over who it will. Youth’s seeming immortality has no pardon from its sway, is impotent in its presence.

When is enough enough?

I know that I am merely screaming into the wind here, that nothing can change anything, yet I am so filled with self-loathing right now that it just makes me cry even harder.

We are careless. Humans are careless. We make assumptions. We delude ourselves. It is easier this way. We do not want cold truths. We do not want blunt realities. Allow us to coast along with our false certainties, to be comforted by our denial. Yes, that is better, is it not?

My dog Shakes used to get very worried when I had crying jags. He would come in and try to get in my lap and Alfie would bark shrilly as if that could stem my tears. It was harder to cry when that was going on. I suddenly remembered that in the middle of my keening, and then I cried even harder.

Granted, it has already been a very shaky November so far as it was apparent that I was well on my way to a major fall. But now? I don’t even know how to think. I’m just letting my fingers form the words for me as I do not want to think about anything too much. I do not want to see Jennifer’s face in my mind, especially as I cannot recall Caitlin’s face. I know. That makes no sense, but it feels like yet another betrayal.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” ~ C.S. Lewis, from A Grief Observed

Jennifer was someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s lover, and someone’s mother. Jennifer used to put baby oil in her hair when she was a teenager because it was curly and she wanted to make it lay flat. I’m certain that Jennifer is the first person Alexis got drunk with, and for a while I would not let Alexis spend the night at Jennifer’s apartment. Turns out my daughter was probably the instigator all along, but I blamed Jennifer and Amanda. Not my Alexis.

But we do what we can as parents. We try to make the right decisions. Try to guide our sons and daughters into having the right relationships, and even when they don’t, we make excuses for them because after all, they are our sons and daughters.

After today a young son lost his mother. Reilly will not have his mommy to spend Christmas with him, to celebrate his birthday with him, to see him go on his first date, to watch him graduate. His drug addict father hasn’t been in the picture in years. He will have his uncle who helped Jennifer with Reilly after she got out of the hospital. But no matter how much the people in his life who love him may try, they will never ever be able to fill that void. No one can replace your mother, especially when you are young.

” . . . you know you can go your whole life collecting days, and none will outweigh the one you wish you had back.” ~ Mitch Albom, from For One More Day

I haven’t talked much about suicide on this blog for many reasons. I will only say this: that knowing what it would do to my children kept me from making foolish mistakes. Jennifer had no choice in this. And try as she did, the fates were against her. Her death will affect Reilly in so very many ways, ways in which people could never predict.

Caitlin never had a choice, nor did she have a chance, but that never kept us from hoping until hope was taken away.

Hope. That four letter word that is probably more powerful than love or hate. Hope allows us to fool ourselves in ways that love and hate never do. Hope keeps us coming back. Hope carries us to places we might not dare to travel. And then when hope is lost, that my friends, that is the worst loss of all.

Goodbye, Jennifer. I hope you were loved much as you deserved.

“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
~ W.B. Yeats, from “The Stolen Child”

A song I used to play over and over on my piano: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata