stories that follow have all been written and broadcast by blow-in me on RTE
Quiet Quarter. Here’s hoping that a couple connect with you! Chuck
Looking Back at the Music in My Life
5 scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter autumn of 2008
In this, my seventieth year, I find myself looking back at the music that has
made a difference to me. The earliest piece that gave me a fundamental
experience was a silly song sung upon my father’s bouncing knees as he played
it on our small family piano. The year was 1942, I then the only child, though
my mother used to ask me to come feel her tummy, rest my ear against it and
listen for the heartbeat of someone not yet born though getting close. Below the
half of a house that we rented stretched the Hudson River, which we could just
get a glimpse of if we climbed up into the narrow attic stairs and peeked out
the tiny window, New York City but a half-an-hour train commute south for my
how we enjoyed the piano. How I’d run to Dad’s lap when he called out for me
from the piano bench. “Chuckle-buckle! Where are you? Come here to me.”
I’d drop whatever I was into, even if it was the Long Ranger and his horse
Tonto on the one and only radio, and run to him, jump up into his lap. Then we
laughed and sang, laughed and sang, and our favourite song, or our version of
it, that I remember best went like this: “Oh a peanut sat on a railroad track
and his heart was all a flutter; oh the two-fifteen came around the bend and
toot toot peanut butter. Fare thee well, fare thee well, fare thee well my fairy
friend, for I’m off to Louisiana for to see my Pollyanna singing Polly woddle
doodle all the day.” Sometimes we changed the peanut into a grasshopper, but
he changed into peanut butter too when the train got there.
we’d finish the song, Dad would stop playing and we’d clap our hands and
then I’d hit the keyboard gently with my fingers before Dad would start in
music, that song, that whole experience, helped me physically bond more with my
father than anything else that happened over the years, since in 1943 he became
ill, lost his coordination, lost the entire use of one eye and part of the
function of the other, lost control of the volume of his voice, consequently
lost his job since he didn’t realize that when he got upset he started to
shout and the accountancy room where he worked was full of fellow workers. And,
since there was no wide-spread federally sanctioned medical insurance until
after World War II, he was bankrupted by the illness. Although he didn’t die
until 1979, in his seventy-second year, his handicapped life was always a
struggle. And he no longer had the coordination to play the piano.
his departure, my mother used to tell me, “Chuckles, I was married to three
completely different men: your father before the illness, your father during the
illness, and your father after the illness.” Lucky me to have met my father
before the illness through the music, the music and rhythmic bouncing creating
what I still remember and feel as a special and thrilling world stuffed with
high adventure on that railroad track.
In the late 1940s and early 50s, 78 rpm records being replaced by 33 Long
Playing records, or LPs, I, at around the age of ten or twelve, became
fascinated by Broadway musicals. Since I couldn’t afford to have a phonograph
of my own, and in fact couldn’t easily afford an LP, I’d scrupulously save
up money for several months made by splitting wood and shoveling neighbours’
sidewalks free of snow – often a dime for half an hour’s work – and then,
come Christmas, scoop out all the money in my glass jar and ostensibly buy my
parents their Christmas present, South Pacific one year, The Sound of Music the
next, My Fair Lady the one after that, then Kiss me Kate, and another year
I was really doing was buying the record I most wanted and giving it to them so
that I could play it over and over again on their phonograph, especially when
they weren’t around so that I could crank up the volume and sing and dance
about the room, or almost any room in the upper story of the house where we
lived, though sometimes the people in the downstairs apartment would rap sharply
on their ceiling and I’d have to tone down my shenanigans.
then, in the summertime of the early 50s, some 10 miles away from home, the
Lyric Circus theatre went up, a huge tent that could seat some 600 people in a
small circular arena. The stage was positioned in the centre of the lowest part,
thus creating a theatre in the round. And two to three times a summer my
maternal grandparents would take me, and occasionally my parents and young
sister too, over to the theatre.
was something special about being under a huge canvas roof experiencing songs I
knew only as songs become part of a plot, part of a fun story, such as how a
Cockney flower girl – Eliza Doolittle – who caterwauls in the streets, can
be transformed by a British linguist as part of a bet into a refined Victorian
lady with an aristocratic accent who can sing “the rain in Spain stays mainly
on the plain”.
the way home from these spectaculars, we’d often sing some of the songs we’d
just heard, sometimes even taking on different rolls. “By George she’s got
it.” But what made the drive home most pleasurable was the uplifting feeling
that the musical had bestowed upon us. My grandparents, though by no means sad
folk, would chat away as light-heartedly as the wrens that always nested in the
eaves of their front porch. Music, I realized, can add to our world view.
3. Accused of Becoming a
Commie at the age of 17
three and a half long months in boarding school the autumn semester of 1955, I
returned from the Pennsylvania campus to my family home in the Fingerlakes
Region of upstate New York for Christmas vacation and shortly had a major
political quarrel with my father because of a musical choice I had made.
to this, Mom and Dad,” I said, as I turned up their livingroom radio so that
they could unmistakably hear my favourite new song, then ranked Number 1 on the
Hit Parade. “This guy, this Tennessee Ernie Ford, he really has a cool voice
and he knows how to sing for the working man. And what lyrics. It’s kind of a
coal miner’s lament, you know what I mean?”
cranked up the volume and they listened. I could see Dad scowling more and more
fiercely every time the refrain came across the airwaves.
Ya load sixteen tons an’ what do ya get?
Another day older an’ deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’tcha call me ’cause I can’t go:
I owe my soul to the company store.”
of that, Chuckles. I don’t ever want to hear it again. Not ever again in this
house or anywhere else. It’s communistic. Subversive. Anti-control of things.
Why, it’s anti-American.”
Dad,” I replied, “it’s the most popular song in the country right now.
It’s sold over two million copies since it first came out two months ago. And
anyway, shouldn’t uneducated coal-miners have rights like the rest of us?”
should have rights if they earn them.”
the system this guy’s in doesn’t let him earn them. It costs him more to
live as a coal miner than he can make as a coal miner, so he’s in debt and he
can’t leave while he’s in debt and the longer he lives there the deeper in
debt he goes. That’s not a fair system.”
said dad, “it’s not an American system.”
it is,” I replied.
it’s not, son. He may have a rich baritone-bass voice but he has a poor
understanding of how our world works. Enough said. I don’t want you to become
a communist. And if you go for the likes of what he’s promoting, you’ll be
one. Enough. End.”
that was that. I didn’t listen to the hit parade again in that house during
that vacation. But I’ve never tried to erase the song from my memory. In fact,
I enjoy it as much these fifty plus years later as I did then. And the thought
has crossed my mind that perhaps it’s the very same kind of greed of those in
power back then over the poor coal miners that’s putting our whole economy at
risk today. The Wall Street bankers, the CEOs making what to me is an immoral
salary, one that can often come to around 275 times that made by their lowest
paid full-time workers. I can accept a head honcho earning five to seven times
what his employees are earning, but 275 times? Guess I still have what dad
called “a commie” in my heart.
4. The Arrival of Jazz in My
way through my first year at university, just as I was about to turn eighteen,
some college buddies asked me if I’d like to attend a jazz concert with them.
One Louis Armstrong and his band were going to perform in a small town only
three-quarters of an hour’s drive from campus. I’d never been to a live jazz
concert before, let alone one by Satchmo himself, so with great excitement I
replied, “Yeah man.”
arrived a touch late, the auditorium jam-packed, every seat taken; but we
spotted a tiny twisting stairway that led up to a small chair-less landing,
perhaps enough space for the five of us to stand. Up we went, and what for a
view. We were to the front right side of the stage and looking down on it from
some thirty feet up, our elbows resting on an iron railing.
concert began within a minute of our scrunching ourselves together. Now and then
Satchmo held his trumpet by his side and went up to the very front of the
platform and sang. Sometimes, with the rest of his band behind him, he stayed up
there and blew his trumpet, his massive cheeks swelling out like small ballons
about to pop. Then he’d lower the trumpet and let loose lyrics. I could barely
take in the imagination behind his words, the originality of his sounds, the
rhythmic verve in the music, somehow a mixture of blues and dixieland. I was in
a new world. I went down to the St. James Infirmary with him, saw his baby
there, stretched out on a long white table, so sweet…so cold…so fair.
and then the drummer played a short solo, or the trombone player stepped
forward, or Satchmo let loose with some scat, that wordless vocalizing that
sounded like his own unique language. His distinctly gravelly voice moved
effortlessly from a gentle friendly whisper to a stentorian commanding yet
welcoming shout that filled the auditorium with a sense of camaraderie.
Satchmo raised his trumpet toward the ceiling and blasted away, his eyes
shutting in order to give every bit of energy he had to the piece, he an utter
trumpet virtuoso as well as a singer and band leader. His all-out effort struck
me as close to superhuman, yet he was such a mensch at the same time, so
natural, so down-to-earth. When he’d step back and rejoin his band, he
immediately became just another member, no more special than anyone else.
confess I was smitten not just by his singing and playing but by his
personality. Here was a man who had been born an out-of-wedlock child, the
grandson of slaves. And what for a rough childhood he had had, his father
abandoning the family when Louis was still a baby. Then his mother a year or two
later left Louis with his grandmother. When he turned five his mother took him
back, though she had become a poor struggling prostitute. As a young teenager he
had to enter a children’s home for waifs. Eventually, with money loaned to him
by a Russian-Jewish immigrant family who hauled junk and gave Louis the odd job,
he bought his first cornet and ever after wore a Star of David pendant.
here was that Louis Armstrong, that Satchmo, playing right below me on the night
of my eighteenth birthday, the best birthday present I could have been given –
and a present that is still with me in this my seventieth year. Thanks, Pops,
for putting that twenty dollar gold piece on my watch chain so the boys’ll
know that I died standing flat.
5. The Arrival of Classical
Music in My Life
to make my way through university in the late 1950s, and lucky enough to have
several part-time jobs while there, I was usually kept busy not just reading
books and writing papers but drying dishes and waiting on tables in the
fraternity house I had joined; and by keeping the house shipshape, that is,
especially after houseparty weekends I repaired any damage done to windows or
walls, roof or yard.
then, out of a lovely blue, I was offered an additional completely different
kind of job as the evening receptionist in the campus Art Centre. Four or five
evenings a week, from 7:30 to 10:00pm, I was to welcome anyone who came to the
Art Centre, see that their tour through four or five downstairs rooms filled
with paintings went according to Hoyle, and make certain that classical music
filled the air. That is, about every half to three-quarters of an hour I had to
change the LP being played and select and start the next one. From a mammoth
collection I learned to choose 4 to 5 LP’s at the start of every night’s
practically nothing about classical music to begin with, I soon had my hands and
heart full of it. I made a point of playing a record or two every night by
someone of whom I had never heard, of playing several records I had grown to
love, and of listening to some music new to me by composers I respected through
other works. I also made a point of choosing music from at least four different
periods if not four different centuries.
nights I confess almost no one came to the Art Centre – so in a way I was
being paid to listen to classical music while intermittently doing my homework.
In a way, I became what Aaron Copeland calls an “ideal listener”. I was able
to be “both inside and outside the music at the same moment, judging it and
enjoying it, wishing it would go one way and watching it go another….”
all the classical music I listened to that year – and I became particularly
fond of Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Telemann, and Domenico Scarlatti – I
believe Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony had the most impact upon me. And its blend
of profundity, theme, and grace came to my rescue at the tragic end of my final
year in undergraduate school. My maternal grandparents, with whom I lived for a
part of every year for my first twenty years, died within a week of each other,
at the very start of my final exams and at the very end, two days before my
graduation. I was holding Grampy’s hand when he died and his fingers tightened
on mine and stayed that way. Finally, with urging from the doctor present, I
then, not wanting to saying goodbye, pried his fingers loose from mine.
next day, having driven his car the two hours back to campus, I felt as if I was
coming apart. I went into my shared room, put on Mozart’s Fortieth, cried my
way through much of it, and when it was over felt as though the music had
literally put me together again. Thanks to Mozart, I was able to wear the
mandatory coat and tie and attend the graduation ceremony. Gramma and Grampy
were there, but not the way I had expected.
as I thank Satchmo for my first live jazz concert as an eighteenth birthday
present, so I thank Amadeus for enabling me to attend my college graduation.
scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter autumn of 2007
Our first morning in Israel, with a seemingly cheery guide, we take a tour of
Tel-Aviv. Some call it the “Big Orange” in contradistinction to New York’s
“Big Apple”. It’s filled with memorable modern architecture, crumbling
apartments in the Yemenite quarter, all the human flavours possible in the
thronged outdoor Carmel Market streets – and miles of sandy beaches, what one
wag calls the Israeli “Copacabana”.
something’s wrong. Whispers among our hosts.
we international storytellers and festival directors have a luncheon appointment
with the deputy mayor of Tel-Aviv at a Yemenite restaurant, we can’t linger
barefoot on the beaches. Over delicious felafels, we wait for him to appear and
hear why he won’t. Two hours before we began our morning tour, we learn, a
bomb – a terrorist suicide bomber – went off at a bus stop. Immediately the
Israeli military moved in. Having planned on the mayhem, a second bomber blew
himself up. As of this morning, 18 have died. Our host confesses she hadn’t
wanted to upset us with the news earlier. The deputy mayor won’t be joining
following poem, dedicated to 16 Scottish children and their teacher gunned down
in their school gymnasium by another kind of terrorist, tries to demonstrate how
contact with Nature saves me from being overwhelmed by what’s presently going
on in our world:
down on stone I scan the seascape,
a bobbing shag, watch a flock of black-backs
sprat & start a snapping feast.
as yesterday, the day before,
to make me feel this island harbour has
I say ‘imprimatur’,
despite even here taint of Holocaust,
anyone's child drawn into drugs, another war, a boy abused.
I spy swishing tail, powering dorsal fin,
call for reinforcements.
a fifteen foot shark makes the morning rounds.
he approaches our direction
shine white as Niagara.
what that we’ve seen forty-footers.
what a neighbour saw a fin-back rise straight up from out the sea,
vertical feet, send his splash to kingdom come
despite even here taint of Holocaust,
anyone's child drawn into drugs, another war, a boy abused.
guy shark prowls the harbour, swims just feet off shore.
& then he twists, turns about, his high black dorsal fin
wake, all the wake I need
recognise the simplicity of redemption
despite even here taint of Holocaust,
anyone's child drawn into drugs, another war, a boy abused.
William Blake, no,
cannot see infinity in a grain of sand,
in this rare random visitor I see
all I think I need to see
then as we watch he does what he never does, he leaps
& out, a ballerina of the sea, floats full-length mid-air,
no, I cannot but believe
despite even here taint of Holocaust,
anyone's child drawn into drugs, another war, a boy abused.
leaps again, again, & I, fisherman, plankton, anyone’s child,
am caught in love with a weaving world.
As I passed through Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate and entered the Old City for my
first time, I found the walls so charged with beauty and history that I walked
through the souks as if in a dream. I’d no interest in buying anything, so
overawed was I by the sensation that here, despite twenty centuries of
suffering, was a city of soul.
I awoke standing before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Guides pressed
themselves upon me. Street urchins tried to sell me postcards. Vendors ran past
carrying trays of steaming drinks and felafels. But all I could see were the
quiet tan and light brown blocks out of which the church, or churches (for it's
really a conglomerate), had been constructed over thousands of years. Soon I was
wandering up and down wide stone staircases; into candle-lit, four-foot high
burial chambers; alongside fourth century frescoes; into tiny, incense-filled
caves lined with the holiest of icons and relics. I found myself in Joseph of
Arimathea's tomb; I was standing feet from where Jesus had been crucified on
Golgotha, now a Greek Orthodox Chapel; I was deep below ground level seeing
spot-lighted where the rend to the veil of the temple had descended unto the
I wound through streets whose names I already knew, like Via Dolorosa and El-Wad
Road. I heard the muezzin announcing one of the daily calls to Muslim prayer.
Jewish lettering on shops gave way to Arabic. At one point I slowed down to
examine some columns that were roughly 20 feet below street level. And then,
with those columns in view, I dropped down by modern stairs another 20 feet,
from where I could view at once large chunks of architecture from the time of
the crusades, and from Roman days, and from the 20th Century B.C.
next day I revisited Jerusalem with an international group of storytellers. Over
lunch I sat opposite Benjamin, our guide, and asked, "Have you any Arab
friends?" "Yes," Benjamin assured me. "Good friends?" I
continued. "As good as friends can be." "And have you ever been
inside their homes, or they inside yours?" I asked. He hesitated.
"No." He looked down and added quietly, "He would be a traitor
were he ever in my home, or I in his. He could be shot, knifed."
After lunch, after a stint against the Western Wall, which non-Jews call the Wailing Wall, we boarded our bus, sped up hill and down dale, around Jerusalem, out of Jerusalem, around the hilltop Hebrew University of Jerusalem, finally coming to a halt at the architecturally joyous Mormon University. Nearby we saw the Mount of Olives; across the valley Jerusalem itself, the Old City centered in the low sun, the golden Dome of the Rock resplendent, the walls of the Old City casting shadow on the ancient cemeteries and ruins below. And as we looked out the gracefully arched windows of the auditorium, a rich organ filled the hall with a Bach toccata. I wished everyone could hear it together -- in each other's homes.
At the start of my second full day in Israel, I break from the group of
storytellers and spend all day until show-time with one of my daughter’s best
friends and an old student of mine in Zürich days. Now a teacher herself, Gili
and her parents and brother share their Israel with me. Gili picks me up at a
bus stop and drives me to their home village, a Jewish settlement. “You can
tell the age of each settlement,” she says, “by the height of the trees
within it. Ours is ten years old.”
asked about Arab villages, she begins pointing. “That’s an Arab town there,
you see the mosque, the minaret. And that one there is too. But they’re
dangerous. I can’t take you there. But that one, over there,” she gestures
across the low, whitish-green hills, “that’s much safer, maybe we can visit
breakfast together in the family home, with fresh olives, oranges and capers
from their garden, Gili’s brother Avi asks if I’d like to see his desert
snake. Soon I have a thin delicate creature twirling about my arm as I prowl the
house. Twenty-two, Avi’s in the military with another five years to go. He
unlocks his closet and brings out his well-worn automatic rifle for me to
examine. I ask about the size of the clips that fit into it, and he has those in
my hands too, clips of 25 and 50 2 1/2 inch-long thin cartridges. He offers me
one, a souvenir. I shudder, think of El Al interrogators, hand him back his
treasures, which he ritually locks away.
then he does a strange thing. He shuts and locks his single window, then shuts
and locks inner shutters against it. “Why are you doing that?” I ask.
“We’re about to go off for the day,” he replies; “Arabs have a way of
wanting guns.” As he tells me this, he leans over, lifts his mattress, and
pulls out a pistol. “What’s that for?” I ask. He lays it in my hand,
cautioning me. He checks the full clip that slides out of its butt and says,
“We’re going out, aren’t we?” He grasps the pistol, slips it into a
tight holster on his belt, pulls his white T-shirt down over the pistol,
ostensibly hiding it. He locks the door to his bedroom as we leave.
I knew Avi’s father, back in Zürich, Gershon told me stories of how Israeli
officers lead their men, the officers always the first to charge an enemy
position. He told me how Israelis had to destroy 20 planes in retaliation for
every plane destroyed by Syria or Egypt. There were two million Jews, he said,
against 200,000,000 Arabs, “so we have to be tough”. I remind Gershon of
that conversation and he says he must have misspoken: “It has to be 30 planes
for every one Israeli.”
Within a quarter mile of my friends’ home in an Israeli settlement runs the
infamous “Green Line”, that which divides the West Bank, or Occupied
Territory (which some Israelis sternly told me not to call it, because that name
suggests it might have to be given up), from the rest of Israel. And on a nearby
hilltop, visible from their house, we walk a partially excavated archaeological
site, a Samarian village dating back 2000 to 4000 years. I see smooth stone grey
basins where olives were trod for oil, sunken ritual baths. I peer down deep
wells and mysterious tunnels. I gaze at round grinding stones weighing tons. And
everywhere, bits of ancient amphora, tiny glistening pieces of delicate glazed
I keep asking questions about the Arab settlements, Gershon agrees to take me
inside one. I discover that Chana, his wife, has never been inside any such
despite having three within three miles of their Jewish settlement. She’s
visibly frightened at the very idea of this visit but wishes to please her
guest. Just before we turn off the main road into an Arab enclave, Gershon stops
to allow me to photograph a striking mosque. Within ten seconds, soldiers have
skidded to a halt beside us to see if we’re all right. Before we start up
again, Gershon reaches to the shelf below the back window and turns his military
hat around so that the officer’s emblem can’t be seen from the road.
drive into the Arab settlement. I’ve already observed that Arab and Jew seem
to have a sixth sense by which they identify each other. I can tell which is
which by traditional dress; they can tell by something to me indefinable, a way
of walking, a way of just standing, a cast of a complexion or facial feature. We
aren’t fifty feet into the village before every head in a knot of men turn to
stare closely at our car – and us. Fifty feet further into the settlement, a
young boy, six or seven years old, is skipping gaily along the dirt street. He
looks up into our faces – and in a split second his cute face hardens. As we
drive by he leans toward us . . . and spits.
hundred yards, Gershon turns around and we quietly leave the village, everyone
– we sense – watching.
cross over the Green Line several times, sometimes going through checkpoints not
unlike those that used to separate the Republic from the North. I’m ordered to
keep my camera out of sight. Throughout these forays I don’t sense so much
peace and the peace process as I do the threat of imminent hostilities. As
novelist Tom Robbins says in skinny legs
and all, “. . . one of the main problems in Palestine or Israel is that
everybody, Arab and Jew, lives in the abstract, lives in political and religious
ideology rather than living in physical bodies connected to the earth.”
On my fourth day in Israel, our group of storytellers travels again from Tel
Aviv to Jerusalem. During the bus ride, I chat with Laura Simms, a Jewish teller
from New York City, and we discover that we have that mutual friend, a woman who
ran an art gallery in upstate New York. First stop, to our amazement, the
President’s residence. We have refreshments, meet up with our Israeli
counterparts, including Druze, Bedouin, and Arab storytellers. Suddenly
President Chaim Weizmann enters the room. In no time he’s telling stories in
slangy English. Friendly, witty, low key. The formal room fills with warm
relaxed laughter. I wonder if we’re his needed break for the day or week. And
then, as quickly as the sun shines and departs from the magical white and green
hills surrounding Jerusalem, he leaves.
suddenly sits beside me, shaken. I ask what’s wrong. She whispers, “I
don’t know what to do. I was looking at my rings, fiddling with them. The one
I most like I began twisting round and round. When the Arab beside me noticed
what I was doing, he gestured for me to show him my ring. I slid it off and
handed it to him. He put it on, bowing thanks. What shall I do?” “I guess
not create an international incident,” I say; “and be glad he didn’t ask
to sit behind the wheel of your car.” “Be serious.” So I tell her how a
Native American had given an early settler a peace pipe. The settler later hung
it over his mantle piece. When the Indian dropped in a year later he was
displeased to see the pipe so ensconced and took it back, thus giving rise to
the pejorative term, Indian giver. In some cultures, gifts must circulate or
they stop being gifts. Take them out of circulation and you destroy their
spirit. Laura and I wonder where her ring will next surface. And we wonder what
would happen if we all made such sacrifices for peace.
follows is a poem I wrote called “Sourcing”.
dreaming of you, Jerusalem,
high in green-white hills.
you grow young, I become primeval,
the confines of the Old City.
good God but it’s so like birth
be passing through the Damascus Gate,
come alert in your souked environs,
pure to be dreaming in you, of you,
all your dozing, waiting sepulchres.
almost Methusaleh himself,
crouch in a low vaulted cellar
feel clean. A groin ache
had forgotten grows
I hear Solomon suggest
a tooth for a tooth
only to fewer youth
your jostling people.
I’m just a babe
arms learning how to purify
that quintessential art
which all lives we love
one day hinge.
drink this beading cup
memory that each of us
when shared ancestors.
well, my twinkling-of-an-eye
Allah akbar, peace.
years ago, living in a cheap apartment in the inner city heart of St. Louis,
Missouri, Nell and I began to have political difficulty with the government of
our country, especially as a consequence of the ongoing Vietnam War, or what the
Head Honchos in Washington insisted should be considered only a “police
action”. To us, the war looked like a civil war between North and South
Vietnam, and we could not accept that the so-called Domino Theory had any
relevance to the problem. John Foster Dulles, an ex- but still authorial
Secretary of State, had declared that if one country fell to the Chinese
communists, then, like a row of dominos, other neighbouring countries would fall
as well, and then a very militant communism would take over in the Far East, and
who knows what would happen next; the dominos just might stretch across the
Pacific Ocean. Anyway, Nell and I had major difficulty with this perspective,
and though I was making a paltry teacher’s salary, we didn’t want any of our
taxes to further what we saw as an immoral intrusion into the affairs of other
to suspect that we couldn’t gain a valid perspective on our own country until
we’d lived in another, I applied for teaching positions at international
schools in Beirut, Istanbul, and Zurich, and, a few weeks later, in the spring
of 1966, accepted an offer from Zurich. We thought we’d stay for two or three
years, and then, refreshed by foreign adventure, go back to our home country.
But we enjoyed Switzerland. Enjoyed our international colleagues and countryside
neighbours. Enjoyed fives years of living rent-free in a 300-year-old farmhouse
with no central heating and the bathroom a one-hole wooden outhouse affair in
the attached barn. Enjoyed what we’d always heard referred to as “the old
world” become our “new world”.
participating in several peace marches in downtown Zurich – with our
two-year-old son perched on my shoulders with a large P-A-X mounted across the
back of his red and black checked lumber jacket – and being photographed from
inside the upper-storey windows of the American Consulate – we began to hear
odd clicks every time we made or received a phone call; and then some of our
mail from the United States began to be opened and stapled shut with a white
slip of paper that always read, “Opened by accident by the IRS”, that is, by
the United States’ Internal Revenue Bureau. Sure. By chance Nell had gone to
graduate school with the then Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s
daughter, and, coincidentally of course, every letter we received from her had
this seemingly innocent piece of paper stapled to the opened end.
years later, our three kids all but grown up, we vacationed in Ireland and by
chance happened upon the little island of Cape Clear. We flipped. We’d never
thought of buying a house, let alone a farm, and on a 1600 acre off-shore
island, but the sense of peace, of community, of pure nature that we experienced
there changed our lives. Cape became our antipodes, the very opposite of
land-locked carefully-groomed Switzerland, the very opposite of what had become
to us – and still, sadly, is – a capitalistically contorted USA. Here on
Cape we’re able to live simply, down-to-earth, and down-to-sea.
years ago this summer, while on a two-week vacation trip from Switzerland, we
happened upon Oileán Chléire and our lives were irrevocably changed. With pure
nature calling, we had no choice: we simply had to move to Cape. Having been a
secondary teacher for thirty years, I became a writer. My wife, who’d been a
professor of linguistics and a lecturer on children’s literature and American
politics, began to make notelets and collages and to run her own little craft
store. I also became a neighbouring friend’s sheep dog anytime he needed one
to trot down the steep banks and cliffs to the sea to herd his break-away flock
back up to safety – and my wife also became the cleaning lady for a house that
we restored from ruins and transformed into a self-catering house, known as the
Southernmost House in Ireland.
having moved lock, stock, and barrel to a little Irish island, and having heard
our three grown-up children inform us that they’d always suspected that we
were a little crazy, and now they knew it, chuckle, chuckle, we found ourselves
converting to what might be called a “new religion”. As essential as it is
for many to attend church every Sunday, it’s now essential to us to try to
take a walk about Cape every day, weather permitting (just as the ferry schedule
says in its fine print). And while on these walks, we always try to look around
us, try to see something which we may never have seen before. We never know
what’s going to catch our attention, perhaps a new perspective on the old
Castle of Gold, or a flower we don’t know, or perhaps the somersaulting antics
of spring choughs a-courting up beside the Old Lighthouse, or a cloud formation,
or some puddle of light out at sea.
addition to the daily walk, I also start my day by taking a cup of tea into the
back yard and looking around. Usually this ritual last only a few minutes, but
every once in a while something like this happens:
glance of day I halt my gaze on shingle
blackly wet from ebbing tide,
overhead a pair of straight-flight ravens prruks.
wonder where they’re headed – and why.
shifts from inert brown
rolling russet. Whisper wind and harbour wash
in my drowsy ears. I speculate on how
other nature I may so simply miss.
hour like a yoga minute later, I tally up the birds:
ravens, a pair of black backs, a pair of wrens,
magpies, choughs, a sparrow hawk,
flock of starlings, a bobbing razorbill.
hump of finback whale in outer harbour,
question slowly rises: Why am I simply sitting,
around, looking for nothing in particular,
just to look, the stormy blackness
Roaring Water Bay, the purity of drystone walls––
there, a colour, a shape, something not out of place
still not normally there:
focus on lone grey heron atop seaweed-covered rock,
back that I’m a hunter too, hunting and gathering
sustenance on this rocky knoll.
curlew calls. A friend hikes up the drive.
time to share a tool, a tale, or herd some cows.
I turn toward entrance gate
home, I see the shingle’s dry.
a walk together almost every day since we moved to Cape Clear has given my wife
Nell and me contact not only with the people of Cape, the flora and fauna, the
seascapes, the Neolithic remains, but also with what we consider a national
treasure, the meandering stone walls and boreens. I’ve heard, but not
confirmed, that a PhD candidate from UCC once wrote a doctoral dissertation on
Cape’s stone walls and discovered that the old walls basically consist of
seven different styles. There’s one area on what’s called the “Upper
Road” from where you can see not only all of Loch Errul – Cape’s renowned
pond for washing laundry and for soaking and getting rid of bunions – and for
a view of the Fastnet Lighthouse, but also a spot where one sees more stone
walls, or what here, as Bearla, are called drystone ditches, than on any other
part of the island.
in 1979, when Nell and I first visited Ireland, we worked our way around the
south and west coasts up as far as Clifden – and visited Inish Mor on our way.
Since that was the summer of postal and petrol strike, we felt as if, as
tourists, we had Ireland to ourselves. The stone walls on Inish Mor, in their
seemingly artistic complexity and multitude, frequently made us gape at their
beauty and power. One time we asked where the owner of a farm might be and were
told that he was down the lane throwing water to the horses. We didn’t know
what that meant, but we walked down a boreen and finally spotted a man throwing
water over a high stone wall into a tiny field where two horses were pastured.
There was no gate or gap into the field. Slowly we realized that the horses
would get all the water they needed from that which drenched the grass – and
that when they’d grazed the grass down, then the farmer would remove enough
stone so that the horses could be moved to another little pasture, of which we
sensed dozens in the immediate vicinity.
on Cape we’ve carefully climbed over so many walls, and built a few small ones
too, that I eventually just had to write a poem about them. It’s called
“Altars of the Earth”.
ahead I sense the simple heritage
drystone walls, explore their will to wait,
wildly who built which, & when & why
what was a winter day on Cape like then?
conjure up the ‘ditch’ that disappears into the island lake.
man who’s farmed beside it his every breath
he’s never seen where that wall ends.
mystery of the past, like a master stooped
prayer, murmurs essences; 240,000 miles
drystone walls in Éire alone murmur, some that run
bogs & into stone age, some that be
the soulful runes of unlettered folk who knew
matters most. When amidst these murmurings –
I grasp that nothing’s new about a prayer from a wall
ends beneath a lake – in quiet chorus a congregation
walls intones: “Our lines be but altars of the earth.”
bow before these lines, some straight, some meandering,
of sheep creeps, stiles, mother stones,
all I’ve stood before, hitched legs over.
1600 walled fields on little Oileán Chléire,
luckily more telltale landscape to listen to
I can assimilate. So here’s a seat-of-the-pant’s
of reverence at the altar of drystone walls,
thanks for rescuing me from that
sighted soul appalls:
share that living in an artless past
be like having sky always overcast,
sinking beside a lifeline-less ship,
looking at patchwork fields without the benefit
not often Nell and I leave Cape, but when we do it’s usually to go visit with
our kids and their kids in New Jersey or New Hampshire or Switzerland, or to go
to the mainland big smoke of Skibbereen for a doctor’s appointment, or to
attend some unusual event, such as hearing Seamus Heaney read a poem with an
orchestral accompaniment at the Bantry Music Festival, or Noam Chomskey address
the Amnesty International crowd in the RDS this last January. We’ve sometimes
stayed on Cape without a break, and without feeling the need for a break, for as
long as three to four months. But that’s nothing. A neighbour, God bless her,
didn’t leave the island once for over forty-five years. She was a fit woman,
too. One time, while out on a walk on a stormy day, I spotted all eighty-six
years of her hard at work milking a cow in the middle of a pasture. As she
filled the bucket she rested her kerchiefed head against the cow’s flank.
years ago, in June of 1999, I remember leaving the island for half a week to
attend a small poetry workshop taught by Paula Meehan up in Skerries. While the
ten of us met most of the time in a large room in Ardgillan Castle, occasionally
we’d take a break, or a long lunchtime pause, when a couple of us might hop in
a car and go visit some archaeological ruins, or prowl the castle grounds. One
time, however, I simply went off by myself, without any destination. I just
needed to be alone a while. I walked and I walked, and next I knew I was both
beside the sea and back in my home town in upstate New York. Here’s what
happened, condensed into a poem I call “Digging”:
village corner, I happen upon a harbour:
craft at anchor – punts, dinghies, yachts;
a dozen trawlers snug against the pier,
old souls rotting in each others’ arms,
faintly familiar in the solstice dusk,
I’ve never been in Skerries before.
I stroll to the head of the L-shaped pier,
spot three seals cavorting, slowly figure out
they’ve gathered: aboard a blue trawler,
Ard-Mhuire, five men work the port
teenage boys the starboard,
a lone lad shovels clear a path between.
watch him push into a pulsing ton of pink
mid-ship and heave prawn
tables either side. His colleagues sort,
and when they toss something not so squirmy
the seals playfully submerge.
an hour later, I’m still watching from the dark
the lad plows through the pile of flood-lit prawn.
heap becomes a drift of snow
my youth that’s just slid off the roof
my parents’ upstate New York home and blocks
drive. As the lad pushes in the shovel, steps
stomps, flings another hundred prawn
table, I’m clearing my parents’ drive
dad can go to work tomorrow.
wonder if I’ll ever finish digging –
as I leave the pier, I snack upon my memory
way the seals chow down the throwaways.
we take our daily walks about Cape, weather often determines the route. If
it’s been raining hard for a few days, we seldom go cross-country, as then
we’d have to put on our wellies, and still risk losing them in muck. If the
wind’s really blowing, a Force 10 or higher, then we make certain to keep back
from cliff edges, or away from those parts of the island where salt spray may be
billowing by. If enormous waves are breaking, but without the clouds of spray
and sea spit, then we have various vantage points from which to view the
monsters, depending upon the direction from which they come. If the day’s
particularly foggy, then we don’t head for the high points of the island for
360 degree views, but go looking at stone walls or flora. If we’re feeling in
need of other human contact, then it’s off to North Harbour, the main pier,
Siopa Beag, the arrival of the island ferry. And if visitors are joining us who
don’t know Cape, then we might go see the marriage stones, or the Castle of
Gold, the Old Lighthouse and Napoleonic Signal Tower, or a blow-hole or two. And
if grandchildren have arrived, we journey off to visit a new-born foal, and then
a beach where there’s a few caves and we can pretend to give each child, or
young prince and princess, a cave kingdom of their own.
some people don’t particularly like walking in heavy fog, we enjoy the
experience. One day the fog came down so thick we felt as though we were back in
a womb and I was reminded of an epigraph from Mathew Fox’s book Original
Blessing that runs: “. . . the cosmos is a
gift, a maternal womb wherein we all play. . . .” Here’s an attempt to
describe our island walk that day.
Fog meanders down from passage tomb
lighthouse fastnesses, dallies in gorse-filled hollows,
over bogs, byres, bungalows, over skeletons
tractors & once-upon-a-time New Holland harvesters,
septic tanks and slurry pits,
ditch after drystone ditch,
settles on the humilities
the very seaside pasture where we walk.
we, we wee we, we mostly mosey round
pasture walls, listen to hummocky grass and thrift,
broken swells gurgling fundamental news
crevices & caves. We’re more
amongst these humilities we’re nothing
than secure in the pulsing privacy
what we’ve come to recognise as cosmic womb.
eyes blink and blink in amniotic atmosphere.
this nowhere a curlew’s with us,
slow the width of a cock of hay away.
gaze at curve of beak, at rump of moon-stained white,
as brother curlew crowns
the other world, & disappears from sight,
hear his penetrating cry of glee, cour-lee,
and feel new life every which way hereabouts.
ramble on, taking what now might be
just our own sweet time, not ready,
even anxious to be born, and rubbing embryonic selves
each other in the still damp hush, curious
all get-out about which sibling might next emerge,
next deliver a sound, a life, that enters others’ bones
on the humilities of the very seaside pasture
we walk. Mother Fog, we thank you for your favours.
scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter 4.05
of the worst times I ever experienced metamorphosed into one of the most
the eve of my departure for boarding school in 1953, Dad shared his reasoning
for why I must leave home. He told me he didn’t want me to see much of him
during my formative teens for fear I’d come to look down on him because his
invalidity didn’t allow him to be the kind of father figure a teenage boy
needed. His encephalitis had all but blinded him, permanently sapped his
physical coordination and energy. He couldn’t do normal fatherly things, he
said, like coach my curve ball. He’d become nothing but an indoor father good
at sleeping. It was best, he emphasized, for me to leave home for a school where
the male teachers would do his job and toughen me up. Furthermore, he said, my
present public secondary school wasn’t academically challenging.
deposited amongst 450 boys 13 to 19, I had to study hard just to be average.
Diagnosed with a leaky heart valve right before school started, I couldn’t
play sports and consequently was branded a sissy. About the only ‘new boy’
in my class, I had to wear a skull-cap, or beanie, outdoors, and wasn’t
allowed to walk on the grass like my classmates. That first semester, with
fifteen minutes between the end of proctored evening studyhall and lights out, I
regularly found my bedsheets sprayed with shaving cream, or short-sheeted, or
full of crumbs, or all three. After lights out, I’d lie in bed listening for
my heart to skip a beat.
affluence of the school overwhelmed me, my scholarship more than my father made
in a year. My roommate was the son of a famous photographer, next down the
dormitory hall lived the son of an internationally acclaimed big-band leader,
Fred Waring, his roommate a son and heir to the Du Pont dynasty. Me, I had a
quarter a week allowance, enough to order a plate of cinnamon toast at the
second year, my heart condition having vanished, I played football on the
110-pound team, wrestled, pole vaulted, ran the mile. Hopeless at all. But I did
make the bottom of the honour role.
third and final year I teased my roommate, played pranks on my pals. The hairy football
players and I joshed each other. For weeks I had forty-nine demerits – fifty
meant automatic expulsion – and my name was posted on the infamous bulletin
board outside the dean’s office. I’d gotten caught running a submarine
sandwich business at night. I’d become “one of the boys”, a glorious
suddenly my class is graduating, going on to a hundred different universities.
It’s never a question of whether to
attend, but where. I’ve become the
standard end product of an elite system. The school boasted that you entered a
boy, left a man. For a minute there I agreed. My cocky naiveté knew no bounds.
Should I be a surgeon or an international lawyer? I’d gained confidence if not
consciousness. While I still felt an outsider amongst my wealthy classmates, it
was no longer an inner issue of importance.
Forty-eight years later,
while climbing out of our Cape Clear Island banger – carefully gripping the
door so that the wind doesn’t blast it off its hinges – I overhear an answer
a Swiss farmer once gave me. I’d asked her why our young cat’s first litter,
a lone single kitten, had died. She said simply, “You’ll see the next time
your cat litters.” I waited. Some months later, I saw. This second time our
cat gave birth to four. They had to scramble around, fight for the teats; had to
take some batting about, and give it too. They thrived. One kitten alone could
just lie there, everything seemingly hunky-dory – but no give-and-take, no
developing life. I should have known that already.
I first entered the infamous Zurich, Switzerland park, I was aware only of a
castle-like building, mature trees, luxuriant shrubbery, torrent of river. But
soon I saw tangled knots of youth milling about, a few with needles dangling
from their arms. Some crawled in and out of the shrubbery. I felt as if in a
nightmare. But as a teacher and counselor, I felt I owed it to myself to see the
worst that could happen to my students who accidentally got hooked. So I visited
this Platz Spitz, renamed “Needle Park” when it used to make the news,
especially when someone rolled into the icy river waters and didn’t wake.
thought of the words Dante saw inscribed over the gates to hell – “Abandon
all hope, ye who enter here” – and I meandered sadly down a path. A priest,
his robes swaying, approached. When we came opposite each other, we stopped and
exchanged greetings. I asked him what he was doing in this nightmare. He told me
he came here daily.
how can you stand such squalor?” I said.
he replied, “it’s because I can’t stand squalor that I come. These poor
unfortunates” – he gestured about us – “They know me.”
you afraid?” I asked, since I was, and had been ready to run should anyone
have approached me with a needle at the ready.
von’t hurt me. They trust me.”
why do you come here?” I asked.
they need help.”
are you able to help them?”
few. I haf a kind of haf-way house in zee country. I search here vor people who
are villing to try breaking their habit and come lif vit me.”
you had any success?” I asked.
much,” he replied, “but a little. A little is a lot. Yes, some 10% who try
are able to get off – and schtay off.”
I pondered this
statistic and then found myself asking, “Father, this 10%, have they anything
in common that helps them break free, make the big change?”
looked at me, dark thoughtful eyes, and said, “Yes, yes they do. Almost all
vere once loved.”
you, father,” I said, old enough to be his father. “Good luck to you.”
go vit you, my son,” he said.
went our separate ways. I never learned his name, never went back to that
nightmare park. I hadn’t the courage, the depth of love. But I felt that I had
met Dante and Virgil during one of his daily descents and had been shown a new
perspective on a chamber of hell, had learned that hell needn’t be eternal.
Unbidden came lines from Dostoevsky: “Fathers and teachers, I ponder, ‘What
is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
had been my working definition of hell. But thanks to an anonymous German
priest, I learned that someone else’s love can rescue you from your own hell.
Love: a medicine that can help effect a positive metamorphosis.
to a magical new pill, our youthful marriage made it through the early sixties
with our having gone forth without immediately multiplying. Innocently aware
that not all marriages have a heavenly imprimatur, in fact, that many are
stamped with a bogus seal from a somewhat busier locale, we wanted to try each
other out first, test the waters.
first two-and-a-half years studiously, speedily over, The Bay of Pigs having
created a rush at the local supermarket, the John F. Kennedy assassination
having made us doubt that we'd ever voted against him, Nell stopped practising
magic. Two months later she confided that a certain activity had ceased. We were
off, the first expectant parents in the history of the world.
was teaching literature at a high school, Nell studying Chinese at university.
Her stomach way out front, the child -- we called it "George" -- now
fully quickened but still a few months from being born, she'd sit at the seminar
table, a dozen rapt Ph.D. candidates watching her loosely draped blouse suddenly
flare out. George's secret womb shenanigans had more dramatic appeal than the
explication of a ninth century ideogram.
then, in the middle of never-less-than-a-hundred-degree-Fahrenheit St. Louis
heat wave, August 1965, early morning, Nell whispered, "It's
felt like a scared kid, not like a father-to-be. I placed my hand on her
stomach, could feel the spasms. I don't recall the drive to hospital but
remember standing beside Nell while she was lying on the gurney, her face
rhythmically turning beet red. A nurse called to the doctor, "It's
Yes, I could see the skimpy matted hair of George's head. Nell was wheeled off.
Relegated to the waiting room, I did what expectant father's traditionally do,
strode about, sat down, jumped up, read the notice board repeatedly. Suddenly
the doctor was standing in the doorway. He smiled. He pumped my hand.
both fine. She's fine, he's fine. Come along."
face showed exhaustion, radiated bliss. The baby looked red, shrivelled, his
ears not on straight, his eyes already sizing us up.
arriving home, it dawned on me: I was a father. I - was - a - father. No wonder,
I thought, the image of Madonna and Child is sacred in all cultures. It was as
though my sense of holiness had been born along with Charles.
pulled out Handel's "Messiah", cranked up the volume, listened to
majesty. Face down on the livingroom rug, tears streaming, I heard the chorus
sing out, over and over: "For unto to us/ a son is born,/ unto us/ a child
is given./ And his name/ shall be calléd/ Wonderful,/ Merciful,/ Almighty God,/
the everlasting Father/ and Prince of Peace."
our firstborn. Charles, our son. His life had just started. And, I felt, so had
memory of Seán Dunne
1699 William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania and an active member of The Society
of Friends, wrote, “True silence . . . is to the spirit what sleep is to the
body, nourishment and refreshment.”
few summers back, Oileán Chléire put William Penn’s words to the test. 19
adults and 6 children, all from Cork City’s Friends’ Meeting, disembarked at
Cape’s North Harbour pier. Day-trippers, Irish college students, islanders
thronged the harbour area. Through the frolic, the Quakers started their walk
the pier, they viewed St. Kieran’s cemetery, location of what may have been
Ireland’s first Christian church back in the early 400’s, and earlier
perhaps of a Celtic power point. The visitors halted before the grotto, its
Christianised Celtic pillar stone, a statue of the Virgin Mary, and St.
Kieran’s Holy Well attracting them. Half-a-mile later they strolled past the
resident priest’s house. Across the road they spotted the site of the old
Protestant church and cemetery. Finally, they hiked up the hill above Tir na nÓg.
by a dozen islanders of a variety of faiths, the now ecumenical gathering
settled into a circle in a secluded bower above South Harbour.
congregation sat quietly in the high summer sun, most with eyes shut, communing.
Now and then, perhaps inspired by a spark of what Quakers call Inner Light,
someone shared a thought, an idea. Now and then a gull cried, a dog panted, a
child exclaimed. But those sounds, paradoxically, seemed part of the silence.
remember especially a man speaking out of the silence. He created an image of a
full kitchen shelf to which something new needs to be added. That act, he said,
requires something else be given away. Receiving and giving become part of the
same energy. He went on to suggest that “we give out of fullness.” The
speaker’d given me a present from his shelf yet the shelf was as full as
hour of mostly silence was over in what I experienced as five minutes. When I
stood up, I felt as if I’d just had a deep eight-hour sleep. The sometimes
sharp creedal borders between Roman Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Gentile,
Hindu and Muslim, seemed blips on the screen of ecumenism.
looked around. People who’d never met before were wringing each other’s
hands, sharing experiences, selves. I was reminded of a story I heard thirty-six
years ago. For a reason unknown to me, I had accepted a position as an English
teacher, dorm master, wrestling coach, and student newspaper advisor in a rural
Quaker boarding school outside Philadelphia. Brought up a Presbyterian amongst
Presbyterians, I didn’t know a Quaker from a Zoroastrian. And suddenly, as
part of my first full-time job, I had to attend two religious services a week
amongst a denomination as alien to my experience as 17th century Hasidism.
my surprise, I saw that the Quakers didn’t have priests or ministers or
rabbis, no one ostensibly in charge. They simply sat in silence. Perhaps every
other meeting someone stood up and shared a thought, a story, sat down again.
Sunday I asked the headmaster if that was all there was to it. He related this
anecdote, which helped change the way I viewed religion. “A member of our
meeting once invited a friend of another religious persuasion to attend our
Service. As is customary, after around an hour of silence someone started
shaking hands with someone else and soon the whole room was shaking hands. As
the confused stranger exited, he turned to his friend and asked, ‘When does
the Service begin?’ The Quaker replied, ‘The service
THOSE CAREFREE COLLEGE DAYS
I matriculate at an all-men’s college in upstate New York in 1956, I enter a
strange new world rather than a brave one. I know no-one. But new pals quickly
introduce me to jazz and classical and I’m off. For my eighteenth birthday
present to myself, I watch Louis Armstrong perform live. Cool, I think, how he
struts forth from his All Stars, his very song a smile. I meet, too, some guy
named Mozart, his Fortieth Symphony the most sublime non-verbal force I’ve yet
encountered, a shimmering desert studded with the tiniest of oases.
yes, academics. Freshman Comp, the hardest compulsory course of the four-year
stretch and singularly responsible for a market share of early departures. We
have two papers a week, one 750 word essay due Mondays, another in-class
“theme” on Thursdays. The papers can’t have more than two mistakes —
spelling, grammatical, stylistic — or they receive the unambiguous, one-word
evaluation, “No”. In the margins appear x’s, each x meaning something
wrong in the adjacent line. To pass the course — and stay in university — we
have to garner two “Yeses”. If we go into the end-of-semester final
examination with only one “Yes”, like me, our final is our last chance.
years along, I’m accosted before the steamy fraternity house bathroom mirror
one morning. A pre-med in his final year growls at me. I mumble back. He growls
again. Finally I make out his words: “If ya keep going the boozy way you’re
headed, you’ll not only waste the rest of your college years, but your life,
take no umbrage, have no energy for such. I look into the mirror, can’t see my
face. I have disappeared. I rub the mirror with my towel and finally see a pair
of distant eyes. Whammo!
remember neither this premed’s Christian nor surname, but I recall his
nickname, “Oofer”. He becomes an obstetrician. I bet I’m the first baby he
final year I elect a writing course taught by an old man known as the “Smiling
Shaft”. If I ever learned anything about writing, it was through him. I still
hear him quoting Ezra Pound’s advice to his own son, both once students at
this same college: “IS is no damn good.”
I know it I have to make a career choice. When I entered college I thought I’d
become a surgeon. One made a deep impression on me while removing my appendix.
But after dealing for a year with dogfish in formaldehyde, I decide that being
an international corporate lawyer would be more salubrious. I stay with that
thought until half way through my senior year. An English lit major, I hide
behind the excuse that lawyers need to know how to read and write rather than
admitting that I have a worthless memory, aren’t adept at logic, and could
care less about political science. Only in the home stretch do I consciously
recognise that I love literature.
the end of secondary school I knew only one thing I’d never be, a high school
teacher. What a tiresome, boring, overworked, underpaid, thankless profession.
At the end of undergraduate college, I decide to give it a whirl.
try it out happily for the next thirty years.
scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter the week of 11.10.04
Cruising in Low Gear
owning a car and never once using fourth or fifth gears – and rarely third –
because those speeds are too fast for the local roads.
Imagine living in a community that’s so relaxed, so safe, that the postman, or post-woman, delivers your mail straight to your handiest indoor table, whether
you’re home or not. Imagine that when there’s a knock on the front door, you call out, Come on in! rather than, Who’s there? Imagine taking your morning
cuppa, weather permitting, to a chair beside your kitchen garden and spending the next quarter hour checking the sea for passing ships; the outer harbour for
dolphin, shark, and whale; and not infrequently experiencing a rare bird such as the hoopoe of three weeks back, who, like many tourists, came for a day and
stayed for a week.
am I? While Herman Melville wrote that true places are never on the map, I must
give my mentor the lie, for I’m sure his nautical charts
listed all major islands of West Cork – Dursey, Bear, Whiddy, Hare, Long, Sherkin, and Cape, the southernmost. Cape’s where I live.
used to drive thirty minutes every day at a standard eighty mph on a
bumper-to-bumper dual carriageway in the middle of Europe to get to
work; now, after my outdoors cuppa, I climb the stairs to my study. All that time and stress saved, I now opt for a nature walk with my wife almost every late
afternoon. In fact, I’d say that the greatest change in our lives brought about by moving to Cape has been our significantly increased intimacy with nature. And an exceedingly pure nature, as even the birds and animals attest. Choughs, for example, one of the most pollution sensitive of all birds, thrive on Cape but have fled
most of Europe. From the look-out point beside our house I’ve watched dolphins breach one after another, basking sharks prowl the shoreline, killer whales
round the harbour mouth..
my way to bed I step outside to check
sea, the sounds in the bay below,
chthonic booms flung from out the caves,
grinding wash of waves tumbling stones
shingle beach, become aware of what
been hearing for days, for weeks,
didn’t recognise I was hearing at all,
background roar of surf
the ins & outs of cove & cliff.
of such sea sound I scan
the pulsing Fastnet Lighthouse beam,
lights of passing ships, for the lights
neighbours, who’s in, who’s out,
never coming back;
tonight the way that midnight Moon
a narrowing stretch of zigzag sea
all thought of turning in --
I set forth on bedtime stroll.
the cow-flop drive I mind my way
at first bend glance south toward harbour
in the shipping lane some six miles
not a tanker but a swath of light
sea, & as old Moon’s path
diamond waves draws near, twinkles up
seawall where I lean, I hear another sound,
one I’ve been hearing without hearing,
for many years, why, the Moon-born ripples,
lapping waves, they’re full of laughter,
free like kids with not an inkling
mañana, & for a nanosecond I sense I need
more than to hear this moonstruck dance,
see Old Moon, the Fastnet beam, the lights
neighbours, who’s in, who’s out, who’s
coming back, to hear the children
the sea remind sixty-plus-year-old me
just how free I too can be, I too a wave
& throwing light on my way to shore.
vestments, chalice, oars, they dashed
rabbit track to cove, shoved the punt
shingle into midnight chop. Abrupt
bats, the panicked monks leapt in,
for all they or anyone were worth, powered
the kingdom come of night, out of the inlet
open sea, into Brother Jonah’s testing element,
all the little that seemed left. They could –
felt – forever feel the screams
Father Saul and Brother Dan, bright
looming madness to nightmare mind.
out over transom these Sons of St. Francis
not but believe the billowing flames, the belch,
roar, the enraged behemoth bellowing behind them,
blasts rearing up and out like judgement
the waters of the world as roofs of friary halls
simple cells, of library and church, of frater
sacristy, collapsed, their seaside garden settlement
into that scenario they’d read about
the very end of the very book they’d left behind.
they knew, these three, how to feather, how to put
into oars as Timoleague Friary gave up the ghost
the English army and Lord Forbes.
was the year of their Lord sixteen hundred and forty-two,
youthful Cromwell not yet underway, and they alone
to tell us but the spirit didn’t feed them well
in two days two were through and the one
in the bilge a soggy blue as four Oileán Chléire
came upon the craft, towed the desperate load
nursed the sole survivor back to memories,
his burlap-brown and ripe good breth’ren deep
the harbour graveyard dedicated to island ancestor
Ireland’s earliest saint.
the mended friar prepared to leave,
issued orders to the men who’d saved him that
box of goods he’d brought was as sacred as a piece
the cross itself and must not be disturbed
he himself returned and Irish Catholics could
worship God without constraint.
toward dusk the crow flies straight
Father Leader never beat ’round any bush.
a little over two hundred years later,
the middle of conducting Stations
a Ballyieragh Cadogan cottage, this Parish Priest
up into an alcove, homed in on a box that had
markings. He then heard the story
the monks and of the last command. “Down,”
ordered, “Place it here, beside the chickens
the altar, and stand back.” “B-but you are not
man,” whispered one. Father Leader smiled,
the lid, held up vestments that, except
tarnished braid, crumbled into dust
his wide-spread stubby fingers. When he
deeper into box he hit upon something hard
removed the relic, hoisted it high as Islanders
jaws in disbelief. From the base
the chalice he read out: “THIMOLAGGI.”
Priest, protective, swaddled the artifact like
new-born child and carried it back to be holy
the Parish of Timoleague. There it remains
when it comes in to Cape as that bit of past
raised beside the harbour of the South,
of what the soul goes through when next
nothing’s left except feeble drops of blood.
The Journey ‘In’
we start our journey ‘in’ to Oileán Cléire,
‘messages’ wedged between rows of wooden seats
safe saloon, the captain revs the engines
he studies dials and sea – and I watch sooty smoke
out of stack and water aft turn turbulent.
crew completes the cast off: one pulls tire fenders up,
ropes; another helps an arthritic straggler down
narrow concrete steps and, closing starboard side-door,
two half-hitches about the bolt, twangs the strap
an aromatic horse trailer to double-check it’s snug,
roll no matter heavy seas, then flicks the right-on salute
skipper and – the only way ahead – we’re reversing out.
against taffrail, relieved mainland duties done,
just in the nick of another kind of time, with barely breath
finally finding place to squeeze in car, I’m homeward bound, feel myself
as the village of Baltimore – framed
the middle of our wake – recedes into hill after hill.
minutes later, Lot’s Wife out of sight, just as we’re nosing past
perilous Catalogues – with hungry rocks so close on either side
could touch them with the gaff – I crane my neck, and there she is,
Insula Sancta Clare. I catch glimpse after glimpse of the Cape
to five miles off, watch her rise and fall from end to end.
blow-in me knows that I’ve lived there for more than years,
I’m beholding something altogether antidote yet opposite
every place I’ve ever dwelt.
this, the slightly longer twisty northern route, the vista west
wide, the swell begins to declare itself, to define its fetch,
lift us tiptoe wavering up and up and stomach-dropping
down, neither landlubber nor local stays steady today
hanging on. For the safety of us, though not essential for
ship, the skipper slows, takes rearing wave head on,
swirling spray makes the half-dozen brave to brazen souls
hunker down under overhang of wheelhouse deck.
drenched, and of the brazen class, I have to hop a wash
water from a port side drain before I mount the wheelhouse steps.
up, I open and shut the narrow door, stand dripping amongst
crew, an island lad, the skipper’s wife, the visiting weekend
and I peer through wheelhouse windows, cleaned
of clouds of salty spray by a single blade.
to steel screw-down window knob, I concentrate
straight ahead amidst the chat and craic, am reminded of
peaceful sleepy turtle, evaluate hump of Cape as carapace
townland Comalán the head. As we draw nearer still,
Island dead ahead, a line of stationary cormorants
wings after diving deep, healthy but not mountainous
rising royally and thundering down on the Bullig,
the Lough, I watch old turtle’s shell – all but blue from above
– turn green, begin to reveal, shimmering through flying crests,
way each shield has its individual stamp, when –
as I stare – squares rectangles pentagons some all but shapeless
shift into pastures, fields – the lines of demarcation turning
– and everywhere ahead I sense
simple heritage of drystone walls, feel their will to wait,
wonder wildly if I’m not in the neritic thick
some other seaside creature’s metaphor.
we at last turn broadside to the swells, slow beside the stacks
harbour speed, and enter purring, the lads collect the fares,
fenders, prepare mooring ropes, untie the side-door bolt,
wit and pleasantries. Islanders wait in little groups
Duffy’s pier, wave to family, friends, approach the top
landing steps, catch ropes for bollards, all as the Naomh
up to berth, settles in secure, done for the day
the island nurse has something else to say).
disembark quickly so that we’re not stuck in the saloon
safety’s sake while the trailer’s hoisted off. Cars vans
inch through spaces, rearview mirrors sometimes scratch
snap and neighbours laugh and wave you on. We’re home.
when I’m exploring Cape Clear Island, which I do almost every day, and looking
for wildlife, the seals have a way of spotting me before
I spot them, and they regularly stop me in my tracks, make me question my own roots and how I fit into this world. Recently, while out prowling the shorelines
of a number of islands in Roaringwater Bay, on the east side of the East Calf I happened upon a colony of some thirty Grey Atlantic seals calmly watching our
little craft. The whiteness of a few of them reminded me of an abandoned pup I’d once witnessed on a Cape shingle that started me on an inner search, which I
try to encapsulate, literally and metaphorically, in this story:
The Case of the Missing Mother
ritual break from ember words
saunter down to stove, fiddle pots,
outside, scan the island scene –
hills, grey stone beach, bracken
brown, kestrel droppin’ down –
whoa boy, stop on spot of white at edge
low spring tide, laugh loud at thought
rug washed in last night. But then it looks –
put down mug – almost – by God – alive.
as a questing youth, all sixty plus
of me set forth, approach the shingle,
from a hundred yards away see twitch,
spasm, sign of littoral life.
stumble over stone, slide down tide-line,
mere feet from baby seal, white,
as cloud, clean as the inside of creation.
raises head, hisses over shoulder,
back into lump, eyes cocked.
you grey stone beach, I wonder, what’s
up over the millennia, wonder
what’s up with this panting pup, where’s
mom, dammit but what’s wrong
the natural order of all things?
the next four days I put God on trial,
through evidence, adjudicate, interpolate,
twice a day the slow swimmin’
stretchin’ restin’ witness pup
nights read bible of marine biology,
at last that nothing’s up at all,
no case no how,
my own lack of understanding.
I discover that the Grey Atlantic
for its own growth & good,
naturally abandoned by its mother
two to three rich weeks of teat,
it has fat enough for another month,
more, until it sorts out how to fish
fend, that yes in-deed the mother’s done
job & now it’s up to pup – & I hark back
God, to my anger at His seeming absence
Holocaust, war after war to beat
wars, tumble of child out of crib & onto
then the night thought struggles
the dawn, the spring tide floods
cleans the grey stone beach, the well-weaned pup
off from what’s become his comfy boulder
& I sense, sense a sense we’ve got
make it by ourselves, our God’s
mother seal, has done Her part already,
rest the weaning’s up to you & me
us. Why I no longer can condemn my God
I can the mother of this pup, the mother
there somewhere whether pup sinks
swims. Why I’ve been Darwin’s bloody
uncle, a seal’s abandoned pup,
tidbit of an irreverent renegade
– by Christ as metaphor – man! the world,
world, it might just be joined together
all. I mean, Need we be mothered
from first to final breath?
the summer of 2004 our rain gauge on Cape Clear Island totalled only 5 inches of
precipitation for the months of June, July, and August, but surprisingly our
garden didn’t suffer, since when it rained it was usually a drizzle, which
soaks into the ground instead of running off as with a downpour, and these
drizzles didn’t happen on a cluster of days but were well spaced out. While our mains water supply was cut off every night to try to help the island storage tanks
gain enough water from the wells to carry us all through the next day, that proved no major inconvenience to most of us. But what I particularly enjoyed about
this summer may have been partly a result of the fine temperate weather; that is, I’ve rarely seen so many different types of butterflies on a given day, nor such
numbers of individual types. In August, for example, the peacocks flocked in, and throughout the summer I saw red admirals and small tortoise shells, painted
ladies and large whites, small blues and speckled woods, and many more, some of which I failed to identify. What follows is one of many of my scribbles sparked
off by butterfly experiences:
being so equipped
live full life in an average of three days,
three days and, if you’re lucky, maybe as many nights.
what the Large Heath butterfly’s got,
days out of chrysalis to death,
days to find a mate, and mate,
meet the Maker.
talk about packing it in.
don’t complain, just bobs about
his truly daily business
from tussock to shaggy tussock,
for food and friend.
Missus lays her eggs on the dead brown leaf
hare’s-tail, drops to earth.
got to know ’em when, into our also momentary space,
first Mister B., confused by glass, air turned solid, no smell,
against invisible planes, and he but probably born today.
last he alights in the conservatory’s upper southeast corner,
tawny wings as tight as El & I can eyes, reconnoitres,
days to find a mate, and mate,
meet the Maker.
talk about packing it in.
in she daintily flits, fainter, fewer eye-spots,
I wonder if marauding meadow pipit can be far behind.
staring eye-spots may encourage such a predator
miss the body proper on his nabbing thrusts, but to me
circles suggest, I must confess, kingdom come mandalas.
Mr. and Mrs. Butterfly, says I at last,
him into a closing church of hands, and stepping outside,
calculate: you’ve 72 hours,
in our little communion hour together you’ve lived a year in my life.
go, you gentle. I separate sanctuary into halves
he, quiet, waits, wings raised,
I hear him pray, imagine being born today, middle-aged mañana
dead the day after Tuesday, oh Mr. and Mrs. B.,
off he flies, so El cups her, strides into outer space, opens church-door thumbs
she’s free too, an angel flickering about above the shrubb’ry
darting do-si-do dances with her man,
days to find a mate, and mate,
meet the Maker.
talk about packing it in.
from Around the World
scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter the week of 17.11.03
before the idea ever surfaced to start a storytelling festival on Cape Clear
Island, I was enamoured of stories, stories from all over the world, little
Japanese Zen koans, ancient Sufi tales from Baghdad, Hasidic anecdotes from
eastern Europe, Hindu sagas from India, Irish fairy tales as recounted by
William Butler Yeats, Native American parables. And whenever I had a chance, and
there seemed a need for a change of pace, I used to orally slip these stories
into my secondary school teaching, or an English Department meeting, or
example, back in the late sixties, I recall a young enthusiastic but naïve
teacher having a problem with one of his rambunctious male students. The student
just wouldn’t shut up, or stop fidgeting, and was becoming a major
distraction. And the teacher, as a consequence, was at the end of his tether and
about to explode.
had it with this kid,” I remember him telling his colleagues; “I’m going
to have to throw him out of the class. He’s a major hindrance to the whole
The teacher seemed
utterly frustrated and I didn’t know what to advise him. And then a Jewish
story I had recently encountered sprang to mind. A couple of days after sharing
this Hasidic tale with myself – yes, the teacher was myself – I was no
longer troubled by the student. I’d given the lad a special project, and now
the young man’s redirected energy provided a healthy example to his entire
several hundred-year-old story – I think from Martin Buber’s collected Tales
of the Hasidim – went something like this:
elderly rabbi suddenly had a strong urge to visit a city several days walk away
from his own. He told a few of his young disciples about his need to make this
pilgrimage, and they quickly agreed that they would help the old man on his
journey. The next day, a dry end-of-summer day, they set off, and they walked
and walked the dusty road, a road none of them had ever travelled before. As the
day began to come to an end, they started looking for an inn where they could
spend the night, but the road seemed empty, dusty mile after dusty mile. And,
clearly, the old rabbi was growing tired and weak and in need of food and bed.
But still they came to no habitation.
then there it was, a substantial inn, right on the side of the road. To
determine its suitability, two of the disciples went inside to investigate, and
to their great dismay the main room had four men at a table. These men were
playing cards, gambling, and drinking, and swearing. The room – and the inn
itself – filled with their vehemence, their nasty language, the sound of their
hands slamming down on the table as they pounced on their tricks.
the disciples went back outside and sadly informed their rabbi, “Oh Honorable
One, this is no place for you or for us. The guests inside contaminate it with
their vile language and spirit. They regularly take God’s name in vain. We
fear we must walk on in hopes of finding something more suitable.”
the rabbi raised his hand and, motioning his followers to gather close, said,
“No, my beloveds. Here will be fine. Just imagine the energy these men have
turned toward God.”
A Zen Story
One of my favourite
stories, and one I used to share with my secondary school students, is a Zen
tale I originally encountered in Paul Reps delightful little compilation, Zen
Flesh, Zen Bones. I don’t know if O-oka, the judge in the tale, performs
in a string of tales or not, like our Western World’s wise King Solomon. And,
I confess, I sometimes wonder if King Solomon was all that wise, what with seven
hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Regardless, the Japanese O-oka had a
great way of solving problems. He may never have held a sword over a baby,
offering to give the two women who were fighting over the child a half each and
thus, by their different reactions to his proposed solution, determine which was
the real mother and which the false, but O-oka knew how to bring about a
solution to a strange robbery. The story goes something like this:
Walking along a
dusty, narrow path on a hot hot day, a wandering merchant, with fifty rolls of
cotton goods resting on his shoulders, couldn’t bear the heat any longer and
had to stop for a rest. The only significant shelter he could find in the
immediate landscape was a sizeable stone statue of the Buddha. In the shadow of
this Buddha he lay down and fell asleep. When he awoke, he discovered that
someone had stolen all his goods. He quickly walked into the nearest town and
reported the theft to the police. They promptly turned the investigation over to
a judge named O-oka.
After hearing the
case in an open court, O-oka made a public announcement: “The stone Buddha
must have stolen the goods. This Buddha is supposed to care for the welfare of
the people, but he has been negligent in performing his holy duty. Therefore I
require that he be arrested and brought to court.”
Shaking their heads,
and followed by a growing crowd of laughing people, a team of police journeyed
the mile out into the countryside and ten of them succeeded in carrying the
stone Buddha back to town. The crowd grew, the people of the area curious to
hear what kind of verdict the judge was about to proclaim.
When O-oka entered
the courtroom, he looked past the stone Buddha and rebuked the boisterous and
mocking crowd by saying: “What right have you people to appear in this
courtroom laughing and joking in this way? I hereby place you all in contempt of
court and make you subject to a fine and imprisonment.”
The crowd hastened to
apologize to the judge and he finally said: “I shall still have to impose a
fine on each of you, but I will remit it provided each of you brings one roll of
cotton goods to the court within three days. Anyone failing to do so will
forthwith be arrested.”
One of the rolls of
cloth which the people brought was quickly identified by the merchant as his
own, and thus the thief was easily discovered. The merchant recovered his goods,
the collected cotton rolls were returned to the people, and the stone Buddha was
carried back to his place of quiet in the countryside.
Moses Takes a Walk
story that follows, my version of an ancient Persian tale, provides me with an
inkling of what might be happening behind the scenes. Whenever I’m feeling
lost, or suspecting that the horrors of the world make life disconnected, even
purposeless, or I want to write President Bush yet another peacenik letter I
know he’ll never read, I think of this ancient tale:
set out one hot summer day for the walled city of Ur. After he’d walked
several miles along a dusty desert path, Khadir – a manifestation of the
Godhead – appeared before him. Moses fell to the ground, cowering. Khadir
spoke, “Moses, stand. Stop hiding your face.”
a favour to ask of you,” continued Khadir. “Might we walk together for a
Lord,” Moses replied, “I could not be more honoured.”
you may not want to walk with me, Moses.”
might object to being with me, Moses, or object to some of the things I do.”
without words, they walked and they walked. Suddenly, running toward them from
the opposite direction, came a young man in the prime of life. As he passed
them, looking rather grim-faced and determined, Khadir raised his arm, shook his
fingers, and the handsome man fell dead.
could not believe what had happened, but continued walking in silence.
hour later they entered a small green village built not beside an oasis but next
to the head of a sizeable lake. As they passed through the town, and turned back
to look at it one last time from a slight hill on the far side, Khadir raised
his arm, shook his fingers, and the entire fishing fleet on which the people of
the village depended for the bulk of their food, sank to the bottom of the lake.
Moses could not believe what had happened, but kept walking without talking.
hours later, as they approached the walled city of Ur, they saw an impoverished
old couple outside one of the buttresses to the wall. The couple were so poor
that they lived in a hole in the buttress.
more Khadir raised his arm, and the buttress came crumbling down.
could contain himself no longer and, crying, said to Khadir, “My Lord, how can
you do such a deed to those poor people?”
replied Khadir, “you ask a question at last. And while I don’t ordinarily
give answers, I’m going to share with you a look at what really happened, or
didn’t happen, today. That young man I struck down, do you know what he was
about to do? He’d just learned that his parents had forbidden him to marry the
young woman with whom he had recently fallen in love, and he, desperate, was on
his way to kill them. Had he done so, he would have ended up suffering in hell
until the end of time. Now he resides in heaven, as he never committed any
the fishing boats? A marauding tribe was just about to attack that fishing
village and burn the boats, but when they arrived and couldn’t find the boats
they left without causing any damage. And the village men are now raising the
boats from the bottom of the lake and re-caulking them.
that old couple’s hovel? When the pair start to clear up the rubble, they’ll
come upon a chest of gold that had been buried deep in the wall one hundred
years ago, and with the money they will feed the poor and house the homeless and
see to it that that gold is used for those purposes until it runs out a hundred
years from now.”
his head slowly nodding up and down, turned to thank Khadir, but He had vanished
and Moses never saw him again.
4. Tales of Existentialism
I used to wonder what
existentialism meant, especially when it became necessary for me to explain the
word or philosophy to my secondary school students. Its dictionary definition,
such as this typical one from Websters, never helped me much: “a chiefly 20th
century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on
analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of
the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for
his acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.” If as a class we had already studied Shakespeare’s Hamlet together,
then I could quote his conclusion from all the incredible calamities he had had to deal with: “The readiness is all,” he finally decided. For some years – though I
confess no longer – I thought that that would be a quotation to put on my gravestone, should I ever have decided to have one. Just those four simple words sum up
such a full approach to life. But I was not much closer to being able to explain existentialism to my students.
Then I came upon a Zen koan. It
told of a preacher who was in the middle of a special guest lecture before a
sizeable crowd when a jealous
preacher from another sect interrupted him and said, “The founder of my sect has much more miraculous power than you. Why, he can stand on one side of a
wide river with a paint brush in his hand, and I on the other side of the river holding up a sheet of canvas in my hands, and the holy name of Amida will suddenly
be painted on the canvas I’m holding. Can you do anything half as miraculous as that?” The preacher lightly replied, “I’m not into magic, that’s not the manner of
my Zen. My kind of miracle is much more basic. When I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel sleepy I sleep.”
With that story I thought I had
an example that explained existentialism to my students. It sometimes worked,
the penny occasionally dropped.
But a little later I came upon another Zen parable, and I no longer had any trouble whatsoever in describing what it meant to be an existentialist. I’d just tell this
tiny little story, a tale that some attribute to the Buddha himself.
Once upon a time, a man was
travelling cross country when he suddenly encountered a tiger in a field. The
man, on seeing the tiger start to
approach him, ran as fast as his legs could carry him. He made the edge of the field, but there, with the tiger not far behind, he came abruptly to a great precipice.
He caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself out, down over the edge of the cliff – and dangled there. When he looked up, there was the tiger
sniffing him. When he looked down, way below him what did he see but another tiger opening his huge jaws in anticipation. Only the vine sustained him. It was
then that he saw two mice, one white and one black, starting to gnaw away at the root of the vine above his head but out of the tiger’s – and his – reach. It was
exactly then that the man spotted a luscious strawberry near him. Holding the vine tightly with one hand, he reached out and plucked the strawberry with the other.
Ah, how sweet it tasted.
A God’s Joke
all the stories I know, I think the following Hindu story best discloses the
mysterious nature of journeying, whether that long long way to Tipperary, or the
eight mile ferry journey in to Cape Clear Island, or to Timbuktu. Or through
life. I’ve reworked the story from Heinrich Zimmer’s Myths
and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization; he’d reworked it from The Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna.
through prolonged devotions and holy acts, won the grace of the god Vishnu, who
appeared before him and said: “You may have a personal wish fulfilled.”
“Please show me the structure of the world,” said the saint. “Come with
me,” replied Vishnu.
led Narada across a desert, hot under scorching sun. They both became
exceedingly thirsty. Finally Vishnu sat, pointed to a distant hamlet, and said,
“Would you kindly fetch some water from their well?” Narada set off while
the god waited.
knocked on the first door he came to. A modest maiden greeted him and Narada saw
what he had never before seen, a pair of enchanting eyes. He stood openmouthed
and gazed, forgetting his purpose. The young woman, kind and wholesome, asked
him to enter, her voice a gentle noose about the neck of his being.
the house he was welcomed as a holy man by the young woman’s family, to which
he seemed to belong. No questions were asked. After several months he begged the
father for the young woman’s hand, and Narada shared with them all the duties
and delights of a farming family.
After twelve years,
and the births of three children, his father-in-law died and Narada inherited
the farm, which he managed well. But in this twelfth year, the monsoon season
became violent. Brooks turned to streams, streams to rivers, rivers to torrents,
and suddenly a flood struck the hamlet. Straw huts and flocks were carried away
and the villagers had to flee for their lives.
himself holding his wife with one hand, two of his children with the other, with
the youngest hanging about his neck. Through the blackest night he went, wading
through sucking mud, pulled by swirling currents. He stumbled. His youngest fell
screaming from his neck and vanished. He briefly let go of the other two
children to search, but she had disappeared in the roaring waters. Before he
could grasp his other two children, a swirling surge carried them off as well,
and then he felt his wife ripped from his side and his own feet pulled out from
under him. He rolled about in the flood waters like a log. He fell unconscious
just as he was washed onto a bank. When he woke, he looked out upon a vast
expanse of brown water and wept.
then he heard a familiar voice behind him. “Child!” it said. “Where’s my
cup of water? I’ve been waiting more than half an hour.” Narada’s heart
nearly stopped. He turned. Instead of muddy water, he saw a shimmering desert
and Vishnu at his side. “Do you now understand the structure of the world?”
Vishnu asked, smiling.
Fastnet Lighthouse & South Harbour
scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter the summer of 2003
For the Very First Time
to Cape Clear Island after 26 years in Switzerland required us, both literally
and metaphorically, to start living in first and second gears instead of fourth
and fifth. Americans, my wife Nell and I not only gladly gave up autobahns for
nine-foot wide lanes, a cost of living for a quality of life, but we switched
from being teachers to entirely new routines: mornings after breakfast, I retire
to my study to write, whether poem or short story, novel or memoir, makes no
difference. Afternoons, depending on the weather, I do repairs on the house, or
try to bring the farm back to life, whether by pulling that pest ragwort out by
the roots, or planting a tree, or helping to fix an electric fence that’s
shorting out, or scything bracken late July, when it’s at its peak, or just
walking the walls or taking a pick-axe to bumpy parts of the dirt drive. I’ve
also become an organic gardener, double-digging beds where none have ever been
before, and raising all the usual vegetables, plus American sweet corn.
almost every late afternoon, weather permitting, Nell and I take a walk
together, try to see something we’ve never seen before, apply Zorba the
Greek’s philosophy, which held that each day we should try to experience
something as if for the first time. To Kazantzakis we are indebted. We thank him
for reminding us of how we should live our lives, especially here on this
magical island where the landscape, the seascape – mainly because of the
weather and the sun, or the moon – can change dramatically minute to minute.
Every day we try to apply his insight on how to live, or, if there’s a
difference, on how to see the world. And it works, whether we discover a new
pattern in a drystone “ditch”, or spot a flower or bird we’ve never seen
before – or identified – before, or are surprised by how light emphasizes
some knoll. Here’s a poem about a recent encounter with a pair of ravens:
daily walk to stay in touch
Zorba the Greek and renew my pledge
experience these whereabouts afresh,
spy a pair of ravens perched
Napoleonic tower’s parapet from which
sentries used to search the seas
sign of French invasion.
sense the pair already had blow-in me
one sentinel flies off as if he’s just
some trivial errand
promised his mate he’d run,
next I know I’m being reconnoitred:
circles my absolutes from fifty feet
my head. I hunker down, try to be
inconspicuous as a threadbare old belief
atop the drystone ditch.
myth time I’ve been frisked
an Israeli ranger, hear a burst
guttural “purrks” as he powers north,
half a hemisphere away,
behind a patch of gorse,
I suddenly see as sabra.
sneak extended peek at her.
a subtle duelling interval she gives
shrug of shaggy throat
bandy-legged struts the ledge, launches
steady beat of jagged wings
join her man.
I turn left, my wife’s beside me,
the Old Lighthouse
nearby Signal Tower
January of 2003, after eleven years of dithering, I finally did some detective
work, found out that yes, my wife Nell and I could have an hour’s ride at a
reasonable price in a private plane departing from the Bantry airstrip, and fly
over Cape Clear Island – and our farm – and view the place we love more than
any other from a totally new perspective.
booked the flight a week in advance, and every night that week sat glued to the
weather reports. Night after night after the news the high held, remained all
but stationery, and day after day I witnessed a remarkably cloudless clarity in
place over West Cork.
Saturday, January 11th, the weather still holding, we took the ferry
to Baltimore, drove to Skibb, picked up a friend who was delighted to fill the
only seat left – and drove on to Bantry. After winding down a few narrow
country lanes, we found the airstrip immediately south of Whiddy Island and
shortly we were helping to push the new plane out into the sunshine so that the
thin coating of ice would melt, assisted by elbow grease, before departure.
were off. Within two minutes of take-off I could see way to the south, in a
puddle of golden light, Cape Clear Island, with Mount Gabriel and its tracking
station in the foreground. Because of the positioning of the low mid-day winter
sun and my wish to photograph much of what we saw, we approached Cape from the
southwest, flying over Dunmanus Bay, the Mizen peninsula, dropping down a bit
over the Fastnet Lighthouse as we approached Cape.
the window open much of the time so that my camera wouldn’t photograph mainly
glass reflections, a cold breeze rushed into the back seat, where Nell and I
sat. In my excitement with my camera, I didn’t notice that Nell was freezing.
sun to the south, we flew along Cape’s southern coastline at around a thousand
feet. A high spring tide gave the harbours and inlets intense blue-greens.
Geological strata revealed surprising patterns, connections. We savoured every
house and field, archaeological sites, castle ruin, old lighthouse and
watchtower, everything from an entirely new perspective. The proximity of our
home to a cliff we’d never noticed before. Slowly, as we circled Cape for the
third time, we felt that we were experiencing magical views of all we’ve been
coming to know every day for the last ten years.
if seconds after take-off we were flying east of Sherkin, Hare, Baltimore, Loch
Hyne. There, in that blazing blue short tidal river, I once capsized my kayak in
a raging cataract.
were crossing over Skibbereen, absorbing everything from Skibb to the Mizen and
the Fastnet in one longing look. Below, there’s Field’s Super-Valu, the
traffic circle by the health clinic, the Ilen river winding its entirety down to
we saw all the bits and pieces of where we’ve lived and shopped, visited and
prowled these last eleven yeasrs; could see it all at once. It was as though the
massive patchwork jigsaw puzzle of West Cork some mastermind suddenly assembled
before our eyes. With the completed puzzle photographed by our hearts, and
another hundred pictures on three rolls of film, we landed safe and sound –
and Nell thawed within the hour.
Nell and I walked home around the foot of Cape’s South Harbour, we happened to
glance toward the wide mouth and spotted a feeding frenzy. It being only early
April, we were surprised by the activity, which we, perhaps mistakenly,
associate with summertime. A mile away gannets were plummeting down, one after
another, sending plumes of spray skywards. A number of different kinds of
seabirds – blackbacks, herring gulls, fulmars – were wheeling and bobbing
about in the melee. So, curious, and hoping we might spot a lyric dolphins or
two, we climbed the hill to our house, dropped off the groceries, and headed up
the time we got there half an hour after spotting the feeding frenzy, the
commotion had all but vanished, yet we weren’t disappointed, as the late
afternoon light was creating a sharp gentle shimmer on the pastures across the
harbour, the quality of the greens mixing with the shadows from the drystone
ditches became an experience in itself.
then, at the very same moment, we both spotted a whale partially breaching.
While we couldn’t see his head or mouth, his back arced up and up, at last a
little dorsal fin appeared, and then more back, and, without showing flukes, he
disappeared from sight. A few minutes later he reappeared in the same way. We
couldn’t identify him, except to rule out his being a Minke, as his head never
showed; and since we never saw any white, we assumed he couldn’t be an Orca.
Maybe, just maybe, he was a fin whale, a small one, at a guess a forty-footer.
But that I couldn’t identify him didn’t matter. He was there, had shown
himself to us, shared himself with us. We felt privileged, privy to a basic
quality of nature. He – or she – gave us something other than the war in
Iraq to think about. And then I remembered an experience from last summer, one
that grew into a poem:
We slipped out the jagged mouth
of South Harbour for a break
from high season, from
and tourists, our two-person
open-cockpit kayak like a
testing the deliciousness of
Half a mile out, with a growing
of calm and purity,
we suddenly heard the rudest
rested paddles on the coaming,
peered around to figure out
the nature of the interruption.
Another snort, another, and
alert at last
we watched a herd of breaching
bottlenose dolphin flowing past
on either side, arcing and
sometimes mere paddle-length
from our matchstick craft.
Next we knew one leapt ten feet
and floated there horizontally,
then dove with playful smacking
back into the kingdom come of
When they’d disappeared into
we drifted for a while on
paddled into mouth of harbour,
with only dolphins on our mind.
4. The Fastnet Lighthouse
Four miles to the
west of Cape Clear Island, and eight miles from the mainland, rises the solitary
Fastnet Rock and its towering Lighthouse. In severe storms, even the 180-foot
tip of the Fastnet is sometimes obscured not only by the crests of mighty
breakers, but by the waves themselves. When foggy or misty, the Fastnet’s
identifiable foghorn kicks in, a comforting sound and focal point from anywhere
on Cape as visibility approaches zero. At night the lantern’s bright flash of
rotating light reassuringly sweeps the region at five-second intervals – a
rhythm as recognizable to mariners as station identifications to radio
there’s one incontrovertible symbol of the southwest coast of Ireland, it’s
the Fastnet, its first tower lighting up in 1854, its present tower in 1904.
John Feehan wrote, “The wind that round the Fastnet sweeps blows in all its
fury and in all its gentleness along the entire coast from Cork to the Mizen
Head, and makes itself known in no uncertain terms to every yachtsman, every
fisherman, every mariner who sails these seas, and there are few among them who
have not the healthiest respect for it....The gods that rule the seas are no
playthings for us mortals.”
Last summer I had an
entirely new experience of the Fastnet. I was fortunate to see it not only from
up close but, at last, from on the Rock itself.
Every summer this
last decade or so I’ve make a point of taking an evening boat trip – or
three – out to the Fastnet, repeatedly circling its looming eminence while
clicking away with both camera and heart. On one trip last year we had dolphins
leaping all around us, playing in the bow wave, frolicking in the wake and
alongside. Whales we saw in the distance. And a pair of grey Atlantic seals out
at the Fastnet itself.
Then, out of the blue
last August, a couple of friends invited me along in their yacht, and when we
got to the Rock, Barbara took the helm and Gerry, two others friends, and I
hopped aboard his dinghy, rowed right up to the Rock. Excited, I jumped for
Charraig Aonair, made it without getting too wet, the swell exceptionally
slight. I held the painter tight while the others took the leap. We prowled the
Rock for an hour. I’d been meaning to do this for years, had many times read The
History of the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse, by C. W. Scott, a 1904 book recently
reissued in a fascimile edition by Schull Books of Ballydehob.
While the Lighthouse
itself was locked up tight during our exploration, the tower having been
automated back in 1989, we still had a chance to feel what’s it’s like to be
on the tiniest of islands well out to sea. I confess I was so smitten by the
sensation of at last being on the Rock, that I began to imagine what it would
have been like to live there, to have been a lighthouse keeper, three weeks on,
one week off, to have helped to build the edifice. A construction foreman once
lived there for 10 months straight.
For some, such a way
of life might be like being in prison, an Irish Alcatraz, but for others, I now
know, it can be a liberation, so close does one feel oneself – still earthed
– to the inner workings of the sea.
Building on the Fastnet
It seems like
yesterday, rather than last summer, I was on the Fastnet – and in my
imagination I’m still there. My building blocks, however, are light little
words, not two- to three-ton ashlars. To add to my confusion – and now perhaps
yours – stone mason me is off by exactly one hundred years, as this poem is
set in the cement of nineteen hundred and three:
in the final thick
building my fourth lighthouse tower
change my orientation to the stars –
to Orion’s belt – but then,
you’ve not yet lived
out to sea on a rock
an even smaller rock
that from any spot
can throw a stone
drops into the drink.
the sound of sea
time of day or night
help to locate you
your own nautical chart,
you less concerned
the number of fathoms
the day and more aware of the degree
where you are or aren’t:
mean I’ve seen my mug of tea
bounced into the midnight air
the thunder of a visitor below;
mean I’ve watched rocks
in at tons
ripped from cliffs,
tossed a hundred feet
where I’d calmly stood
cloud-capped Hungry Hill
early unassuming rip-tide afternoon.
landlubber man like me
ever have touched out here –
close to the upwelling continental shelf –
these exactly cut,
crafted blocks that went in
the laying of course upon stubborn course
this princely primal tower.
first, since truths be few and stark
tidal waves, I confess I feared
hoisted block, all one
three-quarters to three tons worth,
each had my name and dates engraved,
by this almost end – today we’re at last
that preordained eighty-ninth course –
begun to run my questing callused hands
each stone as though it is my friend,
my profession, and direct with delectation
dove-tailing ritual of lowering male
female, female onto male, of joggling
bonds of the entire edifice into one
soaring male-and-female monolith.
I held the plumb bob from the top
the vertical variation’s off
under 3/16 of an inch.
you wouldn’t think
working where one reflex backward step –
you might take such any day
work or play – would be the last
ever make, that that risk would be
to communal snores,
nonetheless every simple step
gained a density of belief
a different kind of engineering feat:
time – whether high up where
lantern’s yet to rise and pulse,
under dangling tons, or in a nervous wind
force – you run your hand
a stone’s edge, feeling for
slightest chip, you know
isn’t just the ropes, the cables,
smoothness of the shackles,
teamwork of your fellow man,
keeps us each from dropping down
say good day to Davy Jones’s gang.
you wouldn’t think you’d mostly come
feel that those wheeling stars in Orion’s belt
been perfectly positioned by an Old Hand
thrives in a mirror sea awash with lights
give voyaging me a clue to whereabouts.
scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter the week of 11.02
First Visit to Ireland
for leprechauns and saints, Nell and I first visited Ireland the summer of
’79, and what a subtle effect the country worked on us: Ireland was the
alchemist, we the dreggy substances in the retort. While the reaction didn’t
transform us into anything like gold, certain “things” later crystallized as
a consequence of the experiment.
by car ferry in Ringaskiddy from Roscoff, what greeted Nell and me but a postal
and petrol strike. In a contrarian way we couldn’t
have been more delighted; we had
Ireland to ourselves. Sensible tourists stayed away. The discomforted Irish
welcomed us like apparitions or prodigal pilgrims.
headed south, meandered west, following the coast and our druthers – and
eating picnic breakfasts in petrol pump queues. Everywhere, Kinsale, Sneem,
Valentia, Galway, Clifden, we’d top up, find a place in some headland’s
hollow, and be given pilgrim passes to pitch our tent while exchanging
conversational tidbits with friendly, inquisitive landowners.
afternoon, on the spur of the moment, I telephoned the States, where our three
kids – for the first time having made the journey without us – were
vacationing, visiting, we thought, both sets of grandparents. I spoke with my
mother only to learn that my father had died suddenly, in his sleep, just ten
days before. The funeral was over. I’d missed everything. She was managing.
The kids were fine. The bits and pieces from the Russian Sputnik that were to
rain down on the East Coast hadn’t. She’d been unable to reach us because
we’d left no Irish address or telephone number. Dad had beaten her at a game
of scrabble, perhaps for the first time ever, that evening, and, despite his
handicaps, had split a little wood earlier in the day. When she woke in the
morning, she reached out, discovered that his body was stone cold.
I exited the phone booth, I was crying. An unknown woman in Galway town’s
Great Southern Hotel who was waiting for the phone patted me on the shoulder,
assured me that whatever had happened all would be O.K.
hour later Nell and I found ourselves prowling the eastern shore of Loch Corrib.
We had fled Galway town with the need to commune with nature. Touched by a
stretch of uninhabited out-of-the-way shoreline, we located the owner. He told
us all about his family, about his son’s soccer match the next afternoon; he
launched into an explanation of Irish panhandles, meaning Christian names, as
many as four in a row, to keep all the Patricks and Marys straight: Paddy
Michael Johnny Joe, he was. He then gave us our pass, assured us his cattle
wouldn’t bother us . . . much.
night fell I’d built a cairn beside the lake.
early the next morning we heard a whistling. It grew closer, came right up to
our tent, receded into the distance. We discreetly waited, unzipped the flaps,
peeked out. A half-full pail of fresh milk announced the dayspring.
simple act I experienced as a kind of Irish blessing, a gift, the true kind that
doesn’t ask for anything in return. Whether from leprechaun, or saint, or
Paddy Michael Johnny Joe didn’t matter. It was the kind of gift to pass
around, perhaps in another form, to someone else.
summer of 1992 a young unknown man from Dublin was admiring our Cape Clear
Island kitchen garden when we returned home from a walk. Had we a bed for the
night? We did. We got chatting. He’d recently been hitchhiking. A businessman
picked him up, drove like the blazes toward Cork. A road that looked like a
shortcut proved windy and narrow. Suddenly a farmer on a tractor was blocking
the left lane. A car from the other direction halted opposite the farmer. They
nattered away. The businessman became impatient. Finally, wildly, he honked his
horn. He’d lost six minutes. He honked again. No effect. As the car in the
opposite lane drove off, the farmer strolled back, blocking the right lane.
businessman became anxious. The burly farmer, unruffled, simply smiled. “Ye be
in a hurry. Well,” he gestured toward a distant hillside, “see that cemetery
up there? Sure and ye know what, lots of those fellas was in a hurry too.” He
strolled back to his tractor.
few weeks later I met a sailor in a pub. I’d recently damaged my car’s
suspension on some pot-holed roads in need of a minor miracle and found myself
comparing West Cork road maintenance to the rather quick and thorough Swiss road
repair I was used to. The sailor retorted, “If our roads were widened and
smoothed out to suit the likes of ye, do ye know what? Hoards could pop down
here weekends from Dublin, and pop back, roaring along, and then where’d we
what I value about the down-to-earth neighbours. Not that they’re not
sometimes so friendly, so obliging, that they say not what’s true and helpful
but what they intuit you’d like to hear. But that they take
the time, whether they have the time
or not, to find out who you are, and how you are, and then some. To me, that
collective characteristic dramatizes a spiritual quality imbedded deep in the
Zen koan metaphorically dramatizes, or defines, part of the naturalness I’m
Buddhist priest, in the middle of a talk, heard such a disturbance in the
auditorium that he had to investigate. A priest from another and rival sect had
intentionally created the hubbub. He stood in the crowd and boasted loudly:
“Our founder’s so miraculous that he, with a brush in hand, can stand on one
side of a wide river, and I, with sheet of paper, can stand on the other side,
and he can make the name of God appear on my paper. Pray tell, what can you
do?” The first priest answered: “O, a much greater miracle altogether. When
I feel hungry I eat; when I feel thirsty I drink; and when I feel sleepy I
years Nell and I searched for a religion in which we could believe. While we
lived in St. Louis during the early and middle sixties, we visited church after
church, Episcopalian, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Jewish, even the Church of
Scientology, where a medium presided. And we were visited by Mormons, Muslims,
Hindus, Buddhists, Quakers – and Catholics and Presbyterians. Once we were
guests in a black inner-city church where the African-Americans sang song after
song and clearly felt and believed what they sang. That church, of all, proved
the warmest, the friendliest, the most open; but unable to forget that we were
white, and perhaps lacking courage, we didn’t become members.
remember a friend, a psychoanalyst, saying to me once, “One shouldn’t be a
teacher, or a minister or priest or rabbi, or a social worker, no matter how
many qualifications one has, if one hasn’t a good heart.” And since I
don’t believe, or constitutionally can’t come to believe, that a religion
that puts down another religion can be loving, I tend to find my “church”
wherever something touches me deeply, whether it’s in the kitchen garden where
a wren’s feeding, or beside the tumultuous sea, or under the bright canopy of
immeasurable stars, or in some conversation while out shopping, or touching
Nell’s foot with my own over supper. I still feel as though I was instructed
to turn the other cheek by a religion that didn’t, that doesn’t.
African tale sums up my conclusions about why I’ve missed the orthodox
religious boat. The story runs something like this:
a day!” exclaimed the god as he returned to his kind after going to and fro
upon the face of the earth. “I noticed that one particular tribe was losing
its faith, so I dropped down and manifested myself in a field where four men
were working, one in each corner. They saw me standing there in the center,
looked closely at me, and fell to the ground in awe and thanksgiving. I vanished
but watched what ensued. They ran back to their village, breathlessly assembled
everyone, and proclaimed that there could be no doubt: I truly existed, and
cared for them, since I had come down unto them, and that they’d all best
start worshipping me in earnest. The people nodded their heads enthusiastically.
They could sense that these men had had a holy vision, a restorative vision, and
that each had had it made it incontrovertible.
one of the villagers asked, ‘What was the god wearing?’ ‘A bright red
cap!’ said one. Another said, ‘No, bright blue!’ And a third cried out,
‘You’re both wrong, it was brilliant green!’ And then the fourth man
shouted, ‘You’re all crazy, it was a shimmering yellow!’ And then they
started to argue, and fight, and despise each other, and they formed four
groups. So I left. But I still like my pyramidal hat, with a different colour on
each of its four sides. Don’t you?” he said, turning this way and that to
Why Live on an Island?
is it that prompts anyone to live on an out-of-the-way island at all? What’s
so special about islands? Why should folk hold that islands of all places be
most magical? What’s the power that draws Gaugins to Tahiti, Irish to the
Canaries, to Lanzerote, newly-wed Americans to the Bermudas, Germans to the
Lido, Italian expats to Capri, retiring Japanese to Hawaii, resilient monks to
Skellig, Nell and me to Cape Clear? Sun, sand, and the exotic seem trivial, if
not irrelevant, answers.
island isn’t Everyman’s cup of tea, nor Everywoman’s imagined paradise.
Yet island paradise abounds in our thirsty imaginations. Consider the island
hangouts of the adventurous Odysseus. Think of lost Atlantis, of the Islands of
the Blessed, of Tír na Nóg.
back five thousand years, or roughly twice the time to Homer, we decipher the
clay-tablet story of Gilgamesh in a rage that his best friend Enkidu has died in
battle. He sets forth to find life-everlasting. Finally he reaches an island
where a man lives who saved the world from drowning in flood.
Noah type, or perhaps Noah himself in an early disguise, this man gives
Gilgamesh a tip from island wisdom that enables the first recorded hero to dive
for sacred seaweed, a bite of which does death in. Unfortunately for Gilgamesh
– but perhaps luckily for us – he falls asleep beside a well, and a serpent,
dining on the fruits of Gilgamesh’s labor, lives happily ever after shedding
less than Noah lives on – or retires to – an island.
a sea-girt island it’s hard not to be more aware of the weather, and of a
corresponding inner weather, too, than on the mainland. I recall the Skellig
monks. Those tough clerics, on that savage hunk of all but inaccessible rock,
created a bastion of Christianity. It’s as though religious permanence became
possible where life was most fragile, for they lived right on the edge of
Europe, the edge of civilization, the outermost edge.
I know sort of why
monks did it,
down on that God
outpost of an Atlantic isle.
didn’t simply keep
the other cheek
a howling wind I hear them sing,
all we’ve got so on we go.
a beehive hut in a butterfly world
on the edge
blow-in me not mainly of hardship
of a wildly simplifying place, gull eggs,
feathered from jagged ledge,
the others in the hut,
day-time look-out & blessed boulders
heavens above the single narrow path.
a howling wind I hear them sing,
all we’ve got so on we go.
on Cape, here on this sister isle,
a practically unrelated time,
is the way it should be:
12 & the roof poised & so what,
the living room table when we’re not home,
left in car, a sea pink
in a child’s eagle eye,
with rambunctious Mother Nature
existential as full flame
fish-filled frying pan.
I need help, or a neighbour mine,
it, off we go,
as the evening flight of a hooded crow.
a howling wind I hear them sing,
all we’ve got so on we go.
The Pros and Cons of Island Life
what life was like on Skellig Michael in its inhabited heyday piques my
curiosity as much as imagining what Cape, now permanent home to about 120, was
like when populated by 1800 souls – perhaps during the summer months only –
back in the Eighteenth Century, or by Neolithic man some 5000 years ago when the
population was sufficient to build Cape’s recently authenticated passage tomb.
figure out what an island is, I’ve thought of what an island becomes when it
stops being an island. Take an island I have visited and value, Valentia. With a
bridge over to it, though, it loses, for me, its island character. It becomes
easily accessible, no different from other places you can drive to of a Sunday
afternoon. It requires no special sacrifice; no ritual passage is needed to make
the journey. An island it isn’t any more.
psychologically considered, surrounded by the sea, are intensely circumscribed
by the realm of the unconscious. In dreams, an island often signifies a complex,
something cut off from the mainland, the healthy part of the self. Perhaps John
Donne intuitively knew this negative side of islands when he wrote his
dumbfounding conceit: “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a
peece of the Continent, a part of the maine. . . ; And therefore never send to
know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
particular risk to (island) living, then, is not to become spiritually cut off
as well as physically cut off. The physical isolation can not only intensify
one’s relationship to nature, but also create a sense of imprisonment; the
spiritual isolation can lead not only to vision, but also to depression, or even
madness, neatly chronicled in D.H. Lawrence’s parabolic story “The Man Who
Loved Islands”. If you dream of living on an island, read this cautionary tale
me, an island creates a vastly heightened sense of limited physical space, but,
perhaps as a compensation, also of infinite time.
concentrates experience, helps Nell and me feel utterly alive, a place where
routine things, like greeting a visitor just in, or lugging supplies delivered
from the mainland, or looking at the sea to determine if the mailboat will go
out today, take on special meaning. And it also emphasizes that each other is
all we’ve got.
live on an island may put one under scrutiny, but it also gives one freedom,
especially to relate to elemental powers and to find worth in simple acts. For
Nell and me, Cape connects us to basics:
where lights don’t dim the Pleiades,
narrow roads say no to higher gears,
winter winds and salt discourage trees,
choughs confess to this creed-free chanticleer
hereabouts is nil, still I cannot pray
pride into [Andrew Marvell’s] “a green Thought in a green shade.”
on this all but treeless isle of Cape,
witness patchwork fields in slanting light
out such intensities of green
shimmer and shadow become a last landscape
sanctuary same as harbour below for plight
seal when between each wave’s abrupt ravine.
pastures pulsing greens reveal
Nature paints with tints that touch and heal.
scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter the week of 20.5.02
late February 1993, Nell and I left gale-blasted Cape Clear Island, where cattle
crushes were knee-deep in more rain-induced muck than one neighbour had seen in
twenty years, and headed for the cozy confines of secure, inland Pennsylvania,
Quaker country, there to celebrate our daughter’s wedding.
and her fiancé, Steve, outdoorsy, plain-living primary school teachers who
spent every free weekend canoeing, cross-country skiing, bicycling, hiking, or
jogging, had searched the back lanes of rural Pennsylvania for months trying to
locate a simple, down-to-earth Quaker meeting house in which to marry. And they
found one in the hamlet of London Grove.
a friendly endorsement procedure by the meeting’s overseers, Meredith and
Steve began to attend Sunday meetings and to become acquainted with the
congregation, the congregation with them. One of their overseers, a farmer named
Bill Moore, asked if they’d ever had any contact with the area before. They
said no, they were new to the region, but then Meredith remembered, “I did
have a great grandfather from this area, but I don’t know exactly where.”
“And his name?” queried Bill. “Tom Clement,” replied Meredith. Bill said
quietly , “When I began farming, back in the mid-fifties, I wanted to buy the
best herd of cattle I could find, and I finally found such a herd, and bought
them from a farmer hereabouts ready to retire, Tom Clement.”
and I, curious about the meetinghouse in London Grove, drove out to it several
times during the hectic week before the wedding. We reconnoitred the place. We
learned, coincidentally, that Nell’s mom had attended meeting there several
times as a child, and that she had attended school for a year right across the
country byroad. We comfortably reached the conclusion that the kids could not
have found a more appropriate place to marry.
room, small and simple, seated a hundred-fifty. The pine wainscoting rose six
feet, then whitewashed plaster to the high ceiling. Above the back stretched an
open narrow wooden loft. Ample room. In front of the meetinghouse stood an oak,
known as the Penn Oak. When this area came to belong to William Penn, the
founder of Pennsylvania back in the late 1600s, that tree already had some
girth. In fact, when Columbus visited America, that tree was reaching maturity.
hundreds of acres in every direction stretched farmland. Nearby we could see
what looked like a modest mossy cemetery. But the oak held our attention.
Recalling that oaks can live as long as 2000 years, we investigated this junior
member of the Quercus clan. It was, by
rough arm measurement, twenty-four feet in girth. Its branches were bigger
around than many mature oaks. No wonder, I thought, that the oak was sacred to
Jupiter, to the Celtic Druids, or “oak men”. No wonder American Indians
thought of oaks as “peace trees”, under which they smoked peace pipes with
the white man. No wonder the oak symbolises regeneration and restoration of
family life. No wonder St. Bridget, as well as St. Columba, lived in the heart
of an oak.
fortunate, I still feel, that that oak stood before the meetinghouse where our
only daughter married. I continue to visit it once a year from all but treeless
Cape Clear Island.
A Blizzard Wedding
day before our daughter Meredith’s wedding the weather was perfect, blue
skies, windless, heavy sweater weather. Guests were filling up local inns and
motels in a part of rural Pennsylvania not far north of the tiny state of
Delaware. How could we believe – as the tabloid press had it – that we were
in for a repeat of the blizzard of 1888? We were clearly in the throes of early
spring. But Friday night, March 12th, 1993, the night before the wedding,
Meredith couldn’t sleep. She heard the wind begin to howl. She looked out her
apartment window in Wilmington, Delaware, and sure enough, six inches of snow
had already fallen. She couldn’t see more than thirty feet ahead.
late morning a private contractor promised me plows – he’d break open the
road between three thirty and four. I was not to let a guest on the road until
after four. I would have to accept liable for any damage to mail boxes. And the
state would, that evening, “favor” the area – which I understood to mean,
the state would run a plow along the route every half-hour or so, but for legal
or political reasons more couldn’t be said.
cars crawled to the rural meetinghouse. Half a mile away an electric company
truck with a cherry picker waved us by. Wires were down. Since the meetinghouse
was on a knoll, the wind there was terrific. You couldn’t safely open doors on
both sides of the car. Members of the wedding party, in parkas, shovelled the
path to the front porch. Many guests, like the bride and the groom, arrived in
hiking boots. I forgot to take mine off during the ceremony.
still off, we placed candles in glass chimneys in the window embrasures. Every
time a guest arrived and the front door opened, a gust of wind would swirl
around the foyer. Power out meant no heating, no music. My 83-year-old mother
kept on her heavy winter coat.
bridal pair stood, facing each other, to say their vows – in the presence of
God and their friends. The wind howled – with divine assistance. The snow
flicked importunately against the windowpanes – so long as we both shall live.
A few of us cried – to be loving and faithful. The oak tree bowed a limb – I
was impossible – in the middle of the blizzard of 1993 – to imagine a more
apt wedding for Meredith and Steve. Everything, everyone, cooperated.
almost everyone. After the service, to honour a request I had made earlier in
the week but in the excitement of the storm had forgotten, our elder son Charles
and the bridal pair set off bravely for the huge Penn Oak for a photograph of
the couple beside it, under it. They had all climbed back into their hiking
boots and ski jackets. Steve leaned over, swooped Meredith up in his arms, took
two steps, slipped, and dropped her – wedding dress billowing – kerplunk
into a snowdrift. Charles snapped away. Undeterred, Steve picked her up again,
strode over to the oak, her arms around his neck, their laughter merging with
felt as though the blizzard had blessed the wedding. And that the oak had
an hour after my daughter’s wedding ceremony in a Quaker meetinghouse in the
boondocks of Pennsylvania, the blizzard relaxed. Everyone at the reception was
relieved. The band hadn’t dared brave the elements. And I still had my wallet,
because the snowplows we’d hired hadn’t cost as much as the band was going
at tables for eight and ten, we provided our own entertainment. One table sang,
often accompanied by antics. Another table responded, sometimes antiphonally.
One table sang standing on their chairs, arms locked in a circle. Another
replied harmonizing from under their table, innocent and formally attired rear
ends in the air.
some point between champagne and my wife’s zucchini cake á la mode, I looked
out the window. The blizzard had returned with a vengeance. We’d been in the
eye of the storm for the last two hours. Shortly, by nine p.m., we’d all left.
Yet it had felt like a full evening.
my way back to our farmhouse accommodation, I noticed that the giant Penn Oak in
front of the meetinghouse was enjoying the fresh winds, the swirl of snow. And
with renewed energy a story told during the wedding ceremony came back to me:
Alexander I was Czar of Russia, back in the early 1800’s, an American sailor
lad called on the U.S. ambassador and begged him to arrange a meeting with the
Czar. ‘Nonsense,’ said the ambassador. ‘But sir, I have brought him acorns
from the tree George Washington planted at Mount Vernon.’ ‘A few nuts!’
said the ambassador dismissively. ‘Show this fellow the door.’ A day later
the ambassador was drawn to his window to see what was causing a hubbub in the
street below. There stood the Czar’s splendid coach with its four black
chargers. In great anticipation the ambassador called his servant, ‘Quick, my
dress coat, the Czar is honouring me with a call.’ To his amazement, his
secretary shortly entered with the American sailor lad. The youth said, ‘The
Czar has asked me to pay my respects to you, sir.’ ‘What, you arrive in the
Czar’s coach? What does this mean?’ cried the bewildered ambassador.
‘Well, sir, yesterday I stood by the palace gates and one of the Czar’s
officers happened to come out to investigate me. I told him my desire and showed
him the acorns I’d brought from the States. He laughed and said, “Come with
me, boy.” He had great keys and he unlocked gate after gate. At last we came
in to a lovely garden and there, alone, was the Czar. The officer introduced me
and I told the Czar my errand. He took the acorns and examined them. Then he
walked to an open spot and I watched the great Czar plant them himself. Then he
said to me, ‘My boy, you appreciate the really worthwhile things in life as
did your country’s father, the great Washington. Tomorrow my carriage will
call for you to show you the sights of my capital.’ When the American
ambassador retired some years later, he took back to America a handful of acorns
from the Czar’s oaks in St. Petersburg.
blizzard of ’93 – and that William Penn oak – presided over our
upon a time, and a very good time it was, I looked about me and couldn’t
believe what I saw before me, and what I was up to, if
I was up to anything, because standing there waiting for my bride
the thought crossed my mind that I was but a bit player in a minor drama I’d
thought I’d penned but which in fact had been and was being written and
produced by countless other scribblers more gifted than I. Seconds before saying
my half of our marriage vows, it was as though I’d an image of that single
flap of a butterfly wing of myself that chaos theory scientists suggest could
initiate the swirling of a hurricane on the far side of the globe. So my bit
part, and my imminent bit action, contained more vaguely looming significance
than anything I’d hitherto done.
also couldn’t believe not so much the heat as the humidity. Summer weather,
Philadelphia style. Ooze, ooze, ooze, out of every pore. Ninety degrees I could
take, but 98% humidity wasn’t my cup of iced tea. 23 June 1962. Swarthmore
College Meeting House. Here I was to marry Nell. Any minute now I’d see her
walk up the main aisle with her dad to where I waited with my childhood buddy
Buzz by my side. How in the world did I ever get here, arrive at this juncture,
I wondered? What butterfly wing had flapped? The variables – and perhaps the
grand design of it all – militated against any rational analysis. But standing
at the doorway prepared to face the music, and the congregation, and my bride,
made me wonder at the amount of divine conspiring that had gone on behind closed
begin with, there’d been that first date. I’d been teaching at a Quaker
boarding school for four months, nonstop. I hadn’t left campus once except on
school business. Scared conscientious neophyte teacher me, I hadn’t had time
for a single date between the start of the school year and Christmas. But then,
during the break and a visit to my hometown, I made a resolution that I
shouldn’t be overly committed to academe. I sternly resolved to have a social
life too. I wasn’t cut out to be a tea-totaling monk dressed in civvies. So,
back in harness, I rang a friend at a nearby university, and asked her, since
she owed me one, if she’d arrange a double date for a friend and me.
parking my blue 1940 Nash business coup “George” outside the dorm, we
checked in at the desk in the foyer and proceeded through swinging doors into a
long echoing corridor. At the far end – now as if in a dream – two young
women walked deliberately toward us. Competitive, Ted and I began to jostle each
other, trying by body movement to position ourselves so that we lined up with
the better pick. I spotted a clear, happy, intelligent smile, a delicate skin,
perhaps a bit of leg above bobby socks, a pleasing bodyswing. I adroitly
outstepped Ted so that I’d be opposite her, as if ready to say, “May I have
this dance, please?” That bit of manoeuvering, of leger-de-pied, decided
things. I’m dancing still.
June we celebrate our fortieth wedding anniversary.
The Cormorant and the Skunk
to my home stomping ground of Owasco Lake in upstate New York I usually find a
pleasure, but at the start of one visit, made because my eighty-year-old mother
has just had a cancerous lung removed, I’m gloomy. Yet even before all the
gentle whispers we exchange, strange events start to uplift me.
first person I see in the bustling metropolitan hospital parking lot is my
brother-in-law. He tells me Mom’s better, in fact she’s been dictating some
“hospital stories” to him. One concerns all the coincidences happening to
her while there.
touching more than base with Mom, I drive thirty miles of back-country roads and
then down a three-quarter-of-a-mile dirt road to a tiny summer cottage my
grandfather bought in 1918. After greeting my sister, and sharing a long
wordless hug, I walk out front. Off shore floats the old raft, on it a large
bird. I call my sister, hear her chuckle, yet another jerk fooled by the plastic
owl set up on the raft to scare away gulls. Then she sees the bird. In her fifty
summers on the lake, she’s never seen this bird before.
to Ireland, I recognise the cormorant as easily as a farmer tells a sheep from a
to the Syracuse hospital through the my hometown the next day, I notice a car
pull alongside. A fellow hollers, “Aren’t you Chuck Kruger? Haven’t seen
ya for thirty years.” I ask who he is, he tells me, the light changes, we go
our separate ways waving.
ask Mom who this guy is. She gulps, tells me he’s so-and-so and his father had
his lung taken out recently and successfully – in an operation same as hers. I
share the cormorant story. She suggests, tubes just out of her throat,
forty-seven staples down her back, a twinkle in her eye, that the cormorant came
visiting not off course from Florida but from Cape Clear.
from the hospital to Owasco Lake, I hear Dixieland notes outside a lakeside inn.
I park, walk through the crowd, which sits cross-legged on the lawn. Suddenly
someone nearby yells, “Hey, Charlie.” I turn around, spy a face I’ve never
seen, turn away. The man yells out, even louder, “Hey, Charlie Kruger.” I go
once worked for my father, and since I’m quite the spittin’ image, nose and
all, he hails me. He, his wife and their friends are of Irish descent. We
briefly share memories of my Dad, then talk Ireland into the night.
next morning a pair of cormorants sits on the raft. I fetch my uncle, who
summers next door. Conservationist, woodsman, a man who’s shot deer and bear,
my “outdoor father”, he knows his birds. He too is flabbergasted, has never
seen cormorants there in his 79 years.
I’m leaving the lake for the last time that visit, Mom now walking, I come to
the final stretch of drive and see not the deer I’d spotted throughout the
week but, for the first time in my 23 summers on Owasco Lake, a proud skunk
prancing in front of me. After a rich minute of shenanigans, Mr. Skunk turns
right, into hedgerow.
of a superstitious nature, I wonder if these moments are more than coincidences.
scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter in autumn of 2001
ON A TRIP TO IRELAND
a trip to Ireland during February of 1988, I had a simple brief from an
international school in Switzerland where I’d been teaching for twenty years:
learn the ins and outs of the admission process to Irish universities. My
private brief was to experience winter in our recently purchased
home-away-from-home on Cape Clear Island -- should gales, seas mountainous and
raging draw not imprison the mailboat in the island's safe harbour, thus
marooning me on the mainland.
I'd already had extensive contact with University College Galway, I didn't feel
the need to visit there and instead concentrated on Trinity, UCD, UCC. The
senior admissions tutors couldn't have been more informative, more efficient.
Three days' work left me a week's vacation to get in touch with neighbours and
in the Dublin airport prior to my return to Switzerland, I found myself talking
to a man who told me I'd overlooked a major university, a recently founded one
in Limerick. It hadn't appeared in my reference books. I vowed I'd make personal
contact at UCL when next I returned to Ireland.
months later I flew in to Cork, hitchhiked to Baltimore, reached Cape without
mishap. On the way to our farm from the harbour I stopped at Paddy Burke's pub
to check out the local news. The very first person I met? None other than
Finbar, senior admissions tutor at UCL. Intent on hearing Batt Burns, a
storyteller visiting Cape that weekend, Finbar was on his first visit to the
island. We had supper together that evening, stories all around us. For me, our
meeting became the most amazing -- or natural -- story of all. But Batt wasn't
the master seanachie telling it.
bed that night, I couldn’t help thinking, Why am I here, and how does
here work? Has the world an invisible, connective structure? Can such
coincidences be mere coincidences? The likelihood of my meeting Finbar must be
all but off the charts of Probability & Statistics courses -- except perhaps
at Irish universities.
over the "chance" meeting, I recalled Carl Gustav Jung's theory of
sychronicity, or acausal relationship. Things have a meaningful way of happening
which defies rational explanation. I remembered Jung's story of a woman who
brought him a dream about a scarab. He had never encountered a dream about this
insect before, and just when he began to interpret the dream for the woman, a
loud rapping took place on his window. There, against the glass, a scarab batted
its wings, trying to gain entrance. Jung had never seen one in Switzerland
recalled, too, that to the Elizabethans there was no such thing as coincidence.
“There’s providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Or, as the Player King says
in Hamlet: "Our wills and fates
do so contrary run / That our devices are still overthrown, / Our thoughts are
ours, their ends none of our own." Since those days, our very world outlook
has undergone a radical shift, quite the consequence of our having determined
that Providence, Design, Fate are unenlightened concepts. Hmm. I wouldn’t be
surprised if something runs through my life – and all our lives – like a
strain of golden thread surfacing here and there in an otherwise humdrum
MY CHILDHOOD WINTERS
childhood winters center around 76 Chedell, our house, which sat smack across
the blustery top of a steep dead-end street three hundred miles northwest of New
York City. Surrounded on three sides by what was once an Indian burial ground
that had been converted to a Christian cemetery, "our" house – the
upstairs flat, that is – faced straight down the best sledding hill in this
elm- and maple-filled town of Auburn in the heart of the peaceful Finger Lakes.
once my friends and I had grown almost all the way up, and had turned ten,
eleven, twelve, and knew about all there was to know, some of us headed into the
cemetery with secondhand skis with bear-trap bindings. Immediately above us
brooded Logan's Monument. Named for Chief John Logan, whose father had been born
white but who had, as a child, been stolen by the Cayuga Tribe of the Iroquois
and was later to become their chief, so too his son after him, the stone
monument quietly commanded the highest point of the town. Stories abounded of
how Chief Logan had been betrayed by the white man, his sister murdered by a
marauding band of whites, he himself falling into drink and finally being killed
by his nephew. To Logan's Monument, an obelisk fifteen feet square at the base,
is affixed a plaque inscribed with simple words, unadorned by name or date:
"Who is there to mourn for Logan?"
with Logan's Monument looming above us, we'd pack a trail in the two to four
feet of snow. Slowly we'd master shushing a short, steep, graveless hill, and
struggling with our first herringbone steps back up it. After a few weeks of
that, we built a jump. Rather meek, if not downright cowardly, compared to my
best friend, Myndy, I confess I wasn't happy with this wrinkle. I'd already
broken my collarbone twice and didn't relish a third time (an event I postponed
until I had turned thirteen). So I learned how to make snow-plough turns, and
stem-christies. And then we sallied forth into the cemetery proper, and in this
humpy-hilly Iroquois burial ground, Christianised early in the nineteenth
century, we'd slalom down the steepest slopes, with gravestones as rather too
frequent markers that never lied. While I wasn't any good at this odd twist to a
sport, and frequently lost my nerve, I loved doing something different, being
off the beaten track. And being in the ancient, still sacred ground where we
were trespassing, and having to hide from the occasional unsuspecting posse of
maintenance men, made skiing amongst the tombs an adventure.
we reentered the world of adults – went back to being little Indians rather
than questing chiefs skiing down through the valleys of death – a ritual
brought our adventure out in the cold to a cozy close, for when we returned to
civilisation, we went straight to Myndy's house. As though an Indian bush
telegraph still functioned, Mrs. Woodruff knew just when we were coming. By the
time we had filled the back hallway with our outdoor clothes, she had everything
ready, and we'd sit down around the kitchen table to fresh buttered popcorn,
homemade fudge or brownies, cup after cup of creamy piping hot chocolate. We had
what Chief Logan had lost, family security.
CREATING ONE’S OWN WORLD
I was between eight and eleven, one activity at my grandparents’ vacation
point on upstate New York’s Owasco Lake gave me special pleasure because I was
allowed the freedom to go off create my own world, something I believe I still
need to do now and then to regain perspective.
the lake level dropped through the summer, loose shale islands would appear out
from the cliffs to the south of Long Point. The water would be up to a foot or
two deep going out to the islands, but between the series of three or four
fifty-foot-long by ten- to twenty-foot-wide isles it would rarely be deeper than
a few inches. With a borrowed hoe from the tool collection inside Grampy’s
pumphouse, I constructed a network of interconnecting canals and an island
kingdom, I king, I peasant, I everything in between. Since I didn't have
playmates, I created them. With a nail as a bowsprit banged into a few pieces of
wood, and a piece of string tied to the nail, I'd whiz about this archipelago
day after August day, pulling my speeding ship behind, marvelling at its wake.
Racing through the shallow water from island to island, trying to make the
biggest splashes possible, or trying to make none at all, each foot like a
professional diver needling into the water, my boat behind me, my head turned to
watch its marvellous passage, I couldn't have been more self-contained, totally
unaware of anything else whatsoever in the wide wide world. I and my kingdom
were the entirety of all hitherto discovered lands.
hoe, a piece of wood or two, a nail, a string, and I was in the kitchen garden
of paradise raising my own crop of people, overseeing their activities. When I
wanted a palace, I built one. When I needed a village, I built one. A new dock.
A second ship. A third. And then, usually from beside my tree-house oak not far
off, there'd be a call for lunch, for dinner. If they didn't know where I was,
or if I didn't hear them, they'd ring the huge bell, and I'd shoot home by way
of the pumphouse, for Grampy was most particular about his tools, and I didn't
want to lose access to them nor to fall out of his good graces.
an old Hasidic story told by a revered rabbi in a Martin Buber collection has
it: "I keep two stones, one in each front pocket. On one is inscribed, 'You
are the center of God's creation'; and on the other, 'You are but dust and
ashes.' I use them as needed." For me, Long Point memories are the stone
that tells me I'm the center of God's creation. It's destructive to hold that
stone in my hand for long, or to think it the only stone, yet it's essential to
hold it now and then. O Lord, O goddess of midwifery, deliver me from
identification with my blessings – and from my dust and ashes too.
memories return to me as fragments as I wake, listen through the open window to
the sound of the draw in Cape Clear Island’s South Harbour down at the short
flat foot of our farm. And suddenly the sound transports me back some sixty
years. I’m in my childhood bed and hear the deep mysterious breathing of a
giant coming from within the closet of my Naragansett Bay, Rhode Island bedroom.
I was two or three years old, my room at the top of a wide staircase, my bed on
the left as you entered, the closet straight ahead. He'd get me if I relaxed my
guard. I couldn't forget about him; I couldn't even turn my back to him. I
complained to my parents, but they suggested I was "imagining things".
They didn't realize what a trickster he was. When they tried to listen for his
breathing, he held his breath; when they looked in the closet, which they often
did to reassure me it was empty, he magically vanished. "See
Chuckle-Buckle? Nobody here!" Dad would say, holding the closet door wide
open and gesturing at its contents. I didn't understand how they could be so
unobservant, so obtuse.
beach lay close to our house. Often on a leash, I would run along the sand like
a sandpiper, keeping just out of reach of the waves washing up. One day I
dropped the string to my favourite toy, a boat which I towed behind me wherever
I went. The undertow took it rapidly out to sea. My father couldn't help me.
Heartbroken, I watched the boat disappearing in the distance. Some months later,
during the summer, we were down at the tip of the point at my grandparents'
summer place in upstate New York, and what did I see floating toward me but my
boat. It sailed right into shore. I rescued it gleefully, concluding that that
was the way the world worked! My parents couldn't believe it. Nor could I. The
little boat had made a journey of hundreds of miles. It had floated about the
ocean, I was told, had gone up the Hudson River, through the Erie Canal, up the
Owasco Lake outlet, and down the lake right to me. Life's structure, it seemed,
had a homing device lodged within.
boat continues to come back to me here on Cape. I go with the weather. I don't
fight it. But like most newspaper editors, my memory tends to want to select the
hurricanes, the earthquakes, the tidal waves, at the expense of the extensive
halcyon but seemingly unnoteworthy intervals between catastrophes. Zephyrs
headlines do not make. Perhaps storms are but intervals between the main events,
show-stealing entr'actes in the quiet cosmic play. I try to strike a balance
with weather, with memory: When the isobars crowd each other, when the gales
blow, when the rain sleet and hail hammer the west gable of our Cape Clear
Island cottage, I putter away in the shelterbelt provided by the shrubbery of my
imagination; and when the sun or moon shines, when the wind drops, I put on my
hiking boots, step out, and explore in the clarity of day, or in the miracle of
Address: Chuck Kruger, Cape Clear Island, County Cork, Ireland;
phone/fax: +353 (0)28 39157; E-Mail: email@example.com
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