Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Quoth the Raven

On the bus from Killarney to Kenmare we took narrow roads through the national park there. These are roads where sometimes drivers in one direction have to pull over to allow drivers in the other direction to pass.
These are roads where, rounding one of the many blind curves, you might find yourself face to face with imbecile sheep who haven't yet figured out that the grazing on the asphalt is rather poor.

The bus is going fast.
It rocks and sways like a ship at sea in a hurricane.
Also, it drives on the side of the road that I'm not used to, and the driver sits on what, to any sane person, is the passenger side.
In other words, it would not be unreasonable for me to barf on this journey. In fact, I'm considering it. Or rather, my stomach is.

To enhance my misery, the driver has turned on the radio, with the volume quite loud.
In between my prayers to whichever Celtic goddess is in charge of barf prevention, I notice that we're now listening to the Radio Kerry Death Notices.
It's obituaries, on the radio.
And apparently I was wrong about the national pastime—it's not drinking, it's dying. These obits go on for quite a while.

As I'm turning green (except for my knuckles, which are white as they grip the armrest), I'm a little envious of the folks whose death notices I'm hearing. I'm thinking death might not be so bad right now. Might offer some relief.
The short, old woman across the aisle, wearing a kerchief on her head and rubber boots that reach up to her knees looks over at me and in a fragile voice says, “Oh, darlin' . . . ”

“Ugggh . . . don't say it . . .”

“Darlin', ye look like ye could use a pint.”

“You know, that's insane,” I say, trembling, my body quivering with nausea. “I'm sure I look more like I've already had ten pints.”
I stare at her. I know I must be hallucinating from the intensity of motion sickness. She's not really there. She didn't really say that.
She reaches into her purse and hands me a potato and some soda bread, and now I'm sure I've gone down the rabbit hole.
My god, I'm in worse shape than I thought . . .

Sometimes the rain gives you this . . . but the sheep will still kill you.

I'm not hearing any causes of death with these notices on the radio. But I wouldn't be surprised if some of them were the result of speeding buses colliding with sheep. My mind wanders. I imagine the scene, the police questioning everyone, even the remaining sheep, who are pretty shaken up.

“Well, we were all there, right, mindin' our own fookin' business in the middle of the fookin' asphalt, which I must say now, was rather poor grazing. . . and then outta nowhere comes this, this bus. . . and it just . . . it just . . . oh, it was baaaaahd!”

What you see before the sheep appear and the bus crashes. Not bad, eh?


Oh, hold on a sec. There's someone banging at the door.

“Open up! It's the blog police!”

What the . . .

“Ye think yer gonna get away with them shite sheep jokes while bloggin' in this country, do ye?”

“Well I . . .”

“You oughta be ashamed 'a yerself.”

I am. Deeply ashamed. What was I thinking?

“How fookin' original. Yer sheep say 'Baaahd'. I'm afraid that cliche's gonna cost ye dear.” He's getting out a pad to write me a summons for having my head up my writerly arse. In fine print, down at the bottom of the ticket, it says Should ye wish to contest this summons, pull yer head outta yer arse and fook off.

“Look, you try writing a blog when all that ever happens every day is rain—fookin' rain, fookin' wind, fookin' hail, fookin' clouds, fookin' mud. . . .and then more fookin' rain.”

“Well, what about the beautiful ravens takin' their nuptial flights? That's poetry, that is,” he says, matter-of-factly.

“Ok . . . well, you're right. That is lovely and awe-inspiring, but still. . .”

“You know what ye need, Girlie?”

oh no . . .

“A pint!”

“That's it—get out, Paddy! If one more person offers me a pint . . . . I don't even like Guinness!”

“Well, there's Murphy's . . . “

“Why don't you people ever tell me I need one of those nice handmade Irish sweaters?”

“Jameson's is good. Have you tried that?”

“ . . . Or a little Irish step dancing?”

“Step dance? Why didn't you say so, Darlin'? Here . . . hold my shillelagh . . .”

Paddy breaks it down.
He's gotta be 150 years old, his tweed jeff cap just flew off his head, but he's the Lord Of That Fricking Dance, all right.
I hear fiddle music, and I don't' even know where it could be coming from.

“Well, I'd be lying if I said that wasn't impressive,” says I.

“Now we'll have no more lazy shite jokes about sheep talk, will we?”

“No Paddy. I promise.”

“An' stop callin' me Paddy. Yer just stereotyping!”

“Ok. I'm sorry . . . “

“It's Seamus O'Malley.”

“You gotta be kidding me.”

“My work is done here.” He pulls a potato and a sausage link out of his pocket and hands them to me. “I'll be fookin' off back t' the bog now.”

“All righty, Seamus. And hey . . . thanks for setting me straight on the whole sheep thing. This writing stuff, it's hard sometimes, you know?”

“The blog is 'writing'? Oh! Yer bound to make me bust my gut! That's a good one, all right! Sure Joyce never kept a fookin' blog, boy.”

Boy? “Joyce . . . is that your wife?”

“Look, smart ass, you want another summons?”

“Yeah. Ok. Weren't you about to fook off back to somewhere?”

What too much wind and rain does to trees.

The bus is still swaying, the death notices are going on and on. So, naturally, I'm enjoying a nice little fantasy about my own Irish funeral (which may be sooner than anyone thought, if after this blog post I discover the Irish can't take a joke).

The chieftain standing over my grave is burly—beefy even—unshaven.
He has a raven on his shoulder, as befits his mystical and mythical status.
The raven's name . . . is Steve.
The chieftain is wearing a fine cloak held in place with a gorgeous Celtic clasp of gold inlaid with colorful glass. He did not buy it in a tourist shop in Killarney, either. He ripped it from his enemy's cloak in battle. That's where he got the matching sword, too.
He looks good. Damned good.
Never underestimate the importance of accessories. They make a statement.
In this case, the statement is “I'll vanquish you, and take your stuff.”

He doesn't smell very good, but that's not important here.

In this scene, the camera (yes, it's my funeral, and I want good cinematography) zooms in on the single, perfect tear welling up in his eye, as he mutters under his breath to no one in particular “She once wrote about me on her blog.”

The raven on his shoulder cries out “Blog!”
But no one jumps, startled. This is a solemn occasion.
And besides, that's just Steve being Steve.

I was the chieftain's betrothed, and I'm wearing the claddagh ring to prove it. He didn't steal this ring from an enemy, though. He's too classy to give me stolen goods. He bought it at one of the tourist shops in Kenmare.
My hair is made up in three plaits, two that wrap around my head, and one reaching down to my waist. My tunic is gorgeous, because I embroidered that shit myself.
That's right . . . when it rains, you embroider by the fire. All. The. Time.
Anyway, let's just say I look really good for someone whose bus collided with sheep.

Cú Chulainn's ghost rises above the pyre, crying out, cursing the damned sheep that were in the middle of the asphalt where, if he's told them once, he's told them a thousand times, the grazing is rather poor.
[Yes, I'm reading The Táin Bó Cúailnge.]

500 people from villages all around southern Ireland rally themselves to roll a giant stone slab onto my grave, though centuries from now, no anthropologist or archaeologist will wonder how it got there.
They'll assume we brought it on a truck and used a crane to set it in place.
They'll know we once had trucks and cranes, and the use of villagers would have been gratuitous.

But they won't know that the stone circle that surrounds it was erected so that the largest opening in the circle faces Napoli, where they would never dream of making a pizza with cheddar, for Christ's sake.

But we know the villagers place the stone slab, doing their duty, paying tribute to this American tourist who liked to bitch about the rain and write passive-aggressive blog posts as if the Irish made this weather just to aggravate her.
They work hard. They work together to hoist the enormous slab, then set it down with reverence.

You know what they're gonna need after this?

A pint.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Along the Ring of Beara, heading toward Healy Pass.

I know that for many people travel is about seeing stuff. I mean, famous stuff. There’s a list, and you check things off that list . . . see Statue of Liberty, See the Duomo in Florence, Kiss the Blarney Stone. I’ve seen my share of monuments and tourist attractions, and even liked a few of them. But it’s not what I seek from travel these days.

My very simple list looks more like this:  
Get outside and find some stories. The weirder or more touching, the better.

In short, make contact.  

This is what Luigi and I talked about in Calabria, if you remember that post (and you can click there for a link, if you don’t remember)—making genuine contact with the land and with each other.

So today was a rare blue-sky day here in southwest Ireland. I decided to go out and try to make contact with the land, as best I could. I had seen the Beara Peninsula already, but under cloud cover, and with other people. So today was different. I was alone, under sunny skies.

That’s how I met John.

I had come through Healy Pass, which has a narrow road with a lot of switchbacks as you ascend and descend. Sheep climb the nearby rocky outcroppings and hills, and also plant themselves in the road a lot, so one must be cautious as one gawks, open-mouthed, at the scenery.

An old, blue sedan slows down at one of the switchbacks on his way up, as my car and another in front of me slowly descend. He gives a wave as he drives by. I wave back.
A little further along the road, I pull over to take some photos of a stream and some waterfalls.  

When I get back into the car and pull onto the road, I see the old blue sedan again, now going in the opposite direction from before. I pull over to let him pass, since I’m taking my time on these unfamiliar roads. He gives me another wave to say thanks.

About ¾ of a mile up the road, he stops. Doesn’t pull over. Just stops in his lane and gets out of the car. He sort of goes to the other side of the road on foot, and for a second I think he’s checking on something behind a gate. Maybe some sheep. But he weaves back into the road and toward my car. Now I’m expecting maybe a lecture or a tip about driving in these parts. I get neither.

I tentatively roll down my window and he walks over, holds out his hand, and after I say nothing more than hello, he asks how I’m enjoying my holiday in Ireland. I’m thinking it couldn’t be my accent that gives me away, not with just a “hello”. I’m guessing it’s the sunglasses, straight out of Real Housewives of New Jersey—a regrettable last minute purchase before leaving on my trip. They’re huge, and they aren’t really . . . me. But they were cheap and available. Kind of like the Housewives, themselves.
Anyway, he dives right in, there on this remote road.
In the very middle of this remote road, in fact.

The road where we stopped to chat.

As he speaks, I notice I can count the number of teeth in his mouth on one hand, and still have a couple fingers left over. This is very rugged terrain. This is terrain where you could definitely lose some teeth if you’re not careful . . .one step onto a mossy patch of rock, and there they go . . . or just trying to grow anything nutritious from this ground seems like it could be challenging. But no matter. His smile, though largely toothless, is warm and he is free with it. It’s a great smile.

I’m guessing this valley he calls home can get pretty lonely, too. Especially in the non-touristy season, which this is. He peppers me with questions, as though we’re reuniting after a spell.

Him: “So, do you like Ireland?”  
Me: “I do, indeed. It’s grand.”
Him: “Where do you come from?”  
Me: ”New Jersey . . . and you?
Him: “Up there [he points to the rocky hills reaching into the stratosphere from this valley]. What do you do?”     
Me: “I guess you could say I’m a writer. And you?”
Him: “Farmer.”  
Me: “Are those daredevil sheep on the hill yours?”
Him: “Yes.”

And then, he offers this one I loved: “How are your folks getting on?”
As if he hasn’t seen them in a while.

“Well, John, that depends on how you look at it. My father passed away some years ago. So I suppose he’s getting on just fine.  . . I think my mother’s doing OK, too. Enjoying the grandkids.”

He raises an eyebrow slightly. Then asks a series of related questions about how long ago my father died, how old he was when he died, and how old my mother is. After I answer, like Rain Man, he does the math and quickly says “So your mother was much younger than your father.”

“Yep. I guess he liked the young ones.”
“Well, we all do, darlin’”, he says matter of factly, with only the faintest hint of mischief.
I laugh. He’s an honest man.
He asks how old I am, and whether I'm married or have a boyfriend, and a series of related questions,again perhaps doing some math . . . my own calculations tell me he could be in his 60s or 70s. I’ve never been very good at guessing age.

Then he asks about whether I have brothers or sisters, how old they are.
“Ah, so you’re the baby.”
“I am,” says I, noting that we’ve been talking for a while and not a single car has passed.
He asks if I have children, and if my brothers have children, and how many nieces and nephews I have.
“Seven,” I say, “well . . . nine, actually, if you count the two in Italy, which I do.”
“So you’re the auntie. You like being an auntie?”
“Sure do.”

The conversation goes on like this for a while. I’m torn between wondering if this is just too weird not to be dangerous, and wanting to enjoy the uniqueness of it. I’m also aware of the time, and that I’ve promised to cook dinner for my Irish host and another person tonight. I can’t get back late. I’m also in desperate need of a bathroom, and as I said, this valley is empty and in the middle of nowhere.

“Hey, John, how far is it to . . . Castle Bear Town . . . “
“Castletownbere,” he gently corrects me, “Is eleven miles ahead.”

Yes, he said miles. Yet, this is Ireland—they speak Kilometers here**. Perhaps he likes to stop tourists from America on a regular basis or he’s got way more mathematical neurons firing than he has teeth.

He asks some more questions, a few of which are repeats. I think he'd like me to stick around a little longer. I’m feeling like I need to go or I won’t make dinner in time. I tell him so, and he pulls a "Minnesota" on me.
That is, the goodbye is long. There are about ten goodbyes followed by more questions, and well-wishes.
Through the car window, he takes my hand in both of his, shakes it, kisses the back of it and tells me I’m a very nice, friendly person.
I smile and say, “Thanks. But I think you take the prize for that . . . it’s not every day in America someone stops me on the road for a chat.”

He wishes me good travels, good health and long life. He also tells me he wishes it for my mother and my brothers and all of my family. He asks me to tell them so.

About five times he wishes me this, takes my hand again and tells me to have a good life.
I’m struck by the finality of that, “Have a good life.”
We shall not meet again.
I wish him the same, and soon drive on my way to Casteltownbere, laughing to myself a little and smiling.  Did that just happen? That guy learned more about my life in ten minutes than a lot of people would in ten days.

Daredevil sheep at Healy Pass.

Now, is it possible that I dodged a bullet today? Is it possible that, back at the farm, John has a basement full of once-friendly tourists? Maybe.
But this isn’t a creepy basement kind of blog, People. We aren’t going there.
I’m going with the notion that he’s one of those friendly folks for which this island is famous.
[Though, if I should ever wise up and write a more commercial novel than the one I’ve already completed, perhaps we can explore that possibility there, and profitably so . . . ]

As I drive off, I feel grateful to have him as part of my story now, and to be a part of his.
This is contact.
This beats the Blarney Stone any day of the week.
And I can’t help but think the world needs more of this.
Would that strangers could meet in this way more often.

I don’t mean in the middle of the road, though that will suffice.
I mean in this spirit of openness.
He did not ask about my politics or my religion; my diet or my views on the economy or the educational system in America.
He didn’t seek out differences, in order to pounce and pulverize them under the weight of words, of opinions, of the heel of his well-worn work boot.
He sought common ground, he sought what is essential:
Who are your people?
How are they? Are they well?
Who do you love?
What do you do for work? (which is another way of asking “How do you spend your days on this earth?”)

Perhaps if we’d spoken longer, or over a pint, those controversies would eventually emerge and lead to spirited discussion. Perhaps not.  I don’t know.
Maybe he was lonely and reaching out . . . if so, would that more of us would dare to reach out from that place, and more would accept that hand extended through an open window.

Maybe he was simply an inquisitive sort of fellow, curious about the world and those with whom he shares it. Again, I don’t know. And again, would that more people could be so generously inquisitive, without the need to pounce.

He seemed to understand that we all live in a wild and challenging place of unspeakable beauty, and we are moving on a long, winding road toward the same destination.
We ought to stop once in a while.
We ought to reach out a hand to a stranger and say with sincerity, “Tell me who you are.”

That road can seem long and lonely for anyone.

We ought to make contact.

**I discover after this blog post that the use of Kilometers is a recent phenomenon. Ireland spoke "miles" for a long time. You learn something new every day . . .

Tuesday, February 3, 2015



Eavan Boland, 1944

In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

There are many kinds of hunger that make up the human condition; hunger for love, hunger for money, hunger for recognition, to name only a few. But the hunger of the body, the belly, trumps them all.

It is no abstraction. It is a clear and potent reminder of our fragility, the crux of our humanness. The one hunger that, left unfed, brings all other hunger to an end. This hunger rumbles not only in the belly, but across time, across oceans, across generations. It is perhaps the most powerful example of terroir I can think of.

It is this brand of hunger, perhaps more than any other, that has shaped the island where I now find myself. It reckons time by this hunger: pre-famine or post-famine.

I’ve been in Ireland for about two weeks now. I’ll remain for three months. From the day of my arrival in Dublin, then traveling to the south of the country, I’ve been surprised to notice how keenly aware I am of this history, without anyone mentioning it at all. Perhaps it is some genetic memory—I am of Irish ancestry, after all. Only 25%, but perhaps that’s enough to feel some faint terror in the veins when looking out at this rugged landscape, in this weather. How cold they must have been, those tenant farmers in their drafty stone houses or huts, with nothing to call their own except the body that must be fed . . .yet for a time, could not be.

Sheep, here at Peafield. Kenmare, Ireland. January 2015

I am, for the time being, an immigrant of sorts. 
I'm far from home, and often find myself overcome by a yearning for the known, for family, friends, foods, a favorite vista. But I have chosen this temporary exile. I have had the privilege of doing so. I have not been forced by circumstance to abandon everything I know and love.
That represents a coldness I hope I’m never forced to understand with any kind of depth.
For some, sure, it might have been a joyous leaving behind of squalor for the chance at a new life. But for many, it was a forced exodus from everything familiar, and often, from those most beloved—those neither strong enough for the journey nor to stay behind; those who would not survive the hunger, those they would never see again.

I'm thinking of all this because today my task at my current WWOOF farm has been the planting of potatoes. Row upon row, inside the polytunnel, the foundations of which we finished building last week as the sky pissed down rain and snow.

Inside the polytunnel, where I dig my rows.

I look at my neatly dug rows, and the starter potatoes I’ve placed in them, evenly spaced. I don’t see mere spuds, though. I see life and death, compressed into a tiny, edible space. I think of the sociopolitical forces that converged with a disease in this humble root, and changed not only individual lives, but history. I feel not only my sore back as I dig. I feel a certain reverence, too, as I put the potatoes in place. They’re powerful little things.

Today, because of this root, there have been countless police officers, teachers, writers and more, who speak with Boston or New York accents, not Irish ones. There is me, speaking in my confused, mixed accent of New York, New England and New Jersey, not Gaelic. My own father was in the music business in NYC, a songwriter among other things. Would he have picked up a fiddle if his family had stayed on the Emerald Isle? Or maybe a pitchfork? I don’t know. And who can say? The potatoes aren’t talking. They aren’t looking back.

But I am. I can’t help it as I dig into this Irish soil. Potatoes will never taste the same to me again. And you, reader, the next time you sit down to your spuds, whether baked or roasted or mashed, think about this simple root, and the complex web in which it lives; that web we share.

Taste the sorrow. Taste the hope.
And be grateful for that full plate.