The stories that follow have all been written and broadcast by blow-in me on RTE Lyric FM’s 
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

1. 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 struggling dad.

But 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.

When 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 again.

That 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.

After 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.

 

2. 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 Oklahoma.

What 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.

And 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.

There 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”.

On 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

After 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.

“Listen 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?”

I cranked up the volume and they listened. I could see Dad scowling more and more fiercely every time the refrain came across the airwaves.

It went:

                        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.”

“Enough 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.”

“But 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?”

“They should have rights if they earn them.”

“But 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.”

“And,” said dad, “it’s not an American system.”

“But it is,” I replied.

“No 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.”

And 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 Life

Half 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.”

We 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.

The 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.

Now 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.

Occasionally 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.

I 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.

And 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

Struggling 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.

And 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 session.

Knowing 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.

Most 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….”

Of 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.

The 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.

Just 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.

 

Journey to Jerusalem

 5 scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter autumn of 2007

1. 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”.

But something’s wrong. Whispers among our hosts.

Since 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 us.

The 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:

Sitting down on stone I scan the seascape,

spot a bobbing shag, watch a flock of black-backs

locate sprat & start a snapping feast.

Same as yesterday, the day before,

enough to make me feel this island harbour has

shall I say ‘imprimatur’,

            despite even here taint of Holocaust,

            anyone's child drawn into drugs, another war, a boy abused.

 

Suddenly I spy swishing tail, powering dorsal fin,

& call for reinforcements.

Below a fifteen foot shark makes the morning rounds.

When he approaches our direction

gill-rakers shine white as Niagara.

So what that we’ve seen forty-footers.

So what a neighbour saw a fin-back rise straight up from out the sea,

sixty 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.

 

Bad guy shark prowls the harbour, swims just feet off shore.

Now & then he twists, turns about, his high black dorsal fin

creating wake, all the wake I need

to recognise the simplicity of redemption

            despite even here taint of Holocaust,

            anyone's child drawn into drugs, another war, a boy abused.

 

No, William Blake, no,

I cannot see infinity in a grain of sand,

but in this rare random visitor I see

well all I think I need to see

& then as we watch he does what he never does, he leaps

up & 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.

 

He leaps again, again, & I, fisherman, plankton, anyone’s child,

murderer, am caught in love with a weaving world.

 

2. 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.

Suddenly 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 foundations.

Later 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.

The 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. 

 

3. 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.”

When 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 that.”

After 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.

But 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.

When 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.”

4. 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 glass.

Since 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.

We 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.

Another hundred yards, Gershon turns around and we quietly leave the village, everyone – we sense – watching.

We 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.”

5. 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.

Laura 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.

What follows is a poem I wrote called “Sourcing”.

 

I’m dreaming of you, Jerusalem,

Sourcing high in green-white hills.

As you grow young, I become primeval,

Enter the confines of the Old City.

Yet good God but it’s so like birth

To be passing through the Damascus Gate,

To come alert in your souked environs,

So pure to be dreaming in you, of you,

Of all your dozing, waiting sepulchres.

 

Younger, almost Methusaleh himself,

I crouch in a low vaulted cellar

Under cellars amongst

Abandoned amphorae

& feel clean. A groin ache

I had forgotten grows

& I hear Solomon suggest

That a tooth for a tooth

Leads only to fewer youth

Amongst your jostling people.

 

Jerusalem, I’m just a babe

In arms learning how to purify

Water, that quintessential art

On which all lives we love

May one day hinge.

Please drink this beading cup

In memory that each of us

Back when shared ancestors.

 

Be well, my twinkling-of-an-eye

Forever friend. Amen,

Shalom, Allah akbar, peace.

 

LOOKING BACK

5 scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter the week of 7.3.06

1. Forty Years Ago

Forty 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 countries.

Coming 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”.

After 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.

Twenty 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.

2. Twenty Years Ago

Twenty 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.

So 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.

In 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:

 

First glance of day I halt my gaze on shingle

glinting blackly wet from ebbing tide,

when overhead a pair of straight-flight ravens prruks.

I wonder where they’re headed – and why.

Morning light intensifies.

Bracken shifts from inert brown

to rolling russet. Whisper wind and harbour wash

wake in my drowsy ears. I speculate on how

much other nature I may so simply miss.

An hour like a yoga minute later, I tally up the birds:

the ravens, a pair of black backs, a pair of wrens,

linnets, magpies, choughs, a sparrow hawk,

a flock of starlings, a bobbing razorbill.

Like hump of finback whale in outer harbour,

a question slowly rises: Why am I simply sitting,

looking around, looking for nothing in particular,

looking just to look, the stormy blackness

across Roaring Water Bay, the purity of drystone walls––

when there, a colour, a shape, something not out of place

but still not normally there:

I focus on lone grey heron atop seaweed-covered rock,

hear back that I’m a hunter too, hunting and gathering

my sustenance on this rocky knoll.

A curlew calls. A friend hikes up the drive.

It’s time to share a tool, a tale, or herd some cows.

Before I turn toward entrance gate

and home, I see the shingle’s dry.

3. Stone Walls

Taking 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.

Back 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.

Here 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”.

 

Everywhere ahead I sense the simple heritage

Of drystone walls, explore their will to wait,

Wonder wildly who built which, & when & why

& what was a winter day on Cape like then?

I conjure up the ‘ditch’ that disappears into the island lake.

The man who’s farmed beside it his every breath

Laments he’s never seen where that wall ends.

 

The mystery of the past, like a master stooped

In prayer, murmurs essences; 240,000 miles

Of drystone walls in Éire alone murmur, some that run

Under bogs & into stone age, some that be

But the soulful runes of unlettered folk who knew

What matters most. When amidst these murmurings –

As I grasp that nothing’s new about a prayer from a wall

That ends beneath a lake – in quiet chorus a congregation

of walls intones: “Our lines be but altars of the earth.”

 

I bow before these lines, some straight, some meandering,

Think of sheep creeps, stiles, mother stones,

Imagine all I’ve stood before, hitched legs over.

With 1600 walled fields on little Oileán Chléire,

I’ve luckily more telltale landscape to listen to

Than I can assimilate. So here’s a seat-of-the-pant’s

Touch of reverence at the altar of drystone walls,

With thanks for rescuing me from that

Which sighted soul appalls:

Walls share that living in an artless past

Would be like having sky always overcast,

Or sinking beside a lifeline-less ship,

Or looking at patchwork fields without the benefit

Of man-  

Placed 

Stone

                                                            ****

4. Seven Years Ago, Off Cape

It’s 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.

Seven 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”:

 

Turning village corner, I happen upon a harbour:

fifty craft at anchor – punts, dinghies, yachts;

half a dozen trawlers snug against the pier,

two old souls rotting in each others’ arms,

all faintly familiar in the solstice dusk,

though I’ve never been in Skerries before.

 

As I stroll to the head of the L-shaped pier,

I spot three seals cavorting, slowly figure out

why they’ve gathered: aboard a blue trawler,

the Ard-Mhuire, five men work the port side,

five teenage boys the starboard,

while a lone lad shovels clear a path between.

 

I watch him push into a pulsing ton of pink

heaped mid-ship and heave prawn

onto tables either side. His colleagues sort,

kibitz, and when they toss something not so squirmy

overboard, the seals playfully submerge.

 

Half an hour later, I’m still watching from the dark

as the lad plows through the pile of flood-lit prawn.

 

The heap becomes a drift of snow

from my youth that’s just slid off the roof

of my parents’ upstate New York home and blocks

the drive. As the lad pushes in the shovel, steps

hard, stomps, flings another hundred prawn

onto table, I’m clearing my parents’ drive

so dad can go to work tomorrow.

 

I wonder if I’ll ever finish digging –

and as I leave the pier, I snack upon my memory

the way the seals chow down the throwaways.

5. Today

When 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.

While 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.

Mother Fog meanders down from passage tomb

and lighthouse fastnesses, dallies in gorse-filled hollows,

rolls over bogs, byres, bungalows, over skeletons

of tractors & once-upon-a-time New Holland harvesters,

over septic tanks and slurry pits,

drystone ditch after drystone ditch,

and settles on the humilities

of the very seaside pasture where we walk.

 

And we, we wee we, we mostly mosey round

the pasture walls, listen to hummocky grass and thrift,

to broken swells gurgling fundamental news

from crevices & caves. We’re more

than wet-behind-the-ears aware

that amongst these humilities we’re nothing

less than secure in the pulsing privacy

of what we’ve come to recognise as cosmic womb.

Our eyes blink and blink in amniotic atmosphere.

 

From this nowhere a curlew’s with us,

flying slow the width of a cock of hay away.

We gaze at curve of beak, at rump of moon-stained white,

and as brother curlew crowns

into the other world, & disappears from sight,

we hear his penetrating cry of glee, cour-lee,

cour-lee, and feel new life every which way hereabouts.

 

We ramble on, taking what now might be

not just our own sweet time, not ready,

not even anxious to be born, and rubbing embryonic selves

against each other in the still damp hush, curious

as all get-out about which sibling might next emerge,

might next deliver a sound, a life, that enters others’ bones

here on the humilities of the very seaside pasture

where we walk. Mother Fog, we thank you for your favours.

 

Metamorphosis

5 scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter 4.05

 

1. BOARDING SCHOOL

One of the worst times I ever experienced metamorphosed into one of the most helpful.

Near 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.

Off I went.

Safely 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.

The 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 school café.

My 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.

My 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 feeling.

And 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.

 

2. THROUGH THE “I” OF A NEEDLE

When 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.

I 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.

“Father, how can you stand such squalor?” I said.

“Sir,” he replied, “it’s because I can’t stand squalor that I come. These poor unfortunates” – he gestured about us – “They know me.”

“Aren’t you afraid?” I asked, since I was, and had been ready to run should anyone have approached me with a needle at the ready.

“They von’t hurt me. They trust me.”

“So why do you come here?” I asked.

“Because they need help.”

“And are you able to help them?”

“A 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.”

“Have you had any success?” I asked.

“Not 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?”

He looked at me, dark thoughtful eyes, and said, “Yes, yes they do. Almost all vere once loved.”

“Thank you, father,” I said, old enough to be his father. “Good luck to you.”

“God go vit you, my son,” he said.

We 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.”

That 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.

 

3. A CHILD IS BORN

Thanks 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.

The 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.

I 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.

And then, in the middle of never-less-than-a-hundred-degree-Fahrenheit St. Louis heat wave, August 1965, early morning, Nell whispered, "It's contractions."

I 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 crowning."

Crowning. 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.

"How's Nell, doc?"

"They're both fine. She's fine, he's fine. Come along."

Nell's face showed exhaustion, radiated bliss. The baby looked red, shrivelled, his ears not on straight, his eyes already sizing us up.

Upon 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.

I 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."

Charles, our firstborn. Charles, our son. His life had just started. And, I felt, so had mine.

 

4. CIRCLE OF SILENCE

In memory of Seán Dunne

In 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.”

A 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 toward silence.

Leaving 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.

Joined by a dozen islanders of a variety of faiths, the now ecumenical gathering settled into a circle in a secluded bower above South Harbour.

The 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.

I 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 before.

An 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.

I 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.

To 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.

One 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 begins now.’”

 

5. THOSE CAREFREE COLLEGE DAYS

When 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.

Oh 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.

Two 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, you jerk.”

I 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!

I 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 delivered.

My 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.”

Before 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.

At 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.

I try it out happily for the next thirty years.

 

 

Island Life

5 scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter the week of 11.10.04

 

1. Cruising in Low Gear

Imagine 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.

Where 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.

I 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..

Bedtime

On my way to bed I step outside to check

the sea, the sounds in the bay below,

the chthonic booms flung from out the caves,

the grinding wash of waves tumbling stones

on shingle beach, become aware of what

I’ve been hearing for days, for weeks,

but didn’t recognise I was hearing at all,

that background roar of surf

amongst the ins & outs of cove & cliff.

 

Chock-full of such sea sound I scan

for the pulsing Fastnet Lighthouse beam,

the lights of passing ships, for the lights

of neighbours, who’s in, who’s out,

who’s never coming back;

& tonight the way that midnight Moon

dapples a narrowing stretch of zigzag sea

preempts all thought of turning in --

so I set forth on bedtime stroll.

 

Down the cow-flop drive I mind my way

& at first bend glance south toward harbour

mouth: in the shipping lane some six miles

out not a tanker but a swath of light

dapples sea, & as old Moon’s path

of diamond waves draws near, twinkles up

to seawall where I lean, I hear another sound,

again one I’ve been hearing without hearing,

but for many years, why, the Moon-born ripples,

these lapping waves, they’re full of laughter,

laughing free like kids with not an inkling

of mañana, & for a nanosecond I sense I need

no more than to hear this moonstruck dance,

to see Old Moon, the Fastnet beam, the lights

of neighbours, who’s in, who’s out, who’s

never coming back, to hear the children

of the sea remind sixty-plus-year-old me

of just how free I too can be, I too a wave

catching & throwing light on my way to shore.

 

2. The Timoleague Chalice

Today I’d like to tell an old story, a true story, a strange story of survival, that begins in 1642 and ends about 200 years later: the story of the Timoleague Chalice:

Grabbing vestments, chalice, oars, they dashed

the rabbit track to cove, shoved the punt

down shingle into midnight chop. Abrupt

as bats, the panicked monks leapt in,

rowed for all they or anyone were worth, powered

into the kingdom come of night, out of the inlet

into open sea, into Brother Jonah’s testing element,

into all the little that seemed left. They could –

they felt – forever feel the screams

of Father Saul and Brother Dan, bright

as looming madness to nightmare mind.

 

Looking out over transom these Sons of St. Francis

could not but believe the billowing flames, the belch,

the roar, the enraged behemoth bellowing behind them,

yellow blasts rearing up and out like judgement

over the waters of the world as roofs of friary halls

and simple cells, of library and church, of frater

and sacristy, collapsed, their seaside garden settlement

transformed into that scenario they’d read about

at the very end of the very book they’d left behind.

But they knew, these three, how to feather, how to put

backs into oars as Timoleague Friary gave up the ghost

to the English army and Lord Forbes.

 

It was the year of their Lord sixteen hundred and forty-two,

with youthful Cromwell not yet underway, and they alone

escaped to tell us but the spirit didn’t feed them well

and in two days two were through and the one

lying in the bilge a soggy blue as four Oileán Chléire

fishermen came upon the craft, towed the desperate load

ashore, nursed the sole survivor back to memories,

buried his burlap-brown and ripe good breth’ren deep

in the harbour graveyard dedicated to island ancestor

and Ireland’s earliest saint.

 

When the mended friar prepared to leave,

he issued orders to the men who’d saved him that

that box of goods he’d brought was as sacred as a piece

of the cross itself and must not be disturbed

until he himself returned and Irish Catholics could

again worship God without constraint.

 

Especially toward dusk the crow flies straight

and Father Leader never beat ’round any bush.

So a little over two hundred years later,

in the middle of conducting Stations

in a Ballyieragh Cadogan cottage, this Parish Priest

looked up into an alcove, homed in on a box that had

suspicious markings. He then heard the story

of the monks and of the last command. “Down,”

he ordered, “Place it here, beside the chickens

and the altar, and stand back.” “B-but you are not

the man,” whispered one. Father Leader smiled,

lifted the lid, held up vestments that, except

for tarnished braid, crumbled into dust

between his wide-spread stubby fingers. When he

delved deeper into box he hit upon something hard

and removed the relic, hoisted it high as Islanders

dropped jaws in disbelief. From the base

of the chalice he read out: “THIMOLAGGI.”

The Priest, protective, swaddled the artifact like

a new-born child and carried it back to be holy

in the Parish of Timoleague. There it remains

except when it comes in to Cape as that bit of past

which, raised beside the harbour of the South,

reminds of what the soul goes through when next

to nothing’s left except feeble drops of blood.

 

3. The Journey ‘In’

As we start our journey ‘in’ to Oileán Cléire,

monthly ‘messages’ wedged between rows of wooden seats

in safe saloon, the captain revs the engines

as he studies dials and sea – and I watch sooty smoke

pour out of stack and water aft turn turbulent.

The crew completes the cast off: one pulls tire fenders up,

coils ropes; another helps an arthritic straggler down

the narrow concrete steps and, closing starboard side-door,

throws two half-hitches about the bolt, twangs the strap

around an aromatic horse trailer to double-check it’s snug,

won’t roll no matter heavy seas, then flicks the right-on salute

to skipper and – the only way ahead – we’re reversing out.

 

Leaning against taffrail, relieved mainland duties done,

and just in the nick of another kind of time, with barely breath

after finally finding place to squeeze in car, I’m homeward bound, feel myself

relax as the village of Baltimore – framed

in the middle of our wake – recedes into hill after hill.

Ten minutes later, Lot’s Wife out of sight, just as we’re nosing past

the perilous Catalogues – with hungry rocks so close on either side

I could touch them with the gaff – I crane my neck, and there she is,

old Insula Sancta Clare. I catch glimpse after glimpse of the Cape

four to five miles off, watch her rise and fall from end to end.

And blow-in me knows that I’ve lived there for more than years,

that I’m beholding something altogether antidote yet opposite

to every place I’ve ever dwelt.

 

On this, the slightly longer twisty northern route, the vista west

opens wide, the swell begins to declare itself, to define its fetch,

to lift us tiptoe wavering up and up and stomach-dropping

swooping down, neither landlubber nor local stays steady today

without hanging on. For the safety of us, though not essential for

the ship, the skipper slows, takes rearing wave head on,

and swirling spray makes the half-dozen brave to brazen souls

outdoors hunker down under overhang of wheelhouse deck.

Squinting, drenched, and of the brazen class, I have to hop a wash

of water from a port side drain before I mount the wheelhouse steps.

Once up, I open and shut the narrow door, stand dripping amongst

the crew, an island lad, the skipper’s wife, the visiting weekend

priest, and I peer through wheelhouse windows, cleaned

sporadically of clouds of salty spray by a single blade.

Clinging to steel screw-down window knob, I concentrate

on straight ahead amidst the chat and craic, am reminded of

a peaceful sleepy turtle, evaluate hump of Cape as carapace

with townland Comalán the head. As we draw nearer still,

Bird Island dead ahead, a line of stationary cormorants

warming wings after diving deep, healthy but not mountainous

waves rising royally and thundering down on the Bullig,

on the Lough, I watch old turtle’s shell – all but blue from above

Baltimore – turn green, begin to reveal, shimmering through flying crests,

the way each shield has its individual stamp, when –

even as I stare – squares rectangles pentagons some all but shapeless

patches shift into pastures, fields – the lines of demarcation turning

three-dimensional – and everywhere ahead I sense

the simple heritage of drystone walls, feel their will to wait,

and wonder wildly if I’m not in the neritic thick

of some other seaside creature’s metaphor.

 

As we at last turn broadside to the swells, slow beside the stacks

to harbour speed, and enter purring, the lads collect the fares,

toss fenders, prepare mooring ropes, untie the side-door bolt,

swap wit and pleasantries. Islanders wait in little groups

on Duffy’s pier, wave to family, friends, approach the top

of landing steps, catch ropes for bollards, all as the Naomh Ciarán

snuggles up to berth, settles in secure, done for the day

(unless the island nurse has something else to say).

We disembark quickly so that we’re not stuck in the saloon

for safety’s sake while the trailer’s hoisted off. Cars vans

tractors inch through spaces, rearview mirrors sometimes scratch

or snap and neighbours laugh and wave you on. We’re home.

 

4. Seals

Even 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

Take ritual break from ember words

& saunter down to stove, fiddle pots,

Progress outside, scan the island scene –

Knobbly hills, grey stone beach, bracken

Turnin’ brown, kestrel droppin’ down –

&, whoa boy, stop on spot of white at edge

Of low spring tide, laugh loud at thought

Of rug washed in last night. But then it looks –

I put down mug – almost – by God – alive.

 

Curious as a questing youth, all sixty plus

Years of me set forth, approach the shingle,

& from a hundred yards away see twitch,

Quiver, spasm, sign of littoral life.

I stumble over stone, slide down tide-line,

Halt mere feet from baby seal, white,

Clean as cloud, clean as the inside of creation.

 

Pup raises head, hisses over shoulder,

Slumps back into lump, eyes cocked.

Oh you grey stone beach, I wonder, what’s

Washed up over the millennia, wonder

Wildly what’s up with this panting pup, where’s

His mom, dammit but what’s wrong

With the natural order of all things?

 

Over the next four days I put God on trial,

Sift through evidence, adjudicate, interpolate,

Visit twice a day the slow swimmin’

Settlin’ stretchin’ restin’ witness pup

& nights read bible of marine biology,

Learn at last that nothing’s up at all,

Dummy, no case no how,

Only my own lack of understanding.

 

Why I discover that the Grey Atlantic

Seal, for its own growth & good,

Is naturally abandoned by its mother

After two to three rich weeks of teat,

That it has fat enough for another month,

Man, more, until it sorts out how to fish

& fend, that yes in-deed the mother’s done

Her job & now it’s up to pup – & I hark back

To God, to my anger at His seeming absence

During Holocaust, war after war to beat

All wars, tumble of child out of crib & onto

Neck;

 

& then the night thought struggles

Toward the dawn, the spring tide floods

& cleans the grey stone beach, the well-weaned pup

Swims off from what’s become his comfy boulder

Bed, & I sense, sense a sense we’ve got

To make it by ourselves, our God’s

A mother seal, has done Her part already,

The rest the weaning’s up to you & me

& us. Why I no longer can condemn my God

Than I can the mother of this pup, the mother

Out there somewhere whether pup sinks

Or swims. Why I’ve been Darwin’s bloody

Monkey’s uncle, a seal’s abandoned pup,

One tidbit of an irreverent renegade

But – by Christ as metaphor – man! the world,

The world, it might just be joined together

After all. I mean, Need we be mothered

Through from first to final breath?

 

5. Butterflies

For 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:

Butterfly Days

Imagine being so equipped

you live full life in an average of three days,

well, three days and, if you’re lucky, maybe as many nights.

That’s what the Large Heath butterfly’s got,

three days out of chrysalis to death,

three days to find a mate, and mate,

and meet the Maker.

Man, talk about packing it in.

 

He don’t complain, just bobs about

on his truly daily business

fluttering from tussock to shaggy tussock,

rummaging for food and friend.

The Missus lays her eggs on the dead brown leaf

of hare’s-tail, drops to earth.

We got to know ’em when, into our also momentary space,

flies first Mister B., confused by glass, air turned solid, no smell,

up against invisible planes, and he but probably born today.

At last he alights in the conservatory’s upper southeast corner,

closes tawny wings as tight as El & I can eyes, reconnoitres,

three days to find a mate, and mate,

and meet the Maker.

Man, talk about packing it in.

 

Then in she daintily flits, fainter, fewer eye-spots,

and I wonder if marauding meadow pipit can be far behind.

Those staring eye-spots may encourage such a predator

to miss the body proper on his nabbing thrusts, but to me

such circles suggest, I must confess, kingdom come mandalas.

Why Mr. and Mrs. Butterfly, says I at last,

scooping him into a closing church of hands, and stepping outside,

let’s calculate: you’ve 72 hours,

so in our little communion hour together you’ve lived a year in my life.

Now go, you gentle. I separate sanctuary into halves

but he, quiet, waits, wings raised,

and I hear him pray, imagine being born today, middle-aged mañana

and dead the day after Tuesday, oh Mr. and Mrs. B.,

ain’t we all,

and off he flies, so El cups her, strides into outer space, opens church-door thumbs

and she’s free too, an angel flickering about above the shrubb’ry

in darting do-si-do dances with her man,

three days to find a mate, and mate,

and meet the Maker.

Man, talk about packing it in.

 

Stories from Around the World

5 scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter the week of 17.11.03

 

1. STORIES

Long 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 after-dinner conversation.

For 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.

“I’ve 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 group.”

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 class.

The several hundred-year-old story – I think from Martin Buber’s collected Tales of the Hasidim – went something like this:

An 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.

And 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.

Horrified, 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.”

But 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.”

 

2. 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.

 

3. Moses Takes a Walk

The 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:

Moses 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.”

Moses stood.

“I’ve a favour to ask of you,” continued Khadir. “Might we walk together for a while?”

“My Lord,” Moses replied, “I could not be more honoured.”

“But you may not want to walk with me, Moses.”

“Never, my Lord.”

“You might object to being with me, Moses, or object to some of the things I do.”

“Never, my Lord.”

So, 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.

Moses could not believe what had happened, but continued walking in silence.

An 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.

Again Moses could not believe what had happened, but kept walking without talking.

Two 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.

Once more Khadir raised his arm, and the buttress came crumbling down.

Moses could contain himself no longer and, crying, said to Khadir, “My Lord, how can you do such a deed to those poor people?”

“Moses,” 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 crime.

“And 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.

“And 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.”

Moses, 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.

 

5. A God’s Joke

Of 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.

Narada, 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.

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.

Narada 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.

Within 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.

Narada found 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.

And 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.

 

The Fastnet Lighthouse & South Harbour

5 scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter the summer of 2003

 

1. For the Very First Time

Moving 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.

And 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:

 

On daily walk to stay in touch

with Zorba the Greek and renew my pledge

to experience these whereabouts afresh,

I spy a pair of ravens perched

on Napoleonic tower’s parapet from which

garrison sentries used to search the seas

for sign of French invasion.

I sense the pair already had blow-in me

under artful observation.

Soon one sentinel flies off as if he’s just

recalled some trivial errand

he’d promised his mate he’d run,

and next I know I’m being reconnoitred:

He circles my absolutes from fifty feet

above my head. I hunker down, try to be

as inconspicuous as a threadbare old belief

discarded atop the drystone ditch.

In myth time I’ve been frisked

by an Israeli ranger, hear a burst

of guttural “purrks” as he powers north,

lands half a hemisphere away,

disappears behind a patch of gorse,

which I suddenly see as sabra.

I sneak extended peek at her.

After a subtle duelling interval she gives

disdainful shrug of shaggy throat

and bandy-legged struts the ledge, launches

into steady beat of jagged wings

to join her man.

When I turn left, my wife’s beside me,

and the Old Lighthouse

and nearby Signal Tower

overlook Jerusalem.

 

 

2. Perspectives

In 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.

I 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.

On 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.

We 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.

With 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.

The 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.

As 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.

We 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 the sea.

Indeed, 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.

 

3. A Break

As 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 top.

By 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.

And 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 telephone calls

and tourists, our two-person

open-cockpit kayak like a restless tongue

testing the deliciousness of sea.

Half a mile out, with a growing sense

of calm and purity,

we suddenly heard the rudest snort,

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 snorting

sometimes mere paddle-length

from our matchstick craft.

Next we knew one leapt ten feet up

and floated there horizontally,

then dove with playful smacking splash

back into the kingdom come of sea.

When they’d disappeared into the west,

we drifted for a while on ebbing tide,

paddled into mouth of harbour, home

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 listeners.

If 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.

5. 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:

You wouldn’t think

being in the final thick

of building my fourth lighthouse tower

would change my orientation to the stars –

especially to Orion’s belt – but then,

maybe you’ve not yet lived

well out to sea on a rock

beside an even smaller rock

so that from any spot

you can throw a stone

that drops into the drink.

You wouldn’t think

hearing the sound of sea

any time of day or night

would help to locate you

on your own nautical chart,

make you less concerned

about the number of fathoms

in the day and more aware of the degree

of where you are or aren’t:

I mean I’ve seen my mug of tea

be bounced into the midnight air

by the thunder of a visitor below;

I mean I’ve watched rocks

weighing in at tons

be ripped from cliffs,

be tossed a hundred feet

to where I’d calmly stood

surveying cloud-capped Hungry Hill

that early unassuming rip-tide afternoon.

You wouldn’t think

a landlubber man like me

could ever have touched out here –

so close to the upwelling continental shelf –

two thousand seventy-four

artifacts, these exactly cut,

no, crafted blocks that went in

to the laying of course upon stubborn course

of this princely primal tower.

At first, since truths be few and stark

as tidal waves, I confess I feared

each hoisted block, all one

and three-quarters to three tons worth,

feared each had my name and dates engraved,

but by this almost end – today we’re at last

at that preordained eighty-ninth course –

I’ve begun to run my questing callused hands

over each stone as though it is my friend,

not my profession, and direct with delectation

the dove-tailing ritual of lowering male

into female, female onto male, of joggling

the bonds of the entire edifice into one

gently soaring male-and-female monolith.

Today I held the plumb bob from the top

and the vertical variation’s off

by under 3/16 of an inch.

No, you wouldn’t think

that working where one reflex backward step –

and you might take such any day

of work or play – would be the last

you’d ever make, that that risk would be

conducive to communal snores,

but nonetheless every simple step

has gained a density of belief

in a different kind of engineering feat:

every time – whether high up where

the lantern’s yet to rise and pulse,

or under dangling tons, or in a nervous wind

gathering force – you run your hand

along a stone’s edge, feeling for

the slightest chip, you know

it isn’t just the ropes, the cables,

the smoothness of the shackles,

the teamwork of your fellow man,

that keeps us each from dropping down

to say good day to Davy Jones’s gang.

No, you wouldn’t think you’d mostly come

to feel that those wheeling stars in Orion’s belt

have been perfectly positioned by an Old Hand

Who thrives in a mirror sea awash with lights

that give voyaging me a clue to whereabouts.

 

Islands

5 scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter the week of 11.02

 

1. First Visit to Ireland

Primed 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.

Arriving 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.

We 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.

One 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.

When 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.

An 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.

Before night fell I’d built a cairn beside the lake.

Very 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.

That 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.

2. Naturalness

The 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.

The 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.

A 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 be?”

That’s 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 Irish psyche.

A Zen koan metaphorically dramatizes, or defines, part of the naturalness I’m talking about.

A 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 sleep.”

3. Searching

For 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.

I 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.

An African tale sums up my conclusions about why I’ve missed the orthodox religious boat. The story runs something like this:

“What 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.

“Then 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 his friends.

4. Why Live on an Island?

What 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.

An 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.

Going 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.

A 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 skins.

No less than Noah lives on – or retires to – an island.

On 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.

Sister Skellig

Now I know sort of why

the monks did it,

hunkering down on that God

-unforsaken outpost of an Atlantic isle.

They didn’t simply keep

turning the other cheek

alive.

In a howling wind I hear them sing,

we’re all we’ve got so on we go.

 

Now a beehive hut in a butterfly world

perched on the edge

of heritage

tells blow-in me not mainly of hardship

but of a wildly simplifying place, gull eggs,

pollack feathered from jagged ledge,

warmth the others in the hut,

a day-time look-out & blessed boulders

ready heavens above the single narrow path.

In a howling wind I hear them sing,

we’re all we’ve got so on we go.

 

Here on Cape, here on this sister isle,

in a practically unrelated time,

this is the way it should be:

Force 12 & the roof poised & so what,

mail delivered straight

to the living room table when we’re not home,

keys left in car, a sea pink

swaying in a child’s eagle eye,

intimacy with rambunctious Mother Nature

as existential as full flame

under fish-filled frying pan.

When I need help, or a neighbour mine,

that’s it, off we go,

straight as the evening flight of a hooded crow.

In a howling wind I hear them sing,

we’re all we’ve got so on we go.

 

5. The Pros and Cons of Island Life

Imagining 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.

To 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.

Islands 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.”

A 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 first.

For me, an island creates a vastly heightened sense of limited physical space, but, perhaps as a compensation, also of infinite time.

Cape 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.

To 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:

On Going Green

Living where lights don’t dim the Pleiades,

Where narrow roads say no to higher gears,

Where winter winds and salt discourage trees,

Where choughs confess to this creed-free chanticleer

Pollution hereabouts is nil, still I cannot pray

My pride into [Andrew Marvell’s] “a green Thought in a green shade.”

Yet on this all but treeless isle of Cape,

I witness patchwork fields in slanting light

Send out such intensities of green

That shimmer and shadow become a last landscape

Of sanctuary same as harbour below for plight

Of seal when between each wave’s abrupt ravine.

Simple pastures pulsing greens reveal

How Nature paints with tints that touch and heal.

 

 

Weddings & Surprises

5 scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter the week of 20.5.02

 

1. London Grove

In 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.

Meredith 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.

During 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.”

Nell 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.

The 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.

For 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.

How 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.

 

2. A Blizzard Wedding

The 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.

The storm intensified.

That 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.

Packed 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.

Electricity 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.

The 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 take thee.

It was impossible – in the middle of the blizzard of 1993 – to imagine a more apt wedding for Meredith and Steve. Everything, everyone, cooperated.

Or 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 the wind.

It felt as though the blizzard had blessed the wedding. And that the oak had officiated.

 

3. Acorns

Half 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 to.

Sitting 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.

At 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.

On 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:

When 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.

The blizzard of ’93 – and that William Penn oak – presided over our daughter’s wedding.

 

4. Butterfly Wing

Once 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.

I 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 doors.

To 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.

After 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.

This June we celebrate our fortieth wedding anniversary.

 

5. The Cormorant and the Skunk

Returning 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.

The 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.

After 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.

Thanks to Ireland, I recognise the cormorant as easily as a farmer tells a sheep from a pig.

Driving 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.

I 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.

Returning 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 meet him.

He 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.

The 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.

As 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.

Not of a superstitious nature, I wonder if these moments are more than coincidences.

 

 

Early On

4 scripts broadcast by Lyric FM’s Quiet Quarter in autumn of 2001

 

1. ON A TRIP TO IRELAND

On 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.

Since 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 nature.

Sitting 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.

Four 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.

In 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.

Mulling 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 before.

I 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 tapestry.

 

2. MY CHILDHOOD WINTERS

My 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.

And 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?"

Well, 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.

When 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.

 

3. CREATING ONE’S OWN WORLD

When 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.

As 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.

A 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.

As 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.

 

4. EARLIEST MEMORIES

Earliest 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.

The 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.

My 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 nighttime moon.

 


Address: Chuck Kruger, Cape Clear Island, County Cork, Ireland;
phone/fax:
+353 (0)28 39157; E-Mail: chuck@chuckkruger.net


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