Things what I saw: a maximum of cash paired with a minimum of taste, towers of confectionary, a giant blue cock sharing a corner of the same square with a nation’s heroes (apparently sans irony), a dog without a face, black horses prancing and foaming around their golden bits, pomp with no particular circumstance, three children sharing one lap on the crowded underground, the saddest TARDIS in the known and unknown universes, slush, skeleton trees and skeleton keys, a fairy tale, a history, the inside of a dark hotel room at midday, hot pink feet, hot pink ducks, the bottom of several pints, the greasy clarity of a used chips bag, the bluest sky gone grey and back again, mouths forming around foreign tongues, bad decisions, good people, fireworks, ravens carefully camouflaging midnight snacks with bits of moss, the Mairzy Dotes man on the Thames’ south bank, dragons and lions rampant, and the way even the jaded pause when church bells peal.
Your GPS will fail you. It will always fail you. A woman of faith, you will continue trying to use it anyway, the way you sometimes pray or sing old hymns, probably until your dying day, at which point you will go to the horizonless purgatory reserved for the terminally lost.
Despite this, actively in spite of this, you will find Grianan Fort, following paths more appropriate to Br’er Rabbit than to your tiny, abused vehicle. Upon arrival you will feel almost glad for the overcast day because otherwise the three-county view and the sun shining off Lough Foyle would be too much, like beholding the face of all the river gods of Ulster at once.
Emboldened by your modest success and a full tank of gas you will abandon your craven urge to return to Derry and instead follow the brown signs that have become your religion-by-conversion, to Malin Head, because if a sign claims the northernmost point in Ireland to be “This Way!” it sounds like a dare. You will take other signs as good omens: you will be cheered by memories of a previous sojourn in Burnfoot as you pass through, stymied but strangely reassured by a sign welcoming you to “Amazing Grace Country”.
But the brown signs, like all your other gods, will abandon you shortly. You won’t care. Still high off your fort find and laboring under the delusion of your own moral compass’s power, you will go where your gut tells you. Your gut will bring you to Illies, which is NOT Malin Head. But a new sign, a white sign, will direct you close-to-but-not-quite back the same way you came, to the relief of your brave fool ego.
Your humility will be rewarded with a stop in Carndonagh for a croissant and for the sake of your bladder, because, let’s face it, you’ve been driving around for hours. You will meet a young man from Belfast wearing a bright yellow “Walk to Stomp Out Cancer” t-shirt and smoking a cigarette in front of the tea shop. He will appreciate how you note the irony. He will have been walking all month long with friends from Mizen Head to Malin Head to raise money for the cause. You will give him ten Euro and jokingly offer him a ride the remaining nineteen kilometers which he will refuse, for though he is a smoker he is not a cheater, you middle-aged Eve on wheels.
You will resume refreshed. You will be encouraged: each driver who nearly runs you off the road will do so with a smile and a wave and you will smile and wave in return, because this is how it is done in Donegal; each dog that chases your car will do so joyfully and with a minimum of animosity; each clap of warning thunder will sound like applause for your nimble maneuvering around these narrow back road mazes. If you are tempted to sigh you will remember that Macha ran faster than the horses on her own two feet and carrying twins.
Malin Head will reveal itself easily once you reach the coast, where an ugly 19th Century British tower and a few out buildings originally constructed to defend the northern coast from a small man with plans outsize of his stature are the only blights on the landscape which was once Queen Banba’s untarnished crown.
Looking beyond the tower and down you will see the blue sea and somewhat closer at hand the messages written in white stones on green grass for those who dare – or stumble – so far North, proclaiming you are in “EIRE” and more precisely “DONEGAL” as well as the names and loves of a hundred other semiliterate masons. You will see that Leah and her dad have almost finished spelling out her name in letters as high as she is, at ten-years-old, tall.
You are as far North as you have ever been in Ireland. You will want to go North-er.
Your way will be blocked by wood fencing and rusted barbed wire. You will not remember when your last tetanus shot was, but this fact will not give you much pause. It is an easyuponefootoverandtwistandanotherfootoveranddown with no one around to see your awkward landing except those French tourists en masse up by the English tower (Bonaparte would be proud).
You will walk as far as you can without walking on water, filling your pockets with stones picked at whim and random to make your own mark, and a little shiver in the spine will show you the spot to begin, on the far side of the hill facing the uttermost north. This is where people of more private nature will have left their missives of love and being and prayer to be bathed in salt air and illuminated by northern lights. You will think it is an excellent place to leave a letter for Santa, but instead you will make a simple spiral, symbol of your own circumambulation around the globe, around your questions, around your self.
You will place a rock of different stripe in the very center, given to you by a dear friend before you left the States, on which she has written words of encouragement: love, inspiration, courage, joy, strength, wonder. You will have almost lost this rock many times on your travels due to your habit of keeping it in a ready pocket like a Connemara worry stone. You will muse that’s just the way it is with the things you carry on your travels: magic rocks, wallets, passports, hearts. These things are always on your person, necessary, ready, and vulnerable.
That’s when it will hit you: not only how far North you are, but how far you are from everything and everyone you know with any intimacy. And this realization, far from filling you with fear, will thrill you. The wind will do its whipping best, and make songs in your ears and hair and even pick tunes out of the unnatural nylon of your raincoat. One realization will lead to another:
The obstruction of the elements by your own clumsy body is not an intrusion but part of a greater music which transforms you with its grace.
Like it happens in these kinds of stories, the wind will calm and the clouds part, and you will know it is time to go. On your way back to the car, as you nannygoat up the hillside a different way than you came down, you will find one more message.
And though you will not know who left it you will know it is for you and you will know that it is true.
Horticulture and vocabulary lessons from the 60-something gentleman wearing baggy brown trousers, a green polo shirt and a navy dress shirt over that (unbuttoned) and a houndstooth sport coat, drab (also unbuttoned), nondescript loafers (the laces ragged and trailing), brow furrowed, even when smiling, done often and well despite the absence of the four top front teeth traditionally foremost in the act:
I was talkin’ to meself, did’n see you there. Wha’s that? You did’n hear me? Tha’s wha they all say. You get more sense, anyway, talkin’ to yourself. You hear that? You get more sense. Tha’s some beautiful American or Canadian you’re after speakin’ there you’ll notice I said both ’cause I can’ detect the one over t’other so I’m coverin’ all me bases. Californian? So you’d know all about raisins, then. Raisins, we’d call that currants, a nicer word that. You ever picked raisins? Grapes! Yeah, youse have the wevver for it: sun. You know in Canada they are famous for their wheat. You know why? They go’ the sun at jus’ the right time for wheat, an’ for nine weeks. I watched a whole documennery abou’ wheat when my muvver was to home before she died and I stayin’ wif her, and do you know I was tha’ interested tha’ I never heard the sounds of the traffic outside, the sun went down and I never had me tea or nothin’. Spellbound. If you was wheat, you know wha’ you’d do? “Oi! I’m goin’ to Canada me,” you’d say, it’s tha’ nice for wheat. Strawberries? If you have time, you go right out to the left of the swim centre an’ they have a patch, not this big, wif all the herbs wha’ we’re famous for here, and strawberries. The bigger th’strawberry the less sweet. D’you know tha’ black currants have more vittuhmin C in’ em per, per, I don’t know wha’ but per piece a fruit anyway. La’er this week I go to see a man with see here I guess you have hectares in America? Whaddyou use for big plots of land? Acres, is it? Tha’s an old word, you stole tha’ word from us. Tha’s a good word. Well le’s say that an acre is the size of a football pitch, minus the stadium mind, and this paper says he has ten acre of soft fruit. WELL, three acre of tha’ is black currant. You had black currant cordial? No? Elderflower you say? Why, tha’s elderflower righ’ there t’other side a the tracks. Puts me in a mind to get some. If you wen’ into one o’ them, wha’ you call it, garden centres, and asked for elderberry bush, they’d look a’ you like you we’re mad. I’ just grows, like righ’ there. You don’ havva bung it in the groun’. You like fennel? Smells like a lady’s drink. Like Pernod. You’ve had Pernod? Well you get a waft…nice word that, “waft”, innit? You get a wafta fennel, i’s just like Pernod! You could give tha’ to an alcoholic, like, an’ they migh’ have the wobblies a bi’, bu’ if you wha’youcallit, it you diffuse, tha’s a nice word, diffuse some fennel into water, like, and give tha’ to someone addicted to the drink you’d have ‘em out of it in a few weeks, likin’ fennel instead sayin’, “Mmm, I like tha’, gimme morea tha’!” You here much longer? Glasgow! Ah, you’ll be drinkin’ whiskeys, then. They have whiskey in America but they don’ do it like the Scotch. You know why? On account they do it nat’ral: the spring water, the peat smokin’. You know how I know? Tha’s righ’, I watched a documennery about it. I went wif some mates for a James Bond film and before the film – I slept through half the film we was mean’ to see, bu’ I was mesmerised by this 45 minute documennery beforehan’. They smoke the barley you know, in wha’ they call an ost. Old word tha’, “ost”. There’s a pub in Kent, you been to Kent? There’s a pub in Kent they call the Osthouse. They was so tall, the grain buildings, so you could build a fire underneath and fill ‘em with the smoke for smoking. You seen an ost? They look like a funny chimney, all invert’d, to keep the smoke down to ge’ a’ the barley. I’m goin’ to Sudbury proper t’day and later have a drink. I been to the library once so no goin’ back there. O’ course they were helpful a’ the library when you wen’ there tha’s their job. They ge’ paid and paid well to stan’ behind tha’ counter. Sometime you get an ignoramus…ignoramus, tha’s a good word, innit? An ignoramus jus’ talkin’ ‘bou their holidays. I worked with this woman once, for weeks a’ break, all she talk abou’s her holidays. She bough’ a house off the council for, she squeaked it ou’ for forty or fifty you know why? The police ha’ torn i’ all up. One o’ them drug houses. They was growin’ drugs there. How’d I know? I delivered the equipment. Did’n know wha’ it were for, but coulda ha’ me fingerprints on it, my friends says to me, “Imagine!” But no coppers come callin’ for me and they tore tha’ house righ’ up, ‘lectrical, plumbin’, so she got it for a song. Anyway my hand’s clean shake hands then. Safe journey. Wha’? You did’n learn nuffin’.
My head is heavy with green blowing grasses and slate gray stones stacked and restacked with such care right down to the blueblowing sea and velvet brown ales slipped as much over my eyes as down my throat slick like the lanolin rich handwoven scored in the shop? house? down the unmarked path near the sunken church where Saint Kevin’s brother sleeps and I think so could I so could I. The lady of the house speaks about every day things but in Irish making strange lullabies out of the humdrumities of daily life: the milk’s not come off the boat yet, “An maith leat bainne? Nior maith, go raibh maith agat.” To bed now in a snug room made for someone half my size and twice the lady, red rosebud curtains, lavender walls, and a low knottywood ceiling box me in courtesies and kindnesses and brownbreadforbreakfast promises while the wind whistles and I’m still thinking of Saint Kevin’s brother sleeping just outside my window covered ever deeper under a blanket of cold sands. Maybe he’s not even there and the church is sinking to meet him under the sea tonight; I’ll dream an Atlantean mass where we’ll sing all the lost carols of Hy-Brasil.
[as of this posting it's been nearly two months since the bombing at the Boston marathon, but I wanted to place my reaction here, so it was officially on my blog and not just languishing in facebookland, because as I get ready to leave the country I become more aware of my American-ness, and finally because these questions don't just go away on their own]
Forgive me this post made in grief as I try to sort through these things.
Others have posted helpfully about “disaster fatigue” and trauma, and still others have posted – perhaps less helpfully – about how events similar to Boston are a much more regular occurrence in other countries, as though this makes us somehow better than or worse than, as though this says something about our capacity for empathy beyond our own borders or infers that our collective shock when these things happen at home is somehow disingenuous, because of course it can happen here.
In ‘Merica. In America. Of course it can happen here.
I don’t quite know what America means. I’m the West Coast-born child of a native Californian and an escapee from a dying mining town in Pennsylvania, my parents both many years removed themselves from their immigrant ancestors. We are babes in the eyes of history, we 20th Century born Californians, particularly those of European descent. We beg, borrow and steal our sense of place from the multicultured, diverse-tongued natives who came before; trace a late-developing spine out of El Camino Real and fashion eardrums of mission bells; cram a literary capital of sorts into an invisible, fog-swathed city at one pole and manufacture bright stars at the other; elevate moving pictures to an art even as we – willful children! – forget the flickering shadows on the cave wall that were their antecedents, forget that stories weren’t a matter of entertainment but a method of survival.
You see, though, how I know all these divisions by rote. Child of the south, the highway systems of Southern California are as familiar and inevitable as the lines of my palm and, at rush hour, more meaningful. I crossed town borders most days of my childhood just to attend a Christian elementary school, which is where I learned that most fundamental division you spend a good part of your adulthood trying to solder back together: the sinner from the saved. I don’t have to refer to maps to see the Atlantic crossing, the continental crossing of my ancestors in my mind. I know they were Irish. And Scottish. And English. And French. Family lore has contrived a whole nursery rhyme about these divisions and convergences in my blood. I can look in the mirror and tell you what feature comes from which side of the family, and whether my nose is from them Gauls or my lips from them Micks.
So ‘Merica or America? What does it look like? And which one is it? I don’t know. But I have been tutored to see differences and form opinions.
In ‘Merica (this is my division). In ‘Merica bad things simply can’t happen because we are the biggest and the best. That’s the story, right? We have some kind of moral imperative to greatness that found its full voice in the misguided theory of manifest destiny, and continues to crop up now and again in a seemingly more innocuous fashion: no longer a proclamation but an insidious, subliminal, white noise invocation of a profane scripture that keeps us always gnawing our own tail. The story of Us v. Them, of shadowy enemies made bigger because we can’t see where they end and we begin, the same old heroic tale brimming with a poisonously inflated sense of self and self-righteousness. “It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.”
“We are better,” it says. “We are better than everyone.”
In America (this is my distinction). The America that I’ve tried to see clearly, through the cherry trees and lie telling and slavery and suffrage and a million other manifest mistakes and triumphs. America the beautiful IDEA, like something precious that I’m trying to distill from tragedy – yes distilling is the process, for if I can just make all this liquid I can erase the lines and distinctions that separate us one from the other, can become infused with what is purest, what is true – I think I can find America, if it yet means anything, by distilling the best words of those who themselves have tried hardest, the words that make freedom irrevocable and equality the law (written in our hearts, not by any hand), words that ask you to ask, “What can I do?” rather than what can be done for you and words that make imperative that you dream, and that you love, and that you hope, still.
“We can be better,” that America croons to me. “We can be better than ourselves.”