Grief Does Funny Things to People or, Maybe They’re Just Like That All the Time: A Rail Travel Story

A ne’er do well Californian, a Chautauqua, New York marathoner with a serious cupcake addiction, a man obsessed with seeing the Mets trounce the Cubs and another man trying to make it home in time to bid his dying 105-year-old mother goodbye walk into a Chicago-bound dining car…

This happens to me a lot. Okay, situations that feel like this seem to happen to me a lot.12096199_10208387216904886_6576416695508757749_n

I am seated opposite the pristine Chautauquan in her black and Tiffany blue horn rimmeds, and the intense, wiry Mets fan, who wears a plaid shirt over his sports paraphernalia yet still manages to leave me with the impression that under those sleeves, where some might tattoo thorns or Celtic knots or other decisions to be regretted later, his arms will be tattooed with the miniscule, neat and curving lines of baseball stitches.

Neither seems inclined to talk, which is not the way of it at mealtimes on a train, but I have been trying this thing lately where I’m not the first person to speak in any given uncomfortable situation, from the mildly to the excruciatingly so…so I don’t. My toes are curling in my boots with the effort.

At the last call for the five pm dinner slot, a 6’4” gentleman I measure to be in his early sixties with a belly that hovers in front of his otherwise lanky frame like a balloon low on helium, origamis himself into the spot next to me at table. He also says nothing. He makes a steeple of his fingers in front of half-closed eyes, elbows resting on the placemat in front of him.

I look away and out the window at how the westering light plays on the green and gold checkerboard of cultivated land and patches of wildwood, with here and there a tree torching red or orange or yellow, eager to usher autumn full in.

Our order is taken, the Balloon Man removing his finger teepee just long enough to hold the menu up to his nose so he can read it, and still no one has made a move to introduce themselves, to break the ice.

An older gentleman in the booth behind us whose hearing has gone the way of his teeth hollers between the staccato clack of dentures, “MY GREAT GRANDFATHER WAS AT THAT BATTLE, BUT I NEVER GOT TO MEET HIM AS HE UP AND DIED THE DAY I WAS BORN!”

I catch Chautauqua’s eye. Surely sharing a look and a smile with someone isn’t the same as starting the conversation? I haven’t broken whatever the weird, unwritten vow of silence it is I have with myself. Without leaning in or lowering her own voice she confides, “Harpers Ferry. It’s the same man who was talking about it in the waiting area, before we boarded. You could hear him all the way across the room.”

Excited that someone is finally speaking, I am eager and inane: “I got to the train kind of last minute, so I wasn’t in the waiting area at all before we had to board.” I gesture over my shoulder in the direction of the old man whose great grandfather fought, on a side indeterminate, at the Battle of Harpers Ferry. “But I like him. I like stuff like that.”

Chautauqua nods and smiles without using her teeth, her smooth blond hair moving not a whit out of place, and I think to myself she is just the sort of cool blonde Hitchcock would have approved. We lapse back into silence. To amuse myself and because I like symmetry, I sit wondering if there is also a Cary Grant-type here somewhere on the train, hiding out in a bathroom or half-suffocating in a bunk, waiting for her to give him mouth-to-mouth.

Trains set you off kilter, gift you sea legs on dry land; the fancies we pack in our bags and bring along when we travel by rail buoy the train along the tracks despite the clickety-clack and the awkward, cramped roomettes and the meals of warmed over fish and sugar free pudding, and the half-resentful air of the conductors and the recurring, inexplicable smell of broccoli in the corridors. What we imagine about trains has little to do with the reality of train travel, but nearly everything to do with the romance we ourselves bring aboard, clinging to our clothes and carryons, making these impossible scenarios seem more plausible. Also: too many old movies.

we all have it

we all have it

If I were laying odds, I would have placed my bet on Mets to speak next, if only to start spewing baseball stats. He was wound up – forgive me, the metaphor is apt – like a pitch. But before he can say anything, the Balloon Man pipes up, through his finger teepee.

“Well I’m sorry if I’m not great company but this is the second time I’m doing this trip in three days and I haven’t slept since six o’clock yesterday morning because no sooner did I get to Virginia but my brother called me and said, ‘You’d better hurry home if you want to see your mother alive again for the last time,’ so like I said forgive me if I’m not good company usually I’d be the best company you can have on a train but not tonight.”

Consoling sounds that aren’t exactly words come from the rest of us seated at the table. Mets’ highstrung energy is knocked down a register, and he and Chautauqua share a covert “Here we go” glance. I raise my hand to the Balloon Man’s sweatshirt-clad shoulder. I think it’s the sweatshirt that makes me do it. No one should have to be that sad in a violently purple Lake Tahoe sweatshirt.

“I’m so sorry. And I’m sure there’s no need to apologize to us. It’s completely understandable.”

“Completely understandable,” echo Mets and Chautauqua, nodding in unison, because faced with a stranger’s tragedy in a transient moment, it is easiest to be an undifferentiated voice in a Greek chorus of grief.

The Purple Balloon Man nods his acceptance of our feeble offerings, but still insists, “No, I need forgiveness.” He shakes his head like a dog dislodging a tick and removes his hands from before his mouth. “So what are we all doing here? You, young lady, what brings you on the Capitol Limited?” he stabs a finger at Chautauqua, a bad play at forced light-heartedness making him appear more aggressive than I’m sure he means.

Chautauqua, bless her, is unflappable. She observes him coolly over her glasses. “Just a little weekend getaway. My best friend lives in DC. She moved there to get her Masters.” I get the feeling that offering up this much information to him is out of character and a supreme act of kindness on her part.

The Purple Balloon Man, however, is not satisfied. “And what did you do there?”

Chautauqua frowns, shrugs. “Georgetown. Jazz.” Brightening, “I have DOZENS of cupckakes from Georgetown Cupcakes in my roomette, which may or may not make it all the way back home.” This is not an offer to the table at large, nor does she say this like she is joking.

She suddenly leans in conspiratorially, and as someone who I guess looks like they could appreciate the following story she says directly to me with more animation I’ve seen from her yet, “You know Georgetown Cupcakes? They have a Kitchenaid mixer, pink, with rhinestones on it, that they say was a gift or a prize or something from someone important. They were on television. Have you seen the lines? They go out the door sometimes. But I called ahead and just picked up.”

I make all the corresponding faces of simulated surprise and delight throughout this little speech. I’m pretty sure Chautauqua called ahead before she was born, and demanded cupcakes await her arrival.

Satisfied or bored, the Purple Balloon Man turns his attention to Mets. “And you, young man?” Young being a relative term.

“I’m headed to Chicago to see some baseball…” he catches himself “…to see the Mets BEAT the cubs,” he says with exactitude.

“Mmmhmm, mmmhmm,” the Purple Balloon Man is thoughtful. “My mother says if they win she’ll have been there for their first win AND what hopefully won’t be their last.”

Mets is riveted. “Their first? But that was in 1908!”

The salad comes, and between what sounds to me like an excessive amount of crunching for this limp train salad, Purple Balloon Man clarifies, “Well. She was born in 1910. But when she was a little girl she remembers it still felt like they were winners.”

“Oh.” Mets sits back and attends to his own plate. Over the table hangs both the unspoken and uncharitable fact that while we all feel bad for the Purple Balloon Man, 105 years is a pretty good run. Also, that the Purple Balloon Man is given to bending the truth. I, as a storyteller, support and appreciate this.

Silence and chewing, chewing and silence. Swallowing.

“My mother has lived in Chicago all her life,” our patron saint of unlikelihood intones, with an air of pronouncement. “I think maybe she’s just holding on to see the Cubs win. Give her one, last, little bit of joy before she shuffles off.”

What will Mets say to this? He looks uncomfortable and at a loss. I’ve foregone the depressed salad for a glass of what I’m assured is white wine. This is probably why I say, making the face of mock admonition you, if you know me even a little, have seen me make, “Well I guess you can’t root for the Mets, now.”

This is greeted, luckily, by a general laugh. But then Mets grimaces, pauses before forking in another bite of salad and mutters, “I guess we can let ‘em win a coupla games.” Perfect.

cubs, a prune, an orange segment

cubs, a prune, an orange segment

Now the main course has come, and the Purple Balloon Man, tired I think, of ruminating on the end of the matriarchal line yet loathe to let anyone else dominate the conversation, sends his steak back because there are vegetables touching it on the plate, commences a long lecture about how one should always order their meat cooked one degree lower than they’d actually like it on a train, laments that real china is no longer used on board, and regales us with a series of grim airline stories that account for his dedicated rail travel.

“And my daughter was only two years old, two. years. old. And they didn’t trust the little pink jumpsuit she was wearing for the cold, so they wanted to take her in a back room to check it for explosives and I tell them, ‘I’m her father, and I don’t know you, and I don’t know you, and she’s only two years old so I’m going, too’ and they tell me ‘Sir, you can’t do that and if you continue to resist we will call in the FBI and have you arrested.’” He pauses for dramatic effect.

“So what’d you do?” I ask, less because I believe him or am sincerely interested, and more because politeness dictates and I am on automatic pilot and if no one asks he’ll continue, all right, but probably louder, to make sure we’re all listening.

“I let them take her. I just wanted to get her home.”

This bums me out. This bums the whole table out. So when it’s time for dessert and the Purple Balloon Man bullies us all into the tiramisu – “You can almost taste the rum in it!” we none of us resist.

I am on the inside of the bench seat, closest to the window, and the Purple Balloon Man is a slow eater. Half his steak is still there, and even some stalwart salad from the first course remains, limping along. It’s when the rest of us are halfway through the plastic potted tiramisu that I know what’s going to happen. Chautauqua begins to send her fingers casually, like exploratory scouts, into the depths of her purse for a tip. Mets sees this and hurries to pull a fiver from his own wallet. I look at them, not quite beseechingly, but with mute incredulity. I thought we were in this together, I scream at them with my eyes. But they refuse to look at me directly while they make their perfunctory goodbyes. I watch them over my shoulder all the way out of the dining car.

“Well, it’s just you and me now, young lady. No one else wants to hear an old man’s stories.” This is the way of old guys on trains. They know.

And I know I’m in for it when the Purple Balloon Man settles back and begins with a neat exposition of his surname.

“I don’t think there’s a hundred people in the United States with my last name. My name is a German-Aryan name that no one can ever pronounce. Starts with a G—“ He proceeds to spell it. I proceed to pronounce it, because it is not a difficult name, particularly if you have any knowledge of German. He proceeds to be piqued.

“Well there you go. One in a million chance.” Man, I can’t get any credit.

Over the next half hour, I manage two or three polite interjections, which are mostly plowed under for fodder in the field of Mr. G—‘s soliloquy. I would like to share with you a portion of the lecture I received, to the best of my recollection, which I’ve titled Rich Men’s Wives and Kids These Days: The Nameless Scourge Undermining Family Values and Ruining America, a treatise delivered October 19, 2015 by Floyd G—, as he crosses between time zones via rail on his way to see his possibly 105-year-old mother for the last time.

Kids these days, they don’t understand the meaning of hard work.* My grandmother, she worked cleaning out the school buses in the Thirties in Milwaukee. They’d park ‘em all in this big , cold warehouse, no heat no air conditioning, and she’d work all night cleaning ‘em so they’d be ready to go out again in the morning.

“That does sound like hard work.”

Damn right it was hard work! And cold in the winter. Hot in the summer. And what little in the way of clothes she had on her back and she had to get on her hands and knees and clean up after kids and winos who got sick in the back of the bus on the ride home.

[Winos? I thought we were talking about school buses, but okay. IT WAS A DIFFERENT TIME, ANNE]

On her hands and knees! For a pittance by today’s standards, by any day’s standards. And on the weekends, she worked at Woolworth’s. You remember Woolworth’s, with the soda counter, where you could get a hamburger? No way you could remember Woolworth’s. You know Ray Kroc? The McDonald’s billionaire? You wanna read an excellent biography, a true American story, you read his. He worked selling malted machines, you know, that stir up the shakes? He got a contract, got Mr. Woolworth or whomever, to buy up a malted machine for every store. He got a bonus for brokering that deal, Ray Kroc, that’s how he made his money. I don’t remember what his cut was, was it $32,000 or $37,000, but it was somewhere in there. And you know what he did? He went home to his first wife and said, ‘I’m gonna buy a name.’ So he approached the McDonald family in Des Plaines, Illinois, and he used all his money to buy a name.

[As a California nerd, I’m pretty that the first McDonald’s were in San Bernardino, though it is true that Kroc opened his first in Des Plaines; I know at this point though that there’s no stopping Floyd on a roll, so I keep it to myself]

A name! His wife thought he was crazy. She left him. But you know what, she’d stuck by him all through the downturn in the mixer business and how difficult that was, and he never forgot her. When he died, he left her with seven-point-five million in McDonald’s stock. He’d remarried, but he still took care of her. Yes sir, he took a gamble on a name, took his bonus and sold his house and car right out from under the wife and it paid off! Young people don’t know how to take chances like that these days, don’t want to risk anything, just like Ray Kroc’s first wife.

“Don’t you think maybe it’s that many young people feel displaced, and that the kind of honest, hard work your grandmother did has been so denigrated in our society that those jobs aren’t even seen as an option?”

They don’t have any family values! Like Sam Walton’s wife. I worked for Wal-Mart, oh, must’ve been ten years a while back, and the whole time I worked there it was a class operation. A strong family values company. None of this working on Thanksgiving. You want us to give up one of the few days off we have, Thanksgiving day, the day we have to prepare for that God awful Black Friday? That isn’t even humane. But I guess they feel like they have to do it to make the money, to get their money’s worth. Kids these days don’t wanna work. To recoup, they got to be open just about 24-7, I suppose. Even McDonald’s is open on Thanksgiving. Used to be you couldn’t find a place open on a Sunday, let alone Thanksgiving day. You mark my words, before you or I are in the grave, we’ll see these places open on Christmas day. It all comes down to family values. Wal-Mart was a good, strong family values store. Ever since Sam Walton died and his wife’s took over, things have gone downhill.

“Is it really his wife? Isn’t Wal-Mart a publicly traded company?”

I mean, sure there’s a whole whaddyacallit, board of directors or whatever, but you think if she wasn’t so greedy they’d be open Thanksgiving? No. It all went downhill after old Sam passed. Made no provision for his people. I suppose people do what they have to do. You know, I did some research on that, you now that It’s wonderful. I found out my father stole tickets to a Cubs game when he was a boy, and got caught, and was in jail for two days, and paid a fine of seven dollars and fifty cents. I told my mother about it, and she said, ‘How do you even know it was him?’ and I said, ‘Mother, how many Floyd G—‘s were living at that time and were exactly that age and would’ve done something like that?’ I don’t think there’s a hundred people in the United States with that last name.

The nice thing about Floyd G— is that when he’s done holding you hostage he’s done. He leaves you feeling what I imagine a sentient spittoon, full, would feel like, but eventually he does go. In fact, he gets up with an alacrity that belies his size, his purple balloon belly hovering over the edge of the table as he looks down at me and says “Well, it was nice talking at to you. Sorry I’m not as good company as I would be in other circumstances. Usually I am full of interesting facts and anything you’d want to know about the railroad.” I have a very hard time imagining what Floyd would be like unbound by the constraints of grief.

“What is your mother’s name, Mr. G—?”

“Ethel. Her name’s Ethel. What makes you ask?”

“Just, I’ll be thinking about her. And you. And for the record, my name is Anne, Mr. G— my name’s Anne.”


*Author’s note: people really do say these things, though the odds of finding them saying these things on trains is significantly improved, because older people.

As the Umpqua Community College Shootings Happen, 10/1/15

People were murdered on the west coast today and I don’t even know yet how many or why, not that there can be a logical why or that it will matter, anyway, when the facts are presented. People were murdered on the west coast today.

I’ve already seen posts urging me to sign a condolence card for the families of victims at Umpqua Community College. We don’t even talk about a tragedy in hushed tones and the past tense, anymore. When this particular tragedy was still unfolding, as far as I could see from the news, officials were referring to it as this tragic thing that had already happened, as this occurrence in a box with solid and known dimension that we could put on the shelf with all the others. Is it tragic? Yes. But when it’s still happening, when the bullets are screaming overhead and lives are bleeding out into the ground, it is not something we should refer to in the past tense. Not something we categorize as quickly as possible and move on.

It’s something we should fucking stop. Now.

I don’t know the people who died and are possibly dying in critical care right now (this time and yet), and in our full-to-overflowing world of people it’s hard, sometimes, to even summon the proper set of human emotions for your next door neighbor, let alone someone several hundred miles away, let alone someone on the opposite side of the world.

If we could feel, for just a moment, the full impact of every single injustice and murder and abuse to their fullest extents being experienced each day, I think we’d all just sink to our knees, whatever we were doing wherever we were, weeping.

So I get down on myself, I really do, for being able to post pictures of cats on the internet or pithy jokes about bodily functions, or even to take a moment to scream into the internet void any little personal frustration, in the face of all this.

Which is why I’ll reiterate time and again that the number one hashtag every white lady sitting comfortably in her goddamn library drinking her goddamn probiotic shake and typing her precious little feelings into a computer of dubious origin should be ‪#perspective.

But I’m not immune or unfeeling. On the contrary, I feel a lot. I actually have too many fucks to give, which is why I cut through each day with the sharp edge of my tongue and the blunt edge of feigned indifference. If I don’t, wherever I am whatever I’m doing, I’ll just sink to my knees, weeping.

It’s not the sense of helplessness that overwhelms me. It’s rage. I’m paralyzed by the depth of my own rage, and the way it boils my blood and forces the breath from my lungs and how quickly it reduces my own humanity to a single desire to match violence for violence.

This I feel is the mistake of people who label progressives and liberals as ineffectual hippies frolicking in a some kind of nonstop, rarified community drum circle. It’s not that we don’t feel fear, or rage, or jealousy or hatred: it’s that the true progressive looks at those feelings in themselves and wants not to multiply them but reduce them, to make room for something better.

What I’m getting at, here, is that when I hear about gun violence, there is a lizard brain in me that wants to take up my own arms. When I hear about a foiled subway attack, or the closure of a world landmark because a couple of olive-skinned youth were spotted with big backpacks, I am not all that different from the guy who thinks Trump has some common sense ideas, who has a gunrack and a gun safe and a gun locker and some strong if misguided feelings about the second amendment.

Enough enough enough. How does it hurt anyone but those profiting off death-in-potentia to implement background checks for weapon ownership? To give help, not guns, to those channeling the rage that they too, have been screaming into the void until their voiceless erupts in violence?

I feel the creeping fear raising the animal hackles on my neck, too.

But the difference is, the difference is I take a deep fucking breath. I think about the world I want to live in, even when I have both eyes open to the world that is.

And if this makes me a sissy, a liberal, a lamb to the slaughter, so be it. I’m not going to spend my life so fixated on death and paralyzed by fear that I don’t live it, or spend my days making sure I’ve selfishly stockpiled the right amount of ammunition in direct correlation to how much more I value my life over someone else’s.

If in my travels I die in a terrorist attack, or by the gun of someone mentally ill or so malformed in the crucible of our racist, misogynist society that the only power they believe they have is the length and warmth of a fired shaft in their hand, so be it.

I’d rather go that way than crouched behind a bunker built of fear and exceptionalism. I’d rather go that way than compromise that what I want, realistically or no, is to realize the dream of peace.

Jesus. Peace to those in pain. Peace to those fighting for their lives. Peace to those whose lives are already lost. Peace to us all.

Kali Forno

As a geek of words, I really, really love that Scalia put (California) in parentheses, that is, “(California does not count)” as the West in his dissent. The guy shows some real understanding, actually.

Geographically isolated for much of the U.S.’s glorious and sordid history, we are bound between the parenthetical described by the Sierra Nevada range to the east and another by the Pacific Ocean to the west, the whole while writing our rich history in many-colored inks on the scorching line of fire that is the Mojave.

If you REALLY wanna get into it, sir, we can add in the Klamath, the Northern and Southern Coast Ranges, and the Transverse, and how frankly, the map of California begins to look like the big, beautiful and bountiful vagina of this nation out of which we birth most of the country’s agriculture and entertainment.

Not to mention the twins we’ve traditionally shared custody of with our crazy communist cousins in liberal bastions (read: places where people are GENERALLY educated to know better than to discriminate) on the Eastern Seaboard, science & tech. If YOU don’t want or value them, no problem. They aren’t exactly orphans hanging out on your doorstep with begging bowls.

And speaking of an East Coast education, we can talk about just how your Georgetown and Harvard Law background makes you such a great spokesperson for the people you presume to champion in the flyover states of your fantasy “West”. I’ll assume your credentials include some time playing cowboy and ropin’ dogies out at your pal Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo…oops! That’s in California, too. My bad.

And finally we can talk about how–not perfectly, not without gross error, no!–but how generally our diversity and progressive policies put us miles beyond your True West, and ALMOST as far left on the map as I’d like to be.

pissing into the wind

6 am call times and an unrelenting pop song on repeat; tender stems the silvered color sunlight brings out of fog and punctuated with exclamatory yellow buds; a single oak holds back a landslide, rocks straining against a tangle of roots, outspread Kali arms for once keeping chaos at bay; the old stone love seat at the top of the mountain is crumbling away, the view from this precarious shrinking perch now chaparral-obstructed.

I can’t see.

I pissed off the side of an outcropping today, up a trail toward the eastern end of the Angeles. I knew what I was doing, and where I was…moreso, I think, than when you’re discretely tucked away behind a civilized bathroom door. Voiding the bladder outside brings the animal self forward, vulnerability heightens your senses; eyes, ears and nose all dilate until you’re back on your feet proper, standing erect, the alpha predator in the story you tell yourself about yourself in the world.

I watched a woman piss off the side of a curb today, in noontime traffic on the busy corner of Franklin and Vermont. I can’t pretend to know her thought process. One of the young men with me said, “Well, where do you want her to do it?” and I had too many answers. Discretely tucked away behind a civilized bathroom door. Because I wanted her safe? (I hope so) Because I didn’t want to see it? (I’m ashamed to say it) Because my eyes, ears and nose dilated on contact with her? Because my animal self came forward, assessing threat to my young charges because sadly one of the first things I think is: if someone will squat and piss on a street corner, what do they have to lose? A predator in the world.

God no, I don’t think so. Prey. Prey to addictions, to her own mind turned adversary. Prey to the apathy of the traffic racing by her tender haunches, perched so precariously a few feet from the suddenly sinister silvered grills of the cars and their hot black rubberound feet spinning indifferently and at inhuman speeds. Where are the oaken arms to hold it all back?

I can’t unsee.


London New Year 2014


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.

Derry to Grianan Fort to Malin Head

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.

Sudbury Train Station Platform, July 12, 2013 11:47 AM

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’.

Saint Kevin’s Brother

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.”