Five years have passed
And chat, and have you there,
With a thought, or a prayer.
Five years have passed
Fifty-five years ago a man sat in a diner somewhere in the United States, pulled a book from his pocket, and inscribed a short, touching note to his daughter on the first page.
As he did so, did it occur to him that a person not yet born, in another place in another century, would one day read his words? Or that the book he inscribed would travel from that counter top on a journey that would see it end up, in 2017, on the shelves of a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon?
“Anne,” the man writes, “waiting for lunch in the Olympic Grill I have been looking through this book I just bought, and it is so much your book that I have decided to give it to you, even though it isn’t Christmas or birthday or even Easter.”
He signs off with a simple, “Dad”.
Whatever became of Anne? Or her father? Were they close, a dad and daughter who knew each other well enough to know that one would enjoy the Dylan Thomas book that the other had just bought?
Or were they distant, or becoming so? Is the absence of a sign-off simply the sign of a less emotionally-open age, or a clue to their relationship?
Re-reading the note, as I stood between the shelves in Powell’s this week, I wondered how far the book had traveled. I can’t locate an Olympic Grill in Portland in 1955. Perhaps the man sat in the still extant Kelly’s Olympian, nearby in downtown Portland, or in another establishment in another part of the country.
The place is likely gone, like the man himself and, quite possibly, his daughter. But his small gesture remains, on the opening page of a crumbling $5 book that – perhaps because of the note inside – I couldn’t bring myself to buy.
“What will survive of us is love,” wrote Philip Larkin. I hope that I held a small piece of it that afternoon.
one is asked
their total error
especially if they are
but age is the total of
they have aged
because they have
out of focus,
they have refused to
not their fault?
I am asked to hide
for fear of their
age is no crime
but the shame
of a deliberately
among so many
– Charles Bukowski, ‘Be Kind’
A little Hank, for the day that’s in it. When my time comes I’ll hope not to have aged badly.
Now, time to vote.
Mother’s Day is an occasion often observed more in the absence.
No voice, no presence, instead a void. A loss.
The feeling is unique to each person in a hundred ways but it’s also shared, among family members and outwards, to friends and acquaintances.
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney saw the absence of a mother as a clearance – an emptiness where a tree had been, rooted in a homeplace.
Shortly after his mother died Heaney wrote ‘Clearances’, a short cycle of sonnets documenting her life and his bereavement.
The details are personal, like breath in a room – his mother’s voice, how she folded sheets, how he felt closest to her when Heaney, as child, would help her chop potatoes.
In the final two sonnets, below, these details gather, as we stand with Heaney and his father at his mother’s final bedside, witnessing a ‘pure change’ happen.
For many Mother’s Day is not a celebration, nor is it a commiseration, instead it’s a simple, clear, unified absence.
‘Clearances’ extends no explanations or simple comforts. It does offer up a final hope that somewhere there’s “a soul ramifying”, forever in a place “beyond silence listened for”.
A place to start.
Maybe it’s Jeff Buckley’s voice at 2 o’clock in an almost-empty Sean’s Bar: Iheardtherewasabrokenchord – broken like the afternoon.
The sun of that day, July of ’98, hanging high over the Shannon, sifting, and the green-topped Peter and Paul’s.
Or a June morning, 4am and sleepless, sitting with my mother on the porch, the light already up.
I’d trade 100 other early mornings for whatever that conversation contained. It remains, somewhere.
Then the fog, always always the fog, murk in summer, freezing in winter.
Friday nights at St Mel’s Park and no idea what was coming from the white, the dirt floors of the stands, the roars.
Feet frozen eyes blinded. Fog there and fog home.
And when there was no fog and no rain the sky, huge above the flatlands and the river, a canvas for stars, for purples and reds, marked by high cirrus and vapour trails.
When people left that’s where they went.
‘I just can’t recallll San Francisco at alllll’ sang Bob one summer, all the month long before I left the town for that city.
The afternoon I left spent with my best pal in a pub on the Left Bank, ‘one more for the road lads one more we’ve time’.
Or further back, to years sinking away from me into the Callows. 1,000s of days of childhood, classrooms, soccer, tree gum on hands, bicycles and books.
Churches, halls, pitches, paths. Chilly Christmas Eves in a hotel on the main street of a town that was the only town.
And through it all the river, clearing the heart of that country. Taking it all, all of us and all we were, west – carrying us to open water.
And I was carried too. But there I was, at the start.
The lucky ones will find themselves there today, at home, among friends, family or even alone.
I woke this chilly Christmas morning in one place I can call home, Wexford, the town where I was born. Lucky, I rose with a sense of peace, my wife alongside me, other family members stirring.
The feeling of home struck me so strongly that I was brought to another place, taken from the streets of Wexford to a snow-struck hill town in North Carolina.
A young man sat in a cafe there, in a poem by Charles Bukowski. There’s no mention of Christmas, or home, but the verse is suffused with peace, a feeling of contentment and acceptance, the Christmas spirit.
“…the meal was
the waitress was
unlike the women
she was unaffected,
there was a natural
humor which came
the fry cook said
laughed, a good
the young man watched
the snow through the
he wanted to stay
in that cafe
the curious feeling
swam through him
that it would always
*Charles Bukowski, “Nirvana”.
Every eighth of December rushes into one,
A memory dropping away, leaving just lights and traffic and mothers and young children
Green Dublin buses, darkening winter streets, throngs crossing.
But present always – a blaze of lights, which I still see, 30 years later.
That drew us, pushing, hand-in-hand, across Grafton and Henry and O’Connell Streets
One more shop, one more cup of tea.
‘Do we have time, before the train?’
Every eighth of December was a rush to the 90 bus, at teatime, down the long Liffey to Heuston.
This is gone, as is she, as is the ten-year-old who was with her.
But the lights remain, every eighth of December.
Some time on November 1 a 29-year-old woman in Oregon will take medication to end her life.
Brittany Maynard’s decision went global over the past couple of weeks. She has an untreatable brain tumour and faces a certain and debilitating death.
Faced with this Maynard decided that “death with dignity was the best option”. She intends to end her life, with legal medical assistance, later this month, shortly after her husband’s birthday.
Now an advocate for America’s leading end-of-life choice organisation the coverage of Maynard’s story has, understandably, precipitated a debate on assisted dying/suicide (take your pick), medical ethics, and the existence and role of a God.
At times the commentary, again understandably, has overshadowed the tragedy of Maynard’s diagnosis, the fact of a life unlived, plans unfulfilled, the cruel cost of mortality.
Reading her story I tried to focus on that, rather than the mechanics of her death.
Two days after I first encountered Brittany Maynard’s case I was sitting in work when, on a radio in the background, I heard the familiar, now fainter, voice of the writer and critic Clive James.
James has, like Maynard, an aggressive cancer which he acknowledges will soon claim his life.
Interviewed two days after his 75th birthday he spoke of his surprise at still being around. “I do have a brand of leukaemia that will come back and get me, but nobody knows when,” he stated.
While Maynard has faced her illness by becoming a public activist James, a long-time public figure in Britain, has turned inwards, writing poems that address his mortality and assess his life.
“I had a new subject, death itself…It’s all very interesting. It’s adventure. And writers are usually a bit short of adventure,” he explained.
Maynard will die with the help of medication, James will not.
When I foresee their passing it’s not the pain or distress, the ethics or the tablets, that come to mind.
Instead it’s the last stanza of one of James’ final poems, Japanese Maple, in which he foresees his death, lying in his room and looking upon his garden, his “slow fading out” complete.
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
Does such a comfort even exist? If so, does this common thread transcend place, language, gender, even time?
How easy is to access this ‘oneness’? Is it as simple as a look or a conversation, or is it realised only after a long period of communication, by way of friend- or relationship?
Identifying, describing and celebrating this human connection has always preoccupied writers and poets, of course.
But seeking and finding the connection often comes easier, in my experience, to musicians. Perhaps this is because music can be, for many, a more direct and immediate form of emotional transfer that the written or spoken word.
It’s apt then that one of the best descriptions of human connection, its origins, reality and reach, came from a man who has spent a life singing his poems.
On being asked if melancholia produced better art Leonard Cohen, who turned 80 this week, took the question and answered with hardened, learned insight.
His response is a description of what links us, often despite ourselves, as we push on through – the feeling of a ‘human chain’.
“We all love a sad song. Everybody has experienced the defeat of their lives. Nobody has a life that worked out the way they wanted it to. We all begin as the hero of our own dramas in centre stage and inevitably life moves us out of centre stage, defeats the hero, overturns the plot and the strategy and we’re left on the sidelines wondering why we no longer have a part – or want a part – in the whole damn thing.
Everybody’s experienced this, and when it’s presented to us sweetly, the feeling moves from heart to heart and we feel less isolated and we feel part of the great human chain which is really involved with the recognition of defeat.”
Note: I like the idea of ‘life hacks’ – pieces of advice, knowledge, insight, admonitions; discrete mind shots that improve life and produce an awareness of living.
The Lifehacks section of the blog is where I’m collecting and collating them.
There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.
Six years after the First World War Ernest Hemingway wrote his short story Big Two-Hearted River.
In 1918, on his first day posted in the village of Fossalta in northern Italy as an ambulance driver, the 19-year-old Hemingway found himself combing a field for body parts, following a munitions factory explosion.
Days later he was seriously injured when a mortar shell exploded close to him. He was hospitalised for six months in Milan and left Italy on his discharge in early 1919.
What he witnessed in his brief time in northern Italy provides a context to a number of the writer’s early works.
It’s perhaps most explicit in Big-Two Hearted River, written in 1925. The story documents a hunting trip in Northern Michigan, undertaken by newly-discharged narrator Nick Adams.
It is is read as a parable for the rejuvenating powers of nature, as Nick leaves the burnt-out town of Seney behind to hike and hunt into the uplands, to locate a place where “nothing could touch him”.
It also introduces a trope that would recur in Hemingway’s later writing: the juxtaposition of mountain against the plain, one representing purity, healing and principle, the other baseness, danger or corruption.
Last Sunday my wife and I left the city and travelled to Howth, a coastal village 15km north of Dublin’s centre. It had been a long time since we’d hiked. Weeks of the day-to-day had led us both to simultaneously suggest the trip.
Leaving behind the crowds of visiting students, strolling families and traffic we hiked out and above the village to a coastal trail which winds along the cliffs overlooking the Irish Sea.
An hour in, walking the cliff path, we turned a corner and hiked into Nick Adams’ Seney.
The hillside all around was scorched and blackened and the sea air smelt liked cinders.
Days or weeks earlier a fire had been set, burning the grass under the gorse off the ground and much of the gorse itself, with the exception of some golden leaves above the fire line.
All that remained below were burned-up beer cans and glass, and an expanse of dusty black earth.
We walked on, up and out through the desolation to where we turned and there, from a height and in the distance and the clearing air, was the sight of Dublin Bay and the Baily Lighthouse.
We had reached our destination, a hillside washed green by recent rains. The sun shone on the water, the Dublin mountains framed the bay, nothing could touch us.
Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned. He knew that…
Two hundred yards down the hillside the fire line stopped. Then it was sweet fern, growing ankle high, to walk through, and clumps of jack pines; a long undulating country with frequent rises and descents, sandy underfoot and the country alive again.
*The excerpts above from ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ are from The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Editon (Scribner, 1987)