What I Remember

On Tuesday I lost consciousness, control, and my lunch. I had had lunch with my friends Buddy and Cindy, who had driven down to the island on a rare day off to spend it with me at the beach. They’d had a rough morning already, had a hard time getting out of home, and we’d finally gotten together at 3 pm at the Mar Vista. They’d gotten a table in shade near a fan, where we could easily see the water. Not very hungry, but feeling celebratory, I ate a strange meal of nachos and a margarita. I drank only half the Margarita, though, and couldn’t seem to make it taste right no matter how much lime I added.

At the end of the meal I happened to be talking about my mother and how dehydrated she gets, how if I don’t follow her around with a glass of soft drinks or clear liquids she will drink only tea and wine all day, and then she gets weak and dizzy and sick, and sometimes has to go to the hospital because she’s so dehydrated.

At the end of a long, leisurely meal, when it was time to leave, I stood up and felt dizzy. I took a few steps but it seemed dark and I couldn’t walk properly. Feeling weak and strange and embarrassed, I leaned on the table briefly and then I had to sit down again. I put my head on my arms on the table and from a long way away I heard my friends asking if I was okay. I think I said, “I’m hot, very hot.” I think someone told me to take deep breaths. I and took some deep breath I and lifted my head off the table and asked if I could have the glass of water in front of Cindy. She said “It’s not very cold; Buddy’s has more ice in it.”

I said “I’m not going to drink it.” I got the big glass and leaned back in my chair to let my hair fall down over the backrest. As I did in Israel on the day when I walked many miles in the sun along the beach, I poured the water over my head. In Israel, doing that same thing repeatedly at all the little water fountains along the beach made it possible for me to walk back to my hotel, But this time I didn’t even feel the water. It made no difference at all. I just sat there for a few minutes with a black fog in my mind, and then took more deep breaths and looked up again and said, “Ladies room. I’ll splash myself with cool water.” Buddy said, “Cindy, if you want to help Gillian I’ll carry the purses.”

I said, “They won’t go with your outfit.”

He said, “Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about.”

I started walking in the general direction of the restaurant but it seemed dark I couldn’t see very well and I couldn’t remember where the ladies’ room was. I don’t recall how it happened but I sat down again, at a table under the awning, and after that my memories are fragmented.

Getting Help

I felt embarrassed at not be able to walk normally and having to hold up my friends. I put my head on my arms and rested. People were saying, “ Are you okay?” I felt dizzy. I pulled my long skirt up to try to cool my legs. Someone said, “It’s okay.” A man with black hair stood in front of me. He seemed very interested in my illness. He asked my name and address, which I gave him carefully but doubtfully; I always have trouble remembering the street number of my house and often get it wrong. I couldn’t seem to sit up properly. I was extremely hot. I asked if I could have a cold cloth. There seemed to be movement around and behind me. I wanted to rest my head in my arms but sometimes someone stopped me. There were people eating lunch at tables under the trees. I felt very thirsty. The man with black hair asked what I’d eaten and I said nachos and half a margarita. He wrote that down. Someone brought me a cold cloth. I put it to my face. There were more cloths on the table, folded.

There two big bags of ice. Someone said one was for my chest and one for my neck. One lay on the gray slate table. I felt very sick; sometimes I tried to lean forward to make the nausea stop. Someone said something about CMS. I didn’t know what that meant. I covered my eyes and leaned on my arms on the table. I sat up. I felt very sick. Someone moved my hand and skirt down. I wanted to lean back but someone kept stopping me. There were strong people behind me. People seemed to be moving my limbs around. I wanted to get cool. I saw Cindy’s face. She was sitting down on my right and she looked extremely worried.

Someone held the bag of ice on my neck at the back; it didn’t feel cold but it felt solid and comforting. Someone said something about “CMS.” I asked for a drink of water but the man with black hair said no. He said something else I didn’t understand. Someone said, “I don’t like the look of this.”

Hallucinating

I was seeing a scene, perhaps in California, with many, many people in it and much activity going on. A lot of people were trying to do something important. I was involved and very interested in story. The color red was there. I was sitting up at the Mar Vista and feeling sick. I said, “Oh, I was dreaming!” Cindy said no, that’s not what had happened.

Vomiting

I needed to vomit. I held a cool cloth up. Someone said, “Do you feel sick?” There was no cup or bowl or anything. I didn’t want to vomit on the table so I moved my head to the side and vomited a long way down to the floor. I threw up three or four times. I thought, “I will never eat nachos again.” Someone said, “Get a bucket” and a black man who seemed to work in the kitchen put a gray dish bowl under where I was vomiting. I apologized to him. I don’t think he heard me. He kept a good distance. I was glad that we’d tipped well.

I was appalled to be vomiting within sight and earshot of people who were trying to have a civilized afternoon drink at the Mar Vista. I looked at one table to see the people were disgusted but they seemed to be looking away and I was glad but also horrified. I said, “I’m sorry.” Cindy said, “Would you stop apologizing!” which seemed very funny although I don’t think I laughed. Someone said the EMS was coming. I thought maybe that was an ambulance.

A lot of people were there, mostly behind me. People were talking about things I didn’t understand. A man in a dark blue uniform was right in front of me. He seemed to be where the table had been. Someone asked if Buddy was my husband, and I said, “I wish.” Buddy was a solid good presence behind me, holding ice on my neck. Someone asked my name. Someone was taking my pulse. A plump black man with curly hair leaned over from the right and said, “Now, I need to put these on your legs; don’t slap me,” and I wanted to tell him that of course I wouldn’t slap him. I knew he was helping me. Someone said, “This will sting” and there was a sting on my right side. I knew that several people were helping me. I felt dim and sleepy although not as bad as before I’d vomited. There were people in blue and people talking to me and asking questions. Buddy said, “Her eyes rolled up in her head and she went rigid.”

One man in a blue uniform kept talking to me. He said things I didn’t understand. There seemed to be a lot of numbers and acronyms and jargon in what he was saying. Someone asked me if I suffered from many different things, if I took any medication, what I’d had to eat and drink. I kept saying no, not asthmatic diabetic epileptic nothing, I have nothing wrong with me except a little overweight, I only had half the margarita, I’m not drunk. I live here; I’m not a tourist. I’m sorry. Someone did something to my left hand that hurt. There were a lot of numbers being spoken and people moving things around my body. I was very hot.

The man in the uniform said he’d like to do some more tests in the ambulance where it was cooler asked if I would consent. He and someone else were pushing me into the ambulance on a stretcher. I was impressed by the size of the space. The man who had been talking to me stayed with me and he was reaching around, getting things, putting things on me and around me; more tabs and sticky things I didn’t recognize. There were cords and lines and things in both arms and hands. I knew that they’d put things like that on my mother sometimes in hospital. I was glad to lie there in the coolness and be helped. People kept asking me if I was okay, was I dizzy or nauseous. I said yes.

The ambulance

The man kept looking at me and at the same time he was reaching for things and saying things that I didn’t understand, things like, “Run that Isis under the Frankenthaler at six and a half.” “Why isn’t the Oh four seven C in the black?” He said something about the B shift. He told me that the other man in the ambulance was on the B shift. He asked how I was feeling and I said better. He said to tell him if I got too cold to tell him. That seemed unlikely. A man apologized for putting something under my shirt. The man who kept looking at my face said things like, “I want the AKG at forty-eleven on half piece.”

He recommended that I go to Blake. I asked him to please get my cell phone from my bag and to please ask my friends to go back to my house. Someone tossed my bag into the ambulance. Someone said my friends were going to follow up to the hospital. I said, they were silly. He said there was a lot of that going around.

He told me it was nearly my birthday. He said we were the same age. He told me he had a pacemaker. He said my sugar was very low. I said I didn’t know what that meant. The ambulance was moving. Someone put a line with oxygen coming out of it under my nose. The man said it would help me cool down and feel better. He said something else was a different number. He pointed to a small plastic bag of clear liquid and said he was giving me saline and sugar. He said a lot about the mix of water and sugar, and using words I didn’t know. I told him I didn’t understand. I had the impression that he wanted to keep me awake. I breathed the oxygen. It smelled odd. It didn’t seem to help cool me down.

The sleeveless pink cotton shirt I was wearing felt like a suit of armor. My bra was constricting my chest. The ambulance was going to Blake, he said. The man kept complaining about the driving. He said we were going over a lot of bumps. I didn’t feel any bumps. I felt weak and I needed badly to urinate. The man who was my age and had a pacemaker asked if I knew the date. I told him it was the 8th of July, the day before Nic’s birthday, the day Buddy and Cindy were coming to visit. He asked me if I knew what day it was. I said it was either Tuesday or Wednesday and he seemed to agree.

He told me I reminded him of someone he used to work with in Hillsborough County. I told him that I grew up there. He said something about my blood pressure going back down very low. He said my sugar was very low. I told him that I wanted to pee. He said that he had a special pan that he could put under me if I needed it.

Blake and Getting Better

I was lying on the stretcher in the ER at Blake. Someone asked if I felt sick and I did. Someone asked for a bucket. Someone handed me an emesis bowl. I knew what it was called from writing Mark’s autobiography. A man on my left said, “I’m Dr. Blend by the way.” He asked me some questions about what had happened. I told him I’d had lunch and then got very hot and very sick. I was put into a cubicle and the man in the dark blue uniform asked if I could move myself from the stretcher to the bed or if I needed help. People were attaching things to my legs and arms and chest. Someone apologized for something. I said I could move myself, and I hoped I could. He said, “Not yet, not yet.” He said gravity would help me. Then I leaned to my right and moved sideways slowly. I was proud that I kept my skirt from getting tangled. He said, “Good job.”

A lady came in and asked for my insurance details. A nurse put a blue gown on my lap. Someone said, “This will be a sharp sting.” There was a sting in my left hand and it hurt. Nurses came and went and asked me things and did things behind me. I felt sick. I asked if I could use the restroom. They said they’d bring a toilet in. The doctor complained about the IV stand. The nurse said they were all like that.

My shoes had come off and my feet were cold. People left me alone for a long time and then came back in and asked me things and did things. I asked if the nurse could please put something on my feet. The same doctor came and talked to me. He said they were doing tests. He said my blood pressure had been extremely low. He said something about my heart that I didn’t understand. I asked if I could use the toilet. They left me alone. Someone brought a toilet and said I could use it soon, but not yet. She said they needed a urine sample so not to throw the tissue in the potty. After a while they said I could get up and use it. They asked if I needed help and I said no.

Someone came and looked in the curtain while I was sitting on the toilet. I wasn’t able to pass any urine. She wanted to ask me about insurance. I said, “Can I just have a pee first?” She apologized and withdrew. After a long time, I passed a very small amount of liquid and got back into bed. The doctor came back and said something about the IV line not working. He took it apart and liquid went all down his shirt and pants and onto the bed. He said, “Now we know where it was stuck.” A nurse gave him a syringe and he plugged the syringe in and the needle in my left hand jumped and jabbed and it felt very cold. The doctor asked the nurse if she had anything. She gave him a paper clip. He clipped the bag of liquid to the lamp over me. I hoped it would not fall on my hand.

Someone said that my heart rate was better. The doctor left. The nurses left. The curtain was open and I saw people walking back and forth. The curtain was closed and I thought I heard Buddy just outside the curtain, saying, “It was clear that she wasn’t faking any symptoms,” and I was grateful.

I asked the nurse to let Buddy in. She went out. I found the bed uncomfortable. I wanted to sit up. I wanted to have a drink. The nurse came in and said that she could not find my friends. She left. I felt a great sense of sadness and loss. It was Nicole’s birthday in Australia. She was in Australia.

When someone asked for my next of kin I did not tell them my parents’ information. I told her my sister’s name and address. She looked up my sister’s name in my cell phone. She could not find my wallet. I asked her to hand me the phone and if I could take the clip off my finger and she said okay. I called Buddy. I said, “How are you? Are you here?” He said, “I’m in your living room! How are you?” He went into my filing cabinet for me and found the insurance details. I couldn’t hear him well on the phone. I asked if he had my wallet. He said he had my keys.

Everyone left and my hand hurt and I was weak but I knew where I was and that I was alone and that Nic was not there and I didn’t want to alarm my parents. I was glad that Buddy and Cindy were at my house and not at the hospital, but I was puzzled because I had heard Buddy. I felt tears in my eyes and on my cheeks. A nurse came in. She asked how I was. I said I was confused and I didn’t know what had happened. She said that was because I had passed out, and I didn’t know what had happened.

The doctor came back. I told him, “I feel very strange.” He said, “You’re in a strange place!” I said I’d been upset. He could see I’d been crying. He said, “The emotions…” he sighed. He talked about hormones and reference levels and age and bio-identicals. He said traditional medicine was 10 years behind. I didn’t know what he meant. I said Dr. Kosfeld was a good doctor. He said he knew him and he was a good doctor but a lot of doctors don’t know how to treat women for menopause. He said I should ask Dr. Kosfeld about it or ask him to send me to a gyno. He sat down and held my arm and told me about bio-identical hormones, how they have no side effects, how I shouldn’t be afraid of them. He told me the problems they could solve in women my age. I said they wouldn’t have helped me that day, with my fainting, and he said he wasn’t so sure; it might have helped. I asked him what problems they alleviated and he rattled off a list of things that plague me, including fatigue, weight gain, insomnia, depression, and more. I asked for his card and I told him I still wanted to try diet and exercise to lose weight but if it didn’t work by the end of the summer, I’d find out more about the hormones. I asked him for his card and I asked him if I could go home.

Someone gave me some papers and went over them with me. I didn’t understand most of it but they told me it was all written down. I’d had a “vasovagal reaction” they said. I asked why my blood sugar had been so low, what that meant, and the nurse said she didn’t know. She asked me to sign something saying that I’d received a copy of the paper and all my questions had been answered. I signed it. The doctor came in and said that the low blood sugar was a side effect of my body’s extreme low blood pressure.

A while later, the second or third time I asked, I was allowed to get dressed and go home. Buddy was waiting for me in a huge white van. I was very glad to see him. He said cheerfully, “No offense, but you’re looking a whole lot better than last time I saw you. Would you like some water?” I said yes I would, thank you. I heard about what he’d experienced: my going into convulsions, my eyes rolling back, his holding my arms when they started flailing before I went rigid. I thanked him again and again and felt I could never repay him for his solidity and his kindness. I felt very bad about his day off at the beach being spent in such a horrible way. He said something about “Divine appointments.” I believed him. While he was holding me so I didn’t hit anything or swallow my tongue, he said, “Cindy was clearly in prayer.”

If Buddy and Cindy hadn’t been there, if I’d collapsed like that alone on the beach or in my garden, I don’t know what would have happened. Maybe it would never have happened if I hadn’t met them for lunch that day or maybe it would have been much worse. But I am glad that they were there to help when I lost control.

The Lesson

What interests me most is the dream that I was having while unconscious. I wish I could remember it, but all I know is it was a heavy, crowded scene in black and white and many colors, including red, and that I was seeing it as if it were an animation. In it a lot of people were trying hard to achieve something in which I had a great interest. I don’t know if I was out of my body and seeing the scene from above or if I was just out of my mind and hallucinating an unrelated story. It ended abruptly and I was sorry.

It occurred to me as I was in the hospital that although this was the first time anything like this has happened to me, it’s probably not the last. I’m 53. From now on when something like this happens, I will have to admit that something like it has happened before. I now have lost control of myself, however briefly, and had to be helped.

Finally, this is what I’ve learnt: I will never eat nachos again.

It looks like evening outside but it was afternoon, I think. A rare Irish rainbow in a gray sky, with a lit-up pub across the way. Doolin.

It looks like evening light outside but it was afternoon. A rare Irish rainbow in a gray sky, with a lit-up pub across the way. Doolin.

As of Monday May 20th in the afternoon, Marie and I had had zero — count em, 0 — lessons in bodhrain and hadn’t yet even managed to borrow a drum. On the other hand, Marie had taken herself into the Doolin Music shop and purchased a CD called Total Beginners Bodhrain Lesson. She showed it to me triumphantly when she picked me up to go have lunch. Delighted by her ingenuity, I said, “If we had a CD player we could start to teach ourselves how to play, if we had a drum.”

But we didn’t. I’d be leaving Saturday morning, and Marie not long afterwards. If Blackie or someone didn’t start teaching us soon, we’d miss our opportunity to learn, which had been the whole point of the trip. This prospect seemed bleak, especially as I was hungry and broke and couldn’t find anywhere to buy groceries.

So we went out for lunch. Our third meal in Doolin was the third one we’d eaten out (at a cafe or pub, not in the hostel), and like all the others, it was fantastically down-to-earth and satisfying. Soup and chips for me; fish casserole for Marie.

At McDermott's, we were just about the only patrons at lunchtime.

At McDermott’s, we were just about the only patrons at lunchtime.

We were almost the only people in McDermott’s, the third we’d visited of Doolin’s  famous live-music pubs.Marie's lunch: fish casserole, no chips, more brown bread and butter It’s a red-trimmed, white building, old and redolent of live music and live craic, and like the other two pubs its walls are hung with interesting photographs of the same pub in the old days with the old musicians and the old craic.

As we sat looking around at all the interesting stuff on the walls they have to look at while you’re sitting there, I glanced out the window and noticed a rainbow. Despite the frequent concurrence and collision of rain and sun in Ireland, I’d never seen a rainbow there before. I took a photo out the window: it shows not only the rainbow but McGann’s pub across the street, plus a reflections of the interior of McDermott’s, plus a reflection of my face looking pleased and surprised as I looked at the rainbow.

Marie and I ordered lunch from the only other person in the place, a a slim, short-haired barmaid of about 30. We we both thought she was a lesbian, though Marie was more sure than I. We engaged her in engaging conversation, and she was happy to pose for photos and answer questions about the town, but didn’t proffer any information about “where women went to meet.” She was cheerful and funny, though, about the pub and the clientele, and we liked her.Nice barmaid, cropped Finally, Marie asked her who took care of her little boy when she was at work, and she said, happily, “my husband.” I nudged Marie and reminded myself that a) just because a woman is make-upless, short-haired, and outspoken doesn’t make her a dyke, and b) my gaydar sucks.

It’s fortunate that Doolin’s increasing popularity with tourists has meant that more shops have opened – music shops, a used book shop, craft shops, as well as numerous new cafés. It’s unfortunate that the groovy, independently owned, desirable businesses have edged out the one place in town where a person could buy groceries. On previous visits to Doolin, I could walk a half mile or so from the hostel down the main street to buy loaves of bread, wedges of cheese, apples, and the other staples of hostel cuisine.

But on this visit, the only food available within walking distance was that which someone else hd prepared and would serve at a decent table at a decent price. The first day I arrived, a Sunday, I went hopefully to the weekly outdoor “market” but found it full of handcrafted Irishobelia but almost nothing edible. I did, however, get a loaf of designer bread.

By Monday afternoon, after three restaurant/cafe/pub meals, I was eager to stop dropping $15 every time I ate. Happily Rob, the hostel owner, offered me a lift to the nearest place I could stock up: a small shop attached to a petrol station about 3 miles out of Doolin. Rob needed tpetrol, and he said he’d wait while I picked up some supplies.

About the size of the smallest convenience stores in America, the place had tins of beans and packets of soup, and cabbages and apples and enough potatoes and onions to feed everyone who could walk or hitch there from Doolin. I got tinned soup, butter, eggs, and carrots and crackers to supplement the Cashell Blue cheese.

When I walked out of the little shop, clutching to my bosom several of the the tiny, waxy, flimsy paper sacks that Irish shopkeepers use to punish people who forget to bring proper bags, Rob was waving me over to the side of the forecourt. He wanted me to meet a friend he’d just run into: a wild man, tall and angular, with bad teeth and great white hair flying around his large head like a halo.Willie Daly is the official matchmaker of the Lisdoonvarna festival and, it turned out, willing to take on occasional work as a bodhrain tutor!DSCF0746

As I approached (careful not to let the apples tumble from their envelope), the wild-, white-haired, big-headed man – I got an impression of an Irish Rastafarian Lion King — was talking about his main line of work, i.e. getting people married at the match-making festival. Probably for my benefit, he was saying, “Yes, the best time is between about 11.30 and 4 a.m.; that way they don’t know what’s happened till the morning. I introduce them in the pub. Instead of saying, “How are you?” the boy asks “Will you marry me?” and the girl says yes, then in the morning it’s all done.”

I knew  then that, if I ever got a lesson in bodhrain playing, it was going to be interesting. I received from Willie a promising hug and half a promise of a possible drumming date sometime to be planned at a later time, before I left, to be sure.

That evening, Rob joined us for a drink before we went out to the pubs. In the big hostel kitchen – the only one I’ve ever seen in which there is a) enough room for everyone’s stuff and b) a supply of clean, dry dishtowels, I attempted to prepare enticing snacks. Despite the limitations on presentation, I cut up apples and sliced carrots, and laid out water crackers in an even curve around large, crumbly mounds cut from the huge Cashell Blue. Marie came in to see if I wanted help, saying, “I’m sitting out there like a visiting dignitary.” She took out the food and we sat with Rob on the L-shaped bench by the fire and ate Cashell Blue and water crackers and  sliced apples and carrots. They drank the excellent Irish reserve whiskey – I’d swiped several of the little gift bottles that my table-mates had left behind at the Castle Martyr reception — and I drank the excellent tap water.

The best session that night, Rob told us, would be at McDermott’s. So about 9.30, in the warm-cool, pink-yellow dusk, when I wanted to go to sleep, instead I walked with Marie the half mile or so back to the the pub where we’d had lunch.

What a difference six hours and a world-class local band made. The place that had been nearly empty at lunchtime was crowded, and as soon as we opened the door we encountered a wall of sound – but not like the electronic wall of ear-bashing speaker-sound at a rock concert. This was a soft, dry-stone wall of sound, old as the earth and equally natural.

In one corner of the pub stood Blackie and Cyril, this time with banjo player Karol. Karol was a wavy-haired man with a sweet, square face DSCF0515 -Foolin in Doolin McDermott's Blackie, Karol, Cyriland an even sweeter sound on the banjo, a great accompaniment to Blackie and Cyril: this was the full, official Foolin’ in Doolin.

Once again, I was thrilled by the music and by the crowd’s engagement with the music. Marie and Andrea, a German woman from the hostel, and I had to stand up at first, but then found a couple of stools, and eventually took posession of a bench that was vacated in the first break.

Marie in center, Andrea from Germany on right of photo.

Marie in center, Andrea from Germany on right of photo.

While Marie grabbed the seats, I got a round in for us and bought pints for Blackie et al as well. Blackie passed by on his break, and I got a quick word with him on his way out to smoke. I told him again how great the sound was, and asked how his gig had gone that afternoon. “It was great,” he said. “Savage.”

“Savage?”

“Yeah, savage is great, awesome. Fekkin’ savage.”

He reminded me that after that night’s gig he’d lend me his drum. We clinked glasses and I went back to Marie and our friend to share my new vocabulary word. She and Andrea were in merry conversation which I could not hear over everyone else’s merry conversations, but I drank my cider and looked around at all the people apparently enjoying themselves and wished once again that a) we had pubs like this in Florida or b) I could get to Ireland more often or c) I lived in Ireland.Good night at McDermott's & the view from my table

DSCF0549In the second set, Marie could no longer sit still, but got up to do her tap routine set to the Irish jig rhythm, which she’d been practicing for some weeks in preparation for her mother’s upcoming birthday. She stood up and danced, alone, and was much smiled at and praised, and Blackie said after the songs, “Well done the dancer,” which made me proud of her. DSCF0544

Also, a woman bent over me at the table to tell me that my friend’s dancing had “made her night,” that she always herself wants to get up and dance but doesn’t have the courage. She seemed truly delighted by Marie, which delighted me (and Marie, too, when I told her). On the next song, Marie had someone else to dance with her.

DSCF0548

Below is a link to a short video of Marie dancing. Worth it just to hear the music, though the visual is a bit confusing. It may look like film taken by a tipsy amateur who was using Marie’s new Iphone and was unfamiliar with how phone-video cameras work, but really Marie is just a really good dancer. She can dance up the walls, going horizontal without breaking rhythm. She turns the place on its head!

After a few more tunes, a man came up to the front of the room near the band with a broom. I thought that someone had knocked over a drink and he was clearing up, but in fact the broom was his partner. As Foolin’ in Doolin did another superfast reel (or jig – I can’t usually tell the difference, despite my Texan teacher demonstrating for me many times that a reel beat matches the rhythem of “ag-i-ta-ted all-i-ga-tor” and a jiggoes “cho-co-late, cho-co-late, ch-co-late”) the man lay the broom down and hopped and skipped fast over it, with his heels clicking, but soon he lifted the broom up higher so he was jumping as well as dancing, faster and faster, like a Russian acrobat, defying gravity and normal space-time limitations, and the bodhrain grew louder and the music whirled upwards, till he – clack — dropped the broom and quick grabbed it up again, an incident for which he later apologized to Marie and say he hadn’t danced for years and was out of practice.

But Marie asked him to dance and they instantly made a grand pair – she learnt some Irish steps from him, and they got more  approval and more space as people obligingly shuffled their stools and chairs back, giving room.

Marie learning steps from Broom-Dance Dude in McDermott's

Marie learning steps from Broom-Dance Dude in McDermott’s

More women got up to join in, and then a few more men, and then our German friend, and by the last tune I was up along with Marie and Broom-dude and Andrea and everyone else, all of us grooving Gaelically in the small spaces between the tables, and people smiling and taking our picture and then leaning around us to see the musicians. We were getting our Gaelic moves down and about to get a drum to learn on, and everyone in the pub was having a really good time in time to this terrific music. It was savage crack. Fekkin’ savage.

DSCF0551 Blackie lending us a drum

Mitzi elliptical Sept 2013Eight weeks ago, as described in “First Day of Forever,” I adopted two elderly cats. Although they’d lived in separate cages at the shelter and were put in separate carriers for the drive to my house, I was under the impression that I was rescuing a “bonded pair.” When they got to my house, I opened their carrier doors, and the short-haired calico then called “Lizzy” crept into the other cat’s little carrier, and they crouched there, side by side, peering at me with large, frightened, feline eyes. Seeing Lizzy purring, presumably to comfort herself and her friend, I thought, “They’ll be all right.”

Five minutes later, as they started to explore my house, they became antagonistic. One hid under the big gray couch for the first night, and the other went beneath the beige loveseat. On Sunday the short-haired calico, Lizzy, began to appear on top of the couches and then came into my bedroom. She was lying on my bed by the end of that day. Lizzy soon let me touch her and groom her. I don’t think she’d ever been brushed before; a lot of fur came out at first, and she seemed puzzled by the brushing though not opposed to it. Her fur – a lovely mixture of black and reddish-brown patches against bright white– became polished and smooth.Mitzi closeup Sept 2013

She soon proved to be the purringest cat I’d ever met, with a variety of purrs from baby kitten to Harley to helicopter. Lizzy started purring spontaneously, even when I wasn’t touching her; she purred as she slept. At night she’d snuggle up in my hair, or under my left arm, and purr us both to sleep.

I wanted to rename both cats. For shy, long-haired, gray-and-white Lilly, my mother suggested “Billie,” which we both liked (my mother and I, I mean: Lilly evidenced no opinion on this or any other matter: she remained hidden in the lining of the loveseat). “Silly” didn’t suit her, and “Frilly” would suit only a certain kind of female lizard. For the other cat, Lizzy, “Dizzy” or “Busy” were obvious choices to go with “Billie,” but Lizzy wasn’t dizzy or busy. Eleven years old and slightly overweight, she spent most of the day sleeping and purring.

One nap time, I was thinking of names for the cat that was drowsing above my skull, and I fell asleep. When I woke up, I had her name in my head, probably dreamt there by the cat herself: Mitzi.

Lilly, the long-haired calico, whom I remembered as beautiful but who remained out of sight under the loveseat, became “Milly.” Distressed that she would not come out, I’d post my worries on Facebook, or discuss the matter with friends, and get back well-meaning, thoughtful replies. “She’s been hiding all night?” someone said at first. “My cat did that, too. Then she was fine.” After it had been a few nights, two people told me of a cat who’d hidden for a whole week.

On day four, I felt that Milly had been hiding long enough. One afternoon, I cautiously tipped back the loveseat, making sure not to trap any paws or a tail. I thought to slowly, gently lift Milly into an embrace and hold her, talking to her to introduce her to her new life. I reached gently for her and she screamed and ripped deep stripes in my forearm. Yowling, she tore off to the other room and disappeared. As I bathed my wounds with hot water, soap, and rubbing alcohol, I decided not to disturb her again.

The next day, after more searching than I would have thought possible in this tiny house, I found Milly. There’s only one closet in my house, and it’s packed with clothes, shoes, sheets, and blankets; I had looked there several times before I finally spotted her on top of a green L.L. Bean quilt-bag, underneath the long, hanging trousers. I part the coat hangers, spoke encouraging words, and then moved the trousers back into place and left her alone.

Late that evening, as Mitzi and I were reading on the bed, Milly crept silently out of the closet, heading towards the food, water, and litter box. Mitzi leapt off the bed, hissing at her, and chased her into the living room and under the loveseat. There she remained.

As the weeks went on, my friend Carol told me of a cat who’d refused to emerge for a full month, but then “came and joined the family.” At the one-month point, where I was still lying on the floor to pet my new cat, and when she was starting to come close to the edge of the couch to eat from my hand at dinnertime, my friend Theresa told me of a cat who’d taken a full year to get used to living with her. A year!

It’s now been eight weeks and one day, and I have never seen Milly emerge in daylight. I spend many hours lying on my side, reaching under the couch and into the lining, to pet and stroke her. Often my hair gets in the cat food.

At first she kept so far away from me that the only way I even knew she was in the lining was by a small, aversive movement. Over the weeks, I began propping up the loveseat on books and magazines, adding a few centimeters every few days, so that now the front is about eight inches off the ground. I also ripped the lining, so that now it’s like a cloth cave instead of a box.

Short of calling a pet psychic — $60 for 30 minutes, and in my experience they just tell me things I already know or hope are true — I’ve done everything possible to help the cats get along. I’ve given them separate beds, food and water, and litter trays; I’ve traded bedding, so they could get used to each other’s scents; I’ve tried different “therapeutic” aromatherapy and drops from Petco. Nothing has made any perceptible difference, except that moments after I plugged in the diffuser that emits the scent of a lactating mother cat, Mitzi peed on my bed.

I kept asking people how long it might take for two acrimonious cats to come to a peaceable arrangement (In the last weeks, the Republican zealot faction has shown no signs of ceasing the bullying of the Senate…). My friend Mark Hanks, a vet & Sun reader, said he’d give cats two months to settle in.

And then, as we approached the 7-week mark, and the hissing and spitting at night was getting worse, I noticed that Mitzi was licking at a sore spot on her abdomen. Thinking it was just a “hot spot,” I made a vet appointment.

Note: when I adopted these cats, although I was happy to save their lives, I said to everyone that I could not and would not prolong those lives if either animal required expensive medical treatment. In my current circumstances (broke in the USA!) I can barely pay for minimal health care for myself, let alone manage cancer or other difficult conditions in elderly cats that I’d only just adopted.

So, after just seven weeks of ownership, and about 10 minutes and $111 dollars after we arrived at the clinic, the vet diagnosed a probable tumor. He gave Mitzi an antibiotic shot and gave me ointment to apply to the red, inflamed area around her nipple. A few days later, though superficial sore had healed, it seemed clear that there was a tumor.

I had no friends available to adopt Mitzi and I could not bear returning her to a shelter, where she would languish in a cage and then be put down. I asked the vet about the cost of the surgery (about $375 if he just removed the tumor; much more to do some needed dental work as well). I then told him my unhappy circumstances and asked how much it would be to have the cat put down.

Brusquely, he said he would not put down a “potentially healthy” cat, and that if I couldn’t get the surgery done, I should take Mitzi to “a no-kill shelter.” Maybe he’s never before met anyone who had an animal they could not afford to buy surgery for. This is a rich island, and most people probably would agree with him that the removal of the tumor was a “small” operation. I could see his side of it: to him, it was 15 minutes of his time: to me, it was a month’s earnings.

I explained to him what I understand happens to no-kill shelters (as I learnt after reading the Nathan Winograd interview in The Sun, and talking to various animal-care professionals at shelters in this area). The no-kill shelters either fill up and stop taking animals, or they take in animals and send them elsewhere to be killed. If I took Mitzi to the Bishop Animal Shelter in Bradenton, as I had done with a feral cat a few months ago, she’d be locked in a cage, tested for leukaemia, and then taken to a different facility to be put down.

The vet seemed shocked by this information. “What about the Cat Depot?” he said, naming a no-kill shelter in Sarasota. I said, as respectfully as I could, that although I loved the idea of no-kill shelters, I was not going to take my cat somewhere just to be taken elsewhere to be killed. No one was going to adopt an 11-year-old cat in need of surgery, and she’d be put down after days or a week of misery. The vet again said that it was a “small” surgery, and that I should get it done.

I then was in a difficult and distressing situation. In trying adopting what I’d thought was a bonded pair of doomed elderly animals, I’d ended up with two apparent enemies, one of whom was bullying the other and had a tumor. My theoretical, simple-sounding, sensible plan to “have put to sleep” a cat whose medical bills were beyond my reach would be impossible if my vet refused to assist.

In despair, I looked in the “Pet Pages” and found a two-page ad for a vet who would come to the house to perform euthanasia. Although expensive, it seemed like the best option to end Mitzi’s suffering. I called the vet — Robin Hughes – and told her the story. She listened quietly, and I was glad to have someone who seemed not to judge me. She gave me “kudos” for adopting elderly cats, and she said she knew what it was like to be unemployed and have trouble with bills.

After I’d gotten to the part of the story where the vet refused to euthanize a nearly healthy cat, Robin made an “mm-hmm” noise, as if she agreed. I was worried that she, too, would think me cruel or irresponsible for my decision. But she didn’t. She asked if the vet had done blood work. “Is the cat otherwise healthy?” she asked. I said yes, adding how nice Mitzi is, how intelligent, and how pretty. “She’d be very adoptable,” I said, “but no one wants old cats.” On the other end of the line, Robin mmm-hmm’d again.

Then she asked, “Do you know about the Cat Depot?” I didn’t even have a chance to say how I figured they would be turning away animals, because she went on to say that she was the vet there, and she would speak to the manager about Mitzi the next day.

Twenty-four hours later, I got a call to say that Mitzi had been “accepted into the program” at the Cat Depot, which, I knew by then, was like getting a child into an exclusive private school. By looking up Cat Depot online, I’d learnt that it’s a state-of-the-art cattery. When I read that, I thought, “The state of WHAT art?” But now I know — the art of housing cats, and these people are experts!

I’ll never know why Robin Hughes listened so kindly to my story about Mitzi, nor what motivated her to encourage the manager to make a space for my cat, ahead of the more than 200 animals on the waiting list. But I will always be grateful.

Mitzi under Hope's sign Sept 2013

I was given an appointment for Sunday, to bring in the cat and surrender her. If she tested negative for leukaemia and HIV, she’d be admitted, and begin the process of getting adopted. Calicoes went more quickly than some other kinds of cats, Robin said, and I began to hope that Mitzi might be okay. Maybe, although I had failed her, someone else could give her a good home.

Every time I looked at Mitzi, I felt relief as well as sadness. I liked her so much, especially considering that I’d had her less than two months. In that time, she’d gone from being a scared, noncommittal, rough-coated little creature with a cough to a sleek, happy, confident animal who stood up , tail erect and waggling, when I came into a room. She’d expressed a clear liking for the Zoom Groom (a purple rubber brush that massages the cat) and an equally strong distaste for the red grooming glove (which picks up hair via static electricity). Although she clearly had been taught not to go on any furniture (except beds and couches), I was able to teach her – with many Whisker Lickin’ chicken & cheese treats – to take her first steps onto my desk, and to look out the window. This cat had lived indoors for eleven years, and she showed no inclination to seek out sunlight or even look outdoors. But after a few weeks, she had begun gazing outside, and lately to pay rapt attention to passing birds and creeping lizards.

Unlike any cat I’d ever known, Mitzi would reach up to my nose for a sniff, as cats do to each other, and when I was grooming her, she’d purr and reach down to my arm and nuzzle and lick me, to show her appreciation. I thought that she was very intelligent.

But she continued to harass and bully Milly. But I still didn’t have any peace about the decision to abandon my responsibility. I had not slept at all well for several days, instead lying awake and petting her, worrying.

I talked to my friend Joan H. about the situation, telling her that I’d failed Mitzi. She sympathized, but she said in her view, I’d succeeded in saving the cats’ lives, and I was going to act as a conduit to get Mitzi to her next owner: that made me feel better.

I also told my friend Sy Safransky about how terrible I felt, and he said – I think – that it was because I was aware of the suffering of the animals, and my self-recrimination was a form of ego, because I wanted to be the one to control and prevent the suffering. At the time, I understood what he meant, but later, trying to explain to Ann D., I couldn’t get quite clear on it. One of the vows of a Buddhist, and the only religious vow I’ve ever believed in, is to relieve the suffering of all living beings. As a human who wants to alleviate suffering of animals, and as an ethical vegetarian, how could I accept that any animals, let alone my own pets, would suffer at my hands? Sy helped me to see that this was my ego causing me more distress, but I’m still trying to understand how I can try to alleviate suffering without ego attachment.

I spent Sunday morning composing Mitzi’s biography, which I packed along with Mitzi’s food, bedding, and treats and some other donations for the Cat Depot. I spent a long time grooming her, making sure that her coat and her skin were in top condition for the next people to see her – hoping they’d admire, enjoy, and want to adopt her.

She knew the cat-carrier when I brought it into the bedroom, and, sadly, her last ten minutes in my home were spent horribly, with me trying to trick/catch her and her evading me, till I finally grabbed her from the back of the closet and dropped her into the upended carrier, where she curled into a ball and started crying. She cried most of the way to Sarasota.

I cried, too. I thought about the nature of suffering, and how little of it I let myself feel. Sy said something about how we all are surrounded by suffering, whether or not we let ourselves be aware of it. I’d thought that, because I listen to the BBC news and read The Sun, I was aware of human pain and suffering globally. And yet, feeling the sadness of my cat, I realized that I usually block out nearly all the suffering around me.

Mitzi is just one, very lucky, very privileged pet animal, who in her life in the USA has suffered far less than many human beings endure daily. So far as I know, she’s never been hungry or thirsty or neglected or abused. If she died, it would be quickly and humanely; if she lived, she’d always have food and attention and stimulation. She’s not suffering very much, relative even to that of the animals living on the city streets we were then driving through.

My cat’s unease and discomfort at being trapped in a carpeted carrier in an air-conditioned car would count as less than a trillion of all the suffering of all the creatures on earth, if such feelings were measurable. If it were possible to weigh Mitzi’s misery on a scale, it wouldn’t even nudge the needle.

Yet I cried because she was crying, and I could feel her sadness and fear. Empathetic grief made me so sad and distracted that I could barely drive.

But Mitzi cried less as we drove south. The sun shone into the carrier, and she had her head in the light; at first I thought she was enjoying the warmth, but then I saw she was panting. I turned up the AC to mid-winter temperatures, but I think the panting was from fear. I talked in my most soothing voice, using the words I hoped she’d recognize: “Mitzi, good girl, Mitzi, you’re a good girl, you’re going to be okay.” I told her how sorry I was, how I hoped I was doing the right thing, how I couldn’t cope with both her medical needs and Milly’s shyness. But she didn’t seem to hear me, and even if she could, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Nothing I could do would help.

Before going into the Cat Depot, I composed myself, remembering what my mother and friends had said: that this was the best option. Mitzi would have her best chance at a real “forever home” by coming here.

And still, when I put the carrier on the desk and the lady in reception asked me if we were there for shots, I started crying again and couldn’t speak. I just shook my head: No, not there for shots. She said, softly, “For adoption?” and I nodded a slow yes.

She called the vet tech, whom I gathered from the receptionist’s end of the phone conversation was not expecting us. I waited, petting Mitzi, who was terrified, crouching wide-eyed at the far end of her carrier.

After ten minutes, a young, smiling brunette woman in teal scrubs came out and greeted us cheerfully. I followed her into the exam room. A English-accented man, a volunteer, came and carried Mitzi’s carrier for me. He talked to the cat, but although he was speaking kindly, I thought that his loud, masculine, and unknown voice would scare her.

Andie and another female volunteer petted and soothed Mitzi, asking me about her. Mitzi, amazingly, didn’t fight them; she seemed relatively calm. Andie asked about the tumor. She felt and looked at the blue-black spot under Mitzi’s nipple and said that although she couldn’t make a diagnosis, as she’s not a vet, she didn’t seem to feel a very big tumor.

I was glad to hear it, and I repeated what I’d told Robin and the director, Constance – that if by chance Mitzi did not have a tumor, I’d like to have her back. I’d then continue to try to get her and Milly to leave peaceably together. It wasn’t just the surgery, and it wasn’t just the fact of their fighting – it was the combination of the two factors that made me unable to keep Mitzi. I was crying off and on, and trying to get them to read the biography I’d brought, and asking questions, and probably babbling in my distress. I repeated myself a lot. I asked if I could, for sure, get Mitzi back if she didn’t require surgery.

“Oh, sure,” Andie said. And then, she said the words that would change everything: “Or if we do remove the tumor, you might be able to adopt her back.”

It wasn’t up to her to make the decisions, she said, but it was not uncommon or unheard of for a cat to come in, get surgery and be prepared for adoption, and then for the person who’d brought the animal in to be called and offered the first chance to adopt.

I started crying harder, feeling relief and hope like a small warm cloud around me. For the second time in a week, I felt not just lucky but blessed: that I would be able to have Mitzi back at home, well and whole, with only the socialization problem to deal with, seemed miraculous.

The volunteer and I held Mitzi as the vet tech took blood and did an exam; in between the vet’s attentions, the volunteer held Mitzi to her chest, wrapped up in a towel. Mitzi’s eyes were open, but she was no longer staring around in terror; with the gray towel wrapped close around her head like a babushka, she seemed to feel safe.

Bobby, the big English man who’d brought Mitzi in, offered me a tour of the facility, which I was glad to see. It’s the best animal shelter I’ve ever seen. Purpose-built four years ago, it has (yes) state-of-the-art ventilation, natural light, and super-clean, comfortable enclosures for groups of up to nine cats. Each “pod” is the size of a small bedroom, furnished with specially designed, color-co-ordinated, soft furnishings. The litter boxes, out of sight underneath a bench, have a separate ventilation & fan system from the rest of the building. The air was as fresh as if we were outdoors, although considerably cooler. In each of a half-dozen offices where the staff work, one “special needs” cat lived, with its own bedding and toys, and its own private person there at least 40 hours a week.

At the Cat Depot, there are about 125 cats there at any time. Last year, they found homes for nearly 900 cats and they hope to place 1000 this year. About half of those cats, the ones who’ve been there the longest, have access to the outdoors in the form of small, wire-fenced patios, where the cats can lie in the sun or the shade anytime they want. They’re all fed Science Diet, plus wet food and treats, and volunteers come daily to play with, read to, brush and pet the cats. Each pod has a television (!) playing soft sounds (all the same channel, human voices and nature sounds) and showing a video of a warm fire in a fireplace! There are toys, cushions, play spaces, scratching posts, climbing pillars, and lots of cubbyholes, padded benches and bed-boxes.

Now, the furnishings and so on were lovely – what other animal shelter has matching cushions in every room, or has different rooms in different earth colors? (When I put Mitzi in the cage where she’d spend the night, I got to pick between soft orange, blue, or green.) But what impressed me most was that, with the exception of one cat awaiting surgery, every cat I saw – over 100 – looked calm and peaceful. Not one was mewing or appeared to be in distress – not even the “pudgy pod” where the cats are all on diets!

In the pods were people playing with the cats with feather dusters and laser lights, reading to the cats (Dewey is a big hit; all the books seemed to be cat-themed), petting them, and generally giving the cats great attention. One woman, Donna, was speaking sweetly to and brushing a long-haired black and white cat. I asked her if she might pet my cat later, and she not only promised to do so but came back with me later to meet Mitzi and hear her story and start getting to know her. Donna even knew how to blink at a cat — both eyes, slowly — which is a feline signal of comfort.

Bobby, the man who showed me around, assured me that he knew how I felt and promised that they’d take wonderful care of Mitzi. He told me about his own – blind! – cat, from that shelter, who now has a great life. He said his wife would be in the next day to pet Mitzi specially. I ended up hugging him, and Donna, and wanting to hug everyone else, too – but the vet tech and the director, Shelley, were by then engaged with a set of kittens that had just come in.

As sad as I was to have to leave Mitzi anywhere other than home, I could not have imagined a better outcome than this – at least not short of a private home. I feel beyond lucky that, as Joan says, my good intention for Mitzi has had this result – and more than anything I feel grateful to the good people of the Cat Depot. I have already emailed them offering to join as a volunteer on their grant-writing committee; I have already decided where the bulk of my contributions this year will go.

And now, finally, I can turn my attention to the other cat whom I offered, and promised, a “forever home.”Image

Many pubs have signs like this one, keeping a few seats for the musicians.

Many Irish pubs have signs like this one, holding a place for the musos  to sit among the crowds who come to see them.

Note to readers: I have no photos from this evening. In lieu of visual aids, please click on this YouTube link and let the music (by Foolin in Doolin, Blackie O’Connor’s band) play as you read my blog.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3-6PiBCzFU

From Doolin, Ireland, on Monday, May 20, 2013

“Have you a few drinks in you?” Blackie looks closely at me, his black eyes shining through the black curls surrounding his long, narrow face. It’s about 8.30 p.m. in McGann’s pub where plenty of people already have a few drinks into them, so it isn’t an accusation, just a sympathetic enquiry.

“No, I’m just slow,” I admit. “And dopey.”

Like O’Connor’s pub (see “Buttersweet” blog entry), McGann’s is another famous music pub in another very old building where the wooden beams are steeped in three centuries of pipe and cigarette smoke. Marie and I have come to Ireland and this pub with a soft-edged plan to meet Blackie O’Connor (no relation to the pub) , a musician who’d been recommended to me before my trip by Failte Ireland.

I’d phoned Blackie a few weeks before the trip, to ask for drum lessons. I told him that Marie and I were coming to the center for Irish music (Doolin) to learn how to play the instrument that I mispronounced “BOUGH-rain,” and he’d corrected me, saying, “BOE-rohn” and thus giving me my first lesson. Though his speech was quick and his wonderful accent thick, I’d understood him to say that he’d “be very happy” to help us out and lend us a bodhrán, though he himself was not a teacher, so we could “learn the bodhrán and have the craic.

Note: as anyone who has spent five minutes reading any guidebook or searching any website (e.g. www.ireland.com) to Ireland knows, craic is a Gaelic word, meaning “good time,” or, specifically, “good time in a pub involving drink and live music.” It’s pronounced “crack.” One of the Irish slang synonyms for “fun-loving person” is “ho” (as in “ho-ho-ho”), so I have deduced that when entering Ireland it’s perfectly respectable to tell the immigration authorities at passport control that you are visiting their country as a “craic ho.”

Entering McGann’s is like entering O’Connor’s in that there is no music audible from outside, but as soon as we open the thick wooden door and walk in through the thick stone walls, we hear singing and playing. But in McGann’s two things are different: 1) the music we hear on entering is a recording, and 2) I do not recognize the layout. Apparently I didn’t go to McGann’s in my trips of 1996 or 2001, or if I did, I’d had too many lager and lies (stet) to remember it.

Marie and I take a seat in the back of McGann’s as far as we could get from the American woman who offers to move her stuff so we can sit next to her and her boyfriend. Both of us are hungry and surprised to be hungry, me especially given that I’ve eaten a breakfast of Irish vegetarian champions (scrambled eggs, thick brown toast with butter and strawberry jam, baked beans, and anachronistic and imperfectly cooked haloumi with pesto and red pepper) at midday. But by the time we reach McGann’s it was 9 p.m., or 4 p.m. in Florida, so soup and green salad sound fantastic, along with my soda water and Harp lager for Marie.

The American woman’s boyfriend sounds bad. Tall and bushily red-haired and red-bearded, he’s  telling a story at top volume in a harsh, nasal, possibly Chicagoan accent. He’s almost shouting about how he told the people at work he was going to Ireland, and a coworker asked him how long it’d been since he’d been back, and even though he’d never set foot on Irish soil before, and he – oh soul of Chicago wit – had said, “Fourteen years,” ha ha ha HA! The point of this long, loud retelling is that the teller looks Irish, but this is not a point worth making: anyone with red hair can be said to look Irish.

But soon there will be much better things to listen to, and for now there’s plenty to look at. The pub has red tiled floor and walls of light knotty pine, but old light knotty pine so it doesn’t look glossy and fresh like my cottage in California with its relatively new pine walls from the 40s. High above eye level, just under the roof, runs a shelf holding things to look at, such as a yellow-and-green ceramic jug with a flower on it, a Chivers Jelly box, odd glasses, a wooden box coffee grinder, a rust-pocked red kettle, a large, colored cardboard box — marked importantly ‘EGGS’ — a pewter tankard, and four or five flatirons.

As Marie and I partake of soup and salad – both accompanied by brown bread and butter, like every meal we will have in Ireland – a very tall, thin young man with a curly black ponytail walks by, winking at me en passant. Even though I imagine he winks at everyone, and even though I’m twice his age, I’m still pleased. I like Ireland.

Ten minutes later the ponytailed man is setting up his mike in the musician’s corner and taking something like a big flute out of a big bright red case. The man who has winked at me is Blackie, the one we’ve come to meet!

When I step over to introduce myself, Blackie seizes my hand and welcomes me, his long thin sad face turning happy. He sets aside his instruments and comes back to meet Marie, kissing her on the cheek. “We’ll work you hard this week,” he promises. Then he says, “I was supposed to bring you a drum, but I haven’t. I’ve to play it tomorrow morning, though it’d be a year and a half since you’d catch me with a drum.” The quick speech, pure black eyes, and unfamiliar use of tenses confuse me, but I assure him it’s no problem that he wouldn’t be lending us a drum that night.

We’re eager to set up a lesson, but neither Marie nor I can pin him down to a specific time, place, or teacher, at least not as far as we can tell. His friend Geraldine McGann (no relation to the pub) is coming later, and she too has said she’ll give us a “get to know your bodhrán” session, but she too claims not to be a “proper teacher.” Both she and Blackie have offered to help us get proper lessons later, but it’s Monday night and there’s no drum nor lesson in sight, and I’m leaving on Saturday.

“So will you like a lesson later in the week?” I think that’s what Blackie is saying, or maybe at least that’s his meaning, or at least that’s what I’ve been thinking he is going to say based on what I’d thought he’d said on the phone some weeks back, wasn’t it?

“Yes, when?” I said. “Any day. Any time. I’m at the hostel and Marie’s next door.”

“I’m out tomorrow afternoon,” he said, “playing with [more unfamiliar names]  at [some town I’d never heard of]. But I can lend you my drum after that. And Geraldine will help you tonight a bit, perhaps.”

“Would you give us a lesson, then?” I said, confused. “Or would she? Or did you say something about someone else?”

“Ah, well, we’ll see about a lesson for you,” he says. “What day would you like?”

“Any day is fine,” I repeat. “Anytime. But I have to leave on Saturday.”

“Ah,” he says. “And today is Monday, isn’t it? I’m here tonight…” he rattles off a bunch of names, days, times, and places, all of which sound similar. McGann’s on Monday with Geraldine McGann, or O’Connor’s tomorrow or McSomeone else’s on Wednesday for a lesson perhaps that day or the day before or after or both, if I like, in the pub or before or after the session in the hostel perhaps, someone will call someone, here’s his cell phone number.

I could not keep up. “So, when might we get a lesson in, do you think?” I say, politely.

That’s when he looks at me with that devastating, sympathetic gaze. Probably his eyes are just very, very, very dark brown, but they appear black.  “Ah,” he says, suddenly seeming to understand. “Have you a few drinks in you?”

I give up, but hope that Geraldine will sort out some kind of lesson for us later in the evening.

Geraldine turns up and turns out to be built like me, but unlike me she is wearing a tight black jacket and even tighter black jeans and enviable ankle boots. She has big, shiny, diamante earrings and a big, shiny, off-white smile, and she gives the impression as she shakes my hand that she is giving me a hug and kiss at the same time.

“I’m no kind of a teacher,” she says. “I taught myself as a child and just to make some noise, so, but I spoke to a man who’d give me some things I can show ye, shure. I’ll come to you at the break and we’ll have a chat, like.”

Marie flew in from Florida the day before, and I’d been conferring hard at my conference for the last several days, so we both want to go to our respective rooms and respective beds, but in order to get Geraldine’s help we stay till her break. I am glad we do, because the music she and Blackie and the banjo player Cyril play is so fantastic that even I, musically illiterate and usually unable to concentrate on sound, find it compelling. Actually, I find it far more than compelling – I respond to it the way my sister and my other music-loving friends respond to music they respond to: I love it. Listening to it was so good I sometimes closed my eyes, but when I opened them again to look at the musicians or gaze around — I’m in Ireland! in a pub! —  there’s a lot to look at.

Up by the bar as in many bars and shops in Ireland are the multicolored, palm-sized, cloth badges of American public servants and sports teams: the Boston Fire Department and the Nashville EMTs and the Los Angeles Police Department and the public works and baseball teams of small towns in Kentucky and Idaho and a veterinary service clinic from Hawaii. All of the badges look fresh and stiff and official, as if torn off a brand-new uniform. I wonder if I should bring a handful of badges on my next visit, to endear myself to the publicans and shopkeepers of Ireland, and if so, how I will acquire those badges when I don’t know even one American who is a firefighter, police officer, professional sport player, or public servant, unless you could count my mail carrier, a lovely blond lady called Karen, and I don’t think the Manatee County USPS employees have badges.

On the other hand, my best friend’s son is a reservist in the US Marines, and four months ago I met in a bar an attractive lesbian whom my friend Marie insisted was a transgender man, who was a police officer. She claimed to be a better shot than any of the men in her squad or team or whatever they call her coterie of shooters, but she wasn’t in uniform, and I’ve lost her number, so I don’t know if she wears a badge or if I could get one, but I’ll work on it. Maybe the fire-fighters sell badges as fundraisers, the way the police fraternal league sends out decals to affix to the driver’s side window of your car so that if you get pulled over for a ticket, the first thing you do when the cop approaches is make sure the window is fully rolled up, so that he’ll see that you’re a Supporter of The Law and not a public menace even if you were doing 40 in a 25. Failing that, maybe I can buy badges on Ebay.

Meanwhile, I get Blackie a pint of Guinness and he looks up through his waves of hair and says, “Gillian, you’re a star,” and even though he meets a million people, he has remembered my name, so I’m flattered even though we did just meet in person a few minutes ago and anyone could remember a name of a person who’d been emailing and whom they’d just met. Still,I don’t usually merit attention from young, good-looking musicians, especially not men, and never in my life from a famous Irish fiddler, since I’ve never met one before, and it’s fun to meet one who looks like a hip warlock and speaks so nicely and who winked at me.

For the performance Blackie has pulled his ponytail out so the curls are dangling down his shoulders as he plays, and the Irish bagpipe is huge and unwieldy across his narrow lap. After the first song, Blackie’s joined by bandmate Cyril, who, sitting wide-kneed and scraggly haired with a mandolin in his arms, looks as if he’d seen many years of long nights in pubs. There’s gray in his wild hair and the way his glasses fit deep into his eye sockets suggests that he makes up for lack of sleep with Jamieson’s.

After the second song, he unsmilingly introduces first himself and Geraldine, then Blackie. He murmurs drily against the terrific applause for Blackie, “He’s well known in these parts.” The applause increases, and Cyril adds cryptically, “We love ourselves, don’t we?” Though he has little facial expression, everything he says about Blackie seems insulting and funny. He mutters that Blackie is playing “the pipes,” about which “he’ll give a short lecture later on.”

And then all three of them play and sing and break our American hearts because we will never be Irish. Blackie, Cyril, and Geraldine sit on narrow black benches in the corner and sing like the future of your favorite life. Between, before, and sometimes during songs Blackie and Cyril laugh hard at something no one else knows about, and the laughter blends with the music, their human noises building and harmonizing even as they play their instruments with their faces turned down. It’s as if they’re laughing at the floor, as if the floor is cracking them up, and some other spirit is playing the music for them while they have a laugh.

The three of them sit simply on their bench, making a perfect storm of perfect sounds, and in between verses Geraldine raises her chin at us and lifts a happy thumb to see if we’re okay, and I raise my glass back to her.

Again, I think about how accepting Irish people are. Here are the musicians and the stars of the crowded pub treating us like old friends. Crowded cheerfully into the pub’s two little rooms are many dozens of people of all ages and degrees of dental health, all kinds of bodies in a range of shades of pale, from the “black Irish” white skin to the freckled redheads, and everyone is welcome for the craic.

All the singers I’ve seen so far on this trip have been chubby or pinched, and the men playing music are often wizened or wearing weird clothes. Even beautiful Blackie’s in a floral, black-and-white, long- sleeved button down shirt and jeans faded to blue-white like the spring skies when it’s not raining, and I believe that he put no thought into what he would put on that night, though it looks great on his Black Irish self anyway. I think how far it is from how an American band would dress themselves, how they’d present their image and their songs to match their outfits.

When Geraldine picks up her bodhrán I tell Marie, “Watch, she’s going to play now.” But I can’t see because Geraldine’s left-handed like me, which is great for my hopes of learning to play from her, but I’m on her right side, kind of behind her, and can’t see the drum. After a few minutes of staring at her rocking torso I hear a sound like the pub’s heartbeat and only then realize that she’s playing.

The reel gets faster fast, and Blackie adds some amazing-grace notes, and the pipes and mandolin players play so fast their fingers blur, and if I could see Geraldine’s left hand I’m sure it’d be even blurrier. I’m so excited I’m tapping the table, jigging knees, clapping hands, tapping toes, bobbing my head up and up and down and down, and I call to Marie, “Just think, in a few days we’ll sound just like her!”

I’m joking but I’m hopeful, too, thinking how, after most of a lifetime of listening to this music, starting when I was 17 at The Place when Joan Ogden kept bringing home people to play folk music, and after 20+ years of owning the instrument my sister bought me when she was learning fiddle, finally finally I’m going to learn to play the drum, the bodhrán.

The bodhrán – I feel it as much as hear it, reverberating under me through the wooden bench and the stone floor. The beat’s in front of me, in the bobbing heads of a man and woman, whose silhouette is suddenly joined by two tiny hands flung up: a previously unseen child on the woman’s lap is praising Glory in time to the bodhrán, her little starfish fingers spread wide, her mum jogging her in time, her daddy flopping his head and long hair up and down for his little girl like an 80s rock star, all in time to the music she is growing up to and will learn to play in time, in time.

Less coordinated and less cool than the exuberant infant, I’m tapping and jigging everything, thwacking the table with my fingers like sticks, tipping my toe and sometimes stomping a heel on the floor, stomp, stomp, clack. It’s all, all of it, so fast and fluid, so fluid and getting even faster, yes, and I feel as if I’m matching the drum. Surely I can do this with a tipper in my hand and a bodhrán on my knee. Maybe for once, I’ll be a natural at something. I understand that this is the first lesson from Blackie — this immersion and enthusiasm is the unschedulable learning. I understand!

Maybe, I think, in the light and misty heat of the spinning music, my lost Irish roots will blossom into buds of musical ability that have only to be nurtured with whiskey and rainwater and practice every day. Right.

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Lizzy, in jail at the shelter, August 23 or so 2013

When is the moment when the lives of a person and an adopted pet come together? Is it when we find the animal at the shelter, when we bring the pet home, or when we first start looking for one?

I’ve been thinking of getting a cat since I moved into this house, last November. Nic and I fostered two kittens last spring, but owning a pet forever is a big responsibility, especially since I travel often.

A few weeks ago, though, I dreamt of an orange, long-haired cat and woke up feeling that he was my next cat. I spent many hours online, looking up animal shelters and Persian and Himalayan-cat rescues. I emailed enquires about cats in different states; I found a long-haired male called Dasher as close as Sarasota. And then, I found a beautiful orange Persian in a Tampa shelter, called French Fry. She was female, and prettier than the cat in my dreams, but I wanted her.

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I called the Hillsborough County Animal Services, and learned that French Fry had a microchip, so they’d have to try to contact the owner, who’d have ten days to claim the cat.

Over the next few days, I hoped to adopt FF even as I Googled my way around the southeast, looking at other long-haired orange cats in need of a home. Dasher in Sarasota was male, and orange, like the cat in my dream, and he was available. I could have gone on indefinitely, looking up cats on the Internet, thinking about adopting, waiting for more dreams, but I received the September Sun and started reading the interview, “Inhumane,” with No-Kill advocate Nathan Winograd.

After reading half of it, I went to my computer to write a letter to the editor, to say that I didn’t care whether animals were adopted out to risky homes or humanely put down: what mattered to me was that we end animal suffering. But I didn’t even start the letter. When I sat down at my computer, I Googled the Hillsborough Animal Shelter and called them again.

French Fry had five more days before he’d be available for adoption. The officer I spoke to told me to come in and put in my application in person. It takes 90 minutes to get to the Hillsborough County animal shelter, and I arrived about 6.30 p.m., half an hour before the shelter closed. They had just taken an application from someone else to adopt for French Fry, about 20 minutes before I arrived.

I was shocked. How could the cat of my dreams have been taken away from me? In a daze, I said that I’d like to see him anyway, and have a look at the other cats.

I respect and appreciate the work of the Hillsborough Animal Services, but every time I interacted with a staff member, the staffer had to ask two or three other people for information: how to operate the computer, how to get information on an animal, how to let me see an animal. To be fair, the shelter is inundated with animals. One man, Alex, told me they get between 50 and 100 animals a day. Of the cats, 80% are put down. Of the lucky 20% that get homes, nearly all are kittens. Virtually 100% of the older cats that come in are euthanized.

I found my way past the rooms of cute kittens and big dogs to the older cats. But I couldn’t find French Fry, so I asked a girl in blue scrubs for help. She, Barbara, wasn’t a staffer but a cat-lover there to rescue a cat that would otherwise be put down. She showed me French Fry, and then she showed me all the oldest cats in several rooms. There was a big brown cat that turned to look at me, which she said was astonishing, since it had had its face in the corner since it came in. A longhaired, small, black-and-white cat was lying limp and unresponsive in a cage. There was a lovely Russian blue I might have adopted to please Nicole, but it hissed violently.

And then Barbara took me to a long-haired gray/white/tabby cat whose face reminded me of my Puffy, my childhood cat. There was a similarly colored, short-haired cat in the next cage. Reading their cage-tags, we realized that they’d been “surrendered” together – that meant the owner had dropped them off. Why they’d been put in separate cages, I have no idea. I said, “I could adopt those cats.”

Barbara told me that old cats at that shelter got very little time. Sometimes “owner surrendered” cats were put down right away; she thought the two calicoes would be put down in a day or two if I didn’t put in an application to adopt them. Out at the service desk I filled in the paperwork to adopt the cats that I’d never touched or even seen in clear light.

The next day I woke up a dawn, worried about cats. I felt guilty about rushing into the application in for the calicoes. And Dasher, in Sarasota, still needed a home. I put a call for advice on Facebook and got lots of it. The most common advice was that I should take all three cats: the two I’d “made a commitment” to as well as the orange one I’d dreamt of. Cousin Baby said that the dream had led me to the shelter to adopt the other two cats. Margie said I didn’t choose my human friends based on their color, so why would I pick cats that way? Colin said I could have three cats if I tried.

Most of the people advocating my owning three cats have never seen my house: I live, work, and play in 688 square feet. I didn’t know if any of these cats would ever venture outdoors.

On Saturday, I drove 30 miles south to Sarasota’s animal shelter to meet Dasher. My dream cat, maybe, Dasher, in SarasotaHe wasn’t the same as the cat in my dream – he’s unfortunately had a “lion cut” — and he wasn’t especially friendly. Furthermore, he was comfortable and safe: the shelter is spacious, clean, and bright. Cats  can curl up in a private niche, snooze in the sun, or play with other kitties. None is killed; they’re kept till they’re adopted or taken by a rescue group. I stayed about half an hour, but I left feeling that Dasher’s life was going to be okay without me, and mine without him.

Up at the shelter in Hillsborough (50 miles north) an hour or so later, I explained that I’d rushed into the adoption and I was starting to doubt my choice. Then a man at the next desk told me I couldn’t see those cats, because they were in “la-la land.” They’d just had surgery, he said, and were anesthetized.

Tearing up, I said, “I’ve driven up here from Anna Maria Island twice in 24 hours, and I haven’t been able to touch the cats I’m adopting. I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing.”

As I stood there, trying not to cry, the female worker recalled that those cats had not had surgery. They’d already been spayed when they were surrendered, so they’d simply been checked by the vet. They hadn’t been anesthetized, and it was fine for me to see them.

I thanked her, feeling stunned, while the man put a call over the intercom for a “meet and greet” in cat room four, to get someone to let me pet the cats.

Three times, I was told to walk back to the room where “my” cats were to wait for someone who would come and open Lilly’s and Lizzy’s cages. Three times, I trudged back to the cat room and found no one there, waited a while, and then went back up front to find someone else to put in another call over the loudspeaker. On the fourth try, a kind, tired-looking African-American woman called Kathy met me in the back rooms and opened Lilly’s cage.

Lilly is the prettier of the two cats — long-haired, gray and white and tabby, with a funny cream-colored dot on her forehead just like Puffy. I no longer have her “jail picture,” unfortunately. She shrank away to the back of her cage, but when I gently pulled her out, she settled into my lap, and I knew I would be adopting her, along with Lizzy.

And about an hour later, I did just that.

The man who did the final paperwork and took my money – cats were on sale! Just $20 apiece! – looked up the cats’ records and licenses and found that they both were probably at least 11 years old, maybe 12. They were given up because the owner had to go into a nursing home.

Because the carriers are so small, the cats were put into separate carriers for the trip home. We stacked one cage atop the other in the front seat of my car, and seat-belted them in. Lizzy (the shorthaired calico) cried a little, but after a while (in the nice, quiet Prius!) both cats calmed down. They both stopped sitting in a hunched ball and lay flat, maybe so they could feel in the sun coming through the openings in their cages.

For my cats’ first night in their forever home, I took both carriers into the smallest room in my house, a large, all-tile bathroom with two windows, much bigger than the cages they’ve been in for the last several days. The place is airy and clean, and stacked with towels and rugs and comfy places for cats to sit. They could get used to that one room first, I thought, so they wouldn’t be overwhelmed.

I set the cages side by side and opened the doors. Neither cat moved and both ducked away from my hand when I reached in, so I stepped outside the bathroom to get up a litter box and bowls of water and food. I left the carrier doors open so the cats could come out and stretch their legs and start getting acquainted with their new home.

When I returned five minutes later, neither cat was out exploring. But Lizzy had left her cage and gone in to be with Lilly. They crouched in the tiny carrier, side by side, staring out at me. Lizzy was purring a little, comforting and warming up her friend. They were going to be okay.

Doolin, County Clare, Ireland

May 19, 2013

Marie fits in so well here I didn’t recognize her in the Shannon airport. As I was looking up at the arrivals board, and thinking it was her flight from JFK that was going to land 3 hours late, I was approached by a blond woman wrapped in gray and green wool, with a cute wool cap, walking towards me, looking Irish and intent. Only when she was within a few yards did I realize it was Marie. She was not only not late but was bundled up ready to leave the airport, having been waiting for some hours.

Marie in front of Aille River Hostel, DoolinHer dark green coat, gray hat, and wool scarf hid her figure and face, which was why I hadn’t recognized her. She looked much like many of the other, Irish women in the airport, and out in the Irish air and rare Irish sunshine she blended into the landscape, as if she’d lived there all her life.

She looked great, but we were both tired. She’d had no sleep on the plane, and I’d had little, having spent the last night of the travel writers’ conference at a long, strenuous reception/cheese tasting/whiskey tasting/dinner at the old Jameson distillery, County Cork (see photos below of exterior of distillery and interior of reception area with first spread of food).

Meeting Patrick Perry was one of the highlights of a great conference.

Meeting Patrick Perry was one of the highlights of a great conference.

Even I who hate whiskey had been taken by the ginger-lime-Jameson’s cocktails. Quite taken.

This was the spread in the reception area -- before the cheese tasting, before the whiskey tasting, and before our four-course dinner. Is it any wonder I gained weight? Note the Kerrygold cheese, of which I ate my own bodyweight.

This was the spread in the reception area — before the cheese tasting, before the whiskey tasting, and before our four-course dinner. Is it any wonder I gained ahem a few pounds? Note the Kerrygold cheese, of which I ate my own bodyweight.

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After our taxi-ride from the airport and after we’d both had a rest in our respective rooms, Marie and I set off up the main street of Doolin. Well, I think we walked “up,” but perhaps we walked down it. The street went uphill in both directions from the B&B and the Aillie River Hostel, where Marie and I respectively were staying; the direction we took was towards the coast, and towards the slightly more shop-dense end of the village, so would you say we went up, or down?

Aille River Hostel cropped

Aille River Hostel, Doolin, my favorite hostel in the world, which recently was named Best Hostel in Ireland

Whether it was up or down, we walked about half a mile to O’Connor’s pub, because Ann the Aussie hostel warden had told us they’d have music at O’Connor’s “in the afternoon.” It was about 7 p.m. then, still yellow sunlit daytime to my eyes, and I wasn’t sure what time the locals thought “afternoon” began or ended, but I was hoping for a “trad session,” or in other words some live traditional Irish music. Although I didn’t know which way I was going or what time of day it was, I tempted the rain by not wearing my raincoat but only a warm wool sweater and a thick wool cardigan that comes down to my thighs. In Ireland in May, that’s living on the edge.

Blinded by the sunlight, 7 p.m. in May, County Clare

Blinded by the sunlight, 7 p.m. in May, County Clare. Photo by Marie Corbett

It stayed brilliant sunshine all the way to the pub, as bright as it would be in Florida at about 5 p.m., but the yellow light was mellower than it is in the tropics, maybe tinged by the glowing green fields. The cows, rust- brown and cream, glowed, too, not only from the shine of their mink-like coats but also from their timeless, deep, inner beauty. Their faces show their sense of fulfillment, and their dark cow-eyes shine with bovine well-being. Dove’s Natural Beauty campaign could hire them as plus-size models.

Cows in Doolin

Gillian sampling Kerrygold butter at Ballymaloe, Ireland

Nothing says “Ireland” quite like a gob of butter.

The butter here (or at least the Kerrygold butter of which my friends and I partook so heartily) is as yellow as egg yolks, from all the beta-carotine in the milk that comes from the cows that eat the grass that grows extra-green from all the rain that falls from the gray clouds, which hang above the land perpetually and precipitously except for that Sunday afternoon, or evening, when the light slid through partings in the clouds like an Irish blessing across the narrow road we walked on the wrong side of, and we did not get hit by any cars, but there weren’t very many cars that afternoon, or evening, and we were as happy as little butter balls, rolling along to the pub.

Writer Sarah Rose partaking of a bit of Irish butter at Ballymaloe

Writer Sarah Rose enjoying a bit of Irish butter

Ellen Redmond and another lovely Irish lady, sampling Kerrygold

Above: Impromptu butter tasting  at Ballymaloe.

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I was hoping not only not to get hit by any of the cars but also that it was late afternoon, as I’d been told cheerfully by Ann the warden that the heat in my room would come on “in the afternoon.”  She’d said that about 1.00 p.m., after I’d checked into my room and checked it out and found it sunless and chilly. Although I didn’t want to seem American and demanding, I pleasantly asked her if “afternoon” – and the advent of the heat – might be about 3.30 p.m., to which Ann from Australia slightly less cheerfully said no, not that early, but later in the afternoon.

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Thumbnail image courtesy of Gus O’Connor’s pub’s website. The pub is much bigger in real life.

Marie and I reached the wide wooden door of Gus O’Connors pub, which is at the top (or bottom) of the village, in an old building near a few new craft and music shops in adjacent old buildings and not much else. From the outside, it didn’t seem as if there were any music, but as we stepped in the wide entry, two things happened: first, I remembered the whole layout of the place, including where the barmaids and the musicians would be; second, we heard faint but lively and distinctively live music, coming from the rear through about twenty feet of thick stone walls and around dozens of thick bodies on stools, in booths, and at tables.

Marie went back to find seat near the music, and I went to the corner of the half-square bar get the drinks, and one of the bodies at the bar addressed me, asking if I were there on holiday, which is a pretty sure bet for a positive response here in Doolin, as the entire town is full year round and especially now, in mid-May, with people coming from around the world to hear trad music, and he’d heard me speak with an American accent, so he knew I wasn’t local, so it was slightly disingenuous, but still friendly. I appreciated it.

I got the drinks in – half of sweet cider for me, half of Harp lager for Marie – and we found a bench seat with a back directly to the musicians, so we turned 180 degrees and put our legs at odd angles and peered over the back to watch as we listened. Not only the layout was the same as last time I was there, in 2001 with Nic, but also the bar staff were the same and the customers were the same and the musicians looked the same as last time and identical to all the photos on the wall of the all the musicians who have been there forever, including those in black-and-white photos of women in cat’s-eye glasses and men in hornrims, and even older pictures with the men in suits and boots, and they were playing the same instruments as well: a sort of banjo-mandolin thing, and a flute, and a guitar and sometimes other things which I could not identify, although they sounded familiar.

No bodhrán appeared, but the beat was kept by the accordian player, a bald-headed, smooth-faced, round-skulled man who looked more capable of smiling and speech than the other musicians, who mostly looked as if they were awaiting unanesthetized dentistry, even as they played wild and gay Gaelic jigs and reels at speed that always seemed to increase, never slow down.Gus O'Connor's musos, May 19 2013

The fiddler – I could tell it was a man by the flat outline of his green jacket and wide shoulders – kept his head so far down that his long black curls obscured his face. Most fiddlers face upward or at least forward when they play, but this one tucked the fiddle under his chin and hunched over it the whole time, like an model for hair conditioner or Irish angst.

His fiddle-playing was terrific. We couldn't see his face, though.

His fiddle-playing was terrific. We couldn’t see his face, though. Photo by Marie Corbett.

Between songs – which were long, maybe ten minutes – the men took up their glasses and drank about a third of a pint in one serious draught. In that way they made up for the period of time in which they were not drinking, and kept up with their peers who were not playing.

Although so much was the same, the great difference between that night and the last time I was there, twelve years ago, is that there was no smoke. Twelve years ago and sixteen years ago, being in that pub meant straining to breathe through a cloud hanging at eye-level and above, all the way up to the dark-stained-yellow beams, smoke so thick it made us cough and order pints. But as a consequence of the anti-smoking laws enacted in the early 21st century, I could that evening in 2013 see the things on the walls, and even see windows in the walls. It was great to be able to breathe without a sensation of internal burning, and I breathed quite a bit, enjoying the pure air as much as my cider and the newly visible decorations. I looked at the photos of musicians, the painted mirrors, US license plates and dollar bills. I could see the windows – no two alike, and not one set square in a wall — and the stained glass in some windows. Across from me was “Slainte” (pronounced “SLAHN-shuh,” and pronounced often) which means “cheers,” and some faint pink curls and ribbons that looked suitable for a stained glass window in a 1920s Parisian haberdashery.

I told Marie that she was the best drinking companion I’d taken to O’Connor’s. The first friend I took there drank like a college kid – because she was 23 – and the second would embarrass me by going in pubs and ordering orange juice or cups of tea. But Marie was born in a remote part of Newfoundland where everyone sounds, looks, and drinks like their Irish ancestors, and she ordered a few sequential halfs of Harp which she drank in moderation, leaving her glass on the table for long periods while she looked gently around the pub and made occasional interesting comments. For instance, she told me that she owns a harpsichord, and that many of the men in the pub looked like her cousins and uncles from Newfoundland.

For the first time since I’ve known Marie – 2 or 3 years – I had pencil and paper and time to ask her about her 40+ first cousins, and we ended up doing a bonsai family tree for her, showing the Annes and Catherines, showing Cyril, Len, and Martin, and Francis, Mary and Joseph!  And it showed other relatives in family groups of 11 and 13 and 4, those who died and those who lived, those who  stayed in Newfoundland and those who emigrated across the US and beyond. Marie mentioned that one of her uncles had been a construction worker on the Empire State Building, which pleased me because one of my uncles (Bill Williams) also worked on the ESB. Maybe our uncles – Marie’s and mine – might have known each other, worked together, even been friends who drank together in an Irish pub in New York in the days when Clare was an even longer way from there.

And that brings me back to the music. My favorite Irish song is one I first heard in Texas, which goes “It’s a long, long way, gets further by the day, it’s a long long way from Clare to here.”  The nostalgia and un-provable, improbable logistics of this homesick-making song are emotionally enhanced for me by the fact that “Clare” spelled that way is my middle name, a fact that does not hearken to my ancestral lineage even though my ancestor Mary Scanlan did come from this county, but to the fact that my mother liked the name ‘Clare’ and spelled it without the ‘i’ for reasons she has never explained. It’s a great song. I have asked for it several times from trad music players in Northern Ireland, New Jersey, and Alabama, but no one has ever been able to sing or play it for me; indeed no one I’ve spoken to has ever even heard of it.

But earlier that day, I’d seen it. After arrival, I’d gone to the open market, which like everything else is “just across the road” from the hostel (i.e., over the bridge and down or up the street). The market was, fittingly, in a “marquee” behind a hotel. To get there, I passed Fitzgerald’s pub, a light orange building with a washed-out mural of bar of music painted across the side, and although I can’t read even a bar of music without sitting down with it for ten minutes and a keyboard, I can read English words readily, and the lyrics printed below the notes in a curly but clear script were:

“I sometimes hear the fiddles play, maybe it’s just a notion
I dream I see white horses dance upon that other ocean
It’s a long way from Clare to here
.”

 So even though the market had no produce, and there is no longer any shop in Doolin that sells food, so I had no way to buy the things I need to eat for my stay in the hostel (eggs, fruit, tomatoes, onions, and chocolate biscuits, for instance), I did on my outing get a loaf of homemade (of course) soda bread, and hope of hearing my favorite song here, in Doolin in County Clare.

2 girls at O'Connor's pub playing their own songs

Two brave Canadian girls singing their own songs at Gus O’Connor’s pub. Photo by Marie Corbett

I liked how all the musicians were  grown-ups, dressed in normal clothing, instead of kid rock stars. Some of the men playing were in their 60s, and the man with the long black hair and no face might have been 40, and the people watching were all ages, many white-haired and some bald, and some so little they were carried into the pub and sat on laps. The two young women who turned out to be from Quebec borrowed instruments and sang a song in French and then one in English, and they received warm applause, neither more nor less than the other musicians.

A chubby cherub with blonde curls falling like ribbons down her back danced and ate a chocolate biscuit at the same time, her face a Rubenesque portrait of pink-cheeked joy. The young Canadian women took the little girl’s hand and danced in a circle with her, including her, and making her sticky-fingered, sweet-mouthed pleasure complete. To be dancing with the big girls!

As I was watching another, tiny little girl watching her dad toss his head back and forth, teaching her the rhythm, Marie turned to me, to say how nice she found it to see all the different generations together. That too reminded her of Newfoundland, where people of all ages socialize together, instead of everyone in a bar or a party being within ten years of each other’s age, as it often is in the US.

I told her I’d just been thinking the same thing. It was the first time Marie and I have had that kind of synchronicity, but I bet not the last.  I was glad we were traveling so well together. I’d thought we would, and we’d spent plenty of time together before, but you never know till you actually go somewhere with someone if you are going to end up wanting to push each other off a scenic overview. I’m feeling optimistic about our cliff walk on Wednesday.

After a couple of instrumental songs, someone started singing. I looked around further, curling backwards on the bench at risk of slipping off my seat and into an undignified puddle of cider and wet wool on the hard stone floor, to see the singer: an old man with white hair and beard (is there any other hair color for old men in Clare?), singing with a crutch tucked under one arm, leaning on the bench where the musicians sat, singing with a somber face and looking as unselfconscious as if he were ordering a pint, which he no doubt has done every day of his life since he was a lad, and that was a long, long time ago, when they sang songs like the one he was then singing, about a boy who sees a beautiful girl, the most beautiful girl in the village, whose skin was like roses and cream:

Singer at O'Connor's pub

Old man standing up and singing at O’Connor’s pub. Photo by  Marie Corbett

“But if at those roses you ventured to sip,
the color might all come away on your  lip.”

This man was wearing a green button-down shirt and a black woollen vest, and he had lines down both sides of his face and across his brow under the white hair, and he sang with the conviction and certitude of a man often but not always disappointed in love. When his song ended he ignored the applause and picked up a tiny red-and-black bottle of Coke, and I said to Marie, who has recently begun dating a person she considers considerably younger than herself, how beautiful he was, how one would not want him any other way than exactly as aged and purely white-haired and wrinkled as he was. She said she knew the song, “the Cliffs of Mourne.” She made no comment then on the age/beauty/desirability question, but I kept thinking warmly of how accepting the Irish people I’ve met seem to be, how in the pubs, even singing in the pubs, people seem unselfconscious. And they seem to like each other. A day or two later, Marie told me that she’d liked my observation on the old man — how lovely he was, how we wouldn’t want him any other way.

A few weeks earlier, in a Sunday night session at a famous music pub (The Moorings in Portmagee, County Kerry), I had noticed a similar vibe. That night I’d been approached by the lead singer, a plump, beautiful black-haired blue-eyed alto, who on her break wandered over to me and asked a friendly question. We talked a little, and I said that one of the people sitting in the musicians’ circle, a little blonde woman, looked terribly serious, even teary. The lead singer, who is renowned in Ireland, said something about the girl being “special needs,” and carried on chatting.

Later, as I looked more carefully at the people sitting in the stage area, I noticed that several of the people playing or just sitting near her, the big-name beautiful singer, and the other professional musicians, did indeed have the slightly lost, young, out-of-place expression of people whose intelligence has not formed in time with their bodies, and then I was full of feeling for the kind people of Ireland, who judge a person not by the color of their skin or type of passport, not by age or clothes or the shape of their figure or comeliness of features, but by the content of their hearts and, maybe, their willingness to sing openly.

Sunday, Jun 30th, 2013

It’s been a long, hot and fairly hard day, at the end of a long, hot and hard few weeks. Very bad news from Nic’s family in Australia, which I will share privately with anyone who asks. For myself, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my parents, and in my garden, and in my parents’ garden, and sleeping, and faffing around, trying to clean up my too-small house, and not much time sitting at my desk working. Subsequently I’m not making any money, and I’m feeling broke, and I’m also feeling quite fat and unhealthy (not because I’m not making any money, but because it’s difficult for me to exercise because of foot pain).

I’ve decided to change a few things and I’ve had some great help, and, as usual, very good luck. And tonight, I think I had a kind of good omen. Let’s begin with the help and luck — three days ago, I put a “WANTED” ad on freecycle.com (an online community through which I’ve given away hundreds of items, but never before received anything), asking for a bicycle. The very next day, I got an email from a lady who lives near me who had a beautiful bike she had just replaced that day with a brand new one. The bike she offered, and which I picked up yesterday, is beautiful and exactly what I have wanted for years! It’s a large-frame Huffy cruiser, with a basket and a water bottle holder and a purple star on the gold-brown paint. It’s 3 years old but looks brand new. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked by bikes like that at the beach, pointed to them, and said, “That’s the kind of bike I’d like to have.” And now thanks to this freecycle member’s generosity, I have one! It’s in the shop now getting a new inner tube, and as of tomorrow I’ll be riding it – a lot.

The other change will be dietary. Once again, I’m going to omit something from my diet in hopes of losing weight and becoming healthier. I’ve tried this often with refined sugars, but this time I’m omitting all wheat products, and hoping for similar great results (weight loss, improved clarity of mind, better sleep, less aches and pains, fewer headaches, etc.). I’ve had a lot of help on Facebook and in person from friends & relatives who’ve had good results.

So, tonight, the last meal of the month of June, I treated myself to a wheaty meal: two slices of pizza and a salad. It took me a very, very long time to find a place to eat dinner, because the island is so crowded this weekend, and I drove around for a long time, into Bradenton and back out again, before I went to Omar’s pizzeria across from the beach, near the Beach House (in Bradenton Beach). I almost never go there – it’s not especially good pizza – and it was rather odd that I chose it tonight. After I ate, I decided to walk across the street to the beach, even though I rarely go to that beach as it’s so crowded, and I prefer the ones north, on my end of the island.

I stepped onto the sand and was greeted by a very tanned man with a beard whose girlfriend was sleeping, under a sheet, on the sand. I walked up a few yards towards the Beach House restaurant, where there was music playing on the outdoor tikki bar – again, an extremely odd choice for me, as I usually walk away from crowds and noise – and saw something odd in the water. It looked like an otter. It bobbed up, then disappeared. I walked further towards it and saw that it was quite big; I thought maybe it was a dead fish. A very big dead fish. It seemed to be floating atop the water sometimes, but then it would disappear again: it was a sea turtle!

It came crawling out through the white froth and headed across the beach. I was, amazingly, the only person looking at it. I was about 30 feet away, and it was crawling up between me and the very crowded, very noisy Beach House restaurant and tikki bar. Within a few seconds, a dozen people had come out from the restaurant to gape and take pictures, and as the children ran pell-mell towards the turtle I yelled “Stay back! Stay back! Give her room!” and I waved them back with vigourous arm movements They were on the other side of the turtle from me, and they didn’t want to stay back, but, amazingly, the children listened to me, and then the adults had to back up too.

The turtle headed straight across the beach towards the road, moving slowly. More and more people poured onto the beach and more and more people rushed the turtle and I got more and more loud and strident, waving my arms and yelling at them to “GIVE HER ROOM! DON’T CROWD HER!” No one touched her, and they stayed about 10 feet away, but they were talking loudly, laughing, taking pictures, and making a lot of commotion.

The turtle stopped and then turned towards the crowd of people, confused. They should have backed away to let her move towards them, but they didn’t. Then the man who had said hello earlier came up next to me and started bellowing angrily at the other people that they should go away and leave the turtle alone and let her lay her eggs, and she’d never do it if they stayed there. They stayed there, though they did back up a bit more at his command.

In a few more minutes she turned around again, facing me and the man. We backed off quite a bit, giving her more space, but by then there were about 60 people talking and laughing and making noise within about 10 feet of her, and she’d had enough and decided this was no place to raise children. She wisely headed back into the water.

The man and I were joined by another self-righteous person from the restaurant, and both the men started saying how they’d been telling everyone to stay back, how they had protected the turtle, how the people were idiots, etc. I was surprised, because I was the first person on the scene, and for what seemed like a long time I had been the ONLY person directing the crowds to stay back. If it hadn’t been for me, the kids would have been riding that turtle’s back and probably picking her up and carrying her home…but these men seemed very proud of themselves and intent on letting me know how brave they’d been.

Put out that they weren’t noticing MY role in protecting the turtle, I was just like them…we all were relieved that the turtle had gone, and we were all mad at the crowd of tourists, and we all wanted to feel proud of ourselves and impress each other. Before he went back in the restaurant, the man introduced himself to the other man and shook his hand, but he didn’t do the same for me, and I felt, again, a bit miffed. I was uncomfortable, but it was interesting to see how much like the men I was.

The man from the beach was called Sunny, and he’s a professional fisherman. He told me that he’s often caught turtles, and often they die, because he uses “long lines” – those are the horrible fishing lines that drop down in the ocean and carry hundreds of big baited hooks. I asked if there were not some way that he could turtle-proof the long-lines, but he said no. He was sorry about the turtles that died on his lines, but he did admit that he eats them, if they’re dead when he gets them. I agreed with that – even as I wished he would either stop using long lines, or find a way to bait them that doesn’t attract turtles, preferably the first option.

I bet almost all of those people in the restaurant were eating fish, too.

I came away feeling excited, and glad that the turtle had gone back in the water, and worried that she won’t find somewhere more peaceful to lay her eggs. There are Too. Damn. Many. People. On this island, in this state, in the world. I’m always glad I haven’t hatched out any little ones of my own, but I sure wish there were more room for the wild animals to live and breed.

This was the second time in my life that I’ve gone impulsively and suddenly to a place where I had no reason to go, and at which I’ve averted disaster. The other time was in California when I pulled off the highway between my friend Paige’s house and my house, going to a gas station even though I wasn’t even low on gas, even though I didn’t need a break or water or anything. Even as I pulled off the highway and into the gas station, I didn’t know why I was doing it. I’d never been to that gas statuion before and it was not easy to get to. I parked and put a few dollars of gas in my tank, and as I was finishing up, flames emerged from under the hood of the truck next to me, which was running.

I was, again, the only person who saw what was going on. I ran into the store, where everyone else was lining up to pay for gas, and I said, as calmly as I could, “That guy’s truck is on fire; do you have an extinguisher?” And the guy who owned the truck said, “Oh, no, that always happens, it’s just a little smoke coming from– –”  and then he turned around and saw his truck and yelled “HOLY SHIT!” and the cashier didn’t know what to do, because she had to take the money and she obviously wasn’t supposed to leave the line of people waiting to pay, but she told everyone there was a fire extinguisher around the corner. Then all the men from the line  started falling over each other to run get the fire extinguisher and manhandle it out to the truck, all of them crowding through the door like the Marx brothers, all bumping into each other and scared and yelling at each other about how to use the fire extinguisher and where to point it and here, give it to me, damn it!

I got in my car and drove home.

Tonight I did the same thing, not knowing if my being there on the beach had made any difference to the turtle, but feeling that it did. And I think this is a good sign for my change in habits in the month ahead. I’m not going to say that I am like the turtle and need protection, or that I am like the man whose truck was burning who was in denial, or that I am like the stupid tourists who needed yelling at so they’d respect the wildlife, but I do feel that somewhere in here, there has been some providence, some guidance, some help from somewhere. And I’m grateful.

Note: My dear friend and former student, Danny Upton, posted this on his Facebook wall today. It’s fascinating to read this exchange between friends who disagree, and I wish ALL my friends, especially those who still favor discrimination against same-sex couples, would read it. — Gillian

_________________

Danny writes:

I just saw that a long-time friend of mine from a conservative religious background had posted a graphic of a man, woman, and child from one of the “traditional marriage” organizations. I’m going to post our exchange:

Danny Upton: Hey, Katie, I’ve known you for over a decade now. You’ve been to my home. We’ve broken bread together. I just want you to know how hurtful it is to me to know that you don’t support my right to equal protection under the law.

Katie: Wow! I can hardly believe it’s been that long! That makes me feel so old! I was just thinking of you a few days ago and wondered if you were still local and how you were! I hope you are well! My stance for traditional marriage is certainly not one aimed at hurting you, whom I consider a friend, or anyone else that believes differently than I. I do try to understand the sensitivity of the issue, but my understanding of the institution of marriage leads me to support the traditional definition of marriage. However the supreme court decision turns out tomorrow, I do hope that my words and actions will be God-honoring. I also hope that despite my differing convictions on this issue, you understand how highly I think of you and that my stance on marriage is not one grown from malicious intent.

Danny Upton: I believe that, but I cannot accept that. And at the end of the day, you must see how fundamentally unfair your view is. If my side wins, you will still be able to believe however you believe. Your church will still be able to teach whatever your church teaches. You will still be able to marry the partner of your choice. You will still be able to inherit his property automatically, even in the absence of a will, if–God forbid–something bad happens to him. You will still be able to draw from his Social Security. You will still be able to make emergency medical decisions for him. You will still be able to determine his final resting place. If he happens to be a non-citizen, you will still be able to petition for him to live and work permanently in this country. But if your side wins, I will have to live according to YOUR religious convictions–not my own. I will have to live according to YOUR church’s teachings–not my own. I will NOT be able to marry the partner of my choice. In fact, I will spend a lifetime with a partner that the law will regard as nothing more than a roommate–like someone you might have shared an apartment with during college. He will not automatically inherit my property–including the house that is his home–if something happens to me. And if I leave him any property in a will, he will be forced to pay estate taxes that you and your husband would never have to pay. We will not be able to make emergency medical decisions for each other. And every year at tax time, we will be forced to pay higher taxes than a similarly situated straight couple–taxes that will support public services and social programs that unequally benefit you and your family and unequally disadvantage me and mine. So this is not an agree-to-disagree situation in which all outcomes are equal. Whether your intent is malicious doesn’t matter. The outcome is. Your support for “traditional marriage” (which isn’t even traditional anyway, which I am sure you know based on your knowledge of the evolution of marriage throughout scripture) does HARM to me and does HARM to my family, even though I have never–to my knowledge–done or supported the doing of any harm to you.

(Photo credit Barbara Orr) The superb staff at Park Hotel -- or someone -- leaves clean, assorted sized Wellies (rubber boots) in the front hallway, for guests' use.

(Photo by Barbara Orr) The superb staff at Park Hotel — or someone — leaves a variety of sizes of clean Wellies (rubber boots) in the front hallway, for guests’ use.

After feeling sad under the Fairy Tree, I grew even more sorry when we returned from our walk, because we had to leave the Park Hotel. By 11 AM, everyone else — four writers, two PR persons, one guide and one driver, plus their luggage — had gathered in the hallway to say goodbye and put on coats and open umbrellas for the short walk out to the bus. This writer, however, was not there.

I was in my room, packing reluctantly, when some soft-spoken Irish person called me from reception.  At the Park Hotel, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the polite, kind, well-mannered, well-dressed, well-spoken staff and the polite, kind, well-mannered, well-dressed, well-spoken guests, and no one would ever be gauche enough to introduce themselves (unless they were local gentry) but whoever it was ringing me — an employee, the third-generation owner of the manor, a helpful stranger  – told me in a voice no stronger than a beloved auntie might employ in a similar situation she’d thought she’d give me a ring as my friends were just wondering about me, as they were gathering in the lobby. And, she didn’t need to add, they were ready to take off and wondering what the feck was taking me so long.

I rushed along the curious stairways and corridors leading (I use the term loosely) from my wing to the lobby, but the other people in my group were hatted, jacketed, and out the door getting on the bus by the time I arrived. After shouting after them in an unmannerly manner, saying I needed another minute, I stood panting by the beautiful, very antique, 8-sided leather-topped desk that presides in an aclove off the foyer, which desk is the closest thing I’ve seen at the Park Hotel to any kind of office-like infrastructure, or any suggestion that the hotel is a business and is not the home of your best and wealthiest friend. There is nothing so garish as a “reception desk” or a “cashier” or even a “concierge’s stand” at the Park, but every time I came into the little reading alcove I found a conveniently placed, soft-voiced, well-groomed person who behaved in a manner befitting one of the cherished Park Hotel retainers.

There was just such a person there, looking as if she had nothing she’d rather do than help me with any arrangements I might like to make, and to whom I tried to make payment for the incidental charges tomy room. (We TC writers are the guests of the generous tourism boards and hoteliers et al, and we enjoy the tours, entries, wines, meals, and suites without charge to our good selves, but we do occasionally have to pay for our own incidental expenses such as laundry.) I’d ordered room service instead of going out the night before, and I’d had my filthy, wet, trousers that I’d worn on the boat and in the horse-cart and in the rain cleaned, and so I owed the hotel about 14 Euros. But I couldn’t pay my bill — to the extent that any bill actually existed, because of course I was not presented with one — because I couldn’t find my wallet! Horrified at myself, I asked if I could ring later with my credit card details, and the beautiful young lady assured me that of course I could, no problem at all at all. She gave the wide-eyed, dimpled impression that my leaving a bill unpaid was an honor for the hotel , and that I was being endearingly over-conscientious in my obvious design to pay it. I left smiling with embarrassment and gratitude,  and hoping that she was a hotel employee.

If my colleagues awaiting me on the bus were slightly less gracious than the young woman, it’s only because they were tired, hungover, and pissed off at me. It didn’t help that when I ran, wet and breathless and still embarrassed and newly in debt, to get on the bus, late, I was still, even while climbing the steps of the big Mercedes, groping through my carry-on bag, hoping to find my missing wallet, and after the bus started up but before we pulled all the way down the half-mile driveway, I realized that I’d left my laptop in my room. I had to make a quick decision – never a good idea in my case – between saying nothing and hoping that the Park Hotel would forward the laptop to me at our next hotel, and stopping the forward progress of the press trip, thus delaying our departure even more and incurring more enmity of my peers and up-until-that-morning new friends.

“Oh no!” I said. “My laptop’s in my room!” Tiger, one of the two really gentlemanly, chivalrous two men on this mostly female trip, silently downshifted and U-turned the bus, crunching back over the long ancient gravel road to the hotel’s front gate. As we went, I stood up and apologized, rocking in the aisle, to my sister- and fellow-tour members.  ““Oh no, I know,” I said. “Now I’m the person on the press trip that everyone hates.” By the time Tiger had shifted into park I was crouching at his elbow, and ducking down the steps, I added,  Even I hate me!”

When I got back to the 8-sided desk, one of the ubiquitous elegant doormen informed me without my having to introduce myself or announce my plight that the laptop was already on its way to reception. He conveyed this information in such a way as to make me feel the hotel’s deep regret at having inconvenienced me by not chasing the bus down and handing it to me through the window. Once the machine was in my sweaty incompetent little grasp, I once I clambered back onto the bus I also perchance found in my suitcase my wallet, so we set off just about 15 or 20  minutes beyond the time we should have gone.

One of the two PR ladies — Ruth, I think, who was not the one who’d suffered through the boat ride with me the day before and thus still positively inclined towards my presence on the trip —  assured me that it wasn’t such a huge thing to leave a bit late on a Sunday morning, but I felt guilty and embarrassed, anyway, about being so chaotically unprofessional and having thereby inconvenienced a considerable percentage of the employees of County Kerry’s tourism industry, and so I sat quietly and self-accusingly in my cushy seat and determined that I would have to be scrupulous for the rest of the trip about not being late or inconveniencing anyone – let alone everyone. For at least the next hour I did not ask for anything or proffer opinions about, say, whether we should or should not make a stop to take photos or drink Irish coffee. I sat meekly in my rightful seat and tried to work out how to work my new camera, a Fujifilm EXR, I think.

Before lunch we were taken to a place called Valentia Island, although William the tour guide said apologetically that it was no longer an island, as it had bridges. In Ireland, a land mass is not considered an island if it is possible to reach it other than by boat. Skellig Michael definitely qualifies as an island, still, despite having all the mod cons of stone steps and beehive dwellings, but Manhattan, for instance, would not count.

On Valentia, we had a tour from a local man and pub owner, Mauris, who is an expert on the first transAtlantic international cable and who has built a road up a cliff lookout and put up signs about the Irish legends and local history and so on. Mauris had a great, sometimes incomprehensible Irish accent and he talked  knowledgably but fast, and the wind was blowing my ears off and I got a bit confused about the various politicians, transAtlantic telegrams, freedom fighters, notification of the Titanic disaster, dates, and legendary events, and I came to think that O’Connell had been thrown off the cliff by someone called Finn, leader of the Vikings, or maybe by a troupe of imaginary legendary beings called Finnoghs, or maybe Firblogs, ancient Irish bloggers who invented the ancient Irish warning system for shipwreck notifications and telegraphic (telepathic?) calls for help.Rules for joining the warriors

There's a lot of information on these signs, and I was hearing it out loud while trying to take in the scenery and atmosphere. I got a bit muddled.It was all muddled to me, but while we were on the cliff the sun did come to a thin place in the clouds, and I took a few pictures that had more than one shade of light in them.

As I was pointing my camera out to sea in the direction of the cloud gap, a writer named Cathy, who joined our group yesterday, and who has family in Killarney and spends a lot of time there, pointed out the Skelligs to me. I didn’t know what “the Skelligs” were when she said I could see them “over there” and pointed across the hills: I didn’t know if I was looking for a kind of bird or some trees or a village or a group of people, perhaps Irish gypsies. She said something that suggested that “the Skelligs” were the ghost-like mounds of islands in the far distance, briefly visible through the mist and clouds.

Cathy was excited about their appearance because it was so overcast, and in her excitement she said, “See? They’re sharp!”

What with the misted morning light, the fog, the clouds, the incipient rain, and my own inherent blurriness, I couldn’t see anything that wasn’t very extremely fuzzy around the edges, so I was even more confused. “What?” I said. “Sharp what? Where?”

“See, it looks like a pointed hill,” she said. Looking where she was gazing, I saw a pale shadow shape that I would said was the underbelly of a cloud. And, again prompted by Cathy, next to that one I saw another, larger, similar shape.

“Sharp?” I said. “Those are very soft focus to me…”

“No, I mean the shape,” she said. And okay, when I squinted and used my imagination, and because I am very suggestible, the tops of the islands did look a bit like the shape of spears – not like a rounded hill or even a single Alpine-style peak, but narrow, pointy things like flinty broken arrowheads. And then the mist closed in again and they were gone.

After that sighting, we were taken to the “Skellig Experience,” a visitors’ center which turned out to contain an amazing, thrilling introduction to and history of the islands but which looked unamazing and unthrilling from outside. It’s nearly invisible as it’s been built into the hillside, with a grass-topped roof, and so in the mist and overcast daylight it looks much like many of the other hills in the area. At night I’m sure no one could find it.

Inside, we were shown a film about the Skellig Islands, which fascinated all of us and made us all ready to beg, bribe, or in case of the important writers demand to be taken there, but the man who ran the museum, who is also a world’s leading expert (as opposed to a following expert, as all of us were becoming) on the islands, told us that there would be no opportunity to get there for at least another week, because of the heavy rain, heavy waves, and heavy tides. Considering how miserable we’d been yesterday just puttering across some inland lakes, you’d have thought we would not be keen to cross 8 miles of open water in similar conditions, but several of us were ready to row ourselves there at first light if we could get a boat.

Our enthusiasm was slightly dampened, ahem, when we came across the exhibit of the iron gates that once guarded a pathway on the Skellig Lighthouse station, which is, note, on land, NOT on the 8-mile-out Skellig Michael. Here is the sign, and what’s left of the gates:

A former gate...

Skellig Lightbhouse gates sign...and it's former mate

Anyway, we couldn’t get to Skellig Michael, not that week. The tour leaders told us to give up, but I kept praying for a break in the weather, as Mother Theresa did for a cease-fire in the Bosnian war so she could get through with the Red Cross trucks. She made it; I did not.

What made Skellig Michael attractive to me was its strange history. The film showed how in about the year 600, on Skellig Michael, which is in case I haven’t impressed this on you enough eight miles out to sea from a barren cold Irish coast where hardly anybody lived anyway, some monks who had been living on the mainland built – and I use the term loosely, because they actually hacked it out of stone – a monastery. Using only hand tools, and hands, they cut into the rock three different sets of 600 steps each going up the extremely steep, arrow-head-like sides of the rock-island.

Why such redundancy? Why build three separate entrances to a monastery that only they and occasional pirates even knew about? No one knows. They built the three massive stairways with no handrails, presumably to make it that much more challenging to reach the top – which was desirable as a building and prayer site why, exactly? Because it was 600 steep steps closer to God? According to the film and the historian, no one speculates or can imagine what possessed those monks, but something must have fevered their imaginations and fueled their spirit, because once they’d reached the freezing cold, barren, top of this Godforsaken rock-mass eight feckin’ miles out in the Northern Atlantic, there they built six stone “beehive” houses and lived, two men to a hut,  so apparently 12 men, alone on the rock, until death. Perhaps fortunately, death was not that long in coming for most of them.

Extremely little is known of how they managed any of it, let alone WHY they managed it, or how many of them were killed or kidnapped by Algerian or Spanish or Portuguese or African pirates, all of whom regularly attacked the defenseless, innocent monks and took their gold, silver, and lives. But it is clear from the archeological evidence, most of it still standing, that after about 200 years of that cold monastic lifestyle — which would have made a Spartan villa seem like a high-end resort — that is, about 800 AD, the later monks of the same masochistic order found it necessary to build, at an even more extremely distant point on the rock, a hermitage!

Seeing this small, grey-brown, lichen-covered stone hut on the screen — it looks like something from the Stone Age — and hearing from the narrator that it was a “hermitage,” I started laughing. Seated behind me, the other writers responded similarly, that is, with incredulous snorts. The evidence was on film in front of us, but we still wondered why even the least sociable of the 9th-century monastic brothers would feel the need to get away from the the tip of the island and the other 11 monks. Beleaguered, maybe even self-righteously fired up like my neighbors on this Floridian island organizing a noise-reduction petition against the giant, pastel-covered party houses whence every weekend emanate the whoops and house music of overprivileged twentysomethings at the beach, those monks went off and carved a little cave space where a guy could get some peace and separation from the things of this world.

Well, I thought, as we left the Skellig Island Experience (enthralled, but still embittered at not having experienced Skellig Island itself), maybe I could see where those monks might have been sick of the clamor of the group. I know what it’s like. To have to live and eat and move with the same people day after day, packing in and out of five-plus-star country house hotels, attending champagne receptions and six-course dinners with selected wines, or trooping in and out of trad nights at wonderfully bright cozy pubs to see world-class musicians, being fed locally produced and lovingly prepared meals from third-generation chefs and prizewinning someliers, being walked up and down pebblestone pathways through rich botanical gardens by rich thirteenth-generation estate owners, and of course being driven collectively in a new Mercedes-Benz luxury bus while addressed by an expert on the history of the areas we were visiting was stressful in much the same way as hacking out a stairway from bare rock in the middle of an Atlantic storm, sustained only by pelican meat and seagull droppings. Look at how easily we journalists got annoyed with each other and began to despise one member of the group: that morning, I’d just about become the one person that everyone would have wished to send to the hermitage, if we’d had one.

In the next few days, I’d make a point of getting everywhere a few minutes early, and, being as helpful as it was possible for such a cossetted guest to be, I also made a point of being ready to carry my own luggage, reconsider seating arrangements, or elucidate my vegetarian preferences anytime, in order to make up my standing with my fellow and sister penitents on our pilgrimage of luxury and Irish culture.

And it came to pass that I escaped censure and ostracism, perhaps because I worked so hard to make amends, perhaps because our press group was an unusually mature, relaxed, and pampered one, led by unusually capable and broadminded and fun-loving PR people (see photo below of Ellen and Ruth)

Ruth Moran (in red) of Tourism Ireland, and Ellen Redmond of Failte Ireland (which I suggested should rename itself Slante Ireland), our beautiful, joyful, oocasionally tipsy PR hosts.

Ruth Moran (in red) of Tourism Ireland, and Ellen Redmond (Kelly green) of Failte Ireland (which I suggested should rename itself Slante Ireland), our beautiful, joyful, oocasionally tipsy PR hosts, two women who know how to have fun, even in the rain and regrettable wind.  For more on their companies, itineraries, or drinking suggestions  go to visitIreland.com, and tell them I sent you.

or maybe because One Other Person at the conference was so dreadful. But that story is for the private, not-to-say secret-gossip blog: let me know if you want to read it.

Anyway, having had the Skellig Island Experience but not the experience of Skellig Island, I desperately want to see these islands for myself, and I will. Soon. Anyone want to come with me? Start training now for those 600 stone steps, with no handrail, in extremely high winds. And don’t be late!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Kenmare stone circle, County Kerry

Courtesy William Burdette

Courtesy William Burdette

Our guide, William, took a few of us writers on a walk this morning in Kenmare — which I had embarrasingly been mispronouncing ‘Connemara’ — to see some standing stones.

The site was just a few hundred yards away from the main shopping streets, and only a few fields and hedgerows from a horrible new house, built by the people who have bought the land on which the standing stones stand. If I had purchased property on which there were 3,500-year-old standing stones, I might not have built a tacky, yucky wood-façade rectangle to live in, but maybe they think their new house is just perfect in that setting. I don’t know. I do know that there are many similarly rephrehensible new dwellings around Cork and Clare, especially around Doolin, so that as I’m trying to compose a decent photo of a 14th-C. castle or an Iron Age ring fort or a lovely ruined abbey, I get bits of pale yellow painted stucco and metal siding in the shot, and it’s annoying.

But most of Kenmare is largely free of such objectionable objects, and after we passed the ugly new house, we walked up a path lined with cowslips and more of those blue flowers, and I got William within sight of one of the stems of blue blossoms and asked that he say definitively what they were: he looked at them for quite a while, started to speak, stopped, and then said, in a cautious way, “Yes, those are bluebells.” Whew. It was good to know  for sure.

At the end of the short uphill path, at the top of the hill in fact, stood a ring of standing stones. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t such an impressive sight. The stones were about as tall as I am, though wider (and older!). Inside the ring, maybe 50 feet in diameter, stood or lay a large central stone, looking like a place designed for human sacrifice. It reminded me of the last scene in the film Tess of the D’Urbervilles, when Tess lies down to await death, at Stonehenge. Being only the second set of standing stones I’ve seen in this lifetime, I guess the comparison was inevitable, but this was smaller than Stonehenge and had no other visitors, and we could walk up to the stones and touch them, so I did, respectfully.

Will told us that “they” (meaning I think “archeologists” or “Irish people in general”) don’t exactly know what the standing stones were for, though they may have been used as a calendar, to mark the seasons of the crops. There is some apparent alignment of the tallest stone with the setting sun, in certain seasons. But Will added  that his archeologist brother-in-law admits that a) often the archeologists in Ireland don’t want to mess with such edifices and arrangements, for superstitious reasons, and b) even when they do study them they often have no idea what they’re looking at.

When I noted that there was no graffiti or damage to the stones, William said that such desecration would never happen, because Irish people believe that it’d bring bad luck on the person who committed it. In the manner of quite a few Irish tale-tellers (i.e. everyone I met on this trip), he told us a harrowing fable – supposedly verifiable and which has been in the newspapers and so on – of a few years ago when a family up north moved some standing stones to build a house, and then within two years, two of their children had died in freak accidents, the implication being that the former choice led to the latter tragedy. He also, later, showed us a house that had been cursed by a priest during the famine, because the rich landlords therein refused to help the poor people in the town. The priest supposedly said that one day, ravens would fly through the ruins of the house, which was then a grand manor. We saw the house today, and it’s certainly ruined and available to ravens, so the Christian curse seems to have taken effect.

As William talked about the superstitions, or pagan holdovers, of the Irish people, I asked him to say more about the “fairy trees” that he spoke of before. Earlier, he’d pointed out a tree in a field as we were passing and explained that was a “fairy tree.” These are old trees in fields or sometimes even in the middle of villages, roads, and major highways, which are respected and protected in perpetuity because they have been used for centuries as the burial sites of unchristened infants. Traditionally, babies who died at birth or at any time before they could be christened could not be buried in the consecrated graveyards, by order of the church. It was thought by the people that the fairy folk took such babies – especially boys – to fight underground in the fairy wars. To prevent this unwanted inscription, the people would bury the bodies of the unchristened babies under a special tree, usually a white or black hawthorne marked by a boulder at its base. These became known as “fairy trees,” and the knowledge about them has been passed down through hundreds of years.Interestingly, there are no signs or formal markers on the trees, but archeologists have at times dug up the earth around certain such trees, only to return the bones to beneath the tree rapidly.

The stories about the people – usually unmarried girls or women, I imagined – having to bury their children in unconsecrated ground, probably stealthily and in the rain, made me think for a second time in one morning about a Hardy novel, particularly the heartbreaking scene in one of them – is it Jude the Obscure? – in which the young mother takes her sick newborn to the priest’s house, begging him to baptize it before it dies, and he heartlessly refuses. As I remember, the girl then tries to baptize the baby herself, because despite the priest’s cruelty she still wants the church’s blessing for her child.

A few minutes later, as we were leaving the stone circle, Will said casually, “This is a fairy tree here.”

I thought it was an awfully handy coincidence that he’d see a tree directly after I’d asked about them, and I asked, “How do you know?”

He said, “It’s white hawthorne. In a few months this will be covered with white blossoms, like snow.”

I still wasn’t convinced – just because it was a white hawthorne, how did he or anyone know it was a fairy tree? But then he moved closer, peered into the branches, and added “See, there are things hung on it.”

Yes, when I looked carefully, I could see that the branches were indeed draped with bits of cloth. Tapes and ribbons dangled among the green leaves, and higher up branches were strung with beads and necklaces and hung with earrings. Then, too late, I remembered then that someone had told me to take a bit of ribbon with me to the standing stones, but I had no scrap of fabric on my person other than my clothing. In my pockets I had only my big metal room key  and I considered leaving it on the tree but thought the Park Hotel keepers might object, especially as the room number was painted onto the key and it could easily be used by a wicked fairy to gain illegal access to someone’s sleeping chamber.

Kimberley, bless her, started going through her bag, and she found a cute little metal key ring in the shape and colors of a butterfly, which, as I recall, her daughter had given her. She took her keys off it, to give it to the tree.

I said, “Let’s leave it here for all the women who had to leave their babies here, because they were banned from the graveyards.”

Kimberley agreed, and she hung it on a branch just above eye level, where it looked festive and commemorative. “It’s Mothers’ Day today,” she said.

Image

Photo courtesy KimberleyLovato.com

I was surprised to learn that — I’d lost track of the days. I thought of my own mother, so far away, and wished I could be with her, but was glad I’d see her when I went home. It was a lovely, sad, Irish moment, and I was grateful to Kimberley for sharing her trinket – a gift from her daughter — and reminding us of the day’s significance.

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