June 2010 Reflection

Peculiar how sometimes you feel so keenly the absence of a thing, as if the very essence of the world has changed. I sunk my foot in the sand just beneath the tide. Pulling it out, I could feel the grainy turmoil of its absence, the watery silt and salt that rushed in to fill the space my foot had left. Strange. That’s not quite what I feel now though, for while my insides still ache the tide soon resumed its ebb with little trace of the space my foot had been. Perhaps absence serves a purpose, though; it is not until a drum is emptied that its heart beats loud, yearning for what was once there.

That which was, but now is not
That which was, but now is something else
That which never was
That which is, but will soon not be
That which is not yet
I. That which was, but now is not

For the past several months, I have felt the mounding melancholy as one after another of these Mitchell scholars who have become my best friends headed back to the States. It has given me the somewhat comic feeling of a strange adaptation of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery, “And Then There Were None.” Twelve scholars, on an island, with one after the other disappearing into the night. Of course, in this case there is neither murder nor mystery behind the disappearances, but rather family and jobs. I am officially the last one left (one little Mitchell schol sitting all alone; see the poem below, adapted from the Christie novel). It is strange to think that we are already scattered across the globe and will continue to be. It is impossible to think, however, that we have seen the last of each other. In their absence I feel with sad happiness how much their presence meant. From bagel making to blarney stones, GAA to USA, beer brewing to tea taking, laughter to farewell, book of kells to booking aerial adventures, we have grown too close to let that happen. Like a Gordian knot, we cannot be untied.

What a poor job I am doing spilling this well of emotion onto the inky page! Perhaps the poem will help:

Twelve Little Mitchell Schols

Twelve little Mitchell Schols set dough to leaven;
One got himself a union job and then there were eleven.

Eleven little Mitchell Schols danced in Glin;
One wandered off to meditate and then there were ten.

Ten little Mitchell Schols went downtown to dine;
One ate a Philly Cheese steak and then there were nine.

Nine little Mitchell Schols stayed out very late;
A big mosquito caught one and then there were eight.

Eight little Mitchell Schols traveling in Canaan;
One said she’d stay there and then there were seven.

Seven little Mitchell Schols building with bricks;
One said she’d rather plan and then there were six.

Six little Mitchell Schols at Sandycove for a dive;
Seersucker grabbed one and then there were five.

Five little Mitchell Schols sailed to Inis Mor;
One kept on west and then there were four.

Four little Mitchell Schols stared at the Abbey;
One walked in and then there were three.

Three little Mitchell Schols sought a math guru;
Hyperbolic space barred one and then there were two.

Two little Mitchell Schols guarding in the dun;
One flew home and then there was one.

One little Mitchell Schol sitting alone…
II. That which was, but now is something else

Uprooting myself from the Red Sox and tailgates of my home to plop down in city centre (not center) Dublin has been quite an education. Initially, it seemed like I was entering the absence of my own culture and presence another (see first reflection). But over the year, I have begun to appreciate just how mutable, sprawling, and interconnected “culture” can be. Too often did I think of culture as rooted in a place, when it seems likely to be more correct to say it is rooted in a people. Culture, like a stream of fragrant smoke, requires the wick and flame of the candle, but is not likewise restricted in its movement; rather, the smoke swirls and swells, wafting far to mingle its scent with the new, local cologne.

Perhaps, in this sense, the Vikings had a leg up. In the Icelandic Sagas, characters are defined not by their lands (this is secondary), but by their relations Ð familial and otherwise Ð which truly set the heroes in context regardless of whether they are sailing from Norway to England, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, and even setting down brief tendrils in “Vinland,” the Americas. As I sat reading the Sagas in the same Dublin that had been taken over by Vikings over a thousand years earlier, I could see in the family feuds over honor insulted three generations back this new understanding slowly emerge.

It was with eyes primed with this Viking learning that I came across a very interesting example of the wandering culture. I was in my room late one grey night reading folk tales from the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky. I began a tale about the laziest, meanest man you ever did see, who worked as a blacksmith and for one reason or the other was struck by a speck of kindness one day and offered a hungry traveler some food. It turns out that the traveler is St Peter, who then grants the blacksmith three wishes. Being lazy, mean, and good-for-nothing, the blacksmith asks

That anyone who sits in his rocking chair may not get up until he said so
That anyone who grabs his hammer would have to go on pounding it against the anvil until he said so
That anyone who touches his thorny switch-making bush would get stuck on the inside of it until he said they could come out.
Of course St Peter gets mad at these inane wishes and storms out. The blacksmith over the next few days has three fights with his missus, each time she wishes a devil upon him. This being a tale, of course devils show up to take the blacksmith away, but each time he tricks the devils into 1) sitting in his chair, 2) hammering with his hammer, 3) touching the bush. Each time the devils are so distressed that they promise never to come back if he just lets them go. Well, the blacksmith dies, goes to heaven, and meets St Peter, who tells the blacksmith to turn around and go straight to hell. This he does, but when the devils see him coming, they bar the gate and tell him to go straight away from hell! Well, so the blacksmith, also named Will, wanders forever the swamps as a will-o-the-wisp.

Why I am spending so much time on this? It turns out that this story is the same as one collected by W.B. Yeats in the 1800s in Ireland. The only differences being that the Yeats version is more detailed, and thus makes more sense (the blacksmith does not just happen to be nice to the traveler, he, himself starving, feels a rare twinge of sympathy for the hungry old man and thus offers to warm him with his bellows. The Saint is St Moroky, the rocking chair is an armchair, and instead of a switch-makin-bush, he wishes for a money purse that no one could take anything out of except himself; he also grows rich by using these tricks on travelers and townspeople and demanding money to let them go; thus the devil comes to take him away for his bad deeds.

With a flow of people from Ireland to Kentucky, this wisp of culture came to the states, swirled up the east coast, and finally made its way to me, unrecognizable in its origins unless I had had intimate knowledge of the source. Perhaps that is why we see cultures as so separate from each other: they become so intertwined, transformed, cut down, built up, and passed from hand to hand, ear to ear, that we lose track of where they came from. Even though I am without Irish blood, I am beginning to see how much this culture, through its traveling people and traveling words, has woven its spidery threads into my culture. Perhaps it is more correct still to say that culture is rooted not in places or people, but ideas.

III. That which never was

Sitting in a tiny red van on its way to Newgrange, I checked the calendar again. Three weeks exactly. There’s no way. Impossible. Twenty one days? No. there is no way I can possibly fit it all in. So much left undone.
Báidín Fhéilimí, briseadh i d’Toraigh
Báidin Fhéilimí ‘s Fhéilimí ann
Báidín Fhéilimí, briseadh i d’Toraigh
Báidin Fhéilimí ‘s Fhéilimí ann
Báidin bídeach, báidín beosach,
Báidin bóídheach, báidín Fhéilimí
Báidín díreach, báidín deontach,
Báidin Fhéilimí ‘s Fhéilimí ann.
This Irish children’s poem I had come across while reading Barry McCrea’s First Verse speaks of Fheilimi and his little boat going to Toraigh, a small island off the coast of Donegal. Fheilimi’s little boat tries so hard to reach the island, but it crashes, drowning poor Fheilimi. I too will not make it to Toraigh, or to Donegal at all, the one county I missed this year in Ireland. Neither will I make it to the Aran Islands. So much left undone and its absence weighs heavily. This is perhaps the hardest type of absence to bear; my little boat, the DU society of brewers, was like Fheilimi’s sunk in the final hour at the hand of the raging sea of bureaucracy (although we ended up brewing anyway, as the Trinity Underground Brewers [TUB]). Ideas, fragile in their infancy, envisaged but never realized, leave haunting child-like ghosts.

IV. That which is, but soon will not be
Today the fire-alarm went off in the Rubricks, Trinity’s oldest residence and the one in which I am living out my last days in Dublin. Standing outside, I gazed up at its red brick and listened to the surprisingly charming clang-clang-clang. The fire alarm was the type in silent movies, a red saucer-shaped bell with a hammer. Despite their faults, Trinity – and Dublin – has a unique magic that I will miss. The late night conversations in my closet kitchen, the clank of my bicycle as it shakes across the front square cobblestones, the lost tourists, knocking on the grand Trinity gate and sheepishly presenting a key and a card to gain access to my home after a night at the pub, the corned beef at O’Neill’s, my friends the bog people at the national museum, shows at the Abbey.

As I read the First Verse, the main character played out his story of Dublin and Trinity in the pub, street, and buildings that I have come to know; I could feel his movements. And as I did, felt this place as a friend. I will miss it.

V. That which is not yet

I know I am not finished with Ireland and the Mitchells. Adventures lay ahead: collaborations, café rendezvous, conferences, Mary Lou’s parties, return, renewal. And perhaps this time, Fheilimi’s little boat will make it to Toraigh.

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