On Sunday afternoons in the oldest pub in Dublin, there’s music in guitars and in glasses of Guinness.
I go sometimes. I duck under waving pints and make my way to the center of the room. It looks like every other room in every other pub––there are sticky wooden tables littered with paper coasters and amber windows––but it’s the most crowded and I like this room the best. Everyone is singing. There’s also a fiddle and a banjo and an accordion and I always wonder how they play without sheets of music to guide them. I’d like to think that time and whiskey hold their act together. Sitting at this low stool, at a wooden table, in the center of the room, I feel as if I’m at the center of living.
Oddly, this always makes me think of the summers we used to spend at Leo Carillo beach, a wide strip of sand between edges of the Santa Monica mountains. As kids we would take old surfboards out past the waves and sit next to the beds of kelp. Sometimes we would dive beneath and try to swim through the tall stalks reaching leisurely towards the sun, our eyes stinging from the salt. This, admittedly, has nothing to do with Irish pubs, but, looking back at the shore, I always had that same feeling––the feeling of being enveloped in the joy of existence, the feeling of just being, the feeling you get at the center of living.
On a grey Monday at a crosswalk in Maynooth, I was on the phone with an old friend and mentor of mine. We talked about becoming a physician, about having a family, and about people we love. I asked him about the pub and the ocean and about being alive. He thought, and he said, “Living is not meant to happen in chunks of time, but daily.” Daily. This struck me as both obvious and profound. I thought, and I said, “Living is what the Irish do well.”
They do. In almost a year in Ireland, I have concluded that they live well. They make snow angels at every age, leave work early to take advantage of sunshine on the Dublin canals, and jubilantly congregate on Tuesdays through the days of rain. Meeting each other on the road, time is often suspended to reiterate fables and to chat absentmindedly about the weather. Having one such chat, I realized that what links those moments in the pub with those moments in the ocean is the feeling of enjoying the passage of time, without acknowledging that time is passing.
There’s poem I like by Mary Oliver about a grasshopper. This, admittedly, also has nothing to do with Irish pubs, but has everything to do with living. The last (rather popular) line frequently roams around the corners of my consciousness. It reads, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
with my only wild and precious life?
Ireland has taught me that, while I want to spend my one wild and precious life chasing beautiful and worthy goals, I also want to live. I want to sit in pubs and on old surfboards. I want to collect perfect afternoons, like incandescent beads on a string, and carry them with me wherever I go. I want to practice the act and the art of being.
Somehow, I think that Mary Oliver and all the guitar players at all the Irish pubs I have ever patronized would be pleased.