The November People

November wood

There’s something a little different about the month of November. I think (in my slightly superstitious Celtic bones) that it’s because it follows on the heels of Samhain, which we commonly call Halloween nowadays. Where I live I can’t kid myself that it’s autumn anymore, because the bones of winter are on full display, often without the soft covering of snow just yet. November is, undoubtedly, the ‘thin month’, when the veil between this world and that is stretched very thin.

I was walking in my neighbourhood park this morning, which is a large area bordered by forest. There are generally one or two other people there with their dogs even on chilly days, but this morning it was just me and my two dogs all alone.

Generally I love November’s palette—the greys and browns, the soft reds and blacks, the pewter of bare branches and the deep green glow of the evergreens against the backdrop of white. But today it all felt too dark, and slightly ominous. Because November is the haunted month, it’s the month when ghosts seem to roam abroad even during the day and most certainly at night when the moon is shrouded in a thick cloak of mist and chill. At about the farthest point in the park, farthest away from the road and the neighbourhood above (the park sits down below the neighbourhood which is situated on a bluff of sorts) I suddenly had the strong sensation of being watched. I have (as I assume many writers do) an overly active imagination, but still, imagination or otherwise, it feels real enough in the moment. I walked a little faster, with that strange sense that something was going to touch the back of my neck any moment, something was going to curl its sepulchral fingers in my hair. Rationally, I knew there wasn’t anything corporeal there, but my primitive brain, that bit that sits right at the top of the spine, was convinced otherwise in no uncertain terms. So I walked faster, breath high in my throat and heart thudding hard in my chest, my dogs looking at me wondering what the heck was going on.

So now, sitting here with a hot cup of tea in hand, tea lights flickering in the fairy house on my desk, salt lamp glowing against the grey of the day outside, it seems faintly ridiculous and a little delicious because there is nothing like the aftermath of that feeling, once you’re safe and tucked up in your house. But it also makes me think about that sense we often have of eyes watching from the edge of the forest, or from the dark shadows at night. There are times it’s probably no more than an inquisitive mouse, or shrew eyeing us up from the door of their snug burrow. But there are other times, when I wonder what else lingers in the grey air, sitting upon a mist-dark bough, viewing us from the loft of an evergreen bough. What eyes prickle the nape of our neck, what fingers reach out across time and brush our wind-reddened cheeks? What foot walks amongst the roots and frost-heaved soil, leaving no imprint in its wake? What shadow slips across our peripheral vision that we cannot see when looked upon directly? I think, perhaps, they are the November people, those free of the fetters of this earth, who yet linger amongst rock and root and soil and frosted ground. Sometimes they are content to linger at the edge of the forest, or behind that mounded hill, or sit narrow-eyed upon their boughs high in the steely air. But sometimes I think they slip down, like a ribbon of liquid dusk, and they follow in our wake, catching the furled smoke of our breath to mask their own, and sometimes I think they reach through the chill air of November to touch the warmth of what they once were, but no longer are. For what they are now is the November people.

Moon Knowing

Image   Last night I went and stood under the moon, which was just a fingernail paring off full and of that hazed honey colour that only comes with the heat of summer. The back yard was beautiful in the light, all moving shadows and pathways of silver here and there. I could smell the last of the roses, past their blowsy fullness now, and the ripe raspberries over the fence, and the clover thick grass before morning’s dew. I could feel the roundness of the earth, the femininity of it, which is especially apparent in this most fertile of seasons.

   As I stood there, I thought of the deer I had seen earlier in the day, standing knee-deep in the river, drinking water that sparkled with sunlight, as though they were drinking liquid diamonds. I thought of the perfect peace of them, so easily shattered by any instrusion, but perfect in that moment when nothing and no one disturbed them. Somehow, under the moonlight, when it is summer-thick and warm, it feels possible to shift to another way of being, another way of thinking, another life, one where you too have deer pelt upon your shoulders and can run through alfalfa fields in a few simple bounds and slip through the woods unheard. Because moonlight has an energy of its own, it has an old magic at its core that is not felt in the same way in the light of day.

  I thought too about the spider that lived on my bedroom window these last two summers- on the outside that is. My bedroom is three stories up from the ground, and so we don’t get too many visitors other than moths and bats and bumblebees. But the spider built her web there for two summers and it was such a lesson in patience, in life itself, to watch her build her web and how she coped with the vagaries of weather and wind, of heat and chill and rain. It was a wonder to see the web lit by moonlight and to understand that there is magic everywhere, in something as simple as a spider building her web strand by strand. I was sad that she didn’t return this summer, though I know enough of spiders to realize how very brief their lives are.

   My thoughts always wander this way in the light of a full moon, for moonlight contains a different knowing in it, a knowing that is like that of the spider spinning a web, or a deer drinking water, or a crow flying low over the tops of fir trees. It is a knowing of root and water, of earth and the force of the green fuse that grows through it, of chants to old gods and goddesses, of the old Woman who weaves the fates of the world. It is an edge place that opens up and allows for other worlds and other ways of being. It is a magic that occurs every month, and yet its wonder never grows old, never ceases to awe.

  As a woman, I understand the call of the moon, for our bodies yearn toward it in tides just as the sea does. Our bodies are permeable, and we dissolve outward into others as they into us, through words, through touch, through laughter and through tears. Like the tide we withdraw at other times, returning to ourselves, the moon turning her shoulder in the sky and giving us a darkness that is healing and complete. The full moon always calls to mind images of women in covens dancing under the it, calling up the Goddess to be present with them, in them. It calls to mind the ‘Charge of the Goddess’—

‘Whenever you have need of anything

Once in the month and when the moon is full,

Ye shall assemble in some desert place

Or in a forest all together join…’ 

I feel the touch of moonlight on my skin as though it is dusted with the dew that was once believed to make pearls, I feel the energy of it and know it as feminine and of a knowing that precedes my time, our time, humanity’s time on this fragile planet. I feel my connection to every thing on the planet and how necessary each of those things is to my survival, to all our survival. Call it a moon knowingness, in which it is fine to whisper to the moon as the clouds race across her, limned gold and shadow, in which it is fine to ask a spider for advice or to realize that the owl skimming on slants of silver light knows wonders you will never encounter, has wisdom not imparted to humans. And that that is as it should be, as it was meant to be.

  When the next moon rises and waxes golden-full of August mead, it will be a different entity, for as warm as the nights may be, they will no longer smell of roses and ripe raspberries on their thorny cane, and it will hold autumn’s sharper edge in its roundness, for summers pass as quickly as a spider’s life. And that is as it should be.

Blessed Be.

  

Spring Ramble

IMG_0282   I wear old shoes when I walk, because I can’t bring myself to break in the new ones that are now over a year old and still pristine, though finally out of their box. But spring is a time for old shoes, for meandering through mud and puddle, and getting dirty and wet and absolutely reveling in it. My dog and I went rambling today, and found enough mud and puddle to satisfy even him.

Ah yes, spring has sprung once again, and though she comes around every year, this maiden of the seasons, still it feels like a miracle after all the months of old man winter holding court and lording it over us.

I can feel it, the great tidal symphony building underground in root and soil, ready to race in green-silver notes up through the trees and shrubs and hedging, flushing every blade of grass and setting the rose cane to blushing. It’s an old story this one, but I never get tired of it, for every new flower, every reed swimming up from watery depths is a new chapter, a different way of looking at and through the world to other times, when we lived in forests and were connected, in the most basic of ways, with the bend of a tree bough, the growth of a lichen, the up-sprout of a patch of mushrooms in some hidden fairy glade. The forest is deeply rooted in us all, there’s a reason most fairy tales, which is the folklore of many of us, most often take place in a forest, or start on the very edge of one, with the real adventure beginning after the heroine sets off into the forest.

This time of year I note the changes on my daily walk, because spring is swift in her devices and in the northern climes in which I live, she has to make hay whilst the sun shines. Everything is tightly budded right now, that great surge of green tightly wrapped inside itself, ready to burst at a touch it seems, though it will, as green things do, unfurl with a slow elegance that is mesmerizing to watch.

The birds have returned, the robins everywhere it seems, so much so that I had to drive with great caution one afternoon last week, because they were literally everywhere, in the roadway, on lawns, flying at my windows and doors. It all felt very Hitchcockian there for a few hours. They are merely drunk on spring though, as they are each year, as are we all as we shed woolen layers and cumbersome boots, and emerge like grubs from the soil blinking at spring’s great light. The geese are back too, in park and field and so I alternate my normal routes, so as not to agitate them unnecessarily. I know many people find them annoying and intrusive, but I always find that rich, considering there is no more intrusive and destructive creature on the planet than we humans. I’m still waiting on the arrival of the woodpeckers who live in our back yard each year, creating much drama and fuss, and endless hours of bird watching enjoyment. I’m waiting too for the spider who has built her web outside my bedroom window these last two years, to return. I know a spider’s life span is such that it’s not likely the same spider returning, but I wonder what trace element lingers there, what secret whisper a spider hears on the wind that guides her there to that particular window? To see a web that closely, without fear of the spider pinching your nose, has been a treat and a lesson in infinite patience that I need to pay more heed to.

Soon that bramble hedge in the park will go from looking like a malevolent crone, who means you ill, to a young maiden clad all in green-o, though her thorns are every bit as sharp, just well hidden in spring. The blue spruces behind which my little house shelters, have turned that soft powdery blue that signals their boughs preparing to push out further into the world, or over my pathway, as it were, so they can rake my unsuspecting scalp as I dash to the car.

The massive Douglas Fir that stands sentinel over the path I walk each day, is filling up with new nests, new eggs, new downy fledglings. This particular tree, for some reason, has become a dear friend. We see each other almost every day and I often filch a tiny bit of frozen sap from its bark- much to the detriment of my coat pockets. It dwarfs everything around it, and stands alone, like some old soldier from another time, remembering other eras, other lives, other feet that trod past its roots. I like to stop by it, look out over the park below, feel its bark beneath my hand and the life that pulses through it, in it. I always feel it could tell me amazing things—the things that happen when no human is there to see, the night time doings of both marsh and pond and forest’s edge— if it could speak, but then I realize it does speak in the way of air and tree boughs and bark and sap, which is an altogether more sophisticated language than my own. When I haven’t walked that way in awhile, I almost feel I owe the tree an explanation- “Sorry, Tree, here I am again, I know I haven’t been by in a bit, but I thought of you often…” The tree, of course, soaring one hundred feet above my head, doesn’t need my assurances, and time I’m sure means something very different to a tree that old.

There is so much to look forward to this time of year- each bud and blossom, each tender green shoot putting its head up through the soil, checking to see if the elements are favourable. How at night, with the windows open, I can smell things growing, that indescribable scent of sap and life and green. How I am giddy with relief when my roses turn out to have survived another winter, and all the beauty I know those bare canes hold within them. How everywhere the water rises and rushes, as though suddenly it’s in a mad hurry to get somewhere and the pond is alive with ducks and tadpoles and the upwelling silt, and the willows cluster thick round its edges, gossiping in the dialect of pale green filigree. The whole world feels drenched with water, with life, with potential. And maybe that is why so many of us love spring, aside from the obvious, is because it reminds us that life is filled with potential, with the possibility of renewal and rebirth.

Spring is Mother Nature’s most opulent season, and she puts on a show for us that we need to stop and see and listen to and feel in our bones and in the mud between our toes. Spring has sprung, so wear old shoes and go rambling, get wet, get dirty, slosh through a puddle, get twigs in your hair, stop to watch the geese skim the rivers and the butterflies floating on the wind. Climb a tree and listen to the stories it has to tell you, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Anna

 

   For some reason yesterday I got to thinking about Anna. Strange how memory works sometimes, pulling up a stray event or day from many years ago. I met Anna on a park bench almost twenty-two years ago, and I have never seen her since. But she had a profound effect on my life that echoes right into the present.

   What I remember is that it was a lovely fall day, still mellow out, the leaves starting to turn but the sun warm enough to warrant a visit to the outdoor Dairy Queen for ice cream for myself and my little girl. We took our cones and went to sit on a park bench not far away. After a little while, an elderly lady dressed all in red came to ask if she could sit with us, of course I moved over and said ‘yes.’ She looked ordinary enough, an elderly lady with permed grey hair and a vinyl purse, net shopping bags and the small cart that most elderly women took with them on the bus, so they could do their shopping and convey it home with relative ease. But Anna was anything but ordinary.  

   We exchanged pleasantries as she sat and arranged her cart and her purse. I couldn’t help but notice her accent. So I asked her where she was from. She told me Poland and that she had left there shortly after the war.

   “I am Jewish, you see,” she said quietly. I did see, immediately and all too well. From a safe distance of both time and geography, of course, but I had recently read Leon Uris’ ‘Mila 18’ so I had some small understanding of what Polish Jews had gone through in WWII.

   I’m a writer and have been for a long time, so it took everything I had not to ask her a hundred questions on the spot. But Anna was, for all her age, rather formidable looking and I sensed that she would speak if she wanted to, or would not, but it wasn’t for me to pry or ask questions that she might well not want to answer. But she did start to speak and it became one of the most amazing hours of my life.

   Anna had lived in Warsaw, and then once the war came, Anna was put on a train and taken to Auschwitz. Auschwitz is one of those words that stands so stark in our minds and hearts that it needs no further explanation. She was young, unmarried, and somehow she survived. She didn’t talk much about the camp, because, as she said, there were so few words to really tell me what it had been like. I knew what she meant, because some things are beyond the description of mere words.

   Mostly she told me about her life after the war, about how she had married a Polish man who had not been a particularly good husband, and how they had five children together and how she felt she had failed them as a mother. I can still see her profile, and the crimson leaves of the maples behind her as she spoke about her children, how none of them visited her anymore, nor had anything to do with her. She said it was her own fault, that she had been bitter for so long that she had not really been able to open her heart to her children, that she felt they could never understand where she had been, what she had endured merely to survive. That for so long she had seen life as just that—survival.

   “Don’t ever be bitter,” she said, “it wastes life. I may die alone because I was so bitter, and if I do it will be my own fault.”

   As she left, she bent down and kissed my daughter’s head, who was at that point, between the ice cream and sun, profoundly asleep. Then Anna turned back and put her hand, age-spotted and veined on my forearm. I won’t ever forget what she said next.

   “You cherish that baby,” she said, “because all she needs is love, so just give that to her every day, the rest of it doesn’t matter and the time, the time will go so much more swiftly than someone your age can ever understand.”

   She was so right.

   Anna, if I could speak to you now, I’d tell you, I listened that day, I really heard you, and often it was your words that came to me when I was in the middle of a rough day, or feeling like a terrible mother, I heard you and I want you to know you made me a better mother, and a better human being. And Anna, you were so right, the time did go so much faster than someone my age could have ever understood. I hope that your children found forgiveness in their hearts, I hope they found understanding, and I hope one of them understood how swiftly time goes by, and I hope one of them was holding your hand when you left this world.Image

The Disappeared

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   One of my addictions on the internet is a site called Websleuths. It’s a forum where people of all kinds from all around the world read about, discuss and often work very hard to solve real crimes. There are, quite often, people who are retired Law Enforcement, or worked in the criminal justice system in one way or another. Mostly though, it’s arm chair detectives who sometimes become far more than that. I’ve followed many cases on Websleuths, both current and cold. Some I check in on from time to time, cold cases that I hope the great strides made in DNA technology will some day solve. 

   Many people there have become involved with the Doe Network, an amazing organization devoted to giving the unidentified dead their names and their dignity back in what measure they can. In some cases people at Websleuths have been instrumental in making the connections between missing persons and unidentified bodies. I find this amazing and so inspirational. 

   I think my husband finds my fascination with all this stuff a little morbid sometimes. I can’t quite explain it, only that I think all of us, to one degree or another, are haunted by people who have simply disappeared. Who can ever forget little Adam Walsh, or Etan Patz, or more recently Kyron Horman or Haleigh Cummings? Or any of the other thousands of people, whether they be children or not, that go missing never to return home to their loved ones. 

   The case that led me to Websleuths though was one concerning a grown man, not a child. His name is Brian Schaffer and he went missing April 1st, 2006. Brian’s case was so odd, a case of someone who seemingly did disappear into thin air. I was haunted by him for weeks. Here was a young, healthy fit man in med school who walked into a bar one night, with friends I might add, and never walked out, though the friends did, claiming to have no knowledge of what happened to Brian. Brian’s mother had died only three weeks before, and many thought Brian disappeared because of stress, that he simply wanted to ‘opt out’ for a bit. It never felt that way to me- he seemed like a kind, smart man on his way to big things in his life, he had a girlfriend he was planning to propose to, etc. Two years after Brian disappeared his father was killed in a freak accident when a branch fell from a tree in his own back yard and killed him. It was mind-boggling that so much tragedy had befallen one family. Mostly though, I couldn’t fathom how someone, living a world of CCTV, could disappear as though he had vanished into the ether. I have never believed he disappeared of his own volition. Brian haunts me to this day. I can only imagine how the one remaining member of his family, his brother, must feel. 

   Another case I have followed for a long time is that of Morgan Harrington- the beautiful girl who disappeared from a Metallica concert, because she couldn’t get back into the arena after going outside. In Morgan’s case her body was found, but the case still remains unsolved. I read her mother Gil’s blog, which often consists of letters to her daughter. It’s heartbreaking beyond imagining what her parents have gone through. I think Morgan’s case hit me especially hard because I have a daughter roughly the same age, who had just gone off to university a month before Morgan’s disappearance. I have great admiration for all the Harringtons have done in Morgan’s memory, choosing to turn their pain into positive forward movement, so that others might not have to suffer the same tragedy they have. Brian Schaffer’s dad did the same, before his tragic accident.

   I had a close call as a child once or twice, maybe most of us did and didn’t even know it at the time. I was ten, and riding my bike home from a friend’s house, it was getting late, twilight had set in and I was racing to get home before the street lights came on. I had to be home by the time those lights came on, that was my curfew. About halfway home I realized that a young man was following me, was actually running to try to keep up with me. He didn’t say anything to me and at first I thought maybe he was just going in the same direction. But when I got home and pulled my bike up the little hill into my yard, he came up the hill, he was in my yard. And that was when, as I tugged on the basement door to get in the house, I realized my parents were not home and I was locked out. I can’t adequately convey how panicked I was, I somehow knew he meant me harm and he kept coming toward me. He was probably five feet away from me when my dog came barreling around the corner and went at him. My parents had been out for a walk, and got home in the nick of time. My dad asked him what the hell he was doing, and he had nothing to say just turned around and ran. To this day I wonder what might have happened had they not arrived home when they did. Could I have become a face on a milk carton? 

   I had another incidence in college. I lived out of the main part of the city with my grandmother, in an area that was somewhat more rural. I had to take a bus into the college each morning. I had a man approach me one morning to tell me that he and his father watched me each morning as I waited for the bus, and had decided I would make a good girlfriend for the son. I laughed it off at the time, but I shudder in retrospect. Needless to say I changed bus stops. But it gives you pause, thinking how life sometimes turns on a dime, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was lucky at least once, maybe more than that.  I was also stalked for five years, a subject I may blog about some day, or may not, it’s still a rough topic for me. I used to joke that if I ever disappeared my friends should direct the police to this man’s back yard.

   Maybe this is why I feel I owe the missing the minute it takes to stop, to read the fliers, to take in the details of their disappearance, to just stand for a minute and acknowledge what has happened to them. Because just in case, just once, I might know something, might have seen something that actually was meaningful but didn’t seem to be in the moment. So the next time you see a Missing poster, please stop and take the time to read it and really look at the face in the photo. Take the time to acknowledge that we all lose something when one of us disappears. 

   Because one day you could be anchored securely in the world with home and friends and family, anchored by love and tradition and familiar roads and pathways both literal and figurative, and then the next day, without warning to either yourself or those who loved you, you could vanish like smoke upon the air, leaving no trace in your wake. It wasn’t as though this was a thing peculiar to one land, for every country, every town, every lonely forest road had that same ability to swallow people whole, telling no tale on its unmarked ground, in its silent buildings. –Fr. Flights of Angels

 

The Right to Write

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Last night I hit one of those walls you sometimes hit in a writer’s life. Well, we all hit them in our various ways, in our various lives, in our various careers and dreams. So, consider yourself warned, this isn’t a peppy, happy blog post. It’s the nth month of winter, and my soul feels about as grey as that slushy snow outside my window.

So much of a writer’s life is consumed by the activity, or rather the bewildering morass of the world of marketing and promotion, ie. How to Sell More Books. The current wisdom (and I use the word wisdom with some sarcasm) is that a writer should spend 80% of her time marketing, and 20% actually writing. And 80% of that 80% should be talking about kittens and unicorns and pretty much anything other than writing.  The thing is, I didn’t get into writing to become a marketing wiz, and maybe that’s profoundly naive of me, but I am in my 40s and don’t belong to the Twitter generation. Hell, I am still trying to figure out how Twitter actually works, never mind building some big audience on it.

See, this is the thing, I’m a writer, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. My second sin is that I write Big Books books that require concentration, I don’t write fast food books that can be consumed in one sitting. I believe there are readers out there for books that require more. When I write I bring my A-game to the table- always. I think about character and plot and how the story lines will dovetail, I think about each character’s truth and I listen intently to what they have to tell me. I never force story lines, simply for the sake of plot and I never sacrifice character for the sake of plot either. My readers are smart and they are going to smell falsity from a mile away. I think about historical timelines, and the distance from A to B, both literally and figuratively, I think about all the threads to be picked up from the last book, and how I’m going to catch up new readers without bogging old readers down with information dumps from previous books. I think about each word and its placement, and try as often as I can, without purpling up the prose, to make it beautiful enough that the reader will want to read it again and again. I’m not thinking about what to tweet. Maybe I should be, I don’t know.

My own personal motto, to be found on any number of writing memes these days is: Write the Book(s) You Want to Read. I love big, epic, lush, sprawling books that carry you away into another world, where you live and breathe and laugh and die with the characters. And that’s what I write.  What I write about is Ireland and her history, because it’s fascinating to me, because it’s a country I love, because it matters to me. Because it’s in my blood. I’m well aware that writing about the IRA and the Irish Troubles is not the sexiest topic, but it’s endlessly interesting to me, in a way that vampires (which commercially would have been a better writing move on my part) just aren’t. I’m passionate about it and I’m passionate about the characters I’ve created, and I know that comes through in my work, because the comment I most often hear from my readers is that they feel they know the characters, are friends with them, that they wonder about what goes on in the bits of their lives between books, that they cry reading about them after a long spell of not, just because they are happy to be back with them.

It’s why my favourite show is ‘Sons of Anarchy’, because it’s the same- epic, big, bold, but with characters so human that they can rip your heart out with a single line like- ‘I got this.’ I write because I can’t not write, to me it’s like breathing and when I go long spells without writing, I get really, really cranky and the dammed up creativity inside just about kills me. That need to create, for me, is only assuaged by writing, not by any of the other dozen creative endeavours I’ve embarked on, only to give up in boredom a few months later.

So this is why I can’t spend my day on Twitter, tweeting about anything but writing, in the hope that someone there will buy my books. Because I have to write, because my time is precious and with 45 staring me in the face, I realize that time is rather finite.

So the wall is there in front of my face and though maybe I will care next week or next month, today I am tired of Kindle numbers, I’m tired of trying to figure out the next marketing method (that nine times out of ten ends up being a waste of time and money). I’m tired of being asked why I don’t write about a trendier topic, or why I don’t try my hand at children’s books, though that one isn’t asked as much since my children got older. I’m tired of trying to solicit reviews from people who cannot be bothered to even write you a polite refusal. I’m tired of defending how my books are published. I’m tired of being gracious about reviews that are flat out mean-spirited and get personal in tone- from total strangers that don’t know me, but apparently didn’t just hate the book, but also hate me for some unknown reason. I’m tired of the endless marketing e-mails that land in my inbox from writers who have found a way to make it big on Kindle, though these always give me pause- if they are doing so well as writers, why are they constantly pushing their ‘how to get rich on Kindle’ kits, rather than writing? I’m tired of hearing about the ‘death of the novel’ about how a book can’t compete with all the other things out there vying for a person’s attention.

Today I will merely exercise my Right to Write. I will write for myself and those who are already my readers and stop worrying about the ones who aren’t. I will stop mourning that vast world-wide audience I once dreamed of having- though my audience is world-wide they are only vast in the geographical sense, not the numerical sense. I will write because I do not have a choice. I will write because I am not a marketing wiz. I will write because I am a writer.

 

 

 

The Most Healing of Pleasures

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I am one of those rare persons who rather likes winter. For one thing I face anywhere from five to seven months of it each year, this is Canada, after all, and for another winter has a certain grace to it that I revel in. Winter is that rare time in our modern world where it’s permissible to slow down, to turn inward and contemplate self. January to me is that time of inward turning, the holiday madness is over, and there’s still a long stretch of dark and cold and snow to get through.

I seek beauty in January, in the pages of picture books from long ago- a personal favourite is the ‘Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady’. This book always makes me long to learn how to draw, or to have been blessed with that ability in my fingers from birth- alas, it was not to be. 🙂 I often peruse paintings- I’m a big fan of the Pre-Raphaelites and find their lush canvases and retreat to mythology feeds something in me this time of year. But what I most look forward to this time of year is the retreat into the world of books.

The literary scholar Harold Bloom states that reading is the most healing of pleasures, that it returns you to ‘otherness’ either in yourself or in friends- those old friends, or new that exist between the covers of books. I never consciously thought of reading as healing, but I was struck by the word when I read it in Bloom’s book ‘How to Read and Why’. I realized I have often fled to books in times of trouble, in times of sorrow I tend to hide between the covers of old favourites and seek sanctuary there. Those friends never fail, even when, or perhaps especially when I know the exact line that comes next, the bit of description or the next adventure I will fall into with them. Neither television nor movies (as much as I love some of what they offer) provides healing in the way that words on paper do. There is a list that I consider my ‘White Night’ list. Those books you reach for when it’s 3 am and the world seems a dark and lonely place. Every true reader has such a list. The first such book that went on mine was ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I love ‘Alice’. I first read it this time of year, as my original copy (long lost now) was a Christmas gift when I was eight. I have always understood the magic of reading from the first time I could string a few words together. I think most of us remember that moment in our lives, when suddenly pages in a book weren’t just a jumble of print, but suddenly those bits of type became a story, and the story became something we could enter, a magic portal, the doors of which remain open our entire lives. Reading ‘Alice’ was one of those pivotal moments in my reading life though, where I slipped so totally through that portal, or down that rabbit hole as it were, that I never truly returned. I’ve been an ‘Alice’ addict my entire life- if I was only allowed to take one book with me to that mythical desert island, it might well be ‘Alice.’ I read it over and over when I was eight, until my father worried I was developing an unhealthy obsession with the book. He may have had a point, as I still am obsessed even if I’ve cut the re-reads down to once a year.

Bloom also states in his book that we read to feel less alone, because friendships wax and wane with the seasons and because life goes awry despite the best laid plans. We read to understand ourselves and our fellow man, we read to fall in love, we read to escape, we read to learn and better our own minds, but mostly we read because it is so damn wonderful. Falling in love with a book is something we never forget and we often wish, with the best ones, that we could erase them from our minds and read them for the first time again, much as we might wish to see an old lover through fresh eyes once more.

My own White Night list includes Charles Dicken’s Bleak House, L.M Montgomery’s Emily books, Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and her superlative House of Niccolo, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Leon Uris’ Trinity –my favourite standalone novel of all time, and sometimes, I admit, I turn to the very familiar comforts of my own characters.

So this winter as you deal with ice and snow and long nights, turn to that most healing of pleasures and read, read because you’ll make new friends or visit over tea with old ones, read to be haunted by the visions of other men, read to fall in love, read to heal the soul bruises that the last year has put upon you, read to step once again through that magic portal.

As for myself, I’ll be down the rabbit hole, at a Mad Tea Party, looking for that one clean cup, and in the process restoring, as the Mad Hatter once said, ‘my muchness’.

The Boys in the Band, Or If I Had a Time Machine…

   The other night I watched an episode of ‘Lewis’- you know the British detective show that takes place in Oxford. Partly I watch it for the locale, Oxford is stunningly beautiful after all, and the show highlights that very well. Plus the show is a descendant of ‘Inspector Morse’ and I loved that show, mostly because of Morse and the wonderful portrayal of his alcoholic, music loving, beauty yearning self by the actor John Thaw.

But I digress, I’m here to talk about a whole other set of British men. This particular episode was about a group of young students and revolved mostly around two, one autistic and a wildly talented artist and the other a girl who was brilliant at ‘making stuff up’. She was obsessed with the poet Shelley, so I felt an instant affinity with her. After all I make stuff up too, and I have long been in love with the Romantic poets— the big ones— Keats, Shelley and most of all Byron, the original bad boy, the rock star of the early 19th century. The first one maybe— his was the madness of celebrity as we understand it now. At one point in the show Inspector Hathaway refers to the three princes of the Romantic movement as ‘the boys in the band’. I loved the analogy, because it was who they were in many respects— they were the Beatles of their time.

During the writing of my last novel I read a biography of Shelley by the incomparable Richard Holmes, I lived, loved, cried and died a little with Shelley for the space of two weeks. Holmes  admitted that he had begun to write cheques with the dates from Shelley’s time rather than his own, during the writing of the book, and that after the book was done he was suicidal for a bit, almost drowning himself because he felt so lost once he could no longer live in Shelley’s world. I understood because even in the reading I had imagined myself so thoroughly into Shelley’s universe that I didn’t want to be in my own. It’s not that their world was some enchanted sphere either, Shelley’s life was very messy, and he was a complicated man, both cruel and incredibly kind, both crazy and perfectly horribly sane. He cleaned up the messes left behind from Byron’s emotional entanglements, but Byron often returned the favour by cleaning up Shelley’s financial woes. They loved each other, they hated each other, they frustrated the hell out of each other, in short they had a real friendship. In that book Shelley rose up whole through the pages and I came to know him as a man, as a failure, as a poet, as a husband who was often careless and absent, as a person so weighed down with grief that death might have seemed a relief, when it came for him that day in the Gulf of Spezia.

Shortly after I read the book, a dear friend and I exchanged e-mails on what we would pack to spend a summer in Italy with Byron and Shelley. I imagined my trunks, leather with brass handles, the carriage I would arrive in, the dresses I would bring, what I could not live without from my own time (I spent some time wondering how to rig up a hot shower and wondering how long it would be before I stopped jonesing for my one can of Diet Coke each day). I imagined in detail what such a summer would be like, how we would roam the Tuscan hills, drinking wine amongst the poppies and sunflowers, eating olives and whether or not bringing a modern toothbrush along would signal to my Romantic men that I was no ordinary woman. But mostly in my daydream (which lasted for a few months), I just listened, listened to their ideas, their words, because these men were the pinnacle of the Romantic movement. They were ahead of their time, and part of a social movement that changed the way we all view the world now.

I wanted to understand what Romanticism was really about, and so I read many definitions of it but this was one that struck me:

…a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals.”

That definition spoke to the heart of Romanticism, at least for me, it explained to me why we are still so fascinated by them and their work so long after. It is because they speak so eloquently, and yet so rawly, to the human condition- unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals. Hence the term hopeless romantic. I should know, I am one, after all.

While in Italy in July, I visited the Keats Shelley House in Rome- it was the house that John Keats spent the final months of his all too brief life. It was a tiny slice of England right there by the Spanish Steps. It ended up being my favourite spot in Italy, despite the glories of Florence and the seductress that is Venice. I had seen the David, Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’, Brunelleschi’s Dome, the hills of Tuscany- but it was the tiny bedroom of a tuberculotic English boy that struck me at my core. What had he not lived to tell us, what words had died with him, or was he only meant for that brief space? For flames that burn high and hot so quickly, must needs die down quickly too. Of course they all died young, and perhaps that is why we still love them so, human nature is odd that way. We don’t quite revere the men who managed a long life and a happy marriage in the same way.

Dead poets, it’s hard to imagine they matter some days in our technological warp-drive world where everyone is looking to the next thing, the next distraction, the next hit of the entertainment drug. But I think they matter more than ever, because they can stop us for a moment and deliver us back to our selves, the selves that we want to be, our better natures, they speak to the yearning that we sometimes think we alone experience. They speak to our souls. Because their words can still stop me now, two hundred and more years later.

My love for these poets is not so rare, women will always have a love for the bad boys—right now half the world seems to be in love with a variety of vampires and werewolves.  But me, I’m with the boys in the band.

This isle and house are mine, and I have vow’d

Thee to be lady of the solitude.

And I have fitted up some chambers there

Looking towards the golden Eastern air,

And level with the living winds, which flow

Like waves above the living waves below.

I have sent books and music there, and all

Those instruments with which high Spirits call

The future from its cradle, and the past

Out of its grave, and make the present last

In thoughts and joys which sleep, but cannot die,

Folded within their own eternity.

Our simple life wants little, and true taste

Hires not the pale drudge Luxury to waste

The scene it would adorn, and therefore still,

Nature with all her children haunts the hill.

The ring-dove, in the embowering ivy, yet

Keeps up her love-lament, and the owls flit

Round the evening tower, and the young stars glance

Between the quick bats in their twilight dance;

The spotted deer bask in the fresh moonlight

Before our gate, and the slow, silent night

Is measur’d by the pants of their calm sleep.

Be this our home in life, and when years heap

Their wither’d hours, like leaves, on our decay,

Let us become the overhanging day,

The living soul of this Elysian isle,

Conscious, inseparable, one.

Percy Bysshe ShelleyKeats_small

The Measure of My Dreams…

In the entrance of my home as soon as you come in the door, there are three pictures facing you. One is of my grandmother, circa 1968 (my birth year as it happens) in a jaunting cart in Ireland. The next is of a mural in Belfast, depicting Mother Ireland, long red hair flowing down her back, looking out over her green fields. The last is the one above, though it’s been blown up and had the light post removed. The mural above is in Belfast as well and depicts women picking potatoes in the fields during the Famine. Yes, the potato famine. I keep the photos there because all three, in some respect, represent my history- where I came from, before I even was, what my family and people endured and in the end, I believe, triumphed over. The photos remind me too, that I am blessed with what, to my ancestors, would seem a soft life indeed.

Potatoes were the stuff of life, literally, for the Irish of that time. Their diet in the main was potatoes, milk, butter and more potatoes. I can only imagine the horror when the crop failed- not once but three times, turning black and liquid in the fields. The Famine was a watershed moment in Irish history, it changed everything and is the main reason the Irish are scattered so broadly over the face of the earth. To try to encompass the tragedy of it is beyond the mere power of words. It is the dividing line in Irish history, all that came before is pre-Famine history. What came after was unprecedented.

Long ago, I read about Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and his belief that we carry the memories of our ancestors within ourselves, of our entire species actually. I believe that to be true, that in some aspect we carry those memories and experiences with us, always. It accounts for many strange instances of deja vu, or of knowing something that you have no prior experience with. For me it would explain why I feel like Ireland is the home I left long ago, and wasn’t able to return to, except for visits that never last long enough.

My own family didn’t leave Ireland until well after the Famine- some sixty years after. I don’t know how they survived it, though it’s likely many of them didn’t. On one side at least, they were farmers. Reading about the Famine was a watershed moment for me too, in my studies of Irish history. It made sense of so many things, it made sense of the Troubles in some respects. Perhaps what is most tragic about the Famine is that it was entirely preventable- there was enough food in Ireland to feed her people several times over, but it was shipped out to England on a regular basis, guarded by army troops to keep away the starving.

And while the scope of the Famine is beyond words, a writer must always try. I wrote the following on a weekend, when I was holed up in my attic working on something else. This woman stepped whole from the shadows of my unconscious and took me over for two days. I stumbled down the stairs at the end of it and said to my husband, ‘I wrote something, though I’m not sure what it is.’ I felt that way because I didn’t actually feel I had done more than take dictation from this woman, I had the feeling she was reading the words over my shoulder as I wrote. I had the feeling they were her words, and not mine in any fashion. I still feel that way, these many years later. I do wonder, sometimes, if she was an ancestor of mine and I am carrying her memories within me, taking them forward, and sharing them in what way I can.

copyright 2012 Cindy Brandner

It was the whole breadth of my experience. Fifteen square miles of soil and wee cottages. The townland, the baile of my youth became the expanse of all my years. You will think I was an ignorant peasant who knew not how to want more. You will smile at my simplicity, spare me a moment’s sorrow and forget. But I tell you- the measure of my dreams was the span of a world entire.

I’d like to tell you my story, but first you must understand my landscape. Will you come? Will you look through history’s kaleidoscope, knowing that the passage of time distorts vision and makes the dead seem small, even toylike. As though we existed in dioramas, the sort found in folk museums.

I will not bother with the name of my village, for it no longer exists on any map or even as a ripple caught in the traces of living memory. Its roots are there in overgrown stone foundations and depressions in deep grass that were once cart tracks and paths made for feet to fly along.

There were twenty-one homes contained on three hundred acres, but that is merely a note for the historians. You couldn’t see the baile until you were almost upon it, it merged with the countryside in an organic manner, a small huddle that contained a wealth of tangled relations, loves, hates- in short all the salt of life. Even our memories were scarcely personal, they were communal, shared, transformed through the tellings and re-tellings.

But I think, in the beginning at least, I was different. I wanted all my thoughts for myself, I clutched at memory like straws of salvation. The fire that was to ruin me was burning in me even then.

From the day I was born I could hear the grass grow in the fields. It was I, afterall, who first heard the potatoes in their death cries. When people spoke I saw the colors their words left behind. Some said I was a changeling, child of the fairyfolk, but they said it with fondness and indulgence. Later they would mutter from the corners of sunken mouths that my mother ought to have left me on a hillside to die. I cannot disagree that, in the end, it might have been better for all concerned had my mother done just that.

Can you define the moment that changed your life, that put your feet on the path to heaven or to hell? I can, though the moment was small and consisted only of five words.

It was the hedgemaster who showed me The Word, who stirred the embers in my chest into a consuming blaze. It was myself who sacrificed all to that fire. How was I, who thought hearts were sexless, to know that words were not for women? For words sang to me, ran their relentless tunes and dirges through me like knives. I was cursed with the desire to set them down, to carve them with the perfume of ink into the flesh of paper.

But paper was a feast, and ink unheard of.  So I set my words in soil and rock, cut them into tree bones, wrote them with blood let free from my wrists and ankles onto rock walls and wooden tables. Later I would open those same wrists in an effort to stave off death. I think those cuts were cursed though, that the fire that burned in my blood, poisoned others.

     The Word was contained within a small blue-bound book, frayed about the edges. It was the architect of my disaster.

The hedgemaster was a fine strap of a man, with a voice that could draw blood from the wind. Would it have mattered had the Word first been spoken by an ugly man with grated tin for a voice?

What words, you ask, could cause the downfall of a life barely begun? Five of them, written by a tuberculous Englishman. Ironic that it should be an English poet that led an Irish girl down the road to perdition.

‘…And her eyes were wild…’  Five words and I felt a desire that left me without breath. I was possessed, obsessed, filled with an unholy need for those pages. The man who’d written those words knew me, I felt it surely.

I slept with the hegdemaster for that book. Are you shocked? Don’t be, for who can measure the madness of such a desire? Who can say how these passions become twisted when invested in the body of a woman?  He’d spoken Keats to me, and unlocked the door of my cage, that was all the seduction I required. He took me down amongst long grass and dusty bluebells up by the old oak where the townland couples courted. Behind closed eyes I saw the rainbow of the words I would soon possess. My terrible greed cost me dear though. For when the hedgemaster moved on, he left more behind than the Word.

My son was born under a sickle moon, to a mother bewitched by the Word and a father who did not share his blood. I married the boy next door so as not to bring greater disgrace upon my family than was necessary. He was a good man, with a broad back and a kind heart.

I never lied to him, I told him about the Word and how it burned within me like a holy flame. How to hold it back was to let poison free to gnaw my insides. I thought, fool that a young girl can be, he understood. Even when I realized he did not, I thought I could have my words in the dark of night, in the bones of trees, bits of soil and spilled blood.

But God, it seemed, had other plans for me and mine.

I remember the night it began. A fog, the color of iron, came rolling down over the

hills. It was a vapor, thick and creeping, pouring itself into crevices and hollows. Into the cup of leaf and vein of soil. It seemed as though Death had breathed out over the land. In the morning there was a fine white dust on the potato stalks, their hardy necks bending already under the lethal touch.

We didn’t understand at first. No one ever understands when they are face to face with disaster. It had come so quietly afterall. On hands and knees we scrabbled in the dirt- only to find despair. We didn’t know that was to be the season God abandoned Ireland. He didn’t show his face again for many a year. He left us with four mouths to feed, and no food with which to do it. I hated Him, and yet understood the impulse to run away from such need.

I cannot explain the weight of hunger to one that has never known more than a moment’s growl in the belly. Hunger consumes, it eats you alive. It crushes you when it is not merely a question of where to find your next meal, but a matter of knowing there will never be a next meal.

When the British came to burn it down there were holes in the thatch of our cottage, for my husband no longer had the strength to patch them. The soot-soaked rain streamed in brown ribbons upon us all, but we no longer had the means to care for such small discomforts.

I know it sounds wretched to you, but I could see the stars through those holes. Do you understand- I could still see the stars.

The landlord offered us one passage on a ship. Redemption for one, damnation for the rest. We sent the hedgemaster’s son.

What price redemption? The landlord only wanted the Word, some pages with ink you may say, a small price to pay for the lives of your family. He might as well have asked for my soul.

Did I give it to him? Of course I did, but after I saw my son safe on the road that would take him away forever and always, I stole it back. It was my soul afterall and who can count the cost of such a thing? For my sins my husband took the blame- my husband died, tied to a flogging pole in the village square. Back stripped down to the bones. He ended hating me. Do not blame him. How was he to know he’d married a woman who contained within her the madness of congealed quartos and stifled sonnets?

Our first daughter was carted off to the foundling home.  I never did find her, though I tried, please understand that I tried. I walked two weeks amongst the lice and dirt and small throated cries to an absent God, that infested that small corner of hell. The flux took my youngest boy while I was gone.

The baby was the last to die. I count upon the clicking of my unfleshed fingers how long since she departed and find I cannot separate the days, they swarm together now in a mass of unending misery. I remember how she looked though, like an odd fever dream, a translucent angel. Her bones laying against folds of blue skin like long shafts of pearl. Small mouth rimmed in green from the grass I’d fed her.

From my son there is no word. I pretend not to know his fate. I write long fanciful letters in my head from him. I imagine him drinking milk and honey, walking on streets paved with gold, in a new world.

And so here tonight under a sharp-faced moon, I remain.

I do not know why I cannot die. The cuts from which I nursed my children on blood do not heal well anymore. I pray to a God I no longer believe in that I’ll take infection and die. I pray for the fever to come for me. I have not been so lucky as others for I am still alive. Perhaps I am cursed to walk this earth forever, cursed to live when the very grass in the fields withers black with sorrow.

Do not look for me in the history books, you will not find me, there I will merely be one of an impossible number. Don’t search amongst the rollcall of poets- unlike Keats all my words were writ in water. I will tell you where to find me.

Follow me up the hill, the one that stretched its toes down to the edge of the townland. Up through the long grass to the twisted oak, where couples once courted and young girls lost their innocence amongst long grass and dusty bluebells.

Dig beside the stone that looks like a folded child. A foot down it’s waiting for you to find- shrouded in the homespun I took from my husband’s back, before they tied him to the post.

Has it survived the years well? Is it moldy? Have the dead poet’s words bled across the pages, can you smell the copper tang of the blood of those who died for it? Handle it carefully as you turn the pages, give it some small respect before you move on. For it is all the measure of my dreams.

Fifteen square miles, the span of a world entire.

 

My Russian Love Affair

Long ago I had a book of fairy tales, much read, worn and much loved. I don’t know what happened to it, lost in a move, put in a box and never retrieved perhaps. I couldn’t tell you anymore the tales that lay therein, except for one by which I was so struck that I read it more than the others, read it until it was imprinted on my heart and mind. This was the tale of Baba Yaga, and I think it was then, between the covers of that red cloth-bound book that my Russian love affair began. Something of the Baba Yaga’s tale- that old wild hag, flying in her cauldron, living in her chicken-legged house, spoke to something deep in me. Many years later, I would find out that the other half (the half that wasn’t Irish) of my family originated in Russia, and stopped in Austria for a few generations before making their way to America.

I grew up during the latter stages of the Cold War. In every Hollywood movie in those days, the Russians were the villains. Communism was the great evil that threatened all our lives, I even had a gym teacher who spurred us on by telling us the Russians were watching us, judging our weaknesses, assessing our flaws. I kind of liked the idea of it. To me, Russia and her people were exotic, foreign, unpredictable. I remember the first time I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov dance, or heard the news of his defection, or saw pictures of Nureyev—was there ever a more Russian looking man than Nureyev with those Tatar cheekbones and haughty air? Russians seemed to hold some terrible ancient secret within them, you could see it in their eyes, something ineffably tragic. I was in my teens by then, and it was all terribly Romantic.

In college I took Russian Literature, and I fell in love with a whole other aspect of that great and terrible mistress. I reveled in the pages, thick 19th Century novels when authors wrote books that were elegantly paced and broadly canvassed. I imagined myself into the pages of Anna Karenina– the balls, the gowns, the gently steaming samovars, the manners, the rules and the breaking of those rules by one woman. I sweated out my guilt with Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, in my college studio apartment where the taps dripped endlessly. I whispered the names out loud from those books, those of both place and people, for Russian names have always been a deep, rich perfume to my tongue. I ached with Zhivago and Lara in their ice palace, years later, and realized that if you prefer a happy ending with your books, you don’t look for it in Russian literature.

Russia—the very name was a dark, rich perfume upon his tongue. He had never been able to bring himself to call this country by its official name of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. No, she was Russia, indomitable and cruel, much like the nature of her own people. She was mysterious, dark, and unfathomable: from the far west where the city of St. Petersburg still hung like a sugar-spun fairytale of European architecture, European manners and European decay, a city of water, stone and sky, Russia’s own Venice; to the east, Kiev, its outlines laid down in white marble and etched upon the skies in airy domes, so beautifully constructed they seemed like teacups awaiting the discerning tongues of angels on high to drink their exotic depths.

When I began the third book of my Irish series, I didn’t realize that I was about to steep myself in Russia for years, with every aspect of her history that I could get my hands on, with every book about modern Russia—Russia since the fall of Communism, Russia as the new Wild West, where there are no rules by which to guide oneself, a Russia that was no longer a great power. But still she was Russia, indomitable, mysterious, alluring, and as harsh a mistress as any man might fear to have. During this time I also discovered Russian folk tales in all their richness, and shall I say, bloody-ness.

He knew the old Russian tales and understood quite well the Russian need for blood and bones and caves and cold dark forests, for bears that governed great iced lands and deformed old women with spiteful wisdom gnawing at their gaunt frames. He understood the peasant that lurked under the most sophisticated of Russian veneers and so gave these tales earth and grain and hovels dug into hillsides. He told of a great Mother who slept in such silence that even a spider’s weaving might be heard within it, and when that Mother awoke it was with torrents, twisting roots and smoking soil.

During the writing of the Russian sections I began to drink my afternoon tea in the Russian fashion- with a dollop of vodka in it to ‘cheer it up’ and a bit of jam by the side, rather than sugar.  There is nothing quite like drinking a delicate china mug of lavender tea, cheered with vodka, partnered with raspberry jam, while the snow drifts down outside your window and you dream of St. Petersburg in the 19th Century and Vladimir Vysotsky plays in the background, his voice like deep rich coffee spiked with- what else- vodka. I fell in love with Russian poets- Ahkmatova, Blok, Pushkin, Pasternak, and the one that I still read regularly- Joseph Brodsky. (I daydreamed about taking his classes at Columbia in which occasionally his good friend, Mikhail Baryshnikov, appeared).

You can’t read about Russia without encountering tragedy of a sort that both takes your breath away and boggles your mind. To this day the numbers that died under Stalin are unknown, estimates range anywhere from a few million to 25 million. But those are numbers, it is when you read the personal accounts that it hits home- like the story I read of Misha, who after his mother and father were taken in the night by Stalin’s secret police, walked some 1700 kilometres across some of the most unforgiving terrain known to man, to find his sister. When he arrived at his sister’s door she turned him away, afraid that she would be tarred with the same brush her mother and father had been. Twelve years old, likely near to starving, Misha turned and walked back into the night and out of the pages of history. He haunts me to this day.

And then as it was wont to do in Russia, winter came once again.The cold was so severe that breathing hurt and talk was unthinkable. Words would surely freeze and fall to the ground before ever making the journey to another’s ears. He had heard tell that the natives believed that each winter all laughter, tears, words and stories fell to the ground and froze, only to be awakened by spring’s thaw, when suddenly the air would fill with chatter, laughter, gossip and tragedy, a cacophony of humanity borne on spring’s gentler air. But what this ground would have to say was likely more than any human could bear to hear. For in what tone did blood and grief speak?

Fragments and tendrils of the people who had once walked here, lived here, died here were left behind. You could feel their ghosts walk in step with yours, like a shadow that you could not detach from yourself, until the time came when you wondered if you were seeing through your own eyes or viewing a vanished world through theirs. To be here was to live in a place apart, to feel as though you inhabited a planet out at the very limits of the solar system, where the sun’s warmth could not be felt and there was no home other than this.

There wasn’t any aspect of Russia that didn’t fascinate me, that doesn’t fascinate me. To this day I follow the blog of an intrepid Ukrainian female motorcyclist who regularly biked through the strange and haunted wastes of Chernobyl. Her pictures of those wastelands, became a sort of metaphor, for what Russia once was, but is no longer. The incredible re-growth of plant life there, the return of animals that many thought were extinct, seems a metaphor too, of the Firebird that is so prevalent in Russian folk lore, of a country that will rise again, become something new, but something that is still, at its core, Russian- indomitable, mysterious, hardy, alluring and eternal.

If you listened long enough in the great silences such a land held, it would speak to you—of its past, of its future and of all that had sundered it. Russia speaks to him of the great horsemen that once swept her plains, and the armies that even now marched by the hundreds of thousands across her frozen heart. She tells of falling stars that laid waste to the abundance of her bounty and the rifts in her body where enormous stores of water, the largest in the world, are held. She speaks of her peasants, her shamans, her priests, her emperors and queens, her poets and musicians. She whispers of the long iron girders that trace her spine for the distance of seven days. She speaks of the empty spaces in her soul, of the migration of dancing cranes and herds of reindeer. She speaks of her amber hair—seductively, her pearls, her minerals and the rich, loamy fertility of her plains. She tells him the story of all her peoples: the haughty, mysterious Slavs; the silent Sibers; the earthy Ukraines; the Balts and Turks and Tatars; and the Yakuts, whom she claims can walk through hordes of white men like smoke and never be seen nor felt. She tells of the thunder of foreign troops who have come again and again, and of the vast silence of her winters that have inevitably defeated her foes. Her voice is as dark as a terrible perfume, as she tells of the secret police and the fields sown with the blood of the forgotten innocents. She speaks in contradiction and secret languages that have not been spoken in hundreds of years. And under all her words, her seduction, her coldness, her heat and succor, he hears her heart—the great, thundering heart of Mother Russia. And he hears that it is a heart forever in the process of breaking.

(all the italicized sections are excerpts from my book Flights of Angels, and are copyrighted under that aegis.)