Seeking the Crone

Wolf

Sometimes I imagine that when I am an old woman, I’ll live somewhere deep in the woods in a wooly yurt, or a cottage hidden away behind a hedge of brambles. I’ll cook nettle soup and knit socks from wool the small flock of sheep I keep produces. I’ll wake with the sun and go to sleep with the moon, and the only show I will need to watch will be the setting of the sun, and the rising of the stars each night, all those pinwheeling constellations making me dizzy with both their distance and their proximity.

November does this to my soul, this gun metal grey month that produces some of the loveliest sunsets imaginable here in my Northern home. Tonight I was walking home and saw Orion’s blood red shoulder come up over the horizon. I love the winter sky, for some reason those constellations feel like my celestial home.

I don’t know if it’s my age— my children are leaving home one by one, but I feel especially fragile these days. I feel that way about the world too, about trees and the land and seas and all the flora and fauna that inhabit those places, including ourselves. Things that I once took for granted I no longer do, a flock of geese flying overhead late this afternoon, made me stop and just watch until they flew out of sight. They will be back in the spring, and yet there was something about them, about the mere sight of them flying in their slightly lopsided ‘v’ that made my throat tight, that made my chest ache, because I worry that some day they will not come home, because they simply will no longer be. I feel porous, and I feel like the wild world around us is porous too, permeable, hollowed out, penetrated, used up, tired.

Sometimes I think we’re all like beautiful vases, we start out whole, and as life progresses we get cracks in our porcelain, our souls, sometimes, through grief, large chunks might be taken out never to return, leaving us less than whole. The Japanese believe the flawed vessel is more beautiful, and they mend the cracks with precious materials- gold, silver… Of late, with all the madness in the world, I feel as though my cracks aren’t patched with anything solid, like clay or gold, but rather like some celestial thumb has patched them with a swipe of stardust.

There are blessings that come with this though, I’m more comfortable in my skin than I’ve ever been, perhaps because it’s looser, a bit worn, like a pair of jeans you’ve had for years that are soft and wrinkled and pure comfort. There is a strange freedom in becoming porous.

I don’t kid myself about the romance of living like a crone in the forest, because I did live that way for some time as a child—in a two room cabin, without running water, without electricity, without a telephone. I know it’s hard work, sometimes all day, every day. It tells on the body. I like my creature comforts and to this day I don’t take for granted the hot and cold water that gushes from my taps. I’ve spent too many winter afternoons chopping holes in ice, with pant legs frozen to my knees, to ever take water for granted.

I find myself missing those days lately though, maybe it is part of wanting to live more deeply in my roots, to live with the land, rather than on it. As hard as living that way was at times, it also gifted me a variety of things, not the least of which are a handful of those still interior images we all carry with us through life, moments that feed our soul, as bread feeds our body. A harvest moon rising, trembling and luminous, cold-forged from dark autumn waters, a pack of wolves, smoke-blue in the twilight moving out onto the ice where I skated on those same waters that held the moon, rough-haired bears that lurked on the edges of the pine and fir-laden forest where we lived. The scream of a cougar running like a needle down my spine. The feel of snow dropped from an evergreen bough onto bare skin. In short, life at its roots. Life lived soul-centrically, because nature knows no other way.

Like so many of us, I am tired. I am tired of the cult of greed, I am tired of how badly we have treated the earth and how short-sighted it is of us. I am tired of feeling like all the things I do to try and change my own ways— recycling, paying attention to water usage, only having one car, using solar panels, planting our own food, etc feels like such a futile drop in a vast ocean of the abuse that is heaped on our planet, the only home we have. Perhaps this is why I seek the crone, so that I might one day become her, and find that cottage in the woods that lives in the heart of each of us, where firelight dances on the walls and there are still cougars to pad upon the silver snow outside our door. The door that the November woman opens, the door that leads underground, where lives earthen knowledge and root wisdom. Where we live with the land, rather than on it.

And so I turn, as I always do, to my own roots, that of storytelling and myth, the gateway from this world to that dark forest, where adventures and soul-centric work is to be found. It is never an easy process, ‘because it is the holding and honoring of a visible thread of energy whose roots are in the invisible world.’*

I am all right, as it turns out, with my cracks, like the Japanese I understand it is the cracks that make life more beautiful. I’m fine with cracks patched with stardust. I will seek the crone until I become her.

*This is a quote from the very wise Martin Shaw, to be found his book ‘The Lightning Branch’.

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Goose Dreams

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   I was awakened the other night by the sound of a goose in flight. It’s funny how things sound so different at night, where something as homely as a goose’s honk in daylight, becomes a haunted and lonely sound in the night. Once I’m awake at night, I’m usually awake for a time and I’ve learned to reconcile myself to this for the most part. Usually I get up and read, or maybe I’ll think about the bits of story I’m working on and what I’ll work on the next day and I’ll fall asleep with some grand sentence half-formed in my mind, knowing full well it will have slipped my artist’s grasp come morning. But the other night I just opened the curtains a little, the moon was on the wane and it shed a ghostly silver light over the hills opposite, hills thick with green and sap and life right now. I thought about the goose, imagining what it would be like to fly through the night, gliding on the currents of the dark, moonlight drifting thick over your wings. I wondered if the goose was a lone wolf, so to speak, maybe widowed last autumn by a hunter’s careless gun. Or if a mate was sitting in a nest right now, awaiting its return. I imagined that flight so well that I found I was up on my tiptoes, yearning toward the moon, wanting to know what the dark felt like up there above the trees, how the water in the pond below would reflect the moon, a melting rose-gold orb rinsing herself before she too went off to bed. And maybe the goose would land on that pond, and for a second drown in the last of the moonlight.

   It struck me in that moment, on that level that is a bit too deep for words to adequately convey, that we live in this earth not on it. That we swim in the air, sink in the soil, and come in from walking bare foot with the discarded skin of buds and leaves stuck to our skin with sweet sap. Sometimes, at night, in the quiet, without the distractions of other humans, if you still yourself, if you really listen, you can feel the planet breathing, moving, spinning through the stars, dancing through night toward day. You have to be willing to look at the world with an undefended heart, to be open enough to ache for its beauty, its connections, its merciless heart. You have to know you are part of it, but so is everything else- the larch tree in your back yard, the squirrel in the pine, the ant below your foot, the spider that lives in the corner of your porch. The white-gold light of the sun at noon, the thicket of brambles down the lane.

   Moths beat against my bedroom screen at night, wanting the small warmth of my reading light. My heart hurts for them. I go to the window and feel the frenzy of their quest, impossible as it is, it never stops them, just as the want of impossible things never stops us. I understand the moth’s desire, even if it is only for the twenty watt star. I understand the dream of the mouse for a home untrampled by human feet and wheels and concrete, I know the dream of a bee for a field of clover and sunny-faced dandelions. I imagine the dreams of a whale confined in an aquarium, dreams of long, long channels of cold, blue water, where they can sing to other whales and tell of their day, tell their stories, just as we long to do. I think of the goose, its call still dying on the night and wonder if the dream of migration is already there, the long flight it will take in a few short months. Does it dream of the coastlines and the chart of stars above its head by which it will find its way to its winter home? Each day such invisible dreams are carried past us, down long corridors of time and eons of change. The bearers of the dreams die, fade to dust, return to the soil and the air and the water. But the dreams remain. And the dreams, I feel, are worthy of pause and pursuit, they are after all the stuff of life and the thing that keeps us moving forward and also glancing back, whether we be ant or moth, whale or elephant, goose or human. It is, to use a term I don’t really like ‘news-worthy’.  And this thought reminds me of a ninth century Irish poem by an author who has been lost to the mists of time.

I have news for you:

The stag bells, snow falls, summer goes

Wind high and cold, the sun low, short its course

The sea running high.

Deep red the bracken; its shape is lost;

The wild goose has raised its accustomed cry,

Cold has seized the birds’ wings;

Season of ice, this is my news. 

  I have news too, though not of stocks and bonds, or Apple’s new operating system, or the latest celebrity wedding or scandal. It is simply this:

There are tadpoles in the pond near my house.

The blue spruce I was in early mourning for has survived and has the dusk-blue tips of new growth on its branches.

The roses are budding.

There are red calves in the fields.

The Douglas fir whom I consider a dear friend lost a huge branch over the winter, but is recovering nicely.

The woodpeckers who live in the tree by my bedroom window have babies.

Lilacs smell just as sweet on the hundredth sniff as they do on the first.

There is a goose that flies in the night with the light of a rose-gold moon on its wings. This is my news. 

 

No country for young women: Honour crimes and infanticide in Ireland

Fantastic blog post which touches on the recent tragic find in Tuam.

Feminist Ire

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When I was in first year in secondary school in 1997, a girl in the year above me was pregnant. She was 14. The only people who I ever heard say anything negative about her were a group of older girls who wore their tiny feet “pro-life” pins on their uniforms with pride. They slagged her behind her back, and said she would be a bad mother. They positioned themselves as the morally superior ones who cared for the baby, but not the unmarried mother. They are the remnants of an Ireland, a quasi-clerical fascist state, that we’d like to believe is in the past, but still lingers on.

The news broke last week of a septic tank filled with the remains of 796 children and babies in Galway. The remains were accumulated from the years 1925 to 1961 and a common cause of death was malnutrition and preventable disease…

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Longing for Home

“To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from.”- Carson McCullers.

The Irish diaspora (Irish: Diaspóra na nGael) refers to Irish emigrants and their descendants in countries such as Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil and states of the Caribbean and continental Europe. The diaspora, maximally interpreted, contains more than 100 million people, which is more than fifteen times the population of the island of Ireland, which had approximately 6.4 million in 2011.

After 1840, emigration became a massive, relentless, and efficiently managed national enterprise.[1] Counting those who went to Britain, between 9 and 10 million Irish people emigrated after 1700. The total flow was more than the population at its historical peak in the 1830s of 8.5 million. From 1830 to 1914, almost 5 million went to the United States alone. In 1890 two of every five Irish-born people were living abroad. By the 21st century, an estimated 80 million people worldwide claimed some Irish descent; which includes more than 36 million Americans who claim Irish as their primary ethnicity.- Wikipedia

Exile: Middle English: the noun partly from Old French exil ‘banishment’ and partly from Old French exile ‘banished person’; the verb from Old French exiler ; all based on Latin exilium ‘banishment,’ from exul ‘banished person.’

***

    America called them immigrants, Ireland calls them exiles. I think the word exile sums up how many of us feel. I can only speak to Irish exiles, not those from other countries, because Ireland is my experience and my blood. I have its green hills and windswept rocks in my cells, embedded deeply in my bones. This is where my ancestors made their own history- where they lived out the dramas of their lives—the loves and hates and joys and tragedies that are present even in the most ordinary of lives. The sowing and reaping of Irish soil. The passing of years and the dreams of youth.

    I was listening to Celtic Thunder the other day. When I write, music becomes a background thing, I don’t hear the words just the rhythm of the music itself. I kept feeling very choked up during a certain song. I couldn’t quite understand why this particular song was having such an effect and then it suddenly occurred to me that the man singing it had a very Northern Irish accent and it came through even in his singing voice. The first time I went to Ireland I was enchanted by every bit of it, but when we got to the North I felt like I breathed deeply in a way I never had before in my life— I knew this place, I knew these people. They were just like my family, they were what I was used to. When I go to Ireland, I, like most trans-Atlantic travelers, land in Dublin. But after a night’s rest I shoot like an arrow straight North for Belfast. And there I stay so that I can re-connect with my roots, with whatever that thing is that makes me feel like I can breathe more deeply and see more clearly. When I see those rock-banded green fields come into sight beneath the plane, I feel like I’ve been given a glass of clear cold water after crossing the desert. Ireland simply satiates something in my soul, that I know no other place ever will.

  How is it that a place I have never lived feels like home to me? Is there something in our DNA handed down through generations that simply knows that soil beneath our footsteps, the taste of that spring by the roadside, that need to silently worship when coming upon a shrine of St. Brigid? Is it the knowledge that my great-grandfather walked here too, that my great grandmother both bore and lost children in this land? That something of me, some trace of the stardust of which we are all made, is rooted eternally in this land?

  I have wondered what it is about Ireland that calls so strongly to her sons and daughters, the millions of us in exile. I have heard from so many people how they long to go to Ireland, how they yearn for it, how they worry they will die before they can make it there. Ireland is a magical place, anyone who has been there knows it to be true. Stand on the Cliffs of Moher or the headlands of Inishmore or simply watch sheep amble the laneways just once and tell me that you believe otherwise. Is it her magic we cannot forget, is it her magic we long to reconnect to?

  I had an argument about this feeling with a group of Scotsmen some years back. They insisted we North Americans were ridiculously sentimental about Ireland. I told them that we don’t have a history like they do. That in terms of Western European immigrants our countries are very new (I realize this is not true for the First Nations cultures, they do have that connectedness with the land, they do have their own mythology and legend rooted in the land they live with—and I do mean to say with, not on). I told the Scotsmen their history enfolds them every day, they live with it around them, they have the privilege of living within their own culture, the thing that lives in their very DNA. First off they said I clearly had an Irish tongue, because they were now looking at it differently. They solemnly promised, before we parted at the pub door, that they wouldn’t mock North Americans anymore over this particular issue. I’m pretty sure they didn’t keep their promise, but I like to think they at least thought about we exiled North Americans differently for a bit.

    Many people are familiar with the four original provinces of Ireland—Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht. But not everyone knows that there is a fifth province where the other four meet in the heart of the country, a province that exists in another dimension, the province of An Mhi (Irish for ‘the middle’ also referred to as Meath sometimes). The centre of the country, but the centre in the sense of magic and symbolism, the centre that we carry with us wherever  we go, because it does not exist outside us, but within. It is this centre all we exiles carry with us, and so we must return to the root of it, to renew it so that we might carry it away again.

   “The idea of a sacred space where the walls and laws of the temporal world dissolve to reveal wonder is apparently as old as the human race.”

  The above could describe fairyland, or any number of alternate universes held within our own world, but I think it can also describe the Ireland we exiles hold in our hearts, the one where we hope for a fleeting moment to walk around a corner and bump into our great granddad, the one where we help bring in the harvest and put an extra chair by the fire on Samhain for our ancestors who can come visit on that one day when the veil between worlds is absent. The one where we know, without doubt, that the Good Folk exist and are only a glimpse away. The one where we understand more fully who we are and why we are.

  I read this quote by an Irish man once and it’s stuck with me ever since.

  ‘It is said that Panagea split there first, along the western rim of Ireland, and America drifted away from Ireland and anyone standing on the crack got torn in two slowly.’

   Torn in two slowly, perhaps that’s at the core of it for we exiles, we are still torn in two, and we understand that some part of ourselves— our DNA ,our souls, our individual stardust— is waiting there for us to return, so that we can once again be whole.

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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.