Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Seventh Letter

Grave at Burrishoole
Dearest Ireland,

In the seven weeks we've been together this summer, I can't seem to pass a ruined abbey or crumbling roadside church without feeling anxious to stop and have a look. Doc and I ramble through the debris (sometimes side-by-side and sometimes we lose each other)  touching, climbing, trampling, always inhaling the historic scent of decay and wondering what happened here. We love doing this...especially in places that seem lost.... without visitor centers or marks on the tourist maps.

For me it provides a type of spiritual nourishment that I'm not used to. For most of my Christian life, I've been fed a diet of gospel Cheerios (don't laugh).  It's the kind of teaching that comes in a pretty package, is easily chewed and digested and is fortified with theology that has been supposedly tested and proven to promote moral strength and personal well-being.  But middle age and widowhood (not to mention the morning news) have left me feeling depleted and light-headed, like I really need some red meat to assume the challenges of this second half of my life.
Grangefertagh Church

When I read scripture, particularly the words of Jesus, I sense a disconnect between what he said and lived, and what I've always accepted as truth. Jesus said the world will hate us like it hated him, because of our unreasonable goodness that compels us to turn the other cheek when slapped and give freely to those who steal from us.  He said we shouldn't judge each other but rather walk shoulder to shoulder with our arms interlocked for mutual support.

Burrishoole Abbey 15th Century
But what if the world hates us because it feels hated by us? What if we Christians make others feel small and insignificant and unlovable? What if we are kind to our friends, but plot ways to bring down our enemies? What if we dismiss the weak who struggle to find a voice and tear down everyone who doesn't agree with our smug conclusions?

 What if the real meaning of Jesus' message is so radical that it's been obscured over time or suppressed by our own self-righteousness and fears, so we think we're following in his steps,  but we're really trailing along behind him obliterating the path? What if, as theologian Brian McLaren has proposed, we are reading the Bible like a constitution that tells us what to do and not to do, and missing the whole point of what God is revealing about himself?

It's doing me good to be in a land with a different Christian tradition than my own. Doc and I passed a monastery the other day (one that wasn't in ruins, for a change) and decided to stop and check it out. We inadvertently walked in on the last few minutes of the mass. There was only a handful of old monks there, chanting the "Our Father", praying and worshiping without much fanfare.....so quiet and reverent and so very different from the mega church media productions that are common in the states. I wondered if their hearts were full of praise to God, or if they were just going through the motions like I have so many times.

Regardless, I'm happy to be in this place where Christian history is so rich and accessible. This weekend Doc and I are going on a guided pilgrimage walk in the steps of St. Patrick and early Celtic believers. I think that can mean different things to different people. For me, dear Ireland, it will be another chance to learn from the past and ponder.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Sixth Letter

Dearest Ireland,

They say that love is blind.  When I awake each day, I snuggle into the tender embrace of your music, your history, your landscapes, etc.,  feeling your goodness and your devotion.  But we both know that you have a dark side. My emerald-colored glasses can only illuminate you for so long and maybe now's the  time for a reality check.

Where the heck is the bacon?  There's something on the shelf in the grocery store labeled "bacon", and I've ordered it off breakfast menus in several restaurants.  But we both know THAT'S NOT BACON! IT'S HAM!  HAM IS NOT BACON! How could you be so agricultural, claim to have 1.5 million pigs, and not know about bacon? You know...like Oscar Meyer bacon.


I didn't eat bacon every day at home. I neglected it, sometimes ignored it, bought into the lie that it was bad for me and at times, renounced it.  Now I feel nothing but remorse for my disrespect. I miss it terribly.

 I didn't realize how much until last Friday when I was in Kinsale with Doc's sister and her family. We were getting a bite to eat at a local cafe. Glaring at me from the menu was a word I haven't seen associated with bacon in all my days in Ireland......."CRISPY"!  OMG...BLT!  I told the waiter I wouldn't complain if it was served black.

 And it was glorious...and BIG. I took home half and had it for supper but saved a few crispy pieces for breakfast the next day. I swear I'll never take bacon for granted again. And I could also do with a few other culinary commodities.  It seems grits are to Irish people what leprechauns are to Americans. You can think about that.  Shame on you, Ireland, for causing me this anguish.
Beautiful, but no Vitamin D

And while we're getting real, let's talk weather. I know you won my heart under false pretenses. When I first came here last summer, you presented just a few puffy clouds and the air was warm. I frolicked around outdoors for two solid weeks and hardly needed a jacket. That was some kind of hoax but I'm not sure how you pulled it off.

Now I see you have mostly dreary, overcast skies and it rains almost daily. The weather lady on TV is burning out on ways to convey the obvious and inevitable. She says things like, "Light sprinkles this morning, followed by rain and then some drizzle with scattered showers afterwards followed by light mist and heavy sprinkles, with a storm later and then rain on the way." You know I'm not exaggerating. Whenever I meet someone new and say I'm from Florida, they immediately ask, "Could you bring us some sunshine?" (followed by, "What's with Donald Trump?" but we'll have to discuss that later).

And the gloomy weather seems magnified when I'm out on the road. I don't dare try to drive here. Besides having everything backwards, the streets are narrow and curvy with few shoulders, and the speeds are outrageous.  I'm amazed there aren't more collisions. Sometimes I just have to close my eyes and pray that the car coming towards us has lost its wing mirror in an earlier crash so we'll have room to squeeze by.

And can you tell me why people park their cars on the sidewalk?  That's just wrong.

How are you supposed to get around this?
Speaking of speed.....what's with the talking?  I'm from the South and we speak slowly even by American standards.  Joining in an Irish conversation is like trying to get out on the road in downtown Dublin. As words are whizzing past,  you wait for an opening then it's pedal to the metal to cruise into the flow.  I'm getting the hang of it though and doing quite well, I think.

At least I'm no longer standing on the precarious comment curb with my thumb out.  You can't be known if you don't put in your two cents worth, right?   And in the last five weeks I have had some wonderfully stimulating conversations about everything from politics and education to fashion and Downton Abbey. It must be where God placed you....right in the middle of the world. The Irish seem to know what's going on everywhere and have opinions about it all.

And so, dear Ireland, we may not be a match made in heaven. But close.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Fifth Letter

Gotta love an Ogham stone
Dearest Ireland,

When I was nine, my parents decided we had outgrown our little house on Canton Street, and the search began for a bigger, better place to grow older.  Knowing my parents as I do, I'm guessing that period was stressful and highly unpleasant for them. But for care-free me, it was exciting.

I remember going day after day with realtors looking at possibilities and watching my mom and dad sigh and shake their heads time after time.  Personally, I loved every place the realtor took us: Ollie May's house on a bluff overlooking the river, then the dilapidated Victorian fixer-upper that made my mother's heart swoon and my dad's blood pressure rise (although later it appeared in a spread of Country Living magazine and I think they may have had some regrets).

But my favorite, by far, was a storybook stone cottage nestled in some isolated woods with a fishing pond in the front yard.  I had already picked out my bedroom on the second floor when some friends of ours offered to buy the house on Canton Street if we would swap houses with them.  The ease of that transition was impossible for my parents to resist. End of journey....done deal.

I never stopped thinking about that stone house. When I was a teenager I went home from a pool party with a new friend and guess where she lived. Yep! But I hardly recognized it. Land developers had bought the woods, razed most of the trees and created a monstrous modern housing community completely surrounding the little house. The pond had been drained and the little house was .....Okay, this is starting to sound like a sappy children's book so I'll stop.

Jerpoint Abbey
Kilcooley Abbey

The point is......since that time, and maybe before, I have been intrigued by, truly fascinated with stone.  I drool over stone buildings and tiles and statues and grave markers and anything made of solid rock (which is okay because the drool wipes right off).  Since there are virtually no rocks in Florida larger than pebbles, for years I would gather chunks of granite (the biggest my husband could lift) by the road side when I visited my family in Georgia. On each trip, we would haul home at least one respectable  boulder. So now I have a lovely rock garden in my Florida yard and passers-by smile but give me puzzled looks.

You can imagine, dear Ireland, the effect your landscapes have on me. I find you absolutely stunning (not even considering the floral fields and rolling hills and all the shades of green).  I'm hopelessly drawn to your medieval ruins.... the castles, abbeys, towers, etc. I love to wander around them and press my hands against the damp, lichen-splattered walls that are so incredibly thick. And I like climbing up the steep, uneven steps and just basking in my own imaginings. I close my eyes and envision robes dragging up the narrow stair wells and iron pots clanking against the raised hearths.... the hustle and bustle of daily life in a simpler, but perhaps more dangerous time. Maybe I've seen too many movies.

Drombeg stone circle

Even more compelling are the ancient standing stones and stone circles that Doc and I have explored. I circle the circles until I'm dizzy with speculation, conjuring up an affinity with your earliest settlers.  I can't help but admire their determination to find form and meaning in the chaos of life, although I'm sure some of their pagan practices would have put me off (human sacrifice, for instance, may have been slightly distasteful). But I like to think I would have been enthusiastically right there, helping to erect and arrange those stones (if they let the women do that sort of thing) and contemplating a future when things might be simpler, but perhaps more dangerous.
Decorated kerb stone at Newgrange

On Monday,  Doc and I went to see the famous passage tombs at Newgrange and Knowth (Perhaps thou Knowth nothing about them). They were built around 3000 BC of stones weighing an average of 10 tons each. And I think I remember our guide saying there were around 300 of them, carried from a place about 20 km away (before wheels!).  Many retain the original designs of artisans who could never have dreamed their simple carvings would chisel awe into the hearts of descendents so far up the time line.

We weren't allowed inside Knowth, but were led through the 19 meter passage of Newgrange into the cruciform inner chamber (no pix allowed). We, a group of  bug-eyed tourists and curious locals, were huddled together in amazement under the corbelled ceiling of sandstone megaliths as we tried to absorb the drama of sunlight piercing the darkness on the winter solstice.  Questions swirled in our heads like the spiral patterns far above, but most of us were silent.  We knew this place was sacred,  a cathedral so primitive and yet more elaborate than anything built since.

High cross at Monasterboice
Some people say, dear Ireland, that God is not impressed with man's efforts......but I sure am! And I'm thankful He provided us such a grand and resilient medium to work with.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Fourth Letter

You coming?
Dearest Ireland,

Music has become such a big part of my life.  It's what brought me to meet you in the first place (see last post).  Something about your traditional music wrings gladness out of my dream-drenched sensibilities.  It's hard to explain. First it was the sweetly poignant lyrics of your ballads, then the slow, provocative moods of your airs. Just in these last few years since retirement have I been finally seized by the captivating rhythms of your dance tunes and I have the time to study and learn them.

I find them extremely challenging to play on the fiddle, especially up to speed. The Irish style of play is generally known for its ornamentation and brisk tempos. Last summer I met a busker in Ennis, County Clare who was playing some beautiful Bach pieces on a street corner. I asked him to play an Irish reel and he said that was too hard for him. I remember the feeling of my heart sinking a full octave as I realized if it was hard for this guy, it was going to be all but impossible for me.

I am basically self-taught, which is something I confess with shame and deep regret. I have taken random lessons here and there, but I wish I had been able to find a gifted diagnostician I could stick with... someone who could pinpoint my weak spots and prescribe the right remedy to make me really sound the way I pretend I'm sounding when I'm playing my heart out at home alone.  I've always been willing to put in the time, but progress is slow when you're trying to get a briar out of your own foot (especially if it's been embedded in there for years).

But I have made some progress. In fact, I now find I can keep up with most jigs and a few reels at the local trad session here in Thurles. It helps that the musicians are welcoming and supportive. They are phenomenally accomplished but they play because they love the music, not because they want to show off to the crowd. There's an atmosphere of  esteem for one another that creates a powerful synergy, elevating the music to its rightful place of honor. Listeners show up every Wednesday night to share a smile, a Guinness and an appreciation of the flutes, the whistles, pipes and accordions, guitars and banjos, bodhrans and, of course, the fiddles. It's the magic that Americans hear about, but few get to witness.

Wednesday session at the Monk's, Thurles
Last weekend Doc and I drove to Galway where three of our musician friends were playing at a small, village pub at the request of a mutual friend who lived there. They invited me to jam along with them and I did, although I think I looked more confident than I sounded. I loved every minute of it though. And it's always a treat to sing a song or two later in the evening (earlier in the morning?) when things are mellow and the microphone gets passed around with the pints.  It's in the spirit of generosity that ballads are offered and accepted... like warm slices of black pudding.... graciously passed around and savored.

Sharing a song in Doon in Oct.
With the lads in Clarke's, Galway

These sessions don't always take place in a pub. Private music parties are occasionally held in homes.   We were invited to one Saturday night.... a congenial group of friends and relatives (about 20), seated randomly in a small kitchen like jigsaw pieces on a table, just waiting to be fitted together in song. There were a few snacks, some beer and wine, three guitars, a harmonica, my fiddle, a piano accordion and lots of eager voices. No microphones, no spectators, just spontaneous breaking into everything from The Galtee Mountain Boy to the Eagles, with a jig or two thrown in for good measure.  We left at two and that seemed way too soon. 

And so, dear Ireland, I'm trying to rosin up my bow every day.  The session leader here in Thurles is a retired teacher and is personally helping me learn the tunes the locals play. It seems the deeper I sink into your soul, the softer the cushion. Now.... enough of this writing......back to my practice.

(btw, dear readers, you may have noticed I changed the subtitle of my blog. I'm no longer  feeling like a "groupie" here... more like family).