Tag Archives: life and death

A Grave Night

The shadows never disappear. That’s been the biggest change. Even a sunrise appears hollow and faded, as if someone insisted on placing a curtain between my view and the sky. In fact, it is as though space took on a surprising heaviness around me, its grey tendrils clinging to me as if it were the fog wrapping around the crests of ocean waves. Often my unresolved emotions surface to hang in midair the way my breath used to condense in the growing cold.

But I am not cold, nor do I find any comfort in the cloying density that mutes the music of the world to wilted whispers. It’s not that I have an affinity for darkness. At first I only ventured out at night because I found that daylight hurt my eyes. Then, slowly, I learned that the dark could hold me, enfold me into its soothing shelter like an unborn child, where I found shelter for a while from hiraeth, that unnameable longing of my heart.

Tonight begins no differently. Drops of twilight fade like ink into the vast canvas of the sky. Safe in the hushed umbral hallway, I slip silently into the rooms of the children to satisfy myself that they are sleeping soundly, and then pause by the dog to ruffle his fur. There is that glorious but grief-stricken moment when he lifts his head wags his tail. He sees me. And just as with every other night, I lose myself for a while in that indescribable feeling when life recognizes and regards itself in another.

Reluctantly I pull away, realizing that even the dog needs rest and his eyes are drooping and about to close. I drift aimlessly to the window to hover there, again like I always do, and let my thoughts still. But the full moon gently washes the weary world, a world which I wander but to which I no longer belong; and a single star winks mockingly from a great distance, as if gloating over its heavenly glow while I remain trapped on earth. And suddenly it is all too much for me: the glowing star, the tender touch of moon on the trees, my sleepless dreams.

My acute discomfort drives me down the stairs to the front door, and it is then I remember tonight’s invitation from the man I spoke to on the way back from my meanderings early this morning. He was rather peculiar, wearing a hodgepodge of clothing from several different eras: trousers that could have been placed at the start of the twentieth century, a tie-dyed shirt stamped with the names of the Beetles, and a 1970’s haircut. I have to admit that I stared before speaking.

At some point I did remember to introduce myself with my standard greeting “I am still called Maya,” and gave the universal sign for acknowledging another’s company. In return, he looked away while informing me that he couldn’t remember his name. “But George is as good as any,” he had muttered, keeping his hands at his sides.

His rudeness only grew worse as the conversation went on. He told me about an important neighborhood meeting regarding the upcoming Halloween holiday and the particular matter of a haunted house. The gathering would be taking place at midnight in the graveyard. Did I want to join them? Was he serious?

I recall now how I continued to stare at him, my curiosity turning to irritation and finally to an angry disgust. It was bad enough for him to use the “h” word when describing an inhabited household, but his choice of venue was downright insulting. I gave him a piece of my mind regarding what I think about people who continue to promote physicalist stereotypes after switching sides and left immediately. The graveyard? Does he think butterflies like to hang out in their old cocoons for kicks, too? Good grief!

He’s new, or crazy, or both, I am thinking now as I pause in front of the main door. I tell myself that I can’t believe I am doing this. But that’s a lie. I’m going because to stay is to truly be haunted: hounded by the ghosts of my past, mercilessly pursued by my murky mess of memories, ensnared in my own fears, lost in my regrets and all I left behind. If a prejudiced soul and curiosity about his grave meeting is what will get me out of my self-pity tonight, then so be it.

Just before I walk through the door, I groan softly to myself for good measure, out of principle, for spite, for the relief of hearing myself make a noise, for all of these things. Apparently, I am not quiet enough. Upstairs, the toddler starts screaming for his mother to save him from “that thing in the house” at a pitch and volume that would wake the dead, if only the dead could sleep. I’m human, not some object, I think bitterly as I take the hint and gloomily make my way to the one place in the entire neighborhood I have never wanted to go.

Arrival, Ireland, June 11

I awake prior to the alarm, and wonder whether it was never set and we’d miss the flight. It is Thursday the 11th of June. Our sojourn to Éire is finally upon us. At last, we will set foot in the home of our ancestors, that landscape that has captured my heart and called to me in dreams and images since I was a child.

What will it be like to arrive, I wonder. Will I recognize the very air, the very ground on which I stand? Will I be washed with that peculiar achingly peaceful relief of belonging, the one I fell into when I met my ancient family for the first time in this life? What time is it? Has the alarm gone off? I nudge my mom who is sleeping: “Is it after five?”

“No,” she says groggily, “go back to sleep.”

But I don’t sleep. I am hot and restless and anxious, about, I realize, more than simply the reason that I am finally fulfilling a dream that I’ve had for so long. I am traveling to Ireland with my mom and two brothers, (Bro1 and Bro2 named in order of descending age), and whether we will get along is a question who’s answer remains elusive.

Yesterday, Bro2 picked me up around 4 PM. As soon as he walked into my apartment, he began to rage about his challenges in life, his newest altercation with mom, and how he couldn’t stand being around her. I was sort of prepared for an excited, “Hi Éilis, good to see you, I’m so excited,” comment. I certainly wasn’t expecting a tirade. I was particularly stunned to find myself confronting a young man disguised as a ferocious gorilla carrying on in my space and bashing our mother, who was paying for all of our flight and room expenses on the trip, no less. I tried calming him down, after all, I was excited myself, and wasn’t about to let someone spill negativity all over me just because I was the human in close range.

Bro2’s attitude set the precedence for the tenor of the rest of the day, however, affecting not just me but the rest of the family as well. By nine PM, tentions among everyone skyrocketted. There was, certainly, a period of peace in all this to be had: it was on the car ride from Berkeley to Walnut Creek, during the times when my brother and I listened to a podcast recounting the rebellion and execution of Anabaptists in Münster Germany during the sixteenth century. (No, I am not kidding.)

Now, up before dawn, I wonder dubiously whether things will continue as they are and, if so, how I can possibly handle it for eleven days. But I’m going to be in Ireland! This thought alone seems to keep worry at bay, until I get up at dawn and find I am so dizzy that I have to sit down on the floor.

I am subsequently not so aware of any of my family members, as I go through the motions of getting in the car, standing on the train to the airport, and going through security, all the time feeling disturbingly ill. This lasts until I get some medicine during the layover in Chicago. Then, perhaps due to the medicine alone, perhaps due to the fact that I have now sat down in the plane that will take me to Dublin, the sudden illness symptoms slowly subside.

My brothers are safely sitting tucked away in the row behind me, and I’m sitting next to my mom. She’s in the window seat, which I feel is only right given that she’s the one who can see what’s on the other side of the glass.

I sleep, eat dinner, sleep, eat Breakfast, and sleep some more. During the times when I am awake, however, I find I cannot stop thinking about how strange it is to be returning by air through roughly the same route my ancestors took to get here, and how their travels were far more treacherous than mine.

We have an ancestor, James O’Cahill, who emigrated to America from Tipperary sometime in the seventeen hundreds. He would have made this journey in reverse, on a ship, with at least six to eight weeks time in transit. The ocean to him would not simply be a vast wonder to marvel at down below, while residing safe and in sanitary comfort in a pressure controlled cabin in the sky. For him, and for all those who left Ireland whether for the sake of adventure, to escape the engulfing wasteland of hunger, or to ride the wind in desperation before a relentless pursuing tide of imperialism and fear, the journey would prove to be a right of passage, as much as a passage of time, and for most there was only a one-way ticket. Among their challenges would have been their daily awesome and terrible encounters with a dynamic and sometimes ferocious sea, with the power to force respect and intimacy beyond what anyone perhaps had ever imagined or ever wanted to endure. The ocean could give as much as take life, and this was no metaphor. Both the ship, and whatever conditions prevailed on it, as well as the sea itself were guaranteed to transport one to a new world, but for some, it was not America or any where in this world at which they would ultimately arrive.

James O’Cahill did make it to America alive, settling in Iowa, where several members of each generation of the family, including my grandfather, were born. It is because of this ancestor’s journey, and the wondrous, brave, and I am sure sometimes harrowing ventures of many others, that I even exist, let alone have the privilege to “hop the pond” in less than a day, with an almost certain safe arrival and a guaranteed round trip ticket. The primary emotion residing within me as I fly effortlessly over the Atlantic, then, is profound humility.

Some time later, I awake from a long nap to find that mom has taken several pictures of the sun as it slowly inches its way up and over the horizon. I stare out the window, imagining what it would look like to watch the dawn while following after it, way above the clouds. At first I cannot picture anything at all. Then, a scene unfolds for me.

I watch, breathless and bewildered, as in my mind the earth turns, and the sun stands still. We say the sun rises, but literally, the sun, being a star, orbits nothing, while the earth spins, both on itself and around the sun. This is the way, then, that the scene begins.

As the plane moves relative to the earth, I picture for an instant every time zone in the world. To say it is 5 AM in Ireland and 9 PM of the previous day in California, simultaneously, is accurate at one level and misleading at the next. Our conception of time, I realize, is only relative to perception.

Relative to the sun, every place on the earth is now, is the present. Everyone on earth is, at every moment, experiencing what is now to them, and that now is always some proportioned mixture of darkness and light. Though some of us might talk of “losing” or “gaining” a day while traveling around the world, the truth is that we are always experiencing whatever present moment is occurring within the location in which we find ourselves.

Somewhere in the world is the space-time moment we thought we left behind, or the one we expect to witness in the future, but these are simply moments of now playing out in a continuum of moment, and if we were to view the whole world, we would behold all times at once. So I do this, for an instant in my mind’s eye. I stand outside the world, motionless, and watch as if looking at earth from the point of view of the sun. I watch as light sweeps across the world, illuminating every present moment in consecutive slices of space. It is sunrise, always, somewhere in the world, at any given time. The picture goes by in a flash, while we “chase” the sun, observing sunrise after sunrise, until the snail’s pace at which we soar, slogging along sluggishly with respect to the incredible speed of the spinning earth, means that the sun once again seems to dip below the clouds and vanish from view.

We continue to follow the dawn as we sail over Tipperary, through the heart of Ireland. The loud speaker sounds suddenly. “Flight Attendants, prepare for landing.”

“We did it!” I shout to my mom over the roar of the engine. “We’re here, we’re finally here!”

“I know, I still can’t believe it!” mom replies with equal enthusiasm, squeezing my hand.

Five minutes later, we start our descent into Dublin. Moved by some impulse, I look up then. My ancient kin, I know, will be traveling this whole trip with us. Caoilte has been quietly keeping watch on the plane for this leg of the journey. On the first plane ride to Chicago, he first ran around the cabin, checked out the cockpit, and tried to figure out how the plane’s engines worked before taking his place next to us. He arrived back at our seats with a look of boyish satisfaction, and I was happy that he had a chance to investigate. “Boys and their toys,” as Ailbhe says, having picked up the phrase from somewhere. But she always says this with a playful look in her eye.

Speaking of Ailbhe, I am quite startled to see her when I make to look up into Caoilte’s bright hazel eyes. Ailbhe decisively dislikes being near modern technology, especially anything that rumbles and moves such as cars, trains, and planes. I challenged her once to sit in a car with me, but I’d never known her to appear inside a modern vehicle voluntarily. And yet, here she is, unmistakably standing next to Caoilte, a slight hint of resolute determination masked by her warm smile.

“You’re here!” is all I can think to happily exclaim.

“I wouldn’t miss my own sister’s arrival in the home we once shared, not for the world, even if I have to reckon with a plane to do it, now would I?” Ailbhe answers, posing an inquiry of her own in response to my surprise.

With enormous gratitude, I beam at her. “Thank you,” I say silently, and send her a picture of the way I am feeling, moved by joy, even though she can already see it for herself.

Ailbhe and Caoilte raise their hands, then, in the gesture of greeting: “Welcome home, Éilis.”

Home

Could you take me home, back where the light shines, not from your places but from your eyes, in your steps but without a flame? I fall off the bridge with no ending. Unfrightened, I open my mouth to breathe underwater. Someone says, “I am you.”

Where are the brothers and sisters we lost? Where is the completion for the incomplete, the whole for the broken, the new for the old, the awakening for the unaware?

Where is the color for the shadow, the roots for the seed, the space for the stars, the family for the love, the heart for the beaten, the part for the departed, the world before our world, where are those who put us here?

Sometimes I just wish I could see you again. Life bends with our choices, roads wind. Sometimes we cannot see ahead. Mountains are sometimes avalanched into our living rooms.

I cling to our memories but don’t know if they’ll fade. I plead with the wind to keep us together, but it throws our friends to four directions. Scattered like rain, I cannot even hear your whispers. \

Tell She who has so many faces– I’ve sought impressions in her eyes, that I struggle to know every inch of her silences. Her words are my life pattern, in woven relief. She disperses like clouds, and I run to follow her at breathtaking speeds that leave me reeling.

I will join the seekers and slide in the mud until I learn how to survive. I rise and fall like nations. I turn ages as the earth turns seasons. I dance for rain. I dance for the song. I age seamlessly. Earth pulses to a rhythm I cannot quite hear.

All around me people make their verdicts. They tell me who I am and should be. But the caged bird sings, remembering the time signature of clouds, and I recall the beginning.

I fly through the vast universe on a cream-tan horse whose feet tap-dance worlds like stepping stones. I can keep warm by the fire in my bones. I can sing the song of life and death. I know every passionate mother, every determined daughter, every tree, every rainbow, every finch and squirrel, every hardworking man, every grieving boy. I know myself. I am a blanket of stars.

Go ahead, reach across the curtains of loneliness to touch another world. Bring back a lost child. You are no more lost in the mist than I am. Who are you to think you cannot know me like you know yourself, like I’ve known all I’ve ever been? Where have you come from? We are pulleyed to each other by a song. Your ancestors are immortal. They walk among the living. This we have always known.