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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman


ocean_at_the_end_of_the_lane_us_cover

When The Ocean at the End of the Lane came out in 2013, I thought it was a fine book.  I am a long time fan of Neil Gaiman’s work, which blends mythology with contemporary stories in a fine example of modern magic realism.  I like magic realism a lot, so this isn’t a very hard sell for me at all.  So when my book club voted in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I said…sure, why not.  I’d better reread it, I thought, and since it is a short book, I left it for a few days before we were due to meet so that it would be fresh in my mind.

But sometimes, when you go and read a book that you read a long time ago, you find that it is different.  And so, in my second reading of novel, no one was more surprised than me to discover that the book gutted me.  I read it slowly, pausing to re-read a passage or twist my tongue over a phrase in the book.  Sometimes it is just that when you know the ending of a book that you read it differently.  And other times, it is because you’ve changed.  Your life has changed.  In 2013, I admired the beauty of the novel, particularly in the passages where Gaiman wrote about his father, who had just passed away.  I read the second chapter and paused, because it had only been a few years since I had lost my mother, and lingered over the passages of an adult child who has become lop-sided, because their frame of the universe has just been stripped away.

I slowed the car as I saw the new house.  It would always be the new house in my head.  I pulled up into the driveway, observing the way they had built out on the mid-seventies architecture.  I had forgotten that the bricks of the house were chocolate-brown.  The new people had made my mother’s tiny balcony into a two-story sunroom.  I stared at the house, remembering less than I had expected about my teenage years: no good times, no bad times.  I’d lived in that place, for a while, as a teenager.  It didn’t seem to be any part of who I was now.

I backed the car out of the driveway.

What I did not see until 2016 was the beauty of the rest of the book.  A boy, a nameless boy, lives in a large and rambling old house in rural England.  His father’s business is failing and, to keep money coming in, the family begins letting out rooms.  One of these lodgers is an aggressive opal miner from South Africa, who runs over the boy’s cat on his way to the house.  The next night, he steals the family’s car and drives it to the end of the road and kills himself.  When the car is discovered, with the body in it, the boy is sent to the neighboring Hempstock farmhouse while his father calls the police.

Any fan of mythology will immediately recognize the Mother, Maiden and Crone in the Hempstocks.  Lettie Hempstock appears as an 11 year old girl and takes in the boy and makes a friend of him.  Her mother, Ginnie Hempstock, and her grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock, keep an eye on the farm and fields as they have always done.  It doesn’t take them long to notice that an ancient creature was wakened with the lodger’s suicide.

The Hempstocks are magical, but they are of the old and wild magic of the ancient stories.  When Lettie takes him with her to go banish the creature that the miner’s death awakened, the boy is drawn into a dangerous world of primeval monsters, with only the Hempstocks at the end of the lane to protect him.

The plot sounds something like any fantasy journey novel, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane reads differently, largely because Gaiman writes with a Hemingwayesque simplicity.  He throws in zingers that feel incredibly true and familiar, particularly for those of us that feel a kinship with the lost and lonely boy.

Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.

There was a table laid with jellies and trifles, with a party hat beside each place, and a birthday cake with seven candles on it in the center of the table.  The cake had a book drawn on it, in icing.  My mother, who had organized the party, told me that the lady at the bakery said that they had never put a book on a birthday cake before, and that mostly for boys it was footballs or spaceships.  I was their first book.

I kept stopping to admire Gaiman’s paragraphs, because his writing is so elegant.  The story itself is simple — it is the tale of a boy on an adventure that takes him no further than the end of the road that he lives on.  His world is a child’s world, small and intense in detail.  The protagonist’s voice is so good, rarely slipping out of the understanding of a seven-year-old and it feels very, very real.

I was shivering convulsively and I was wet through and I was cold, very cold.  It felt like all my heat had been stolen.  The wet clothes clung to my flesh and dripped cold water onto the floor.  With every step I took my sandals made comical squelching noises, and water oozed from the little diamond-shaped holes on the top of the sandals.

When the biggest monster of the story appears, she appears as the boy’s nanny.  As such characters usually are, she’s entrancing to the boy’s parents and sister, but terrible to the boy.  The unfairness of his treatment grates, particularly as she becomes more and more threatening to the boy’s survival.

“Everybody wants money,” she said, as if it were self-evident.  “It makes them happy.  It will make you happy, if you let it.”  We had come out by the heap of grass clippings, behind the circle of green grass that we called the fairy ring: sometimes, when the weather was wet, it filled with vivid yellow toadstools.

“Now,” she said.  “Go to your room.”

I ran from her–ran as fast as I could, across the fairy ring, up the lawn, past the rosebushes, past the coal shed and into the house.

Ursula Monkton was standing just inside the back door of the house to welcome me in, although she could not have got past me.  I would have seen.  Her hair was perfect, and her lipstick seemed freshly applied.

And then it gets worse.  And then better, because the boy has made a friend in Lettie Hempstock.  The Hempstocks are entrancing, as old as the earth itself, and their ways are straight out of a thousand fairy tales.  The Hempstock farm is a place that you can’t help but want to visit, with it’s roaring wall-sized kitchen fireplace and good-smelling stews and roasted carrots.

Lettie’s mother was already hauling a tin bath from beneath the kitchen table, and filling it with steaming water from the enormous black kettle that hung above the fireplace.  Pots of cold water were added until she pronounced it the perfect temperature.

“Right.  In you go,” said Old Mrs. Hempstock.  “Spit-spot.”

I looked at her, horrified.  Was I going to have to undress in front of people I didn’t know?

The Hempstocks remind us that a world that is filled with evil must also be filled with love.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a simple story, but a beautiful story, in the way that only simple stories can be. I highly recommend that you read it through, then turn around and read it again.

I’ll meet you at the end.

  • Publisher:William Morrow and Company
  • Publish Date: June 18, 2013
  • Hardcover: 178 pages
  • ISBN: 9780062255655
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: adventure, fantasy, fiction, magic realism
Subjects: coming of age, fantasy, healing, love, magic, nature, survival
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The Loss of Civility

There’s a new coffee shop by the train station that opened over the summer.  In a world of Starbucks and Walmarts, it is a welcome relief to the monotony of grande cups and jazzy backgrounds.  It is in a tiny space, which previously belonged to a failed news stand and, before that, a coffee stand that only served cold bagels.

Sometimes I think that I have been in this town too long, now that I can remember the history of spaces.

But I like this shop.  It’s taken the craft approach, offering everything that you’d find at Starbucks at higher quality.  The pumpkin latte leaves a smudge of actual squash in the bottom of your cup.  The baked goods are kosher yogurt muffins where you can sink your teeth into the actual fruit.  I’ve been determined to help it thrive, which is helped by the fact that I’ve been horrible at getting out of bed lately, and often arrive at the train station needing breakfast.

The baristas take their jobs as coffee artists so seriously that I imagine that they’re all part owners. It might be so.  Every morning that I forget my breakfast, I go and choose between the big muffin and the small muffin, and I make such a stink out of it that the big blonde fellow grins every time I go for the big one.

One morning, a new customer came in behind me.  Most of America would know the type.  He was dressed for work, in an outfit that tells you that this is a man who worked with his hands.  Perhaps a mechanic, perhaps in the trades.  His jacket was the tough rough leather of a welder’s jacket and he wore jeans made for work.  When he ordered, he asked for a small coffee with sugar and a corn muffin.  He pointed at the glass display.

“I’m sorry, sir, but that’s a lime coconut yogurt muffin,” my favorite Viking told him.

“What?” He looked closer at the muffins, where a sign declared the new world order in a bubbly script.  “Don’t you have corn muffins?”

“No, sir.  Just what’s there, sir.”

The man looked over the selection, then shook his head.  “Forget it.  Just the coffee.”

When he left, he was shaking his head.  And, because I am in Trump country, I thought, Is he a Trump voter?  Is this the demographic?  The man just wanted a corn muffin and a coffee, like he’s probably been ordering at his favorite deli for 30 years, but now he can’t have it.  He could have lime coconut or apple yogurt or pumpkin spice loaf, but the classics have disappeared from our offerings.

I watched him walk away without his breakfast, embarrassed for the coffee shop, although it is just a symbol of its time.  Why should they carry a product that isn’t exciting and new?  They have to compete with the green mermaid machine, like everyone else.

Before Hurricane Sandy, there was a real New York deli right there that would have blown this coffee shop out of business in a matter of weeks.  But their store was destroyed by the storm, so they packed up and found a new location two towns away, much too far for the commuters at my station.  We have had to shift without our classic bagels and eggs and plain coffees with milk and sugar.  And the world that rebuilt never filled those needs again.  My new little coffee shop is the closest, but it doesn’t suit everyone.

And watching this man, I understood a little better about all the people who have been left behind by our shifting economics.

The man just wanted a corn muffin.  What’s so bad about that?

 


 

Living through this Presidential election season has been hard for me.  I have been joking-not-joking that 2016 is the year that White America discovered that racism is still a thing, as Trump’s candidacy grew ever more blunt about its willingness to incite anti-immigrant fervor. As the wife of an immigrant and the mother of a child with dual citizenship, this has been terrifying.  Even though I know that no one is thinking of the big Irish guy when they’re spouting off about “the Mexicans” or “the terrorists,” it’s hard to watch the violence and the ugliness of the rhetoric.  And it has been surprising to me, even though I live in a neighborhood that is deeply religious, to find out how many people have been willing to give a pass to the nastier things that he’s been saying because of how much they hate Hilary Clinton.

As the election progressed, Trump signs sprouted like daffodils on the lawns of my neighbors.  Every time I passed one, it felt like a slap in the face, as people that I’d liked shouted their support.  And I am trying to be better than this, but it’s difficult for me to look past a willingness to ignore such dangerous rhetoric.

Except.

Except there is a part of me that must be honest enough to myself to admit that there have been times where I have reacted to the injustices suffered by Black Americans with gratitude that that sort of thing was not my problem.  Until not so long ago, it happened every time an unarmed Black man was shot by the police under suspicious circumstances.  It happened when Rodney King was beaten in the early 90s.  I would shake my head and be enraged by the injustice of it, by how unstoppable the system seemed.  And then I would think, “Thank God that won’t happen to me,” and go on with my day.

I don’t feel that way any more.

Thanks to Trump, I have discovered just how many of the people in my life are okay with the way things are.  That is white privilege in a nutshell.  The Trump supporters that I know are not evil people.  But they are people who have made peace with a man who says vile things, who are content to let the problems of other people be their problems.  And they have made me feel afraid, in a way that has opened my eyes to the feelings of many dark skinned Americans.

And that was before his tape with Billy Bush leaked.

 


 

It is good that we are having big national conversations about sexual assault.   One of the best parts of the way that our culture is changing is that we’re starting to talk about rape culture, which was a phrase I’d never even heard until I was in my 20s.  I remember the epiphany, as a young woman, that we should be asking men to talk to men about rape, rather than spending our lives trying to protect ourselves from it.  It was a radical notion, this thought that men could be responsible for fixing this problem that predominantly affects women.

Sometimes it is easy to forget how far we have come, in a relatively short period of time.  It was only a hundred years ago that we even gained the vote, much less the right to sue for sexual harassment or spousal rape.

Since the tape leaked, I have been thinking of the times when a man has forced a kiss on me, in the way that Trump described.  I spent about a week vividely reliving those moments — the fear and the anger that came with it.  When a coworker made a joke about locker room talk, I know I was supposed to laugh, but I could only shudder.  I’ve been fortunate in my life and have only suffered the garden variety level of sexual harassment.  I don’t consider myself traumatized in any way by these experiences, though I am nervous when I encounter strange men.  The events that I’ve been thinking about were both strangers, who pushed themselves onto me in public places.  In the first, I was a sixteen year old girl sitting at a bus stop.  The man had been bothering me for several days, so I asked him to just leave me alone and to go away.  There were others there, and I remember their faces distinctly because after he kissed me,  I jumped up and screamed at him while they stared at me like I was the problem.

And not one of them got up to help me, because it was not their problem.  It was not happening to them.

The second incident happened one night on the subway here in New York.  It was about ten o’clock at night on a week night and I was coming home from a dinner out with friends.  Sitting in a nearly empty train car, I was studying for work.  The man approached me and asked for money, over and over again.  He wouldn’t go away, so I finally gave him some change to make him leave me alone.  When I did, he decided to kiss me.  Years later, I can still feel the wet imprint of his lips on my forearm, which I threw up above my head to deflect him and defend myself.  I remember the faces of the two women who got on the train at the next stop, who I asked to switch cars for their own safety.

Garden variety harassment, as I mentioned.  I do not know a single woman who has not had multiple experiences like these.

No real harm done, except…except that I have a certain distrust of men that I do not know, because of all the times that men have behaved this way around me.  When I first heard “The Story,” a song by The Great Ani, I thought, “Oh.  Oh yes, this.  This is exactly it.”  The lyrics are a bit of poetry:

Ani DifrancoI would have returned your greeting
if it weren’t for the way you were looking at me
this street is not a market
and I am not a commodity
don’t you find it sad that we can’t even say hello
’cause you’re a man
and I’m a woman
and the sun is getting low
there are some places that I can’t go
as a woman I can’t go there
and as a person I don’t care
I don’t go for the hey baby what’s your name
and I’d alone thank you
just the same

 

Since the tape leaked, the Trump signs in my neighborhood have come down.  I am filled with gratitude for that, as it lets me stop thinking of the men that have objectified and attacked me and all the people that look like me.

Maybe that is a start.  Maybe it’s a move towards the empathy that we need to create a kinder world where your problems are my problems. I can only hope that at the end of all this ugliness, we’ll all have learned something about ourselves and the country and culture we want to create.

As the Great Ani sings:

we’re all citizens of the womb
before we subdivide
into sexes and shades
this side
that side
and I don’t need to tell you
what this is about
Undressing for the fan
Like it was a man
Wondering about all the things
That I’ll never understand
there are some things that you can’t know
unless you’ve been there
but oh how far we could go
if we started to share
I don’t need to tell you
what it is about
you just start on the inside
you just start on the inside
and work your way out
“Work Your Way Out,” Ani DiFranco
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A Little Story

It is October and I have been writing short stories for most of the past year, among other things. More on that later. But I was reminded the other day of my favorite Hallowe’en story, read by one of my favorite authors, so I thought I would share it with you.

The world might be dark and scary outside, but I just wanted to remind you that literature can make it even scarier.

Happy Hallowe’en!

 

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Human Moments, No 9

By Michael Rivera - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44979295

The children are a mix of ages, from four to seven, but their thin limbs sprawl equally across the newly painted merry-go-round.  Merry-go-rounds are now an artifact of time, an icon of the American landscape that has been sacrificed to this new world of safety and caution, and Baba has never seen one before.  Despite all of my efforts to distract her to slides and swings in the toddler-sized playground, she goes running towards it, arms outstretched like a tiny fun-loving zombie.

Spiiiiins…..spiiiiiins….spiiiiiins….

When they see her, the children on the merry-go-round drag their feet in the dirt to bring it to a screechy halt.  “Wait,” says a little girl with brown hair that is desperately escaping from her fat braid.  “There’s a baby.”  She pulls on the metal bars, dangling her tiny bottom over the edge, her hips moving back and forth with all the energy of someone who hasn’t yet figured out how to sit still.

“Baba, no-no,” I say desperately trying to distract Baba. “No-no, Baba!”  There are no harnesses on the merry-go-round and she’s certainly not stable enough to cling to the bars.  Everything in the New Parent Handbook says that this is a very, very bad idea.

“No-no!” Baba says, cheerily.

“It’s okay,” a young boy says, his words slurred by his missing lower front tooth.  “We can push her.”

“We’ll go slow,” the girl promises.  “Since she’s a baby.”

“Alright,” I say, then help Baba scramble up onto the merry-go-round.  The other children part, making room for her tiny body in that amorphous way that groups of children move when they are en masse.  Baba stands in the middle, smiling and babbling in her joy of being part of the group.  “Sit down!” I tell her, thinking that at least if she sits, she shouldn’t smack too many body parts when the merry-go-round begins to move.  I climb on with her and sit cross-legged on the cold metal, secretly pleased at my flexibility.

And let’s be honest, it’s not just pleased.  I’m delighted to have an excuse to sit on a merry-go-round again.  It was my favorite playground equipment and Baba has given a fabulous excuse to pretend I’m a child.

Spiiiiins…..spiiiiiins….spiiiiiins….

“Is she ready?” the brown-haired girl asks.  “Because my dad has taught us the right speeds.”

“That’s right,” the boy says.  “For babies, you have to go really slow.”  He hops down and begins gently pushing us around, at a speed that would make the teacup ride at Disneyland yawn in boredom.  “And for older babies, you can go less slow.  And for a little older than that, you can go walk speed.  And then, when it’s only older kids, you can go fast.  And then, when you’re five, you can go super fast.”

“And when you’re six,” the girl interrupts, “you can go super-mega-awesome-fast.”

 

 

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The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

theburgessboys

Prepare yourself, readers, for a book that is equally about place as people.  The 2013 novel, The Burgess Boys, written by Elizabeth Strout, is as much about the internal culture clash of being from two places as it is about the Burgess siblings, who are brought together when Susan Burgess’s teenaged son commits a hate crime in their home town of Shirley Falls, Maine.

The novel quickly begins to revolve around the relationship between Susan’s brothers, Jim and Bob Burgess, who both became lawyers and left the small Maine town for New York City.  Jim, the family favorite, made his fame as a brilliant criminal lawyer early in life by successfully defending a guilty-as-sin singer, in a trial that should remind readers of O.J. Simpson.  And yet, his success as a lawyer has come at the cost of his personal relationships.  Jim is, to put it as nicely as possible, a big jerk.

Bob, in comparison, has settled for a less glamorous life, living in the shadow of his brother and putting up with Jim’s constant abuse.  Divorced by his wife Pam over his infertility, he wanders through his days drinking more than he should and watching his neighbors, while still seeking for a meaningful relationship with Jim.

Unlike her brothers, Susan Burgess has remained in Shirley Falls, where she clings tightly and angrily to an image of life that she feels slipping away.  When the town becomes host to an influx of Somali refugees, the native residents are forced to learn to interact with a new culture that seems impossibly foreign to their own.  For Susan, a cold and hard woman who cannot even accept Unitarians, this seems impossible.  When her son Zach, a lonely and silent boy that is dominated by his mother’s anger, throws a pig’s head through the window of the town’s mosque during Ramadan, Susan calls on Bob and Jim to come help with his legal defense.  Forced into returning to Shirley Falls, Jim and Bob struggle with their adult relationship with their sister and their memories of the town and the freak accident that killed their father 30 years prior.  Although their adult lives have been purposefully separate, their shared guilt at their involvement in their father’s death both binds and separates them.  Uniting once again for the sake of family brings up these old wounds and throws them into the light of revelation.

Elizabeth Strout is  a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist (Olive Kitteridge, 2008) and this excellence of writing shows in The Burgess Boys.  Although the actual events of the novel are rather sparse, the prose is captivating and filled with gentle insights into human nature.  By far, the hero of the novel is Bob, who gently plays the role of Switzerland between Susan and Jim.  He wades through the novel with his gentle imperfections, drawing the reader along as he tries to draw meaning from the failures of his marriage and family.

Bob was not a young man, and he knew about loss. He knew the quiet that arrived, the blinding force of panic, and he knew that each loss brought with it some odd, barely acknowledged sense of release. He was not an especially contemplative person, and he did not dwell on this. But by October there were many days when the swell of rightness, loose-limbedness, and gentle gravity came to him. It recalled to him being a child, when he found one day he could finally color within the lines.

As Zach’s trial approaches, Strout brings us further into Bob’s life, exploring his love of New York City and his failed marriage to Pam, who, like Jim, continues to befriend Bob for her own selfish purposes.  Although Bob’s loneliness shines through the story, his introspection keeps the story moving along.  You cannot help but love him for his acute observations and good-natured ability to be the middle ground between the extremes of his family.

He thought of the people in the world who felt saved by city. He was one of them. Whatever darkness leaked its way in, there were always lights on in different windows here, each light like a gentle touch on his shoulder saying, Whatever is happening, Bob Burgess, you are never alone.

By choosing to center the plot around a hate crime, Strout manages to inject a moral tone and a contemporary feel into her books without preaching.  When she writes about culture clash, she does it with the hand of someone who loves her characters and sees the humanity in all of them.  Reading The Burgess Boys in 2016, as the U.S. heads toward a heated election where refugees are a central issue, feels particularly relevant.  Yet Strout reaches into the heads of all of the interested parties, doing as much justice to the culture-shocked Somali refugees as the entrenched white residents of Shirley Falls that resent the changing culture of their town.

About the Somalis, a few townspeople did not speak at all: They were to be borne as one bore bad winters or the price of gasoline or a child who turned out badly. Others were not so silent.

While the political background of the novel could easy drag down the story, ultimately, The Burgess Boys is about a family that suffers because of its long-held secrets.  When the secrets reveal themselves by the end of the novel, as secrets must, the family moves into a satisfying place of redemption, while the reader leaves with just a bit more wisdom about the complexity of love.

“You have family”, Bob said. “You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be kind of a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That’s called family.”

So it is, Bob Burgess.  So it is.

  • Publisher: Random House
  • Publish Date: March 26, 2013
  • Hardcover: 326 pages
  • ISBN: 1400067685
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: fiction, literary fiction
Subjects: coming of age, crime, dysfunction, family, immigration, law, refugees, regionalism
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Dublin Airport Time

Dublin AirportThe flights to America leave from Terminal 2 in Dublin.  There was a time when arriving at the airport was a relaxing part of the trip.  It was a last chance to sit at O’Brien’s and have one last authentic fry-up, one last cup of well-brewed Barry’s tea before stuffing a real scone in my bag and heading back to the land of hot dogs and coffee.

Time has changed things.  O’Brien’s is not what it was.  The tea is a weak European blend that we don’t recognize.  The fruit is green and the sausages are no longer spiced in the Irish style.  The staff are eastern European, serving up a cheaper version of the Irish experience that has lost everything in translation without gaining any international flavor.  The beans are insipid at best.

But this barely matters, because we no longer have time to stop there for breakfast before our flight. New American security concerns mean that we must go through two sets of security screenings, as well as customs, before we even get to the gate.  Well over an hour later, when we’ve gone past all of that, we queue up for half an hour at the one restaurant in the American section of the airport, where I pick out a muffin that I don’t want because we no longer have time for the staff to heat up a panini.  The plane is already boarding, even though we’ve been at the airport for two and a half hours.  I swallow half of my cappuccino before throwing out the rest so that this time, thank God, we don’t end up running for the gate.  I burn my tongue.

It has been an exhausting trip, this trip back to Ireland to bury my brother-in-law.  I’ve cried a great deal more than I expected, while remembering more names than I anticipated.  My in-laws are a veritable tribe, a tribe that shows up en masse to major life events.  There are cousins and friends and adult children with children of their own, all of whom seem to remember my name.  When I ask my Beloved to clarify which cousin Mary that he had just referred to, he gives me a blank look at my dense incomprehension, then rattles off a string of names and relationships that I lose hope of being able to follow by the second sentence.  My family has been declining in numbers for a generation; I am simply not equipped with the skills to remember everyone, even after four years of marriage.  But I am getting better.

My sister-in-law brought pictures of my Beloved and his three siblings to the wake, one from shortly after the birth of the youngest and another from right before my Beloved left Ireland for good in the late 80s.  They are children in the first picture and barely more than that in the second.  The second photo hung in the family home for decades, becoming such an icon that my Beloved and his siblings retook it a few years ago.  I am so glad that they did now, though I remember being in a rush at the time, because there will never be another one with all four of them together.  That time in their lives has finished, long before we ever expected that it would.  So we passed around the pictures and told old stories to the new generation, while marveling at the changes in the family between then and now.  Baba wandered at our feet, pulling at the photographs and trying to find out what happens when you bend them.

My brother-in-law was buried on Saturday, so we took Baba and her cousins to St. Anne’s park on Sunday for some much needed downtime.  There is a playground there that is a Dublin institution.  The carved horses and cows had fresh paint once, but it has been worn off by generations of small hands climbing all over them.  Baba climbed up onto the Viking ship, which is far too tall for her, and her eldest cousin, who is a man himself now, reached up to keep her from falling.  We posed her with her two cousins, and tried to keep her still enough to get a good shot. She doesn’t understand why we would want to sit still in a playground, where there are so many things to climb and explore.  

Perhaps there will be a day, years down the road, where we’ll make another photo like yesterday’s, when Baba is old enough to understand, and marvel again at the impossibility of capturing time.

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So Many Miles to Go Before I Sleep

A winter scene, a cold creek through a snow-covered forest.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

I know that I am grieving, because poetry keeps running through my head.  A fragment here, a stanza there.  It is a dark season, made darker this week by the passing of my brother-in-law, who was a fine, big man that I’d been planning on having in my life for another 20 to 30 years, at a minimum.

Tonight, we will get on a plane, a red eye flight that will take us over the dark waters of the Atlantic.  We’re travelling with Baba and have taken enough red eye flights with her now that I do not think that I will be sleeping for the better part of 24 hours, because toddlers do not understand things like ignoring all of the distractions on the plane for some much needed rest.

There are, indeed, many miles to go before I sleep.  Many of them will be spent walking my 30-pound toddler in my arms up and down the narrow aisle of the plane, begging her to just, please God, please just close her eyes.

And I am reluctant to go and see my brother-in-law.  In April, my brother-in-law was a healthy man.  I saw him this summer, after the brain tumor had started to destroy his body function, but when he was still talking.  A seriously ill man, but an alive one, who was asking about the madness that has infected American politics this year, who had opinions about movies and wanted to tell you what you needed to watch next on TV.

As far away as we are, it doesn’t yet feel possible that he won’t be in Dublin, waiting to greet us when we get there.  I have no experience of Dublin that does not include dinners at his house, his hugs and kisses, the feeling that he always gave me that I was truly a part of the family, that the in-law part of our names for each other was just a stupid formality that only mattered to other people.  He was the first of my in-laws to call me his sister. I will never forget the happiness in his face as he did it, because it must have reflected mine.

Once I see him, then I know that it will be real that he won’t be there anymore.  Not this time, nor the next.

And I do not want that.  I desperately do not want to talk about him in past tense.  I want to keep him in the realm of “is” and not “was.”  It’s impossible.  It’s just impossible that such an alive person could no longer be with us.  It’s impossible that there will be no more beers in seaside pubs and stories of his motorcycle cop days and eating takeaway fish and chips at his dining room table, listening to the fire crackle and pop.

Cliché, cliché, cliché.  But things become clichés because they are true.

And that’s where poetry comes to save us, to say things for us in beautiful ways, to express our grief in words that seem worthy of it.

And so, Joe, let me share with you the stanzas that I’ve had stuck in my head since I heard the news of your death.  The poem reminds me of you, you who spent your weekends sailing yachts, because it was what you just loved to do.  You, who took scuba trips to Caribbean islands, who worked in Croatia for a year, who finally found the adventure you were always looking for in the love of your life.  You were never too modest to share how happy you were about the fine adventures you had! — and that gratitude, that spirit is something that we should all learn from you.  And so I think of Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society, again, telling a classroom of young boys about the preciousness of each day, because you, Joe, you were the essence of carpe diem.  And so I say, to all of you…

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

Robert Herrick, “To the Virgins, to make much of Time

 

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