I write across distances, from the gray waves of the Irish Sea to the blue-green waters of California’s Pacific coastline. More than this, I write across the elapsed seconds, minutes, hours, and years of my life. Only the other day I looked at the sweeping second hand of my watch and thought, how many times in my life has this perfect circle turned its course and marked time’s passage? In that time I’ve lived on two different continents, been married twice, have two children, three college degrees, and fallen in and out of love more times than I can admit. early evening, and across the tops of avocado trees, the spiraling of a red tailed hawk, the scent of the plumeria, grafted from an ancestor’s garden. A new world unfolds.
In blue she weaves her way through the crowds, the sheen of her hair reflecting the lights from the ceiling, her cheeks flushed from the attention. Who told you that you could write? The notion should have been disabused, drowned like a puppy at birth. Hold it under, wait for the wriggling to cease, the escaping bubbles of air, the gasping of the poor mite trying to hang on to life. With a deliberate stitch she could make all the difference between life and death. We’re all prone to dream the solitude of our subconscious. In the dark the hair fans out on the pillow, the piercing blue catches you with a sense of uncertainty, a notion of being caught looking at something you shouldn’t. No need. Move along now, approach from another aspect, take a different tack, queen’s pawn first this time. The result may be the same but there’s the chance there’s a surprise factor at work here and you might end up controlling the center.
Nuns took children from the streets, housed them, nursed them through pregnancy, and enslaved them in laundries. Can the sins of the children be washed clean in the waters of Babylon? I know these sisters of charity poor hope lost causes had mitochondrial DNA that tagged them as vicious brides of chaos. Night was the worst, the teenage girls, pregnant, afraid, abandoned by families wrecked with shame, choking tears back in the dark, their swollen bellies ripe with bastards destined to fill the island from east to west and north to south. Consider the lilies of the valley and think that each of those children would have been a lily, a fragile Easter flower. Missing families, empty wombs where the children slept before sinning, and now they’ve fallen in sin their cells are the whitewashed rooms of a nondescript convent in the outskirts of many villages and towns. Complicit in the crime: teachers, nuns, parents, postmistresses, ordinary people. Guilty as charged.
The kitchen at the end of the hall, a darkness opening up into a yellowed shell where the smells of cooking and stale cigarettes commingled, creating a thick impasto that smeared the walls in a smoky residue. The Wamsler stove came later, after my father’s car accident, a bonus from the paltry compensation for almost having his life ended on a wet morning in the West of Ireland. Mam kept pots, pans, kettles on the boil in a furious rotation. There was always food in production, be it cakes or desserts, dinners or breakfasts. Porridge—whiteness, watery oats, cooking slow, a bubbling froth, thickening, much like wallpaper paste. Brown sugar and milk, stirred, the heat hitting the pit of the stomach on cold winter mornings, those frigid darkened hours before the sun rose and the world awakened properly. With the heat of the gruel in the bottom of the stomach we forged ahead into the Dublin streets, the walk to school, along the avenue, past Ross’s, Torsney’s, around the corner, the thick privet hedge filled with hidden bird’s nests, onto the Rathgar Road, narrow streets thick with traffic, cars, buses, trucks, morning industry, the city awakening, belches of smoke from the exhausts of worn-out public buses. Workmen supping tea and Kimberly Mikado biscuits, gin rummy before breakfast in their shelter.
Rathgar Dairy. A narrow shop, shelves crammed with bread, biscuits, tinned foods: Bird’s Custard, Crosse & Blackwell’s Mincemeat, Heinz Baked Beans. The daily newspapers arrayed on the floor by the counter: the Irish Press, the Irish Independent, the Irish Times. Later they started selling the Sun and the Daily Mirror, black-and-white photos of semi-naked women, a turn of the page away from churlish eyes. Space and time and the eternal damnation of childhood positioned me in this continuum of eternal return. Each day turned into the other as seamlessly as a drop of ink in a cup of water. No escape, no escape, no escape from the prison of my miserable shyness, a shyness that cramped and curdled. Oh, I wanted to be able to act like the others, to talk in a loud voice about soccer matches, or girls, or fights in the school yard. My voice was bound in a clamp of uncertainty, the impossibility of my ever breaking the silence, of simply giving voice to my ideas. I never thought the ideas I had were valid at all.
Mass every Sunday. Up early, get into the car, drive with the parents to the church. We could have walked. The church was less than fifteen minutes walk from our house. Down Rathgar Avenue, right on Garville Avenue, another left on Rathgar Road, and there it was: the aedificium. This granite monster—servants’ church—rising dozens of feet in the sky, three immense statues of the Irish patron saints: Brigid, Patrick, Columba. In the church itself, darkness, corners to hide, candles, statues of other saints: St. Martin de Porres, St. Francis, St. Anthony. Confessional boxes, like disconnected rail carriages, heavy burgundy drapes keeping the sounds of our sins from the congregation at large. And on the altar, marble, glowing as if whitest angel’s wings. Flowers bloomed from large vases arrayed on the altar, the tabernacle covered by a gorgeously embroidered cloth, the body inside, flesh and blood, just waiting to be tasted. Never the momentary thought of equating this odd Catholic ritual with the savagery of say, a Mayan sacrifice. Inches. Mere inches kept the sinner from the prize. Almost visible, barely concealed beneath the cloth, impossibly close, within touching distance, a flicker of realization, the chance of seeing something thrilling. God in his house: patient, eternal, and consistent in his love of the flock. And we were such lambs, no shepherd required for us to make our way through the streets, back to the safety of the church.
The truth was I had no concept of God; only the brutal version thumped into us by priests and teachers at school. Catechism class was the foundation of our faith—the stark printed matter written in a question and answer fashion style structured to inculcate us into the doctrinal ways of the church. Church/crutch? Syllabic dissonance. As the story goes, so much to be grateful for—this and that and the other, the clear mind, the healthy lifestyle, the roof over the head, food on the table. All an illusion. The word was guilt, and the word was made flesh.
Mam said, “Eat your vegetables; there are poor children in Africa who’d give anything to eat the crusts of bread you throw in the trash.”
The reasoning was that the bread and vegetables and other foodstuffs would go rotten before they’d ever make it to the Dark Continent. And the priests back from the Missions to Kenya, Uganda, Sierra Leone—the stories of snakes and witch doctors—with the lies about all the conversions. God would bring them light. As if light was what these poor people needed. Dark days, preaching to the choir, nonesuch.
Flight, wings spread, arched back, the sea below, foam bubbling, ancient rocks battered by the salted spray. I choke back the tears, alone on the cliff, my heart cold from the pain of her parting words, the spliced ends of an electrical cord holding my pants up. My Converse covered in writing; the musings of her diary, copied in my meticulous hand, the words she hid from me. Aloft on the breeze the seabirds float by unconsciously, their eyes obsidian pins. I can do this, I can fly, my love! Watch me run to the edge. See the pattern of my sneaker soles in the dirt? See the flecks of spittle from my mouth as I cry to the elements? Shall I jump now, into the air above the water hundreds of feet below? Take my hand and come along with me because you are the one who brought me to this spot. I couldn’t have done this without you. Are those ironic words or are they the truth? Gaelic storms batter the west coast, the flumes of rain stretching across the rocky fields. I am not of this place yet I was born here, conceived in the center, born in the west, driven to the east, and banished to the south. My life is a crucifix—the sign of the cross, the mystical blessing made by the choices of my parents, unbeknownst to them at the time, condemning me to a life outside the church, abandoned—and me, the lost child. Stolen. Water. Ways.
A chittering of insects—the death rattle of a ceanothus silk moth—the smell of rain. When the train whistles, coyotes’ howls fills the air and the neighborhood dogs join in. My mouth cannot form the syllables, cannot frame the questions, cannot grasp the meanings. Liberty is fleeting, the Tarot card tell me otherwise. By now it is dark and the low hoo-hoo-hoo of a great horned owl reverberates in the night. Inside the house my wife and daughter sleep, the fourth and fifth generation to do so in this house once sat on the beach at Santa Claus Lane. Before I go inside for the night I recite a heathen prayer for some measure of salvation. Out in the channel the islands are static whale-shapes, and here and there the scaffolded lights of the oil platforms glow in the mist.