Tag Archive: Ireland


Say it ain’t so

I don’t know about you, but there are times in my life when I wallow in fear rather than live in faith. I subscribe to the motto typified in the musical the Wiz where the character sings, “Don’t bring me no bad news.”

I’ve been throwing up a lot lately and it has me concerned. Something like seven out of the last ten days within fifteen minutes of waking up I have to race to the bathroom to visit the porcelain God, and dry heave what little water is left in my stomach from the night before. This morning I was driving in my car to get my morning java when I had to abruptly pull over to the side of the road, and now, after seven days of vomiting, my voice is kind of hoarse. So I screwed up my courage and made an appointment to see my doctor today.

I don’t drink alcohol, and I don’t smoke, so in reality it’s probably a case of end of school term nerves, but now I need to schedule an appointment with a Gastroenterologist to make sure my system is still in good working order.

My doctor put me on Protonix, a cousin of Prevacid, but stronger, apparently, and I’m hoping to stop the excess acid production in my stomach. I said, half jokingly, mock serious, “I hope I don’t have stomach cancer.”

“Don’t even say that,” the receptionist cautioned me. It’s almost as though if you give voice to your underlying fears, that somehow might make them come true. People don’t want to hear the “C” word, nor do they want to confront the uncomfortable reality that some people die before their time. A good friend of mine who used to be head librarian at my local library is bravely battling brain cancer, and the longterm prognosis is in months, not years, although she has survived over a year already.

I still want to write my first, second, and third full length novels, and I don’t feel ready to die, but I get nervous that the “best laid plans of mice and men” are going to go astray and that I’m going to be thwarted in my ambitions.

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I deserve good things happening to me. I think we’re so conditioned to believe that life is supposed to be a struggle that we don’t want to admit that we have been blessed, truly blessed beyond belief. I have great people in my life, including a support group that includes my mother’s cousin who loves me dearly and whom I love in return equally, and many other friends and family members.

The truth is: life is good, and I’m looking forward to creating many more meaningful days before I head into the western sunset. Just keep me out of the doctor’s waiting rooms please.

My Irish Grandmother

I called my Irish grandmother, Ahme, perhaps an infant’s way of saying Mommy, but the appellation stuck, and everyone around me referred to her as my Ahme. When she died, I gave the eulogy, and although it’s impossible to summarize what another person’s life has truly meant to you, I did convey a few things: one, that there was no one quite like her, and two, that she had lived life on her terms. I quoted “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery when the author writes, “What you see here is but a shell. What is most important is invisible.”

If I remember correctly, my grandmother died on January 27, 1999, and after giving the eulogy, I went back to work grief-stricken, and had my first nervous breakdown on February 28th of that same year. I simply couldn’t extricate myself from my depression, and in sadness plunged myself back into work with a sort of manic frenzy that came to a head about a month after her death.

The Irish mourn their dead at wakes, and though I didn’t raise a glass of Jamison in her honor because I didn’t and still don’t drink, I nevertheless felt a cultural loss, a loss of my connection with my Irish heritage that has been difficult to replace. My grandmother, Julia Kelley Donoghue, was Irish to her core, and there’s something about the scrappy Irish personality and the twinkle in our eyes that can’t be translated to other ethnicities. Ahme took up painting in her later years, and became quite accomplished at drawing landscapes of the Wisconsin wilderness, the forest and lakes of my childhood vacations. She was left-handed originally, but, in accordance with the times, was forced to write right-handed, something she seemed to resent. I think she associated left-handedness with creativity, and my mother and I are both left-handed while my sister, though right-handed and far more logical than either of us, is also an artist. My sister majored in art, and minored in business, what has worked out to be a great combination for her.

I associate my Irish heritage with a kind of superstitious Catholicism, and I joke that being Catholic, in my household, is almost like being Jewish. It’s more than a religion; it’s a veritable ethnicity. Until I visited Ireland this past year, I had not experienced that deep-rooted connection to my heritage since my grandmother died. I cannot tell you how many uniquely Irish phrases and ways of looking at the world are lost to me since both my Ahme and Boppie died, but I know that I’m a better person for having known both my grandparents, and I love the Irish for the way they have fought against and overcome stigma as they emigrated in large numbers to America during the Potato Famine and afterwords. The Irish stick together, and I’m proud of all the adversity I’ve overcome in becoming the man that I am today.

Gravesite

There’s something about my recent trip to Ireland which has haunted me, namely the importance of marking one’s ancestors as part of one’s heritage, something about the continuity of time that I found reflected in the gravesite of William Butler Yeats. I had never been much of a grave site enthusiast, had never really made a point of visiting the graves of famous authors or personages, and I sometimes find some’s morbid fascination with the dead to be a bit bizarre, but in this case, I felt like I was visiting my literary heritage and literary legacy. I cannot possibly hope to accomplish as much with prose as Yeats did with poetry, but I nevertheless struggle on to leave my own little mark in the world.

Rosie and I arrived in Sligo coincidentally on Yeats birthday, June 13th, and the whole town was up to its nipples in Guinness in celebration of the big day. The sky was azure blue and nearly cloudless, yet his statue in town wore an impertinent rain slicker and held aloft an umbrella, I suppose as a way of recognizing that the weather in Ireland fairly often fails to cooperate.

We met a true Irish lass, Kerry Cunningham, who oversaw the Yeats museum and who took us on a tour before inviting us to go out back to the patio courtyard for refreshments. A more perfect day there has never been. After listening to youthful Irish bands sing out their plaintive tunes, we headed to Drumcliffe Church, the proper burial site for W.B. Yeats.

His tombstone is emblazoned with one of his most famous poems”

“Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by”

To me, the gravestone wasn’t the most remarkable thing about Yeats, though it was certainly memorable. To me, what stood out was the lifelong passion Yeats maintained for the Irish Nationalist Revolutionary Maud Gonne. He proposed to her four times before her marriage to someone else, and proposed yet once again, a final time, after her divorce. She must certainly have been one of the most independent-minded women of all time to turn down the man who had immortalized her in his poetry, but she lives on as an example of yearning and passion and unrequited love (though there are many rumors that Maud Gonne and Yeats did finally, one time, consummate their relationship).

To me, it serves as an example that we don’t always know what in life is best for us, and is a study in missed opportunities. Yeats, near the end of his life, married a woman named Georgie Hyde-Lees, and it is Georgie who rests at the foot of his grave, with a small marker of her own.

Yeats died at age 74, but he couldn’t have had a fuller life if he had lived to 100, and I myself was grateful to come away with a greater appreciation of the man beyond the legend.

Spooked

I’m not sure why people are still sometimes afraid of that which is different. My friend Rosie and I recently toured Ireland, and the trip was, for the most part, a great success, but one incident stands out in my mind and continues to haunt me.

Rosie and I ate an amazing dinner at the Market House restaurant which is adjacent to the Abbey Hotel in Donegal, but the restaurant told us that to use the restroom we would have to head over to the lobby of the hotel. I myself have the bladder of a squirrel, and had already made two trips to the restroom during our extended, leisurely dinner on one of the longest days of the year, but after I paid for our meal on what happened to be Rosie’s birthday, she excused herself, and I followed her over to the hotel.

There was some kind of emergency medical technician arriving on the scene, and the hotel clerk looked at me and said, quite distinctly, that the Abbey Hotel was having a “spook” alert. I’m quite certain I did not hear her wrong, and I stood in silent shock, first hand witness to true Irish racism. Rosie is African-American, and I am white, but I’d never before been confronted with true hatred based on one’s skin color. I have, while in the midst of a gay neighborhood, been called a fag by a passing car, but most of the time, I live out my days without directly confronting prejudice. I think part of the reason the quite recent police shooting of African-American youth Michael Brown stirs up so much controversy and strong reaction is that living with prejudice is a reality for a certain subset of our citizens.

During the first five days of our trip, people kind of assumed that Rosie and I were an interracial couple, and we were greeted on the west coast with a kind of curiosity–we definitely stuck out in the very heterogenous white population–but no one said anything, and we were treated courteously. That changed in Donegal, a small fishing town, and I staggered out of the hotel like a drunk, even though I don’t drink. I’m left reminded of the Robert Frost poem, that we have “miles to go before we sleep.”

During my most recent 10 day trip to Ireland, I had the good fortune to visit Blarney Castle and kiss the Blarney Stone (I have the pictures to prove it). I had ridiculed those who rushed to kiss the stone, figuring they were suckers of a good tourist scam, but I have to say that seeing the grounds turned out to be one of the major highlights of my trip. The grounds, including the Poisonous Gardens and the secret wishing well, were beautifully laid out, and we explored the castle grounds over the course of two and a half hours.

As happenchance would have it, the day Rosie and I visited, gay choruses from around the United States were also visiting, including groups from Atlanta and Minnesota, who were also making a trek to kiss the Blarney Stone. A transsexual named Ann introduced herself to us and volunteered to take our pictures, incorrectly assuming that we were an interracial couple, facing the same prejudices she did as a man who lives as a woman. Unfortunately, Ann was not exactly blessed with the ability to “pass” as the other gender, but probably faces a fair amount of prejudice and ridicule on a daily basis. I’ve been told by some that I’m not apparently or obviously gay, and that I can live among heterosexuals invisibly, and this is both a blessing and a curse. At times I’m probably more obviously gay than others, but living in the western burbs of Chicago, I’m careful not to throw my sexuality in the face of others. It’s a Bill Clintonesque “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

I had imagined the Blarney Stone as some kind of boulder or rock outgrowth, and didn’t really envisage it as part of the castle, but it was great fun to stretch out backwards and kiss the stone while being held by a handsome redheaded Irishman. In a strange twist, just before Rosie went to kiss the stone, the guy in charge thoroughly wiped down the wall. It was done with some measure of good humor on his part, and I would have thought, had he been truly prejudiced, he would have scrubbed the wall after she kissed it, not before. We did experience prejudice while on the trip, but that occurred more during the later half of the trip. The Irishman in charge did wipe down the wall after each kisser, but didn’t seem overly concerned with “disinfecting” it, except as some kind of blarney joke. There was a rather ribald humor to the whole expedition, and all the GLBTQ choruses from around the United States dominated the scene, scouting out camp photos in the cavernous rooms as we climbed the stone staircase en route to our thirty second smooch designed to guarantee we would always be blessed with the gift of blarney. I have yet to see how completely I will be blessed with this gift.

I did, however, realize how lucky I am to live in America at this particular time in history. As a nation, we may have “miles to go” yet, but I’m aware that I’m afforded the liberty to “live out loud” if that is what I choose. It may cost me some friends, but it likely won’t cost me my life.

Turgid

I’ve heard certain bodies of water, in particular parts of the Mississippi River, described as having turgid waters, meaning distended and overflowing. The primary definition of turgid is in reference to something that is pompous and overcomplicated, but to me, the word has always had a different connotation, as something that is muddied or unclear, but perhaps I’m thinking of the wrong word.

Using the word turgid in the way to which I have become accustomed, I have to say that since my 10 day trip to Ireland in mid to late June, my world has been somewhat, although not altogether, muddied and unclear. At first after I got back, I simply slept, and jet lag, I’ve discovered, is a very real thing. And since I had six sessions of ECT–Electroconvulsive Therapy, in October of last year, I’ve put on 35 to 40 lbs, and with the body slowing down, so has the mind. I’ve heard that ECT is supposed to reboot the brain, and that it is quite effective, and may indeed prevent future hospitalizations, but I’ve had to get used to things being different in how I function.

With ECT is expected some short term memory loss, and indeed, much of October and November of last year are a haze, but I’ve had some difficulty retrieving older memories as well, and I even developed a bit of a stammer, a kind of stuttering that comes out when I’m overtired, overstressed, nervous, or just overwhelmed. They just don’t tell you these things when you sign on to have an electrical current passed through your brain, that after you’ve had six carefully controlled induced seizures there might be serious side effects in how you think and process information. I do, however, remember them bringing me upstairs just as soon as the anesthesia had worn off, and having them get me to practice writing my name. For someone who hopes to be a published author someday, this activity has stuck out in my brain as being especially relevant.

The good news is that I’m once again hopeful about my future, hopeful that with effort and determination, I can achieve my goals, graduate from Northwestern with an MFA in creative writing, and indeed finish and publish a novel. At that time I had lost that faith in my abilities and had become overwhelmed by trying to care for my older, handicapped cousin who is wheelchair bound and morbidly obese, unable to take care of those activities of daily living that you and I take for granted. The phrase, “Physician, heal thyself,” has seemed especially pertinent, and I’ve realized that if I don’t manage my own health and well being, I won’t be able to be there for someone else. Fueling the fog of my thought process was my feeling that I just couldn’t cope with the responsibilities of being able to care for my cousin who had become reliant on my for her well being.

I’ve slowly crawled out of the turgid waters of my brain, and resumed my place among students, hoping that I can regain my abilities to think my way through a plot, even if it’s only to plot my own trajectory through life.