Friday, October 18, 2013


As the the departure time for our UK/Ireland trip drew near, I began considering what poetry I would pack and haul along with me.  First and foremost was to be a collection of Seamus Heaney, the Nobel prize winning Irish poet who passed away just a few months ago.  

I don’t know anything about Heaney, so I placed a copy of a recent title of his in my basket -- and never quite got around to ordering it early enough to pack.  Fair enough, thought I.  Dublin will a fine place to pick up a copy of Haney. Sure enough, the Hughes & Hughes Bookseller store just off St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin had plenty of Heaney titles, and along with a birding guide of Europe, my stack of traveling books got two texts heavier. 

I eventually opened Heaney’s New Selected Poems 1966-1987 on day two here at Holy Hill Hermitage in Co. Sligo.  I must say, much of what he writes about has such an Irish flavor that I feel I need a primer on local history to follow his threads of thought. 

Still, the concept of father grabbed me with the first poem I read.  A few lines from ‘Digging’: 

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into the gravely ground:
My father, digging, I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging...

By God, the old man could handle a spade. 
Just like his old man...

And, of course, such a remembrance of Heaney’s made me consider my old man.  

I think about Dad often, but especially on this trip.  Having spent a few years of his young life in England in the US Army Air Corps during World War II, he told us a few stories of that dangerous time that have stuck with me.  Like when the ship on which he and hundreds of his comrades crossed the Atlantic sailed into the Firth of Clyde in Scotland after a week of radio silence to avoid enemy detection.  Story goes that Allied air support would survey the ocean for approaching ships.  One such recon sortie spotted a quantity of flotsam on the water and making a reasoned judgement, assumed the Aquitania, my father’s ship, had been sunk by a German U-boat.  All were surprised and delighted to find everyone intact.  

Dad’s place of duty was Bury St. Edmunds, England, where he worked in the kitchen cooking for crews of airmen who flew over Europe on bombing missions.  One of his most poignant stories was that guys flying out would leave their wallets behind, knowing that if they didn’t come back, whatever cash was in those wallets would buy a few rounds of drinks for the guys that did.  Even late in his life Dad couldn’t listen to taps without choking up with tears.  I witnessed that more than once.

Back when I was a kid, like my other brothers, I’d help him on occasional jobs when he installed floor covering on weekends and in the evenings to raise a little extra money for the family.  He did the same gig for Rike’s, a local department store, full time.  Later on in his career he went out on his own to ‘lay’ carpet and linoleum.  One summer I worked with him and honest to goodness, I’ve never seen a man sweat so much.  Imagine one guy -- with a little help from me -- jockeying a 400 pound roll of carpet, getting it into position, cutting it perfectly, then kicking the edges into the tack strip to make the installation secure.  Heavens.  He made it clear, by the way, that none of his sons would follow in his career footsteps.  We were all going to school.

I remember, too, plenty of Sunday mornings in my late teens when he would get me up early so we could make it to church on time to serve as acolytes for the 5:45 AM service at church.  It didn’t matter what time I had gotten in the night before.  We made it to church and performed our duties.  It was about then, too, when he would take me out driving after church when the streets were pretty empty.  Such was a special time for both of us.  

And then last week when Cindy Lou and I were in London walking along the Thames over by Westminster Abbey, I found myself in tears.   We had happened upon the Battle of Britain memorial.  Oh, my.  The airmen in the monument stood out in proud relief.  I could see my father among them.  I didn’t expect the tears, but there they were.  Pride in my father’s contributions in that war effort was rich and heartfelt.

Seamus Heaney writes of his father’s influence on him, even from the grave.  I feel some of that, too, I suppose.  For me, though, I’d have to say I felt it most authentically a while ago this evening when I went out into the dark for a slow amble down the little two-lane road in front of our hermitage. The moon was full, the air still, and the murmur of the Ardnaglass River carried through the trees.  Took me back to one of the nights Dad had us kids out for an all-night fishing adventure.  

Because of him, I’ve concluded, I love Nature as much as I do -- so much so that I’d travel across the sea for the chance to have a quiet week where I can listen for birds; photograph flowers; enjoy an amazing sunrise -- and warm, Irish rain; and drive up into the Ox Mountains just to get the best panorama of the countryside possible.  

He was one of the best Nature lovers I’ve ever known.  Thanks for showing me the way, Dad.

Today’s elder idea:  Might be a computer for me, but you get the idea:  the finishing lines from Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’: 
...I’ve no spade to follow men like that. 

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests. 
I’ll dig with that. 

images:  top:  Dad in his early 20s;  mid:  Battle of Britain Memorial detail, London;  bottom: moon out on the road by our place in Ireland. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Problems of history

 A number of year ago, I remember hearing that history was written by the ‘victors.’  My first reaction was to bristle at the concept that the actual story of what happened in a particular battle or historical era was constructed through the bias of the folks who had either won a political victory or vanquished a particular enemy.  The more I thought about it, though, and the more I critiqued the history I taught and so much personally loved, I began to realize that, though such a criticism might be taken with a grain of salt, much truth resided therein.

Yesterday while Cindy Lou and I were on our ‘London in one day’ tour, starting at the Tower of London, I began to think back on another history lesson I began to appreciate a few decades ago.  Back then I was in a Massachusetts cemetery spending some time at the grave of Emily Dickinson.  Where I come from on the eastern fringe of the Midwest, the oldest local graves I ever found were early 19th century.  Woodland Cemetery in Dayton dates back to a time when cities established lovely wooded reserves as final resting places for deceased residents on the outskirts of town.  Graves were even moved from downtown burial plots to the more centralized Woodland in order to open up areas for development, I presume.  

But in Amherst, Massachusetts where Ms. Dickinson is buried, I noticed headstones with dates more than a century older those I had found at home.  It struck me in a moment of realization that American history in New England was, in fact, much, much older than anything I had grown up to learn about my part of the country.  Such a realization strikes me now as a ‘well, duh’ moment, but at the time it really made an impression on me. 

I had a similar reaction at the Tower of London yesterday when I learned that the oldest part of the structure was begun by none other than William the Conquerer, a Norman monarch who changed the island nation’s history close to a millennium ago on the field at Hastings when the claimant to the throne of Edward the Confessor, Harold, was defeated when a particularly well placed arrow struck  him in the eye.  That was 1066, the year I learned in an English linguistics class that marked the end of the Old English period.  Not only would the government of England be changed, but their language as well.

I was eager to listen to our guide, a Yeoman Warder, more commonly known as a Beefeater, who, moving from one spot to another, told us little snippets of British Tower history.  When we got to the site where a round slab of marble with a glass pillow, centered, marked the spot where Anne Boleyn lost her head when she failed to give Henry VIII a male heir, she ticked off the charges made against many of Henry’s wives before they were executed.  Among most of them was ‘adultery.’  No mention of Henry’s indiscretions or discussion of trumped up charges against the women was ever attempted.  

A few minutes later when I was able to talk with the Beefeater as our group moved on, I asked about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of my favorite characters in English history made famous by Katherine Hepburn in the movie A Lion in Winter.  Both the Yeoman Warder and our guide for the day, Nick, reached back into their recollections to agree that, indeed, Eleanor was imprisoned by her husband, Henry II, for some time in another place, and that she had been kept at the Tower of London for 19 years for her ‘protection.’  I questioned the irony of the use of the word ‘protection,’ and they seemed a little shocked and repeated that, yes, it was for her protection.  Since my knowledge of English history is sketchy at best, I dropped the questioning, but walked on wondering about it nonetheless.

And so today I write on the problem of history.

I know as Americans we have black times in our past when native people were brutally driven off their land, slaves from Africa controlled as vital parts of local economies, and Japanese Americans’ interred during World War II because the powers that be in Washington decided so.  Trust me, the Brits have a black list a whole longer just because they’ve been at governance a whole lot longer than the US.  

I’ve always felt embarrassed about America’s intolerance and social mistakes, but I didn’t get that sense from our guides at the Tower yesterday about their past.  I came to conclude, in part, that telling the story of your country’s actions that might be determined unsavory is just part of the burden of retelling the story of your ancestors.  Surely value judgements can be made about what went on, but having a long history means that both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things are part of the victor’s tale.  

And besides, I suppose it’s really about where people are today.  What has a country learned?  Where has that led them?  How has their history brought them to the place in the present time where citizens, immigrants, and visitors are treated under the law?

I have to say that what I see in London is truly amazing.  It took us a couple days to find a person actually born and raised in this country.  So many different kinds of people are everywhere.  Our guide yesterday said something like three hundred languages are spoken here.  Regardless of the criticisms that can be made about the United Kingdom’s past, it surely is a place today where all are welcomed. 

Today’s elder idea:  On our first tour the other day, when telling of bloody and unfortunate times on the island, our guide reflected, ‘Such was a bad time to be here.’  And so it is with some times in history.

images:  top:  Henry VIII (from Wikipedia); below:  changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace the other day

Monday, October 7, 2013

Long awaited

Back in 2005 when Cindy Lou retired from the classroom, she talked about how she’d like to take me to England as her big celebration trip.  Sounded great to me. 

Now here it is 2013 -- and we’re finally taking flight tomorrow afternoon for London.  A first for me.  A third for Cindy Lou.  An adventure for us both! 

It’s not that we didn’t want to get off our chairs and jet off to the United Kingdom.  We started the reservation process a couple of times, but other things just seemed to get scheduled and, well, you know how that goes.  

A bunch of this trip was designed with the help of an American Automobile Club counselor, but the centerpiece of the excursion, as far as I’m concerned, is a week at Holy Hill Hermitage in County Sligo, Ireland.  If you and I chat very often, you are aware of my affection for the Nada Hermitage in Crestone, Colorado.  Been there a couple of times and even hauled a grandson to Crestone for a family week a year ago.  Nada is operated by the Spiritual Life Institute.  The SLI runs Holy Hill as well. 

If the truth be told, though, Cindy’s highlights will be in London and vicinity.  She’s eager to get me out in the neighborhoods where she says, “Everything you see is some part of history you’ve already read about.”  She even bought tickets for us to see Spamalot -- in London!  I cannot imagine a better place to experience the Monty Python mentality than in England’s capital city!  

Right now it’s mid-evening the day before we fly.  My suitcase and carry-on are assembled and waiting at the front door.  They’ll get a couple small things yet tomorrow morning, but they’re ready to fly.  I’ve assembled a few books of poetry for the trip and look forward to visiting a London bookstore for a leisurely peruse.  I have an updated poetry notebook prepared and another steno book ready for thoughts and ideas.  A few good pens and pencils are stowed, as well.  And, of course, there is the laptop that will provide the communication link to the outside world.  No phones this time, smart or otherwise.  I am looking forward to an experience without tons of technology.  Digital photography should be amazing. 

I will be blogging along the way and including some images of what we experience.  I hope you’ll stop by The Back Porch over the next three weeks to see how it’s going.  

Did I say yet how excited I am to get to Holy Hill?  ;-)

Today’s elder idea:  The tag line on the Holy Hill website:  

A retreat centre where people of all faiths can immerse themselves in silence, solitude, and beauty along the west coast of Ireland.  

For more on Holy Hill, see: