Sunday, October 19, 2014

Irish Eyes: Our trip to Ireland with Noam Chomsky - Part I, Dublin

Part I - Dublin

Late March, 2013

Sitting at her Yamaha keyboard during my late afternoon visit, my mother, Charlotte, played the last notes of Danny Boy slowly, hitting the keys with surprising firmness.  Laying her delicate hands in her lap, she looked over her shoulder and asked me to wheel her into her bedroom. I helped her stand and move to the bed, and I sat on the edge next to her. “What would you like me to bring you from Cork, Ma?”

“A ring, she said, and pronouncing each word clearly and eyeballing me sideways so there would be no mistake, she added, “You know how I love my rings.”

“Do you want a Claddagh ring, or a stone?”

“I don’t know – I don’t really like Claddagh rings.  You can pick one out for me.  Get something that you think is nice.”

In less than two weeks, Laura and I would meet Noam Chomsky, my boss, in Dublin, Ireland, where we would help manage his events, making sure he had adequate rest, and that his hosts kept to our schedule.  I was looking forward to his Dublin talks, and curious about the “pub crawl” that Maria Baghramian, our host and Noam’s long-time friend and colleague, added to our itinerary when Noam told her I had never heard of a pub crawl. But I was personally excited about the Cork leg of our trip, since that’s where my mother’s grandmother, Ellen Walsh, whom we all called Meme, was born.  My mother shared stories of Meme and her family dancing, laughing, and talking about the days back home in Ireland. “Everyone was crying when they told my grandmother how much fun they’d had!” she would always say, shaking her head. I’m not sure what I would be looking for in Cork, but I thought setting foot in my ancestral country might be an intense experience.

I hated the thought of leaving my mother for five days. Her most recent chemo infusion knocked her out, and I envisioned the near future: holding her hand while coaxing more childhood stories from her about her summers on her grandmother’s farm, for safekeeping. I imagined that in her weakening state she might break through the hard crust of vulnerable discomfort she held close for the first eighty-three years of her life. At the same time, the idea of witnessing her slow death was unthinkable.

On the Friday after she asked me to bring her a ring from Cork, my mother learned from her pulmonologist that she would remain oxygen-tank dependent.  On Saturday night, after a week of fortuitous visits and phone calls from each member of our family, my mother left us, quickly and painlessly, with a blood clot to her heart.  Her friend Al was by her side.

My sister and brothers and I put together a slide show of her life, choosing “Danny Boy” as the background song at her wake. Five days after her funeral, still carrying the raw ache of losing her, Laura and I got on a plane to meet Noam in Ireland.

Early April

 Looking out above the plane’s wing, the bright half-moon calmed me, and for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t afraid of dying. For that moment, at least, I felt with surety as I stared at the moon hanging in the center of my window that my mother would be waiting for me, wherever we go after we die, when it was my turn.

The feeling I got when she left us, as with our friend Sylvia and my son’s father Danny a year before, was that she suddenly disappeared. For days after she died, I cried out, “Where are you?” It was disorienting to go from monitoring her nutrition, fluid intake, and well-being, to a stunning and empty silence. During the four years of her illness, I called her on my way home from MIT at the light where JFK Street intersects with Memorial Drive in front of Harvard University, just to hear her voice. Now I felt her loss more sharply every time I stopped at that light, but taking another route felt like running away. My mother had been brave enough to face her own death, and I had to let myself feel the pain of losing my most loyal cheerleader.

Every once in a while the moon listed toward the left side of my window, and I imagined our trajectory toward Dublin.

Noam had arrived the day before, on Easter Sunday, spending time with Maria and her husband. I figured he would be sleeping when we landed at the Dublin Airport, so we went to the home of my friend Sami, a journalist-musician-philosopher I knew through Noam, to rest and share a delicious spread of local wine, cheeses, and breads before he drove us to the B&B.

When we entered, we were greeted by the sight of Noam seated in the parlor, lifting a dainty porcelain cup from a silver tray.  We were definitely in Ireland.  He wore a thick gray sweater with a rolled neck, and I knew at once where he got it. He has been hooked on Irish knit sweaters since Maria supplied him with his first one, a simple blue cable knit, in early 2000. They’ve been his staple dress item ever since.

He spotted us, and I felt like a teenager who had broken curfew.  “Where were you?” he said. “Weren’t you due to land a few hours ago?” The three of us exchanged hugs, and he added, “I was getting worried.”  I felt guilty for our brief detour, and wished we had let him know of our delay, but I also found his concern touching.

“Do you like the sweater Maria gave to me last night?” he said, standing and holding both of his arms out as if helping us to judge. I was happy for the change in subject.

“It’s great!” I said, picking a small crust of bread off of his chest. “Now you have another to rotate, and people might stop wondering why you are wearing the same two sweaters in all of your photos.” I repaired a few sweaters for him in the past, but a blue-green pullover he asked me to fix had a hole in it the size of a baby’s head, and it will remain in my basement until he stops asking about it.

“Listen, tonight’s talk will be boring for you – you’ve heard it all before,” he warned.  “Since you’ve already set the schedule, why don’t you relax here, or go out with Sami to a pub, and get a taste of Dublin?” I’m sure he did want us to have fun, but I knew another truth behind his suggestion. Noam knew I would keep an eagle eye on the timing of events, but he also trusted that Maria would watch his back.  The crux of the matter was this - he wanted to be able to stop and drop only when he was too tired to stand.  This is what I always tried to keep him from doing, and this is what he always managed to do whether or not someone was monitoring him.  I understood that he needed to live his life his own way.

I had read his lecture abstract, titled, “Can civilization survive really existing capitalism?” and I was familiar with some of the content. We were tired, and eating locally and relaxing at the B&B sounded enticing, so we acquiesced. Laura couldn’t hide her disappointment at skipping one of Noam’s talks, but she agreed to hang back when I assured her we wouldn’t miss anything else on this trip. We would skip his talk in favor of a pub visit with Sami.

The next morning Laura and I ate breakfast with Noam, and Laura mentioned that she had never been to the UK. “Around the 1950’s, Carol and I took a trip to Liverpool on a tilted ship. Liverpool had flooded, and the ship we were supposed to take had sunk a few days earlier.  You could tell as you walked around town which people had been on the tilted ship,” he said, still amused. “In fact, a lot of the world is already under water,” he added.  I looked down at my breakfast and wondered why I should care about my perfectly poached eggs since we were all going to die anyway.

When I was little, I gave up sweets for Lent, and to lighten the mood, I told Noam and Laura this as I picked up a sugar-laden fruit confection. “Do you know what Lent is?” I asked Noam, although I was sure he knew – in fact, he often cites facts about the Catholic religion that I have long since forgotten.

His reply was truly Noam-esque.  “Isn’t Lent when you have to return all of your over-due books to the library?”

Laura and I spent the morning hours with Sami, visiting the amazing Book of Kells exhibit on Trinity College’s Campus. We had attended Noam’s classroom Q&A on thought and the mind in Italy months before, and were looking forward to his master class at the Royal Academy, titled "Language Use and Design: conflicts and their significance." After the class, I arranged for Sami’s friend Gary Daly, a local solicitor and boxer, to say hello to Noam and have his program signed, which put Gary over the moon.  Once Noam was on his way back to the B&B to rest and prepare for the evening’s event, Gary suggested the four of us – Laura, Sami, Gary, and myself, have Irish stew at Gogarty’s pub, where we could hear some authentic Irish music and I could drink my first authentic Guinness.

The duet up front was finishing “The Foggy Dew” as we stepped over the threshold. Those few notes sent something primordial coursing through my body, the emotion of it touching me so deeply that my legs wobbled, and I literally burst into tears. I was surprised by my own reaction, feeling like I was watching myself from afar.

“You’ve come home, have ya?” the lead singer of the duet called out to me.  “Would you like to hear something?” he asked, as I shook my head and wordlessly rounded the corner, moving anywhere but toward the music. I heard Gary call out from behind me, “Could you play Danny Boy for her, in memory of her Mam?”

No, no.  I couldn’t handle Danny Boy. But they were already strumming, picking, and singing, and I disappeared into another realm as their deep voices pulled me to involuntary attention. “Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are caw-aw-ling…from glen to glen, and down the mountainside…”  By now Sami, Gary and Laura were ushering me to a table in the back of the pub, and all eyes were on me when the lead called out, “Will you come and sing with us?”  Was he kidding?  I could hardly stand, as all of the emotion of the past two weeks threatened to drop me in a heap onto the worn, dark wood floor.

“I’m sorry, I can’t…” I tried to yell above the tune.  I struggled to my feet and waved, holding Gary’s arm for support, then sat again, sinking into my own silent fog while Laura ordered my lunch.
After a few innocuously beautiful songs soothed the atmosphere, and buoyed by half of a perfect Guinness, I walked to the front of the pub to thank the two musicians. The lead singer/guitarist kissed and hugged me, and having seen my ongoing reaction, cautioned me: "Stay away from Danny Boy for a while."

We planned to go straight to the B&B for the afternoon, but it dawned on me that my son’s childhood friend, Lorcan, and his family lived in Dublin!  I texted him, and he insisted we come for a visit. Minutes later, Laura and I found ourselves in a cab on our way to Lorcan’s home just 20 minutes from the city, where we had tea with his lovely Irish wife, Sorcha, and I finally met his three children. After our sweetly serendipitous visit, we taxied back to the B&B to shower and rest before Noam’s Front Line talk at the Royal Dublin Society Concert Hall in Ballsbridge.

Maria planned to pick Noam up for the pre-talk reception with an invited group of friends and activists, and Sami would drive us to the event soon after so that we could grab something to eat at the reception as well. Noam, Laura and I sat together in the parlor, sipping tea while we awaited our rides.

“So how was the pub visit?” he asked us, his eyes beaming with curiosity.

“It was fabulous, but I burst into tears as soon as I heard the music.  I told him the story, admitting that I was a mess almost the whole time, especially when they played Danny Boy.”

“I can attest to that first hand,” Laura said.  “We pretty much carried her around for the first twenty minutes.”

Noam asked, “Did you cry when you went to Africa?”

“Yes, I did.”

“From the destitution?”

“No,” I said.  “From the beauty of it.”

My trip to Africa for an animal-viewing safari in the 80’s wouldn't be Noam’s trip to Africa - or India, or Laos, where he looked suffering in the face, as he has repeatedly done, across the globe.  I told him I probably couldn’t handle seeing the things he has seen. He was wearing a look of silent contemplation when Maria announced her arrival.

After the reception we all filed into reserved seating in the concert hall.  Noam’s talk drew an overflow crowd, and ended with a standing ovation.  His inaugural lecture for Front Line Defenders of Human Rights, “Solidarity and the Responsibility to Protect” opened my eyes more to the promised topic: existing support for human rights defenders and activists trying to be heard despite the agendas of others, including mainstream media. By the end of the Q&A my head was spinning, and we still had a pub crawl ahead of us. Noam was engrossed in a post-talk RTV interview that had gotten way out of hand – we promised the journalist ten minutes, but she didn’t budge after twenty-five, despite my hand gestures and verbal pleas. This type of behavior at our office is the bain of my existence. Finally, Noam made eye contact with me and ended it, and ten of us, chatting away, strolled to three waiting cars. Maria and her husband took us to the first bar on our long-awaited virgin pub crawl.

Sometimes alcohol makes my heart race, so I decided to hold off on drinking as we all settled into a big circle.  The women who ran the Front Line program, Mary and Katrina, joined us.  When Mary saw me without a drink, she said, “Christ, Beverly, can’t you have one drink for your mother’s sake?”  I ordered a half pint of Guinness in Charlotte’s honor, partly because Mary’s words eerily echoed my own mother’s – the only mother I knew who tried to encourage her adult children to drink. “For Christ’s sake, Beverly, can’t you have one drink?” she would say, as I am basically a teetotaler.

Sitting there, I wondered if my mother picked up that phrase from her Irish grandmother, Meme, and another of my mother’s stories popped into my head.  She and her best friend traveled with Meme by boat to Provincetown in the mid 1930’s.  I have an old photo-booth picture of the three of them, taken on that trip. Meme must have been in her late forties, but she looks twenty-five years older by present-day standards.

“On the boat, my grandmother ordered a beer at the bar, and I was shocked!” my mother had told me.  “I had never seen her drinking a beer!” My mother didn't often see me with a drink in my hand, though I did share a glass of wine with her on occasion, mostly during one of our scrabble games with Laura and Al, and I was grateful for those memories.

The bar conversation was casual – is the Guinness made locally, is the Irish whiskey better in Ireland than at home, etc.  A few recalled the Front Line lecture and Q&A. Noam was addressed specifically two or three times by folks more than a seat or two away, having noticed he was having trouble hearing, despite hearing aids, above the buzz of bar chatter and the clinking of glasses. They also seemed a little shy sitting in a bar with Noam Chomsky - for sure an usual scenario. When Gary showed up, I introduced him again to Noam.

“It’s a good thing you agreed to have your picture taken with Gary after your master class” I yelled into his right ear, leaning over Laura,“because he is not only a solicitor, but a boxer!” Noam took a deep sip from his whiskey glass, feigning fear.

When Mary, Katrina, and Sami offered to take us across the street to another bar, we had to say yes, although it was likely that I wouldn’t drink much more than the half of a half pint I had just drunk.

“I'm going back to rest up, but you have to go,” Noam said to Laura and me.  “Otherwise you won’t be able to say you’ve been on a pub crawl!”

Maria and her husband took Noam to his hotel, and Laura and I walked across the street to the second bar with our gang of three, calling it a night after an hour, since we had to leave for Cork on the late morning train.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Coincidental Counterpoint


          “Bevy, if you were stranded on a desert island…”
          “Oh, no, please don’t ask me that again, I don’t know – ice cream and pizza.  Those are the two foods I would choose to have if stranded on a desert island.  Although I do love arugula.”
          “That wasn’t what I was going to ask you,” Laura finished, her voice flat.
          It was mid-September, and we were on our way to our self-designed retreat on Westport Island in Maine, to heal and reconnect at our friend Shelley’s vacant cottage after a very intense spring and summer.  Actually, over the past two years we had lost my mother, two dear friends, a cousin, two aunts, an uncle, and our sweet cat.  Most recently, Laura’s mother suffered a major stroke the day before she was to fly to Boston to be at our May 3rd wedding.  Her death three weeks later in a Santa Barbara hospital’s neuro ICU unit was almost more than we could bear. We work hard, try to be positive and upbeat, have an abundance of friends and family around us to share meals, interesting discussion, and healthy laughs, but we both became so exhausted from tending to our lives and work that we had little to give each other at the end of the day.
          We rallied to share a flawless early-August wedding day in our flower-filled, tented back yard with many of the people we love. But we returned to our jobs and other responsibilities too soon, stalling a much-needed period of quiet, mourning, and reflection.  By September we realized we had no choice but to take another week off for ourselves, hoping we might even be lucky enough to find time and space for celebration.
          Laura had just taken over as driver after my three-hour stint, and by now I was interested in closing my eyes and listening to a book on tape, but in the spirit of connection, I did my best to sound enthusiastic. “Oh, sorry.  What is the rest of the question?” 
          “If you were stranded on a desert island, what are the two pieces of music you would like to have with you?” 
          “Do you mean on my I-pod?” I asked.  For some reason I felt the need to be clear about how I would be listening to this music. “A desert island is sounding pretty good to me right now, so I’m not sure ‘stranded’ would be my feeling about it.” Laura is one of the most patient people on the planet, so when I saw what appeared to be confused irritation in the set of her profiled jaw, I decided to play along.  Even I was surprised by what came out of my mouth next.
          “First, I would like to have The Incy Wincy Spider,” I said.
          She took her eyes off the road just long enough to stare at me. “You mean ‘Itsy Bitsy’ Spider,” she said, swerving slightly in order to keep between the white lines, making me seriously wonder why she would risk our lives on a busy highway to make that differentiation.
          I said, “I think both are right.”  I resort to this reply when in doubt – it’s easier than debating.
          “I don’t,” she said. “I think it’s definitely ‘itsy bitsy’.”
          “I will look it up the next time we have internet,” I said.  Another benefit of spending time at the cottage was that it lacked internet, so we would have more time to connect to one another in the silence and beauty of tall pines and the Sheepscot River. We had spent time there with Shelley, Susan, and Jan over the years - we call our group the Totem Mamas, so-named for a small piece of black driftwood we picked up on a beach more than a dozen years ago during our first weekend together, so her home and its good, healing energy felt familiar.  One hidden blessing of having to postpone our May wedding was that Shelley had time to become our legal officiant in time for the August date. Shelley is a deeply spiritual woman, and her cottage reflects this with chachkies from around the world – incense, meditation pillows, candles, wall-hangings, drums, flutes, gongs, and that sort of thing.
          “OK, let me explain.  It’s probably one of the first interactive songs you learned as a kid.  Carly Simon’s version is beautiful – she sings along with the seraphic voices of a chorus of young children.”  I could see by the curious look on her face that it was her turn to not be buying what I was selling, but I kept on talking, though I myself was unsure, and even curious, about what I was getting at.  It’s a great old children’s song.  I sang it with Jay when he was little.
           “I think also that the song is on my mind because Jack and Ellen Foley sent me a video this morning of their little granddaughter belting it out in her baby car seat, and her voice screeched with enthusiastic intensity.” I demonstrated Jack’s granddaughter’s performance by singing the entire song, notching it down a bit so I wouldn’t lose my point, or my audience.
          When I finished, Laura said, “Bevy, I am shuddering at the idea of being stranded on a desert island listening endlessly to your personal reenactment of that song.  So..., what would be your second choice?”
          “Rachmaninoff’s Etudes Tableaux,” I said.  “I think the one I love is Opus 39.  I would want to count the Etudes Tableaux as one choice.  I hope that’s ok.”  (Was I asking permission from her, or from the omniscient and omnipotent answerer of questions?) “So that, and The Incy Wincy Spider.”
          “Not Joan Baez?  Nothing by Joan Baez?” she asked, looking oddly relieved. 
          “I might have chosen Joan Baez twenty years ago, and maybe even a week ago, but I’m staying with these choices. “Here’s the thing about that piece,” I explained.  “It’s like you’re trying and trying to keep going, and it’s at times an uphill battle, like in Camus’s The Myth of Sysiphus, you’re pushing the boulder up the hill, pushing and pushing, and you think you’re almost there, and you give it another shove, and it’s briefly there, on top, only to roll back down again.  It’s a futile action, and I guess you can look at life that way - we all know it will end, so what keeps us going?  Why bother?
        I stopped talking as we passed through the Maine Turnpike tolls, to be sure I had her full attention.  “So the music begins in the lower range, and travels up and up and circles around the higher range, and the notes keep circling as if to find a foothold.  But quickly they tumble backward, spiraling down into and over themselves until there are a lot of low notes, and the feeling of struggle. Then it starts all over again, and there’s hope that this time we might make it back up and stay there for a while, and if we do, we can convince ourselves that we might never tumble down again. That’s how I felt the first time I heard it, and it still hits me like that."
         “Bevy, are you talking about the Itsy Bitsy Spider, or Rachmaninoff?” she asked.  Because if you’re talking about Rachmaninoff, it occurs to me that you could also be talking about the spider.”
        “Oh, god, I was talking about Rachmaninoff, but yes, both!  I hadn’t noticed the similarity until you pointed it out. Why did I choose those two pieces of the thousands I know?  To me, The Itsy Bitsy Spider and Rachmaninoff’s Etudes Tableaux are telling the same story!”
          "Bevy, I have goosebumps," she said, and I think she meant it.
          Just before my thirtieth birthday I realized I could stop feeling sad that my parents couldn't buy me a used piano when I was young.  An MIT colleague, Ronnie Schwartz, agreed to give me piano lessons, and the way things fall together when they're supposed to, I found a used piano at a church for cheap. Ronnie, an accomplished pianist and well-known concertina during her days in the Dominican Republic, was patient as I struggled through Für Elise, then a Bach Prelude and someone’s funeral march. One day as we shared the piano bench, she offered to play Rachmaninoff for me. Her fingers raced and blurred up and down the keyboard, as the music told the story of my life, word for word, note for note.  When she finished, we were both moved by my tear-covered face. Of course she was playing the piece from the Etudes Tableaux.
        When Laura and I arrived at the cottage, we were greeted by long lengths of colored prayer flags I had helped Shelley sew together more than a half dozen years before.  Once inside, we began to unpack, both dreading and looking forward to what we had to face in the quiet solitude of the cottage - a strange admission considering we were married just ten weeks earlier.
        Laura took some things up the wide maple stairs to the bedroom, and I noticed a green striped folder sitting on the edge of the wooden counter, remembering that Shelley was planning to leave it there for us.  I opened it and found that she had printed our wedding ceremony on clear, durable paper, and I sat down right away to read the whole thing, crying through most of it.  Shelley had included a package of copal incense from Colombia, for smudging and cleansing, and when I was finished reading, I got up and lit a stick of it, and started a nice fire in the stone fireplace.  I was ready to get this show on the road.
        Laura and I passed one another on the stairway, and when I returned downstairs a few minutes later, she was sitting on one of the two beige overstuffed living room sofas, near a large glass singing bowl and some ceremonial instruments, and the green folder was beside her. Her eyes were soft, so I knew she had read our ceremony, too.  Behind her, through a large bank of windows, I could see the lake sparkle through the magnificent pines. I sat next to her and held her hand, and we both talked about how much fun our wedding day had been, and how lucky we were to have so many loving people in our lives.
        The next morning, we decided to get out in the open the things we had been holding in, so with pens in hand, we wrote a note to one another.  Laura tapped the signing bowl at the end of a half hour, and we read aloud, each of us speaking and listening in turn, with considerable emotion and a couple of apologies. As lunchtime approached, we began to feel an opening, and a softness toward one another.
         New England was glorying in a week of Indian summer, and we changed the energy up to plan our agenda:  kayaking, reading, more writing and talking, meditations on the decks and cliffs overlooking the river, daily fires in the stone fireplace, and healthy foods to nourish our bodies.  We would use the grill on the back deck to roast vegetables, chicken and fish.
         During these meals, and in the two-person kayak in the late mornings, with acres of  pines and birches as our witnesses, we talked more about the spider and Rachmaninoff, outlined some wishes and goals, and wondered about what might come next, after we leave this life, a question we like to think both of our mothers know the answer to. As an aside, during the half hour that we got online in the neighboring town of Bath, Maine during our third day of retreat, I found out that my cousin Diane was diagnosed just days before with stage four melanoma.  Diane was my best friend when we were kids - she's my age, and this feels so close to home.
        My friend Deb, a hard-core pragmatist, repeats her mantra to me almost weekly. “Biffy, we’re all going to die some day.  Why not accept it and get on with your life?” Deb purchased three plots in a “green” cemetery in Maine about five years before, when she was taking care of her ill mother’s final details.  I visited the cemetery with her a few years ago, and standing shoulder to shoulder with her at her own grave site freaked the hell out of me.
        During our remaining days together at the cottage, Laura and I talked about our losses and our joys, and the realization that it’s futile to try to control any of it – our own lives or the lives of the people we love. Death is a given, and we will obviously experience more or it as we age.  That’s the downside of a full life of friends, family, and pets.  But who’s to say what’s up, and what’s down, and what’s good or bad, anyway.  If I try to put a value on these things, then I’m trying to control something I can’t, and that only causes pain. We remembered the many times a so-called “bad” thing happened to us, only to open another door leading us to something we didn't know we needed.
         By the end of the week, after spending much-needed time with my new wife and this perfect cottage, I could consider that the spider was, without judgment or value, simply climbing up the water spout, being rained out of it, and climbing up again. Jack’s granddaughter knew all the time that this was all there was to it.  It seems to me that we unlearn the simplicity of things as we grow older.  I would like to have a talk with Rachmaninoff and ask him what he had in mind when he wrote the Etudes Tableaux, and in fact I could look that up on line at any time, but I think it’s best that I just put on my earphones and enjoy the music.
 Laura and I have decided to make a yearly trek to strand ourselves on this – or another - island.  Next year, I will bring along all of my Joan Baez and Janis Joplin music.  Laura will bring a couple of her antique books of children’s rhymes and fairy tales, and we’ll really do ourselves in trying to find in those stories the meaning of life.

You can listen to a 30-second sample of my favorite Etudes Tableaux piece.
Below is Jack's granddaughter singing itsy bitsy spider - it gets better as it goes along!