Monday, March 27, 2006
There’s something about leaving Ireland that makes it imperative that you listen to all of your favorite Van Morrison songs immediately. Lucky for me, I had several on my iPod and so could begin the lament on the long train journey from Waterford to Limerick before I ever got on the plane. I started with ‘Carrickfergus’ where the line about Kilkenny had new meaning to me, and ended with “Won’t You Stay.”
Probably the most impressive piece in the whole museum is the city charter, which is, essentially, a bunch of documents about mayors and city ordinances written and illustrated on vellum and then sewn together into one big historical quilt. I liked seeing man’s history presented in such a girly fashion. Which brings me to my main beef with museums and history in general. I can rarely find myself there. Sure, there might be some bowls women served food in, a beaded necklace of some ancient peoples, but mostly what you see are the stories of men. Likely, they affected the women in fringe ways, but I would prefer learning about women’s lives & that forgotten history. What shaped domestic life instead of how a political action shaped a nation’s history, or, to borrow words from the Feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, I am most interested in how the political shaped the personal. While I don’t care which king presented the Mayor of Waterford with the Cap of Maintenance (which, by the way, looks over much like the Hogwart’s Sorting Hat), I am curious about the woman who helped piece it together or the Lady Mayor who had a laugh with her husband after the presentation about how stupid he looked in it. (“Ohhhh. Don’t you look divine in your cap o’ maintenance, Darling.”) But those aren’t the stories we get in museums or history books because they aren’t considered important. They aren’t national or global. They aren’t worthy of being recorded. In museums, it seems, the female story is predominately relegated to who wore what and which of our dishes were used to feed the men who were fighting the wars and signing the charters. This is an old, unoriginal argument I’m presenting, and it is changing in terms of recorded _modern_ history, but it does have an impact on my level of interest in dusty relics that I pay seven euro to see.
I cruised through the rest of the museum, paying homage to anything that seemed homage worthy, but generally reassuring myself that I am not a bad person or a bad student of life if I don’t love museums, where life and stories are kept in airtight cases.
Back at the Artist’s house that evening, he showed me his artwork from the period right after his wife had died. These were all chalk pastels with mythological figures and death symbols throughout. He explained each one, which I appreciated, because it helped me understand his thought process. Talking about these pieces must have been exhausting for him, both because physically it is hard for him to get breath behind his words and also because of the subject matter. I was overwhelmed by the pain that was in them and found myself having to turn away periodically. After he had shown them to me, I asked about the sketches he did while his wife was dying and he nodded toward the cabinet where they are kept and said that his children can’t even look at them because they are too painful. At that point, the phone rang–two of his friends were taking Belle and me out for a drink–and I felt relieved to have the spell broken and to have been spared witnessing that pain. Even so, as Belle and I were driven away while he stood at the door, holding onto his wheeled-walker, waving goodbye to us, I wanted very much to hop out of the car and insist we spend the evening at home with him instead of drinking with his friends. I wanted to soften the sadness of what I’d just seen. Of course he has lived with these paintings and his grief for several years, so it is likely that I was the only one who needed the softening.
The man who picked us up was the Artist’s neighbor, a retired banker who now travels and studies languages. He drove us to the house of the other man, a sort of care-taker for a Big House that was formerly owned by the Waterford Crystal people. Gates had to be opened before we could drive in. We had drinks there and then later at a 17th century pub which sits under an ancient-looking “flyover” (overpass). We talked about politics (Irish, U.S., Zimbabwean, E.U.) and drank, then went back to the Big House for tea before heading home to our unpacked suitcases. When we got back, the Artist was already in bed, so Belle and I stayed up until 1:30 talking about life, even though we knew we had to get up at 4:30 the next morning to catch the cab that would take us to our train. Though we’ve worked together in one form or another for over ten years, we didn’t know all the bits of the other’s life, and it felt good to share
Morning came early, but we made our connections and had only an hour to kill at Shannon Airport. There were a few U.S. service men (I saw no women) walking around in their desert cammies. I felt self-conscious about my black shamrock, anti-U.S.-troops-at-Shannon-Airport button and was glad it was out of view. As much as I don’t believe in this war and don’t believe we should be involving Ireland in our nation-building, I feel none of those things about the soldiers themselves. They are my neighbors, my students, my cousins, and, if I’d been more productive on prom night, they could be my sons.
As we were in the departure hall, we could see a large line of soldiers on the other side of the glass just arriving from their trans-Atlantic flight, ready to be shipped to Iraq. As they walked by us, a few waved tentatively through the glass, and Belle and I and some others felt compelled to wave back. My God did they look young. I know this is what people always say about soldiers, but seriously, these boys looked about 14. And maybe I was reading in, but they looked a little scared too. More people waved. A few clapped. I got teary, thinking of the hardwork they were about to undertake. How some of them wouldn’t be coming home the same as they left. How some of them wouldn’t be coming home at all. I had to turn away, as I had the night before looking at the Artist’s study of grief, because the idea of it all was overwhelming. But then the cheers and chants of “U.S.A.” started and the spell was broken. Suddenly it became not a poignant, human moment, but a sporting event. Our team is best. Our team will win. Our team will trounce your team. Gooooooo team. No doubt there is need to build up the gladiators before they go into the arena, but it rang false.
My thoughts turned to a local business owner whose marine son recently walked through that same arrivals hall on his way to be a tank gunner. She said this is what he wanted to do with his life, that this is his destiny. She told me the story of how he and a woman he’d met online tried to connect at Shannon so they could meet face-to-face before he went to Iraq. She talked about how upset the woman was when they missed each other, how touched she was that someone cared so much for her son that she would drive all the way from Dublin, just for a glimpse of him. She explained how she sent an angel statue to the woman as thanks. So anyhow, I ignored the cheers and false bravado and thought instead of these two women and this young soldier, and how though I haven’t met him, I hope he comes back in one piece, because this personal story is the one I care about. Not the oil. Not the WMDs. Not even how political boundaries are drawn or how the history books later present the events.
Maybe its juvenile of me to have this attitude, but I don’t think so. Several years ago a friend told me that he believed poetry would save the world. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the concept at the time, though appreciated the validation he gave to my chosen line of work. Now, I think I understand better. It’s the little moments of personal pain or joy that are recorded into the story, the song lyric, the dance, that will do the work all of our peace talks and war making cannot. It is art that will breathe life into dusty relics in those air-tight museum cases, even if it is by way of an aluminum Viking ship and bad video. It is Van Morrison telling us how he longs for the ability to swim or fly or pay a boatman to carry him back to his own ones across a wide sea.