The House on the Hill

Last week I was getting books together for a friend who is ailing. I was in my office going through the bookcases, looking for things that might tempt her. Of course, I was distracted and started looking through the books; I found an old newspaper clipping of a book review, a five dollar bill, a note in someone’s hand I didn’t recognize, a bookmark from the Getty Museum – it’s curious what we leave behind. I came upon a copy of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and I stopped to thumb through it. I haven’t read it in ages, saw the movie (and the BBC miniseries) long ago, but I was struck by the first lines, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” It goes on to describe the narrator’s – the second Mrs. de Winter’s – dream of returning to her former home – a great house on the Cornish coast.

The dream sequence continues for several pages and I was riveted. It’s so well written and haunting and moody, but there was something more. I realized that I too have had a similar dream – of my old home where I grew up with my family. I would have the dream often, for years. As in Rebecca, I am on foot and it is twilight or dusk and the drive winds and winds until our home comes into view. In my dream sometimes the house is a combination of my family’s old home and my great grandmother’s wonderful stone house. Sometimes, I can walk in and pass through the rooms, other times all I can do is look through the windows. I am so thrilled to see it again, to recognize familiar things. Like the narrator, “I stood, my heart thumping in my breast, the strange prick of tears behind my eyes.” When I awaken, or the dream ends, I have an achy feeling in my heart, both elated and crestfallen.

I never mentioned the dream to anyone even though it occurred frequently. That is, until I was deeply involved in a romance of my own. I must have had the dream and it was weighing on me. The man, who was older than I and fairly intuitive about women, saw my distraction and prompted me to tell him. So I did. He listened carefully and intently. When I was done, he said, “You want to go back to the house on the hill.” He was right. The house, both of them in fact, were gone, yet the desire to return to the house on the hill remained. I do believe he understood, even though we were at that moment on another continent in another hemisphere, but I knew vaguely that there was a house on the hill for him as well. Entirely different, and not a house per se, but  a place and time no less powerful. If I had continued with this man I would have been a second Mrs. de Winter of a sort, and was keenly aware of living up to a memory of another woman who had died. The dream, the memory of my romance, the novel, images of my home and my great-grandmother’s were all shuffling through my mind. Then, I remembered that I had gone to a lecture at Princeton on The Odyssey and the speaker discussed the idea of the eternal returning – not just of Odysseus but of all life travelers. The need, the yearning, to come home. An ancient theme no doubt, it’s in Genesis as well, I think.

As I write this, I think of all us through those years: playing, running, throwing our bikes in the grass, catching fireflies — and the day ending as the lights would come on in the house. I can see my father in his study reading, my mother talking to one of our dogs or the cat while she readied dinner, one of my sisters at the piano, a thriving hive of activity and halcyon memory. Like Manderley ours is no longer, our Manderley is no more. Even so, as the narrator in Rebecca writes, “Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, not the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.”

Clare Irwin

Stream of Consciousness Sunday

I haven’t posted anything new for over two weeks, and my only excuse is that I was sucked into the vortex of Twitter and Pinterest. Just got back, barely. Twitter and Pinterest are fun and intriguing, but suddenly I realize that I’m late for…everything. On Twitter, there’s a lot coming at the viewer – it’s about speed, I think. I do like the exercise of keeping it brief, but with an endless supply of new tweets and “news” items, my mind is jumping around from saving the oceans, to what British Vogue is recommending for an in-between weather coat, to Shakespeare Sunday, or whatever international day we are celebrating.

As I was driving on my appointed rounds today I was trying to compose a new blog post in my head. I then realized I had Twitter-itis – the inflammation of random thoughts bouncing around the various lobes of my brain. So I guess since that’s the best I could do, here is how it went:

I decided to listen to disco music, which I am not even sure I like, but the weather has been so gloomy and stormy I felt like I needed a dose of verve. Donna Summer was playing which reminded me of an old Saturday Night Live sketch about a fast food restaurant in the South where the employees are telling customers to “Simma down now!” (Cheri Oteri and Tobey Maguire were in it). That brought me to Pulp Fiction, which I have mentioned in a previous post, and the line Uma Thurman delivers when Vincent Vega comes to pick her up for their “date.” She’s directing him to the bar or the music and she says, “Warm. Warmer. — Disco.” I like that. Next, I thought of my friend’s son, James, (I have written about him in an earlier post), who despite his mother’s ironclad parental restrictions on cable, internet, TV, and movies, unearthed a website where he can watch all the things he shouldn’t. James has discovered Quentin Tarantino and especially likes Pulp Fiction. Thinking about James made me realize how much he’s changed since last summer, as boys his age are wont to do — he’s still funny and precocious. Now, he is also courtly and charming with the ladies, offering to carry my shopping bags and that sort of thing. James is more engaging in all sorts of inappropriate conversations which is a guilty pleasure we share. He’s retired the Pink Floyd T-shirt for the usual prep school gear that those of us who went to prep school give ourselves over to for a time. Soon he’ll be off to college, which then makes me think of the last two weeks and how I would like to get through a day without someone in my orbit crying. So, after the drama of the day, I do unplug, but come morning I am back on Twitter and Pinterest. Next is learning Facebook — so send out the search party.   

Facebook-plasia anyone?

Clare Irwin

P.S. The Pulp Fiction post “Son of a Preacher Man” can be found in Archives July 2016, and James’s post “Straight to the Heart of Fun” Archives August 2016.


The Overflowing Fountain – My Friend Sebastian

I have had the privilege of getting to know Sebastian over the last few years. We spent many wintery Saturday afternoons hammering out an essay that would gain him entrance into an esteemed university. Sebastian, was, is, like an overflowing fountain: abundant, generous, and sparkling in sprit. Nothing is not interesting to him. We had wonderful conversations over those weeks and months. I, as a steadfast humanist, and he, as a passionate physicist, realized that we were talking and reaching for the same “pathway of return” as theologians and metaphysicists call it.

I came up with the name for this blog years ago and put it on the back burner. Life was happening and it had to sit there for a while. Then, during Sebastian’s and my talks about everything under the sun, I understood what the name meant to me. I don’t think it’s obvious yet, but the themes running through the posts coincide with the back idea. I hope too that in the organic nature of things, it will change and grow deeper. Simply put, Phantom Noise In Ordinary Time is where the humanistic and the metaphysic intersect, or where the ethereal and the empirical conjoin.

Phantom noise is a medical phenomenon, as well as a figurative one, when one hears or feels something that was once there, but is no longer, yet one still senses what was lost. Ordinary time, is how we humans measure time kronos, as opposed to God, or the universe, whose time is not really measurable to us – Kairos — a never ending continuum of cycle and pulse. It is a way we exist – the friction between the two and the merging of the two within ourselves. Our memory and our emotions don’t work linearly, and time is a mystery that we desperately attempt to measure. Memory of what has happened, or what is yet to happen, is another mystery we experience

I know I am way out of my wheelhouse here, but I hope in my attempt that this offers some explanation. I would like readers to decide for themselves what the name, the blog, the idea means. I offer this post as a tribute to my friend Sebastian who brought me closer to contemplating what is beyond understanding, and for his logical mind and awakened soul.

Clare Irwin

P.S. This blog owes much to Richard Rohr and his daily meditations, and the extraordinary work of the Center for Action and Contemplation.

P.P.S. For those who found this way too heavy or “out there” don’t worry I’ll go back to reporting on lighter fare.



Wiccan – What The….?

In earlier years, my older sister, Christina, embraced a version of Wicca. She was always into something and it was usually intriguing — definitely a free spirit. She went out to California, lived in Marin County (where else?), and occasionally went to college classes. At least that is what she told our parents. She befriended a girl (we’ll call her Helen for the purposes of this writing) who was originally from Brentwood in LA, and who had a glamorous Hollywood upbringing.  When that all fell apart Helen moved up north and that is where my sister met her.

My sister essentially apprenticed herself to Helen and learned the tools of the Wicca craft. It appeared pretty benign, but our mother freaked out when my sister came home to visit full of Wiccan know-how. Our father, a wise man, said nothing which ended up being the most effective way of allowing my sister to lose interest on her own. Christina taught me a few things, but it all seemed like a lot of work — and maybe it was Helen’s own overlay — it seemed pretty paranoid too. I remember Christina took me down to the beach to show me how to do water magic, which is writing an intention in the sand, near the water, and letting the waves “pull” the intention out. In other words, the waves would wash away what was written. And then, well I guess something amazing would happen.

First, however, we had to go into the woods and find the perfect branch or large stick that would “speak” to us. This would be the writing utensil. So, I found myself following my earnest sister walking through the soft pine needles through the woods of our property. Christina eventually found the right one, we got in the car, and off we went to the shore. There, she demonstrated how it was done. I have no idea what the intention was — I cannot remember, but I was standing there watching my sister write in the sand and hopping around like some crazy beautiful cricket avoiding the waves that were coming in. It’s a funny and touching memory — it’s how I think of her to this day: young, tall, stunning in a careless way, and walking to the beat of her own drum.

Christina left me the stick when she went back to California, and I put it in the trunk of my car and forgot about it. Months later, something went wrong with the car and my father brought it down to our mechanic. Yes, we pretty much had a “mechanic in residence.” There were a lot of cars, people, activity, friends visiting, and comings and goings during those happy years in my family home. For some reason my father and Frank, our mechanic, had to open the trunk, and there was the stick looking both neglected, gnarly and ominous. Somehow Frank knew that the stick wasn’t there just by accident — it had some weird purpose — and looked quizzically at my dad. My father just shook his head and said, “Don’t ask.” And Frank didn’t — there were more females than males in his household too, and had learned the lesson, probably the hard way, not to ask too many questions about what sort of nutty things the women might be up to (monkey business my grandfather used to call it). Women! Right?

The car was repaired and the stick stayed in the trunk unused until I think I sold it to a friend, or we donated it. As I was emptying out the trunk, I saw the stick there and threw it out. I didn’t think about it. I just whipped it into the woods, but now looking back it was harshly unsentimental of me. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, they are all gone now — the people in this brief scene — and the way I tossed the magic away makes me realize, in my youthful ignorance, that I thought things would never change. Things would always be good, lighthearted, funny, vital. But, of course, that was not the case.

They are all beloved to me, these people, these places, these memories — and that is the real magic. Not so much some exhaustive ritual or incantation, but the spell that extraordinary people cast, and the spell of the perfect convergence of time, of those people and places, and me.

With Love,

Clare Irwin

A Shower of Gold

Last Sunday as I was walking up to the entrance of our church, our young priest was outside to greet us. He was in his immaculate white cassock with an dark apple green surplice, and fastened around his waist was a white cincture cord tied in a luscious knot. Behind him the sun was shining through an oak tree that was blazing red, yellow, orange. It was a magnificent panoply of color and light.

As I made my way to my pew, to settle in and let go and breathe, I had a memory that I hadn’t had for a long time. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was staying with us during the fall. He was ill, gravely ill we were soon to learn. He was a lovely man, charming, affectionate, outgoing, funny  and easygoing — everyone loved him. He was also a bit of a Beau Brummell, but in a good way, he always looked amazing and he made it look easy. But that fall his heart was failing him, and maybe in the back of all of our minds we knew it.

My grandfather would sit in my father’s study which had a nice comfortable chair that seemed to ease his distress. The chair faced a window which looked out onto the fairly vast front lawn of my family home. Right near the window was a very old and very large oak tree — majestic and much loved. We had all climbed it, swung on it, and the tree tolerated us all. Every fall it would turn the most exquisite shade of brilliant yellow gold and the glow would fill the room with a warm cast. I remember my grandfather sitting in the chair with the light was hitting the tree just right, and it was a vision moment like the one I just described from last Sunday where I think we really see — we see the true perfection of all things. My grandfather was wearing a camel hair sweater and an oxblood ascot and he looked wonderful. He had these lovely light hazel eyes and he was staring out onto the view. I remember him remarking to us how beautiful a sight that tree was, with the golden leaves still on the branches and the glorious pool of yellow leaves beneath. It gave him comfort and his remark compelled us to look at the beauty which we took a little bit for granted because it had always been there. We all surrounded him, standing by his chair or sitting on the floor beside him, and we all shared the moment.

He died at the end of November — his heart was enlarged — too big my mother said. I think of that moment with all of us there and fast forward to now. Everyone, except me, is gone. I see that image and there is almost a cinematic effect of each of the players in the tableau gradually fading and disappearing. The house is gone too, and that tree that stood for so many generations is gone as well I am told. It’s a precious memory. I remember then, and it still reminds me of it now, of the myth of Danae. Apparently Zeus fell in love with this princess and impregnated her with Perseus by visiting her in the form of a shower of gold. There are quite a few ancient depictions and Renaissance paintings of this myth but I think my favorite one is Titian’s.

I haven’t read all of Freud, but some, and wonder how he missed the heavy “symbolism?” of this myth. We all know that the Oedipal one has been done to death, and for those more interested, the Electra one as well. Just wondering what Freud would have made of it. But the encounter of Zeus and Danae I suppose was glorious, and it yielded a great hero. For Danae the shower of gold was an entrance into fecundity and birth; it was the inverse for my grandfather — those were his last days until he exited our lives but not our hearts. But the tree, our giving tree, and that my grandfather was surrounded by his children and grandchildren and his wife, my grandmother, whom he adored – I think eased his passage, and he enjoyed the splendor of his shower of gold.

Clare Irwin

P.S. I also love Correggio’s and Klimt’s interpretations of Danae….

Another Country

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” so begins the opening of L.P. Hartley’s wonderful book The Go-Between. d3d75b8ed2d3b44ee2db94e86d2cd808A friend of mine often quotes this line to me when we start to dwell too long in the past. The season is gradually changing, the official end of summer was four days ago, the nights are chilly. Time is flowing and a number of friends are traveling right now: Spain, Germany, Denmark, Amsterdam, and Sicily — foreign countries. The transitory nature of summer to fall and friends traveling sends me back to my past, my foreign country. Sicily for me is a memory of a time when we did things differently, my family, and so did I. I went to Sicily as a teenager and it was the most enchanting trip of all. Everything was ripe, the season, me, the confluence of sensibilities and the beauty of the place. I fell in love with this magical island. My great-grandmother (more on her in another post) was a remarkable person and exceedingly well traveled. She urged me to go and where to stay.

I landed in Taormina which now is well known, less so then, and I stayed in a hotel that was at the foot of the ancient Greek amphitheater, and had an unobstructed view of the town below and Mount Etna in all her glory. It was a hotel that had been there a long time and had been owned by the same family for generations. It had a 19th Century quality to it — even with the mod cons — and the garden, which was all overgrown and lush and mysterious was a realized vision of a Romantic era poet. When I arrived I was led into my hotel room which faced the garden, the sea, and Etna. I was being shown in by a sweet housemaid, an older lady, who was more than likely born and raised and lived in this impossibly beautiful place her whole life. Even so, when she opened the French doors onto the terrace and all the splendor, and she heard me gasp, she smiled knowingly and said, “Come un sogno” — it’s like a dream. Indeed. I loved that she, who probably did this many times a day for many years, still enjoyed people’s reaction and was so proud of her town.

Goethe spent time in Sicily and wrote some wonderful poems about the island — it certainly seems he was completely taken with it too. I remember the word “bewitching” was an adjective he used. And it was certainly that. Beguiling too. On my trip there, which was quite a long one, I had my official coup de foudre, the lighting bolt of love at first sight. It was wonderful. I think you have to be very young to enjoy that feeling to the bone. You get all tingling and thrilled and every nerve end seems to be vibrating like a tuning fork My young man was tall, handsome, intense, sexy and brooding — all the things that are wildly attractive to young girls. He was marvelous and funny too and I was totally enthralled. I’ve never forgotten him all these years, and I think of him more often than more serious or longer lasting relationships — maybe just because it was that brilliant flash of light.

The day I left he was angry, perhaps the only way to part. We both knew that probably we would never see each other again. Maybe not, we haven’t yet! I wonder if he married, what career he settled on, if he has children, did he stay or move on to a bigger city where there is more advancement. I’ll never know, I suppose. I like to think he stayed, it’s worth staying there. Imagine living in a place that is so beautiful it can bring you to tears? I don’t think he remembers me, I was just another girl passing through, and it doesn’t really matter. I remember him. And, I am grateful to him for being my lighting bolt, and for that foreign country where people do things differently. I can visit, briefly, as an itinerant, stopping for just a moment and then departing. For we all must leave, return to the present, and let the past rest and recede into the fine dust and ash that it is, and that we all one day shall be.

Clare Irwin






N.b., L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between was a film starring the incomparable Julie Christie, and much missed Alan Bates (pictured above), with the screenplay written by the famous playwright Harold Pinter. The supporting cast is stellar too. Hartley’s other well-known novel The Hireling is also worth reading, and it too was made into a film with Robert Shaw and Sarah Miles who are dark, sexy, neurotic and amazing. Read both, see both. You won’t be disappointed.

Shhh! Una Tomba!

Hi! I took a break for a couple of days. I’m back  — and I hope — refreshed. We are having another heat wave, so I better try to get some postings done before the heat either wipes me out or I use it as an excuse to go and binge watch Game of Thrones or Lost. I’m a fan of Rhonda Byrne and The Secret, The Power, and I have done all the exercises The Magic . I started to feel a summer cold coming on so I went back and redid the “health” chapters in The Magic. In the chapter exercises the reader is asked to think of 3 times in your life when you felt on top of the world. So I thought of three and did the rest of the exercises and this morning I felt a lot better! Hooray! A curious side effect of looking back and remembering wonderful times is unbeckoned memories . Post

Out of nowhere I recalled a trip of many many years ago when I went to see Etruscan ruins in Italy. These remains of a city were in the South and by the Mediterranean Sea which was visible from every vantage point. As I was walking around there was this older man in worker’s overalls sitting on an ancient stone — maybe it was once a column or part of a building — he had his pail lunch with him and a wicker flask of water or maybe it was something harder. He wore a beat up hat to shade himself from the mid-day sun. He was smiling and just seemed to be totally content and right with the world. As we approached he said to us, gesturing in the international finger to the lips sign of quiet, “Shh! una tomba!” In other words, “Quiet please, this is a tomb.” He wasn’t reproaching us, I think it was his job to let visitors know that this was an ancient burial place and we should give it the appropriate respect. I remember this marvelous man who seemed so proud of his charge. He too is probably gone or very aged. I think of the Etruscans who lived there so far in the past, and if they could imagine in 2,000 or more years that there would be this gentle man taking care of their resting place by the sea. And, I think of this lovely man, and if he has passed away that he too has someone come to visit him and that they come often and remind people where he rests, and where the dead rest is a quiet respected place.GreekTemple I know I will remember him and the added joy he gave to me in that beautiful place at that moment in time and that exists in memory with no constraint of past present or future.

Clare Irwin