1942 – The Penny Dropped & Stargazing

Over Labor Day weekend I stopped at our local coffee place one morning. I used the drive-through, and while I was waiting in line I watched the person ahead of me pay by phone. I thought to myself we don’t touch many things anymore – paper, money – everything is on a screen. When my turn came I paid by cash and was handed two pennies. I rarely look at coins, that too is of the past, but one of the pennies look old and worn from time. And it was – it was minted in 1942. Pretty amazing that it was still in circulation these 76 years. I started thinking and realized it was about then that the US entered World War II.

Such a long time ago, and hardly anyone left from that time. I put the penny on the console of my car and kept it, thinking about how far it had traveled and how many hands had exchanged it. I enjoy seeing it there, in its little place of honor, every morning when I get into my car.

A few days after I received my window into the past, I decided to do some stargazing. It was a prime time to see shooting stars and a number of planets were visible in the night sky. I was looking at them from my deck and the view was fine, but there is so much “light pollution” that it is hard to compete. The next clear night we took the truck and drove inland about 10+ miles to woods and fields. Off road we went and there it was – the glorious starry night sky. I couldn’t find the old binoculars which worked so well, so I used the zoom lens of my camera for a closer look. I saw shooting stars, and what I think was a dancing star. Not sure. I should read up on astronomy, and while I’m at it pick up an old telescope at a yard sale because now there’s an app to see stars.

About a day later, the penny dropped as the saying goes, and I made the connection between the penny and looking at the stars. I remember my father telling me about his grandaunt Celeste, which oddly enough means heaven in Latin. I vaguely remember her; she was very old when I met her and I was little, but I recall she was an incredibly loving, affectionate, welcoming person with a wonderful sense of humor. She died shortly after; I don’t know how old she was. The details are lost since there is no one left to ask.

I thought of my great-grandaunt Celeste, “Celia” for short, and remember her remarkable story. She was a young widow when the war was going on – perhaps in her mid-30s. Her husband had left her a farmhouse in Tuscany which was unoccupied. Celeste decided, to the shock of her family I would imagine, to leave her young daughter in the care of her sisters, and boarded a ship to Italy, traveled to Tuscany, opened the house and moved in. Right in the middle of the war. She had gone to help with the resistance, and she spent the ensuing years smuggling American soldiers on their way north to battle that would eventually end the war in Europe. It’s quite a story and all true. My father said at the end of the war she was bestowed with medals from General Eisenhower and General Montgomery of Britain.

After the war she sold the farmhouse, came home and resumed her life here. I have seen photos of her – a pretty woman with a mass of lovely hair and a beautiful smile. There are pictures of her with a shotgun on her shoulder – she had a lot of land in the country. There she lived out her days and passed away surrounded by the many friends and family and people who loved her. 

Why didn’t I write down the salient details of this story as it was told to me? Oh well, I’m afraid it’s gone, and my imagination will have to do. As I looked at the night sky I thought of her all those years ago – almost a century. How remote and isolated Tuscany must have been, no wealthy tourists buying up and renting out renovated farmhouses for the summer. She was alone in that house, waiting for friend or foe to arrive. I imagine her looking up at the night sky which must have been crystal clear in those days. Was she afraid? She was risking grave danger: possibly rape, torture, execution. And, as she looked at the sky and heard a branch snap or a rustle of leaves, did her heart skip a beat as she went to the door and saw the relieved and grateful face of a young soldier?

Alan Lightman’s book Einstein’s Dreams captivated me when I read it. There’s a chapter – and I know I’m getting this wrong – where all events in time are still occurring; we just can’t see or access them. So, when I look up at the stars and the heavens I think of Celia, young and idealistic, looking up at the same night sky, and I hope and pray that her spun silver courage, her sense of adventure, her belief in what is right, reaches into and lives in me.

In loving memory,

Clare

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forget Voguing – Haka!

While channel surfing, a friend of mine came upon the New Zealand Women’s Rugby Team World Cup finals against Ireland. The women of the NZ team performed the Maori warrior ritual Haka Dance. He urged me to check it out and I found it on YouTube. It is great. Talk about fierce! These beautiful strong women executed their synchronized warrior dance with accompanying stomping and shouting – which I couldn’t make out, but my guess would be, “prepare to die.” The Irish team, who looked fairly formidable themselves – and the Irish are a formidable people – seemed a little rattled. They stood close together and made a barrier of themselves, but it was diminished against this wall of power. I don’t know anything about rugby but the message was clear; these women don’t play and they mean some serious business.

I don’t want to spoil the ending but this was last year and NZ won. I wonder what the Irish team made of all that. I remember in school while studying the Roman Empire, we learned that the Romans attempted to invade Ireland several times – unsuccessfully. As our teacher put it, the Irish were too fractious. Her words not mine. Obviously, they were excellent fighters too since the Roman Army wasn’t anything to sneeze at. Maybe the Roman generals finally thought: screw it – there’s a whole lot of world to invade, so move on.

Back to the Haka. The Maori tribe is, like many of our indigenous tribes, a warrior society. As my friend put it, there were probably *some* other indigenous tribes in NZ, but not for long. You can see why. After watching the women, I checked out the men’s rugby team performing the yang version of the dance against France. Another wall of fierce strength and power.

On a more serious note, having seen movies like Once Were Warriors, it is evident that the Maori have not had an easy time assimilating from a warrior culture to whatever it is we live in today. The same is true of many of our Native American tribes. Not that I am in favor of fighting, but what do you do to a people when you take their society away from them? 

The heroic ideal is an ancient concept, where the warrior class was held in the highest regard. Think of the Iliad, Beowulf, The Old Testament, the oral poetry of Scandinavia, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Japan, Asia, Africa – it is worldwide. Prowess and courage were honored.

Women, feel not excluded in this category. There are women warriors and women of great courage and prowess in myth and legend too: Athena, Diana, Penelope, the Amazon tribe, Kali, Grendel’s mother, Scathach, Queen Maeve, Joan of Arc..the list goes on. No “goat yoga” for this bunch! I can only imagine their scorn for this bougie “fad.” By the way, did anyone ask the goat if he/she wanted to be part of such ridiculousness? I’ve heard the term goat f*&%king which is military slang – not bestiality – where everything goes completely wrong. Now that our warrior women would appreciate. 

How the hell did I get here? With the news, nearly daily, of some man in power doing something unspeakable and non-consensual to women who are subordinate to them, perhaps we should take a leaf out of the NZ Women’s Rugby Team’s book and meet that indefensible action with a wall of ferocity, roar and the right amount of fury. Strike the pose! Or better yet: strike.

Clare Irwin

 

 

 

P.S. Another wonderful movie from New Zealand about a young girl’s struggle and victory is Whale Rider – highly recommended. And for those who still read, Milman Parry was the preeminent scholar of epic poetry and the oral tradition. Might be time to revive the old boy.

Boyhood, Girlhood – Childhood

It’s been an odd summer. I was informed that significant planetary activity – retrogrades, eclipses, blood moons – is contributing to “the time is out of joint feeling.” Shakespearean, isn’t it?

Weather-wise summer never quite hit the target. I was out by the water days before the 4th of July and needed a fleece hoodie. Then we crashed into scorching heat advisory weather and thunderstorms…it certainly curtailed outdoor time. The flowers suffered, most weren’t all what they should have been, others couldn’t cope at all. Now the summer is winding down, not entirely, we often have a long Indian summer, but the flurried fever of back-to-school is in the air.

I was talking to a friend who has three boys, and I was marveling at  how she manages to organize and track their myriad activities. I think she would need a board bigger than what Eisenhower used for D-Day. She was ruminating over the brevity of childhood now, and remarked, “Remember when you would just lay in the grass for hours and look at the clouds and feel the earth moving beneath you…?” As she said this I saw the image (above) from the movie Boyhood – then other images flashed of my childhood experience: looking for four-leaf clovers, catching fireflies, exploring woods and fields, finding old horseshoes, arrowheads, swimming in the local swimming hole which had a huge old tree with a knotted rope to jump off from.

In my email inbox was an affirmation: “Today, I reflect on positive memories with genuine gratitude.” I regarded this as a sign to pen this post. While I was down by the sea I saw a childhood ritual in keeping with the eternity of things. There’s a small bridge that connects the island to the village and it spans a saltwater bay. High tide brings kids for the joy of bridge jumping. No equipment needed – just a swimsuit and some nerve. On my way home I saw two girls selling lemonade. I was transported back to doing that myself with my best friend on a quiet country road. The first foray into “commerce.” Our dads and friends would stop and buy a glass from us.

My mother used to read us a poem, “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity.” It beautifully captures that heavenly time of summer in childhood. I hadn’t thought about that poem for ages, I found it online and untarnished. Worth a read.

This afternoon, I returned to the lovely coastal setting because the weather gods relented and gave us some fine summer days. There was a girl blowing bubbles that traveled far in the sea breeze, and the kids were again at the bridge – fathers, sons, and daughters.

More memories came flooding back. Once the gate is open it is hard to close. I remember a boy I knew from summers out at my parent’s place. I have two lovely memories of him. We were leaving for Europe – gone for most of the summer  – and he had stopped my sister who was walking ahead of me. He was straddling his bike and I could only see his profile, but he was smiling and wishing us a good journey. Some years later, I ran into him at a train station – again in summer. He was all dewy and moist from rushing to catch the train. He had that high color and glow that only sweet youth doth make, and he was wearing a seersucker jacket. I found that charming. We started a friendship, a small romance, which was simply sweet. No tears, no recriminations, just ripe and happy that only the young can manage. I saw him once again five years later; he was the same pleasant intelligent person, and had newly become an attorney. I could still see the young flushed boy in him, yet something a little darker had claimed his spirit.

At the end of my reverie I stopped at the village shop where they make their own ice cream. While I was eating my Moose Tracks cone, I thought about all and more of summers past, and as happy as they are, for a moment, I break a little inside.

Let’s seize the day and enjoy the salty and sweet pleasures of summer – shut out the noise, listen to the cicadas, keep it simple, enjoy the ice cream. Sweet summer is there to grasp – the gossamer silk of now and then. As our older and younger selves, we look together up at the clouds and imagine.

Clare Irwin

 

 

 

N.B. The poem “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…” was written by John Tobias and is in an anthology of poems of the same title edited by Stephen Dunning et al.

Going to Costco with Eric Clapton

The idea for this essay came to me when I happened upon the documentary “Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars” on Showtime. Then last week a friend took me to Costco which reminded me that I saved this idea in my drafts folder – involving both. I bet you’re wondering how I’ll manage to get Clapton and Costco to intersect. I’m wondering that myself. 

I re-watched the documentary last night. The first time I watched it I remember being engrossed in the story of this remarkable musician; at the same time, I felt annoyed and aggrieved, and totally overwhelmed by the gravitas of this man. I had to stop watching and it took three more attempts to finish it. Not because it wasn’t good, it was, but the level of intensity was more than I could handle in 135 minutes.

Forgive me if I am recapping what many people may already know, but most of this was new to me. Clapton’s life story is compelling and his childhood was deeply wounding. His talent emerged early; by 17 he was already part of the music scene in Britain, hanging out with members of emergent bands like the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, et al. What a Renaissance! This quiet skinny kid who could play the guitar was right in the eye of the hurricane. On first viewing I thought, yes terrible childhood but he had so much too. I thought of Frank McCourt’s line from the first page of Angela’s Ashes, “the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.”

Clapton’s anguish was mother-related (what else?), his grandmother and aunt had a hand as well, so trust issues abound as well as a confused idea of women. The woman who he thought was his sister was, in fact, his mother who after giving birth leaves for Canada and starts a new family. Abandonment, rejection, cruelty: it’s all there. From stills and home movies one can see how this betrayal impacted the unsmiling little boy.

I was puzzled by my conflicting impressions of Clapton’s story. Let’s fast forward through the meteoric rise and get to the part, where upon first viewing, was where I had to stop. Perhaps this is Clapton’s story arc as they say in Hollywood: falling in love with Pattie Boyd, George Harrison’s wife and Clapton’s best friend. Bit sticky. Clapton’s obsession with her bore out some of his greatest work. The song “Layla” took inspiration from a Persian tale that Clapton had read, involving Prince Majnun who loves, unsuccessfully, a beautiful girl – Layla. It all ends in tears with Majnun in the desert giving his soul up to Allah and dying alone. The album — which includes the song “Bell Bottom Blues” also about Pattie — is momentous.

While I’m watching this part, the first time, I’m thinking, “there are girls stupid enough to think this is so romantic: this man is writing songs about how much he loves her and how lucky she was….” Boyd appears to have a fairly qualified reaction to this in the documentary. She seems like a nice enough person and someone who let two men push her around. I thought, you know after a week of this guy it’s got to get old, or completely exhausting. How can anyone live up to the ideal he has in his mind? It’s impossible. The pressure alone would kill you. And when they finally “do it,” forget fireworks and waves crashing on the cliffs – nothing less than a supernova – the death of a star – will do.

It wasn’t lost on me that even in all this pain the men have all the fun and all the talent. Apparently, Boyd was a famous model in the ranks of Jean Shrimpton, whom I have heard of, but not Boyd. That’s all very nice but it’s not nearly as good as being in a legendary rock band. So, you’re an ornament, an ideal, the long-suffering wife of the unfaithful George, and the other rock star down the road, literally, is writing you love letters.

Where does Costco come in? Well, I was thinking that as an affair this could work for a short while, but long term, and Boyd and Clapton did get married, how can this sustain itself? The mundane tasks that need doing, or delegating, they kill the perfect picture. I don’t know why I thought of Costco, maybe because I have an allergic reaction to the place, so the question came to mind, how do you go to Costco with Eric Clapton? Every little thing, every moment, has to be so laden with meaning, so pregnant with profundity, so fraught with significance – what happens? Does everyone’s head explode?

While I was at Costco last week, which gave me nightmares, they had on display an entire living room and entertainment center, all appointed as if a family could just walk in and occupy it. I thought, unkindly, that Clapton could buy a new birth family, equipped with a proper mother, and all would be well. Or would it – the prevailing theory is art is born from pain.

And, more pain is waiting. Boyd and Clapton marry, during the depths of his severe alcoholism, and inevitably it doesn’t work out. There’s a long period of isolation and affairs which bore one daughter and one son, Conor. The tragic death of his 4-year-old son is horrifying. Clapton was in New York staying at a friend’s apartment and Conor falls from an open window. I then remembered that my sister’s friend, who was at school in New York at the time, told us that she was walking home up Lexington Avenue near The Armory and she sees a man running madly towards and past her. In the flash of him she realizes that he’s Eric Clapton, and not until she was home and saw the news, that she put it together.

Through Clapton’s grief he creates an album that is a tribute to Conor. All acoustic, it wins six Grammys. More creating, more successful collaborations, awards and honors – they are legion. In an early interview in the documentary, Clapton claims he doesn’t think he will live long. He’s outlived many/most of his friends and peers: Harrison, Hendrix, Duane Allman, B.B. King…

Quite a journey and in some ways a happy-ish ending for a man who, I am sure, does not believe in them. In 2001 he marries his current wife and now has three teenage girls. At 73 he is outnumbered by four women. I wonder if fate has lent a hand here. Without exception, all the fathers of houses of girls whom I have known, especially during their teenage years, just try to get through the day without having a heart attack. Maybe Clapton in his older age can see women for who they are – perhaps still mystifying but definitely human. 

Christ, I’m at 1100+ words and I’m getting annoyed again. This guy is still in my head. I’m sick of this whole subject and am returning to my initial mean-spirited feeling which was: wake up and realize how fortunate you are! You have it all! There are millions of people who have it so unspeakably worse, and nothing good happens, or if it does it’s not of this Olympian magnitude. What a lucky man you are.

And ladies, get your own rock band, career, something – don’t just sit in attendance and/or nursemaid these talented men. You know all those romantic songs about “their lady loves?” Well, they are more about them than you. Get over yourself, move on and get a life! Cautionary coda: Google Pattie Boyd now, take a look at her website and attending articles. At 73 she’s living in the past and swiftly approaching an eerie imitation of Miss Havisham. 

After all this hammering at the computer I wonder why I ever did this. Life is hard and it’s wonderful and for all the horrendous shit you go through – if you like yourself now, then it was all absolutely necessary.

 

So, Mr. Clapton, I bid you adieu. Try to be happy, be a good parent and give generously.

Clare Irwin

PS I never want to talk or write about this ever again!