Remembrance of Things Past – The School by the Park

I hope everyone is having a merry time visiting family, traveling and relaxing, as we round the turn to the closing of the year. I too have been enjoying this time. Simultaneously, I can’t help but think about all the people I love – family, friends, loves – who are not gathering around my table any longer. I do miss them but I am blessed to have the memory of these exceptional souls.

This feeling was solidified when I was searching The New Yorker website for an article, and accidentally came upon a wonderful piece by Muriel Spark. She was the Scottish writer best known for the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The essay is entitled “The School on the Links,” and it is a non-fiction look back at the girls school and teacher who inspired Spark’s book. Like all her work it is flawlessly executed, beautiful, funny, poignant and wise. It’s definitely worth reading. Spark describes the school and her friends, recalling the thrill of learning new things, and the fascination and speculation of her teachers’ private lives, particularly her exhilarating Miss Kay on whom Jean Brodie is based. 

I went to a small private girls school, eons after Muriel Spark and it wasn’t in Scotland, but here in the States. It also wasn’t on the links, but it did face an exquisite historic park. Even so, there are elements in common that are eternally true: school “chums,” everything and everyone seeming, to us, to have a sex appeal charge. Most importantly, the appreciation, even while young, of the “grown-ups” in our lives and their endearing qualities. I think of what was once my somewhat large family: high-spirited, vital, courageous, trail blazers, smart, funny, and dare I say it – quite glamorous. Of course none were perfect, not by a long shot. But I do know this, the world isn’t as interesting with them not in it. They all added more than a splash of sparkle to the world. I think too of my one true love, the love of my life – my immortal beloved who left this world too soon. One by one they passed over, some way too young, some after long illnesses, and some at a good old age.

A number of years ago, at that point it was just my father and I who remained. I remember we were outside in a parking lot or someplace random. I think we had run into each other (we lived in adjoining towns), and we were chatting about this and that. I think I adored my father most of all – he had such lovely ways about him. As the conversation, which I cannot remember, wound down my father was laughing and shrugging his shoulders, wearing his sweet shy smile that was completely disarming. And then he said, “Let’s face it Clare, you’re the last of the Mohicans.” I thought it was amusing, and now, at this vantage point, those words echo often in my mind and I see how true and how right he was. 

Ram Dass says, “We’re all just walking each other home.” I like that. But as I look at the road forward, I can’t help but at times look back. Over the past few years my memories have taken on an appropriate hue, and I can think about all that was and smile, laugh and be so deeply grateful for the knowing of them all. What I owe the ones I love is beyond evaluation.

In The New Yorker article, Spark wraps up her story, “It was sixty years ago. The average age of those high-spirited and intelligent men and woman who taught us were about forty; they were in their prime. I cannot believe that they are all gone, all past and over, gone to their graves, so vivid are they in my memory, one and all.”

Clare Irwin

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