Images tap into the root of our soul, the place of our longing, where we remember how we belong to a force of love greater than what can be uttered upon our tongue. A simple bow to the light that sustains us, to the flow that reminds how each step we take with our hearts illuminated creates new hopeful patterns within the dance of life.
Our family has loved and lived close to the ocean for generations. Here, sitting, are my great grandmother, originally from Germany, with her daughter, my Nana, and then her daughter, my mother, Mary (maybe age 18 then) all upon the sands of the Atlantic Ocean. Along side stands Uncle Mike. Breezy Point, NY was our family’s ocean place for decades. Family and friends enjoyed the beach bungalow on Oceanside Avenue from1933 to just a few years ago when it was time to let it go. “All you need in Breezy Point is your bathing suit,”my Nana once said. When my parents left New York and moved to California in the 1950s, they found new beaches to love. Here I am as an infant, reveling upon the sands of Mission Bay, San Diego with my mother back in the early 1960s. I still remember the fabric of that bathing suit.
The decades have passed, yet recently some of our family members (my brother, Mike and my niece, Megan) took my youngest brother Joe, who has Down syndrome, out for a boat ride on Mission Bay. Grabbing the wheel, his face lit up as the evening sun spread its golden hue upon us. Calm thrill is the emotion here.
Grateful for places of love and love of places that sustain when the rest of life can feel off-kilter.
And a sweet nod to our sea friends. Thank you, ocean, for beholding our awe.
When I was a teenager, I used to sit in my corner bedroom in our house in Southern California and talk into my tape recorder, sharing musings, thoughts about life, questions about human nature. So much had happened in our family’s life by the time I was 13-years-old. In May of 1973, my father’s brother, a socially progressive Catholic priest, was murdered in his rectory in Queens, New York. My uncle, you could say, was a “white man.” The person who killed him you could call an “African-American man.” We just didn’t think that way, then. This was a terrible loss. The heart punctured. My father, an FBI agent, who had lost his brother, could say nothing about it. The tragedy ran too deep. The priest at St. Bonaventure in Queens, my uncle’s best friend, who said the homily during that funeral mass, proclaimed that the murderer was forgiven the moment my uncle’s spirit arrived to heaven.
Compassion. Forgiveness. Love. We are all brothers and sisters.
All these decades later, this is the sentiment and hope that remain within me. How can we despite the color of our skins look at one another in the eye as brothers and sisters on this same Earth together? This is a lesson I learned so many decades ago. And it is a conversation I know we all are eager to share in today.
I recall a conversation with Irish-born journalist and author, Claire Dunne, who tells me how in 17th-century Ireland, when the old Gaelic order began to crumble, that “war on harpists and their instruments peaked when Queen Elizabeth I edicted death on them.” She notes how Cromwell from England destroyed their harps, and how people were forced to hide their musical instruments in the bogs…I realized how hiding one’s harp is synonymous with hiding one’s soul. The great waiting ends when one doesn’t have to hide anymore. In years to come, I would tell my own story, write my memoir (published as “FBI Girl”), where I expose the journey of learning to belong to the world amid all the silence.
I dream that from the ancient Irish bogs emerged an apricot tree on the other side of the world– in Los Alamitos, California, to be specific–beckoning a young girl with an Irish name to prance around its trunk and proclaim the “leprechauns” are coming! The philosopher Bachelard writes of loving things “intimately, for themselves, with the slowness of the feminine, that is what leads us to the labyrinth of the intimate nature of things.” With the slowness of the feminine…that is how I discovered an intimacy with cosmos which is my Irishness. I notice the sky and her belongings, the water and her reflections. I see into a self who dances and have found the mirror of my people.
Taunted by the secrecy and silence within the trauma, I returned to Ireland after I graduated from college and visited my Great Aunt Johanna on the ancestral farm. I decided to surprise her with no advance warning of my arrival. When she answered the door, her shock collapsed into flitting anger: “Why the hell didn’t you tell me you were coming, I would have killed a goose?!” We settled in for tea and sandwiches. My great aunt examined the photographs I’d brought from California, inquiring how close our family lived to Hollywood. Then, before I could pull out my notebook with the carefully crafted questions I’d hoped to ask, questions about our ancestors, the farm, and their traditions, Aunt Johanna blurted with visceral concern: “And who do you think it was that killed J.R.?” Dallas, the wildly popular, 1980s American television show had come to Mullagh, Ireland. And she wanted to know everything. I realized then I’d have to find the buried stories elsewhere. I started reading the Irish authors, James Joyce, WB Yeats, Oscar Wilde…looking for clues into that forlorn condition of “waiting.” Or as Seamus Deane writes, that “specifically Irish form of nostalgia…This nostalgia was consistently directed toward a past that was so deeply buried that it was not recoverable except for sentiment.” Yes, that sentiment. The faraway look in my grandmother’s eyes and in my father’s eyes, that sentiment courting me in the quest for my own identity. (more on the Audio Diary.)
Back in the United States, the old conversation remained: “Don’t you dare ask me about that damned country, do you hear?” My Irish grandmother, who’d worked in New York as a seamstress, said this holding a needle, but it may as well have been a knife. I tried to understand the source of her pathos–that she had to leave Ireland or that she had no desire to ever return. Perhaps it was the Irish koan, the double bind–damned if you stay and damned if you go–that led to this waiting station disconnected from story or place. In alchemical terms, the base metals underlying this waiting station remain untouched, the soul’s prima materia not worked, the pain not metabolized. The resulting trauma of exile, of not knowing how one belonged to the world, manifested in the great waiting–but waiting for what? If place has vanished and with it story, what happen’s to one’s narrative? It waits underground, in darkness, praying for re-emergence, for a spot of soil to nudge so life can begin anew…Rebecca Solnit writes, “Trauma is inherited as silence, a silence it may take generations to hear.” It would be the next generation, my generation, who would say enough to the secrecy…enough to the wait. We would dig past the genealogical charts and venture down into psyche’s bogs. We would sniff for the stories long buried, the poems etched on skeletons. We would re-claim the thin spaces. Life would begin anew.
My mother’s brother, Fr. Ed Hogan, a Catholic priest, invited me to travel with him to Ireland in the winter of my eighteenth year. He would lead a retreat near Nenagh, County Tipperary, where some of our relations lived, and research further our Hogan family genealogy. On the chilly night when we boarded the plane at JFK, I thought of my father and mother who’d never been before to our ancestral homeland. I thought of our old pastor, Father Quinn and his roses and the Irish nuns and their long-gone wimples. I thought of my thick-brogued grandmother who refused to speak about her native country. I thought of my long-lost pen pal Mary O’Connor from Northern Ireland. All of them I’d packed into my Samsonite suitcase as if we were sailing to the moon. When I landed in Ireland, my relations in firm embrace looked at me and said, “Welcome Home.” I understood “welcome”– but “home?!” Home was 6000 miles away –30 miles from Hollywood, 10 miles from Disneyland, five yards from the old leprechaun tree in my backyard…or was it? (More on the audio diary.)
Reflections and Momentos from My 1970s Ireland Journal
Such search for identity–identity being code for how we belong to the world–contravenes the logical matriculations of our conscious days. Virginia Woolf writes of time’s superficial “orderly and military progress” and how deep below resonates “a rushing stream of broken dreams, nursery rhymes, street cries, half-finished sentences and sights.” My leprechaun tree in the backyard, my “half-finished sight,” kept me running between garden and house to announce new life–to proclaim that I was part of something larger than myself, something mysterious and beautiful.
These first images of childhood reveal themselves as soulful harbingers within thin spaces. These thin spaces–a Celtic notion that denotes the place of connection between the local material world and the liminal, eternal one–represent a pivot in how we belong to the world, in how the ground of the world opens to us, starting in childhood. The philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, calls psyche’s early landscape the first time wherein the revelation of images hold for us–in eternal fashion–intense, psychological values. Such images return us to a “cosmic memory” which is our earliest memory of belonging to the world. We don’t outgrow the connection to this fecund place that seems outside of time. It weaves the fabric of our being.
As I came of age, I sensed at a deeper level that my Irish inheritance had everything to do with that leprechaun tree, and of how I belonged to the world. (More on the audio.)
My Irish-Born Grandmother, Molly, with my father, Joe (seated), my Uncle Jack and Aunt Irene. My father would never speak of his childhood. And the same goes with my grandmother.
That faraway and even dreamier place called Ireland was iconified within the lush surroundings of our local church, St. Hedwigs, in Los Alamitos. The parish lawns were textured like moist linen and lined by endless rows of roses…Sister Mary Ita, my fourth grade teacher, told me about her niece named Mary O’Connor, who lived in County Limavady in Northern Ireland. She arranged for Mary and me to become pen pals. I prized Mary’s letters filled with lovely Irish penmanship that arrived in the blue, tissue-thin envelopes marked aero mail. We were Irish girls living on opposite sides of the world! Such are the early images of an Irish-American childhood–and the rumblings of a quest for identity–as launched in suburban Southern California…I pictured Mary in a wet country perhaps not far from all the bombs in Belfast. (This was the late 1960s.) How do I tell her about our trips to Disneyland or our backyard pool parties complete with piñata…Prosperous California tipped to the future. We could settle upon nothing for nothing could settle for long. (More by listening in!)
I grew up on the border of Los Angeles and Orange Counties, not far from those celebrated spindles of the collective imagination: Hollywood and Disneyland. But by the age of six, the center of my imaginal world revolved around another dazzling spectacle–the apricot tree in my backyard and its spring blooms. In April, I’d gaze up to the branches of this beloved tree, waiting for the arrival of the minuscule green buds. Once spotting them, I’d run into our house and yelp: “The leprechauns are coming!” For me, something magical was simmering, a mystical transubstantiation. The budding “leprechauns” were tricksters, evoking my deep connection to the place I knew my ancestors came from, that fabled island called Ireland…..
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