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.
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.
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…..
“What the very young see is literally incomparable—nothing like it has come before—and these encounters are the raw material, the imagery of their psyches.”
Seasons, sounds, smells, the touch of emotion all bring this raw material—the imagery of our psyche—right back to us.
Imagine: The first bite into a summer strawberry, the first snowfall of winter, the smell of grass in late spring or the sound of kids yelping “trick or treat” at Halloween.
We think childhood is long ago and far away, that mental cobwebs drape over that earlier time of our lives.
However, underneath the cobwebs hums the rich imagery of our young psyches; at certain moments, those feeling-images return, zoom out of the blue, resounding like a bell chiming from down the valley.
From deep within, these raw memories of our younger psyches tug at us, saying: Remember this—this is when you first felt so alive!
First Felt so Alive—I don’t think that feeling ever has an expiration date.
My father, a special agent, and pictured here with my brother’s boy scout troop at FBI headquarters in Los Angeles, loved baseball as a kid. He took my siblings and I up to the local field and hit us balls when we were young. On weekends, I often found him in the garage, polishing his black FBI agent shoes while listening to the California Angels on his transistor radio. My father could be in a slight trance, as if the garage had transformed into his dugout, as if the leather from his FBI shoes sported the same whiff as his old childhood mitt. My father was that serious FBI Agent who fought crime all day—but maybe his secret, younger psyche never left the ball field of his youth.
As his watchful daughter who loved spying on him, I could see the wonder in his eyes when he listened to those games. These clues into his mysterious soul shone like jewels. To this day, I smile and think of my father when I hear a ball game on the radio. It’s almost as if we are back on the field together.
“FBI Girl: How I Learned to Crack My Father’s Code” goes into its reprint edition and also is released in audiobook format Fall of 2017. This coming-of-age memoir is a love story about my family, about the place, the sights, tastes, sounds, conversations, longings and silences of where I grew up—a testimony to the raw imagery of my first fourteen years when I first felt so alive.
There is so much to tap into once you realize this inner real estate called “childhood” isn’t so long ago and far away. You can hear a hum, feel the pulse of the wind connecting you back into your own humanity, back into the mystery revealed of what made you, you. And that’s a story worth stepping into.
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