Purification

Catharsis finds its best depiction in Greek myth and Shakespeare’s tragedies, but it is never far from my experience. My eyes fill and my chest tightens each time Les Miserables’ Fantine sings, “Cosette, it’s turned so cold. Cosette, it’s past your bedtime.” And romantic that I am, catharsis can occur as I read books not quite equal to Greek tragedy, like Moyes’ Me Before You. And knowing the sad ending, I still chose to rent the movie. Catharsis—so good for my mind and heart.

Nature offers me moments of catharsis, a purification every bit as powerful as those times inside a book or theater. I have to “pull a geographical,” though, and move away from my own noise and my preoccupation with screens, big and little. What awaits me is the crunch of leaf beneath my feet, the flit of butterfly near my cheek, the feel of water cupped in my hand.

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Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

William Butler Yeats

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Two weeks ago, I traveled from Hillsboro to central Oregon and the Metolius River. The cabin that two of us shared was a small space (we washed dishes in the bathroom sink), but the setting was exactly what the sign above the door promised: serenity. No Wi-Fi and no phone service meant that the main sound came from the river, no more than thirty feet from our cabin’s picture window. How many hours did I spend mesmerized by water, marveling at its ever-changing light and shadow, listening to a lullaby, both wild and soothing, that it sang through the night?

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For three nights and four days river purified me, released me from needless anxiety and silly fretting. Not quite the catharsis of an Oedipus, Othello, or Fantine, but I had the chance to sink briefly into a nature throbbing with life; into the rush of waters, into rebirth. Next year I will return to the woods, find a cabin called “Serenity,” and let the Metolius cool the inevitable fires raging inside my head.

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Loops

Two weeks ago, I had a reading in Bend to promote my book, Far from Home. One of the side excursions was a trip to the Old Mill District, located along the Deschutes River. Two hundred plus acres that were once occupied by lumber mills are now a beautifully landscaped mixed-use area of historic buildings, new galleries, shops, and restaurants. This Old Mill District sculpture in the perfect visual definition of loop: a structure or process where the end is connected to the beginning.

That has been my experience, not only of writing my memoir, but also sharing my personal journey with audiences in Oakland, Ashland, Portland, and Bend. It is the experience of retracing steps from here to there and back again, seeking what T.S. Eliot promised in “Little Gidding,” that we will journey and “arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.” For me it has been an exploration of my novitiate years, touching old photographs and old letters to come in contact with who I was, what forces shaped me, and how I remain the same.

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Toni cheerleading 3 (4)What these photos and documents remind me is that there is nothing quite like the idealism of the young who cheer life with colored pompoms; that memories let us walk in a childhood landscape that Rebecca Mead speaks of in My Life in Middlemarch. She writes that this enthusiasm is not a desire to return to an earlier time or wish life had been different, but to appreciate the waters from which we came and along which we travel.

I needed that trip to Bend, to walk along the Deschutes and look at nature’s loops. So, I am grateful for a trek around the river, wildflower and pine cone designs, and that lucky connection I wrote about on Facebook—a woman who remembered the joy of cheerleading over a half-century ago. My circular path resembles that of T.S. Eliot, once again:

Pinecone BendThrough the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.

—Little Gidding

Entry

The lovely entrance to the home of my niece Andrea Bigcraft is a metaphor for the welcome I have experienced during these weeks of promoting my memoir Far from Home. The doors of family and friends have opened wide in Oakland, California, Ashland and Portland, Oregon. It is the hospitality Judy Collins celebrates in “Song for Judith”: “Open the door and come on in.”

My love for doors did not just arrive because of a published book. Entrances are both works of art and a way to learn about treasures inside. Below are my door photos from travels to Denmark’s Kronberg Slot, better known as Hamlet’s Castle, and a building in Riga, Latvia.

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Years ago, Sister Helena Brand, SNJM, literature scholar and extraordinary educator, introduced me to the theme of hospitality. We studied Greek myths, like The Odyssey and the story of Philemon and Baucis (so similar to the angel story in Genesis 19). A poor couple welcomes into their home Jupiter and Mercury, the gods disguised as weary travelers. Rembrandt, Rubens, and van Oost depicted the story in art, but this engraving caught my eye.

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There is no beautiful door leading into the cottage, simply a wooden structure meant to keep out the cold, but open to pilgrims. “Come on in,” Baucis and Philemon say. “Share our fire, fruit, eggs, and wine.”

Nancy Haught’s wise and wonderful Sacred Strangers explores the same theme of open doors in Scripture. The universal lesson is this: welcome others into your home because you never know if and when you will be in the presence of the Divine. And the way in is through a door.

Doors Frick (2)If I had my preference, entries would possess carvings, color, and beauty, but more importantly, there would be someone on the other side ready to turn the knob and share hospitality, like Andrea. Judy Collins’ song continues, “I’m so glad to see you, my friend.”

So here I come, full circle, to where I started with my Facebook post, outside the splendid woodwork of the Frick Museum doors, sure that welcome and beauty are right across the threshold.

 

Home Bound

green mashed potatosAs long as I can remember, every St. Patrick’s Day had one constant: green mashed potatoes. My mother created this ritual of praties and food coloring to make her Irishman smile. It worked every time.

Yet it was not just St. Patrick’s Day when my family celebrated being Irish. My father had a collection of John McCormick’s 78 records, so that our early vocabulary (along with “See Spot jump!”) included Mother Machree and Tipperary, Minstrel Boy and Tralee. We learned some Irish history from my father’s recitation of Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock, and by the time each of us reached the age of reason (seven years old) we could declare without faltering Emmet’s opening lines:

“My Lords: ‘What have I to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced on me, according to law? I have nothing to say which can alter your predetermination.’”

Thomas Moore poetry collectionOne of my favorite books was my father’s marbled, battered copy of Thomas Moore’s poetry. From this book I memorized all the verses of “Last Rose of Summer” and “Oft in the Stilly Night”:

Oft, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber’s chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
Of other days around me

By the time I made my trip to Ireland in 1995, my father had been dead for twenty years, but I felt his spirit with me every step of the way.

Collage of Ireland consisting of flowers, the Cliffs of Moher, a house in Doolin, a ferry to the Blaskets, and a glassblower at Waterford

Man of fine manners and lover of sports, he would have relished watching the glassblowers in Waterford. And when he saw the hedgerows with the verdant fuchsia spilling down, he would have stopped, just like I did, to snap a photo. Never a swimmer, he still would have crammed into the ferry boat—minus a life jacket—to ride the waves over to the Blasket Islands where crumbling structures remain, bitter remnants of suffering and loneliness of those who lived there until the early 1950s. The Cliffs of Moher would have stunned him: sky and water splattered with rock and grass. Perhaps, after a day and night in Doolin, he would have decided that the hospitality, scenery, and music were fine reasons to stay there forever.

Coole Park treeBut then my father would have missed Sligo, Yeats’ country, and Coole Park’s Autograph Tree where the Irish literary greats— Shaw, Synge, Lady Gregory, O’Casey, and Yeats—have carved their names.

St. Patrick’s Day is for wearing green and wishing friends and enemies a road that rises in greeting. But the day is also for memories of past times that will, no doubt, slip into the present and flow free into the future. Yeats’ poem “To Ireland in the Coming Times” contains another version of a Happy St. Patrick’s Day greeting:

And Time bade all his candles flare
To light a measure here and there;
And may the thoughts of Ireland brood
Upon a measured quietude.