the ladder upSome years ago, when riding home in the family car from her grandmother’s house, my little girl sat up front, making the most of time alone with me her Mom, as that noisy baby slept in the back. She looked at the sky.  “If I could make a big enough ladder,” she said pensively, “I could climb there.”

Time keeps slipping for me this week. I think of the cold night earlier this month when I found myself in a florist’s greenhouse. It was near suppertime, but the shoppers there seemed reluctant to depart this damp Eden with its glass walls and ceilings all misted over with moisture.

Then time slips again to a long-ago night: Our then six-year-old had gone to bed. Downstairs, his father was playing his weekly bridge game with his pals. Elsewhere in the house, our other kids attended to the night’s homework. Then here came suddenly a sound of weeping, faint at first, but building in despair as it built in duration.

Our six-year-old appeared suddenly at my bedroom door. It was he who wept so. What was it?, I asked rushing toward him. A bad dream? He shook his head no. A pain? No again.

He sat on the edge of our bed and, after a long time, did his best to convey it: “I was thinking about death,” he finally whispered. “How when you die  you just have to lie there. Forever.”

“Ah but most people don’t believe that. None of us has been there of course, but most people picture Heaven.”

“I don’t want to go to Heaven!” he burst out. What would I do there? What do people do when they’re  there?”

I remembered an image that had comforted me once. “Well, they say it’s like a big party and everyone you ever loved is right there in the room with you –  and your old pets, and the toys you lost and thought you’d never see again…”

“But even a party can go on too long.” He shook his head sadly. “And what if there is no Heaven and you just…..end?”

“I don’t think it’s like that,” I said, hugging him now and swallowing back my own tears. “Why don’t you stretch out here a while?”

And so he did, as I busied myself nearby. Thirty minutes later, he was still curled in a tense ball.  I went over and lay down beside him; buried my face in his little-boy neck. “Listen!” I said at last. “Can you hear all those sounds? Daddy downstairs with his pals? Two kinds of music? Your brothers and sisters all talking and moving around?”

He nodded his head without opening his eyes.” Always you will have that: other people all around you. No one is alone, you know.”

“I know,” he whispered, and gave a final shuddering sigh.

He had looked over the edge into that terror. Most people look there exactly once, then get to work building a structure against it, whether you call it belief in the hereafter or faith in one’s fellow men or That Which Does Not Die.

I can’t say if  that youngest child of mine began building his then and there. I can tell you that as far as I know he never wept like that again.

In that wintry greenhouse, I watched the clerk wrapping a plant against the cold with all the care of one easing a baby into a snowsuit. So. I told myself, there is this care, then.

There are the long bars of sunlight, winter or summer.

There are the voices of others as you slip into sleep.

And then there’s that ladder, which, built of strong enough stuff and fastened with Belief, may let us climb it upward after all.


As the Funerals Continue

Today, as the funerals continue, I think of the first time I heard the song Suo Gan, sung by a very young Christian Bale in Spielberg’s heart-rending 1987 film Empire of the Sun.

It’s an Old Welsh lullaby, always sung in Welsh and the translation of one verse goes like this:

To my lullaby surrender, Warm and tender is my breast
Mother’s arms with love caressing Lay their blessing on your rest
Nothing shall tonight alarm you, None shall harm you, have no fear
Lie contented, calmly slumber On your mother’s breast…

I won’t say more now but only offer for us all imperishable music,  the lullaby itself,  from the throats of these youth:


This whole wearing-your-clothes-backwards thing: I was doing it 20 years ago and people would say “Oh you’re like Kriss Kross!” and I’d think Seriously? I’m like an early 90s rap group? Then one day about ten years ago I ran into a former student of mine named Michael Dwyer who immediately noticed the backwards-facing top I had on and said I was well within an old tradition among us Irish. He said “they do that  to ward off fairies.”

And now just this week comes this email from him about eggshells:

“According to my grandmother the custom began in the 1840s during the Great Hunger, when millions of Irish were starving in ditches and millions more were fleeing to America in Coffin Ships. Whole families, entire villages, were abandoning land they had lived on for centuries – since the Middle Ages, if not longer, so long that they were intimate with their world in a way we can no longer imagine. Not just the land itself, the trees and hills and waterways, but the things that lived in it – the leprechauns and the kelpies and the Sidhe. Out of a combination of respect and caution, these enchanted peoples were called ‘the Gentlefolk’, ‘the Good People’, or ‘the Gentry’ – because it’s best to be polite to forces you don’t understand.

“And in the same way that they had developed a relationship with the land, some  families developed such strong relationships with these “gentry” that when the Famine forced a family to emigrate, a few decided to go with them. And that was what saved the Irish in America. As bad as things were for the refugees here, they would have been much, much worse without their luck and magic.

“The trouble was, my grandmother said,  the Gentlefolk didn’t like it here. They wanted to go home to Ireland. They couldn’t return as they came, of course; the ships were strictly one way. But they weren’t dependent on ships and for centuries had been making serviceable boats from eggshells.

Because they could do magic.

“They would lurk unseen in the corners of our kitchens, and whenever someone cracked an egg and discarded the shell they would claim it, and fashion a boat, and sail back to Ireland.  But if enough of them did this, the luck they brought with them would vanish.

So, my grandmother said, it was up to us to stop them. Every time we cracked an egg, we had to crush it before we threw it away, because a crushed shell was unfit for a boat.

I was young when she told me this, maybe six or seven years old. And from that time on it was my job to crush the eggshells. Any time we used an egg – at breakfast, after Easter, whenever we baked a cake – I would crush the shell and rinse my hands in the sink.

“But over the years questions arose.  First I wondered how we could make a difference, just the two of us, when there were so many people using eggs every day and not crushing shells? Because, explained my grandmother, most people didn’t count. Magic has rules, and even the Good People can’t ignore them:  If they want to make a boat that will take them to Ireland, the eggshell has to be broken by Irish hands.

So each time I crushed a shell I did it not only for myself but for her and my Uncle John and for my parents and my brothers and sisters, and that’s a lot of people.

Fair enough, I thought. But soon I had another worry, because if the Good People hated it here and wanted to go home, wouldn’t they be angry with me for preventing them?

“Oh no, said my grandmother, not at all  Because if I worked to keep them here it showed that I believed in them, that I understood how important they were.

“The only reason they want to leave, she said, is because no one in this country believes. No one greets them or asks their pardon or leaves them gifts. When I crushed an eggshell I did all of those things, as if I were saying “Please don’t go. We need you.” Doing that, I made them happy.

 “So I crushed eggshells, and continued to even as a jaded teen, bored and angry and believing in faeries all the same. I crush them to this day, and always will.”

Interesting story about broken eggs eh?

….and who it to say it doesn’t carry truth?