Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Feeding Acorns to Zebras

       It's one of THOSE weeks.  The kind that has a date of dread and the anticipation of that date is usually as bad as or even worse than the actual date.  I know from the 1st day of September that it is coming and I watch the calendar more closely than usual; I suppose because I don't want it to sneak up on me as on the original day.  The date is an anniversary of one of several painful life-exploding events I have experienced and it still takes my breath away 5 years later.  I do know from those all-too familiar experiences that, as each year passes, the threshold of distress on such dates is lowered but never goes away completely.  I have also learned that despair is useless; the world keeps on spinning with or without my participation and there is more than enough despair in the world. And besides, if I just keep hoeing my woe, I'd have missed the chance to feed a zebra an acorn.  

       The days are moving swiftly as fall and summer collide.  Frosty mornings and toasty afternoons challenge thermostats and clothing decisions.

A chilly rainy morning on the way to Pre-School

       My sojourn at Favorite Youngest Daughter's house is only a couple of weeks from ending.  FYD is traveling for work, her hubby works nights, and I get to play with Favorite Youngest Granddaughter when she is not in pre-school.  When she is, I get to play at the local quilt shop where I have learned some new techniques (the term "skill" does not apply to this errant quilter), I have done a fair bit of reverse quilting (that is a nicer way of saying "ripped it out and started over"), and have whittled away a bit more of the Favorite Spawns' inheritance.  But it does keep one busy and focused and less likely to wander off into an unpleasant and isolating cloud of self-absorbing emotion.  Bright colors also chase the clouds and my local friends are no longer surprised with the combinations I choose!  But other friends express surprise with my occasional domestic meanderings.

One of a few works-in-progress
And yet another
       The surprising truth to some is that I'm a closet homebody!  It's a surprise because it seems I'm rarely home and hardly doing anything domestically inclined but that has more to do with how things are than how I would have them be.

       But to use a phrase I don't actually like, "it is what it is", and I am impelled by my genetics to do what I can with what I have and keep moving forward.  (NO, I don't make lemonade!)  There are so many important things that need to be done in this world to end starvation, enhance civil rights, stop wars, reduce energy waste, improve ecology, and on and on.  I get requests to sign petitions, save dogs, and donate to a hundred worthy causes (and a thousand un-worthy) on daily basis. There is a critical election in this country just over a month away and the economic worries are endless.  Thankfully I have friends in high places who do very important things all day and even at night.  They write great news articles and blogs and make speeches articulating what I think so much better than I can, so I'm happy to let them.  And I attend to all that I am able to do.  At the moment I'm coasting into the early autumn, a rare peaceful time in a month often fraught with angst.  I will be home soon and running hither and yon attending to all sorts and conditions of humankind, known and unknown, solvable and not.  Hopefully my attempts then will prove useful in some small way to someone.

       In the meantime I have a few more chances to spend time with my favorite zebra feeder and that, my friends, is better than any balm Gilead ever had.

My Favorite Zebra Feeder

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is the sole property of the author with ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

KILMAINHAM ~ EireLandings ~ The Journey

Patriots Inn, Inchicore Road, Dublin
        We rolled back into Dublin on a gorgeous, sunny afternoon; a perfect spring day.   On a peaceable tree-lined street, in the midst of everyday hustle and bustle, an attractive looking fa├žade of a pub took my attention.   As always camera in hand, I took a photo of the sign above the entrance.  As we turned a corner, I kept reading it over and over; it took a moment for the caption to sink in:

       “This old pub standeth on sacred ground surrounded by the high walls of Royal Kilmainham Hospital by the ancient cemetery of Bully’s Acre and the dungeons of Kilmainham Jail.  The Patriots Inn has been closer to the pulse of Irish History than any other contemporary pub.”
       For me it was a truly heart-stopping moment as we turned the corner to our hotel and found, directly across the street, the infamous Kilmainham Jail.
       We were free for the afternoon so after a quick check-in at the hotel, Favorite Daughters and I went across the street to see what we could see.  I’ve known about the jail from the time I was a child and learned about the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin, yet another attempt on the part of the Irish to throw off British rule.  But the emotional connection to the jail for me came from my first visit to Ireland in 1985 when I heard the song “Grace”, new that year.  It’s based on the true story of one of those who was part of the 1916 Rising – more on that in a moment.
       I was not familiar with the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham, now comprising the beautiful grounds and buildings of the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
Royal Kilmainham Hospital
Bully's Acre
Irish Museum of Modern Art
       I was also not completely familiar with Bully’s Acre which is the location for the former military hospital.  It is replete with the history and interments of Ireland’s heroes, princes, monks, knights, and paupers.  Legend has that the great Irish chieftain Brian Boru’ camped here before the important battle of Clontarf in 1014 and that two of his sons are buried there.  

       A personal aside is that while at the IMMA/Royal Hospital, I saw a plaque with a short history of Bully’s Acre.  The plaque mentioned another great Irish rebel, a protestant at that, Robert Emmet, who may have been briefly interred there after a failed uprising in 1803.  Although executed elsewhere in Dublin, his body was sent to Kilmainham Jail for claiming or to be buried on the hospital grounds.  His remains mysteriously disappeared but are thought to have ended up in an Anglican church in Dublin. Emmet failed to capture Dublin Castle and is said to have the nefarious distinction to be the last person the British courts sentenced to and executed by the barbaric means of hanging, drawing and quartering. 
       What drew me immediately is that my maternal grandfather’s name was Robert Emmett Sullivan, born in the US in 1895.  He mysteriously disappeared in 1941.  We know very little about him or his family but I was definitely struck by the name of the famous-in-Ireland hero and it gives us something more to ponder as we continue to search for more information.
        So here we were on a street of irony – on one side of Inchicore Road, a fine-looking military hospital and cemetery honoring those who have gone before, now peacefully housing artful collections of contemporary paintings and sculpture; and on the other, just a short walk, really, the infamous jail known for its appallingly miserable conditions and intentionally dread-filled physically and psychologically abusive treatment of inmates, including children at times, from its inception to its bitter end.  The street where two state facilities had opposing missions.  One existed to care for and celebrate the lives of its residents and the interred.  The other existed to punish and denigrate the lives of its interned.
It is no coincidence that many such places in Europe
and elsewhere arose amidst the many Rebellions and Revolutions
of the late 18th Century

       We did not have time to tour the jail but we did take time to go through the three exhibit floors of the museum.   Having immersed myself in Irish history in preparation for this trip, learning more each day we traveled, having read yet more since my return, I hardly knew where to start when approaching this piece.  Kilmainham Jail stirred my heart. 
       I worked in a variety of positions in the criminal courts and prisons for more than 15 years, personally with thousands of prisoners from petty offenders to drug dealers, rapists and murderers, male and female.  I ran support groups for HIV/AIDS inmates and inmates who were victims of domestic violence.  I led dozens of workshops on sexual assault with the general population of inmates and with small groups of sex offenders.   I’ve been in prisons in several US states and have toured one of our lesser known but equally infamous, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.   As bad as some of our jails and prisons are in this country, nothing I’ve seen here meets the awful truths of Kilmainham.

Inhuman isolation of prisoners was a
hallmark of this cold and grim institution

Down to the Dungeons
        There are billions of words already written more eloquent and accurate than mine at easy access for anyone who wants to know more.  Yet of the 128 years of its existence, with so many eras from which to choose, the period that speaks the loudest to me is the time of the Easter Rising in 1916.
Interior Exercise Yard
       Perhaps it is because it was in the living memory of those elders of my family who spoke of it when “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland of the 1960s,70s, 80s and beyond were in the headlines along with Viet Nam and our own unsettled cities and towns wrestling with civil rights, riots, and assassinations. Or maybe it seems a romantic notion to fight and die for one’s beliefs, that is, until you look closer. 

       Mostly it is because of the long history of rebellions and risings in this land of my ancestors who fought, killed, and died to have their own country for themselves without the interference, imposition, and subjugation of a predator nation hell-bent on building its own prosperity on the backs of the native peoples.  And, by the way, that particular nation didn’t treat its own working classes altogether well, either.  Hmmm, doesn’t seem to be a unique history after all.
       The Easter Monday event in 1916 was meant to be a national uprising but ended up as 2500 armed insurgents holding the General Post Office and other public buildings in Dublin for 5 days after declaring the Proclamation of the Republic.  It was quashed swiftly and severely and might have been just another nuisance rebellion that went the way of so many others over so many centuries.  But 14 of the leaders were immediately court-martialled and their executions were exceptionally brutal. 

       James Connolly, for example, was badly wounded during the Rising, so badly in fact, he had to be strapped to a chair to be shot by the firing squad.  Public opinion, not only in Ireland but around the world, even in Britain, suddenly turned and saw these men as martyrs in what became a War of Independence.  The day of The Republic was nearly at hand albeit not for the entire country. 

       One of those leaders who escaped execution was the American born Eamon de Valera who became Prime Minister of the Republic and later, President.  He was one of the lucky ones and the last prisoner held at Kilmainham being released in July 1924.  Michael Collins became Chairman of the Irish Free State and Commander-in-Chief of the Army and then was shot to death in an ambush in County Cork in 1922. 
       The most poignant story of the Rising, for me, is that of Grace Gifford and the tubercular poet Joseph Plunkett.  Their early personal and family histories seem to belie the trajectory of their lives.  I mentioned the song “Grace” above – its lyrics are based on the last message that Joseph sent to Grace and their last meeting.  They were engaged and supposed to be married on Easter Day but because of the scheduled rebellion, the wedding was postponed though not for long.  They were married a few hours before he was executed by firing squad and she herself was later imprisoned there briefly.  The song is haunting and although the lyrics follow here, it can also be heard at: YouTube: Grace

GRACE by Frank and Sean O’Meara
As we gather in the chapel here in old Kilmainham Jail  
 I think about these past few weeks, oh will they say we've failed
From our schooldays they have told us we must yearn for liberty
Yet all I want in this dark place is to have you here with me.

Oh Grace just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger
They'll take me out at dawn and I will die
With all my love I place this wedding ring upon your finger
There won't be time to share our love for we must say goodbye.
Now I know it's hard for you my love to ever understand
The love I bear for these brave men, my love for this dear land
 But when the Padhraic called me to his side down in the GPO
 I had to leave my own sick bed, to him I had to go
Now as dawn is breaking, my heart is breaking too,
On this May morn as I walk out my thoughts well be of you
And I'll write some words upon the wall so everyone will know
I love so much that I could see his blood upon the rose.
[emphasis mine, refers to Plunkett’s most famous poem, “His Blood Upon the Rose”]
       Perhaps to some readers it all seems a bit soap-opera like and overly sentimental.  And while I was captivated by the tune and the lyrics 25 years ago, I was stunned by the connections I made in Kilmainham on this trip to the very real people who inhabit the story.

On the third shelf down on the far right is the notebook that
Joseph Plunkett used to send his last message to Grace. 
Grace herself donated it and other articles for the Kilmainham Museum

       It is far more than the mere romantic emotions that connect me to that time and those people.  It is the very real questions that arise for me, today in my own time, in my own country: 
-When is a Patriot a Traitor; when does a Hero become a Villain?
-What does it mean to “Take Our Country Back” - from whom and for what? 
-Is it the intent of those who chant such slogans that all First Nation people rise up to reclaim their ancient patrimonies?
-Is a Patriot only one who agrees with your “cause”, or ideology and those who do not become worthy of execution?  
-When do my individual rights and freedoms cross a line to deny you yours? 
-When is my belief system rational and yours extreme? 
-How can I "take my country back" without stealing it from you?
-Whose God is the most faithful; what is heresy?
 And, who decides?   

Looking over the walls toward
the Kilmainham Courthouse

       The old saw of “who doesn’t study history is doomed to repeat it” has been replaced – it is now “those who do study history are doomed to stand helplessly by while others repeat it.”  I am not the one with the answers to the questions, nor the one with solutions.  But what I do believe is that those who purport to be in charge of  ______  country, city, economic system, etc. (fill in the blank for yourself), seem to stand shoulder to shoulder with their nemeses and all look over Kilmainham’s walls each seeing superiority of their own needs, wants, desires, and rights, and the lack of same for the other. 
       Those who led the Rising in 1916 live among us today in the hearts and minds of anyone who wants justice tempered with mercy, as well as health, home, and the fulfillment of basic human needs for all. But it seems their actions may have been in vain.
       The world is still filled with hatred and prejudice carefully cultivated and manipulated by some to keep the many breathing despair and frustration in intentional communities of “us” vs “them”.  When we, wittingly or un-, give the “some” the power to create our mindsets, our opinions, and even our actions for their own purposes and satisfaction, we lose our individual perspectives and therefore the ability to give thoughtful response.  We then fall into the easier thoughtless reaction which begets thoughtless reaction which foments more despair and frustration.  It's a trap and I fell in!  BUT STOP….breathe…

More than just the name of a champion horse,
it is a mantra for life!
       As I reviewed the postings I have written about my brief time in Ireland this year against the stark realities of Kilmainham as a symbol of yesterday and today, I felt lost in a maze of my own creation.  How do I write an ending to this series to balance the beauty and spirit of a place against the knowing that much of what I saw was carefully constructed by the tour company and the guide?  After all, I came to intentionally see the beauty and the spirit of this land and its people and I did. And if you came to my hometown, I would take you on a tour of the best places, avoiding “those” places that are sad, miserable, and even dangerous at times.  I wandered off the track and into Kilmainham.  That experience has been simmering in my heart and head for the last several months and I have yet to figure out quite what to do with it.

       When I am in my everyday life it is easy to get sucked into the vortex of helplessness and hopelessness, anger and frustration with so many people of the world in dire circumstances.  But we all need to breathe in the fresh air of the Spring that always comes after the winter.  I cannot fix the world, I can only work on my participation in it and give my best thoughtful response to it. I must seek opportunities for the development, care, and feeding of my own Invincible Spirit.

Flying Home from Dublin

       My journey through Ireland has ended for this time.  My journey through life continues.  There are more questions than answers, more insights and more dilemmas, moments of helplessness, moments of determination.  Each day becomes another, and the Spring always returns.
And there will always be more to say...    

  I do want to acknowledge Globus Tours, and particularly Carmel and Donal, for an extraordinary adventure.  Their planning, timing, intinerary, and accommodations far exceeded my expectations.  I could do it all over again!