Well, it's been a wee bit. My apologies for that. I'm just now emerging from the cave of rewriting the book. What a strange place to be for six months. Now the manuscript is with the editor. What a strange, harrowing process. For those of you who read earlier versions of "The Alaskan Laundry," there is no more Santo, no more Cuban-come-to-Alaska. The novel began with eight main characters. It sold with two. Now it's just Tara. A war of attrition, to be sure. She's starting to scare me. It's like, settle down girl, I created you. She doesn't care. She does what she wants.
I spent most of December in Sitka. Jackie Fernandez continues to hold down the Adak, with all her WonderWoman abilities, circsawing up palettes, keeping the wine key where it belongs, seasoning her cast-iron pots to perfection. She is truly an inspiration. We had a magical Christmas - cutting down a tree from the woods, enjoying snow on the docks, having folks chez Adak for warmth and eggnog. I went out with Rick Petersen, and got four bucks off the beach, now in my freezer. Well, about half of one is in my freezer, because that was all I could bring back to Oakland. Rest is chez Rick. Although I did manage to package up liver and tongue and heart, which went into the Oakland Burns Supper haggis. Why no blacktail stomach, you ask? Well, that seems to be something that should only be in Sitka. Burns Supper here at Lake Merritt was a wondrous thing, going on to the small hours, with Stegners & friends coming up with brilliant poetry (surprise surprise) and speeches. While they might not drink as much Scotch as Alaskans - read my buddy Xander - we had a grand night, full of cheer and guitar and deer entrails.
Then it was the months of writing in Oakland, again and again going over the manuscript. I've been given a fall 2015 publication date - exciting, because it's a good time for sales - but so far away! It's a slow game, that's what I'm coming to realize. Patience has never been a great virtue of mine.
I worry about the boat, my baby. And I think Cal misses Alaska. We get up to the Marin Headlands - a magical, tick-infested land - when we can, but it's not the same. That said, Cal still gets to play his favorite game, chasing the ravens, as you can see here. And we take trips. Here we are in Portland, on the way to the FisherPoets conference in Astoria, Oregon. To this day I can't tell if Cal likes skiff rides or not. This one I think he liked. It was on the "Epilogue," skiff of my good buddy and fellow writer Chris Bernard, author of the acclaimed "Chasing Alaska," which you should check out if you haven't already. Chris built this boat with his own two hands. We spent a fine day on the Willamette River, drinking sugary bourbon and dodging deadheads. I didn't have my Tuffs, and was a little ticked off and self-conscious, but CB didn't give me a hard time.
Most of spring break at Stanford was spent up in Alaska. I did a reading in Anchorage - trust me, there are people there, despite what it looks like... Afterward headed in the snow down to the Kenai Peninsula where where I had the great fortune to get to bunk up with Alaska writer Tom Kizzia - if you haven't read "Pilgrim's Wilderness," that's another kickass book you should put on your nightstand. We cross-country skied out to Tom's cabin, where he raised his kids, and I got to see a cabin where John Haines once stayed - pitter-patter went my heart. Also hit the famed Salty Dawg, where Tom rang the bell for all six of us in there, including a dude filming for the Discovery Channel whose job it was to capture sunsets for the Kiltridge Family show, or however you spell it. He gave us an earful about how many houses get edited out of the tape. A little bit disturbing. Definitely not "reality" TV. He showed me a pic of a sunset on his IPhone and I tried to get him to send it to me so I could pretend I took it and post it on FB but he wasn't game.
Got brisket at the general store in town which tripled as the post office and DVD rental place - ah I miss Alaska. Then back to Anchorage, to roast a pig's head and walk along the bluffs, two things that somehow went hand-in-hand. Have you ever made headcheese? Oh, now that I think on it, the pig's head was roasted and the bluffs were hiked before the trip to Homer with Missy and Sam - who hosted me so generously. I remember now because I brought headcheese to Tom's as a housewarming gift, and no one liked it. In fact, he sent the headcheese BACK with me to Anchorage. Ah well. I thought it was good.
In any case, I did end up in Ted Stevens airport, half-drunk at midnight after drinks at the Long Branch saloon with novelist Don Rearden, waiting for a red-eye to Reno, staring for WAY too long at the pretty ceiling. And then back to Oakland, and sweet my sweet doggie. Tomorrow workshop begins once more. I've been working on a piece contemplating whether Alaska is experiencing a literary renaissance, and also on a short story about I don't want to say because I think it's going pretty well and don't want to jinx it. And - hopefully - more blog posts, now that the manuscript is in the able hands of Jenna. I'm thankful for that, and - as evidenced, I hope, above - for so, so much more. Thank you all for reading - look forward to being in touch personally down the line, now that the heavy work on the book is done.
I just got back from walking the dog. We went down Wayne Place, along Lake Merritt, then through the park where they don’t allow dogs – Oakland police, unlike San Francisco police, have better things to do – and back again. My first time out of this chair in a long, long time. When I get antsy or nappy I’ve got my natural bag of speed. Last week it was coffee beans. Four days before the manuscript is due to the editor, I’ve switched to espresso beans.
I’m always curious to hear whether people write to music. I do, and change the genre depending on the character I’m writing about, or how much of a goose I need to get the work done. The past few days I’ve been listening to Drake on full volume. My ears throb. The dog mopes about the apartment, giving me plaintive looks. These short walks are BS. He misses his Sundays in the Redwoods.
On the way to the lake I came across a paperback, left on a couch in a pile of clothes, by an empty KFC box. Leaving a book to warp in the rain and sunshine has always seemed to me tantamount to burning it. Was it really so bad? Couldn't you at least have put it in storage? It was called “Population: 485. Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time.” Non-fiction stories written by a small-town EMT. As I type I’m tempted to get up and see if it’s still there. Probably. But once I take the blanket off my feet and get up this opens the door on all manner of puttering.
The book struck me, because it’s about a small town, which I’m writing about. And it’s about an emergency, which I’m writing about. And of course there are stories – yesterday a buddy I commercial fished with in Sitka warned against using people’s stories for purposes of entertainment. I know this is something writers much more experienced than myself have struggled with. Who has rights to what stories? Are there universal ethics when it comes to such things? Of course. So what are they?
Along with particular stories central to Sitka, I’m also grappling with whether to rename the town. One reader suggested this, reasoning that such a move would privilege the story of Tara Marconi, my main character, instead of Sitka. It would allow more leeway for the imagination, and remove the staple of reality from the work. But it would also mean renaming Baranof Island. And the Pioneer Bar - Frontier Bar? The volcano, and the mountains surrounding town. Where does it end?
I have no experience with any of this. I do, however, know that Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union drove me batty. He spent two days in Sitka, had a New York Times article written (with photos of him walking the docks in his UGGs), then wrote a novel centered on a vague Rooseveltian concept of creating a Jewish homeland in Southeast Alaska. All well and good, except he called his town Sitka, even though his story wasn’t set in anything truly resembling the real place.
His imaginative powers are superlative, and he’s a brilliant writer; why not just come up with a different name for town? Because there were people living in Sitka in that period he was writing about. Living true, complicated lives, which he paved over with his imagination. Lives that would have been saved if he had just renamed the town.
Okay. Maybe that’s pushing it.
On the other hand, there’s David Guterson’s majestic Snow Falling on Cedars. He renamed Bainbridge Island “San Piedro Island,” and placed it farther north. This was a slick move, and it works. Of course, Guterson lives on Bainbridge Island, so there’s no huge secret there.
Anyways, small towns, books, stories – I wish I could tie it all together in some neat blog-bow. But the truth of the matter is I’m a little manic because of all these espresso beans. And there’s a desperate undertone to Drake’s beats. Also, there’s that haunting vision of the book kicked to the curb. I’ll just go ahead and say it: I don’t want that to be mine – whether because I’ve offended people I know and respect in Sitka, or because my plot's not entertaining enough to a 30-something in Oakland. To toe this line takes work.
Turn up the music. Last couple espresso beans. Back to it.
You are a bad blogger. Bad bad blogger! Days in California just go by, what can I say? Living here by the lake, screwing down into the book, which is due January 15th. It's been writing, jiu-jitsu, reading, teaching.
But I’m back in Sitka now, and it’s dark, and windy outside, just a couple days from solstice. So curious up here how no one cares much about Christmas, but solstice, the days starting to get longer. Now that is an event to celebrate.
Anyways – the past few months, a scroll through the IPhone to figure out what the hell has been happening.
After battling tooth-and-nail with the techies and their sheaves of rent money, Cal and I finally landed in an apartment, as I think I’ve reported. And he began his transformation into an Oakland dog, chasing the California Gulls and getting in good, clean trouble. Sitting stoically beneath willows, playing in fresh grass in the sun. I think he’s happy, he seems to be enjoying himself. Walking around the lake I let him off the leash to chase the geese. That doesn’t go over here so hot. But hey - they used to have predators, you'd think a good fly and adrenaline rush would be healthy. Birders don't think so. Here’s a photo of a bunch of em looking at – a hawk! I shouldn’t be so ornery but people can be very self-righteous. But also very kind and happy. Everyone is happy! Makes the Philly boy in me suspicious.
I had a rule for myself moving down here. No Ikea! That didn’t work out so hot. I was there on like the second day I had my apartment. Cal and I made the trip down to the Palo Alto Ikea and got lost in the caverns of furnishings. And promptly learned that dogs are not allowed in National Parks either. Which sucks because we both wanted to get out of town. And then came – the government shut down! Perfect. “Desolation Wilderness” had a nice ring to it so off we went – and we didn’t even need a permit!
I was rolling jiu-jitsu, a great studio just up the street, but the shoulder kept acting up. And then I remembered – I have Stanford healthcare! Excitement of excitements.
So off to the surgeon, who happened to be the head of the Stanford Shoulder department. X-Ray, and I guess the clavicle is supposed to actually be attached down, not popped up like that. Surgery was scheduled and done. Then down to Chinatown where they set out five boxes of heck knows what, checked my pulse and blood pressure and heartbeat with one of those old-fashioned stethoscopes that he didn't even blow on to warm up the metal. Peered in at my tongue and sent me home with herbs that I boiled, making the apartment smell like old wet shoes. And I spent ten days drinking a drink that tasted like old shoes.
But thank goodness through it all for good friends – I was a lost kitten, lost in the haze of painkillers. I swear – you should see Jenny Pritchett do an imitation of me on oxycotin – pretty funny. The stuff didn’t agree with me - I think I said something in a Stegner workshop about how the rabbit wasn't doing a good enough job digging his hole.
So I sold the painkillers on the lake and used the money to buy a picture that reminded me of home. No – I actually saw this at a place called the Battery in San Francisco, a remarkable club I happened to be at during its opening. If you ever happen to be let through the doors, check out the wallpaper in the men’s bathroom. Special.
My buddy got married in New Orleans, so headed down there, and experienced a second line going through the French Quarter – also remarkable, in a much different way. And then returned to Stanford to be the first of the Stegners to read publicly. Had an extended debate with myself over which section to read – domestic violence, native issues, alcoholism, and blow jobs, or fishing for salmon as the sun set. One guess which I ended up reading. I think they liked it.
And took a trip to hear Katey Schultz read from her amazing book "Flashes of War," in Davis, and of course she was incredible. And Cal enjoyed the trip in the pickup, as always. An apple, phone charger, water, and we're set to roll.
And now – back in Sitka, sitting at the Homeport Eatery, a sweet little joint decorated so festively for the Christmas season which you really should check out if you’re in town. And a blog on developments on the Adak and so much more upcoming – I miss my doggie, who decided he'd rather not fly again.
But it feels good to be home.
They say if you're going through hell, keep going. That life begins at the end of your comfort zone, and the only ones for me are the mad ones. That it's not about waiting for storm to pass, but learning to dance in the rain. And, of course - how can we forget Mr. Wilde? - life is too important to be taken seriously.
Well it's been sixteen years of that shit, and I'm ready for a breather. Ever since I left school, dragged my duffel aboard the Greyhound at 10th & Filbert, and headed west to Alaska to work in the salmon hatchery, it's been go go go. Some desperate crusade to invent rites of initiation - scooping guts on the slime-line, weeks asea fishing, crabbing, sea cucumbers - a moving company in San Diego, timber-framing in New Hampshire, cleaning out basements in Michigan, the carpenter's union in Alaska, Greensaw, all of it bookended by a 220-ton WWII tugboat. Ten years straight, from age nineteen to twenty-nine without being anywhere for longer than six months. And now, sixteen years later, I consider myself just about the luckiest sonofabitch on the face of this fine planet. To have been called by the head of the Stanford Creative Writing Department on a Friday evening some five months ago, a few beers deep on a Friday night, and offered this - are you kidding me? I'll repeat Churchill once more: If you're going through hell, keep going.
The migration south for Dog and I has not been seamless. The adventure began at 4 am on a rainy morning, hours after saying goodbye to a couple of the boys on the work float, Lucy and Cal giving a quick lick of the chops then pretending they could care less about one another. If only we could all be as nonchalant as dogs! Anyways 4 am - I arrived at the Sitka airport with my doggy carrier, only to be told by a snappy, caffeine-addled agent - folks at Alaska Airlines are usually so pleasant! - that the case supplied to me ever so kindly and for free by Dr. Burgess had clips that made it against regulations to use.
"I'm sorry. Can you ship your dog later one?"
I reminded her that it was also regulations that owners fly with their dogs.
"Oh. Of course."
It was a bit of a standoff. Finally, she said she'd call in the back to see if they had any carriers for purchase. I got passed onto another agent. They dug up a carrier, and carted it out. Colorado looked on balefully.
"Hmm," the agent said, frowning. This one much more pleasant, but also, understandably, slow in the morning. "You know, he's got to be able to stand up without his back touching the roof of the carrier. Can you get him to hop in?"
In Mr. Colorado went. I coaxed him to standing, praying for a little slouch at just the right moment. His haunches all but brushed the roof of the carrier.
"Oooooh. I'm sorry. I think it's just a bit too small."
Second standoff of the morning. I wasn't used to doing Philly in Alaska.
Back the guy went, searching for another carrier. A few minutes later he trotted out the next size, and, a hundred extra dollars later, we were airborne. Each time I switched planes, I was given a ticket that said, "Hi! _____ is on board!" Still, it was painful, thinking about the little guy, there in the hold, even if they did call it "FurClass."
And then, eight hours later, we arrived in San Francisco. And there was Colorado, calm as a cucumber, gingerly stepping out of the carrier. I swear, he must have meditated the entire journey. Still, he was as all eyes and ears when it came to mention of "treat."
And there to pick us up, dog and six bags, was Ms. Jenny Pritchett, driving her golden Toyota Corolla with the driver's door you need to roll down the window to open. Glowing like a golden chariot, the scratched bumpers emitting an aura of nostos. How nice to have someone meet you at the airport, especially when you're moving!
She whisked us direct to her friend Lindsey's, in East Oakland. Lindsey was, and is, and continues to be, kind enough to look after Mr. Colorado, as Jenny's roommate has Mr. Rusty, a sweet older cat who nein tolerates der hund.
On we went to Jenny's apartment, off Piedmont Avenue, a blessedly sane and beautiful part of Oakland. The apartment even came with instructions on writing a book, helpful for all emerging writers, posted there on the wall. "Making a book. You need: white lined writing paper. Pencil and eraser. Construction paper (any color except white.)[At this young age, she even had the period in the correct place!!!!]
You do: Choose a title. Draw a cover on construction paper. Write a story." The last part, of course, the easiest.
The next day, Saturday, was a story written on construction paper in dream-font, beginning at the Lake Merritt farmer's market. God how we slave in Sitka to grow a freakin radish! The abundance, the cornucopia, the colors, the various states of undress, ragged tank-tops and baby-doll dresses and straw hats - food, glorious food! Humanity, glorious humanity! I recounted to Jenny the competitions in Sitka to grow a tomato, a single tomato, how someone is hailed as a master gardener if they manage to get a single red fruit. Take a look at this! Sunflowers, limes, avocados! Happy Boy Farms indeed!
The outlook in the Bay Area, like the weather, was sunny. But alas then I started looking for permanent housing. I figured out, after hosting an Alaska wild foods event for the first-year Stegner Fellows at Jenny's place, that I was the only one without housing. And most folks were in the Lake Merritt area.
Thus began a crash-course in Bay Area rental. The dog was the main issue. The first place I visited was indeed beautiful, with a view of the lake, sun-splashed. Jenny was aghast when I gave the super an accurate description of Colorado's weight and breed. How silly, how naive! Three weeks later I was rolling around with a copy of bank statements, pictures of the dog, credit report, letters of acceptance from Stanford, stipend details, and a cover letter that one property agent called an "essay." Over the course of these three weeks Colorado made a miraculous transformation from a 62-pound husky shepherd into a 33-pound corgy-mix rescue therapy dog who once dug ten skiers out of an avalanche. And that, friends and neighbors, is what finally got us the green light on a place in a funky Vietnamese neighborhood a stone's throw from the lake, around the block from Baggy's, a splendid watering hole that was summed up by Rosie, a fellow Stegner fellow, as "an old grizzler-populated dive bar where the bartender is a real Englishman who authentically says things like "another pint then, love?" and can't go back to London or else he faces '15 in the pen' due to this family feud he's part of." Said bartender has knuckle tats that say "hard work." What's not to love?
Meanwhile I made a good fool of myself flapping around a sports bar in Oakland, dressed in my stained Andre Waters jersey, singing the Philadelphia Eagles fight song when Chip Kelly and the birds destroyed the Redskins in the opener - 53 plays in the first half! Really! I'm getting too old for this silliness, and don't think I don't know it. But oh I love watching those buttoned-up Redskin fans writhe.
The next week we had two more Stegners drinking beer and bloody mary's with us at 9 in the morning, watching a painful loss to the Chargers. I'll corrupt them all, I say, one at a time. There are two Brenda/ens in the program, and I've already been nicknamed EB, for 'Evil Brendan.'
Apartmentless still, I purchased a matte black beater Nissan pickup from Raymond L--, a Chinese man in Los Altos who is a dead ringer for a chainsmoking chipmunk, with funds resulting from the sale of faithful Mathilda (cue tears).
As Rilke tells us there are no beginners lessons in life, so off the as-yet-unnamed pickup and I went for an impromptu trip Los Angeles to coordinate with an NYC friend who has written a book that is now being made into a movie. I do love that city, with its irascible dawns, parking meters with slots for quarters and credit cards, Croatian parking attendants, the orange shroud over the Santa Monica mountains, the unapologetic absurdism of Venice Beach. Missed my friend Sarah, which sucked - but got to see Felix, at Sony Studios, and witness just how small the wheel on The Price is Right really is.
Coming back along Interstate 5 drove through the dung-veil of 'Cow-shwitz,' as folks darkly call it - a cow finishing farm that is just about the most awful thing I've seen or smelled. Enough to make you an animal-rights activist - at least until the next Sunday BBQ.
And a few days later was the orientation at Stanford. I carpooled down with a few of the other folks. As we drove onto the 8,000 acre campus - second in the world only to Moscow University, a university boasting as many olympians as the ninth winning country - that I had really landed, as the Jews say, in a pot of schmaltz, or melted chicken fat. And so I had - at least the afternoon light reflecting off the Spanish Mission buildings appeared coated in schmaltz, and I felt like a starving boy pulled up to the table, about to enjoy a long, wonderful schmaltz-soaked meal.The second-year Stegs pulled up chairs to the round table, and gave us newbies detailed insight into the program.
"It's probably the best thing that will everhappen to you."
They called Tobias Wolff "Toby," referred to Eavan Boland as "Eavan," Adam Johnson as "Adam." I guess what I'm trying to say here is that these people, of which I was now one, were on, well, a FIRST-NAME BASIS with extraordinary writers. Got that?
Afterward we found our way to a cafe in Palo Alto and suddenly the wine and beer and grappa and steaks and crab began flowing, names of books, descriptions of novel excerpts, gossip on this writer throwing up after a bottle of ouzo. At one point the other Brenden looked over at me, and we both blinked a couple times, as if to clear the sleep from our eyes, trying to wake from what was surely some twisted wet writer-dream.
And that about sums it up things up. The dream continues, and I still have not woken. I did find a place, and Mr. Colorado and I get to move in around October 7. I haven't seen it - kind of absurd, I know - but I think it will be just fine. Meanwhile Dog and I continue to depend on and appreciate the generosity and kindness of Lindsey and Jenny. Colorado has reluctantly adopted the city attitude of embracing haters. Me, I'm sure skinny jeans, a white V-neck and fixed bike are somewhere in my future, but for the moment I'm holding out. There happens to be one of the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu centers in the country here in Oakland, with teacher Eduard Rocha, and that has been a saving grace - although he didn't like my black gi, or how it was covered in dog hair. And salmon caviar goes for 17.99 in the supermarket around here - stuff we were producing on the Adak by the bucketful. I swear someone needs to get on top of that.
Me, I have the novel due to Houghton January 15th, and am going to be somewhat off the radar until that happens. I emailed my editor, tentatively floating the idea of re-writing 75% of the manuscript, in hopes that she would say "NO! Don't cut THAT much!" Instead she emailed back, seconds later, saying, "I think that's a fantastic idea! I love where you're going!"
On Wednesday I submit my first piece of writing to the workshop, alongside a woman who has a book shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. Um, kind of intimidating. And I'm the first fiction writer to have a reading, on October 23rd at Stanford - come if you're around!
As my mother always said, do your very best, and things will work out fine. For the past sixteen years, I've been doing my best to live up to that, attacking each job as if it meant the world. And it's nice to feel that it has led me here, to this worn couch in San Francisco's Mission, in a coffee shop, empty spicy hot chocolate mug in front of me, half a glass of water, and good work, hard work, of a very different sort, waiting to be done.
So the weight cut-off for most apartments that even allow dogs in San Francisco is 25 pounds. So Cal's on a venison-blood diet, and we're taking long hikes in the alpine to drop lbs. It's kind of like a tri, as we do a swim once we get up there to even things out. He's dropped ten pounds so far. I'm hoping a good shave of his undercoat will put him over the top and get him to where he needs to be...
After a summer of straight fishing, pulling salmon that seem to have magnets in their throats, hook after hook like a descending progression as you stare down into the depths. Now that fishing is done Dan Sheehan and I have been out on the decks, waving the weedburner like wand, marbling the backside of the roofing material until it drips and melts over the peeling silverseal, creating a barrier to the rain. I've been working alongside Steve Warren to pump out the crankcase after the flood, bathe the bearings and the babbets in WD40, install a bilge pump, high-water alarm, strobe alarm, splash-zone in the the thru-hull that leaked around the edges, and generally button the boat up with profits from fishing. Dan continues his wild experiments in processing unborn fish. (His caviar is getting very good - although I'm unsure how it's all squaring with his Catholic faith.)
Denizens of the dock continue to get drunk and fall into the drink, as it were, on occasion - no names will be named. I will say I was surprised one recent morning to find an unopened can of Olympia and a bottle of Mickey's on the free bench at the top of the ramp. Granted, it was around 7 am, so folks might have just been sleeping it off.
I will miss the P-Bar dearly. The other night three people rang the bell and the bar took flight, that mad alcohol-fueled ecstasy, hugging people you don't know, the minute hand eating chunks of the clock at a time. There was blood on the toilet in the bathroom, and the results of someone's fervent prayers to the wrong porcelain god in the sink. The following evening night there was a shooting in that same bathroom - now there's a bullet hole next to the urinal. Apparently a fight between two fishermen. After the gun was fired, the skipper gave the gun to his deckhand, and told him to go back down to the boat. Who says trollers aren't smart?
I had the good luck to go to Ireland to witness the marriage of my younger sister. On the flight over I prostrated myself at the check-in, hiding grubby nails and removing the camo hat. Minutes later, found myself with a long-stemmed champagne glass in-hand, installed in First Class for the ten-hour flight between Seattle and Paris.
Word to the wise: don't get drunk on wine and whiskey in a pressurized cabin and watch Ryan Gosling's latest film "The Place Beyond the Pines," and be exhausted from an Alaskan summer of sleeping four hours a night. The crying continued until Bradley Cooper came on to play a cop, and then everything was fine again.
And Ireland itself. I tell you, the place makes one a believer in the myth of St. Patrick, how he flung the snakes and devil from Ireland over to England. And the devil became an English gentleman.
I made the grave mistake of trying to keep up with my brother-in-law's buddies at the pub. After three Guinesses I felt like leads had been sunk in my stomach. My sister pulled the customary first Guinness for Aonghus, her husband from Donegal. After the wedding headed to Dublin for a night, and then to the Dingle Peninsula, past the Bay of Brendan, over Connor Pass, into the sweet town of Dingle. And then a boat to the Great Blasket Islands, a wind-blown cluster of six rocks off the peninsula.
The Great Blasket was home to about 160 people until 1953, when the government cleared the island after a medical emergency. Until then people spoke only Irish, and fished and foraged for food, living as in medieval days well into the 20th century. No priest, no pub, no doctor. Each family had a cow, a few sheep, and a garden of potatoes, chard, parsnips, along with a few other hardy plants. The great famine passed the island over like a dark cloud, leaving them unscathed, as they weren't dependent on the rotty potato. Gorgeous literature arose from the island - "Peig," by Peig Sayers, and "The Islander," by Thomas O'Crohan.
A port in the town of Dunquin that looks like something out of Game of Thrones is the entrance to the islands. You walk down a pier slick with algae, with currachs surrounded by lobster traps put up on horses.
Currachs, I learned, are boats particular to the west coast coast of Ireland. Animal skins are stretched over a wooden frame, then hot-tarred. In Irish the boats are called naomhóg, which means “little female saint.”
To get to the islands you take an old scow, which makes the three-mile crossing at about 8 knots. There's no pier on the island - so you hop onto a Zodiac, much to the chagrin of an older Italian couple, who seemed to regret their decision to make the trip. And then you're left to roam the ruins of what is essentially a ghost-town occupied by rabbit and sheep. You can hike around the treeless island, and perhaps find yourself up on a small cliff, the Atlantic slashing the rocks beneath, open your "Peig" to a random page, and find the story of "Haven on the Little Cliff. "And read about two women who came up along the trail to gather the high grasses when food was scarce. And one slipped and tumbled into the morning fog, and the other returned back to town, on the sheltered eastern side of the island, in the lee of the wind, shaking her head at the loss of her closest friend. And there, along the trail, came the fallen friend. And the other, sure that it was a ghost, told her friend to shoo, for it must be the devil indeed.
Strangely, many of the islanders now find themselves in the town of Springfield Massachusetts - where Dan, Adak resident, comes from. His family was from Dingle, and there's a spectacular photo of his cousin in the "Blasket Heritage Center," which shows Dingle residents relocated in Springfield, Jockey underwear and all.
Wondering how to end this blog, I got an email from Kent, saying that the contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is ready for signing, and should he send it to California for signing?
I leave on Thursday. Cal will be crated up, provided with food and a frozen cube of water to defrost for the trip down. And from there -
Sunday, pulling into the harbor with boxes in the back for packing up my things, I caught the tail-end of Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon.” He was describing his realization, as he grew older, that “so many things that happen by accident are wonderful.” He speaks of being on a ferrris wheel, bats whipping around in the low light, lights of the carnival bright below. And that weightless moment at the top, up in the sky, the world spread out beneath you, and then the dip back into the trees. “I once thought faith was a building block,” he says, “blocks you put together to make a house. Now, as I get older, I think it’s a matter of surrender, of giving up and leaving that house and trying to keep up your hope and some sense of hope and gratitude.”
And he points out, justly, that wild-grape wine, and dancing with abandon - how I will miss you, P-Bar - helps one accomplish this.
If I could sum up this summer, working alongside Karl and Tibault, waving the weed-burner like a wand and watching tar spread over the deck of the boat, lazing in the sun beside the dock, listening for whale and inhaling their rotted fish-breath like some Alaskan perfume, ringing the bell at the P, I would sum it up as such: just when you're not sure of where things will lead, the thing itself provides the answer. It has been a summer of leaving that house, and keeping up, or recognizing in the first place, hope and gratitude. Especially after the summer of last, a dark cloud that set in and would not move. And it felt more like being stuck on the ferris wheel at the top, in that cloud, unmoving.
As a friend writes so beautifully, "I hope beauty is the beater of all you desire today." Some days it is, some days it isn't.
And now, back to slimming down my dog for the apartment hunt. Too bad he's already snipped.