This Thing Called Courage

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Oh Happy Day

No man, however civilized, can listen very long to African drumming, or Indian chanting, or Welsh hymn singing, and retain intact his critical and self-conscious personality. --Aldous Huxley

One of my friends asked me if I were going to a rodeo show when I told him I was heading to hear the Mystic Chorale. They put on a show a few times a year and my dear friend Rob (shout out to you, MM!) is a member. This time around-- this past weekend-- they were doing Gospel. Scott came with but had to leave at halftime. The show was Sunday afternoon at Cary Hall in Lexington.

Anyway I'm not sure that I had any expectations one way or the other; but to say that they were amazing is the understatement of the year. We were running a tad late and, with still a lot of people milling around in the lobby, we were surprsied to find there were no seats left anywhere, although we were told there were some in the balcony. There weren't. "There's a problem," I told the usher in my best business manner. "They keep saying there are seats up here but there aren't."
"I guess they oversold," he said, with a meek smile.
"So what does that mean?" I continued. "What happens when there are more people than there are seats?"
"They didn't tell us that part," he said. It was impossible to be perturbed so nice was he and I reverted to my normal talk-to-hole-in-the-wall manner and sold him both of my books. Anyway we leaned against the wall and in due course the show began. I was there to support my friend, but was also pleased and surprised to see that my friend Louise was one of the guest soloists, and that her partner and my friend Linda (with whom I have too many connections to enumerate) was part of the group and also would be playing the djembe. Small world!
Anyway the music began and I could have been standing on my head in a tank of water and still I wouldn't have budged. Directed by John Singleton, the group-- maybe about 150 of them?-- were joined by a small band and various soloists and the music was everything Gospel is supposed to be-- joyous, uplifting, powerful, transcending, soulful, and....whatever that nameless thing is that brings you to a higher place within. It truly was one of the best musical performances I have ever heard (and let's not forget this goes all the way back to my wild teen days seeing the Grateful Dead and The Who!) and more than once the music moved me to tears-- not easy for a case-hardened soul like myself! :) It was impossible not to move to this music, or pick up the radiating energy of those performing it. So often one goes to a show, play, recital, etc and 15 minutes into it your sneaking peeks at the programme to see how much longer you have to endure it. In this case I was also looking at the programme-- but only to see how much longer I would remain in this bliss they took me to. It was that good.
Afterwards I introduced Rob to Linda and Louise and we hung out for a bit, and the three of them were glowing like children after performing a Christmas play-- as well they should have been. Picasso said every child is born an artist-- the trick is retaining that as we age. For that time in Cary Hall on a wickedly cold Sunday afternoon in late February, the Mystic Chorale made children of us all. As the Old Irish say, "God bless the work!"

February 28, 2006

Happy Birthday Perry!
A little warmer this morning (18) than yesterday (6) and less wind-- a veritable heat wave. I teach Irish Language and Culture at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and last night we did An Gortha Mor (The Great Famine). Ordinarily we end this lesson with a trek to the (virtually unknown) Irish Famine Memorial on Cambridge Common, but two folks were missing last night (one at a dress rehersal for an upcoming concert) so we will make our pilgrimage next week. We read from Black Lightning, a deeply moving 'novel' in the form of dozens of poems by my friend Jean Flanagan, which chronicles the Famine through the eyes of Kathleen and Timothy, two lovers who live through the catastrophe and flee to Boston. 1.1 million died and another 2 million fled. It is said that if one were to plant a cross for every person who died on the way over to America on the 'Coffin Ships', one could walk from Castle Island to Mayo and never get one's feet wet.

Kathleen Calnan: My Sister's Burial at Sea

I made sure her dress
was sewn. Tied ribbons
in her blonde hair
and rubbed her face clean.

I wrapped her in the blanket
Mother made
for the journey.
The sailors lined her up
with the rest of the dead.
While we sang hymns for
their souls to the Blessed Mother,
the sailors opened the gate
and in a moment
my sister was gone.

From Black Lightning, Jean Flanagan

We ran out of time (again!) and hence didn't get to look at the work of West Corkian Sean O Riordain (1916-77), arguably the best poet writing in the Irish lanuguage in the Twentieth Century. His first published poem appeared in the March 1944 issue of Comhar. His first collection of poetry, Eireaball Spideoige (A Robin's Tail), appeared in 1952, followed by Brosna (Kindling, but also a place name) in 1964, and Linte Liombo (Limbo Lines) in 1971. Tar Eis mo Bhais (After my Death), which contains work never before published as well as poems previously published in periodicals, appeared posthumously in 1978. O Riordain's work is noted for its philosophical introspection and the keenness of its psychological observation. It is distinguished by a love of paradox and the "word," and by a preoccupation, especially in the later work, with questions of the integrity of the self and of form. He had a vast cosmological awareness, urging compassion for all that is, especially the marginalized:

Ni Ceadmhach Neamhshuim
(Translation by Iarla O Lionaird)

There is no winged creature
Moth, fly, or bee,
Nor even the insane man
in the valley of sadness;
That we should not sit with
And by sitting, understand.

There is no place
Stream or thorn,
No matter how remote
No fold or rock,
Whether north south east or west
That from us is not born.

Though Africa's heart may seem afar
And the moon's reach distant to our touch,
Yet we are of them and they,
They are of us.

I went to bed last night thinking of what our country and hence our world might be like if we had a poet, a quiet man or woman of the glens and hills, as president. I pictured proclamations in iambic pentameter, or free verse, and scholars pondering their meaning. I woke up this morning and read that Bush's approval rating is now at an all-time low of 34%, and Cheney's at 18%, and that 100 more had died in Iraq.

Usually I bring Fionn to Harvard Square with me on Monday nights. We walk around Brattle Street and Longfellow Park (by the Friends' Meeting House) and then he awaits me in the car nestled in his blankie while I teach. But last night was too cold. Ergo when I got home, he was of course bouncing off the walls and raring to go! He uses the long hall from the kitchen to my bedroom as a kind of runway, and becomes airborne in his flight to my bed halfway before he gets there. Like shampoo instructions, it's a case of Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. A frosty walk, a game of keep-away in the moon-lit snow, and a good feed settled him down, and now he is waking up, eyeing me, awaiting new adventures.
Everything he does is for the first time.

Monday, February 27, 2006


Last but not least, this is Fionn. He will be four years old this June 29. He is a Papillion, a breed I had not heard of until the day I got him. The name comes from the idea that the upright ears resemble butterfly wings, and the white patch on the forehead is the butterfly's body.

He is a happy little camper, and something of a miracle boy-- he was hit by car outside my house on March 29, 2004-- and emerged pretty unscathed. Not bad for a 13 pound dog-- he is now 20 pounds-- no comment! He loves meat, peanut butter, meat, broccoli, meat, and greenies, and licking the insides of the tray the bird suet comes in. His favorite activities include eating, going for walks, belly rubs, bum scracthies, playing with the striped tennis ball, ripping apart small defensiveless teddy bears, becoming 'airborne' out the car window, 'entertaining' company by sailing over the back of the purple couch and landing in their unsuspecting laps, trash-picking, and going under the covers around six every morning for a little extra warmth.

Words you cannot say but must spell when around Fionn, or else face dire consequences, include: Walk, Hungry, Ride, Happy Land, Little Black Pete, Uncle_____ (fill in the blank), Who's That, Go Get, Buddy, Molly, and Sadie. Fionn's predecessors of blessed memory include Jake, Rocky, Fluffy, and, especially, Biscuit.



This is me (NOT the book cover!) sitting in a water garden that we made a few years ago when I still had my landscaping business. (The book's cover model is a police officer from one of our mid-size New England cities. Don't you feel safer already?)
For the past three's or so I have been only doing writing and art-- and finally this spring I seem to be missing the landscaping just a tad, and may come out of retirement to do a project or two if it's an interesting one. To me, the landscaping has always been three-dimensional art. There's no other art form that appeals to all five senses, nor one (that I can think of anyway) that becomes so interactive with nature, through the change of seasons and the growth (or, alas, the non-growth!) of plants. This week I'll be starting my seedlings for my own little wee bit of a garden, specifically for my favorite plant, Nicotiana alata grandiflora, or Flowering Tobacco. This is not the flowering tobacco one sees at most nurseries, as this modern iteration has been hybridized (bastardized?) until it is a fragrance-free shrimp of its former glory with fairly offensive names like Nikki Red and Nikki Pink. The original is a somewhat floppy, blowsy six-footer (if your soil is rich) that, in the evening, opens its small, trumpet-like white flowers and emits a fragrance so sweet, haunting, and powerful, passersby yards and yards away will stop and sniff-- it isn't a garden to me without this plant. The seed is like sand grains though, and must be started early (like now). But well worth the hassle.
I guess I didn't say in my intro that I would be talking about my garden at all too-- but apparently I will be! What a great topic to think and write about when it's 11 degrees as I speak, with a wind chill below zero...the walk this morning was an abbreviated one, as Fionn promptly lied down on the snowy grass when we got to Friendly's and refused to go any further. Smart dog!

February 27, 2006: Welcome

Hello All and welcome to my blog. No real rules here except courtesy-- though erudition and wit are always appreciated! I will be posting here updates on my writings and art work, as well as my life, and-- most importantly-- the life of Fionn the Wonder Dog. Fionn by the way is pronounced like the end of a French movie, or the sticky-up, disconcerting (if you're swimming nearby) appendage of certain sea creatures with lots of teeth. Fionn's full correct name is Fionn Og, which is Irish for 'the fair-haired one.' He's a little worn out today after playing hard Saturday night with his best doggy friend Little Black Pete, and George and Bob's two other dogs, at Bob's birthday party in West Medford.
Some background info on my writings: Regular Flattop was published in the last edition of the Men on Men series, specifically Men on men 2000. This Thing Called Courage: South Boston Stories, my first book, was published in July of 2002 by the Haworth Press. Now Batting for Boston: More Stories by J.G. Hayes, came out in July of 2005. My first novel, A Map of the Harbor Islands, will be coming out in the fall of 2006, and I've just finished a second novel, a (hopefully) comic soap-opera/parody/social commentary currently titled The Classiest Address in Town. I will be posting excerpts from Map the weeks ahead, and also updating my readings/signings schedule.