The Island

Aran islands 1990

Aran islands 1990

These islands lie off the west coast of Ireland as though nothing matters – Linda Norton, Patterns for Arans

When I discovered I was pregnant — as much a surprise to me as to the doctor who told me a few months previously that I would never be — I realized that there would be some time when journalism would not be possible. I wasn’t worried, I’d write fiction.

Not that I had ever written fiction or was reading it regularly in any respectful or attentive way. But what I had in mind cheap mysteries and cheap romance.  How are hard could that be?

Hard enough. Even Harlequin and Mills and Boon eluded me. The fiction I like to write, even my cheap fiction (I have four historical romantic suspense novels finished in rough draft and one imitation Nora Roberts in something I thought was final draft but which has never sold) is dark.

However I did discover that I enjoyed writing, and almost could write, quick and somewhat simple women’s magazine fiction, the kind that used to appear in publications like Take a Break. Unfortunately, I made this discovery this just as that market largely dried up.

I have just read Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work and under the influence of his advising, urging, and hectoring to get your imperfections out there I am posting a women’s magazine story that failed to find its niche. It was written because of time I spent on the Aran Islands working on a travel piece (which did find someone who loved it, the Financial Times Magazine of all things), but the islands I had in mind are the San Juans off the west coast of Washington state and Canada.

The Island

 “It seems to me,” my mother said, looking down at the tiny creature wrapped in baby blankets by the fire, “that you don’t even like people very much.”

“Why?” I asked and smiled. Smiling was something I was sure she didn’t want me to do when she is in the mood to scold. But a smile turnth away wrath, or something, and with my mother, I am never sure what she does want.

“It’s obvious, Diana.” She sighed and I could see her shoulders rise with the intake of breath as she got ready to tell me. “All the animals of course.”

The blankets stirred. I picked up a baby bottle, tested the temperature on my wrist, got the puppy from under the blankets and started to feed it. It is usually wild things I try to save, but some summer people had abandoned a litter of puppies and this was the only one still alive by the time someone found them. “They aren’t mutually exclusive you know, people and animals, that is.” I thought I had her there. She herself had had four dogs to my certain knowledge; the last one lived on cooked-to-order free range chicken until it died at the ripe old age of seventeen. I had only three dogs and three cats and whatever creature I was nursing at the moment. Okay, all at once, but not such a difference.

“If things are kept in proportion.  However,” she continued and I knew what was coming, so, I must admit, I turned off and beamed at the puppy. Its progress from certain death to milk gulping life had impressed even the vet. I barely heard my mother’s list of complaints, I knew them all: where I lived — on an island; how I lived — by myself; how I kept house — a disaster; how I looked — like I was about to dig in the garden, which usually I was. She would end with: why couldn’t I be more like my sister, — a barrister, beautiful and married. But this time my mother switched tracks “and the way you are behaving about that Jeremy Browne, Diana, is really unfair. One would think you would cultivate someone like that.”

My attention snapped back. Getting me into trouble with my mother would be added to the long list of reasons I did not like Jeremy Browne. But I hadn’t expected my mother, on an infrequent visit, to know about any of that. Without missing a beat she added “I’m friends with his mother, didn’t you know ?” and got up to put on the kettle for a cup of tea.

The puppy fell asleep and I put it back under the blankets. It was a good thing I had been reminded of Jeremy Browne early in the day; tonight I planned to sink him altogether. I dug through the piles of papers on my desk– my mother was right on that count, I was messy — until I found Jeremy Browne’s proposal, slick, professionally printed and delivered to every house on the island. ‘Ecology based tourism’, it blared, ‘the answer to the island’s dreams’. Less than a year on the island and he already thought he knew how we dreamed. He had come from the city and some high-powered media career. To write a novel, he said, but he was so occupied ‘improving’ things it was difficult to see when he took time to write. He’d organised the committee that got the new pier and perhaps a new ferry, and had been instrumental in adding the extra room on the schoolhouse. The room, I should add, where everyone was meeting tonight.

I was in love with the way the island had been since I was a child and my father had made it our special place. Wild and isolated, it was his refuge from a marriage that didn’t work, and a place he could treat me like the son he didn’t have.

Jeremy Browne proposed boats for whale watching, trails for bird watching, lookouts for otter watching and who knew what else. I’d lived on the island since my father died five years ago and was sure that the islanders wouldn’t want the visitors, strangers and all the they changes they would bring. I’d point this out, his plan would lose, and Jeremy Browne would go look for some place else to ‘write’ or to ‘improve’ as the case may be.

I had to admit as I walked up the path that the new room on the school had been a good idea, but it was enough. Jeremy Browne was already on the platform going over his brochure with a stranger, who with his jacket, tie and shining shoes was definitely a city solicitor type. I studied Jeremy’s face as I waited for the meeting to begin. Good looking if you wanted to call it that, with lines that could have come from laughter around his eyes. In different circumstances I might have liked him.

But not now and not ever when he started to speak and heads around the room nodded in agreement. He repeated the argument of his brochure: things needed to change so they could stay the same; tourism based on the island’s beauty and wildlife was the best chance for jobs; and jobs would give the island’s young people the choice to stay if they wanted to and to preserve island life. Shinny shoes and half a dozen people around the room chimed in in agreement. I had lost even before I said my piece, but I would probably have managed to keep my temper if he hadn’t waited outside afterwards to compliment me on my contribution.

“You spoke well,” he said, stepping out of the shadows and holding out his hand. If there is anything I can’t stand, it’s someone who is magnanimous in victory. I said thank you but didn’t take his hand.

He started to walk beside me. “I agree with you about the island, it is unique and precious. But unless islanders can make decent livings here, not just fishing and the small farms, young people will leave. The cottages will be bought by outsiders, most of them will sit empty fifty weeks a year. You and I may live here all year but we’re not island born. We’re the wave of that future unless things changes.”

It wasn’t his lecturing that made me angry, although I didn’t understand why for some reason it was important to him I understood what he was trying to do. What fueled my anger was that he was right. We were intruders, blow-ins. I stopped walking. “You know why I came here? Because of people like you.” I heard myself, but didn’t stop. “You’re the brightest and the best and say you’re helping when you go around changing things to suit yourself, ‘it’s for their own good’ you say. But really its your good. You’ll probably make lots of money out of this island, you and your shiny- shoed friend.”

It was dark around us and I heard, more than saw, him laugh, “I told him he was overdressed. He comes from another island, Diana, where they are trying the same thing.”

Of course being wrong made me angrier and I turned away from him. He caught at my arm. “Diana wait…”

But I was too quick. “Just leave things alone” I shouted and ran.

My must have face given me away, because as soon as I walked through the door my mother put down her book and poured me a glass of wine. I sat on the couch, hugging my knees up to my chin. My mother sat next to me.  I told her about the meeting and about afterwards. “He’s going to ruin Daddy’s and my island, ruin it.” To my surprise I felt the heat of tears. I never cry.

My mother was quiet. The puppy made a sleepy movement. She bent and tucked the blanket more firmly around it. “Perhaps it’s time for me to be a little more honest with you.” She sighed, more sadness than exasperation. “I’ve always thought of you as the one thing I got right for your father.” She put her arm around me. I couldn’t remember the last time she had done that. “When I first met your father he thought I was brave and full of life. Like you. I was quiet and shy, but I loved him very much and I let him think I was something else because I thought I could make him happy.”

I put my head on her shoulder.

“I didn’t. So in a way you were my gift to him and I didn’t interfere with the way you were brought up.” She pushed away from me a little so that she could look into my eyes. Tears began to run down my cheeks. She took the wine glass out of my hand and pulled my head back to her shoulder. “Your father was wonderful in many ways, and he could have done things for what he cared about , like this island. But he preferred to live in a fantasy world.”

Her voice changed, I was sure she was smiling. “I know I nag, I’m making up for lost time. You’re a marvel and I love you.” She kissed the top of my head. I couldn’t remember the last time she had done that either.

She was right about my father, I recognised his faults and adored him anyway. But somewhere in the cold chasm between my parents, I had lost sight that I also loved my mother — and needed her. I cuddled against her, but my mother was never one to lose an opportunity.

“You know Jeremy is right. Work with him. Don’t be like your father and live in a pretend world of things as you wish they were. Jeremy’s not doing this for money. His mother says he’s set up a trust that puts very penny back into the island. Wash your face now and go apologise to him.”

I stayed in the circle of her arm, not wanting to move, not wanting the magical found-my-mother moment to end .

She sat up straight. “Now, ” she said.

In the bathroom I scrubbed my face and hands and took my hair out of its normal pony tail, hoping a different hair style might distract Jeremy Browne from the dirt stains I couldn’t get off my fingers. My mother was giving the puppy its bottle as I left.

His cottage was on the ridge above mine and I could see that there was a light on. I knocked and waited, listening to the wind blowing around me. It seemed an age until he opened the door

“How nice to see you,” he said as though I had not stormed away from him an hour before. “Come in out of the wind.”

I stepped in and stood there feeling lumpish and awkward and not knowing how to begin.

“Can I do something for you?” he asked.

I shook my head no, then the words tumbled out. “I’m sorry for what I said earlier. It’s a good plan, I’d like to help. ” I held out my hand.

He smiled and took it, but didn’t shake hands as I had expected. Instead he raised it slowly. I knew he could feel how rough my skin was and see the lines where the stains wouldn’t wash away. I tried to pull my hand out of his, but he wouldn’t let me. Instead, ever so softly, he kissed my fingers. “Of course,” he said.

I think it was at this moment, dear reader, I fell in love.

Patterns for Arans — Linda Norton

These islands lie off the west coast of Ireland

as if nothing matters.

The people have lived here for centuries
with only a thin covering of soil over the surface.
Great use is made of the seaweed,
the cattle swimming out.
The women here are justly famous.
They weave their own tweed
and make a type of belt called criss.
The heavy Atlantic seas,
the slip stitch.
The difficulty of the patterns
are never written down.
Most impressive and rich, the trellis pattern
and the rope, the tribute to the hardworking bee.
But sometimes their knitting shows mistakes,
with a true Irish touch of nothing
really matters, a careless nonchalance
of the crossing of their cables.
And note mistakes in the simple patterns:
forked lightning or cliff paths,
small fields fenced with stone,
the ups and downs of married life,
the mosses.
The openwork has a religious
significance or none.
Sometimes the clarity of the pattern is
lost through the use of
very fine wool.
Green from the mosses, brown
from the seaweed, grey and cream
color from the stones and pebbles:
many are distinctly over-bobbled.
No matter. They are too lovely
to be lost. Wool and knitting
leaflets can be obtained.
In no case is the whole pattern given.
There are certain gaps and yawns
and part of the pattern is left out
as if it doesn’t matter,
or was too lovely,
so was lost.
Some of the simple patterns
are charming for children’s jerseys.
This one, for example,
would be lovely on a child.

What other way can one threaten if not with death…..


Powerscourt, Ireland (c) Carole Craig

What other way can one  threaten if not with death? The original, the interesting would be for someone to be threatened with immortality.”    Jorge Luis Borges        Biografía Verbal by Roberto Alifano,

[“¿De qué otra forma se puede amenazar que no sea de muerte? Lo interesante, lo original, sería que alguien lo amenace a uno con la inmortalidad.” ]

My mother has begun to talk of dying.

A litany of distant deaths.  The nurse  at the Farm Security Administration took a day off work sick: ‘They found her that day but she died.’  Her friend Malvina Reynolds in hospital: ‘I told everyone Malvina would get well, but she died.’   Her sister at a nursing home: ‘We left and twenty minutes later she died.’  A neighbor who fell down dead.  ‘Can you imagine?  Just like that, she died.’

My mother has known other deaths.  Why these? They were all  so unexpected.

‘I was thinking I was in control of my dying situation,’ she says.  ‘I would be able to say when to myself and die when I said. I don’t feel it any more’  My mother keeps her eyes on the corner of her room and clutches the bed rail.

At the end of the week she is calm.  ‘I was thinking I might die last night but then I thought it wouldn’t be fair to Alex.’

Her love for my daughter is worshipful.

Alex will miss you very much, but she won’t be surprised.  

Why hasn’t my  deep grief begun?  Is it because our relationship was difficult? My mother in a moment of crisis told me it became difficult for her when I was five (that was not her word but it will do).  I thought it was  nine when the baby sitter came to live with us.

It has been painful, but I don’t think  we’ve had the worst of relationships.  We liked to do things together.  She introduced me to the summer-traveling, life-changing circus.  I took her down the Amazon in a bird cage boat and across the Sinai in a taxi to Palestine for Christmas Eve in Bethlehem.

She put me through college and when I had to have money because my daughter was so desperately ill, I spent hers.  She needs me now and I have packed my Irish life and come.

I don’t think it is  the relationship that has stunted my feelings.  It seems to me that my mother is  trapped in a zero sum game.  The longer she lives the worse living becomes.

My mother tells me another story about death.  A friend was with her mother when she died.  “She said she saw her mother’s soul leave her body.  It flew around the room several times, so she went to the window and let it out.”


Carl Sandberg

I AM glad God saw Death
And gave Death a job taking care of all who are tired
of living:

When all the wheels in a clock are worn and slow and
the connections loose
And the clock goes on ticking and telling the wrong time
from hour to hour
And people around the house joke about what a bum
clock it is,
How glad the clock is when the big Junk Man drives
his wagon
Up to the house and puts his arms around the clock and
“You don’t belong here,
You gotta come
Along with me,”
How glad the clock is then, when it feels the arms of the
Junk Man close around it and carry it away

Found in the folder with my mother’s will

Now it’s high watermark….


Memorial Gardens Dublin (c) Carole Craig

Now it’s high watermark and floodtide in the heart and time to go.― Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes

Somewhere in the complicated canon of Irish mythology there are stories in which the island of Ireland can hide itself at will, fading into the sea like a Tir na Og or a Hy Brasil.  Present, but unseen.

The week I leave Dublin, the poet Seamus Heaney dies.  He was my lecturer the first year, a humble bear of a man, a dear friend of friends; we went to the same parties then; heard the same gossip, shared tea in the university cafeteria. His death, too soon as death is, wounds.   Ireland is not more distant, merely less visible, its weight is felt.

The first week back with my mother: her face is round, her skin pink, her smile cherubic. It seems the flow of reports that she thrived, even somewhat recovered, are true.  Except it is rare now for her to leave her bed and sleep pulls at her constantly.  Behind the closed door she cries because it is so difficult to stand.

A hospice nurse telephones me.  He wants to discuss medication. She wheezes when she breathes.  Are these decisions about life or death?  ‘No. She’s fading,’ he says, ‘but not quickly.  Maybe she hasn’t decided it’s okay to let go.

We’re going to need more money.  My two dogs, my one cat and I are living in the spare basement room; it keeps us out of other people’s way.  I will have to rent my mother’s room.  I want, gently, to talk to her about her things: what is precious? what is dear? what goes to whom?

‘Why are you asking her?’  someone says.  It is heartfelt,  concern for her is profound.  ‘She’s at peace, leave her alone. ‘

If I don’t ask, it will feel like revenge.

I start with her clothes because they have never mattered much to her, I haven’t liked many of them,  I think that will be easy.  Almost at once I come across her things for stage: the Palestinian dress we bought in Jerusalem, the Guatemalan one we bought in Mexico, the one that came from our friend whose husband died in this house and who died herself soon after.  There are shorts and shirts my mother embroidered and the ones that people embroidered for her.  I feel like a ghoul and only gather enough for a small bag.

Another visit with my mother:  Three people have died in the hospice.  They bring the bodies along the side of the building and she can see them pass.  She is not upset.

Do you think about dying yourself?

‘I prefer not to   She stares at a corner of her room for a long time, one hand holding the other.  I’m afraid of turning it off…

What off?

An uncomfortable smile.  ‘I don’t know, I’ll think of it.‘

I wait.  Silence.

Again. ‘I’m afraid of turning it off…‘

I wait.

She closes her eyes and sleeps.

“Now it’s high watermark

and floodtide in the heart

and time to go.

The sea-nymphs in the spray

will be the chorus now.

What’s left to say?―

Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes

I am going home….

water and chair

                                               dunmanway, county cork (c) carole craig

En route to San Francisco

I am going home — one of the last places on earth I want to be.  Time, like a bounty hunter, has caught up with me.  My mother is 97 and counting.  Eating, dressing, the ordinary choices of life confuse her, but she choses not to leave her home, the life she has made.   And who can blame her for that — she is so firmly rooted, so well watered by love and fidelity.

She was a singer and is beloved, in the way that performers are, by hundreds,  perhaps thousands.   And she has friends, real friends.

Her politics have always been brave.  In the 1950s when segregation was still the law our home insurance was cancelled because both black and white people came to visit; my mother was not cowed by the clicks on the phone that told us of the wire taps or visits from the FBI;  in 1965 when a white woman on Martin Luther King’s Selma to Montgomery march was murdered I thought for several hours it was her because she was also there.

There are people, I’ve met them, who feel it is an honour to spend time with her.

I am not among them.  It’s not that we don’t love each other. We do, we’ve been through so much together  But to explain how I face my task I must say that  I never felt the  recipient of bountiful mother-love –– there are reasons for that, although this is not the place.  I have my scars and wounds. This is not the place.

I have come home because her heart’s desire to die where she has lived may no longer possible.  My mother can barely climb the stairs to the top floor and her single bed so she can watch the sun set over the Pacific as she falls asleep. She can barely climb the stairs to the middle floor to reach a toilet and refuses to try the commode.  Sometimes she sits in a chair on the landing and cannot remember if she was going up or down.

I have to find her a place of safety — this  a chronicle of that search.

I have had to leave my home in Dublin, my photographic projects, my cats, my darkroom, my books, my offer of an MFA and the planned cycle of short stories, my wonderful neighbors, the guiding wisdom of my writing group, the magical Irish light —  ‘ little dyings’.

Perhaps the most difficult,  I have to come to terms with America again  — the brutality, immorality, the beauty.  Re-enter dark water.  Sink or swim.  Today,  Kenneth Patchen, American of course, breaks the surface with me:

“All things are one thing to the earth

rayless as a blind leper Blake lies with everyman

and the fat lord lies next to his bastard at last

and it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean what we think it does

for we two shall never lie there 

we shall not be there when death reaches out his sparkling hands

there are so many little dyings that it doesn’t matter

which of them of death