Caught up One More Time . . . on Cyprus Avenue


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Original post for Van Morrison’s 70th birthday  ~ Cyprus Avenue, Belfast, 2015


“And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it”

~ from “Had I Not Been Awake” In The Human Chain by Seamus Heaney.

Had I not been awake early this morning, I would have missed the goings-on on Cyprus Avenue. It is Van Morrison’s 70th birthday, and it crosses my mind again that his music – like Seamus Heaney’s poetry – has scored much of my life. For the crowd gathered up on Cyprus Avenue to celebrate his birthday with him, a sense of wonder; for me, a homesickness Stephen King aptly describes as “a terribly keen blade.”

Social media and BBC Radio Ulster are doing their best to assuage the lump-in-my-throat melancholy – while at the same time making it worse – reminding me of the thousands of miles that stretch between us.

I am not there.

I am not there, with my college friend Ruth, to sing along and wonder if he might indulge us with a rendition of Cyprus Avenue which everyone surely wants to hear – for old times sake and because it is fitting. But you never know where you are with Van; you just remember where you are from.

Eight hours behind and a lifetime away from where the second concert of the day is now underway, I relate easily to those fans who have traveled from other continents to sit now among the eighty five trees lining Cyprus Avenue and absorb Van’s Belfast, if only for an hour or two. Clicking on the link to the BBC Radio Ulster broadcast, I was transported instantly to my bedroom in my parent’s house on the Dublin Road, a teenager again and tuning in to Radio Luxembourg – in the Days Before Rock and Roll.

Justin . . .

I am down on my knees
At those wireless knobs
Telefunken, Telefunken
And I’m searching for
Luxembourg, Luxembourg,
Athlone, Budapest, AFN,
Hilversum, Helvetia
In the days before rock ‘n’ roll

Specific and evocative, the names of streets in Van Morrison’s songs – Hyndford Street, Cyprus Avenue, Fitzroy – as much as the characters that people them and the rituals that shaped those lives – Madame George, the window cleaners taking a break for tea with Paris Buns from the shop, you taking the train from Dublin up to Sandy Row, kids collecting bottle-tops, all of us tuning into Radio Luxembourg on our transistor radios, going to the pictures, or the chipper, and filling ourselves with pastie suppers, gravy rings, Wagon Wheels, barmbrack, Snowballs – all these with a Sense of Wonder that has a universal resonance.

And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking,
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?

Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?

Maybe I understand the pull that brings fans from other continents to Cyprus Avenue today. I am reminded of the time I drove from Tucson to  Tucumcari and Tehachapi to Tonopah – places Lowell George immortalized in Willin’. While they turned out not to tourist destinations, nor did I see Dallas Alice in every headlight, I could hear Billy Payne’s grace notes on the piano and Lowell George growling about her every mile I covered. Too, I remember visiting San Francisco drawn less by St. Dominic’s Preview and more by the sight of orange boxes scattered against a SafeWay supermarket in the rain.  Can you hear the echo of Patrick Kavanagh in Van Morrison’s songs, finding God in ‘the bits and pieces of everyday.”

As a new mother, almost eighteen years ago, far away from my Northern Ireland home and in Arizona, it was  “Brown Eyed Girl” that I sang to my green-eyed girl to help her fall asleep. When she did her first little dance as a toddler, a jaunty “Bright Side of the Road” kept her going. As she twirled and clapped her hands, I reminisced about a wee dander down Sunnyside Street, heading out with my friends on a Saturday night, and this song, so jaunty that it was used as the promotional jingle for a “Belfast’s got the buzz” campaign while our wee country tried to pick itself up from all that had ravaged it.

When I got over getting cancer and when I turned a corner in the world of widowhood, it was to my favorite Van Morrison song that I turned and turn. “When the Healing has Begun,” is a tour de force from “Into the Music,” the first Van record I bought from Ronnie Miller’s Pop-In record store in Antrim. A far more satisfying thing than the school lunch I was supposed to buy – it fed my soul.  I played it until I knew the lyrics by heart. And there they stayed until about twenty years later when I found a pristine copy, a German import, still in its protective plastic, at Tracks on Wax then a treasure trove for lovers of vinyl in Phoenix, Arizona – before vinyl became cool and collectible for a new generation.

I had worn out that song, which required some effort. In the days before record players like mine had to compete with tape decks, CD players, and MP3 files, if I wanted to hear a song just one more time or just the opening breath of it, there was no simple replay button, no nonchalant click; rather, the knack of placing the stylus right in the groove, in “the sweet spot,” where it would pick up the familiar repetitive rhythm, the violins, a “yeah” from Van, and “we’ll walk down the avenue again.”

Cyprus. Fitzroy. Belfast. Phoenix. it matters not. We are anywhere and everywhere, underneath the stars. Neither here nor there. It enchants me still – and maybe even Van himself – this song that takes him from a roar through a mumble to a barely there whisper at the end. And when the familiar refrain streamed across a continent into my kitchen in the desert with appreciative whistles from the Belfast crowd, my whole world stopped for a second. Hypnotized momentarily.  Such is the “aesthetic force” of that song for me.

Back street jelly roll . . .

I remember the first time I saw him perform it, at the Ulster Hall in Belfast. Leaning forward from the good seats in the balcony – having scored tickets from a friendly roadie in the Crown Bar – it felt a bit like being in church, somehow knowing we should behave and be quiet, reverent even, if he was going to take us along with him on this song.  And he did.

And the healing begins . . .

And we’ll walk down the avenue in style
And we’ll walk down the avenue and we will smile
And we’ll say baby ain’t it all worthwhile
When the healing has begun

Thank you, Van. For all of it. Happy Birthday.



looking forward – thank you Seamus Heaney


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Whether it be a matter of personal relations within a marriage or political initiatives within a peace process, there is no sure-fire do-it-yourself kit. There is risk and truth to yourselves and the world before you. And so, my fellow graduates, make the world before you a better one by going into it with all boldness. You are up to it and you are fit for it; you deserve it and if you make your own best contribution, the world before you will become a bit more deserving of you.

~ From his remarks to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduates, May 12, 1996

I cannot adequately convey the inestimable impact of Seamus Heaney‘s words on my adult life. He has been with me every day for as long as I can remember, like a pulse, his words arranged to catch my heart off-guard and blow it open.  I always imagined our paths would cross, and I would be able to thank him for making me brave when I needed to be, for gently teaching me to love from afar the language and the well-trodden lanes of Castledawson and Bellaghy in rural Derry, for “crediting marvels,” in the unlikeliest small things, and, mostly, for inspiring me to set words down on a page, to light up this screen with them, so I might at last be able, “to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” But the opportunity eluded me.

1148798_10201928941846302_1771593936_nOver the years, during the bad times, times of loss for friends and relatives, when I didn’t know what to say, I would turn to his pitch-perfect poems and wrap up my condolences in Heaney’s words.  When he died on this day three years ago, it occurred to me that only he would be capable of producing the right words to assuage Ireland’s sorrow over his passing. It seemed he always had the right word at the right time.

If you have the words . . . there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.

He has always been there with the right word when I needed it, when I found myself in “limbo land,” uncertain – Incertus – caught between Catholic and Protestant, a rock and a hard place, fear and wonder, memory and loss – between myth and reality. A dweller on the threshold . . . 

On this third anniversary of our poet’s death, I am drawn to the underworld and “The Underground,” one of my favorite poems, in which he evokes a honeymoon evening in London, he and his bride running down the corridor from the underground to the Royal Albert Hall. The London Underground becomes the Underworld, and Heaney is Orpheus, refusing to look back and therefore keeping his wife.

The Underground

There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed

Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

In the hours following his death, we learned his last communication with this world was in the form of a text – just two words for his wife from his hospital bed. Noli Timere. Words from an ancient world illuminating a dark space – “be not afraid.” Simple, spare, and forward-looking.

You are up to it and you are fit for it. 

I find myself looking forward again.

With gratitude.



saving for a rainy day . . . in Phoenix


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When I turned fifty (admittedly a while ago), I realized that: a) I would never make enough money to go to a job I hate every day and b) money really isn’t everything although I have often acted as though it is. Much to the chagrin of Suze Orman, I don’t organize money neatly in my wallet, and I honestly couldn’t tell you how much is in the checking account at any given time. If I must choose between purchasing something sensible like a new kitchen appliance or springing for a hard-bound signed copy of Seamus Heaney’s Nobel speech, “Crediting Poetry,” well, there is no choice which leads me to an August afternoon in 2013, two weeks before Heaney died.

Time and space collapse when I spotted the handsome little volume perched on a shelf in an air-conditioned fine out-of-print  books store in Arizona, about as far away as I could be from Anahorish, “where springs washed into the shiny grass.” Alas, I didn’t buy the signed first US edition, and I felt so guilty for having abandoned it there, that I knew it would only be a matter of time before I would go back, with an explanation to the avuncular Phoenician bookseller, of the finer points of buying on tick.


Previously, the best money I ever spent was in 1982. Flush with my university grant money, I bought three things that would change my life – a Eurail pass, a 35mm camera, and a hi-fi stereo system. I moved out of the Halls of Residence at Stranmillis College and into a red-brick terraced house on Ridgeway Street, where I lived with three male engineering students who tolerated my girliness and threw great parties without ever damaging any of my vinyl.

At the lower end of our street was The Lyric Theater  and at the top, a convenient and The Belfast Wine Company, a well-stocked off-license.


Ridgeway Street, Belfast, N. Ireland

In the middle, houses teemed with students, all imaginative misfits like me. I’m sure we went to our classes when there was nothing else to do, but what sparkles in my memory is the time spent on Ridgeway Street. One glorious evening, we spilled out of our houses and onto the road, pelting each other with water balloons while the frontman of Thin Lizzy, a very cool Phil Lynott leaned against the door jamb of a house full of art students from Derry. Maybe he got lost on the way to wherever he was supposed to be staying after a gig at The Kings Hall. I have no idea what he was doing there, but he was enjoying himself. In my mind’s eye he is as plain as day, smoking and laughing at us as we soaked each other, on the kind of shimmering summer night that transforms Northern Ireland into a veritable tourist destination.PhilLynnotDecades later and the vinyl records bought with my lunch money and grant money, are stowed away in the roof-space of my parent’s house in Castledawson. Faded and stashed between the pages of an old diary, the Eurail pass took me to places that have stayed in my heart to this day – Paris, Florence, Rome, Capri, the Greek islands. The Olympus camera? It was stolen from my first apartment in Phoenix.

It took thirty years and a breast cancer diagnosis before I would buy another 35mm camera, when I was ready finally to take stock and see things through different lenses. In the Fall of 2012, a friend and I enrolled in a college photography class that required us to pay attention to shapes and patterns and all the lines and curves we might otherwise miss going about my daily business. The photography teacher’s assignments sent me on scavenger hunts every Sunday to spots like the “Water Mark,” where five 14-foot aluminum horses that guard a road in Scottsdale. Some folks believe it should be designated a wonder of the world, but my teacher just wanted me to notice it, to pay attention to those splendid horses that evoke the Wild West but also prevent flooding during our Monsoon season. At such times, water gushes from the horse’s mouths, and it is an awesome sight.


Now I know those wild horses belong in the Arizona desert where the rains are rare, but I prefer to think of them along the Annadale Embankment, watching over us at the end of a  wild Belfast night.

Footnote: The Heaney Lecture is now where it belongs – between Door into the Dark and Stepping Stones . . . on my bookcase. As for Phil? As Joseph O’Connor explains, he was “the first Irish person ever to bound onto a stadium stage in leather trousers and bawl to the gods: “Are you OUT there?” He was our first rock star, gone too soon, and on a rainy night in Phoenix, some three decades later, I can still hear his coyote call . . .

 But there is the replenishing joy of the songs themselves, that carnival of outlaws, renegades and chancers, tumbling through the sunbursts of his rhymes. From the lonesome cowboy’s prairie to the louche streets of Soho, from the mythic Celtic battlefields over to Dino’s bar and grill, his restless creativity roamed. You could stock a damn good jukebox with only his work, so vivid the eye for detail and so capacious its reach . . . The songs will abide. That’s the only consolation. But it’s a real one. Even in the darkest night, you can always hear the king’s call.





On the list – Blog Awards Ireland 2016



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I love a list.  It has a beginning and an ending. It’s a certainty. A sure thing. Naturally, then, I love Rob Gordon, a kindred spirit erstwhile hapless record shop owner in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. A compulsive maker of lists, his “top fives” run the gamut of pop culture, eclectic compilations that include his top five episodes of Cheers, top five Elvis Costello songs, and the top five “women who don’t live on his street but would be very welcome.” Like Hornby’s character, I can produce all kinds of top-five lists . . . album covers, fonts, pet peeves, life lessons, things not to say to a teenage daughter, mix tapes (now playlists) for any occasion, places to see and avoid in Phoenix, dive bars, concert venues, ways to get my own way, pizza toppings, authentic “Irish” bars in Phoenix (there might not be five), hairdressers, Tom Petty concerts, Van Morrison songs, things Nora Ephron said about what not to wear, lipstick shades, road-trips, playlists for road trips, white lies, cocktails involving gin, dramatic entrances, exit strategies, famous people who could play me in a movie, Heaney poems, laughs, crying sessions, and ways to let someone down easy (mostly myself).

It turns out there are psychological reasons for this love of lists. For instance, there’s the guess-work, the wondering if what I think will be on the list will be there when I click on it, confirming that I was right about something. Apparently, a correct prediction causes the brain to send an extra little shot of dopamine, and that boost makes for a better day.

So today is a great day. I clicked on the link, and there it is – this blog has made it to the short list of  the 2016 Blog Awards Ireland competition in the Irish Diaspora category. This is not the first time the blog has made it this far – I am perhaps on the road to becoming the Susan Lucci of blog award competitions. Like Ms. Lucci, I’m happy to be nominated and in the company of others who wrestle with getting the words right and who retreat online to this timeless space, a home away from home. It is a lovely thing to know that there are readers for whom this corner of the blogosphere represents the Irish abroad, and the recognition delights me as does being included on a list with others who have lifted me up and set me down again in this very space.

So thanks to those of you who read and remark and still come back for more, for enduring thousands and thousands of words – many of them not the right ones, not even close – about breast cancer and bad hair days, about Belfast and bombings, extended rants about menopause and motherhood and having it all or not having it all, about Seamus Heaney – ah, Seamus – and back home,  about vinyl records and ticket stubs, and brown paper packages tied up with string the way my mother still does, about magic and loss and Lou Reed.  As much as I have revealed of myself in this virtual space, I know for sure what is not copy, what is not up for public consumption.

Cancer was copy – it still is. Some of the business of widowhood is copy too. But I know what is not.  I know what to keep and what to discard. I know how to control it and how to control myself. Most of the time.  As public as I have made many of my choices,  I know how to be private and how to keep what is precious, private with the man who makes me smile and lifts my heart and lights up the dark corners in which I sometimes find myself. I suppose I have learned how to  – as Meryl Streep says of Nora Ephron – ‘achieve a private act.’

I know how to avoid an ending, and I’m very good at the long game. I know what Nora Ephron’s son knows – that closure is over-rated.  I cannot consider the concept without recalling the first time I realized how much it mattered to other people, following a principal’s evaluation of a lesson I’d taught. In her report, she indicated, with some disappointment, that I had provided “no closure” for my students. I didn’t bother arguing with her, because I knew I would be back in my classroom the next day and the next to continue – not to close – with my students.  It is the continuing that matters (along with what I wore along the way).

Continuance – it has a nice ring to it. Keep on keeping on. Maybe you’ll come along for the ride.

Thank you.