For Houston ~ Home Sweet Home

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A 2:15 am Facebook update from my friend in Houston reads, “The rain continues.” Flooding thousands of homes and pummeling the area with over four feet of rain, Harvey is relentless. Rekindling memories of Katrina are harrowing images of people stranded on the rooftops of their homes or wading chest-deep in filthy floodwater; and then the heartbreaking stories of Manuel Saldivar, 84, his wife Belia, 81, and great-grandchildren, Daisy 6, Xavier 8, Dominic, 14, and Devy who drowned while trying to escape floodwaters in a van or of the little girl rescued after she was found holding on to her unresponsive mother in the floodwaters of Beaumont, or Houston Police officer, Sergeant Steve Perez, who drowned after becoming trapped in high water as he was driving to work.

Unprecedented, Hurricane Harvey landed in Texas with a vengeance, bringing with it winds in excess of 130 mph and, in Harris County, 1 trillion gallons of rainfall in four days – enough to run Niagara Falls for over two weeks.

At a loss for words and graphics that would adequately convey the storm’s fury, The National Weather Service could only issue a dire warning that its impact would be unknown.

Five days later, we know more. We know that it is still raining, that Harvey has claimed at least 31 lives and destroyed close to 50,000 homes, and that thousands of people are still stranded, waiting to be rescued from rooftops and stalled cars and second-floor windowsills, waiting for the water to recede.

(Photo: Bernice Emerge, of Houston, teared up while praying during an evening service at Woodlands Church, which is being used as a shelter. Credit Barbara Davidson for The New York Times)

My friend’s Facebook updates continue: “This will be a long, long night. I don’t usually ask for prayers, but that’s really all that anyone can do for us at this point. We cannot leave our town – everything is flooded. They are predicting .5-1 inch of rain per hour. Please keep us, Friendswood, surrounding areas and the entire city of Houston in your prayers.”

From afar we watch, horrified, desperate to help, but unsure what to do. We send prayers and donations of blood and money. We stop to count our blessings that we are safe in our homes and wish we had enough room for those who are soaked and scared, having lost everything. We find our better selves as Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy explained in her response to the earthquake in Haiti, that poetry is as powerful as prayer, that its language is where we find our humanity and perhaps when there is nothing else we can do:

Poetry is the music of being human. We turn to poetry at intense moments in our lives ~ when we lose people, or are bereaved, we look for a piece of music or a poem to read at the funeral, or when we fall in love we turn to poetry, or when children are  born. And I think that can happen at moments of public grief too, as well as personal. It is so close to prayer, it is the most intense use of language that there is. It is the perfect art form for public or private grief.

Learning that Harvey has made landfall in southwestern Louisiana, I am reminded of last year’s deadly storm, also unprecedented but unexpected, arriving like a hurricane with neither wind nor a name, but a relentless, record-breaking rain that over the course of four days wreaked havoc in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  According to Scientific American, it was a “once-in-a-1,000-year event” that killed 11 people and displaced tens of thousands. “Everybody in Baton Rouge knew somebody whose home got flooded.”

I am reminded of Sondra Honora who lost her home in the Louisiana flood, the home of her dreams and for which she saved for years. She started out dependent on government subsidies and used Section 8 vouchers to live in apartments and rentals, until in 2012 she could finally afford her own garden home with three bedrooms and a fireplace – her American dream off Old Hammond Highway. Getting the keys to that house was the best day of her life, and now it is gone.

Honore and her daughter, Ciera, are bus drivers for East Baton Rouge Parish. They have no flood insurance, no home, and no livelihood now that the buses are flooded as well. A poem, a prayer for her – forever –  from poet Sara Cress:

HOME SWEET HOME

I saved.
Not a penny spent
on frivolous things,
I forgot the taste of candy.
And when I walked in that front door I said, “finally!”
That floor under my bare feet was sweeter
than ten years of spun sugar.
Funny how it dissolves
like that
like one second
atoms switch around
and you fall right through.
They’re so nice here,
we don’t hear the rain,
they’re bringing us fruit,
and I laugh with the baby so I don’t cry.
But it isn’t my home,
now slowly melting down
to sweeten the sea.


 

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After Heaney & Looking Forward

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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 on the back-roads of South Derry, and I would be able to thank him for making me brave when I needed to be, for schooling me to love from afar the language and well-trodden lanes of Castledawson and Bellaghy, for “crediting marvels,” in the unlikeliest small things, and for inspiring me to set words down on a page, to light up this screen with them, so I might one day 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 that pitch-perfect poetry and wrap up my condolences in Heaney’s words.  When he died on this day four 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. He always had the right word right 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, magic and loss – between myth and reality. Like Van Morrison’s dweller on the threshold . . . 

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

On this fourth 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 after Heaney’s death, we learned his final communication with this world was in the form of a text – just two words for his wife from his hospital bed. Noli Timere. Two 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. For that, I am forever in his debt.

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How to Be A Racist – An Object Lesson

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We may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world

~ James Baldwin.


I came to Arizona in the late 1980s. Something of a cliché, considered part of the “brain drain,” I was a well-educated immigrant who had over-stayed her welcome in America and subsequently found a waitressing job. With my Northern Ireland accent and the right amount of naiveté about Arizona, I was the main source of amusement for many of the men who stopped by for a beer after their shift at a nearby manufacturing plant. Young and fearless, I charmed them with what they considered an Irish brogue, and the more alcohol I served them, the more they wanted to tell me all about their Irish roots. 

In the mornings, the bar was quiet, with only a few customers coming in after clocking out of the graveyard shift. One of them was Cliff. He was tall and handsome with a million dollar smile, and he was black. Like the other regulars, he teased me about my accent, asking endless questions about Ireland, if it was really that green over there or if I ate Lucky charms for breakfast or used Irish Spring soap. But most of all, how could it be that a nice girl like me with a college education was working in a dump like this?

One morning, Cliff showed up while the bartender was providing a hasty tutorial on how to make cocktails. She had decided it was high time I graduated from serving beer in colored cans to making mixed drinks, and by 10 o’clock that morning, I had a long row of dubious cocktails waiting for anyone willing to try them. By the time Cliff arrived, I was deep in a learning curve, familiarizing myself with popular highball cocktails that every bartender should know as well as the lowball cocktails favored by some of the locals, like the Mudslide which Bobby ordered for everyone in the bar on a Friday night. There were never enough shot-glasses.

Rather than serving up his regular bourbon,  I thought Cliff might like to try one of my creations. “What’s your pleasure, this morning?” I asked. “Maybe a Tequila Sunrise? What about a Salty Dog or a Long Island Iced Tea to sort you out for the rest of the day?” I don’t remember what he chose, but he thought it was very funny that I had written down all the recipes and that I was planning to learn them “by heart,” the way you would a catechism. While he drank one of my concoctions, pretending to like it, we chatted about nothing important – how hot it was already that summer morning and our respective plans for the weekend.

The jukebox was silent that morning – the only sounds were those of a dropped fork in the kitchen or a  “Godammit” when the owner realized he was missing some ingredient vital to the daily lunch special or that the cook had spiked her coffee with J & B scotch. Again. The bartender was counting money in the office, out of earshot, and at the other end of the bar were two men staring ahead and smoking as they shared a pitcher of Budweiser.

Chopping limes and slicing lemons, I chatted to Cliff, until during a pause in our conversation, I heard one of those men call out to the owner who was still out of sight, “Hey Bud, since when do you allow the help to talk to niggers?”

Again. “I said since when do you allow the help to talk to niggers?”

And I froze.

I felt fear. It was the same kind of fear I had felt years before, when I turned the page of the Belfast Telegraph newspaper to see a black and white photo of a young Catholic woman who had been stripped and tied to a lamp-post, hot tar and feathers poured on her roughly shorn head, because she had committed the crime of falling in love with a British soldier. Standing behind a bar in Arizona, I was back in 1970s Northern Ireland.

In ”Punishment,” harrowing and haunting to read, Seamus Heaney evokes a young woman who has been shorn, stripped, and killed – a primitive, barbaric act which he juxtaposes with the ‘tarring and feathering’ in the Northern Ireland of his day.  He speaks directly to the dead woman:

My poor scapegoat, I almost love you, but would have cast, I know the stones of silence.

I took a powerful lesson from Heaney’s poem, and I have since applied it to all manner of situations in my life, but I did not apply it that morning in the bar. I was young and foolish and frightened.  I cast the stones of silence.

Naively, I had thought that there would be no racism in 1980s America. Why would I think such a thing? Pondering this question, I am catapulted back to my adolescence, to Sunday evenings in our Dublin Road living room, when my parents and I – along with everyone else we knew – gathered around a tiny television to watch ‘Roots.’ We were horrified when Kunta Kinte was sold into slavery in America and whipped within an inch of his life for trying to escape. Aghast, we watched, night by night, yet we held onto the notion that just as the entire country seemed to be galvanized by the story unfolding on Roots, surely an entire country would subsequently adopt a kinder, gentler attitude.

Of Alex Haley’s story, James Baldwin writes:

Roots” is a study of continuities, of consequences, of how a people perpetuate themselves, how each generation helps to doom, or helps to liberate, the coming one–the action of love, or the effect of the absence of love, in time. It suggests, with great power, how each of us, however unconsciously, can’t but be the vehicle of the history which has produced us. Well, we can perish in this vehicle, children, or we can move on up the road.

That morning in a dive bar in Phoenix, Arizona, I couldn’t have been further away from Gambia, West Africa in 1750, Kunta Kinte’s place of birth. I couldn’t have been further away from the right thing to do. I chose not to stand up. I said nothing to those two men.  To Cliff, I said, “I’m sorry,” but I said it quietly, too quietly. 

Cliff said nothing to me, and in his eyes, I saw not anger but resignation. So with a look that told me he was “used to it,” he picked up his hat, put it on his head, stood up, and walked out the door. He left a $20 tip.

I never saw him again.

I am so sorry.

I am sorry I said nothing. I am sorry I did nothing. Older now – and wiser – I know better, and as Maya Angelou’s words have reminded me repeatedly over the years, “when you know better, you do better.”

So how will I do better today, almost 30 years later, as I watch the President of these United States defend the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville when it would be more presidential, more humane, to lead the nation in mourning the loss of young civil rights activist Heather Heyer, who died after a white nationalist used ISIS tactics to drive his car into the crowd? How will I do better as I listen to this President tell us that Robert E. Lee is basically the same as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and that there were “fine people” among those chanting ignorance and anti-Semitic rhetoric on the streets of Charlottesville? How will I do better, knowing that the President’s unscripted remarks have inspired praise from David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan? How will I do better as our President blames ‘many sides’ for what occurred this past weekend when I know that only one side –  one side – represents the same evil that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in World War II as they fought to protect the freedoms of a country that would permit its people to parade around a Virginian city, chanting “blood and soil,” dressed like the Nazis it once fought to destroy.

How will I do better in 2017?

How will we do better in order to move on up the road?

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A Moment of Silence for The Miami Showband

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People often say that music was harmless fun. It wasn’t. It must have terrified the terrorists. When people came to see us, sectarianism was left outside the door of the dancehall. They came in, they were brought together and they enjoyed the same thing. They looked at each other and thought, there’s not much difference here, and nature was doing its course. That’s the power of music and I think that every musician that ever stood on a stage, north of the border during those decades, every one of them was a hero.

~ Stephen Travers


It happened in the summer of my twelfth year, in the early hours of July 31, 1975. Five members of The Miami Showband  – affectionately known as the Irish Beatles – were heading home from a gig at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge. Their drummer, Ray Millar, had gone home to Antrim instead to stay with family members. On a narrow country road outside Newry, the band was flagged down by a group of uniformed men at what appeared to be a routine UDR (Ulster Defense Regiment) checkpoint. Such an incident was ‘normal’ in 1970s Northern Ireland, so there would have been no need to be alarmed.  But then the men in uniform ordered the band members out of their vehicle to stand by the roadside while the soldiers conducted a check of the back of the van.

miami3I don’t know at what point, standing there on the side of the road, The Miami Showband realized this was not a routine army checkpoint, that they would be the victims of a vicious and premeditated ambush carried out by members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). As they waited, two of the UVF men – later revealed as members of the Ulster Defense Regiment – planted a bomb in the back of the van. It exploded prematurely, killing both, and in the chaos that followed, the remaining UVF members opened fire, killing three band members.

There were reports that the handsome young lead singer, Fran O’Toole, was shot 22 times in the face. Twenty-two times. Vulnerable and on the ground, he begged for mercy from men who kept shooting.  Brian McCoy, shot nine times, was the first to die at the scene. Tony Geraghty was shot in the back – four times. Des McAlea and Stephen Travers survived the blast from the explosion that flung both of them into the air. McAlea suffered only minor injuries and somehow escaped into the night; Travers was seriously wounded and survived only by pretending to be dead. Later, he recalled the gunman kicking the four bodies to ensure they were all dead.

Forty-two years later, sitting in my sunny kitchen on the other side of the Atlantic, the shock and revulsion return, along with the fear I felt as details of the massacre unfolded in our newspapers and on the radio. Instantly, I  am transported to the kitchen of my childhood home on the Dublin road. My mother is ironing one of my father’s shirts, at the same time shaking her head in disbelief and muttering to God. It was unimaginable – these young men, Catholics and Protestants, darlings of the showband scene, in their prime and adored by thousands of fans north and south of the border,  slaughtered in the muck on a country road.

Naively, we had believed musicians were immune. The Miami Showband had represented what could be, its members and its audiences crossing all social, religious, and political boundaries. In his address to The Hague some years later, Stephen Travers would recollect his band as “a blueprint for social, religious, and political harmony.” But on that night in 1975, what happened to The Miami Showband left no doubt that musicians were just as much of a target as anyone else.  It became known as “The Day The Music Died,” but such a tagline does not convey the monstrosity of it, the chilling choreography behind it, or the harrowing legacy of it.


2015-07-28_lif_11471567_I4In the months and years following the Miami Showband massacre, musicians were afraid. Word on the street was that Northern Ireland’s musical life was over. The showband scene was over, and performers from the UK mainland were too scared to risk their safety. With this increased risk, performing in Northern Ireland became wildly expensive, the cost of insurance premiums soaring given the real threat of hi-jackings and bombings. Belfast became a ghost town. People stayed at home.

Our wee country had become a “no go” area. A place not to go to. Although I was only a child, I knew I wanted out.

Lovers of live music grew accustomed to canceled gigs, to more bombings and more shootings – all part and parcel of Northern Ireland living.  Performers were warned to stay away, and most took heed. A few – too few – kept going, like Rory Gallagher, who played Belfast’s Ulster Hall more than any other performer. How we loved him!

Rory Gallagher has once again returned to Belfast, at least he came, and for that we must thank him. Belfast has now become a graveyard for music. Concerts and big groups are a thing of the past…We want action now, for too long the groups in England haven’t given music where it can give the most help. Lennon tells us to give peace a chance, but has he visited us? All we want John ,baby, is the truth. Perhaps he is furthering the peace movements somewhere in Hyde Park. Perhaps the groups don’t want to make any sacrifices, maybe they are afraid, maybe they cannot stir themselves to help the people who need it most, who have no power to speak of.

excerpt from early 70’s Belfast underground paper,’Take One’.

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Like The Miami – and a former showband player himself – Rory would have known that when the music played, no one would have known that our country was in the grip of “The Troubles,” even as the bombs exploded in the city around him. Music was the alternative and in time, there would be a punk rock anthem proclaiming as such and a renewed sense that music could save us all –

When punk rock ruled over Ulster, nobody ever had more excitement and fun. Between the bombings and shootings, the religious hatred and the settling of old scores, punk gave everybody a chance to live for one glorious burning moment.

Joe Strummer, The Clash

That’s the power of music and those who make it.  Music is about hope – infinite hope – and it is about bringing us closer together. When asked about the men who murdered his friends, Des Lee stresses that there is no point in holding grudges for over four decades.  Instead, he asks that we never forget them, that we remember Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty, and Brian McCoy.

. . . we were just a bunch of innocent young musicians, doing our job. We weren’t interested in politics. We played everywhere, north and south. We just wanted to make people smile for a few hours. And that’s why Ireland should never be allowed to forget The Miami Showband.

I will never forget them.

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