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?



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’.


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.



P.S. Moxie is No Match for Cancer


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I don’t know John McCain. I don’t know if he cried when he learned of his cancer diagnosis. I don’t know how he feels about expectations of him to beat it because, after all, he has proven – in the context of war – that he is a fighter: “Senator John McCain has always been a fighter. Melania and I send our thoughts and prayers to Senator McCain, Cindy, and their entire family. Get well soon,” says Donald Trump.  From Barack Obama, “John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.” McCain’s demonstrated toughness, his heroism in Vietnam, has absolutely no bearing on how cancer will treat him. It’s enough to be handed a devastating diagnosis without also being told you can beat it. What if you don’t? Does that mean you didn’t battle hard enough?  Moxie alone is simply no match for the disease.

Cancer. When I heard it got me, I cried as though I had just found out that someone dear to me had died. Inconsolable at first, I assumed those great fat tears flowed from the sheer fright of a disease that has no cure. Five years later, I know my sorrow was more about wondering how to proceed toward the half-century mark without the woman I used to be. Oddly, nobody else seemed to notice she had vanished. Not even the nurse who delivered the news to me in much the same way as my mother might call to tell me a childhood friend or a distant relative has died – reverent, hushed, kindly.

Even today, if I shut my eyes, I can just discern the shadow of my former self, standing up and walking out the door, mortally offended by that nice Breast Cancer Navigator informing my husband and me that I had cancer.

Conspiratorial and quiet, reminiscent of whispered speculations about a cause of death when all the evidence points to hard living, on and on she talked. Her carefully chosen words filled my ears with fear, even as she stressed that what I was hearing that day in her dimly-lit office was definitely not a death sentence. Nonetheless, I heard a crack. The sound of a life altered that even so many months and years later,  has me wondering how I should respond to Muriel Rukeyser‘s question:

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

Is it because it is invisible, like the actor who, having exited the stage, falls silent and slips behind the scenes until the encore?  Or is it the treatment that belies cancer’s smugness, mine so cleverly concealed in 1,825 innocent-looking pills that I promised to consume over the next five years? Whatever it is, I soon found that many of my friends and acquaintances were skilled in deftly averting their eyes from mine and not talking about it. In retrospect, what ailed me was easy to avoid – the persistent and gnawing dread, brief but boiling hot flashes due to a chemical menopause caused by Tamoxifen, aching joints, nausea, and fatigue. All these can swoop below the radar in a way that a head made vulnerable and bald by chemotherapy cannot.  What had I expected? The details of my pathology report on a perpetual crawl across the bottom of the CNN screen so no one would forget about me? My name spelled out in pink lights across the front of a Safeway supermarket in October? No. I craved good old-fashioned sympathy, long phone conversations into the night, and endless cups of tea. I did not want people telling me I was brave or in their prayers or that cancer was a gift or that it was part of God’s plan for me or that there must have been something – something –  I did or didn’t do that contributed to the cancer that was crashing in on me and turning everything upside down, inside out.

I wanted home. I wanted my mother, but she was too far away. I wanted to hear the comforting colloquialisms that pour from rainy, rural Northern Ireland, phrases that remain elusive in the desert southwest of these United States, its mountains baking in the predictable sunshine. Home brings the language I know and love, like the words of a neighbor from my childhood that leaped from a Facebook page: “It must be so difficult to cope with that burden when you are so far from your mammy. I’m sure she is all you want at the minute, as always, when trouble visits your door.”  When trouble visits your door … when I hear that phrase, I am instantly 12 years old again, in the house where I grew up, stretched out on the good settee, trying to concentrate on a new Enid Blyton book rather than the blistering chicken pox my mother tried to soothe with great chunks of cotton wool saturated in Calamine lotion.

For me and the woman I used to be, cancer became the scariest thing in my life, because, like every scary thing that actually happens, it had never crossed my mind. Nor had the death of my husband exactly two years following my diagnosis. Given this trauma, you would think I no longer waste precious minutes fretting over things that most likely will never happen – but I do.

So cancer happened, and I wanted everyone to feel as sorry for me as I did for myself. I wanted to howl about the unfairness of it all at a no-holds-barred pity party. I did not want to be a warrior with a pink ribbon tattoo.  I could not have predicted the impact of the let-down, placated by people I consider my friends who told me I had no need to worry because I was strong and a fighter and someone to whom God would give only as much as I could handle. I was told I should be grateful for my good fortune because I had the “good cancer.” I was on the pig’s back, beyond lucky to be the beneficiary of what they deemed a fine consolation prize – what they considered a tummy tuck and a boob job following the amputation and reconstruction of the right breast I wish I still had.  I recall a lunch time conversation during which a colleague congratulated me on still looking like myself – “No one would ever know you had cancer” –  and five minutes later someone who barely knew me chided me when she found out I wasn’t “doing chemo,” as if it were something akin to laundry or a pile of dishes or sit-ups. There was the woman who told me to basically shut up and just get on with it. She told me to “put my big girl panties on,” with a nod to God because, you know, I could handle what He had given me. There were others who have still to utter the word C-A-N-C-E-R in my presence, let alone inquire about how I have fared with it all. I make excuses for them, guilty that I make them uncomfortable, showing up in the world every day, reminding them that cancer gets people like the person I used to be, people like them. I envy their good health. More guilt.

So the dance continues. If I don’t mention it, you won’t mention it, and maybe it will go away. Or maybe it won’t, and then what will we do? Will we swallow the words we are too scared to say and instead spit out tired cliches about doing battle and platitudes about the power of positive thinking? Trickier, I suspect, to ignore the recurrence of cancer, to feign indifference to it, once it has been roused from its slumber. What do you do, especially now that they have bestowed the ‘survivor’ mantle upon you?

According to the National Cancer Survivors Day website:

a “survivor” as anyone living with a history of cancer – from the moment of diagnosis through the remainder of life. National Cancer Survivors Day affords your community an opportunity to demonstrate that it has an active, productive cancer survivor population.

Was I surviving before I discovered the lump myself? Is that how we would describe my living – my life – before it was officially declared “surviving?” Is that the label we would ascribe to it, after pronouncing as cancer, the disease that flourished, undetected for as many as 7 – 10 years, defying four mammograms, hiding in tissue no one had bothered to advise me was dense? Or is there another word for what I was doing before the diagnosis? A better word?  Was I formerly a more active and productive member of the population? Trying to find the right word, I stumbled across a jarring Times of India headline Gutsy fighters took on cancer, and won. Took on? Took on Cancer? Won? Those who have been killed by cancer, are they “less gutsy” than the rest of us? Losers?

Of all the words that no longer connote for me what they once did, “survivor” is the one that leaves me entirely flummoxed. As I have mused previously, the diagnosis has forever changed certain words for me – “staging” I no longer immediately associate with the theater; “fog” I am more apt to attach to a state of cognitive loss rather than one of Van Morrison’s misty mornings or that cloud that often obscures Pacific Coast Highway on a summertime road trip; and, “cure” of course is no longer the idiomatic “hair of the dog that bit you” but a terribly elusive thing all wrapped up in a pink ribbon. Even “sentinel,” which was reserved, until cancer came calling, for a lonely cormorant perched on a post in the shallow waters of sleepy Morro Bay. I now know sentinel as the first node to which cancer cells are most likely to spread from a primary tumor. Until one of my post-surgery appointments, “infusion” was something done to transform olive oil into a gourmet gift. But because I had turned left instead of right upon leaving my oncologist’s office, I missed the exit and instead found myself on the threshold of the infusion suite, a room I didn’t even know was there. Feeling as though I had intruded, I fled. But not before I had registered a row of faces of people sicker than I. In one microscopic moment, I made eye contact with a woman and wondered if perhaps she was cold because, as I turned away, I noted a quilt on her lap. I turned away and thought of Shakespeare’s “enter fleeing” stage direction. Ashamed. Guilty.

For a year or two, I told myself I was beginning to make some kind of order out of my life since cancer. Or my life with cancer. Or my surviving cancer.  I was learning to make room for it, to make sense of it no less. Well, that was a bit premature, wasn’t it? Cancer makes no sense at all.

I do not feel gutsy. Nor do I feel like a winner. Nor am I comfortable with being described as a survivor. What then? I am a cancer patient who still shows up for her scans and blood tests. Such things do not impinge on my life to the extent they would if the disease were more advanced – in other words, if it spreads. And it might. That’s just the way it is.

A profound sense of guilt accompanies this awareness.  It confounds me and reminds me of growing up in Northern Ireland – at a safe distance. Except for the time when our kitchen window shook because a bomb had exploded somewhere close by, or the time a bombhh exploded outside Halls Hotel. Or another time when my brother, as a new journalist, had to interview the grandmother of three little boys murdered, burned to death on July 12, 1998. Richard, Mark and Jason, just eleven, nine, and seven years old, had been asleep when a petrol bomb was thrown through the window of their home. Or that Saturday night in Belfast, when my college friend Ruth and I returned to her brother’s house where we were staying, only to find out that her car had been stolen and set ablaze as a barricade on the other side of the city. Strange that cancer has taken me back to these places so many times, and to things I haven’t thought about in years . . .

In May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast, based on his interviews with the people who lived there, Tony Parker makes the unsettling but astute observation that those born and brought up in Northern Ireland have a mutual need to know, from the start, about a person’s background, so they can proceed safely in the dialogue, the longer relationship, without saying the wrong thing, “the wrong word.” The schools we attended, our last names, the way we pronounce an “H” all became clues to help establish “who we are.” “Derry” or “Londonderry?” “The Troubles,” “the struggle, or “The Irish Question?” “Ulster” or “The Six Counties?” In the country of my birth and in cancer country, I find that myth features prominently, in particular, the myth that victims have in some way, brought it upon themselves. The calendar takes on a new significance, too. We could fill a calendar with anniversaries, those of Bloody Sunday, the bombing of Omagh and Enniskillen, Internment, the Twelfth of July. Literally untouched by these, but changed nonetheless. A survivor? The images are indelible. Iconic. Father Daly waving a blood-stained white handkerchief, the carnage on Market Street in the heart of Omagh, orange sashes, bowler hats, Lambeg drums, and The Guildford Four. In the end, I suppose every day marks an anniversary of something.

On the question of language, the right words to use, there is no easy answer. Within terrorism, within cancer, and the respective wars waged against both, are words and phrases that seem to sanitize and even glamorize the suffering and pain, that hide the horror and heartbreak visited upon ordinary people going about their daily lives. I am thinking again of County Down writer, Damian Gorman whose words I rediscovered not too long ago while ruminating on the complexities of cancer, the politics of its lexicon. He describes the bombs, bullets, the “suspect incendiary devices” all too familiar in 1980s Northern Ireland as far less deadly than the “devices of detachment” its people used to distance themselves from the violence. Aware of it, yet removed from it.

“I’ve come to point the finger
I’m rounding on my own
The decent cagey people
I count myself among …
We are like rows of idle hands
We are like lost or mislaid plans
We’re working under cover
We’re making in our homes
Devices of detachment
As dangerous as bombs.” 

Detachment is dangerous, but perhaps it is easier. Pondering the metaphors of battle that have been applied to the John McCain story, I find myself drawn back to the day before my surgery. In my mind’s eye, I see the kind radiologist who said my name looked into my eyes and said, “I’m so sorry you’re here,” right before he shot three painful injections of radioactive dye directly in and around the nipple of the right breast that would be removed the next day. I wince, even now, writing about it. But what I remember most and more than the sting of those injections is the genuine kindness of that radiologist right before he administered them, and that nothing is stronger than the human heart.

Senator McCain, “I’m so sorry you’re here.” .






“madiba magic” ~ once in a lifetime


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Men and women, all over the world, right down the centuries, come and go. Some leave nothing behind, not even their names.

~ Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013)


Not you, Nelson Mandela. You went into the world with boldness and made your mark on it.  Madiba will ring out forever.

In June of 2013, I wrote of news that you were gravely ill. Reports poured out of Pretoria, South Africa that you were on life support. We held our breath, not wanting to accept that you were frail at 94, ill, and nearing the end of your life. In my mind’s eye, I could see you only at the beginning of your life as Mandela the free man who stepped onto the world’s stage in 1990 after spending 27 years behind bars.

In the darkest days of Apartheid, no one – other than Mandela himself – could have imagined the man in that tiny cell as the future President of his country, that he would one day stand among rock stars and royalty and popes and presidents to advocate for democracy and justice, to inspire a vision of peace that transcended race and creed, that he would matter to so many people and that he would make so many people matter. People like me.

Mandela mattered to me because he represented what could be.  Like Martin Luther King‘s dream of what America could be and like the peace once envisioned for Northern Ireland by Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, Mandela’s vision of South Africa as a democratic rainbow-nation inspired the first all-race democratic election, moving more than 17 million black South Africans to vote for the first time.  Such a sight to behold, even on a tiny television screen on the other side of the world – a reminder that anything can happen, that Seamus Heaney‘s hope and history can rhyme.

For my 24th birthday not long before I emigrated to the United States, a boyfriend surprised me with a ticket to Paul Simon’s Graceland concert in Dublin.  Boisterous and beautiful, the performance sparkles still in my memory as one that transcended the ugliness of apartheid. Simon had been and is still widely criticized for performing in South Africa, but how could I fault him for accepting an invitation from black South African musicians to collaborate on some of the most hopeful and uplifting music ever created.  Surely, that glorious music represented the “days of miracle and wonder” that were possible in the heart of Nelson Mandela or, years earlier, in the universal dream of Martin Luther King. In accepting a Grammy award for the album, Simon said of his fellow musicians and friends:

They live under one of the most oppressive regimes on earth today, and still they are able to produce music of great power, nuance and joy, and they have my respect for that.

photo (75)Simon was also one of the first people Mandela invited to South Africa. I imagine the smile spreading across Mandela’s face, showing he was no longer a prisoner – not merely because the bars had been removed, but because he had left bitterness and rancor behind. Not everyone did. The late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had deemed Mandela a terrorist, speaking for most of her party. I remember well, when the Iron Lady took office, her strident refusal to enforce sanctions on apartheid while much of the world was doing so. Her policy of “constructive engagement” with the country’s white minority government polarized her such that following her death, there were reports of only a few tears shed in South Africa.

As young university students in 1984, we sang along with The Specials urging those who could to “Free Nelson Mandela.”  How could we not? His release was a moral imperative; it was the right thing to do against a racist regime. We were young and full of hope for a better future, and it was through that lens that Thatcher and others in her party appeared resolute in their support of white rule which seemed only to prolong Mandela’s imprisonment in that tiny cell.

On the other side of the argument, there were those, including De Klerk, who felt that “Thatcher correctly believed that more could be achieved through constructive engagement with his government than international sanctions and isolation of the South African government.”

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. It always does.

When Mandela walked out of jail, a joyous crack was heard all over the world. While enormous challenges lay ahead and even more bloodshed, apartheid would eventually come to an end. Together, De Klerk and Mandela would rise up to be honored with the Nobel Prize for Peace for their shared vision of a South Africa without apartheid, of a democratic nation. Perhaps this would be the example for other countries beleaguered by bigotry and bitterness, proof positive that it is possible to sustain humanity in a world defined by brutal divisiveness.

Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award inspired by fellow Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney’s “From the Republic of Conscience,” was presented to Mandela in 2006. Perfect then that Heaney would be the first to congratulate Mandela thus:

To have written a line about “hope and history rhyming for Mr. Mandela in 1990 is one thing . . . to have the man who made them rhyme accept the Award inspired by my poem is something else again.

At the beginning of the summer of 2013, I imagine Seamus Heaney was vexed over the thought of a world without Mandela. I think we all were. I remember my husband and I talking over coffee about Mandela’s charisma and fortitude, his inestimable influence –  the “Madiba magic” that changed the world. We were sad that Mandela’s time with us was coming to an end. I didn’t want to believe it, and turned to the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the way I still do in the in-between times.

And then, just six months later, Nelson Mandela was gone. Seamus Heaney was gone. My husband was gone. Gone. Like three shooting stars – startling, beautiful, gone.

For a time, it felt like the world might end.

“From the Republic of Conscience” by Seamus Heaney


When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.


Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office –
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.


I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.