Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A far bit east of Doonbeg

If you walk northeast a bit, maybe three miles, along the shallow dip that had surely been a carriageway back before the famine, there’s a whole lost village there, just stone walls and old hearths stained black by fires gone so long, and the remnants of walls that kept us all hungry no matter how hard we might work. And I walk there with the beagle bouncing alongside me, through misty rain, and under scurrying clouds, and in bright August sunshine, which is congenial enough to shine on us as we lie on the warm stones and breakfast on cheese and bangers left from last night.

The dog tramples the tall turf, turning seven circles before settling. I stretch and open one of the books in my pack. “I could risk blasphemy, Consecrate the cauldron bog, Our holy ground and pray, Him to make germinate,” and let myself slip out of consciousness and back across the years.

Broccan had lent the cottage to me. “The only thatchroofed satellite wireless home in the west of the country,” he told me. “The peat is piled under the eaves, sit in the smoke and write.” He had gone off to America for months, six at least, and I had come, of course, of course. The local was far enough to burn off most of the Guinness weight by the time I could get back. The air was filled with pre-industrial age scents. The colors of the stones of the place and the light slap of rain on the roof softened me. The way the light fell through the ancient glass allowed my vision to float. And the chapters poured into the laptop and slid through the air to the router and crossed the wire to the dish hidden behind the barn, and rushed via spacecraft to the editor. So I could live and write in a timeless suspension in which all history had merged.

I rouse the dog. She is older and likes to sleep but still runs like a puppy. We stroll back, following the carriageway abandoned a hundred and seventy years ago as everyone fled to America and the fortunes of the new world. Most got comfortable there. The crowds, the hustle, the drive, the desires. But not me. So I have come back the other way.

copyright 2006 by Ira Socol
poetry: Seamus Heaney - The Tollund Man

Monday, August 14, 2006


If, as your body twists in the water, you turn your head too far, you will slow down. If you turn it less than is necessary, the water will fail to clear your airway, and you will drown. If you take too many breaths in the length of the pool, you will slow down. If you take too few your muscles will find themselves without oxygen and you will slow down, or, you will drown.

It all operates along a very fine line.

The pool is fifty meters long. The fastest swimmers can cross this in about twenty or twenty-one seconds. In dead-out sprint, as in, the fifty-meter freestyle, even less. This is not just because they can give their absolute all in this situation, retaining no reserves for even a return trip, but because there is no turn required they need not convert the energy from their forward motion into the complex somersault required to change direction.

Changing direction slows you down. This is true in everything I know. Though kicking off the end of the pool speeds you up. Maximizing the use of mechanical advantage has allowed the human race to prosper.

I am shivering. I sit on a tile bench near the windows wanting the sunlight which floats through to warm me but it is either insufficient at this moment or I am chilled beyond redemption. It doesn't matter. I have tried to dry off and I have put sweats on, big gray old sweats instead of the blue and yellow warm-up suits that do not warm me up, especially when my crotch is wrapped in wet spandex and all of my caloric intake has been expended in the three races I have swum. Coach V. has placed a towel round my neck and two giant size Cadbury Fruit and Nut bars, my favorites, on the tile next to me and has spoken positive things, but none of that has helped either. I am cold. I am tired. I have no particular appetite. In the 4x200 relay that is coming up I am, right now, quite sure that I will drown. In the back of my eye I see this happening seventeen meters into my second return trip.

I will not make it back to the wall to touch. Johnny will not get to swim his anchor leg. He will either be angry, or be bitterly disappointed, or he will leap into the water, forfeiting the race by false start, and try to save me. I am not sure which. Without warning a phantom newspaper leaps into my vision, falling with a hallucinatory thud on the damp tile by my feet. "Swimmer Sweeps Championships, Drowns," a headline screams in the elegant Bodoni font of mid-twentieth century journalism. The newspaper is one that has ceased to exist decades before though I cannot tell if it is from here or somewhere far away.

Of course Coach V. has said positive things to me. I have won both my individual events and blew away the field on my leg of the 4x100. He wants one more star turn out of me today. So he is nice. If I were to help win the next one, or if I were to blow it, will not matter. He will have no reason to be positive an hour from now. Though I think he will be forced to be at least pleasant during the TV interview when I drown.

"He wasn't the brightest kid," he will say, "and he sure caused me grief," I imagine him giving just the hint of a chuckle here, "but put him in the pool and point him the right way and he was fast." It won't be much, but it will be the best Coach V. is capable of and I should be appreciative.

It is hard to say whether timing or angle is more important when you start. Getting off just as the gun sounds is vital but if your angle is too steep you slow down on the path of too deep a curve, something related to both physics and calculus, which are subjects that lie outside my realm of knowledge. If your angle is too shallow you will slow down in the friction of the rough water by the surface. There are so many ways to slow down and so few that will keep you moving at top speed.

Outside the window people are moving along a broad walkway of the kind that suggests a university campus. They are smart and beautiful people, dressed as if it is significantly warmer than it is. They are engaged in intense conversation, or stare with determination, or they glide by with the pride of those sure about their future.

I would prefer to walk more slowly. I would prefer to swim more slowly. I believe that by moving too fast I am shortening my life, though this would probably seem counter-intuitive to most. The best swimming in the world, for me, is a slow paddle off of a beloved shore. Parallel to the sand at Long Beach, from the Forty Foot down to Killiney, in the icy chop beyond Portstewart. No somersault turns either. As I approach the end of my path through the sea, I drift instead into a dead man's float, the sun on my back, the world essentially silent, my vision nothing but murky green streaked with light. This is the way I like water.

The race begins in thirty-six minutes. And despite all of my intentions, I am waiting.

copyright 2004-2006 by Ira Socol
image is from swim.ee "how to turn"

Saturday, August 12, 2006


The border rises out of the water in a place wholly as expected. The "British" side, as it is, Warrenpoint, Scottish-looking and a little bit urban with the castle-keep rising over the rivermouth, and the Republic side, somewhere east of Dundalk, as it is, green and Irish in that obvious way.

We stand in the field that smells of midsummer and a way of life a thousand years old and I point across the landscape and tell her this, and she smiles, and says, "sometimes you could just shut up and listen to the world," and I suppose that she might have a point.

These are false divisions, of course, created by mapmakers looking on from afar. Is a river a centerpoint as the French would tell you? Or a dividing line? The English split New Jersey from New York and Pennsylvania because they found rivers as dividers, but in Derry they ripped the Foyle from Donegal because it held a port they needed to control. So I guess, well, power does as power can do.

So now I am silent, and kneel down in the field, spreading the blanket before me, unpacking the bottled Guinness, the cheese, the thick brown bread, the tins of oysters and salmon. The wind rides across the top of the tall grasses, bringing whispers to both of us. She tries to apologize, "I do love listening to you, but sometimes I need to hear, well…" I stop her, holding my finger to her lips, trying without speaking to tell her there is nothing wrong.

This does not look like an international border to an American like her. They are used to walls and razor wire and armed security, and none of that is in view. I think about that. How Americans are scared of the present, and terrified of the future, and define the world always as "us" as opposed to "them." And how here we trust the future but fear the past, and though we surely have "them" – we are also desperate to find more of "us" – no matter what the others of "us" sound like or look like, because when you are fighting ghosts you need all the help you can get.

She spreads cheese on bread and puts salmon on top and puts it in my mouth. I open her Guinness for her, and take a long drink of my own, and light a cigarette, and inhale. I think of all that I could try to explain to her. How far memory goes back in places like this, how shared all our memory is, how this looks from this place which is not just here now, but which holds all of its history alive… but she is right. The whispering of the wind, the distant roll of the sea, the occasional scream of the gull, and the sound of her beating heart as I now lay down, my head against her chest. All this says more than enough.

copyright 2006 by Ira Socol

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Playground Game

He buries his face in hands that press against the huge old maple and begins to count. "One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi," as the kids scatter across the ancient playing fields. They run toward hiding spaces great or minimal, deep or shallow. Up in other trees, crouched behind stone walls, under the creaking bleachers, in clumps of overgrown brush. They will try their best but he will not look for them. As he moves up the number line, "Fourteen Mississippi, Fifteen Mississippi, Sixteen Mississippi," it is he that is fleeing. He imagines other places, different families, moments far away. He wishes a distant island, his father a fisherman who takes him out each morning onto the gray Atlantic. There is a warm fire on the hearth at home, and quiet, and safety. By the time he has reached the agreed upon number, "Twenty-Eight Mississippi, Twenty-Nine Mississippi, Thirty Mississippi," he has made his move. He yells nothing, and drifts gently away.

After ten minutes the kids emerge in confusion. They look for him until they get called in for supper. An hour or two later, the adults start their search.

copyright 2004-2006 by Ira Socol

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Under the Sky

She lived on Cliftonville Road up by the Botanic Garden and when I walked her home after that first date we sat on the grass in the middle of the Iona Circle, it was a surprisingly warm night for the season, and I listened to her tell me of growing up not eight blocks away, of having her whole family within the same postal code, of how she remembers walking down the very block she now lived on when she was but five or six holding her ma's hand, or her aunt's, or, a little older, running with sisters and cousins toward the gardens on a summer afternoon.

Above us the clouds split apart and Canis Major rose above us, the big dog ruling over our Atlantic sky. From somewhere to the east the sound of someone practicing the violin, Mozart's Concerto in D Major, came toward us on slippered feet.

I said, "Sounds like the most wonderful family." She said, "Aye, but, you know, there are always things." I said, "That would certainly be true."

copyright 2006 by Ira Socol