Still Hanging On

He died many years ago. Yet my times with him remain vivid. I wrote this story in 2009, long after Michael passed, and recently included it in my book. I can think of no more perfect testament to Ireland’s cauldron culture. Bless you Michael. 

You Might Consider Hanging on to That

I carried that scrap of paper in my wallet for years after Michael died. One word, Meitheal (meh hul), he had written in a shaky hand. Perhaps due to the strength of the local moonshine in the Irish coffees he poured for us. More likely due to the encroaching cancer in his body.

Meitheal: a spirit of community. An ideal he believed in passionately.

Well I remember the first time we stayed at Michael and Rita’s B&B. Their dining room had a sweeping view of Bantry Bay, the sky filled with birds soaring and diving and riding the thermals. So on the second morning, we brought our binoculars with us to breakfast. Michael was delivering two plates of food from the kitchen when he stopped at the end of our table. He looked at the two plates and then at the binoculars. Then back at the two plates and again at the binoculars. “Well now,” he said, “I know we’ve a reputation for small breakfasts, but I’m not thinking you will need the likes of those to find your food.”

That was the first summer of Michael’s retirement from teaching, a decision forced by his declining health. A leaving that took him all too soon from the young lives and families he touched so profoundly in a two-room schoolhouse in the small village not far from where he was born and raised. A scholar, poet, wit, and gentle spirit, his eyes danced when he shared stories from his teaching years. Those generations of children and parents were his neighbors and community, and there were no limits around his caring for them.

Over subsequent visits, Michael and I became friends, spending long evening hours in deep philosophical wanderings. It was during just such an evening with Michael sharing stories from his youth when I asked him if he would have us return to those earlier times. Hard times indeed for the Irish. Times of extreme poverty and harsh social repression. Times he had lived and knew well.

His answer came without hesitation. “Oh, yes,” he said, “because people took care of each other. I think that’s getting lost altogether these days. You see, everyone was considered important. Even the man who was only capable to sweep the village streets. He and his labor were both valued. And when a farmer was sick, the whole community turned out to take in the harvest for him or put a new roof on his barn. Whatever was needed. That was the way of it.”

“That is Meitheal,” he said, writing the word and handing me the scrap of paper. “You might consider hanging on to that.”

Thank you, Michael. I am hanging on to that. May we all hang on to that.


A Cauldron Culture

When I was in Ireland someone mentioned that the Irish are the most charitable people in the world. While totally believable, it turns out they aren’t.

However in periodic surveys conducted on global giving, the Irish seem to consistently rank near the top for making donations to charitable organizations, volunteering, and helping strangers. In a 2013 survey, the Irish were the most charitable people in Europe and in a 2014 survey, they ranked third in the world. This is especially remarkable considering Ireland has not only had to contend with the global recession and housing market crash, it has also suffered painful austerity measures enforced by the European Union as part of the bailout package.

Their comment on all this? “Connecting with people and a generosity of spirit is inherent in our culture.”

Indeed. Generosity and hospitality are embedded in Irish history and heritage. When the Tuatha Dé, Ireland’s spiritual ancestors, arrived they brought with them four sacred gifts. One was the Cauldron of Plenty that supplied an endless bounty of food and drink, and from which no one went away hungry. This was arguably the seed of a cauldron culture in which these vessels would become mythical and legendary sources of abundance, wisdom, inspiration, poetry, and artistry. Whether actual or metaphorical, the essential nature of these cauldrons is reflected in actions of the Irish people through history into modern times.

I write this as the US congress just passed a horrific ‘health care’ bill. It’s beyond vile, but it’s just the latest in a spumy cauldron of toxic and hateful legislation from which millions of Americans will go away sick, homeless, uneducated, hungry, and living in pollution. Struggling to understand how these politicians could perpetrate such inhumane conditions for their people, I have come to understand that they don’t think of most Americans as their people. They don’t consider most Americans to be deserving of a hand out or a hand up or basic human rights. If you are sick, unemployed, and struggling financially it’s your fault. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Every man for himself. I got mine, you get yours.

Ours is a history and heritage of rugged individualism. It is a ‘me’ culture, not a ‘we’ culture. There are no cauldrons of plenty in our mythological landscape. If only there were. If only we were a cauldron culture.

Judith –

What Are We Petaling?

Daffodils were blooming everywhere. By the side of the road, in front yards, in fields, and in this flower box in front of the cottage. I would discover that in Ireland those petals have a special purpose.

As I drove past the local primary school, I noticed buckets of them being unloaded from cars and taken into the school house. As I drove through the village, I noticed bunches being sold on the streets. Everywhere I looked people were wearing bright yellow daffodil lapel pins.

It was March 24th. Daffodil Day. A day when, according to the Irish Cancer Society website’s comment about this year’s event, thousands of people came together to stop cancer by selling daffodils on the streets. Yet  another opportunity for charitable giving. In this case a charitable cause close to my heart.

My thoughts turned to my home state of Washington where we hold an annual Daffodil Festival. Started in 1934 as a celebration of the agricultural industry in our area, the festival’s major event is a parade in which thousands of flowers are used to decorate massive floats. Hundreds of people participate in this community celebration from decorating the floats to marching in the parade.

While both festivals celebrate community, there is a striking difference in underlying purpose. On one hand, the Irish are sharing the Earth’s abundance to make a difference in people’s lives. On the other hand, people are using the Earth’s bounty as a display of abundance – our abundance.

For me it begs the question. What are we petaling?

Judith –

It’s All In The Name

Furnishing the Irish cottage has been a great adventure. Aside from the singular and notable trip to Ireland’s only IKEA store located in Dublin, most of the furnishings, right down to the dishes, have come from second hand stores.

But in Ireland they are not second hand stores or thrift shops. They are charity shops and they are named for the charity they benefit. In most cases there is no other name over the door. It’s all about the charities. It’s all about charity.

It’s not about thrift or value and my ability to get a good deal. It’s not about me.

It’s not about the second hand or gently used items sold in the shops because it’s not about the stuff. It’s about supporting an important organization and cause.

Cultural perspectives and values are expressed in so many ways, some obvious and some more subtle. In this case the Irish value of supporting everyone in the community is all in the name. In the name of charity.

Judith –

A Broom & A Beer

Buying a broom. Not anything I’ve been concerned with in the twenty years I’ve been traveling to Ireland. But with the cottage, my concerns have changed.

Gort is a small village with a population well under 3,000. However I was able to find much of what was needed for the cottage. It was just a matter of knowing where to look. And a matter of knowing the difference between a hardware store and a builder supply store.

Hardware stores. Gort has two. Each about the size of your living room. This photo isn’t one of them, but it could be. Limited inventory facilitates quick and easy purchases. Unless, of course, you decide to have a pint.

Hardware stores with a bar are now rare. But Gort has one. Walking into Keane’s past the dust bins, pots and pans, dishes, lightbulbs, clocks, gardening trowels, and requisite Holy Mother wall fonts, the beer taps come into view above the bar. They are equally delighted to serve up a sip of whiskey. 

There was a time when the pace was slower. There was a time when coming into town to purchase supplies warranted a bit of time to catch up on the news and gossip. There was a time when the bar was regularly full. Not so much anymore. 

Paint and brushes, lumber, hooks for hanging clothes, a hammer and a tape measure were all to be found at the builder supply store. Just up the road, down a narrow lane, and next to the train station. A great place, to be sure. But no brooms. And no beer.

Judith –

Raking Muck

filth, dirt, or slime

a state of chaos or confusion
decaying vegetable matter

 It’s really all about the nature of the muck. 

I was recently in Ireland for three weeks working on the cottage we purchased last fall. It was such a gift to be away from the palpable anxiety and tension that so pervades our lives these days. Yes, the Irish are well aware of what is unfolding in our country and they are horrified. But there is not the constant presence of fear and anger hanging in the air. 

While I was there we took an afternoon to begin cleaning up and reclaiming a holy well not far from the cottage. Adjacent to the impressive ruins of Corcomroe Abbey, this is the only well in Ireland designated on maps as a Sheela-na-Gig well. 

It was a glorious day and a sublime piece of time gently raking away the vegetable matter…some decaying weeds and some watercress that would be a delicious addition to dinner…to uncover the deep poolI could feel the presence of ancestral energies and delighted in the images that floated through my consciousness. Images of ancient ceremonies at this sacred source.

Here in the States it seems we are raking muck only to find more muck. Filth, dirt, slime, chaos, and confusion. It seems endless. It’s spiritually and emotionally exhausting. But I don’t plan to stop any of this muck raking. These are treacherous times that call for our attention. Yet I am reminded that in this work I must remember to touch the source. To find my own deep pool of spiritual power and grounding. For that is what will sustain me.

Judith –

Beltaine. Earth Fire.

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.
Arundhati Roy

May 1st. And it is now summer on the Celtic calendar. The Earth is awakening. Her water and her fire are bringing forth new life. 

I so appreciate the constancy of her rhythms as she moves through her seasons and cycles. Grounding in this wisdom, I welcome the emerging new life. 

May this Earth fire burn in all of us. May it sustain us in these times. May we know that another world is possible.

Judith –