November 21, 2022
Ancestors. Of course the common characteristic they all share is being dead. Beyond that, they run the gamut from noble to nefarious and inspiring to insipid and not all are worthy of our attention.
The ancestors I write about and connect with share another common characteristic. In life, they held a vision of a higher and greater good, of being in right relationship with the Earth, the sacred, and in community. They accumulated and assimilated wisdom throughout their lives and generally gave voice to what they had gathered when they were elders. They were the wisdom keepers and their legacy is a treasure of insight to guide our way in the world.
Michael was a bright shining. He died more than a decade ago but for some reason has been much on my mind lately. Michael and the glass flower.
When I first started staying at Michael and Rita’s B&B in Glengarriff, carry on luggage was not part of my travel protocol and so I had loads of room to take take gifts. It was the year after Mt. St. Helens erupted when many local glass artists were blowing pieces from the ashes. It was one of these, a yellow flower, that I took to Michael and Rita.
I was stunned when, after Michael died and I went to the graveyard to pay my respects, I saw that yellow glass flower placed at the base of his headstone. It was the only decoration which, given that most graves in Ireland hold many, was rare. I was beyond touched. It’s that image that has been coming back to me lately. Why the glass flower was chosen I have no idea. But what comes to me is that there is always a flower of wisdom to be created from the ashes of ancestral wisdom.
Michael’s wisdom? There was so much that flowed from him. I’ve included below the story I wrote about Michael in my Legacy book. I know many of you will have read this, but it’s always good to revisit wisdom stories. Meitheal. I have hung on to this as Michael counseled and it’s very present for me as I plan for the Doolin Gatherings next September because that sacred sense of community, woven with love and music and myth, is a wisdom we will explore deeply with the elder wisdom keepers and through stories of the ancestors. There will be flowers.
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.”