Sunday, August 26, 2012

In Conclusion: The Wisdom of Charlie Gardner

Thousands of miles, churches visited beyond count, music of every conceivable style, stories from people who are still faithful to the vision of the Catholic Church – and stories from those who had abandoned their faith as well.

From the very beginning, we were on a pilgrimage, not a trip. And the distinctions between these two words are enormous. We have been looking for different things, listening to other stories, searching for experiences that the ordinary traveler might not be looking for.

Weeks and weeks ago, we were in Rome, having braved the summer heat and walked all the way from the Basilica of Saint John Lateran to the lovely section of the city known as Trastevere. We had gone there to visit two people with Notre Dame connections, Paolo Mancinelli and Charlie Gardner, members of the S'ant Egidio community in Rome.

Midway through a delightful evening dinner together, we got on to the topic of pilgrimage. And, true to the night's animated conversations, we all had things to say about what it means to be a pilgrim in contemporary Europe.

And at a certain point in the conversation, Charlie put forward this remarkable, simple observation: "Tourists," he said... "tourists demand, but pilgrims are grateful."

I've thought of Charlie's insightful comment a lot over the consequent weeks of our journey through Europe. Over and over again, we have seen this observation of tourists' demands played out. And we have also seen what jeopardy is before many places of pilgrimage at present, places like Notre Dame in Paris and Mont Saint Michel, both sites that are thoroughly inundated with tourists.

How these places continue to walk the line between an attraction and a place of prayer is not something I can influence. But what Michele and I could influence, every day of our travels, was the disposition we ourselves carried with us when visiting these holy places.

We kept Charlie's words before us, almost like a daily mantra. We remained dedicated to a daily stance of gratitude, whether it be for food (even though we didn't know what it was, or how to pronounce it), the weather, a crazy set of road directions, or a simple glass of red wine. "It's an adventure," Michele would exclaim, "Let's keep laughing!" Gratitude and laughter are close friends, and we made sure they stayed good companions through our journey.

In the end, we visited five different nations: Ireland and Scotland with the Folk Choir, and then, the two of us traveling to France, Italy, Switzerland, far into the West of Ireland and then back to Edinburgh. Throughout that time, I became convinced that, even in the midst of an overwhelming culture that speaks to the contrary, humanity cannot escape its need to make sacred journeys. I am more certain of this than ever before, and I saw signs of it, no matter how many tourists, no matter how spiritually compromised the environment. As my friend Jerry Galipeau puts it, simply and directly, "people still gotta sing, people still gotta pray." To that list I would add, "people still need to journey."

America has gotten pretty good, over the years, at stripping whatever is left of holiness and, instead, offering a cheap secularization of the same. Witness was has happened with many of our feasts: Christmas, New Year's, Easter, and the like. In their stead, we have been offered a cheap, one-dimensional, fast-food approach to festivity. Instead of a crèche, we get a weirdo in a red jump suit. Instead of the jaw dropping reality of an empty tomb, we get a bunny and some candy. And somehow, our culture accepts this.

The stripping away of the sacred could be said of journeying. In earlier years, we used to make pilgrimage. And now we travel. We travel as tourists, and, just as Charlie said, we simply make demands. But where has gone the sense of joy, the sense of wonder, the sense of gratitude in our movements from place to place? There is, indeed, much to ponder over this landscape.

I am going to continue to write. It has been a humbling thing to watch how so many people have been interested in my commentary. That commentary will shift now – back home to Notre Dame (though there will be another brief adventure with the Folk Choir in Dublin over the next ten days). My observations about young people and their hunger for a spiritual life is only heightened by the wanderings of the past few weeks.

So to all the Charlie Gardners of the world, I would offer this encouragement: let us keep making pilgrimage! Let us keep being grateful. And let us not demand... but be joyful along the way.

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Location:En route, Aer Lingus Flight #133 from Dublin

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Paper on the Fridge

Delta Flight 4016 touched down at 2:55PM Sunday afternoon, August 12, at the South Bend Regional Airport. When it did, Michele and I looked at one another, and gave each other a high five and a kiss on the cheek.

"We did it!" she said.

We did indeed. We were on pilgrimage for two and a half months, and before that, on tour with the Folk Choir for another two weeks. We had actually seen through an itinerary that had been painstakingly constructed back in November.

While planning the pilgrimage, we took into account temperatures (who would want to be in Rome in August?), sites of musical and ecumenical interest (Taizé in Burgundy), places that had historic and national interest (Omaha Beach and Caen's Peace Memorial).

We spent significant periods of time with monastic communities (Tamié in the Savoie) and with priestly communities that shared our vision for evangelization in Ireland (the Irish Pontifical College in Rome).

And we went to places far off the beaten path, places that would've been impossible to take the entire choir (like Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, and the Aran Islands off the coast of County Clare).

Back at home on Monday evening, I took a piece of paper off the front door of the fridge. It was the map that contained all four phases of our trip, the map that we had constructed at the end of last year.

"Look at this," I said to Michele. "Eight months ago, this was just a bunch of lines of a map."

They aren't lines anymore. They are now part of a living history of our pilgrimage of faith.

There is a profound difference between travelers and pilgrims. Travelers, I think, have a different attitude upon their arrival back home. Perhaps it's one of "what's next," or sorting out mail, or looking at kind of shape the lawn is in. Now, we did all those things, too, believe me, upon crossing our threshold. But often, over the past few days, we will hear one another say "Can you believe we did that?. And a sense of wonder would overtake us.

Maybe it's this pervasive sense of wonder that defines a sense of travels taken, of pilgrimage accomplished. Wonder and admiration are always signs of the holy in our lives. That, and gratitude.

We traveled thousands of miles. Never once was anything lost or stolen. There were no messy luggage scenarios. Our flights were just about always on time, and we never encountered a pickpocket or a thief.

But this I do know – the lessons and experiences that we hold between us are only beginning to be unpacked. And we better unpack them well, because all too soon (a fortnight's time), we will be traveling back to Dublin with the Folk Choir!

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Location:Woodhurst Rd, Granger, IN, United States

Monday, August 13, 2012

Rosslyn and the Infamous Clamshell

On one of our last days in Scotland, we were graciously accompanied past the outskirts of Edinburgh, into the green rolling hills of Scotland, to a very curious little church in the middle of nowhere. Our destination: Rosslyn Chapel.

Now, perhaps you have heard of this tiny little church. It is the place, infamously, where Dan Brown concludes his mildly successful (!) novel, The DaVinci Code. I'm not going to comment on any of that (save for the amazement that so many people could get worked up over what was admittedly a work of fiction). Yet it is a fascinating place, and there were a few memories of the visit that bear repeating, if only to muse over them with a sense of wonder.

Entering this tiny chapel, the sense of architectural mystery is tangible. Patterns of flowers, stars and lilies, all carved from stone, adorn the ceiling. And yet, hidden within these patterns are all kinds of surprises: Christ, holding up a hand of blessing; or a little green man, sprouting vines out of his head and his mouth; or the image of the sun and the moon, tucked into the carefully aligned shapes. It is a palette of images, seemingly unrelated, with only conjecture and hints to somehow link them all together.

We walked around a bit, and then found out that a talk on the Chapel would be given at two o'clock. And who would miss that, given the trove of mystery we had just encountered?

So after lunch, we headed back. And we were greeted by this bespeckled, diminutive docent, an elderly woman who seemed to be about as old as the place itself. She pointed out some of the more fascinating and obvious legends about the Chapel, one of which concerns the Mason's and the Apprentice's Pillars.

These two works in stone are found on either side of the sanctuary. The Apprentice's Pillar is a jaw-dropping masterpiece in stone, surrounded by a legend of malice and pride. Our elderly guide told us a story of the chapel mason who journeyed to Rome, wanting to find a way to carve an elaborate, circular pillar. But upon his return, he found that the apprentice had actually created the work. And the mason, full of rage, killed his apprentice.

Then our docent pointed her laser pen to the opposite end of the chapel: a face was there, in stone, of a man filled with sinister rage. "It is the mason," she said. "And now, from here, he can look at the Apprentice's handiwork for all eternity."


Drama, murder, everlasting angst... All artfully contained in a church nave. No wonder historians and novelists alike were drawn to the place!

But our elderly docent had a few more surprises in store before her talk was over. My ears perked up when she started talking of a symbol we'd been encountering often on our journey: the image of the clamshell, signifying the route of a pilgrim.

"Tradition has it," said the aged docent, "that Rosslyn is the seventh church along the ancient road of the pilgrims, of which Compostela was only a part. And each church was associated with a planet... which means Rosslyn was associated with Saturn."

Then her voice took on a mysterious timbre, and she said, almost as if she were speaking to another age, "and, unfortunately, the god Saturn is also the god of secrets. So we can surmise that very much is hidden here."

Heck, after a talk like that, this little old lady could've told me that Santa Claus was hidden under the altar and I would've believed her.

Rosslyn Chapel was the last church we encountered on our three month long pilgrimage. It was a church of mystery, a church with deep roots in the process of sacred journey, a place that holds securely the secrets of mystic associations between heaven and earth, between divinity and humanity. A portal, of sorts, to what awaits us.

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Location:Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin (outside of Edinburgh), Scotland

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Not Your Mother's Tattoo

No, this post isn't about the artistry of permanent ink mutilation.

One of the last things we've done here is attend the magnificent Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, held in the Esplanade before Edinburgh Castle and at the very top of the Royal Mile.

I learned a lot from this impressive gathering of the clans! First of all, Notre Dame isn't the only place that uses a fly-over to get things started: at precisely 9PM, the Royal Air Force sends one of their squadron to buzz the Castle and send everyone's hearts into their throats.

And here's a little background on the term. Tattoo is not a Scottish word, per se, even though the Highlanders have made this the centerpiece of their national expression. "Tattoo" comes from the Low Countries; it is Dutch in origin, from the phrase tap doe, which is a command to the local pubs to turn off the beer taps and send the soldiers home for the night. The command was followed by a mustering of the troops by drum, and eventually the words and the action became one and the same.

In Edinburgh, which is probably the oldest and best-known tattoo, this gathering has been elevated to an entirely new level – it's become an art form. Military bands come from all over the world (the night we were there featured ensembles from Norway, the United States, Australia, and Switzerland).

In addition to the fabulous bands, troupes of dancers are integrated into the festivities. One number, played by the resident Scottish military band, actually played a medley from the just-released Disney film Brave, complete with Scottish kids romping around the performance field. This is clearly not the stiff, regimented military exercise known by previous generations.

The military bands were amazing, the precision of the pipers was inspiring. Yet with all the regal pomp, two memories hold out the strongest for me.

The first was the welcome of Norway's military band and rifle corps. A thousand years ago, when Norway showed up on Scotland's shores, they carried weapons just like their contemporary counterparts ... but they had other things in mind besides a stint in front of the Castle. Now they were cordially welcomed as friends, saluted by the General and Master of Ceremonies, and – lo and behold! – the Norse contingent left the field singing "You Take the High Road..."

Proof, in my mind, that humanity actually is moving forward, inch by inch, to a point where music can unite those who once were enemies.

The second memory came from a simple, yet utterly profound musical moment, toward the end of the gathering. High atop Edinburgh Castle, near the end of the evening festivities, a lone Highland Piper stood, illuminated by a spotlight and playing a beautiful Scottish air. The thousands of attendees were perfectly still... The only one to be heard was the solitary musician, sending out his call to all who listened. No procession, no fireworks, no precision drums or tossing of rifles. Just one man, using a traditional instrument to remind all who cared to listen of their national heritage.

Sometimes, it is the simplest of songs that speaks the loudest in our hearts.

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Location:Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Playing Real Good, for Free

Now me I play for fortunes
And those velvet curtain calls
I've got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if you're a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free

– Kirkwood, as sung by Joni Mitchell

One of the fascinating things about walking through Edinburgh this week is that the city has become a busker's paradise. Walk half a block, and here is another concertina or guitar player. All the styles are joyful and different – and some of the musicians are downright phenomenal.

I've come across guitarists that have blown my mind by way of technique and ability. And they'll sit out on the stoop, playing their repertoire, for hours.

Take this guitarist, for instance. His name is Tom Ward, and the first thing you'll hear is his fabulous flamenco style of playing. The second thing is the guitar he's playing – it has more holes in it than a colander, and would put Willie Nelson's pock-marked axe to shame.

But don't be fooled by appearances... This guy had his strings wirelessly tied into a street amp (which was perched on a skateboard... Nice touch!), and the amp was throbbing with the perfect execution of his Spanish-styled fretboard skills. He had hundreds around him, all of them mesmerized by his repertoire and the strength of his playing ability.

Then there was the concert we took in (one of a few) at the glorious St. Giles Cathedral, at the heart of the Royal Mile. Allison Tarriff was the name of this extraordinary musician, who did an hour-long virtuoso concert that embraced everything from Weber to Horowitz. And even with my own former stint as a clarinetist, I learned something from this artist: this instrument is an astonishingly versatile one! For what other instrument can move from jazz to orchestra, from folk band to Klezmer, from military marching band to symphonic soloist? That would be the humble clarinet. And how she played!

Then, back on the street, we came across this cool guitar player by the name of Adamkadabra. Go figure. He had tuned his instrument to F-A-C-F-A-F and was playing it, dobro style, with incredible hammer-on technique. I'd never heard anything like it!

With guys like this, who had been working so hard at their craft and who sounded so great, it was hard to simply walk by without picking up one of their solo CD efforts. So I'm coming home with a few off-beat collections of guitar music....

We've visited a lot of venues in the past couple of days, and have absorbed so much music, drama, and culture. But the saying is true – sometimes, the best things in life are free.

Just like Joni described, in a song she sang a generation ago.

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Location:Windsor Street, Edinburgh, Scotland

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Edinburgh, Unplugged

We arrived in Edinburgh in the midst of a revolt: an artistic revolt! Dancers, musicians, jugglers, mimes, comedians, wanna-bes, buskers, they all converge on this beautiful Scottish city as two festivals were revving up: the Edinburgh International Festival of the Arts, and this other, kooky and wildly enthusiastic thing called "The Fringe."

What wonderful delirium comes over this city during the entire month of August!

The original festival, the Edinburgh International Arts Festival, is dedicated to serious opera, symphony, and drama... And the other, the Fringe, is exactly what it says: a wacky diversion of comedy, street musicians, experimental theatre, and/or any combination of the above. Except instead of being tucked away in some suburb or obscure side streets, the Fringe is front and center, smack dab in the heart of the Royal Mile.

Set into the middle of all of this the internationally renowned Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo, and you've got a city that is simply buzzing with artistic activity. And not for a weekend, or even a week. It is for the entire month!

Where else can you see guys balancing on ladders (on cobblestone streets, no less!), juggling kitchen knives? Where else to see a woman posing as a gold statue, holding – a gas mask?

And buskers reign over the cobblestone walkways. On at least two different occasions, I ran across guitar players who were doing things I've never come across before – techniques for playing, novel approaches to tuning – but more on this later.

It has been said that a city isn't healthy unless its artistic life is flourishing. And if such is the case, Edinburgh is indeed the picture of a robust community.

We have three days left overseas. Three precious days. And if we are going to be anywhere to close off this remarkable trip, it would be in a city where art and joy and music and dance and spectacle are in full swing.

We ended the Folk Choir's Spring Tour in Edinburgh, and partly for that reason wanted to come full circle, back to where we said good bye to our musicians, at the end of our travels. But it was equally a draw to know that this extraordinary celebration was taking place.

So now, we have a simple and joyful task before us as our pilgrimage concludes: Jump into the arts! Plunge into the Fringe!

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Location:High Street, Edinburgh, Scotland

Monday, August 6, 2012

The National Concert Hall, Part II

The last time we were in Dublin was on May 22nd, which, even though the calendar says ten weeks ago, seems more like ten years. We've traveled thousands of miles, by plane, boat, auto, and train – and now we are back in Dublin's fair city, but only for 24 hours.

Ten weeks ago it was the Notre Dame Folk Choir singing in the National Concert Hall, albeit in the more intimate venue called the John Field Room. But this time, Michele and I were given a pair of tickets to hear Anúna, one of Ireland's premier vocal ensembles. It was the Choir's twenty-fifth anniversary concert, and by chance or good fortune our itinerary lined up with the event.

Click HERE to have a listen to this amazing ensemble!

Our presence at this concert, though, was more than just for a night of great music. In just over three weeks, the Folk Choir is going to be back in Ireland, singing with Anúna at Dublin's O2 Centre. Singing in Irish, it's an event which will be part pep rally, part concert. And we have a lot of work to do to prepare for this huge trip back to the land of our ancestors.

And – the thing is already sold out.

This is not, of course, the most important reason for our trip back to Eire. Hours before the ND/Navy game, an open-air Mass will be celebrated at 9AM Irish time, in Dublin Castle's courtyard. And there are other liturgical celebrations that we will have a hand in as well, including a Sunday liturgy at 11:00AM Irish time, hosted by St. Mary's on Haddington Road.

So now, even as our travels are coming to an end, we are beginning to look ahead, and to move into high gear!

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Location:Dublin, Ireland

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Secrets of Life, Secrets of Time

One of the last things we did in the West of Ireland was take a trip out to a beautiful set of gardens, Brigit's Gardens, (her name is spelled correctly ... It is the ancient spelling) out past the angler's paradise of Oughterard. This is a relatively new attraction in the landscape of Ireland, and it is modeled on a unique concept: putting together a park that is deliberately Celtic, a place where people can trace their heritage, and perhaps even see how that heritage is linked to the Catholic tradition.

Along the way, over and over again on this pilgrimage, we have seen how peoples and cultures have dealt with time: how they calculate it, how they celebrate their seasons, and most especially, how all of these ancient chapters eventually got folded into the grand liturgical year which is now our Catholic heritage.

And here is something quite astounding: as Catholicism moved and grew from nation to nation, it didn't eradicate customs, traditions, or even calendars. Rather, it assumed them, gathered them in, reinterpreted their focus and set them on a Christological course.

You can see this worked out, on a grand scale, in the Christian liturgical calendar. Sol invictus, the ancient Roman holiday of the sun's conquering of death (immediately after the winter solstice) became the celebration of Christus sol invictus: Christ, the sun of justice – Christmas. The great prefigurer of Christ, John the Baptist, finds his feast day set in perfect symmetry around Christmas: his feast is on the 24th of June, six months earlier.

The ancient Irish calendar was very different from its neighbors. It used four seasons, but those seasons were based on agrarian cycles. The seasons were Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtine, and Lughnasa. The festival of Samhain (pronounced "sow-en") began on the Feast of All Hallows: Halloween. The Irish celebration of spring, Imbolc, began on the first day of February. And here again, saints' days moved in alongside the pagan customs, providing a redefinition and refocusing of the day.

In Irish spirituality, Brigid is also the patroness and protector of the four elements: earth, air, wind, and water. So it would make perfect sense that Bhríd, Mary of the Gaels, would have her feast day set for the outset of the planting cycle.

The garden we visited put all of this in a beautiful alignment, as you can actually see from the picture of the compass points here.

As we were walking through this park, I asked one of my friends about the Celtic thrust of the place, wondering if they were attempting a new-age spirituality and merely glossing over Christian influences. "The Irish," she said, "wouldn't see these things as being opposed to one another. They would see Celtic and Catholic as complementing one another."

And that would seem to be the way of it, I think. Catholicism's remarkable journey has been one that hasn't approached cultures with a "either/or" stance. Faith met them on their own ground, listened to their stories, watched their celebrations... And made them part of the family.

What has bound our journey together, from country to country, is a sense of wonder before the mystery of Time.

From the streets of Rome to the flagstones of Galway, from Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (see the Meridian Line sundial pictured here) to Brigit's Garden in the foothills of Connemara (a similar, year-long sundial appears below), we have seen how the human family is fascinated by the movement of time, our sacred passage through the seasons. Just look at these two amazing calendar devices! They are thousand of miles apart, and from completely different cultures. But they share an undeniable common thread: an attempt to unpack the secrets of life, seen through the lens of time.

This trip to the West of Ireland has been such a beautiful pilgrimage for me and Michele! Music to absorb, a gentle culture to admire, mountains to climb, stories to share. Through it all, we have also been looking to Dublin, our next stop, where in just a few short weeks we will be returning with half the Notre Dame Folk Choir. But more on that in the next posting!

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Location:Rosscahill, County Galway, Ireland

Friday, August 3, 2012

Padraig's Reek

By "reek," I do not mean stench; when this Anglicized word is used by the Irish, they are speaking of mountains, not odors.

One of the most important places of pilgrimage in Ireland is Croagh Padraig, Patrick's Mountain. It is situated near Westport, in County Mayo, up past the vast and empty loveliness of Connemara. It's only about 780 meters high (about 2500 feet) – not a big climb by most standards. But even for me, someone who has hiked the mountains of both on the east and west coasts, it was an arduous trek.

The reasons for the challenge are twofold: About halfway up the summit, this eerie rock pile begins to show up. The Irish call it scree. And it is an accursed pavement: each stone is about the size of a large hand, and all the rocks move around – there is barely a sense of footing.

The other challenge: this entire field of scree is situated on a pretty frightening incline. So steep and direct is the ascent (and descent) that the rocks seem to be in constant movement. Every step, therefore, is a decision. And if you choose unwisely, you could begin an avalanche of stone and humanity.

Now think of doing this entire journey as the Irish sometimes do: barefoot.

As I was trudging up this slope, grateful for a pair of sturdy hiking boots lent to me by my friends, I couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like to take on this mountain without shoes. As you get closer to the top, the rocks smooth out a bit, but for the most part they are a jagged, menacing landscape, and hardly the thing you would willingly inflict upon your feet.

As we were starting out, our longtime friend Tony Murphy stopped us, and put into his hand a small stone. "It is a custom with the Irish," he said, "to carry a stone to the top, and use that as an intention for your pilgrimage."

I found a small rock with a streak of granite white in it, that looked somewhat like the Greek letter tau, and held onto it for the climb to the top.

One other detail of note: the day before, Sunday, was what the Irish commonly call "Reek Sunday." It is the day many people of the country go to this mountain on pilgrimage. The day we climbed, it was fabulous weather and the beginning of summer holidays for some of the Irish; as a result, there were several hundred people making the journey.

But the day before, on Reek Sunday, twenty thousand people climbed this mountain. Twenty thousand! Look at these pictures, and try to imagine the assemblage of such a horde of folk, making their way slowly and painfully up the steep and dangerous slope.

When I made it to the top, I took out my small stone, and laid it in the cairn with the thousands of others on the summit.

I prayed for the continued success of the House of Brigid, and for the young people of Ireland.

There are many, many things being written about the state of the Irish Catholic Church at present. Her liturgies, her lack of administration toward the young, her vocational plight. But still and all, when I hear stories of this kind, of thousands upon thousands of people making a sacrificial ascent in the name of Ireland's great saint, I can't help but think that all is not lost, that, indeed, all will be well.

All will be well. We walk upon God's holy mountain.

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Location:Croagh Patrick, County Mayo, Ireland

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Poetry of Stone

If you spend enough time on the Aran Islands, you begin to look at things in weird and different ways. As Michele and I got our bearings, getting past the complexities of the Irish language and the intricacies of the paths, a curious thing started happening.

We started looking at the stone walls. Really looking at them.

Not that it took much imagination to do so. On Inisheer, you can't move three feet in any direct without tripping over these walls. There are hundreds of them, and they really are like a maze: some only a few cubic meters in size, just enough for the family horse (I'm serious). Others barely a meter wide, providing a long, narrow lane between two properties.

But for those with eyes to see, the stone walls are an amalgam of creativity and nuance. There are subtle designs and forces at work: the stacking designs; the little places where stones could easily be removed for access and removal of farm animals; the smooth, rounded stones of the north shore, or the rough, squarish granite of the southern side.

And other touches were evident as well: places where, almost by accident, stones would jut out from the wall in random order. But in actuality, they were far from random... They were staircases, subtly placed so that the farmers could navigate the rocky fences with ease.

A photographer from years past, Jill Uris, once compiled a book of Irish pictures, entitling it "A Terrible Beauty." Seeing this small island, once completely strewn with useless stone, could indeed be considered "terrible." But they have transformed this rock-infested place into one of intricate beauty, creatively joined together by webs of lane, pasture, road and garden.

All joined, remarkably and flexibly, by solid rock.

Astounding, what the human family can create with whatever they're given. Even from a quarry, a garden can take shape.

This shall be my last post about the Aran Islands before heading across Galway Bay to our friends on the edge of Connemara. There, if the weather cooperates, we climb Croagh Patrick!

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Location:An Locha Beag, Bearna, County Galway, Ireland

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Water Is Wide

Over the weekend, Michele and I were walking along the trà – the beach of Inisheer, which is a lovely spit of clear sand. And as we were walking along, we spied a young teenager, sitting on the beach, her back up against a curragh, the signature fishing boat of the Aran Islands.

She looked very sad, this young girl. Bored, despondent, restless, all exuding from the language of how she sat next to that old boat. All pent up next to that curragh.

And I thought to myself, "Does she feel imprisoned here? She can see the mainland of Ireland right from where she's sitting. And she can probably follow everything of the world on the web. Is she at peace here? Or does she simply want out?"

Inisheer is very near to the Irish coastline: from the front yard of the B&B where we stayed, you could see the Cliffs of Moher – the way the Atlantic Ocean sees them. You could also see the shores of Galway Bay, most especially Barna, and Galway, and Spiddal, places where the Folk Choir has often sung.

But the sea separates you from the rest of the world. The sea – tempestuous, dangerous, unpredictable.

The shores of Ireland are near, but they are so far away! For even though just a few miles of choppy seas separate the islands from the rest of their nation, their language and their way of life have stayed locked in older ways.

A little later, I happen upon a young woman who was tending to our B&B, and I asked her what she thought of life on the island as a teenager.

"There are twenty teenagers on Inisheer," she said, "and if you talk to the girls, half of them simply want to leave. But," and here she continued thoughtfully, "there would be the girls who would love to find a man to marry from Galway, and come back here to raise a family, away from the tumult of all that." And here she waved her hand toward the mainland, in a dismissive fashion.

"The water is wide, I cannot cross o'er,
Neither have I the wings to fly.
Give me a boat that can carry two,
Then both may go, my love and I."

So goes the old song. And the song has lasted because the lyrics are true. Young people, like all of us, are looking for love, looking for safe places to bring their dreams. Some of them look at the sea as a curse.

And others view these waters differently, as protection from the craziness of the world, as the hopeful realization of a dream.

The waters are, indeed, wide. As are the stances of those whose lives are touched by the sea.

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Location:Baile Na Gleanna, Inisheer, Ireland