Big Bad Wolves and outsized monsters stayed away from my childhood nightmares. Instead, the gold streaked waters I played in by day transmuted into a murderous tidal wave and the ginger puppy from the house next store behaved as a sharp toothed executioner. Still, a few deep breaths, re-orientation and peaceful slumber could be attained.
The fear and dread that lingered I encountered in the light of day. Just briefly, the hateful screed of Ian Paisley accosted, until my parents, too late aware, ruffled, banished me to some safe spot. There the demon’s words, so sinister and malign, fertilized the seed of fear already in the Philadelphia air for those of color. Hate: dangerous new form of speech, tactile, palpable in those times. Mephistopheles had spoken.
To grow, to hope, to change. A narrative available to the most undeserving.
And so, Paisley died a man saluted for a change of heart. Cameras captured images: his hands outstretched and grasping the hands of those he had zealously christened “vermin”- their hands now undistinguishable from his own.
So long as his was the titular “First” seat in government, above the “bloodthirsty monsters,” his colossal ego was soothed, his vanity sated. In the waning years of his turbulent public pursuits, he fashioned a more seemly costume. Though who can judge his “madness, his mission?”
And a big, venomous voice . So many hearts long ago stopped beating in the conflagration of petrol bombs. More pump blood still through weary veins of bodies mutilated by the Troubles. And watch those impassive, static hearts maimed with the words bellowed long ago to a believing mind, passed down to child, then to the grandchild, growing in the quartered streets still looking for the halcyon days long promised…
True, better that the thunder of his voice ceased its eternal shaming, vicious speech. True, that voice awakened the righteous that those condemned at dawn for faith or color or choice of loving partner could be freed from hate and vitriol come sundown should the zealots by mere happenstance decree some new prey more worthy of pursuit. True, a hand stretched out in peace, however late, no longer fells or wounds those in its path.
But Never, Never, Never call that man a peacemaker.
The disembodied voice proclaims the virtue of another star who discarded life like one more piece of outdated bling, not sparkling with sufficient dazzle when moonlight reached the designated spot at the appointed time in the summer sky.
The car chugs through that part of town still smelling of the bacon fried on the greasy grill this morning, holding tight to the beer and vomit chucked upon the stairs last night or was it possibly the night before?
Its crowded corridors echo the voice of that man who professed cleansing light into these streets .
(did he promise? or did we believe? did he assure? or did we just imagine?)
From his unholy pulpit, without audacity, he blesses now –
not the life of the teen shot down by the law-man with a gun,
but the suicide ringed with riches but living with despair.
And in these sweltering houses, in the thermal shops, on these misty corners, the grocer and the barman and the mother and the unemployed:
they all listen, and they are puzzled – as though he now speaks a foreign tongue.
The unarmed teen disobeyed police orders. Ten bullets showered round him as he died on the street in mid america in light of day!
The suicide broke the same laws for which the grocer’s son and the barman’s brothers and many husbands endured dark prisons and forfeited paths to riches the star has thrown away.
To live with darkness, to live with sorrow, to live with challenge. Life exacts authenticity, endurance.
That we can embrace each light, remaining buoyant until each evening is mere fiction dressed up, displayed and peddled as precious precept: a dream, a mantra, a sharpster’s slogan until it collapses – sodden, sad, shaming, like the suicide or broken promise of champions bygone.
Like a panther lurking, feelings gnaw, snap sharply with strong teeth, the pain spreads quickly from my heart to each unsuspecting nerve within my body.
I enjoy again your tiny hand, so gentle, soft and trusting within mine; fingernails, not quite clean, ice cream stains still tracing near happiness.
Your lively eyes, wide with wonder, perceive the judgment you must make tonight for times of rain and snow, through golden days of autumn til the springtime gives you release again to summer.
Which color shall you choose, the rainbow of spring or the child’s bold primary colors? No prince or princess engages you. But shall you choose some other player to consort with at meals? Or, shall some mix or shape, and stain and form, instead, foster your gentle and precocious imaginings?
With intensity, you deliberate; like a diplomat commencing peace negotiations. I honor your bravery and intelligence: the belief, still living, in a perfect choice.
Again, the softness of your hand disarms me. More exquisite, smooth and tender in my memory, no doubt, than ever truly known. And the sweetness of your scent, unwashed after a full day of summer play: chlorine and french fries, sand and dirt, sweat and river water. Lingering, the smell of morning toothpaste and jelly from the sandwich that I made; your friends at play, their evening soap, and your brother’s brand new sneakers. And the dog. All of you trotting just behind her late this afternoon.
Rather, a physical blow to the powerful tear of memory.
(Is this just the in-between time? The days when you have gone into the world and we are all adventuring? Will other days inhabit time with other life and visions?)
Satisfaction and fulfilment. Clarity: my existence has a meaning when your existence is such perfection. Perhaps, not truly generosity. Perhaps only covetous love celebrates dispensing someone else’s need…
Tears,behind the eyes, closed throat perceive the absence of the little hand.
Clatter of a shopping cart and the moment fades.
The store chills. Evening recedes. I purchase and resume my solitary journey home.
Somewhere on a mountaintop …. dawning caresses awareness; the nearly flawless skin about her eyes lurches; her silken limbs emerge – brocade and silks, so softly set aside.
On the terrace, the chill has not absconded. She lifts her shawl, steps out to the abundant morning; beyond, sierra silhouetted against the breaking day, blue enveloping.
The breeze is piquant with juniper, pine ,musk, and sage, and the trace of dew lingering. Collecting into a cloud of steam, above the translucent coffee pot, morning air steeps her soul with satisfaction, and with a twinge of sadness: her eye contains the image of migrant men in the open truck far down below on the rocky road ascending to a farm somewhere out of view.
Somewhere on a mountaintop….she accompanies her flock to accept the day as it arrives upon the chilled and rocky slope above her whitewashed cottage on the hillside so distant now and barely seen.
Stillness, then the silence snapped by the crack of sheepdogs barking, the sharp calls echo through the hills, the herd replying. A melody of hooves and brays and barks and bleats and birds and morning.
She settles in a meadow for her meal, the thermos steaming. Her swollen hands,red and knobbed and rough, grasp the teacup clumsily, and are warmed. Sunshine gathers strength as does the smile that lingers behind flagging eyes that surveil the rock and field and sky and perceive majesty.
Somewhere on a mountaintop…. she no longer knows if it is night or it is day.
Cacophony. Dissonance. Tumult. Noise. Horror, Wails. Moans. Groans. Torment. And worst: Silence.
Her eyes, unsighted now, are parched; tears remain her burden. Fouled air. Ruthless heat. Implacable hunger. These cower in the face of fear. Pulverized sand and dirt cling to her skin, climb down her throat. Her thoughts emerge from blackness to watch again helplessly as he is stolen from her life ,his own extinguished.
Words amass and seem to mean something about survival …
That portal, appraising a refuge from that insistent insomnia which followed the uncommon and lingering cold of that Pennsylvania winter, made too dark by death and distance and recurrent themes of global iniquity, offered succor and satisfaction.
That sanctuary improbably contains entire unseen worlds: icy rivers, fragrant fields, ancient towers; long-lost seasons, war battered villagers, sun-kissed nordic children; human depravity; graceful forgiveness; unconditional love.
U.S. television never tantalized in this way. The “comedy,” too mean, or cheap, or base, rarely spawns a smile. The fantastical or blood-drenched drama fails to engage.
Is the “small screen” in truth a magnifier of larger culture?
I see in most US made television too omnipresent toilet humor and flesh bared for the sake of it. No longer, if ever it was, art or narrative, or even excitement, but seeming as a naughty child announcing his own defiant and dubious accomplishment. Rarely does the screen reflect the economic truth that is our life and will be our videographic legacy. Rather, fabulous images permeate: pristine interiors; not a single unwashed dish awaits the harried mother on her return from work. Poverty, so rarely seen, is never seen true: one can never see the broken glass in the subway or the detritus in the alley or the smells of urine, blood, rotted food and sex emanating from the darkened halls of the tenement where the brave and perfectly coiffed FBI agent with his shiny gun snakes through with such grit and virile vigor.
Too much physical beauty: the highest of the high-end of runway fashions painted onto idealized forms of starving actors who exhibit bodies turned out by gyms or film editing tricks to emphasise the muscles on anorexic female forms. Anachronistic: emphasize the female form in costume above historical accuracy. Inappropriate: what matter if no lawyer, doctor would truly wear such fashion in the hum drum halls of her profession? Product placement: Whether cable or subscription or the network: the means to market to the masses(the car, computer or refrigerator in the scene) must never be forsaken!
Sex and violence. Violent sex. Cannibalism and cult criminality. Such themes sell, apparently. Heterosexual, the predominant cultural fantasy but increasingly same-sex relationships are scripted into shows, much as “racial quotas” are often witnessed. The marketing of violence and male sexual fantasy is the persistent “sell.” Infrequent now, tenderness on the small screen. Rather, sexual encounters as violently “passionate” encounters, virtual rape fantasies. Not that the small screen lacks for the portrayal of actual rape encounters; whole series dedicated to sex crimes.
The Anglo-American television drama produces more than its share of the misogynist serial rapist murderer, frequently ritual misogynistic rapist/murderer.
It tires. Saddens. Disheartens. More than rarely, it disgusts.
The discovery of MHZ: a cornucopia of European vision. Perhaps, it sparkles brightly in proportion to its novelty. Possibly. Or, it offers a genuine thread to untangle worlds unknown.
The mind awakes to the varied patterns of language; attending not merely the sound of the tongue but the eyes, the face, the gestures and body movement of the language as well. Communication in each country emerges uniquely. In drama, in comedy, the actor engages her entire self.
Landscapes incorporate the narrative. The thrilling North Sea cliffs tell a different tale than the Palermo seascape, the mood of the autobahn is different from that of the fifth arrondissement.
Food and celebration are conveyed so clearly in modern Swedish Solstice celebrations but vivid too are postwar Danish Christmas rituals, spare and sincere. A family dinner in 1950’s Milan creates a different feeling than the urban family meal in a Parisian restaurant.
There is pleasure in the private discovery of the cultural codes and conventions one might learn from the unfolding presentations.
Many regions value food more highly than US television producers. Care is taken to demonstrate cuisine, kitchen tools and cooking methods of a period, of a city or a country. Restaurants and kitchens, dining rooms and patios emanate ambiance so bright as one watches the smells, almost the tastes come alive, one’s palate is tempted with the wines richly described and correctly poured on screen.
Styles of living through the years evolve so dramatically, yet change not at all. When marketing products or perfection is not the story, dust can accumulate on the mahogany furnishings beneath the open Roman window and water stains on the tile under the soggy boots of a Berlin winter. The casual elegance of a Parisian Sunday brunch in an over furnished 1930’s apartment arrests our attention. People live with wine bottles on the table from last night’s meal and newspapers still being read in the internet age. The viewer is permitted a more realistic, if not a true view, of how wealth distorts lifestyle through the decades whether in northern continental urban Europe largely residing in apartments, or the Scandinavian and the Mediterranean whose lives, rich and poor, may have some backdrop of the sea.
Together, these tales tease to discover the values which bind the culture. When the father who has been grievously wronged embraces his child with forgiveness , is it the omnipresence of the Catholic Church in Italy which allows him to do so? But would an Irishman do the same? Or is this generosity something unique to the Italian landscape, sun-baked and steeped in the sweet aromas of the Mediterranean?
Most striking, History is a character in so many of the dramas. Most especially, World War II is kept an actor of our time. The war as action, the war as precedent, the war as motivation. The man as hero, the child as orphan, the woman as love child. Often without a direct mention, it is ever clear that the historical created the dramatic conflict of the moment, the precise events of history, the reality lived: these people and events inhabit the stories which unfold on that small screen.
As an American watching a world in which the characters of the twenty-first century appear deeply connected to the events of seventy-five or one hundred years ago, I feel a void. One could argue our culture is more free, unburdened by the past. One could also suggest we are less prepared to craft a future.
That portal, still a haven for restless nights, filled with the fireflies and the lightening of these overheated summer days, too filled with replays of unending global conflict, enlightens and directs an understanding which feels a salve for the burdens of the day.
This, the sluggish time of summer, bemusing in the trace of recent splendour: verdant, periwinkle ,Titian, beryl and gold, beguiles ambition, seduces passion, as if extravagance and spectacle were spent.
An endeavor to evoke, in these late and steamy days, faded landscapes ablaze and eloquent once more –
The air cooled and the countryside crackling with fierce shades of color; an intense and earnest conversation, engaging, addictive.
My father had lived half his life before emigrating permanently, making the United States his home. Almost forty, though no longer adorned with whatever resilience and sang-froid youth had bestowed, he engaged life in America with a spirit of hope which mystifies still, these decades after he has gone.
My mind summons our first house, brick, box-like, postage-stamp cubicle play yard, neighbor atop neighbor. Though he would, in time, acquire grander, this first house, just outside the city limits, announced achievement, proclaimed him resident in that new land.
Sun shivering on sliver buttons and badges as men, red-faced and scowling in hot blue uniforms access the glass front door. Sneering voices forbid Sunday radio music the neighbors will not allow. The child is unseen, sweltering shame.
Sadness in the sun-aged face, wary as the local journalist photographs his shining Chevrolet sedan. Pride, too true, it seems, a deadly sin. Thick blue bruise of paint spewed on the hood, bled down the side. No witnesses, no crime, the police had said.
The sharp shock and sting of the stone that struck the head of the little girl walking home alone. Hateful slur followed but not the boys who propel the now familiar call: “Go back where you came from, Go back there! We don’t want your kind here!”
I will never forget, near ecstasy on my father’s face the night a man, exuding youth and hope, was elected President of the United States: that man who looked like him and spoke like him, who was not afraid to say he actually was like him, he worshiped like my father. At times, it seemed to me, my father worshiped him.
Not much later, my father renounced the citizenship of the beloved land of his birth; he identified as a full American along with my older sister, who also had been born abroad. The house he shared with my mother was filled with the young president’s photograph; his recorded speeches were played instead of the radio on Sunday afternoon, and when he was assassinated, a huge full-color bust portrait hung in their home, displacing the Pope, for the rest of their joint lives.
My parents were Irish immigrants.
The taunt was “Shanty Irish.”
The President was John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
It is painful to contemplate children in oven-like buses, confused and frightened, as adults, sometimes with costumes, sometimes with signs, sometimes with weapons, hurl insults and slurs and even rocks or glass and froth with rage.
When I tell my immigration story, today, the reaction, largely, is to question: how did my parents find such a bizarre pocket of anti-Irish feeling to settle? We no longer recognize ourselves in that tale. We have forgotten the vitriol of the 1960 presidential campaign, the genuine anti-Catholic prejudice Kennedy faced down. The lingering bigotry the Irish confronted in 1960 seems impossible: “No Irish Need Apply ” signs not yet quaint antiques for sale in the United States as ” No Irish, No Coloured, No Dogs” in Britain.
But the accommodation of forgetting cannot erase the dark reality of history.
Immigration policy is complex and important.It has become a throw away truism to state “we are a nation of immigrants.”
We serve ourselves well to recall that the children we revile today we may describe as “the bedrock of our society” tomorrow: as integrated and indispensable as though they always “belonged.”
Sometimes, when deer and rabbit, raccoon and woodchuck recede within the generous mantilla of summer, and warbler and cicada celebrate the close of another day, the light that falls from that searing scarlet scalds my heart with the sadness of missing you, who first presented this array.
Scorch of fire as puckered lips graze the coffin; seething tears trickling onto steel; staggering, as strains of “Danny Boy” levitate above you (a tune you did not call an Irish air).
In the end, too true: arid canon of cult, not creed, coheres the torpid keeners corroding your wonder.
Eyes reach no focus, colors run together; the stranger with fraternal blood, too cold, or suffocated in the sun, speaks. That Holy Man, the turnkey, postures with your offspring jailers; swelter, perspire, steadfast mien of heartbreak, every one.
The burned flesh on my heart, throbs and blisters. Pain pulsates with each steady beat. We love, we learn, we are often less than worthy. The arabesque we make, so rarely fine.