First Known When Lost on Spring and mortality, with Herrick, Wallace Stevens, and Epictetus

Original here

Spring beautifully — and gently — counsels us to be mindful of our mortality. This is sound advice. In fact, we are well-advised to consider our mortality on a daily basis, through all the seasons. I am not suggesting that we should brood over “the strumble/Of the hungry river of death” from morn to eventide. But an awareness of the shortness of our stay here provides a sense of perspective, and reminds us that we ought to be continually grateful for what the World bestows upon us, without our asking, each day.

Spring (like all the other seasons) teaches us gratitude, though the gratitude may at times have a wistful and bittersweet cast.

To Blossoms

Fair pledges of a fruitful tree,
Why do ye fall so fast?
Your date is not so past;
But you may stay yet here a while,
To blush and gently smile;
And go at last.

What, were ye born to be
An hour or half’s delight;
And so to bid goodnight?
‘Twas pity Nature brought ye forth
Merely to show your worth,
And lose you quite.

But you are lovely leaves, where we
May read how soon things have
Their end, though ne’r so brave:
And after they have shown their pride,
Like you a while: They glide
Into the grave.

Robert Herrick, Poem 467, Hesperides (1648).

“Death is the mother of beauty.” (Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning.”) What do blossoms do? They “stay yet here a while,/To blush and gently smile;/And go at last.” What do “lovely leaves” do? “They glide/Into the grave.” This is how the World works, and there is no reason to brood or to grieve. Our response should be gratitude. Gratitude and acceptance.

“Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.”

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section VIII (translated by W. A. Oldfather, 1928).

The Granddaughter Paradox published in Sci Phi Journal

My story The Granddaughter Paradox has been published in Sci Phi Journal, an online journal of science fiction with a philosophical twist (or philosophical fiction with a science fiction twist?)

Reading the full story requires a subscription, or as the site says:

You need to be a Patron of the magazine to read all of this item. Jump over to our Patreon Page and sign up now. All pledges processed in 24 hours.

So obviously I will encourage anyone reading this to follow the above instructions… but here is a preview:

Brendan McConnell’s morning began at 4.45 a.m. on a spring day in 2010. Between sleep and wakefulness for the whole night, as he realised the appointed time was nearing he willed himself fully awake. Penelope slept on beside him. When planning his actions that day, he had thought of kissing her, but had decided the risk of waking her up was too great. She hadn’t slept much lately. And if all went well he would be back before anything could be noticed by anyone. He slid out of the bed, lifting the polka-dot duvet only very slightly and replacing it so it was as if no one had slept there. Lit only by sodium street lamps, their light edging through the gaps at the edge of the curtains, the room seemed to be bulging with clothes and books and papers in every possible space. Brendan thought of the crash courses in biochemistry and molecular pathology they had put themselves through, scouring textbooks and journal articles for some hint, any hint of some answer, any answer. A paper sea of modern biomedicine in their bedroom; the books with their definitive and authoritative titles: Comprehensive Biochemical Pathology, Advanced Immunology. And the journal articles, forming blobs of stapled paper around the room, discarded part-understood. He went into the bathroom to change, folding his pyjamas and leaving them on top of the laundry basket. He had left out fresh clothes; a purple woolly jumper Rose liked to stroke, a clean white suit, black slacks, underwear, navy socks.

When dressed, he went into his four-year-old daughter Rose’s room. Tubes and monitors were attached to her, keeping her breathing. He spoke to her, knowing that she too was on the borderland of sleeping and waking, but at this point in the disease’s progression, she would not become fully alert:

“Rose, I am just going for a little while. I will be back, I will be back, and when I am you will be better. I promise”

He went downstairs, opened his work briefcase, took out two envelopes—one addressed to Penelope, one to Rose—and left them on the hall table. He put on his brown slip-on shoes. He opened the front door, and stood a little back from the threshold for a minute or so. Perhaps he would need this time when he came back, perhaps he would come across himself waiting at the door with the door open, and this would allow him to slip in, do whatever needed to be done with Rose, and slip in beside Penelope. Then he left. He had parked round the corner when he had come home the evening before, knowing that Penelope would most likely be too preoccupied to notice and if she did, he would just say that he was trying to get a little bit more exercise. There had been far more erratic behaviour than that on both their parts recently. He drove to the university and parked in an asphalt car park near the back of the School of Experimental and Theoretical Physics, rather than near the School of Business where he lectured. He got out of his car, and shook hands with a bearded, burly, short man. They walked, in the gathering dawn, to the back of the Physics building.

Five hours later, in 2090, he was sitting with Rose and the grandson of the man who shook his hand that morning. Suddenly, Brendan heard his own voice cheerily announce “Rosie-Posie, time for your medicine”. He turned, and saw a contraption consisting of the top half of a teddy bear on wheels rolling towards him.

“It has your voice, Daddy.” Rosie said. “We had video files of your voice. All my robot companions had your voice, when I was a child, and then in my teens, and now here I am an old woman, with a companion robot with my daddy’s voice.”

“It looks like you’ve got a friend with you today, Rosie? What is your name?” Brendan heard his own voice, the voice—friendly, jolly in an understated, unforceful way—of the days before Rosie’s diagnosis. “I am daddy,” he blurted out.

“Really? Whose daddy?”

“Rosie’s. Rosie has had me for seventy-four years.”

“Really? Really?” Brendan wondered how the artificial intelligence routines that presumably lay behind the robot companion’s bonhomie were handling this.

It repeated in Brendan’s voice “Really?” in the exact same intonation. Suddenly a little red light flashed on the side of its head, and the thing stopped, frozen.

“You’ve ruined it!” Again she was a four–year-old, with the icy clarity to her voice that was the familiar build up to an explosive tantrum. “You’ve ruined it! I could talk to him, and it was like you never went away. Well, for a short time I could believe it, but I really could believe it for that time. And now you’ve ruined it, and I’ll never believe it again.”

“But I’m here now—is this thing broken?”

“That red light means that something stumped the nets. That hardly ever happens. The nets are as good if not better than a person at knowing what someone is talking about. It sent a file back to the manufacturers. They’ll come and take it away.”

“But how can you be angry. I’m here now, the real thing. You don’t need a robot to have my voice.”

“Don’t you tell me what I should feel. You left, out into nowhere, you left that stupid letter I got after Mum died. It didn’t help. At least the robot didn’t leave.”

“I’m sorry,” he began, with tears forming. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” This last “sorry” was said with a suddenly explosion of rage, and suddenly an angry torrent of words emerged: “I’m sorry for travelling through time and leaving everything behind to save your life, to save your life, and you would rather have a little bloody robot than me.”

She had calmed, and now looked at him with another familiar expression from her childhood, an expression of infinite patience and gravity. “Of course I would rather have you, but you have to remember you have been a dim memory for all these years. The first memory I have… holding your hand on a beach while eating ice cream, on a blindingly sunny day. I asked Mum about it before she died, and she said that we never went on a beach holiday. Yet I remember it, as clear as I remember opening that door and seeing you there an hour ago.”

“I see.” He sat, any anger gone. “At least with the companions you had something definite.”

“Yes. Yes. Daddy, daddy, I’m sorry.”

“No, I should be sorry. I’m the sorry one. You see… they said you were going to die. It wasn’t weeks, but days.”

“I felt such a hole in my soul all those years. As if part of me had been cut out.”

“Do you remember being sick?”

“I was in and out for years. Of course I remember but not really the specifics. I remember vividly enough some of the times they thought I was going to die, but as I got older it was just a sort of irritating backdrop.“

“What happened? How did you get better? They kept telling us not to hope. They kept telling us—”

“Mum always said that it just happened. I didn’t die. They thought I would die for years and years, until I was almost ten. But I didn’t die. I just got better. I think I was kind of famous. Granny used to say it was her novenas.

Gola: The Life and Last Days of an Island Community

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Recently I read this book, published in 1969 by Radio Telifis Eireann, on Gola Island. Gola is a mile from Magheragallon Strand in Gweedore, three miles from Bunbeg harbour.

When the book was written, Gola seemed about to be permanently depopulated. When I was young in the 80s and early 90s, it was supposedly depopulated, and yet in recent years the population has officially risen to 15 at the 2011 census (2016 census result awaited, I guess) and polling opens there, like the other islands, the day before the “mainland.”

 

This book, now nearly 50 years old, is itself something of a relic. It is very much a book of two parts; the first written by the TCD geographer F.H. Aalen, the second by the sociologist Hugh Brody. Both spent considerable time on the island, joining the various “intellectuals and semi-intellectuals” the boatmen describes as making the bulk of non-local Gola visitors.

Brody’s part gives an outline of the geographical context of the island and of the somewhat atypical rural life of the North West coast of Donegal. As he points out, and this was something I took for granted as a child but appreciate now, there is a paradoxical combination of remote isolation and relatively high population density in the strips of land along the coast of the Rosses and Gweedore (and to a lesser extent Cloghaneely) – a density bordering on urbanity at times.

 

Aalen’s writing comes acrosss as very dated. Words like primitive, neglected and backward recur regularly, without any contextualising. The words of “improving” landlords such as Lord George Hill are taken at face value. The evil of the “rundale” system, whereby land was subdivided and subdivided among families until unworkable plots remained, is presented as a straightforward matter of benighted local custom getting in the way of the obviously right, progressive thing to do. There is little real context, beyond an emphasis on isolation, as to why this system developed. Indeed, there is no sense that, in what is a harsh environment, that the local people may in fact have been highly adaptive in how they managed and coped.

 

There is a rather despairing tone to all this, and the sense is that a primitive way of life is, not without some sentimental regret perhaps, gradually fading away. Aalen is of course being  clear-eyed and realistic in many ways. He writes of how the economy of the area is dependent on remittances and seasonal work from Scotland. There is no doubt that, as contact with urban modernity increases, the traditional life of the islands declines. Aalen quotes the original Paddy The Cope testifying to an Oireachtas committee in the 1920s that, without remittances from Scotland, the economy of the Rosses would not last a year.

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Things change quite considerably in Brody’s section on the sociology of the island. There is a certain wry humour here and more of a human sympathy with the islander’s point of view. Brody finds that elementary sociological facts, such as the actual population of the island, are hard to estimate. This is because life on the island is, and has always been, seasonal. Traces of this kind of transhumance remain not only in Gola but on the nearby mainland. My own family, to a certain degree, have engaged in it. Indeed, the rundale system of small plots divided by borders marked in memory and perhaps a wisp of wire of a fence also persists.

Brody finds that what would frustrate many investigators is actually one of the strengths and resilient features of the island. Indeed, he has a wonderful passage on how the islander’s stance is perfectly rational from their point of view. I don’t have the book to hand to quote it in full, but it conveys a much more open view than Aalen’s, and one which now, given that after some decades of depopualtion Gola is repopulated again, seems far more perceptive than Aalen’s very positivist view of human activity.

I have blogged before about how the decline of island life marks, not the irresistible march of progress, but a loss of a way of life, and therefore a loss of diversity. The irony of the rather self-congratulatory contemporary celebration of diversity is that all too often the diversity of ways of life and of living is receding; the diversity that is celebrated is a somewhat atomised one of individual or family existence in a more homogenised society overall.

I feel that my comments above on Aalen’s writing may be a little harsh, as the book overall is an enthralling read for anyone familiar with the area, or simply interested in island life and Irish sociology. It is also worth noting that this book, written nearly half a century ago, very much has an overall message that the days of a populated Gola were imminently over- it is after all subtitled “The Life and Last Days of an Island Community”-  and yet here we are in 2017 awaiting the 2016 census population of this island.

From “The Long, Long Life of Trees”, Fiona Stafford

 

In spring, you can feel life stirring in the barest twigs and the silhouetted catkins look as if a diminutive duck has run across the sky. One day the twigs are just beginning to thicken and brighten and bulge; by the next they are covered in pincer-paired leaves and pale, lime-white or pink-tinged blossoms. There is nothing tentative about these vernal explosions. When the days are longer, it is all sap and fresh smells, and the liquid calls of birds hidden in the drifts of thicker foliage. The bark has been through it all before, but the craggy faces of cherry tress seems less pinched in the bright light. By early November, when it is all dank and dark, the woods have a different taste, which does not quite match the ember-fall, sugar-brown shaken leaves.

Alt Hist No More

Sadly, Alt Hist has published its final issue. Or rather, Mark Lord has understandably, given multiple demands, decided to step back from publishing it.

Mark published two of my own stories in Alt Hist – Dublin Can Be Heaven and Lackendarra – but aside from that, I am grateful to him for 10 consistently interesting, thought provoking collections of historical fiction with a bit of a twist.

A while back I blogged that another outlet for my writing, The Dabbler, was no more. However it is now back again I am glad to report. So perhaps this will not be the end of Alt Hist forever – but obviously that is Mark’s decision to make in the future.

Review of “Old Friends”, Tracy Kidder, 2000

This was written in around 2000 and originally appeared in The Magazine, a zine I self produced a few issues of. I ended up posting the review on Amazon  – there’s probably a morality tale there. I wrote this when I was 21 or 22, hence the references to “we young people.” Since this, I have had a lot more experience of nursing homes, and yet I wouldn’t change much about the review, although I might if I re-read the book (which was the subject of a scalding review by Mary Gordon in the New York Times)

Oddly enough I can’t find the cover of the book I read online – which featured a black and white photo of an older man and a younger man in a diner. Perhaps it was the UK edition or somesuch. The internet can blind one….

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“For most of those long-lived, ailing people, Linda Manor represented all the permanence that life still had to offer. It was their home for the duration, their last place on earth.”

Thus writes Tracy Kidder in “Old Friends”, an account of life in Linda Manor, a Massachussets old folk’s home. It would be a useful exercise to watch a day’s television and see how many elderly people are featured. The old are increasingly invisible in our society. Once respect for one’s elders was a maxim in most cultures. Now all has changed in the consumer capitalist west; with a prevalent worship of a narrowly-defined sense of “youth” – physically slim, impulsive, impatient; and the traditional virtues of the elderly – experience, deliberation, rumination – are derided in that accurate barometer of the spirit of the times, advertising. In medical training, there is an unspoken but clear bias against the elderly; students are advised to ensure that the stereotypically scatty little old lady sticks to matters of strict clinical relevance.
The notion that we have anything to learn from the elderly has disappeared from most contemporary culture. The elderly are a nuisance, a problem to be medicated and managed and forgotten. Kidder’s book – unsentimental and heartbreaking, a clear-eyed portrait full of dignity and beauty and humour – is a counterblast to the cult of youth and the pathologising of old age. Increasingly we, as young people, live lives surrounded by people of our own age only – the decline of large families mean that we are less likely to have infant siblings or indeed much older siblings, while the large extended family gathering is increasingly dwindling.
The blurb on the back of “Old Friends” begins:”What’s wrong with Tracy Kidder? A robust man, even a youthful one, a father fit and healthy, with years of life ahead of him: why did he voluntarily enter an old people’s home?” One might fear a self-fixated meditation on the authors own concerns; but Kidder is an absent presence in the book; he gives his elderly cast the stage. The focus is mainly on Lou, a serene, wise ninety year old Philadelphian; and his roommate Joe, a tempermental impatient seventy-two year old who chafes at existence in the home after an active life.

Kidder presumably had an extraordinary degree of access; not merely physical but also emotional. We are taken into the rooms of the dying, the deepest fears of those who will shortly join their ranks, the sadness and guilt of relatives. We see the power structure of the nursing home, a relatively enlightened one where nevertheless elderly people with enormous professional and administrative experience are made – with the best intentions – to feel like children.
We learn from the elderly in this book; and the elderly learn from each other. The gruff taciturn Joe is gently coached by Lou into telling his wife he loves her. Joe and Lou coach the staff of Linda Manor in tact and sensitivity- for example the hearty “Did you have a bowel movement today?” is replaced by the less intrusive”Did you or didn’t you?” The full emotional range is here; love, ambition, anger, jealousy, pride; life in its most distilled, pure form – life facing

Review of Greatest Uncommon Denominator #6, Summer 2010, SF Site

Following reposting my review of GUD#5 here is my review of GUD#6. Following this I had interesting correspondence with Lou Antonelli and Jim Pascual Agustin

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Following my review of GUD Issue 5, it was a pleasure to receive the next volume to review. This edition of the high-quality, book-sized journal features Dave Migman’s “Flat Worm” on the cover, a darker image than MichaelO’s cover for GUD #5. “Flat Worm” shows what could best be described as a bronze skeleton of what looks like a trilobite with vertebrae (I am very very open to correction on this), on a stony background.

This cover image sets the tone for a somewhat darker collection this time. There seems to be a lot more poems (of higher quality generally, I especially liked Jim Pascual Agustin’s “Sand Clings To Me Toes, Daddy” with its capturing of one of those moments in childhood that are both magical and sad, presaging the inevitable passage of time), the stories seem to be longer, and there are none of the short comics of the previous volume. As well as being longer, I detected a darker tone to these stories.

One, Lavie Tidhar’s “The Last Butterfly,” deals with the darkest subject it is possible to tackle in fiction — the holocaust. In the last weeks of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a young girl already forced into premature disillusionment with the world (interesting how anthologies provide counterpoints, in this case with the girl of Agustin’s poem) encounters a mysterious artist amidst the horror.

Caroline M. Yoachim’s “What Happens in Vegas” gives us a succession of points of view of a love quadrangle (of sorts) in a world in which a drug called munin, which induces a sort of Korsakoff syndrome in which memories cannot be laid down, and is used to facilitate orgies. This story is a portrait of a marriage in decline, under the stress of disease and disillusion, as well as an ironically entertaining portrait of the pursuit of controlled irresponsibility.

Lydia Ondrusek’s “Hateful” is another depiction of family life; this time a woman who dreams that those she hates will never die, while those she loves will. This is a touching vignette really of a self-sacrificing mother and her world.

The longest story here is Lou Antonelli’s “Dispatches From the Troubles,” which takes the form of a series of newspaper stories from an alternate history universe in which an American Irish Republic was established in 1850, between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River. New York born Eamon de Valera did not return to Ireland as a child but remained in America (as Edward de Valera) and became the universally beloved President of the AIR in the early to mid-twentieth century. There was no partition of Ireland into Free State and Northern Ireland in 1921, but the victorious IRA gave the Loyalist and Unionist communities in Ireland the choice of “the suitcase or the coffin,” leading to mass emigration to the AIR. The mock news stories discuss the descent of the AIR, which has a sizeable Loyalist (or “Orange”) minority, into sectarian strife that in some ways mirrors what happened in Northern Ireland from the late 60s.

It is interesting, as an Irish reader, to encounter this alternate history universe. There are lots of entertainingly tweaked versions of real life figures, from William F. Buckley (a sectarian Catholic rabble rouser here, with his loquacious use of language intact) to “John” Paisley (an Americanised Ian Paisley) and a lot of clever references to real events. I must say however that something about the whole conceit did not ring true; an odd thing to say about an alternate history, but after all one of the tests of good alt history is whether it feels like “this could have happened.” Certainly the ultimate outcome of the story (which I won’t reveal) does not reflect anything that happened in Northern Ireland. There were also some odd references to the Orange community being enthusiasts of “Irish football,” which if it is meant to be Gaelic Football seems unlikely. Perhaps it is some kind of AIR version of gridiron. Antonelli’s correspondents (who include R.W. Apple, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson) make a few solecisms with the real historical record; for instance Apple describes the Battle of the Boyne as “a famous victory over Catholic forces.” As William Of Orange’s supporters included the Pope, and you can’t get more Catholic than that, “Jacobite” would have been more accurate.

In any case, the story is diverting and, as with the previous GUD issue, this is a collection worth reading.