Not once, but two or three or four times a day, I make life-or-death decisions. I decide what lives and what dies. Sometimes those decisions are easy; other times I’m crippled by indecision. Read more
When your bestie’s birthday is a couple of days before yours, it’s generally a good thing. Back in the day when we lived on the same continent, we’d celebrate in style. But when she shrugged off her mortal coil and departed this Earth way ahead of schedule, the closeness of our birthdays makes mine much more poignant. It was hard, at first. Her memorial, some four months after her death, marked what would have been her 50th. I flew out to San Francisco to be there. It was a strange affair. Six years later, it’s still strange.
It’s not about survivor’s guilt. People die. Life will eventually kill us all. I have a rather pragmatic approach to death coupled with a somewhat morbid fascination with cemeteries I don’t fear it. I might certainly resent it, if it came too early (right now I figure 87 is my best-by year) but I’m not afraid of it. I’m more afraid of not living. Wasn’t it Cardinal Newman who said:
‘Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but that it shall never have a beginning.’
This fear of not living translates into what some might interpret as an inability to sit still. Or a reluctance to stop doing. Or an incessant need to be on the go. It’s been said of me (all too often) that I have a thing for burning the candle at both ends. And lately, on the rare days that I’m in Budapest, that could well be the case.
I keep two calendars (online and paper-based) which I often update after the fact. I also read a lot of crime fiction. Add the two together and you might just glimpse the shirttails of a need to be able to produce an alibi, were I ever to stand accused of something I didn’t do. As has become the norm this time of year, my thoughts focus more than usual on death and dying. I’m also on Book 6 of a six-book series by PB Byrne set in post-Civil-War Boston featuring the admirable Nell Sweeney, which I highly recommend. There’s death everywhere. I was struck today by the thought that were I to die in suspicious circumstances, say, this coming Friday, the cops would unearth my online calendar to check my comings and goings and take my birthday week alone, they’d rightly think that I’m living a blessed life.
Thursday, coincidently, was my monthly pamper day. Friday was one to catch up with a series of friends I’ve not seen in a while. It spilt over well into Saturday morning. That day continued with a trip to Korda Film Studios, just outside Budapest, followed by lunch in a family-run makeshift restaurant in Eygtek and a trip to the local baths that evening. Sunday, I spent volunteering at a local nursery before heading to the hills for dinner with friends who gave me a present of a fabulous old floral-painted Hungarian shelf that has completely reversed my plans for the kitchen in the village. Monday, I visited one friend’s theatre, had lunch with another to discuss a book project, met a third for coffee (and received another piece of old floral-painted Hungarian furniture that has also changed what I’d planned to do with my office in the village). Then I had my hair done followed by drinks with she who has known me longest in BP. Today I was over in Torley for a guided tour and wine-tasting (a b/day present). And even though the tour was in Hungarian and for the most part lost on me, the time spent in the cool cellars far from the 36 degrees outside, were magical. The next few days are also full, with the highlights being a visit to the Frida Kahlo exhibition and an evening with the fab Ripoff Raskolnikov in Kobuci Kert. This then is topped off by a train trip to Warsaw to see Ed Sheeran do this thing.
Were my life always this manic, I’d not be worth a fraction of the envy some people might feel. But when you concentrate on living in the city for a few days each month, then that time is really all go and a nice complement to the days in the village where the most exciting thing that might happen is that a tomato turns red. Or the pears finally ripen. Or the moles go on holiday.
Death, any death, but particularly death that comes before its time, has a way of urging us to live life to the fullest. And for that I’m grateful.
As yet another year draws to a close, I find my reaction to 2016 summing itself up in three letters: WTF? Yes, I have a tendency to wish my life away at times and I’m working on valuing every day as it comes, but this is one year that I’ll be glad to see the back of. I’d been warned by some mystic or other that it would be a bad year for men – in that a lot of them would die. And they weren’t wrong there. I can’t speak for the figures but the number of famous lads who popped off the face of the Earth this year is a little staggering – Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen …. and the latest only the other day – Rick Parfitt. And we still have a week to go. Am glad I’m not male and famous.
It was a year of crazy decisions that will have consequences for years to come. Voters went a little mad methinks, revolting in their way against what they saw as the status quo. And while it would be a boring world indeed if we all agreed on everything, the foundations have been laid on which the future will be built – and right now, I can’t say I have a lot of faith in tomorrow.
Man’s inhumanity to man seems to know no bounds. Wars and atrocities continue unabated in Syria, Yemen, Israel, Palestine, the Philippines…. the value of human life seems to be spiraling downwards. Christmas shoppers in Berlin, concert-goers in Paris, a man in his 60s getting out of his car in Dublin – the last-day lottery. Personal safety is becoming thing of the past.
Homeless figures in Dublin are staggering. As they are in many other cities around the world. And this while buildings stand empty in the clutches of the receivers. If I had one wish for Christmas it would be that we’d have less of ‘We can’t do it because….’ and more of ‘We can do it, if….’ That would be some present for the world.
And speaking of presents, I got an amazing one this year from a very dear friend in California – a simple handmade paper star bearing the word, restoration. Naturally, there’s a story behind it, but there’s one ahead of it, too. This is the word that will guide me in 2017, a word that has already taken root inside me.
While the world was losing its marbles this year, my little world was tripping along rather nicely, thank you very much. It did a minor 180 degree spin with life taking on a momentum of its own. Quick decisions were made, the kind that have lasting consequences. I seem to have accumulated more material trappings (a house, a car, a hula hoop). And while I had thought I wanted travel and freedom and the excitement of never knowing where to next month, I find myself craving the countryside, the quiet, the calm.
For the first time in living memory, I can think of somewhere I’d rather be this Christmas. The rather is marginal, mind you, but it’s there. I find myself reevaluating what I mean by home and where it is. Nancy Reagan said once that homes are really no more than the people who live in them. And while it’s really great to be back in Ireland, I’m looking forward to going home soon. Yes, it’s a home-in-the-making, but it’s one I’m extremely grateful for. Who’d have thunk it, eh? Could I be growing up?
Nollaig shona agus athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh go léir.
Back in January 2009, having moved into a newly refurbished flat that was no where near as finished as I’d hoped it to be, I had forsaken my right to call the landlord when something went wrong. I was the landlord.
Far from the near ecstasy I’d expected, I was feeling a little blah. Somehow I’d thought that being a property owner came with a newfound sense of maturity, an entry into the adulthood that had so far escaped me. But I felt no different.
I wasn’t depressed. I’ve suffered from depression and I don’t use the term lightly. It was more of a general WTF feeling. The anticlimax of reaching a goal, realising that life hadn’t changed all that much, and wondering what next.
I was in contact with a number of people around the world who were following my move to Budapest with some interest. Back then, I wrote real letters. I’d spend an afternoon in a bar over a few pints, penning away on my foolscap pages (lined, of course) and then braving the post office. Someone mentioned blogging. Explained that I could write and post and let people know what was going on. If they wanted to read, they would read. And it would give me something to do.
So I started.
On Friday, I posted my 1000th post. Hard to believe. What began as an account of my renovation/refurnishing morphed into a travel blog peppered with random reviews, a grateful series, and some general commentary on stuff. It’s fascinating to see what catches people’s attention. My most popular post-in-a-day with 407 hits in just one day began like this:
I fell completely, madly, hopelessly in love today. I’d met him before, briefly, a couple of years ago, and while mildly taken with him then, it was nothing compared to what I experienced today. A drop in the ocean. A grain of rice in a paddy field. A grape in a vineyard. Today, I fell hook, line, and sinker. He’s cute. He’s blonde. He’s constantly smiling. And he’s two.
[Update: Finn now has a lovely little sister and is still making the world smile.]
My piece on Ágnes Gereb got more than 1100 hits…
While the rest of us have been busy getting on with our lives, most likely taking our freedom and ability to travel from A to B completely for granted, Dr Ágnes Geréb is still in detention, of sorts. Can it really be five years since I first wrote about her? Yes. I checked the dates. My piece published in the Budapest Times on 25 October 2010. And that’s as good as five years ago.
[Update: Ágnes is still battling for that same freedom the rest of us take for granted.]
One of the most read posts, with close on 700 curious to know more, also involved people. It began:
I love a good speech. And I love a good wedding. And it doesn’t get much better when you have both together. One of the lucky ones who got to see the gorgeous Dora Nyiregyhazki marry the equally gorgeous Edward Quinlan in Budapest yesterday, I was struck, not for the first time, by the wonder that is marriage.
[Update: Mr and Mrs Quinlan are still poster children for the institution of marriage.]
A piece on migrants in Hungary also got a lot of attention:
Hungary has made the news in Ireland. When I was there last week it seemed like all anyone was talking about was the migration situation. Pictures of Keleti train station. Pictures of Szeged. Pictures of the fence. Pictures of families sitting, waiting for an uncertain future. The one overriding question asked of me was “Is it as bad as they say?” And the only answer to that is no. It’s worse.
[Update: Syrian refugees (and many others) as still fleeing to Europe and Europe is still dithering about what to do.]
Given the month that’s in it, and in memory of the man who never failed to make me laugh, I can’t not mention Ronnie (RIP).
Each year, for the last four years, Ronnie Thompson would come to Budapest in March. The Londoner visited at other times, too, but it was his March visits that I best remember. Ronnie wouldn’t have won any prizes for being the tallest chap in the room, but he made up for it by being larger than life itself when he headed up the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in the city. Ronnie was our mascot – our leprechaun – our piece of magic that made the day special.
[Update: Ronnie was spoken of fondly at the recent St Patrick’s Day parade and was missed by many. Hope he was having a dram or three upstairs as he looked down on the shenanigans.]
All human interest. All stuff I like to write about. But I have a varied audience. Some are regular readers, some dip in and out, some save and catch up in bulk. When I travel, I write for a core few who, for whatever reason, don’t get to move around as much as they used to. And while those posts may not rack up the numbers, they’re even more important … to me. They’re my postcards, my letters from abroad, my way of staying in touch with people I’ve met along the way. People who have contributed to making me the person I am today. For better or worse 🙂
Thank you for reading.
I heard with great sadness that a South African friend of mine passed away this weekend. Being an inveterate romantic, he picked a good weekend to go. I met this wily nonagenarian when I was visiting his country in 2010 and immensely enjoyed the five days I spent at his home.
Since then, we enjoyed a semi-regular email correspondence that went in fits and spurts as the humour took him. I might hear from him every day for a week and then nothing for a month or three. Mixed in with the litany of complaints, which ranged from having no one of sound mind to talk to (the downside, he said, of living to such a great age), to the South African mail going on strike, L always had something interesting to say: an observation, a throwaway remark about times gone by, a fleeting thought so prescient that at times I wondered if he did indeed have second sight.
While I was in South Africa he found in me a willing ear for stories others had long since tired of hearing (could that man talk!). I was fascinated. By him, by the country, by everything that I had misunderstood and still failed to understand. He described me, back in 2011, in the first of his many emails, as a soundbox – a sort of drum that if someone strikes you can hear what the music means. In other words, he explained, I had acquired the ability to listen.
He had it in his head that I was a journalist and as I quickly learned, once he got something in his head, it was there to stay. No amount of explaining could shift that notion and in the years that followed he regularly sent me snippets of his memoirs, stories that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. He told me that I was shrewd enough to realise that people loved to talk about themselves and now that I’d asked the question – Tell me L, tell me about your life – he’d take his time in answering.
In 2011, he wrote to tell me that he’d been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and that he had taken to writing poetry. He sent me this:
THE MAN THAT WAS
What are you staring at?
Did you see a ghost?
I will tell you what you saw!
You saw a man
Dressed in a Sheepskin coat that is glazed with dirt,
A hound that is going through Hell,
And now without the strength of a louse.
When I look in the mirror in front of me
I can understand why you are staring,
Then when I look in the mirror behind me
What do I see?
I see a dangerous giant,
Again I look at the mirror in front of me,
I cannot reconcile the two pictures, these pictures
But this I must state, and my words are true,
Where you are, I have long since been,
Where I am, you will sure arrive.
I tell you my words are straight,
And there is nothing you can do,
So Dear friend out of the past
I bid you farewell.
He said I’d recognise in it strains of Dan McGrew and Jack London – I didn’t. I just saw his fear in facing his mortality.
In the next few years, he told me stories of his father who fought in the Battle of Majuba Hill in 1881. I met Rassie, a reformed alcoholic gifted in the art of laying sewage pipes. I met Steenkamp, a mechanic who talked to his machines. And I met the infamous Polly, whose hands touched every major dam built in the country. I heard tales of working in RSA, of machines shops and idiotic laws, of drunken skirmishes and life lessons. I read of Bezuidenhout and his two wives, and L’s days on the ham radio with General de Villiers and how he was honoured to hold the man’s hand at his death. Each email brought something new. He told me stories of growing up amongst the Zulu. He told me of their customs, their games, their code of honour. He gave me a rare insight in to a world I would never see for myself.
English wasn’t L’s mother tongue and at times I wondered if I understood what he was telling me. My attempts to clarify things only made them worse. He expected so much of me that it was difficult for him to accept that I simply didn’t understand. Neither of us had much patience so there were a few virtual skirmishes and email hang-ups but eventually one of us caved.
His crowning glory in life, what he saw as his biggest success was that he ‘produced two most brilliant children’ and if ever a father was proud of his girls, L was.
What occupied him most lately was God, religion and life after death. ‘So you see, my dear Mary, after all these years of reading far and wide, I have to make up my mind where I stand.’
The most upsetting of all was when he said he could not write because of his deteriorating health. He thanked me for being ready to look at his views and he hoped that in the dim future that I would ‘sometime think of what an old, decrepit man had to say about the world in general’. And then he bounced back.
This happened a couple of times but this time, as the emails became more difficult to read and his frustration at the keyboard not typing what was in his head became more obvious, I began to doubt if he’d see his 100th birthday. And he didn’t.
This week, I’m grateful, extremely grateful, that I got to know L, however superficially, however briefly. The side I saw of this multifaceted man was quite remarkable. And my world will be a little less bright without his emails. He’d have liked to have had the last word, so I’ll borrow his:
So Dear friend out of the past
I bid you farewell.
Many years ago, I went to see a psychic of sorts near Oxford. She had worked with the local police on a few cases and had quite the reputation. I can’t for the life of me remember anything she told me, apart from an answer to an off-the-cuff question I asked as I was leaving. Would I ever be published? Her answer: Yes, your poetry will be well received. Poems? Mine?
I quite fancied that idea for a while, as back in my twenties I had a bit of reputation for being able to jot down a ditty about someone, on the spot, usually in the pub or at a party, and then recite it to great acclaim. Needless to say the acclaim was more in proportion to the number of pints that had been consumed than to my skill as a poet.
Then, about three years ago, in Budapest, I had the good fortune to meet the talented Neil McCarthy. And I knew for certain that whatever latent talent I might have with words didn’t come close to how he can master his. I was mesmerised. A few months ago, I asked Neil to pen a poem in memory of my mate Lori, who died a year ago today, aged 49. I miss her terribly. And while I know that she’s at work on my behalf and probably ratcheting up the fun factor upstairs, the pain of her passing is showing no sign of dissipating. I talked to Neil about her at length. He read some blogs I had written while she was ill. And then he patiently set to work, drafting a memorial. I returned each one with comments. I didn’t know quite what I wanted it to say but knew that if he could capture the essence of what I am feeling, I’d recognise it. We went back and forth until earlier this week when I received the final version. I think it’s beautiful.
Today, as I scatter some of Lori’s ashes from the Charles Bridge – she always wanted to go to Prague – I’ll read it to her. And I’ll remind myself, for the millionth time since her death 12 months ago, that life is too short to wonder what if. We owe it to ourselves, and to those who have gone before us, to make the most of today, to live life to its fullest, and to make sure that nothing that matters is left unsaid. I love you, girl.
A breath of wind through the long grass
i.m. Lori Stephens
Rest assured that the storm will never settle long enough for a smooth crossing,
that the tide has tied tightly its opus of memory to the stern of the boat; nor will
an enduring thought or concern from the shore settle into any intelligible order,
disruptive as a breath of wind through the long grass harrying the sands beneath.
Hindsight is a delicate bequest when surveyed from a careful enough distance,
smiles stifled by grief once again coming to the forefront; a break in the weather
or a high pressure moving in from the sea – perhaps the face of the forecaster in
the hall mirror announcing with buoyancy that we are all but over the worst of it.
There is no space wide enough for consolation to take root, no exemplary words
to sate the hollowness, no charts to leisurely unfold and map the geography of loss. Faraway cities run blue dye through the retina and birds move in, circling, drifting, diverting attention as the world below races on, stumbling every now and again. San Francisco comes thundering back, slows once it’s found itself perfectly still in the focus of your attention, as if a cinematographer has rolled back a velvet curtain in your thoughts and adjusted the resolution of that view from Columbus Avenue, the traffic out on the Bay in no rush whatsoever to get anywhere in particular.
You make your offerings to the gods with trembling hands, not quite sure whether or not they will be received; or if through your hesitation and reluctance to let go they will be blown clean from your grasp, as a breath of wind through the long grass passes ever so gently, touches the back of your neck, carries her words onwards. To stand and take this moment in is to feel the world shrink; to walk the cobbled streets of Prague, shake your head in wonder at the distance you have brought her; to pause on Charles Bridge and wait for a break in the clouds to encourage you with the swans asleep on the gentle lap of the Vltava like a white flag on the water.
As Easter beckons and as my mate Lori’s first anniversary draws near, I find myself thinking more and more about death – not that I have any intention of popping my clogs any time soon. I feel in some odd way that life is just beginning. Convinced as I am that I’ll live till the ripe old age of 87, I’ve time yet to fit in the odd piece of reflection.
In Hawaii earlier this year, I went to visit a cemetery. I’ve written before of this odd fascination I have with graves and tombstones and all things cemeterial (is there such a word?). While I thought it difficult enough to marry snowmen and sunshine, I found it a tad surreal to see the graves sporting Christmas trees, too.
As with most of the cemeteries I’ve visited, the graves showed varying degrees of care and neglect. Some of the occupants seemed to have been the last in line, or perhaps the last in a line of those who cared enough to keep vigil. Oddly enough, although I rarely visit a town or city without paying my respects at the local graveyard, I have no great attachment to the graves of those deceased members in my own family. Perhaps it’s because the graves in Ireland are so sterile, so lacking personality, so … dead. Or then again, perhaps it’s because my close friends who have died have all eschewed a lasting marker and opted instead to be cremated.
I think (99.9% certain) that I’m going to opt for the burning, too. I’ve gotten used to having a little bit of Lori sitting on my kitchen table and find myself talking to her quite regularly. I know she’s been working her magic for me and I’ve seen first hand the results of her interventions on my behalf. And, of course, there’s the beauty that ashes are so portable. Physical graves are all well and good for those who stay put and are available to tend their dead, but I’ve seen too many testify to the transience of time and memory. The Jewish cemetery in Budapest is a case in point.
Hawaiians are a happy people despite being nearly eradicated by disease when Captain Cook discovered the islands. This celebration of life shows even in their death. Perhaps the most poignant of all the graves I saw that day was a simple white cross around which a wild tomato vine was bearing fruit. This juxtaposition of life and death was a beautiful reminder than even in death, the dead live on.
I’ve spent the last three hours crying my eyes out. All because of a five-minute telephone conversation. San Francisco to Budapest. My best friend’s husband and me. This time last year, Lori was to be in Budapest – between trips to Prague and Subotica. Two days before she was due to travel, she had some tests. The doctors suggested that she waited on the results before she travelled and six weeks later, she was dead.
I have some of her ashes sitting in an urn on my kitchen table. On March 28th, I will take them to Prague and the next day, on the first anniversary of her death, I will scatter them from the Charles Bridge. She always wanted to go to Prague. Typical American – her terminology, not mine.
My friends in Ireland met her. They know her smile, her irreverence, her attitude to life. My friends in Budapest never got to meet her. They never met the woman who has had such a profound influence on my life. It’s not their fault. It couldn’t be helped. The plan was there.
But although I know I’m surrounded by good mates who mean me well; although I know there are many who would talk me through the night; although I know I have as good a friend in one or two in this city, I still feel so horrendously alone because no one here knew her.
I spoke tonight to her husband. I know what this month will entail for him, and yet in a strange way I’m envious. He gets to grieve with those who knew Lori, with those who loved her, too. It won’t make it easier, or better, or happier. It won’t take from the fact that a woman in her prime, with so much to offer, was taken from this life too early. But at least he’s not alone. For that I’m thankful.
For me – I need to get on with living. And to accept the fact that I chose to live away from home. I’ve made my bed, and if, at times, it’s uncomfortable and lonely, I’ve made that choice and I need to learn to live with it.
To all those who have lost a loved one and have to grieve alone – my sympathy. To those in BP who might see me dissolve in tears in the course of the next month or so, take heed. Ignore me. In the words of Gloria Gaynor – I will survive.
To my mate Lori – I so wish you’d made it to Budapest and had met the friends I’ve made. You’d have liked them … well most of them, anyway! Be at peace my friend – watch over me and mind my way.