Irish American

This blog post is a week late, but you will have to forgive me. I was too busy celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with my family.

The Feast of Saint Patrick is held annually on March 17, which coincides with the traditional death date of this patron saint of Ireland. St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival, all thanks to us Irish diaspora, those of us who are the descendants of Irish refugees. I am officially 2/3 Irish, with Welsh and western Europe making up the rest. The right to register as an Irish citizen terminates at the third generation and since my Catholic ancestors were forced to emigrate to the United States during the Irish famines of the late 1800’s, I cannot claim Irish citizenry and am considered an American. Fair enough.

I have been told that it is in my DNA to go to Catholic Mass, then hit the Irish pub and I suppose it is. Many authors have chosen to compose in pubs. Drinkers with writing problems. But unlike bars, pubs are ‘public houses’- social spaces to meet your neighbors over a pint and conversation. They are a different animal than your run of the mill bar. If there are rooms to rent overnight, they are called an inn. Strange concept for most Americans and yet so common in the old country. There are poetry readings, live music, and céilidh dancing. I can always pick out the non-Irish by not only the way they look but also by the confusion on their face. They sit uncomfortable while the rest of us clap and sing and dance shamelessly, even while sober.

I know no other culture than Irish American Catholic.

There is a weird phenomenon among Irish Americans, a sort of posturing with one another about who is ‘more Irish’. It is really stupid. I understand it though. I believe that the 500 years of occupation by the English and their systemic attempt to eradicate Irish culture, language, and religion developed this tight grip, this desperation among the Irish people to hold on to their identity. Maintain the old and stay ever true to it. That came over with them and that is perpetuated by their offspring.

When people get up in my face about how much ‘more Irish’ they are than I am, it starts to piss me off. I will then ask them what county their family comes from. They generally do not know what I am talking about and if they do, they don’t know the answer. Mom’s family is from County Mayo & Leitrim. Dad’s family is from County Carlow & Waterford. I’ve had native Irish comment how my parents’ families come from the north and the south, but they met in the Midwestern United States. All of the Troubles mattered less and less.

Corned beef and cabbage is not an Irish dinner. It is an Irish American dinner commemorating our immigration and poverty. It was the most affordable food for a special celebration, regular beef being expensive and out of the reach of most Irish households. Both corned beef and cabbage were ingredients of the lower working class.

And don’t pinch me if I fail in the wearin’ of the green. You, joe-average American, don’t know why we do it. You puke your green beer in Wrigleyville and perpetuate negative stereotypes of the Irish people as a bunch of violent drunks. That color is the color of the landscape and the color associated with St. Patrick, who legend says converted all us pagan Celts to Christianity using the shamrock to explain the holy trinity. But the wearing of the green in about Irish nationalism. At one point the British outlawed that color. So you see, the wearing of the green is an act of rebellion.

Learn your history.

There is song I sing every year to celebrate the day: Thousands Are Sailing by the Pogues. Not a traditional ballad by any standard but the story of my family and the family of millions of other Americans. The lyrics sum it up pretty well:

“Thousands are sailing
Across the western ocean
Where the hand of opportunity
Draws tickets in a lottery
Where e’er we go, we celebrate
The land that makes us refugees
From fear of priests with empty plates
From guilt and weeping effigies
And we dance to the music and we dance…”

-Written by Phil Chevron, featured on The Pogues’ album If I Should Fall from Grace with God.

le grá go deo

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, March 2019


Reference materials for this blog post:

St Patrick Day: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick%27s_Day
Irish Diaspora: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_diaspora
Thousands Are Sailing by the Pogues: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thousands_Are_Sailing

Stuff

I bought a dresser.

When I walked into my apartment on May 11, 2013 after a fire incinerated everything that I owned, I had little more than a garbage bag of clothes, a grocery bag of canned goods, an alarm clock, and a cot. The only piece of furniture I still had was a kitchen island with bar chairs that had remained in my car in its original box. I could not carry it up the three flights of stairs to my loft with a herniated back, so it survived and serves as my kitchen table now.

Like my clothing, I received a lot of second-hand furniture and household items for the living room and kitchen. For my bedroom, I bought crappy put-it-together-yourself furniture from a big box store. This winter, the bottoms of the bottom three drawers of my dresser all fell out at the same time. There was wardrobe everywhere. After years of trying to reassemble it, I gave up. I bought a real dresser. Thank God we celebrate President’s Day with up to 70% off all furniture…

But the truth is, it’s not the crappy dresser’s fault. I was trying to stuff too much stuff into it and it exploded. And as I look around my home today, it is bursting with items that seemed to just appear one day and never left. I walked in here with nothing and now six years later there is too much. But isn’t this how it goes for all of us? We live in our hovels with an ever-expanding pile of stuff that creeps up so slowly that we don’t notice it- until there isn’t room to live in our living rooms. Unless we move, we are not really forced to take stock of our stock.

This has all got me thinking about what happens to the heap after we are gone.

My mom has terminal blood cancer and is now too tired to consider sorting out her stuff. 2013 stands as the worst year of my life because, among other things, in January, my childhood home burned and then in April, my apartment burned- four months and 400 miles away. All of my stuff ended up in a dumpster in front of the building. All of my mom’s stuff went into storage. This means that when she is gone, we inherit the pile of products. We have to shift the shit.

Consider the difficulty of letting material things go. I was able to take the tack that no one died and the rest can be replaced. It helped that miraculously, all of my photos and the hand-written copies of my writing survived. I was also given only 24 hours to get out of the burned-out shell of what was my life. I didn’t have time to reminisce. If my friends had not come to help me, I have no idea what I would have done.

My mom could not bring herself to do it. Always, it would be someday that she would get her stuff back or go through it. She had to downsize into a smaller house so my advice to her was, take a picture of the thing and then get rid of the thing. You don’t need the thing. What you are after are the memories and the feelings the thing provides. Unfortunately, she didn’t do this and any suggestion that we help her sort through it was met with stubborn resistance.

Now we are at the end.

First, we will make good memories. Next, we will walk through health decline and hospice. Then the funeral. Then the estate. It would be easy for me to get angry, but I think about the 45 years my mom lived in her home, the cancer she was diagnosed with shortly after it burned, and the MDS she was at risk of developing from the radiation treatments that now will take her life. She just didn’t have it in her.

And time flies.

If this experience does anything, please let it teach me to keep my home in better order, to dispose of things in a timely manner. I want to enjoy my space. I would like to have people and laughter fill my home rather than piles of paper, knickknacks, yesterday’s fashion… Maybe buying new, quality furniture is just the kick in the pants I need. It’s the return of feeling invested in my own life, my own happiness.

That feeling has been gone way too long…

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, March 2019

Apple Tree

Every apple
Every last Macintosh
Has a hole in it
No holes before
Dad died
Now the tree sags
Weight of unwanted fruit
Scent hangs heavy
Apples drop
Rot on the ground
Memory preserves
Harvested bushels
Apple pies, apple butter
Dad had a gift
To tend life into green
Growing things
Twenty years later
It is old and dying
Animals live off its bounty
Insects, birds, and rodents
His care gives life still

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, March 2005

Wardrobe

My mother has terminal blood cancer (MDS). Year 2020 is not guaranteed to her. If I were being honest, year 2020 is not guaranteed to any of us. I live 400 miles away and she is not online, so the telephone is all I have. Calls have become more frequent as I try to support her during the twilight of her life.

A recent conversation came up around the subject of clothing. She said she needs to buy some clothes but didn’t want to waste the money because she’s at the end. I told her to go out and buy designer clothes. It’s not as if you can take your money with you and just because you feel like shit does not mean you have to look like shit.

In all seriousness, if not now when?

Then the conversation led to her burial clothes. She designated an outfit that she only wore once, hanging in her closet, that was “good enough”. She mentioned that when she had this same conversation with her own mother, it upset her. Designating her final clothing does not upset me but the lack of careful consideration does. But I’m the same.

Put my body in whatever dress and throw me in the ground.

I want dignity for her life. Dignity for her end of life. I offered to drive down and take her shopping, but she didn’t sound interested. Mom was never one for consideration of fashion or ‘Girls’ Day Out’. She did try to look nice but more often the choice was dictated by what was on sale, on clearance, good enough… What difference does it make if it’s clean and looks decent?

But it does make a difference, doesn’t it?

I am a taller than average woman at just over 5”9’. If I wear heels, I am stacked to about 6-feet. Brick house. I’ve been asked to wear flats and slouch by a short date- his ego, not mine. I’ve watched other big women try to shrink, try to look smaller than the body they were born into.

I’ve done it too at various points of my life depending on what was going on inside of me. Mostly I wanted to disappear, to be left alone to deal with my pain and grief. But shriveling up your outside self, and inside yourself, in the hopes that you will not be noticed never protected anyone. You end up a target either way.

I am what I am.

I remain the same person whether in my Frye motorcycle boots or my cycling shorts. I can be statuesque in a floor-length dress or have legs for days in a miniskirt. I wear business casual for work, Boho-chic for hanging out, frumpy mom sweaters when I am too through… I may not wear anything to bed. But in all cases, I am the same being.

I think a lot about the role of clothing in a society. I was in theater as a young person and have always been fascinated with costuming. And costuming is what we do everyday of our lives. It’s about ego, status, and advertising: This is who I am. This is how much money I have. This is the sub-culture I belong to.

There are dress codes for a reason- to reduce friction, reduce distraction. Create as welcoming (antiseptic) of an environment as possible. Stay clean and subdued so that others may feel safe. In business, we are not there to make friends. We are there to get the job done and get along as well as we can with customers and co-workers. The product of the industry determines the dress code.

I don’t want my lawyer, therapist, or surgeon to dress like a beach bum while on the job. Sorry.

On the flip side is individual expression and counter-culture. If you don’t dress like a member of the club, you’re clearly not in the club. You must dress a certain way to show that you are an artist, a computer nerd, a sports fan, a devotee of religion, etc. There is a standard you must meet and that changes depending on who you are interacting with. The guy with the painted face at the football game is going to have an opinion about you if he thinks you dress like a fair-weather fan… And God help you if you don’t look ‘cool’ around a bunch of ‘artists’. If your reflected glory does not put enough coins in their ego bank, you best exit the scene no matter how talented you are.

FYI: your store-bought counter culture doesn’t make you a more interesting person.

For years, I’ve wanted to conduct an experiment: once a week, dress in any sort of subculture that I can think of, go to Mall of America on a Saturday, and see what happens. How do people respond and why? Because it’s not me- it’s them. I am the same person. I have seen some girls online who have conducted these kinds of experiments regarding their weight or clothing and it’s fantastic. Expose that cultural pressure, that bias we all must deal with in one way or another.

I currently wear a winter hat that looks like an artic fox fell asleep on my head. I found it at Glacier National Park in Montana in 2017. I fell in love with it but hesitated to buy it. I was convinced I was too old, it was too garish, that it was meant for some hot ski chick in tight pants. My niece encouraged me, so I bought it but was unsure when I wore it outside for the first time.

I really underestimated how Minnesotans appreciate a great winter hat. I have mostly received compliments. And it really makes a statement- a big fuzzy white hat against a fitted black coat. It’s not the kind of hat most people could pull off wearing.

But the truth is, it’s not the hat. It’s me.

So what statement do our final clothes make? What is the importance of how you are dressed in your coffin? Funerals are for the living but it’s also about dignity. How can I maintain my mother’s dignity through these final months and honor her final wishes in the end?

My father was buried in an expensive three-piece suit. He wore that every day of his career as a mechanical engineer. He also had a pocket protector and steel toe dress shoes. I think mom left those out of the casket. I think I remember a red tie and his 25-year work anniversary pin. It was 1985 and the memories of a 12-year-old are fuzzy.

Mom put a lot of thought and care into how my dad was buried. I want to do the same for her. How can I best express who she was in life through her clothing in death? I don’t want the clothes to be whatever she wore once that are hanging in her closet simply to avoid spending money. I want her to go out wearing red heels and all that jewelry she loved buying off the QVC channel.

I want her to greet St. Peter in style. Her style.

016

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, February 2019

The Great Wide Open

More than one person has said to me- take time. Be with your mom before the cancer makes her really sick. Plan a family vacation somewhere and make some quality memories together, one last time. We’ve been talking about what that might look like in practical terms of time, money, stamina, and risk of viral infection.

I love to travel. I am willing to travel just about anywhere in the world, for almost any length of time, for almost any reason. I am an adventurer at heart, an international explorer. One of the greatest gifts my father gave to me was his love for travel. It made me understand that there were other places, with a lot of other people who did not look or act like me.

Nothing held more interest for my dad then just getting out and seeing the USA. His career gave us the ability to take two big vacations a year. These trips were what I would describe as ‘The Bill Mounts Family Vacation’. They were characterized by an extreme urgency to see everything you could possibly see in the short time allotted. Two weeks was just not enough time to sit and relax. We had to go, go, go and went, went, went we did.

By the ripe old age of twelve, I had traveled to no less than forty states. I had been to innumerable national parks- Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Petrified Forest, Red Wood Forest, Rocky Mountains, etc. I had been in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic, and Pacific. I had been to countless museums, forts, State Capitols, wayside historical markers, tourist traps, national monuments, scenic overlooks, zoos, amusements parks, etc.  Once dad died in 1985, our annual family vacations stopped for the most part.

Mom did take me to Hawaii…

So, where do I take mom for that one last ride? From my perspective, the most obvious choice is Florida. Dad was in love with Pensacola. He was stationed there during his time in the Navy and my parents planned to retire there. It feels like we visited every year while he was still alive. We camped on Santa Rosa Island, played on the beach, visited Fort Pickens, Trader Jon’s, the National Naval Aviation Museum, and wherever else dad wanted to feel nostalgic.

That was all before the island was built up with hotels. You could still collect sand dollars, starfish, and seashells. We even picked up a couple conch shells once. No one was combing the beach at the break of dawn collecting them all to sell. I have very clear memories of the smell of orange blossoms and the feel of the white sand beaches. I count them among the happiest memories of my life.

But that was Pensacola of the 1970’s & 80’s. It begs the question: could a trip to Florida today ever live up to those memories? And does mom want to go where dad would have chosen? Or does she have one last great adventure in her, one last uncharted destination, one unfulfilled wish?

It remains to be seen. And it may come to more than one trip this year with the various members of my family. We may not all be able to get the same time off. Quality time with more intimate groups of people might be a better way to go. And if we end up hanging around the mid-west… well, at least we won’t get lost.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, January 2019

Party of One

It is customary to mark anniversaries. This is a powerful week for me because it marks ten years of being single. My first long-term relationship ended twenty years ago. My second long-term relationship ended ten years ago. These dark cold days of January must really get to me. I will not get into all the reasons each relationship ended. I will only say that we disagreed.

In the ten years since the last break-up, I’ve had to recreate my life at least four times. I had to figure out who I was again, figure out how to manage my life of one- cooking, housing, living, and trying to have some fun. I had great hopes to meet someone, fall in love, get married, and have a home and a child together. I was only 36. I thought I still had time. None of that happened for me.

Life kicked me right in the head. I seem to be on some kind of three-year trauma cycle: 2010 (life threatening depression), 2013 (worst year of my life), 2016 (major medical crisis), and 2019 has the potential to be a real whopper (mom is terminal). It takes two years to recover from one bad one, then it starts all over again. The in-between years are spent losing weight (cycling) or gaining weight (eating) to try to cope with all the emotional consequences.

I have tried to date on and off with very little success. In general, the advice I was given about how to be single was to “stay busy”. Later, I was questioned whether I had time for a relationship… Other great advice from well-meaning people was to “just pick someone”. FYI- whoever you pick is going to be scrutinized to the max by friends and family.

I’ve been told all the reasons I am still single: too serious, too tall, too fat, too independent, too mysterious, too aggressive, too angry, too loud, too stressed, too smart, too confident, too busy, too much a career woman, and (my favorite) because I am not dating women. I’ve been asked, “Do you think your laughter drives men away?”

I once had a girl’s dream of what love was supposed to be… waiting on my one true ‘soulmate’, waiting on that one person who would see me clearly and erase all the pain and fix all the wrong and live up to my impossible standards… And of course, no one could.

I do not have a girl’s dream of what love is anymore. I understand that while love can bring happiness, they are not inextricably linked. In fact, love is most often expressed in patience, in silence, in forgiveness, in acceptance.

It is expressed when you allow another to collapse under depression on the couch by just being there and letting them be. It is expressed by sitting in an ICU for a month, watching someone cling to life, hold their hand and talk to them though they cannot respond.

That is the true work of love, where the rubber meets the road in loving another. It is not high romance or happy memories or exciting and fun. It is the highest form love takes: I am here. I am here. And I love you even now when it is so hard.

I have been asked if I get lonely. Of course I do. But I also know that I’d rather be alone than in bad company. I’d rather be alone than BE the bad company. I was no saint in my relationships. We each brought our good and bad. We each made our mistakes.

I love both of them- that’s a permanent condition and I will not fight my heart on that matter. But I can’t be with them. If we spend too much time together, the stress increases, we start to argue, and who needs that? Not them and not me.

When relationships end, you have to grieve the loss of the life that can never be. You have to grieve the loss of your hopes and dreams: the house never bought, the children never born, the shared memories through time that will sustain you in old age that simply do not exist.

I can not tell you how to deal with it, only that you will cry a lot and maybe for the rest of your life. You will cry at odd times. When you least expect it, a memory will return of what was once so good and is now long gone and there is nothing that can bring it back. You cry and you move on. I read once that in the end we are all faced with a choice: be bitter or not.

Love has yet to return to me but I do believe it is possible. I have many friends to see me through the hard times, past and future. To be honest, sometimes walking through trauma alone is better simply because you only have yourself to worry about. I am not dragging another person down with me. I can be sad or angry or lay in bed all day and no one cares.

I suppose you want me to write about how exciting single life can be and it’s true. I get to travel a lot, even internationally. I can be footloose and fancy free. Meeting new people is exciting. So is getting dressed for a night out with the girls and collecting all those glances the men steal. Feeling good, looking good, concerts, dancing, socializing, bars- it’s not all bad. And I get to hog my queen size bed. The mess in my apartment is mine alone. The orange juice will still be in the fridge where I left it as well as the dishes and laundry. But it’s my dirty underwear and coffee cup. So yes, being single is great in many, many ways.

But I miss the kisses… I miss being held. And most of all, more than anything else, I miss coming home to someone who asks me, “How was your day sweetheart?” and they really, truly want to know.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, January 2019

P.S. 2018

I love winter. I must since I chose to move north to Minnesota 15 years ago. It’s not the cold, it’s the 3 solid months of writing and reading with very little distraction. Cycling does not lure me out onto the forested trails and social invitations slow down to a crawl. No one wants to leave their home either and that’s fine.  I have plenty of paper and ink to spare.

Last winter, I committed to waking up at 5am and working on my novel before work. I had a smoke damaged, sooty copy of a 2nd draft I wrote 10 years before. It was somewhere to start. So, I scanned the 263-page document using optical character recognition software and imported that into Scrivener. After 1.5 months of work, it was formatted and cut up into sections, chapters, and scenes.

For the next 1.5 months, I wrote roughly 22,000 words of new content; total word count is sitting around 143,000 words. Now, I realize that if you participate in NANOWRIMO that 22K in 1.5 months is a puny amount… but what can I say? Slow but sure… It feels like I am writing a different book. 10 years will do that. Characters and the basic story are roughly the same, but I am not. I’ve had some practice. My writing voice is much more confident and authentic.

But 2018 was a tough year. By April, I was absorbed in implementing software at work and in May my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I did not have the energy or emotional resources to continue work on the book. I did continue to write poetry and post on my blog. I attended many poetry open mics and had my first show as a featured poet in March 2018. And I rode an emotional roller coaster for the rest of the year, often overwhelmed and feeling like a deer in headlights.

In November, I had a revelation: I was still hiding. I wrote for literally decades and shared very little of my work with anyone. I set-up my blog in 2014 and did not start posting on it until 2017 after I sent ‘Popcorn from the Void’ off to my editor. But I was mostly posting poems. I could still fool myself into thinking I was being vulnerable- and I was- but not in a way that people could see a clear picture of me. I could still hide behind the form.

‘Popcorn from the Void’ is a book based off personal essay blog posts that Todd Park used to manage his cancer- both in providing information to family and friends and in processing his experience. Was I not about to walk through my mother’s cancer and death? And could my personal essays about this journey help others?

My 2018 blog stats are very modest but solid: 43 posts, 1,147 visitors, 1,733 views, 107 total followers. That means I averaged 40 views per post and 10 visits per follower. There aren’t a lot of you, but you are loyal! I had two shows in which I was one of the featured readers. And I submitted ‘Popcorn from the Void’ to the 2018 Writers Digest Self-Published Book Awards. And while it did not win, it received a rave review from its judge and scored 30/30 points on its assessment. Not bad for an amateur.

So dear readers, 2019 promises to be an even tougher year personally but it is also the year that I intend to try to be published for real, for the first time. And it will be a year of personal essays where I will feel very, very naked. And it will be the year of my first finished novel.

It has to be… if I want to be sure mom can read it…

Blessed New Year!

Christine

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, January 2019