What is memory? How keen or chaotic is that locomotive converting assemblies of time (a veritable book of hours) into data and impressions guiding one through the inviolate world in a worthy, maybe moral manner? What is that churn feeding some mysterious well-spring, propelling us to impossible emotions and split-second decisions? If it is our nature to continually check our past daily, and probably hourly, and even minute by minute, then our experience is always the guidepost no matter gurus, laws, and technology with all their piss-poor pressures.
As I often pore over not only my past, but my country’s and that of the world, I’ve placated myself with the idea that the things we do in youth will serve us in some way as a memory, positive or negative, usually the former, unless unconscionable. Bad memories don’t seem so bad after we’ve lived through the initial upset, they get to be anecdotal, a part of history, ground down to a dulled barnacle by the waters of time. People getting older report rememberings, often of very early childhood—episodes given short-shrift over the intervening decades, like what it smelled like in the pantry, father’s habits, mother’s clothes. At fifty-three I’ve begun to experience this. Unaccountably, moments pop up, with many immediately disappearing, as I don’t write them down. Preemptively, I’ve summoned a few, seeing as they at one time delighted and pestered me so. I want to bend time myself, though I know this to be fruitless. I have grown more comfortable with the truth of change, and change as decay and a prying loose of unconsciousness, as decay carries a grandeur, torching our synapses better than a bottle of anything.
The hatch and brood of time often center around experiences out of the ordinary, with travel high on the list—the grand tours of Europe. Some summers ago my wife and our eight-month-old daughter went with grandma, the in-laws, and other distant relatives to a family wedding in Ireland. Following festivities in the south, to garner a former IRA member’s presence, dozens from the party recouped to the north’s northeast pocket in County Down, specifically to the village of Coney Island, which holds a small bay on the Irish Sea. My wife’s aunt and uncle own a house there with parts dating to the 1300’s. They rented many of their neighbor’s homes for three and four nights to accommodate the travelers. We were given lodging just down the shore, in the direction of the Ardglass golf club course, in a modern six-bedroom behemoth constructed during the Obama Administration. This million British Pound structure had the air of a confab manor house built on tech money and already in decay, like an outdated spaceship aglow in ruination. This steely structure, a foreign architect’s blighted idea of Richard Serra, held a matrix of different rooms and levels, alternating wood and metal carefreely, with three steel wires making up the fence of a balcony over the main living room. In the rear television room, half the size of the main one next to the living room, the middle of its floor contained an ancient retired well under a cracked circle of thick glass A wall switch lit the bulbs built into the descending brick to reveal a silent pool of black water—poor cistern.
For the price of the view (at least they’d invited us to eat their food—mostly jams, many tablets of chocolate, and a half-dozen boxes of expired taco shells), there were also four ovens and three stoves on the ground floor, with a washer and dryer that tripped the house’s electricity three times in as many days, so that they could not be on at the same time. A relative of the owner had to be called to solve the electrical conundrum of a huge box based in a downstairs closet displaying a rainbow of wires and what looked to be multiple computing servers. The staunch sea wind eerily reverberated through the structure and its many doors, so that with the opening of the neo-French ones, seaside to the back deck, others would slam shut at horror film volume.
It was not an easy time. Our daughter became sick with a high fever. Nights of multiple wake-ups began after we’d experienced a few months of solid ten-hour blocks of sleep. Also, because we stayed in the largest of the rented houses, it de facto became the socializing hub for the three-dozen or so in the party, a number thinning out over the week. Quiet downtime from the bustle of relatives relating quickly became non-existent and my plan to get in a few hours of novel revisions on the less program-filled days came to forty-minutes here and there. Alright, but I couldn’t be expected to not burrow into my time-honored tradition of passion-aggression, that is, because I felt like shit due to not writing, I would reflect my affliction onto others by mild chicanery, silly pap about noise edicts while baby slept, and freakouts about her safety while eating—she could choke on pieces of apple that big! Take the seeds out of the fucking watermelon!
And yet, I could sit on an overly frilly couch by the giant twenty-foot windows and look out on the Irish Sea, the strand filling and lessening by tide (leaving sea wrack and large egg-shaped stones in its wake), and also keep watch on the ever-changing sky’s light, with the blackened tops of Mourne Mountains visible to the south. There were also picnic benches and chairs outside if I fancied some sea air. They were near the dog house. The sad pooch had been left behind by the owners, though he wasn’t to be let in the house and he noodled about the strand with his other canine friends when not stretched out on the cement—half-dead, half-depressed.
Rain came daily in glorious sheets and murky mists. We were fairly marooned in Coney Island because I didn’t trust myself to drive on the left side of the road. We took only two journeys, driven first by the aunt and then uncle. Coney Island itself did feature a forty-five minute loop on an outcropping of land jutting out into the sea, the actual Coney Island. The locals called it, “going round the rocks,” and we often made the constitutional to coincide with our daughter’s afternoon nap as she laid frontally against my wife’s chest in a carrier. Bouncing to begin the siesta, with a hip sway causing a patterned jiggle, was the only way she would physically agree to sleep. Sometimes we went down shore in the other direction, toward the edge of the golf course and the myriad stones with dried or drying algae, finding a few golf balls for baby to later squeeze and roll.
So I sat and sipped Barry’s gold tea with real Irish milk or drank one of the many Guinesses left over from the multiple parties while breathing in this fairy tale landscape, this parcel of the rapturous shamrocked country cleaved into counties, its ground well trod by the Celts in the Axial Age, when the first surviving philosophies sprung up all around the earth like a new bountiful, but problematic species.
Besides the plethora of golf books and DVD’s owned by the man of the house, I found a small British version of Yeats poem’s selected by Seamus Heaney. A little too perfect, but I couldn’t concentrate on the books I’d brought. Poetry is good for the short stolen moments of freedom during babydom. And Yeats had kept popping up in things I’d read, films we’d recently seen: “He was reading Yeats poems and weeping,” Mia Farrow says in Husbands and Wives. “I sat in the grass and read Yeats.” “Yeats on Torcello?” “They went well together.”: dialogue from Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. Also, I disliked the big clunky U.S. Edition by Finneran with the poems all jammed up against each other and spilling off the page, even if for only a line, which in any case made it worse—you want to know where the end of a poem is before getting there. Here, each breathed on its own single page or pages. And I read some aloud to mama and grandma. “The Wild Swans at Coole”: “I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,/And now my heart is sore”; “Man and Echo”: “I lie awake night after night/and never get the answer right.” I read some twice, klepting another live instance of hearing myself in Yeats in our hour wiled away. Then the relations burst in to take advantage of those four stoves and three ovens and cook a meal for thirty.
I professed to give up and give in, but a biased part of me stewed, yielding a fire-engine red upset just under my skin. Not simple passion-aggression. No—an older feeling, one I’ve honed over the years. One passed down from my mother, herself half-Irish, but probably birthed from her mother of German stock. My grandmother, from what I could remember, could turn it on, but just as easily descend to the depths, only to buoy right back before you’ve decided to hate her. The malady I’m describing is what some call simple human decency, but it pleases me to say there is nothing simple about it. It is a front, a public face, a mask most wear to fend off further carnage and certainly never make public when something hurts, when trouble abounds. We often, even if we think we do, have no idea where we are with people—how they might be more than ready to shuck us off, keeping us well south of the trail they are on. Call it the yen for being incommunicado. I’m sure we grow out of some things, but primary behaviors or fallbacks are rarely left behind, especially when up close with kinfolk, when well shorn of the single person’s single-minded experience. The urge fires up when overrun, the hearth building and boiling, sometimes immediately. My switch can quietly get turned and I’m at the ready to pounce, but mostly I absorb and quickly ward-off, hotly, but invisibly. All reaction, yet cloaked.
Not far away from Coney Island calm, the rageful Irish Sea pounded sheer cliffs, and, among them the hills above, were ruins from centuries past. Maps showed we could connect to the back woods trails from the local road, but we needed a ride to get there—going all the way on a dangerous narrows with baby would be exhausting and foolhardy. We were dropped up the roadway near Chapeltown, just past the more substantial village of Ardglass. Four in total. My wife’s younger cousin came, as well. She lived in Amsterdam with her boyfriend—we’d stayed with her on our honeymoon. In her early thirties, she preferred the partying life. Once a tour guide, she spoke vast tracts of words detailing newly minted opinions and weather-worn anecdotes. I would have preferred just the little family. As we struck out down the winding lane toward the sea, my resistance remained and never left high alert.
A short-term traveler, in contradistinction to Lao-Tzu’s “good-traveler,” usually has fixed plans, is intent to arrive, and completes the circuits she has promised herself. I write this knowing I used that Lao-Tzu quote to intrigue or cast away others in the past, proudly connecting me to a neo-Eastern bohemian flow. That is, never be a tourist, never keep subtracting from the place where you are. Though, I added, while doing so, one must parry, hopefully ensnaring, but also imbuing. In County Down I kept subtracting consistently and without shame, so much I built a monument to subtraction. The quiet judgements, the megalomania, the relentless worries, a parent with their first child.
We strolled a single-lane completely devoid of cars. Soon, our daughter would need her morning nap, and internally, until she nodded off, immense contusions of anxiety battle-axed any of my good cheer to a pulp. I leaked squashed sentiments, but remained distended and rotting while not being able to exit my finely furnished torture chamber. I walked, worming my hands around the pockets of my smelly black Uni-glo pullover, as we passed new lands, drawing in enlivening views with every second of existence under a sky slowly shifting, charcoal to blue. On both sides of the lane were large properties with some element of farming going on. Summer in Ireland still counted as summer and the vegetation and fauna bloomed to bursting, the exquisite hedges overwhelming ageless stone walls. Behind these, dogs lazily barked from their place on blacktop driveways or a patches of grass. Bumble bees zoomed from yellow wildflower to purple wildflower and the honeyed smells perked up the textures of a nose acclimated to exhaust, construction, dust, and urine sun-baked into the cinder white sidewalks of a Brooklyn summer. I mainly heard non-mechanical sounds: the distant sea, birds, and insects—these muffled the stray truck or tractor. I could only hold a meditative air for seconds at a time.
Cousin Eula could sense my disillusion. And I could hear Cousin Eula’s distaste for me as she outlined the pattern of her problems with her quietly suffering boyfriend. She didn’t have the coping skills of my wife, who put up with any parsimony owing to love and sacrifice—staking her future on a man who could overcome his demons for her and the child. What to do? Confrontation has always frightened, like going for broke, all in, on one mildly good hand. I over-crabwalk around a coming clash, familiarizing myself with every bit of the surrounding landscape before the voices force me to act. My knives and pincers are never brandished but kept protected and barely visible, primed to cut and easily within reach. I confess all the zeitgeist medication may have been made for me, but I regretfully decline. My deliberations are painful and sometimes paralyzing, but they satisfy some utter part of myself, as I regularly polish the imbricated scales of my fishy self-preserve, a retinue grown and tended to for five acute and sometimes queasy decades.
Are we each the worst person to ask about our opinion concerning ourselves, yet, also, the only one who knows? I was born under the sign of Sagittarius but I came to below a melancholy. In the middle of an innocent summer backpacking in Europe, I attended a community-building week in Denmark which turned out to be an adult sex summercamp. Feel free to project all the sexual parapraxis possible—I had no idea what I was in for. In, The Practice, our personal growth workshop, more than one person dubbed me, at a moony twenty-four, the “melancholic poet.” Back then, with two years of acclimatization to West Coast fairy talk after the chill and drinkingness of Milwaukee, I was well enamored of koans, cryptic-sayings, Heraclitian double speak, non-sequitors, and other inconsistencies, freely inviting the raunchy, the subaltern. I, at first, silently, and then, passing into my thirties, vaingloriously, clung to this ping-pong talk—it nurtured that overweening saturnine sense, while also serving as a stiff arm to the fears of death and intimacy, as admitting to them didn’t broker any meaningful friendships, years of myopia, desire, and pain. Then I met someone I could love for a long time. Now I was in Ireland with her and our issue.
There are many people in the world like Cousin Eula, cavalcading through life by giving a public play-by-play, and I love them for that. Differentiation is—well, really, I mean to pronounce an old-time porn channel’s mantra: Variety is the spice of life. Opposites attract—a few of my friends are such announcers, though I wouldn’t be married to one. And? How would the Melancholic Poet make nice? Let’s drop the loaded panegyric so to not offend. “Melancholic” sums me up as succinctly as “cold” when its fifteen Fahrenheit. The world needs reminders, examples, severe beings who get more and more lampooned because their eyes are not googly with delight about how great everything supposedly is.
When I first portmanteaued “passion-aggression,” I was very pleased with myself. Now I sounded post-post-modern, embracing the undiluted snark that passes for cheap shots at things frightful or confounding—we could pass over them in silence, but rarely depress the compunction necessary to not pollute. Being sloppy, committing blunders, typos, using Wikipedia as an indomitable source, having it be enough to name our malady or our degree of victimization—here is our time. How do we get fixed? Parable is more palatable than a direct confession of pain. Therapists were invented so friends didn’t have to hear other friend’s complaints too much of the time.
It’s easy to pronounce the criteria, the structures of the situation; easy, but too facile. More piebald perception. Other ramifications bristle in the middle distance—the depth where much can be ignored. At an impressionable age I read Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, and Perceptions and went stock still during his account of his number two personality, as Jung defined a more spiritually cognizant and solitary version of himself. The idea of the “other” immediately arrested me because I had spent a great deal of time alone with myself. Growing up in a house with most everyone gone at work and a sister seven years older, I had the space of a three-floor structure where I could swiftly make a wardrobe change into my other, the being who was the idea man of the two of us, the one who carried the inspiration, the proverbial fire. Even if I didn’t speak out loud to him, he was there, detailing the way. Much more than company—he was my love. This I could never communicate, that far beyond the bounds of a “literally” definition, there was another me residing inside—“literally” had no truck in matters so embedded in my big two-hearted soul.
A prescription for duality and two selves might state much more occurred in my subdermal terrain in that Ireland time—I might have been blind to other ambiguous rays of happiness criss-crossing the hours of the walk. There is no reason not to enjoy what might be a once in a lifetime experience—wind and Irish light. My number two would always have its say. A tussle, then, but I stopped laying it at coy Cousin Eula’s feet. It could have been anyone. Imagine if she had been a being I really couldn’t accredit a strip of goodness to—one of those three villains I’ve dispatched to have no further contact, their ghostings dwindling with the trudge and then light jog of the seasons.
Years ago, in the dusk of childhood, my agita was seeded. Concealing my unprincipled rejection of the nearest people only redoubled the pain—I had to unleash. I did so to my closest childhood friend when I was ten, eleven years old. We would be together, until I decided—enough. I didn’t want to be around him anymore, my cup had been filled. A sleepover had been planned, but at around eight I called my mother and announced I wanted to be picked up. It didn’t feel right, was what I told myself. He was three years younger and devastated. When I arrived home he called me on the phone (with aid from his mother) and could barely put a sentence together, weeping loudly, blearily. Why did you leave? Come back and play with me. I remained severe. Weeks would pass. Then, owing to the friendship of our mothers, I’d see him again, press in close and, some months on, repeat the desiccating act. It didn’t feel right—this was my truth. The world was already rent, jagged. My sensations demanded this newly-efficient torque. I had to persevere.
I met a man a few years back; a cool customer, an intellectual force, who related to me how most times he preferred a nap to suffering socialization, even with his few close friends. In effect, it was enough to be by himself, while reading, writing, or thinking. He did not need to feed on people to fuel his creation. I could regret such a severe outlook, though I’d also sometimes judge it noble, if vaguely psychotic. It’s a fusty Nietzschean paradigm. One I’ve even slovenly practiced—it might even be a state many serious writers have to find, with allowances. The act of separating, maybe destabilization. T.S. Eliot, before becoming the Voice of English Poetry said, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion. It is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality…What happens [to the poet] is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something more valuable. The progress of an artist is an continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” For years the urge to separate haunted me, but I had no recourse to true creativity, until the attempts became larger and loftier. My sentences weren’t alive, the language inside stilted and bulky like chunks of hard overturned soil, waiting for water. My storyline’s weren’t compelling to someone over thirty-five. Peternaturally shy, I had to learn people, go at them, even if I flailed. I had to see how they lived, what they did all day, their toils, breakdowns, loves. I attached to a self-help community in order to identify and hopefully immolate my push/pull propensity. Wounded people seek each other out and often nestle up and engage to create even magisterial fireworks. The work there made me at least a little less unconscious. I was more apt to bristle when I “acted out,” because embarking on such behavior caused so much hurt.
Farmland only went so far, and this was not a tourist-festooned piece of earth. We didn’t exactly know if we could get to the sea. The on-line map seemed to say yes, but out in the country, thankfully, there was no service. After almost an hour, there were hiking signs pointing seaward and we went downhill between overgrown hedges, through wildflowers, berry bushes, cattails, thistles, and bees. An above ground tunnel—a three-hundred meter bower without true canopy. I walked with my arms up and lips fused shut, to shield against getting swatted, stung, or having an invisible cob-web stick to my face. At the end of five minutes, the vegetation retarded, and the sunned coast glimmered with the deep bass of the Irish Sea’s tides scalloping rock, sandstone, and shale bedrock just below. Anchored in the distance, the Isle of Man. We headed south, up and down ground retaining its patchwork of drumlins, kames, and kettles formed some ten thousand years ago, while passing an obligatory Catholic cross and devotional station etched in the vegetation. A mixture of cool and warm winds integrated and we each nutted about, in awe of the sightlines.
In taking a measure of the moment, I took a measure of my wife and sleeping daughter, with a fist of book-learning: “While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the sense, strange dyes, strange colors, and curious odors, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend.” The mountebanks of memory. Every moment grows more spidery, there is more moss to drag. This is aging. We begin in a fog and then accumulate, develop recall, learn our lessons, change the tune, change the city, change the partner, bounce a check, bury a friend, find love again, then take in the sunset with a smidgen more intensity before saying goodbye. A chambered part of myself began to contend we live in the moment so that we may re-experience those moments multiple times later on, thereby not living in the moment. Impressionism is a flimsy kind of word for a painter’s style, but if branding a retroflexive way of seeing it goes further, mimicking a metaphysics not bound to the fine arts. Impressions do not eternally exist, they must arrive. One’s recall and reliving may be crisp, the recapture succulent—but one must be able to forget memories when they are many and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again, since they are stored in the body, safely turned to blood.
On the bluffs of the Irish coast we saw a distant church, hundreds of years old. It was probably a few miles away, and, with unseen twists and turns, maybe even more. Aside from some back and forth about hiking too far out of the way, making it hell to get back (I wouldn’t budge on this), Eula and I held our tongues and endured each other. The Artole Church, the one where we’d started at and left for later, would be back in our direction of home, then onto Ardglass along the narrow highway. Maybe we could call a relative to give us a ride from there.
We reversed course and Cousin Eula began to talk again of what her future with her boyfriend, an Irishman, held. In retracing, I again hovered a bit before the Isle of Man. The sun, near its apex, cast a high arclight on the blurring-blue water up close, the gray-green far. I lost the thread. Colors strengthened and mixed, erasing hard reality. The magnetism of Ireland enforced itself and asked the writer to extinguish something so that a broken precept could be married, so no camera obscura could drag the after-image through the tide-wrack of the mind.
My life follows the kaleidoscopic path—different sections of living rising and focusing at different times. Intuition, and to a lesser extent, dreams, have guided more than live advice, though books pointed the way as well—those quotable potables I’d reenfranchised like a man who has no place in the world and continually parrots wise phrases to stave off bringing himself to order. Has my melancholy transferred so tidily to worry? Has my uncouthness sharpened itself out enough to carve a deep anxiety, a suavity in every rock I see? I fear my daughter or wife’s death more than my own. I fear no real reconciliation.
Greg Gerke is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things, stories, were both published by Splice in the Autumn of 2019.