Back in the Saddle Again

Last December I published a post on this blog titled Horseback Riding As A Motivation. In it I explained that after having been sidelined from horseback riding for over two years because of numerous health challenges, I’d decided last spring that I was ready to get back to riding, only then to rupture an Achilles tendon days before my renewed effort, thus adding more than another year to the wait.

Certainly I wasn’t a great rider, but I’d become a confident one over the years and had remained relatively physically fit. I’d competed in dressage, show jumping and cross-country events. My wife, Karen and I had gone on horseback riding trips in Ireland, and I’d ridden in a few foxhunts there during which the riding went on non-stop for four or five hours, much of it at a flat out hand gallop over fields, stone fences and impossibly wide ditches. These rides were terrifying, exhilirating, insanely hard, and phenomenally satisfying.

Spurred by those memories, in May of this year, by then about 31/2 years since I’d ridden, I decided again that I was ready to give it a shot though I wasn’t feeling exactly confident or physically fit any more.

Though mounting sounds simple enough there are a number of steps that must be performed crisply and correctly so that you end up properly seated and otherwise prepared to start riding while keeping your horse calm throughout the process.

Not this time.

With my left leg in the stirrup, incorrectly I had the toe of my boot pointed into the horse’s ribs, making him jittery at the outset. As I pushed off with my left foot and rose, my right leg lurched over the saddle rather than smoothly sliding over it. Off balance, instead of quietly seating myself, I fell forward and grabbed onto my horse’s neck, then thudded into the saddle rather than easing into it, thus unnerving him even more. Then, instead of calmly finding my right stirrup, my right leg flopped around like a fish out of water, desperately searching for the stirrup, and I ended up kicking my horse in the effort, thus urging him to move forward when neither he nor I were ready.

Otherwise I’d done a great job mounting.

Fortunately, Karen had a hold of the reins near the horse’s mouth and thus was able to prevent him from doing what, no doubt, he wanted to do–dump me.

Not pretty. OK, my wife is pretty, but what I’d done in mounting wasn’t pretty.

I proceeded just to walk him around the ring for perhaps thirty minutes, most of the time grippping with my thighs, exactly the wrong thing to do. I apologized to him the whole time for how I’d unintentionally mishandled him. He shook his head and snorted. I guess he wasn’t impressed. Even though I’d done no trotting or cantering, I’d been so tense the whole time, and was so out of shape, that when I dismounted I felt as though my legs had turned to jello. I could barely walk him back to the barn and by then was so exhausted that I allowed my wife to untack him and put him away. When we got home I virtually collapsed onto our bed.

So, mister-bigshot-who-rides-in-foxhunts-in-Ireland, how do you feel now? the snarky part of me said to the then not-so-confident part of me. The then-not-so-confident part said, Shut up, as I formed images of jumping stone fences in the Old Sod, and believing that someday, in the full sense of the phrase, I’d be back in the saddle again.

We’ll see.

 

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Ireland, a Land for the Senses

Ireland is a virtual cornucopia for sight, smell, taste, touch and sound.

The sights are gorgeous—from the bracing Cliffs of Moher to the numerous ancient sites, and the stone walls that wend their way throughout the countryside. For me, though, it’s impossible to think of the Old Sod without thinking of its 40 shades of green. Different pastures have their own hue of green. As they abut one another, often seemingly stitched together by those stone walls, they provide the sensation of a massive quilt, created by some heavenly artist. I still remember the first time flying into Shannon and seeing the blending shades from above and thinking It must be a mirage. It can’t be that beautiful. I was wrong. It wasn’t a mirage and it is that beautiful.   

Numerous smells in the country leave a wonderful effect—freshly cut grass rolled into large circular hay “tubes” that dot the countryside, the fresh air after a cleansing “soft” rain, the scent of the ocean in the numerous places that provide access to the water around the Emerald Isle. But, for me, the singular scent of Ireland is that of burning peat. Walking down a road and smelling peat burning in fireplaces is a unique and pleasant odor—so pleasing that I keep a large stash of peat incense at our house in San Francisco. When I have a compelling need to feel close to Ireland (which is often), I light one, close my eyes, let the scent waft over me, and I feel transported back to walking down a country lane near the cottage that we’ve stayed at numerous times in the Irish countryside.

Though traditionally Ireland was not known for fine food, that changed in a big way starting in the late 90s and now my wife Karen and I can’t return to Ireland without going to some favorite restaurants throughout the country, many of them in idyllic settings. Equally as enjoyable is pub food where you get not only lamb stews, fresh seafood and other local delicacies, (and of course a good burger), but a pint (or two or three) of Guinness which somehow tastes fuller, fresher and more satisfying in Ireland than in the States.

The touches of Ireland range from rubbing your hand over a stone chair knowing that it was the seat of an ard ri Éireann (a high king of Ireland), to patting the neck of an Irish Thoroughbred and feeling his power, to feeling the morning dew on the grass, to hugging your Irish friend who hugs you back as hugs are meant to be given.

As for sounds, while there are many delightful ones, two are standouts for me. One is craic, the art of Irish witty talk blended with a lovely brogue. The craic alone is worth a trip to Ireland. The second for me is the Irish music, most enjoyably heard in pubs all over the country and played by locals who come together for the pure joy of playing it—fiddle, guitar, pipes and bodhrán (an Irish frame drum). Have a few pints while listening, then watch some folks step up to do traditional Irish step dancing and you’re pretty much in heaven.

And for Karen and me indeed the bottom line is that returning to Ireland is returning to a piece of heaven. May you know the joy of it.

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The Luck of the Draw

My memoir ends with the last trip that my wife Karen and I took to Ireland in 2007. A part of the story covers struggles that we faced because of my diagnosis in 2000 with a
rare and incurable blood cancer, but that disease is not the focus of the book and indeed after 2007 I’ve had far more medical challenges than before then.

I’ve thought about writing another book dealing with the multiple additional medical challenges I’ve had (and that my wife has and continues to see me through) since our last trip to the Old Sod–though we are bound and determined to return many more times for additional wonderful advenures. These medical issues include hypersplenism, kidney stones, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, undergoing multiple procedures I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, Vitamin D deficiency, hypertension, vertigo, hyperlipidemia, edema, gall stones and then gall bladder removal, pneumonia, pleural effusion, transfusion dependency leading to spleen removal, permanent partial blindness caused by hemorrhaging  from elevated platelets, dangerously high white blood counts, cardiovascular arterial disease, angioplasties,  implantation of stents, a lifetime daily regimen of chemo, persistent anemia and low hemoglobin causing a perpetual state of exhaustion and, just for fun, a ruptured Achilles tendon.

And the point of this possible book would be what—to garner sympathy? Evoke compassion? Prove my machismo? Nah! The point would be to say if, as I am, blessed to be living with my soul mate and the love of my life, all the procedures, medications,
diagnoses, prognoses, tests, proddings, hospitalizations, surgeries and more are all worth it. Life matters even when punctuated with serious medical challenges. They can, as they have for me, provide a perspective about the value of life that is likely not possible fully to understand without enduring them. Though I don’t prescribe that my friends undergo what I have experienced and still experience just to gain this perspective, the lesson that I have gained because of my diseases about the degree to which we should all be thankful for the gift of each day is immeasurable.

In the end, I have no choice. I cannot exchange the cards that were dealt to me. But my wife has a choice. Though laughingly I tell her, “Sorry you can’t return me because the warranty has expired”, the fact is that she stands by me though I, not she, am the one dealt the rotten hand. She goes on attempting to create for us as normal a life as possible under impossibly difficult circumstances. In truth, no one but the
two of us know how my illnesses have turned our lives upside down. So, I get chills when I think back to the song that I wrote for Karen for our wedding—years before I was diagnosed with any significant medical issues. In that song I wrote “After death I choose not to part from you.” As it turns out when Karen took her wedding vow she meant not only that she’d not want to part from me after death, but that indeed she truly meant that she’d remain with me in sickness and in health.

I have nothing to complain about and much for which to be thankful.

 

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Foxhunting in Ireland

Since I began horseback riding I’d dreamt of being able to ride in a foxhunt though I believed doing so was probably beyond my capability because the riding is some of the most challenging possible. You’re in the saddle for hours on end without a break, riding over unknown terrain and, depending on the area, perhaps encountering jumps over stone walls, wide banks and other obstacles along the way.

After my wife, Karen and I had returned to Ireland a number of times and had been on some exhilarating rides there I resolved that I was going to give it a try.

Louis Murphy, the manger of a hotel where we’d stayed a few times arranged for me to ride with the Clare Foxhounds and for me to rent my horse through Martin Geoghan. Louis told us that the site of the “meet”, the point of origin for the hunt, was in the town of Ruan. There I’d meet Martin and saddle up.

I asked, “Where’s Ruan and where do we meet Martin?”

He took us to an eighteenth century map of Ireland and pointed to Ruan, “Can’t miss it. You just need to remember to go down this little offshoot near this bridge.” Since the map preceded roads, the description wasn’t exactly what I’d call clear.

“What about Martin? Where do we find him?”

“You’ll find him.”

Oh, boy.

Karen and I drove to Ruan in the rain the next morning. The main street consisted of one church and two pubs. My money was on Martin being in one of the pubs. I was right.

As we entered I wasn’t hard to spot. I was holding my crop and wearing taupe riding pants, a black riding jacket, polished black leather riding boots, a black riding hat, and black riding gloves.

Martin, laughing heartily with some local lads spotted me, wiped his mouth clean of his latest swig of Guinness on the arm of his jacket, looking like he’d just polished off his fourth pint, and approached me.

“So Louis tells me you’ve never been on a hunt in Ireland, lad.”

“Actually, I’ve never on a hunt, period.”

He looked at me, turning his head sideways as if to say, Don’t try to con an Irishman, but I guess my continued silence convinced him I wasn’t lying. While he was still looking at me, he raised his hand and with a voice that must have been heard in the next county yelled, “Michael! A drink fer the lad!”

I got my pint of Guinness. I’m not accustomed to drinking anything stronger than coffee or tea before noon, and normally, the idea of alcohol before dinner is revolting. But not that day. It sounded just fine, thank you very much. In fact, if there’d been time, I’d have had pints two and three. After all I’d seen the signs all over Ireland—Guinness Means Strength—and I wasn’t about to argue the issue. Hell, unless the rain saved me, and the hunt was called off, I was about to participate in a ride that was going to kill me.

As it turned out the rain didn’t save me, the hunt was on, and I had the most exhausting, thrilling and challenging ride of a lifetime.  Once again, Ireland had delivered another of one of my most memorable times. May those wonderful times in Ireland continue for many years.

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Birds of a Feather

I’m not Irish. Hell I’m Jewish so at times I used to wonder, Why your obsession with Ireland? Obviously a starting place is that my wife is Irish Catholic, but still…I remember when I was courting her I became frustrated by the fact that while American Jews tended financially to support Israel I didn’t see the same kind of commitment of Irish Americans to Ireland. They’d walk in the St. Patrick’s Day Parades and sing rebel songs, but I didn’t see them sending significant money to Ireland.

Then Karen and I started to go to the Emerald Isle and soon it seemed that I had Irish DNA. What I came to understand was that though Ireland was experiencing severe financial challenges, Israel’s challenges were at numerous levels. While both countries needed the moral support of their Diasporan brethren their specific needs differed. For example, for many decades Israel had and was continuing to allow emigration into its society of significant numbers of Jews from countries as diverse as Russia and Ethiopia. Most of these people had no concept of what it meant to live in a democratic society. The country needed vast amounts of money to create an infrastructure and education in an effort to acculturate many of these people. Some came from tribal communities. Others didn’t understand why it wasn’t simply required of those living in a particular area to be required to buy goods at their store even though other stores in the area provided better prices, or better service, or both.

At the same time, in Northern Ireland, and sometimes spilling over into the Republic and into England, Catholics were fighting for economic and political equality with Protestants who represented the political force of the British. Forget the last 800 years. In modern times, from the early 1960s and into the late 1990s were “the Troubles” a bitter tongue-in-cheek phrase that only the Irish could have designed in light of the murders, assassinations, bombings, paramilitary attacks and external military repression that pervaded this period. During that time external money wasn’t as relevant as outside political pressure. And though not all has gone smoothly since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, it’s been far better since then than beforehand.

In its past Ireland did face existential threats, including The Potato Famine and while in contemporary times it faces severe economic challenges, it does so in concert with the travails of other countries comprising the European Union. At the same time Israel continues to live under an ongoing military existential threat from “unfriendly” neighbors not the least of which emanates from Iran.

Meanwhile, I no longer chastise Irish ex pats for not pouring money into Ireland as long as they (and I) continue to provide the country with moral support. At the same time I believe that if the Irish took the time to reflect on the type of threats that Israel continues to face, they might send over a shekel or two—even some Euros wouldn’t hurt.

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The Lost Tribe of the Israelites Surfaces

Karen had been to Ireland decades before we were married. Her paternal grandparents had emigrated from Ireland in the early 20th century; she’d attended Parish schools, and her dad was a cop on the NYPD. Though what she found in the 60s in Ireland was a rough and tumble countryside where her grandparents had lived, it was the country of her heritage and she embraced it. For Karen, loving Ireland was as natural as celebrating Christmas.

The next time she returned was some twenty years later when she brought me, her Jewish husband, to the Old Sod. I’d been raised in a kosher home, attended Hebrew School as well as public school, had my bar mitzvah, and the only “I” county I knew anything about was Israel. I’d been raised in a house where Zionism was an accepted axiom and as a young man I’d been active in local Jewish affairs. I’d been to Israel twice before I married Karen—once on a fund raising mission and the second time in celebration of my parents’ 50th anniversary. For me, loving Israel was as natural as celebrating Chanukah.

After Karen and I tied the Catholic/Jewish knot, we both took up horseback riding. It was a wonderful way of getting exercise and temporarily leaving behind whatever burdens we might be carrying—and at the same time a lovely way to spend time together. 

It was our mutual love of horseback riding that led to our initial trip together to Ireland because there are few places on earth that revere the horse as do the Irish, their Thoroughbreds are something special, and the numerous riding facilities there offer the opportunity to do difficult yet exhilarating riding.

And thus began my love affair with what for me at first I thought of as an adopted country. As with most love affairs what begins on one level morphs over time into numerous other levels—and that was true with me. I began to love the country because of the horseback riding, but soon I also came to love it for its physical raw beauty. Ah, those forty shades of green! Then came a love of the extraordinarily witty verbal exchanges by the people, or in local parlance, craic. Next, I admired the resilience of the Irish who’d been suppressed for many centuries, had suffered defeats at efforts to throw off the yoke of external domination and yet managed to maintain a sense of purpose and a sense of humor. All of these elements and more pulled me into an increasing love of and for the country and its people. And it didn’t hurt that this was the land of Karen’s heritage.

And Israel, the other “I” country? Did it become relegated in my mind? Absolutely not. In fact, the more time I spent in Ireland the more similarities I continued to find between the Irish and the Jews: oppression, a driving desire to succeed, a refusal to quit in the face of harsh odds, a love of education, and an abiding sense of humor. I ended up concluding that the lost tribe of the Israelites had really gotten lost, got some bad directions along the way and ended up settling Ireland–so this wasn’t an adopted country after all! No wonder I’d always felt at home there.

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Tipping the Universe

Like it or not, the New Year is upon us. While most of us dutifully wish one another a year filled with peace, happiness, prosperity and good health, we know that for many it will bring the opposite. Yet the good thoughts are not mere wasted daydreams.
They represent an eternal desire for the best from life, while we know that for some the upcoming year will bring the worst. Still, our goal should be not only to express good wishes, but to undertake acts to try to better the lives of others regardless of in how seemingly small a manner. It matters.

Both in “real” life and online, I know some people who are afflicted with the same category of rare blood cancers (myeloproliferative neoplasms) that I have (in my case myelofibrosis). Whether face-to-face or online, some seek information regarding symptoms they are experiencing. Are they unique? What, if anything, can help ameliorate the effects? Are there any medications that can help? Some want to know if there are ongoing relevant clinical trials, or doctors in their geographical areas with
expertise in the care and treatment of our rare maladies. Some primarily seek comfort
and solace; others primarily provide support. Some share their own grief and misery or that of loved ones suffering the last throes of the disease, until the updates suddenly stop—and we all know what that means.

Whether in real time or online, these contacts are the ying and yang of life. There are those who seek perfectly sensible information and those who can provide answers. There are those who seek compassion and others who offer it; there are whiners and there are those who face impossibly difficult challenges with wit and grace; there are those who offer important new information and others eager to learn it; there are those who speak with frequency about their problems or those of someone for whom they care, and there are those whose primary role is to lend an ear and be sympathetic.

How we use our limited time does matter. I remember teaching my daughters that with each life a new universe is born—a universe of possibilities, and for most of us it is within our control whether we use that universe wisely or foolishly; for good or for ill. Putting aside horrible acts of atrocity and extraordinary acts of selflessness and courage, what most of us deal with are simple daily deeds, and those can be of kindness or its opposite, of empathy or apathy. The kind deeds not only uplift those directly affected, but also redound generally to the benefit of all of us by making this world a better place to be.

So, at this time of reflection, as we end one year and have a renewed opportunity to improve our conduct in the upcoming one my hope is that we choose kindness over lack of consideration, moderation over excess, and the worthwhile over the inane. If we
can ease the suffering of just one person, our time here will have helped tipped the universe ever so slightly toward the light and away from the dark. May all of us be up to the challenge.

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Merry Hanamas

When I was a youngster, since my birthday is December 22, those who didn’t know our family was Jewish always said to my mother, “What a shame! You almost had a Christmas baby!” My mother dutifully replied, “He was a Hanukah gift!” Oops!

When my wife, Karen was a youngster she always attended Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve where she was raised in New York in an Irish Catholic family, while I’d be tucked away and slumbering peacefully in my bed in a Chicago suburb dreaming about bagels and cream cheese, not Baby Jesus.

Now, after we’d each married “one of our own” and had failed marriages, twenty three years ago we tied the Catholic/Jewish knot. Now, we share a home in which on Friday nights we (more accurately, Karen) lights the Shabbos candles and we chant the prayer in Hebrew. And, yesterday, we finished decorating our house with a “living” Christmas
tree which we intend to plant, starting our own Christmas grove, to be populated, hopefully with many annual Christmas trees to come.

Do all interfaith marriages work? Of course not, but then again, regardless of faith, about half of all marriages in the US end in divorce. In our case we were realistic enough and honest enough to recognize and acknowledge to each other at the outset (after a twelve year courtship—you read that right—twelve years) that neither of us
was willing to raise children except in our own faith. We also were in love enough to agree that if that meant not having our own children, but living together for the rest of our lives, that was a price we were willing to pay.  (Easier for me to come to terms with because I had three children from my first marriage; Karen had none.)

Since the beginning of our marriage we’ve honored and respected each other’s beliefs without ever tying to convert the other. About the only “conversion” has been Karen bringing me into a love and appreciation for all things Irish, not only including her, but also Ireland itself, the land from which her grandparents hailed. In turn, that love led me to write the book which inspires this blog after we’d spent extended stays in the Old Sod on fourteen separate occasions over a twenty year span. On the flip side, it’s Karen who remembers each Friday night to bring out and light the Shabbos candles and who remembers to have a Yahrtziet (memorial) candle to light on the anniversary of my mom and dad’s deaths.

If I had a prayer to embrace all on whom I had the power to reach it would be to wish that everyone could have as happy and as fulfilling a marriage as ours has been and continues to be.

So, during this season of Hanukah and Christmas, rather than wishng some of you a (belated) Happy Hanukah, and others a Merry Christmas, Karen and I join in wishing all of you what Karen and I wish each other during this time time–a Merry Hanamas.

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Slaughter Compliments of the 2d Amendment

Yesterday another deranged killer went on a rampage. He marched into an elementary school and in a few bursts of gunfire, ended up murdering twenty eight people there, twenty of them children five to ten years old. The killer was able to be so proficient because he had “good” guns, perhaps including a semi-automatic weapon that in fully automatic mode can fire 700-950 rounds a minute.  

Though President Obama promised to press for meaningful action, less than 24 hours earlier Michigan lawmakers passed legislation to allow those with concealed pistol licenses to carry guns into schools and other previously forbidden places.

I guarantee you that soon you’ll hear the NRA’s oft repeated mantra: “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” God, I’m sick of hearing that. Yet, we are at fault. We allow this organization to control our gutless politicians. Democrat, Republican, Independent—any politician who refuses to impose sensible gun control should be voted out of office—period. Instead, we accept the blather about the constitutional protection of the right to own guns and the NRA’s fear of a “slippery slope”, i.e., if we were to ban guns that should be used only by our police and military, soon the general citizenry would be “diminished” to accessibility to weapons that can only kill with less than 750-900 rounds a minute. The winning argument remains that we must not allow for any diminution in the right to “bear arms” and if mass murdering weapons end up in the hands of mad killers intent on slaughtering victims whose only crime is being in their path when they go on a rampage—well, that’s just the price we must pay for the precious “freedom” of this constitutional right.

Well, read it for yourself. In totality, the 2d Amendment provides:   

“A well regulated Milita, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

That’s it. And yet though the predicate to the “right… to bear arms” is because of the accepted view in 1791 when the Amendment was passed of a “well regulated Militia”—hardly a necessity in modern times—when the NRA waves the 2d Amendment in our faces, we just lie down like lambs before the slaughter and continue to accept living in a society where death by gunfire is a reality far outdistancing that of any other Western society.  

I propose a new Amendment as follows: “The Second Amendment is hereby repealed. The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall hereafter be as determined by federal and state law.”

Alternatively, as proposed by my wife, I support an uprising similar to that engendered my MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) which was able to get legislation passed to toughen laws against drunk driving. We need another such uprising to bring sense to the gun control issue.  

In the meantime, we all have the blood of innocents on our hands.  Yes, people kill people, but the out-of-control access that we allow virtually to anyone of guns whose sole purpose is to kill many people quickly sure as hell adds to the toll.

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Life’s Thin Chances

My wife Karen was a Duffy whose father was always going on about being descended from Brian Boru. In the sixties, when she was nineteen, she first visited Ireland, tracing the trip in reverse that her grandparents had taken to the United States. She knew her grandmother had come from Derrinacartha, a tiny village in Mayo, and her grandfather had come from Cloontia, a small village in Roscommon, a mile or so from  Derrinacartha. Both were had scrabble counties where it had been tough to scratch out a living.

When Karen got to Cloontia, she asked if anyone knew Bernard Duffy, her father’s first cousin. A villager said, “Jest go down this road till it tarns to dirt. Then ask the first person ye see.”

The first person she saw was a young girl. Karen asked her if she knew the Bernard Duffy family. The child said, “Yes, Bernard Duffy is me da.”

She took Karen into the family cottage and introduced her to her mother, Margaret, who was probably in her mid thirties. The main room had a dirt floor. A pot of food was cooking over the fireplace. There was no indoor plumbing. Margaret was proud that they’d just “changed roofs,” which Karen took to mean that they’d gone from thatch to
shingles.

Bernard and Margaret had three children—Ned, John, and Margaret. They also had one cow and a donkey. Mother Margaret sent daughter Margaret into town by bicycle to get some bread. When she returned, the bread was served with jam and tea.

Margaret told Karen that Bernard worked in Liverpool for six months at a time. Obviously the farm alone didn’t earn enough to support the family.

On the mantel of the fireplace was a picture of Karen’s grandfather. This was her heritage. The hard-luck life in Cloontia of the 1960s, let alone what it must have been like when her grandparents left Ireland sixty years earlier, is why, when her grandmother finally made it to the States and was asked if she wanted to return
to visit Ireland, she scowled and said, “No, Why do ye think I left.”

Karen was transfixed by the serendipitous nature of it all, how each of us is a product of luck, pluck, and circumstance. It could just as easily have been her cooking dinner
over that fireplace, except that her father’s father chose to leave Ireland two generations earlier, knowing that he’d never again return and never again see the land and people he was leaving, whereas Bernard’s father had stayed. It was a connecting moment, but it also was chilling.

Karen’s attachment to the land was deep. Her entire childhood had been wrapped up in stories and myths about Ireland, and she was not just a Catholic, she was an Irish-Catholic. Some twenty years later, when she married her Jewish husband who knew only one thing about the Irish, namely that he was crazy mad in love with one, she wanted to introduce him to the land of her heritage. So, in 1988 we first traveled together to the Old Sod, the first of fourteen extended return trips over a twenty year period, and the beginning of my second great love affair, the first being with the woman who brought me there, and my love for both has only deepened with time.

 

 

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