The Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral, wrote, “No, I don’t believe that I will be lost after death. Why should You have made me fruitful, if I must be emptied and left like the crushed sugar canes? Why should You spill the light across my forehead and my heart every morning, if You will not come to pick me, as one picks the dark grapes that sweeten in the sun, in the middle of autumn?”
Why have I written three books about Nora(h) McCabe? Writing about The Great Hunger and Irish experience has been a calling, of sorts, but I do write about other subjects. I am currently researching and writing about a Native American woman who lived in New York State in the late 1700s. Over the last few years, I have been compelled to invest in writing about the past. And being that today is September 11th, I am strongly reminded of the tragedy nine years ago that occurred in our country. News of tragedies assail our minds and spirits daily, rendering us immobile, disheartened, and hyper vigilant. What can we do? I am overwhelmed with living in a global family and hearing of the relatives’ news of floods, famines, genocide, let alone the dirt on my brothers and sisters in my own backyard. I can’t know about all of it, nor can I ignore some of it. What happened today happened yesterday and hundreds of years ago. William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead and buried; it is not even past.” I am honest about my own struggle to love my neighbor. I am not free from hatred and prejudice rising up within me on occasion. And am I not justified to hate those who terrorize, rape, and maim? Of course I hate the behavior and not the person? Really?
But what of being a writer and writing about the atrocities and triumphs of yesterday? My personal response to today’s tragedies is filtered through my mind and heart, and is always different. My response to the past, as a writer, has been selective, somewhat similar, but certain events become profoundly inspiring. I have sometimes felt the dead are with me more than the living. Not in a morose way, but in a powerful way that gives me glimpses into lives once lived that need to be honored. Am I a ghost writer? The September issue of Smithsonian magazine writes about Pearl Curran, a St. Louis housewife, who channeled a 17th century spirit. This little housewife became a literary success. It was the time of Ouija boards, the Fox Sisters, and Spiritualism. It was a good time to channel the past. I don’t know if it is a good time to do so today. But I have had my seances with my characters and whether or not I become a literary star is not the point. I’m not a historian and it isn’t easy digging for relics of the past, but when I’m walking along and stumble upon an old pewter pot, I have to find the rest of the table setting. Repeated personal encounters with the past convince me to write about them, but I will not be exploitative. I have to find the truth in the story…the light…the slant. These past lives prepared the canvas for the painting of my colorful life today. I found a quote in my tattered old quote book today, “Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say; and say it hot.” (D.H. Lawrence). I always have a lot to say, but as I age, it has lessened in regards to writing. What I say on paper has to first seize me, move my hands on the board, create pictures in the clouds, and give me dreams. There isn’t time for lesser things.
Years ago, I nearly gave up trying to find a publisher for my first book. It felt good to yell at my characters, throw my manuscript across the floor, and stomp out the door. I had to get away from them to gain perspective. I wasn’t sure I was going to stay in a relationship with them, especially with Nora McCabe. I wanted to forget this Great Hunger, grass stained mouths, and people asking me why the Irish ate so many potatoes and didn’t go fishing when their potato crops failed. Who cared about something that happened so long ago? Even the Irish born didn’t like this American digging into their old rotten potato fields for truth. What was I up against? And then a week later I received a book in the mail. I had belonged to a book club in Galway City and every six months, I received a box of books. ‘Surplus People,’ by Jim Rees, gives the account of over 6,000 families from County Wicklow who travel to North America during the Famine. The landlord paid passage because it was less expensive than paying the tax rates to send his non-paying tenants to the work house. A list of the names of ships and families are listed in the index of the books. There in the index was the name of the ship I had chosen for my novel, ‘The Star,’ and on that ship, the name of a family was indexed. ‘Neale…’ my married name. And a little girl the same age as my protagonist was on ‘The Star.’ I wrote the author in Dublin and he responded, “don’t stop trying to tell the story. Your ancestors are whispering in your ears.” There were other ‘encounters’ that kept me persevering to find a publisher and ‘The Irish Dresser’ was published by White Mane in 2004. And a few years later, I learned that there was indeed a real Norah McCabe who traveled from Ireland to New York City in 1846. Literary success or not, my response to the past is right and good. And now my third book, ‘Norah, The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th Century New York,’ an adult fiction, is being released by Lucky Press on March 1, 2011.
I’m thinking of you, the reader, and how writing about my experiences can challenge you to listen, to watch, to believe, to feel, and to do. No, not to become a writer necessarily, but to waste your moments on inspiration, duende, dreams, and hope…