Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Lone Wolf Gets the Moon to Himself by Megan Findlay

Megan Findlay, an Ottawa writer, visited Thunder Bay for the writers festival and recently wrote me about it.
Dear Joan, I'm sorry to hear there is not Sleeping Giant Writers' Festival this year! Was it lack of interest? Being there meant so much to me at the time. And seeing you again. I still have fond memories of that whole weekend, and of watching The Last Station and eating a real Finnish breakfast. What fun.
 Her essay The Lone Wolf Gets the Moon to Himself was also published on her blog

The Lone Wolf Gets the Moon to Himself.
by Megan Findlay
Lone Wolf Euphoria: I knew it most acutely in Dublin. I ate penne pasta under a blue awning in Temple Street. The waiter pitied me; I saw it in his eyes, but I didn’t mind. For the first time I was the one with an accent. I had just finished reading Edna O’Brien’s biography of Joyce, and the day behind me had been spent chasing the end of his rope around Dublin.

I was on the edge of a Joyce obsession. Ulysses weighed on me, though I only understood as much as my professor could explain to me across a classroom table from 5 to 8 on Wednesday nights. I had no business being in Dublin. The week before, I’d given a paper at a conference in Belgium. Montreal’s Centre for Irish Studies, where I worked, had bankrolled my trip. I felt that I owed them something more than a thank-you note dampened by the sweat of a Stella bottle (brewed in the Belgian conference’s host city). I owed them something absurd and precious, like a stone polished by the Irish sea. This is what Europe, or thinking about Europe, does to me: it stamps out reason and inflames romanticism.

So I took one of those mythologized one-dollar flights on an airline no one had heard of from Leuven to Dublin and found myself in a hotel with a view of the Liffey, all the conference jitters and self-fulfilling anxieties of everyday life blinking at me from far, far away.

I rode the DART out to Sandycove, where Joyce’s Stephan Dedalus wiped the contents of his nose on a rock. Dublin was about to host a marathon and hundreds of lithe Europeans were stretching their calves up and down the road. A little old man sitting next to me in the train tapped my shoulder. His look alone was a gift: tweed hat, aran sweater. He had seen me studying the Dublin map. Canada, he repeated, when I told him. Coming from him, it sounded like a Tolkenian place. I felt a controlled, pleasant sort of homesickness. He said something in Gaelic, then translated: one hundred thousand welcomes. All the coziest bits of an Irish stereotype. He laid finger on the copy of Ulysses in my lap, with a picture of Sandycove and its Martello Tower on the cover. Don’t bother yourself with the museum, he said.

Truth was, Edna O’Brien held more appeal for me than Joyce did. I could see why she chose to write his biography, though; the entire volume indulged in the most scandalous details of his life with an inviting sort of glee. Maybe she felt an affinity for him because of the controversy surrounding her own literary career. In rural 1960s Ireland, her mother eliminated all the filthy words from her first novel with a black marker and then banned it to a shelf in the family outhouse, worth only cursory attention while its reader strained over the toilet. Priests decried her for writing about sex and miserable children who swore at nuns. Books were burned in witchy fires on the moor. That’s what she’ll tell you, anyway. In interviews she is very forthcoming about her early struggles as an anti-establishment novelist with a scandalously beautiful physique (later bought out for shampoo commercials).

After getting off the DART that day, I walked the strand alongside a specter of Stephan Dedalus. It was a grey, low-slung day. I set up the self-timer on my camera so I could get a picture of myself mocking, or honouring, Stephan Dedalus (just as Joyce did in fair and equal measure). There was a carnival in a nearby parking lot. It had begun to rain. Parents held umbrellas while the merry-go-round turned in a minor key. When I got back into the city, I ordered a pint of Guinness in Davy Byrnes’ pub but I could not stand to drink it. And all the funny things that happen during a day of solitary tourism: they were all for me.

One weekend this summer I rented a car and drove home alone. Fourteen hours there and back. Navigating alone, listening to NPR alone, singing and stopping for ice cream and for turtle crossings and for bathroom breaks in the ditch weeds – all alone. Even favourite activities that usually involve at least one other human being were done in pristine solitude, like book browsing: as though making the moral of this lesson REALLY CLEAR to someone as daft as me, the gods poked me into a country bookshop on highway 503 which was completely deserted. Not a soul. Just a coin box with a sign asking visitors to pay three dollars a book. Alone, alone, alone, and despite the fight I picked with D because he had declined to join me, the feeling was pristine. Like turning down the volume and listening to my own innards beating and breathing and purifying away, reminding me of the mechanics of being Megan.

As I drove home this summer, I found myself missing that trip to Dublin, and the moment in my life that precipitated it. I had been living alone in an apartment the colour of tangerines. I took that time for granted, as we all do, and spent much of it moping around or assembling family-sized meals that I never finished. Companionship, regular and steady and always a few inches away in the bed, is a pleasure, but who wants to read about pleasure? Confusion and lack are much more interesting emotions. At work, I am with people I love. At home, I am with a person I love. But I so rarely seem to be just simply, wholly with myself and no one else. Now that we live together, D and I share almost everything – an office, a cat, a routine. On the one evening a week when he is regularly out of the house for an art class, I usually find myself catching up on some neglected chore. Turning on the radio, evading myself, even while I’m craving my own company.

In those moments, I remember Dublin, and Joyce, and the penne I ate by myself under a blue awning in Temple Street. It all happened years ago, but it still sustains me in some small, solitary, elemental way, and reminds me that I am more than the person who gulps companionship and approval like a magic elixir. That has to be important.

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