Madam Secretary Reflects on International Relations and Happy Happenstance

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The Ring of Kerry. My photo.

WELL, MY FRIENDS, IT’S MARCH, and I’m sure we all agree that Old Man Winter has way, way overstayed his welcome.

I thought I would be serving tea at a place in the city. Instead, I’m working in our office so my dad can make up for lost time in the fields, and my current occupation doesn’t involve traveling to anywhere except the post office. (It’s like doing laundry: you sort through the junk mail, code and file the invoices, try to decipher heavy Asian accents on the phone, empty the waste baskets and get everything tidied away for a little while, and then you start over again.)

I’ve always said that administration is not my thing.

So the joke is on me, as usual.

Anyway, I’m bored, and thinking of tea and travel makes me nostalgic, so I’m going to ramble about other countries and things that are none of my business.

I’m not a politician–just a farmer’s daughter. But Ireland and Israel are like strangers who keep crossing my path and bumping into each other, and I feel like they should be friends.

I had the joy of spending Christmas 2014 in Ireland with my sister’s husband’s family. Dublin looked like a bloom of glowing plankton from the sky, the night we flew in. I woke up at three o’clock the first morning and didn’t know where I was until I tuned into an Irish radio station. Billy Joel was singing “Just The Way You Are,” and that song has had a special place in my heart ever since. Continue reading “Madam Secretary Reflects on International Relations and Happy Happenstance”

The Genealogist (Revised)

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GRANDMÈRE IS REPEATING her favorite stories for my enrichment in a tidy room carpeted with green shag.

Grandmère has no filter.

On TV, Pope John Paul II is pretending to be God. A statue of The Virgin is enshrined among candles in a window. I should kneel in front of it, says Grandmère, and ask it for a good husband. (She was a naïve girl when she married Grandpère and definitely didn’t love him, but he was a fine husband anyway, and she was very content).

It’s wrong to worship idols, says my thirteen-year-old self, conscientiously. But ninety-one-year-old Grandmère isn’t listening…

Grandmère is so petite–when she plays the organ her feet barely reach the pedals. She has a memory like an elephant, though, and has traced her roots all the way back to 1695. She opens her album and flowing names like Jean-Baptiste reenforce the knowledge that my people came from France, ate snails, and died praying to the dead. (Ahhh, you say, that explains so much!)

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From Grandmère’s album.

They worked harder and played harder, these people of long ago–rising and setting with the sun. They were more present in the moment. They were better neighbors. Their memories were more vivid, their conversations more substantial. Their music was born in the dust of the field and the sweat of the brow. They wrote long, expressive love letters…

They are strangers to me, these people of long ago.

Yet I came out of them. Continue reading “The Genealogist (Revised)”

Snug As A Bacillus In A Cheese

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THERE WAS A WINTER when it was so cold that the air hurt to breath and made the hair in adult noses crackle. Power lines snapped under the weight of accumulated snow, which completely buried our car, and which we melted in pots on our wood-burning stove because the plumbing was frozen. It took real guts to venture out on the icy roads. Starving coyotes would sit outside the house at night, punctuating the stillness with their delirious howls, while our Border Collie slept fitfully indoors by the fire. My sisters and I curled up together, spoon-style, beneath a mountain of quilts, more like one body than three. To ward off the doldrums, we played a sadistic little game in which we dared one another to go outside and run all the way around the house barefooted. We were always the kind of children who were easily entertained, and so it was no hardship when fog settled in like a nebulaerasing the world around us. I perused the whole shelf of World Book encyclopedias from A to Z. I ate instant oatmeal and learned the importance of ritualthose little habits and routines that lubricate the machinery of life and maintain our sanity.

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My sisters and me.

So it must be nostalgia or femininity or some combination of both that when I think of “adventure” I automatically think not of storm-chasing or espionage but of Gontran de Poncin’s description of hibernating at a Hudson Bay Company outpost in Kabloona.

“Paddy had done wonders with his living room. It was warm and intimate and was the frame within which our life was lived. Here within a hundred miles of the Magnetic Pole there was a kind of bourgeois* coziness that was unbelievable. I used to say to myself that there were no bourgeois places, there were only domesticated souls. One could be an adventurer in New York, and one could also be an old maid in the polar regions… Nothing would have been present to remind one of the Arctic if a few white foxes, the ‘money’ that paid for my excursions on the trail, had not been hanging from the ceiling… There was even a vase of artificial flowers—which I would hide from time to time and Gibson would bring out again almost immediately…

Adventure has two faces—one showing men at grips with the elements, the other showing them darning their socks. It was in Gibson’s living room that I saw a remarkable photograph of three members of an Antarctic expedition. They were sitting in a hut, one of them mending his pants, another smoking with a far-away look in his eyes, the third writing a letter. Had they the same peace in their own homes, I wondered? … I felt as snug as a bacillus in a cheese… Continue reading “Snug As A Bacillus In A Cheese”