It is hard for me to avoid feeling nostalgic on St. Patrick’s Day. My interest in Ireland has only grown since I finished my semester abroad in Dublin, so much so that now I have trouble recalling how depressed I was during that time, although I know intellectually that I was miserable. This sort of regret happens to me a lot. Molly and I returned from Kaua’i two weeks ago and though we did almost everything we could on the island, since then I have read about the history of Hawaii obsessively and with the compulsion to return. It also happens when I go see shows. The first time I saw Titus Andronicus I was nowhere near as familiar with the band’s music as I would become in the ensuing year. Same thing with the first time I saw Bruce Springsteen. I used to listen to his greatest hits CD on my yellow discman while I walked to the bus stop on the corner of Wallace and Hertel every morning in high school, the sun rising over Shoshone, and every minute I enjoyed was tinged with a desire to relive the concert I had gone to when I was 13, but with my newly acquired encyclopedic knowledge of the lyrics to all the songs, and the parts where his voice cracks, and the notes to the guitar solos. By the time the subway pulled into the Summer/Best station, “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” was just reaching the pretty keyboard part at 3:55. “Did ya hear the cops finally busted Madam Marie / For telling fortunes better than they do?”
That’s how desire works. You want something more once it has been and gone. Nothing is more compelling than desire tinged with regret, a sort of icarian self-loathing. “If only I had appreciated what was in front of me!” “Hubris!” You know how everyone says that smell is the sense that is tied strongest to memory? My friend used to say that that was nonsense– that music has the greatest power to evoke a memory. I agree. The song above, “M’appari,” from Flotow’s Martha, reminds me so much of Ireland that it makes my hair stand up. The aria is the subject of my favorite sequence from Joyce’s Ulysses, which was the whole reason I went to Ireland in the first place. I thought about Leopold Bloom’s itinerary through Dublin as I wandered around at night, and though I never walked it, I did meet a drunk Swedish businessman in a bar who told me about his children before vomiting on the steps outside. I recently found his business card while I was cleaning out my wallet, which should give you a good picture of what I choose to save.
Remembering things (I can’t believe it was five years ago already that I was there) is sometimes painful because we compare our memories to the way things are now, and one or the other comes up wanting. I feel grateful this year, however. This afternoon I will head to the high school where I teach English and I’ll get to talk to my Irish literature class about J.M. Synge. An entire class on Irish literature. And I get paid for it! And the kids are smart and pleasant and bright. I get to share with them the literature and music that I love. I am a fortunate person. We started the semester with Romanticism in Ireland, one of the richest periods in the country’s robust literary tradition. The students have been especially interested in how Irish literature in the 19th century is essentially guided by a dominant, oppressive sense of nostalgia. But you don’t have to dispute the existence of faeries and nymphs to see that the old Ireland the poets lament never really existed, at least not in the “Song of the Happy Shepherd” way. I am excited to show them the “happy shepherd” of Patrick Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger”:
Patrick Maguire, the old peasant, can neither be damned nor glorified:
The graveyard in which he will lie will be just a deep-drilled potato-field
Where the seed gets no chance to come through
To the fun of the sun.
The tongue in his mouth is the root of a yew.
Silence, silence. The story is done.
He stands in the doorway of his house
A ragged sculpture of the wind,
October creaks the rotted mattress,
The bedposts fall. No hope. No lust.
The hungry fiend
Screams the apocalypse of clay
In every corner of this land.
One of the great final stanzas.
I want to mention also that I finally got into graduate school. In September I will enter the PhD program in English at SUNY Buffalo as a Presidential Fellow. I did not want to say anything about this for a while, but now that I have signed and sent the papers I think it’s time. I am sensitive to all of the people who applied to graduate school this year and years previous and who did not get in. These four years since I graduated from Amherst have been the most humbling and, in many ways, the most difficult time of my life. As I near the end of this weird, uncomfortable, purgatorial period, this is my record: Of the 28 applications I completed (10 MFAs, 12 PhDs in English, 6 PhDs in Comp. Lit.), with their 28 application fees and their 28 GRE score reports, etc. etc., I was accepted into a grand total of one (1) program. (A statistic of note: including my undergraduate application, I have been rejected by Cornell an impressive four times.) And I am proud of that. Every step of the process felt like a racket and a lottery and I learned nothing of substance from my rejections except that I am rejectable (which was, to be sure, a valuable lesson the first 26 times, but come on– 27?). To everyone I know who spent the latter half of the worst winter in thirty years getting impersonal thumbs down e-mailed to them, I feel for you and I support you and believe in you. You should never take these admissions decisions as reflections on your personal worth or academic strength and curiosity. I learned more from the fact that I was able to cobble together the beginnings of a career as a teacher and writer, with the invaluable help of my parents and Molly and my friends and professors, than I did from any “no.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about how much more this acceptance would have meant to me last year when I got laid off or the year before when my prospects felt especially dim. The letter made me cry when I got it last month, even though I had finally found a job at a place that seemed to want me around. How would I have reacted if I had received it three years ago while I sat in my room in my parents’ house petting my cat and looking through my pictures from Ireland? But again, that is how desire works.