I will arise and go now, and go to Poland
I said, “I’m going to Poland.” The General looked at me like I had two heads. “The flights are cheap,” I explained.
“I can understand tequila and bikinis,” he said. “I can understand Tenerife. But why Poland?”
“Because I yearn for snow,” I replied.
The General once texted me a picture of himself waddling along the shoreline in Gran Canaria, a pint of beer in one hand and a phone in the other, as he hugged some lady he was having for lunch; both of them in swimwear, she as lovely as a nut, and him all white-bellied and fat. It’s as if the sun makes people superficial.
What I long for is a sky of hidden snow and frozen fields, and the silence and stillness of conscious being. But I can’t find my passport. I searched in every box. And there’s nothing as terrifying as rummaging through old files. Poking through receipts for hotel rooms from years ago, and phone bills and diaries from the last century, lying in dusty drawers and reminding me of death. Notebooks full of dates and times that were once important. Appointments with dentists. The double CD of French for Beginners, which I never used.
A life in paper
I have documented my life on scraps of paper as if it mattered. My rooms are cluttered with useless ornaments, mementos, and Christmas gifts from long-lost friends. From my school diaries to last week’s phone bills I have tried to gather things into a coherent narrative called “My Life”. Instead of throwing things out and burning old documents, I persist in leaving debris scattered in my wake.
I tried to explain it to the General.
“I have a library of useless things hoarded away in drawers. We all do it. It’s a way of pretending that our little lives matter.”
The General said that if I went on thinking like that I would become depressed again. I said, “But it’s only by contemplating death that we achieve peace.”
It’s not just my own dying that fascinates me as I sit watching television images beamed out of Syria. War is death on a grand scale and it touches me deeply, especially when I’m sitting in the stillness of some European railway station.
So I just want to find my passport and fly to Warsaw, and see the snow falling on the streets of the old Jewish ghetto in Lodz. I want to breathe in that dust, and think about 250,000 people forced to live there, and what happened to them, and how only 800 were alive when the war was over, and the Red Army opened the gates of Auschwitz in January 1945. Such a scarred place might edify me, make me more humane and do me more good than any steamy on-the-beach disco Paradiso.
“I’m off,” I declared to the General. “I will arise and go to Poland. I will escape from Leitrim.”
“You tried that before,” he sneered. “You dreamt of Paris and ended up in Mullingar.”
But I wasn’t listening to him. I was thinking that some woman in Warsaw has already spilled wine on a white tablecloth and that soon she will speak to me in broken English about it.
“I have cleaned this tablecloth, but the stain remains,” she will say. And she will be ashamed. And I will say to her, “There were times in my life when I did bad things, and I too am secretly ashamed.” We will sit together, both of us looking at wine stains on her white cloth.
“You’re completely out of your head,” the General said. “You’ve gone mad.”
“Perhaps I have,” I agreed. “But perhaps we all carry death around in our hearts, a part of us that is completely scorched, and where the ashes of long forgotten atrocities lie waiting to be transformed into art, as in the music of Gorecki and the poems of Milosz.”
Apart from the Famine in Ireland we have not known slaughter on a grand scale; our wars are never more than a neighbourly bloodletting, a parochial disease, a psychic itch that recurs with regularity like the seasonal cutting of a pig’s throat. Our brutality is deep and unconscious, but it’s a tiny thing compared to the great rush of venom that flows in Europe’s veins and which obliges the citizens of Europe to remain forever vigilant.
“And so I will take the train,” I concluded, “into the snow.”
“Who is Milosz?” the General wanted to know. I didn’t tell him.