Saturday, February 21, 2009

9. Nuala

One day last spring as I was perusing my weekly New York Times (Friday edition, for the movie reviews and concert listings) an obituary caught my eye. It was for the Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain. Although I had never heard of her I was intrigued by her life and her stature as the “female Frank McCourt.” A few days later my friend Christie mentioned her to me and said how moved she had been years ago when listening to her first memoir on tape.

Since traveling to Ireland in 2006 and seeing several ancestral names everywhere I turned, I have been interested in learning more about this enigmatic country and its people. So within a week of reading Nuala’s obituary I made my way over to the library across the street from where I work and discovered they had both her first memoir, Are You Somebody? and her first novel, My Dream of You. After Christie’s recommendation I was most interested in the memoir, but it was missing from the shelf. The librarian promised to find it for me and I reluctantly checked out the novel, thinking guiltily of the large stack of fiction by my bedside waiting to be read.

I had a few minutes to spare, so I took the book and walked down the street for a cup of tea at my favorite café. I opened the book to begin reading and that was the end of any thought of the stack beside the bed.

The main character in the novel, Kathleen, is about my age, and although her circumstances are entirely different than my own, I immediately sensed that she was someone I knew. Her deep longing for something more, something out of the ordinary, was familiar. Her love/hate relationship with her home, Ireland, and subsequent return there resonated with me. I admired her unsentimental look at her own life and her unflinching desire for passion, despite her struggles to find it.

My favorite scene occurs early on in the novel: Kathleen has returned to Ireland to do research for a book and is staying at a remote cottage. One evening she brings home a man that she only just met at a bar and the tenderness and intimacy that these two strangers share is almost heartbreaking. The next morning she awakes alone, to a cold cottage. Upon realizing that she has been left she performs the usual mind games that people in this situation do, until she finds a note from her married lover saying: “If I did not go then I could never go at all. I could never leave you if I stayed. You are Everything a man could desire. Youre a Queen in any bodys world. You will always be in my memory.”[sic]

At about this point in the book I also began reading the memoir Are You Somebody? And the separation between fact and fiction became very blurred. The novel, as many are, is greatly inspired by the author’s own life. Growing up in a large, poor family, with an alcoholic mother and philandering father, Nuala managed to survive her childhood thru her love of books. She kept pushing and struggling against her inherited lot in life, finally becoming one of Ireland’s best known columnists. Yet work, as for most of us, was not enough; she longed for a soulmate with whom she could share her life. For a number of years she found this with Nell. Nuala’s survival of their devastating break-up is enough to give anyone courage and strength in the darkest times.

I read these books slowly, savoring every page and not wanting them to end. I felt both emotionally drained and invigorated at the end of each chapter. And then to my delight I discovered there was yet another memoir, Almost There, which picks up after Are You Somebody?

Despite being a seemingly private person, Nuala is universally recognized for her penetrating honesty and straightforwardness. Yet as difficult as it must have been for her to bare her soul in these books, I am most amazed at her honesty with herself. For to show herself to the world in such an open manner she had to first look deeply inside and acknowledge the sometimes uncomfortable truth of who she was. .

In looking through Almost There as I was preparing to write this, all my margin notes and underlinings pointed to a general idea that I had missed upon first reading. In the late 90’s Nuala moved part time to New York City to begin work on My Dream of You. She writes extensively of her sadness at leaving Ireland coupled with the excitement of a new life in a city with no boundaries. And it is in New York that she finally fulfills her destiny, both personally and professionally. She had been given the freedom to become herself.

In these postings you have heard me lament leaving Texas and I’m sure that will come up again (and again). It is my true home and I yearn for my family, my friends and the big open sky on a regular basis. But I see now that moving to Maine enabled me to become the musician I was meant to be. Here is where I’ve been given opportunities to create my own type of church music program, reach hundreds of people through my performing, travel internationally as an accompanist, play magnificent instruments, and teach piano in a non-competitive way. Had I stayed in Texas I would always be the pianist who tried to play organ, trying to meet goals and fulfill expectations that were not my own.

As much as I question living in this cold, occasional barren land, I am deeply grateful to this generous state for allowing me to fulfill my musical destiny.