Saturday, March 25, 2017

Meditations on London

Meditations on London

            London is big, boisterous, and vibrant. My first impression was, “It feels smaller than I thought, but looks bigger than I imagined.” The air was perfumed by petrol. The sound of cabs and busses provided a chorus to the conversations on the streets; provided by people just going about their daily routines.

            Behind all of this is a splendor that is both urban, and organic. St. James Park is a green oasis, just mere meters away from Buckingham Palace. Yet, the city seems to disappear once you’re among the trees.

Then of course there’s The Great Westminster Clock Tower (better known as Big Ben) and the Houses of Parliament. The first time I saw these was as child, when Nickelodeon (an American cable network) would show Danger Mouse, and Count Duckula. I wondered, “What is Thames?” The network logo would present itself with fanfare, and mirror images of London landmarks reflected onto the surface of that iconic river. It swerves through London like a big serpent, and then empties out into the North Sea.

            As I stood on Westminster Bridge, and took photos, I tried to recreate the Thames logo. I discovered that you can’t exactly recreate it. I got close though. Still, The Thames is very impressive. It’s the vein that flows through London, and brings it life.

            When I heard of the terror attack on March 22nd I was shocked. I was on my way to class, when I saw a BBC news report on a telly in the media center window. The sound was off, but the crestfallen face of the bobby, and the news ticker below, told me everything. I had stood in the exact spot where that attack happened. I visited for the first time in August of 2016. To me, Westminster is the image of grandeur. I couldn’t think of it as anything less than regal. So much so, that I felt I was a bit under-dressed to even be walking there. I wore a red, short-sleeved dress shirt, with navy blue trousers. I looked very patriotic, indeed (for both sides of the Atlantic.) Peggy Carter would have approved.

            I wasn’t the only one that mulled about in short sleeves that day. It was a hot day in London! The city was alive with people everywhere. It wasn’t just tourists either. Even everyday people were about the major landmarks. The monument to Victoria was occupied by Londoners having their lunches. People just sat there to get some air. Not one person was glued to their mobile. Everyone was either talking to a person that was there, or they were observing the world around them. Why wouldn’t they? How could one go to London, and not see it with both eyes open?

            While I found the country town and smaller cities charming. I still found London impressive. Big, loud, but very impressive. It looked how I thought I major city should look. So, when I saw that report about the attack, I honestly did feel heartbroken. I couldn’t picture something like that happening in that area of London. Crime can happen anywhere, but still, it seemed out of place.

            London is a city that can survive anything. It has endured plague, fire, the Blitz, Thatcher (okay, that last one may have been a cheap dig), and now this. It will always endure. I have this funny feeling that even if the rest of the world melted, Britain would be okay. It would just lift off the surface of the Earth, and continue to exist as its own planet. London would just rebuild itself into some sort of space-age capitol. It sort of has done that already. It hasn’t away, and never will. It’s the city that cannot fall, because the people who love that city will not let it fall. An attack like the recent one can’t break the spirit of Londoners. If Nazi bombs in WWII couldn’t do it, nothing can. The resolve of the British public has always been one of, “We don’t know how to quit.” It’s one of the things I love about England. Surrender just isn’t an option.

            If Londinium could be translated accurately, it would mean, “resilient.” At least I like to think so. It’s a city that breaths. It wakes up each morning, and faces the day—good or bad—and then does it all over again the next day. It can’t stop, and no one can stop it.
            There’s a lesson in there for all of us.

            Hold fast.

Text and Photos: copyright Riley Joyce 2017

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Guinness Isn't Green!

Guinness Isn’t Green!

“I don’t go out on St. Patrick’s Day. That’s when the amateurs come out.” My uncle Tom used to say.

St. Patrick’s Day was once a celebration of Irish heritage. Now, it’s just an excuse to drink green-colored American beer. Well, at least that’s what it is in America, in some places. To me, it was this day where being Irish meant something to the rest of the world. I never bought into the idea that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, any more than everyone is a bunny on Easter Sunday. But, growing up in a household with Irish heritage, it was always a big deal.

Growing up with an Irish last name means that you’re aware of your ancestry from a very young age.

When you ask, “What are we?”  

The answer is always the same, “We’re Irish.”

It was never, “Irish-American,” just, “Irish.”

None of my living relatives have been to Ireland (except one of my nephews from one of my half-sisters). None of us speak Irish (though I knew a few words and phrases). Mom had this thing about corned beef. I’ve read James Joyce (don’t know if we’re related. Knowing would put too much pressure on me) and yet there’s this chain that stretches back to Ireland.

I run the risk of sounding contradictory here. While I’m proud of my heritage, I’ve always had an affinity for Britain. Why not love both islands? I certainly do. I don’t begrudge any race or nation. Though the relations between the two haven’t been stellar over the centuries, I think things have settled down in recent years. Had I been born in Ireland, maybe my views would be different. I could have been fiercely nationalistic. Then again, I may have adopted the pragmatic view of making friends with one’s neighbors, especially if they have a better chocolate.

When I was a teenager, I did some massive research in Irish history, and my family tree. It turns out that there’s this legend about a William De Jorce, who came over the Channel with William The Conqueror. After they took England, De Jorce pushed west into Ireland. He went so far west that he almost fell off the map! He settled in Galway, located on the coast, and then had a massive brood of kids. This then became the ancestral home of the Joyce family.

Centuries later, my paternal grandfather fought at D-Day, the invasion of Normandy. He was either fighting Nazis, or just trying to get back home. The jury is still out on that one. For the record, no on in my family speaks French.

There is also a story about a Richard Joyce, a master metalsmith. With insufficient funds to afford a proper wedding, Joyce went overseas to make his fortune. But before he left, he gave his beloved a very special ring. She was to wear it as an engagement ring until her hubby-to-be returned to the shores of Ireland. There was a bit of a delay on that. Richard was on a ship attacked by pirates. His life hung in the balance, when he convinced the salty seadog captain to spare his life.

His reason, “True love.”

The pirate captain showed empathy, and then took Richard under his wing. In time, Richard himself became a pirate. He made more than enough money to go back to Ireland, and marry his beloved.

Typing it out now I realize that this is the plot The Princess Bride. I have no doubt the pirate was named Roberts, and was indeed dread.

But what about that special ring Richard gave to his girlfriend?

It was a very special design; featuring two hands holding either side of a heart. Above the heart is a crown. Yes, it’s the Claddagh ring. It doesn’t get any more Irish than that. Properly, the crown faces the floor is one is single. It faces toward upward, toward oneself, if spoken for. My mother always wore her ring the wrong way, because she preferred how it looked. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until after my parents’ divorce that she started to wear one.

                        Then of course are the exploits of James Joyce, which I frankly don’t have enough room to recount here. Again, I’m not sure I’m related to any of these guys. I have this funny feeling that when I eventually go to Ireland, people’s eyes will bug out when they hear my last name, after hearing my accent.

            “Wha’ they done ta youse? Ya talk like them Americans!”

            Which brings me to a point that’s always bothered me. How Irish is someone that wasn’t born in Ireland? What claim do I have to say I’m Irish? I know several Italians that weren’t born in Italy, yet they feel just as Italian as I do Irish. This then brings up the whole concept of ethnicity, and how we define it.

            If ethnicity is simply defined as people with a common heritage, language, customs and history…then it’s sort of all over the map. Millions of Irish people emigrated to the Commonwealth nations; Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. Of course, there’s millions more that came to America. After that point the waters get a bit muddy. There’s this genetic link, so to speak, but the language and accents change after that point. Not all the Irish immigrants spoke English, but a lot of them did. As for a shared history and heritage…well, the heritage is there. But how many people of Irish descent know the history?

            In this case, does one’s ethnicity hinge entirely on where they were born? Perhaps it hinges on something beyond geography. Maybe it’s where one’s heart lies? The strange thing about America is that everyone who is here came from somewhere else. Or at least their ancestors did. The only true Native Americans were those that descended from the indigenous peoples that were here centuries before Jamestown. In that case, Geronimo is more of an American than I ever will be. I’m just sort of squatting on his turf.

            There’s also the concept of heritage being mixed.

            As we say in Pittsburgh, “You’re a Heinz 57.” But as Bill Murray remarked in Stripes, “There is no dog more lovable, more loyal, than a mutt.”

            I’m of Irish, Welsh, Austrian, Czech, and God-knows-what-else ancestry. Yet, I’ve always identified as Irish. It’s easier to say Irish, than it is to drag out everything. But also, it’s heritage that was always reinforced.

            I wasn’t raised Catholic, so that tends to confuse people as well. You don’t have to be Catholic to be Irish, but it does help. There is certain element of Catholicism I like, and others that I don’t share. I don’t believe I’d raise my children Catholic, if I ever have any. I’m perfectly content to be secular, and yet have a spiritual side. Though, I think to many Irish-Americans (there’s that phrase again) the majority are Catholic-lite. Though at one time you were more likely to see photos of John F. Kennedy in the home, than you were The Pope. My paternal grandparents had both The Last Supper, and a commemorative plate of JFK mounted on their dining room walls. That speaks volumes, I think. Kennedy was our guy, and he still is. You learn that from a young age as well.

            But for me, the real Irish heroes were the people who came before Kennedy. They were the ones that fled from famine with nothing to their names. They went to places they hadn’t been before, and made lives for themselves. That, to me at least, is what makes me Irish. It’s that strong stubbornness to not give up. That goes beyond language, geography, and the ages. A race of people that were dying, refused to die. They fought back, and survived. Their descendants are in every corner of the globe. That’s Biblical, in a way. It’s also proof that a shamrock can grow anywhere.

            Speaking of shamrocks. There’s this plastic sun catcher that belonged to my mother. It’s in decent shape, but a bit old. Yet, I hung it up when I moved into my new place. It hangs in the front window, and is always illuminated during daylight hours. It was hung in our kitchen window, even when it wasn’t St. Patrick’s Day. It will hang in that window no matter what day it is. It only comes down again when I move. It hung it up for a great many reasons; honoring my mother’s memory was one of them. Showing that I survived her death is another.

            So, Charlie Brown. That’s what St. Patrick’s Day means to me.

            Now, cue up some Loreena McKennitt, Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly, The Pogues, Van Morrison, and House of Pain. U2? Feck no! You put that CD on, and it goes out the bloody window! You still haven’t found what you’re looking for? Well, you’ve had thirty years to find it, Bono, ya pretentious jackeen!

Copyright Riley Joyce 2017


Sunday, March 12, 2017



            Leviathan used to be my favorite word. I think that was partly because of how it sounded, but also because it described a sea monster. I first heard the word when I was about eight. That was because of the sci-fi flick of the same title, starring Peter Weller and Ernie Hudson. You can’t beat the pairing of Robocop and a Ghostbuster tackling a sea monster.

            In recent years, I’ve come to know a new favorite word. Perhaps I should just make a list of favorite words, as it difficult to choose just one.

            This word is different. There’s a beauty in the sound of it; as if it should be the name of a fair-haired girl, with blue eyes and a mournful look. It’s a word that speaks of serene landscapes, that are in perpetual overcast dawn. It is a word of mourning, and yet it carries great love.


            It’s a word known by experience, not definition. I felt this word before I knew it’s meaning. It never fully goes away, as the wounds on one’s heart don’t fully heal; they just form emotional scar tissue. It doesn’t mean one can never love again. It just means that one must be careful how they love.

            Hiraeth is a Welsh word, meaning, “The pain of longing, and loss; coupled with homesickness.” It can be homesickness. It can be the feeling of loss of a loved one. It can be both. It also carries nostalgia; which itself means, “pain from an old wound.” Yet, people pay good money for nostalgia these days. Just look at all the old Atari and Nintendo systems on EBay. However, no one has to pay for hiraeth; as it comes for free.

            I first felt this word on the day I flew back from England to the U.S. I’d just visited the U.K. for the first time. I was only able to spend a week, yet I didn’t want to leave. I’d dreamed of the U.K., specifically England, since I was a child. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged somewhere. I couldn’t stop smiling when I entered the airport at Birmingham, and saw the Union Flag flying overhead. I couldn’t stop smiling that entire first day. There were so many firsts that day. There were so many things I experienced that week. It rained on the last day, which felt appropriate for a number of reasons. I carrying a longing to return to a place, and its people.

            My mother once said, “Men don’t get attached to places.”

            I disagree. I feel that everyone leaves a part of their essence in a place they love, or that had significance to them. Though some terrible things happened in the house where I grew up, I still felt it was home. Though the last time I saw it, it didn’t feel like home anymore. It seemed foreign to me. It’s as if the place only exists in memory now. I have no desire to return to the actual building. Nor, would I return to the flat where my mother died.

            There are places I do get attached to, and couldn’t picture life without. But, there are also places that I don’t miss, and am ready to move on from, and not experience again.

            Then there are the places I’ve only touched, but not fully explored. Like a lover giving up their secrets, there’s always more to find. You could spend a lifetime searching, and still not know everything. Those are the places I love the most.

            I’m in a period now where I have lost much. Yet, I have not given up hope; as it is all that drives me forward. I find myself in another place where things seemed to be stabilizing, and then became unstable again. There is much uncertainty, and little I can control. Yet, I have not lost hope. Maybe that’s a side of hiraeth that few have explored; the hope of return?

            Hiraeth also carries with it an element of love. We feel hiraeth most toward the ones that we love, because we know time is short. We need to make every moment with them count. I’ve written before that even a hundred years is a blink in the eye of God. As such, we are all on limited time frames on, what Carl Sagan called, “The pale blue dot.” We can’t afford to waste a second.

            So, that is why I sometimes jump the gun in life. I want to take in everything that matters to me, and not let it go. I want to experience this world, and share it with someone. I want them, and everyone else to know that it all mattered, and that my life wasn’t just wasted time. So, I’ve found another aspect of hiraeth; mourning over lost time. Yet, I still look to the future, as I know the lost time can’t be regained. Only the future can be acquired.

            One can feel hiraeth over a person. No matter how many people one loves, that is always someone that gives us a sense of hope, or even a sense of purpose. Perhaps that hope and purpose cannot be lost? Even with all the upsets and confusion that goes on in the heart, those dual senses can still exist. Yes, I speak of someone that I love dearly. Someone who is in pain. Because of that pain, they have drawn away from me. Yet, again, I hold onto the hope they will return. Whether my love for them takes the form of romance (which is the trajectory it’s headed on) or, if it remains something else, I can’t say. I know what I want, and I know what they are ready to experience. It’s just a matter of synchronizing the two. You just can’t experience someone that you feel is part of you, and not feel you belong with them. It’s impossible to look at them, and not see the missing half you’ve searched for your entire life, up to this point. I’ve not given up on this person, even if they are unsure of their future.

That’s another example of hiraeth to me.

The words to She Moved Through the Fair come to mind when I think of this emotion. If there ever was an example of hiraeth over love of a person, it’s in that song. But, I must confess, that my love of place is great. Is it greater than my love for a person? I don’t know. Both carry great opportunities, and many adventures for the future.

That’s it, the future.

Perhaps hope and the future, when concocted, form an antidote to hiraeth. Not, a cure, mind you, but a treatment, that allows one to function, and to love.  
I don’t know, but I intend to find out.

            Text and photo: Copyright Riley Joyce 2017

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Truth is Out There

The Truth is Out There

            I’ve been revisiting The X-Files lately. With each episode, I am reminded of why I gravitated toward this show in the first place. It wasn’t just the interplay between Mulder and Scully, though that was a big part of it. It was also the concept that one must search for answers.

            As the old adage goes, “People do not seek the truth because it is lost, but because they are lost.”

            Some seek the “truth” through a religious system, and feel they have found it. Others, seek the truth internally. Still, there are others who seek truths by going into the world, and exploring it. I’m into two of those categories. I explore the world, and then I reflect inwards on what it all means. Religious systems brought up more questions than they did answers. The majority seemed to cast the world into shades of black and white; a view that I’ve fought against for ages. Though, I will admit, not all faith-based systems are like that. Still, one must find their own path.

            So, that brings me to the concept of truth, and how we are taught “truths.” There is no “post truth.” Nor, is there “truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert used to say. There’s reality, and unreality. What appears to be either depends on what you were taught was the truth.

            This brings me to Mr. Kort, and our discussions about The X-Files.

            Mr. Kort was the traditional eccentric science teacher. He taught biology, and earth and space science. He had a way of smiling at you that suggested great humor, warmth, and a possible eureka moment. I can picture him now in his aviator glasses, and monotone shirts. He kind of looked like Keir Dullea in 2001, if Dr. Bowman weren’t as tall. Mr. Kort had more of a robust build.  

His frequent comment about lichens, “The more you lick’em, the more you like’em,” also comes to mind. 

Somehow, we’d gotten to talk about the The X-Files. I seem to recall that it aired during the infamous “Friday night death slot,” and yet it became a hit, along with Millennium, and the short-lived Brimstone. When the X-Files premiered a few years prior, it was expected to be a flop. Fox had little faith in it, and assumed that the Bruce Campbell-staring show The Adventures of Briscoe Country Jr. would be their big Friday night hit. I like Bruce as much as the next nerd, but Brisco County ran for little less than a season, whereas The X-Files became a cultural landmark.

This was at a time when interest in the paranormal was flourishing. This was largely tied to the New Age movement, which gained it’s second (and last wind) around this time. Shows like the classic In Search Of… (which I also watched) made a comeback, albeit in reruns. As did the eponymous trilogy of shows hosted by Sir Arthur C. Clarke; Mysterious World, Universe, and Strange Powers. This was also during the era of the Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown book series, which I’m still putting together a full set of. Just before The X-Files premiered, a showed called Sightings made its debut. Much like its predecessors, Sightings was a paranormal show, though it was presented in the form of a news magazine, rather than a docudrama. As the title would suggest it focused on UFO sightings, as did I at the time. To me, the idea of life on other planets was incredibly probably at the time. My faith in things such as ghosts, for example, were already on the wane. Though it was still fun to think of such things, though I put little stock in them now.

This commercial ran incessantly late at night. 
It features Julianne Moore before she was famous! 

            The beginning of the skepticism started with my conversations with Mr. Kort. We’d talk about The X-Files either before, or after class. I took the Mulder “pro” side of things, while Mr. Kort took the Scully “con” side of things. We debated such episodes as the one about the giant alligator, the one about the Fluke Man, and yes, the infamous episode titled Home. That requires a stiff drink to talk about now. It’s the one episode that was seldom repeated. I still can’t listen to the Johnny Mathis song Wonderful Wonderful without thinking about that episode. Though my favorite episode is still Jose Chung’s From Outer Space. That’s the one where the Air Force is faking an abduction, right when a real alien abduction happens!

During these conversations, I learned a lot. I learned that while faith isn’t a bad thing, it must be tempered with reason. I don’t mean religious faith, but instead a faith in the world around oneself. It was then that I realized that belief in such things as UFOs or ghosts are cultural phenomena. They are not something one must believe. We are often taught to believe them because the friend of a friend of a cousin, or someone’s brother’s uncle’s nephew’s sister’s aunt swears they saw them! That’s not meant to ridicule anyone that has seen such things, but we must start with the null hypothesis. We must ask, “Did anything actually happen?” Then, we go onto, “What actually occurred?” The X-Files was about the truth, and this is how we get to the truth; investigation, and testing the evidence. In the words of Feynman.

“If a theory doesn’t hold up to experience, or experiment…it’s wrong!”

Speaking of theories…

            This was also the era of the conspiracy theory. Well, that deserves a post unto itself. As it stands now I can’t stand conspiracy theories. The convoluted path they take on one could best be shaved away by Occam’s Razor. The sad thing is that most conspiracy theorists are content to grow beards, or have hairy legs. When you try to gift them shaving cream, they assume you are part of the conspiracy. It was at that time that I began to question all the right-wing rhetoric that I heard at the time. Where these stories about the Clinton’s true? Was there a secret plot to take our guns away? Did a UFO crash land in Roswell, and was the government doing a really piss poor job of covering it up? I mean the fact it was covered in the news meant they failed to keep it a secret, right?

            It was then that I started to think, “Well, did anything crash in Roswell at all?”

            I also found Mr. Kort challenging. At the time, I attended a VERY right-wing church with my father. So, attending a secular science class would inevitably bring up conflict. I wasn’t raised with a religion My father wasn’t opposed to my interest in astronomy when I was a child. But then he went through a conversion experience after the divorce from my mother. That’s another story; one in which my father made one last ditch effort to get my mother back, by pretending to be extremely religious. It failed, as she saw through it. I began to see through it as well. I don’t want to belittle anyone’s faith, but I don’t know anyone who can walk on water, so it’s a longshot that it’s even possible. I think I was content to grow up secular. Being told that I was someone wrong-headed for it, and needed to change, was a bit more than I could handle. This was one of the causes of my depression, which lasted for about seven years. 

            There I was in a biology class, where I learned about evolution. That deserves a blog post unto itself, entitled How I Learned to Stop Fearing Darwin, and Love My Inner Monkey.

            Mr. Kort said, “For some people ‘evolution’ is a dirty word. For me, it just means, ‘change.’”

            He was right.

            It wasn’t until I was at university that evolution finally made sense. I don’t know if that was because I was finally mature enough to understand it, or because it was explained in a way that I could grasp. But I finally understood that one’s environment changes on physically. The Earth influences all its species, just as we influence it. You don’t know what a revelation that was, if you’ll pardon the pun. It meant that whether God made the universe, or not, was beside the point. The point was, we were figured out how the universe works. Evolution is just another mechanism, that’s all it is. So, stop freaking out about evolution, people! Don’t be a baboon about it!

            I will always be well-versed in the paranormal, and the macabre. Though, I will admit, my skepticism is firmly rooted in reason. Still, it doesn’t mean I can’t speculate on some things. I'm still free to believe, or not believe. I believe humans have souls. I believe we all carry a divine spark inside of us. I believe that it’s possible that my mother tried to get some message to me from beyond the veil. It doesn’t mean I’m off my rocker, but it means I’m open to contemplating such things. But, as the saying goes, “It’s good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out.” One must guard against that.

            Ultimately, what The X-Files teaches us is to question authority. Don’t just accept the answers we are given. Instead, search for the answers, and follow the evidence wherever it may lead. Then, you will know the truth.  
             Yes, the truth is out there…it’s also in all of us.

Copyright Riley Joyce 2017