YEARS AGO, MY FRIEND PAUL was employed as a youth worker. Truth be told, he didn’t fit the mold of a youth worker. If a ten-year-old asked him how he was, he was liable to say, “Oh, not so great. I’m sad about my divorce.”
The other youth workers were aghast at this truthfulness.
Once, at a gathering of young people, Paul was asked to talk about friendship. There were thirty children there, as calm as a nest of mice, all energy and kicking heels against plastic chairs.
Paul started to talk about friendships.
And then he said that he was lonely, even though he had lots of friends.
He said he missed his wife.
The children listened.
He did that thing where you try to stop sobbing by gulping down air.
Everything was quiet.
It was awkward, and truthful, and both inappropriate and appropriate.
The boss swooped in. Started a game, a song, got all those quiet small bodies up and racing.
I was there too, a trainee youth worker. I think I was a bit in love with Paul. There was an ache in my chest as I looked at him, standing in the corner now, busying himself with tidying things up.
The next day
Paul told me
that the least
of all the children
—the child we complained about
after every event—
came up to him
in the very tidy corner,
held his hand,
when I’m sad
I was a lonely child.
I remember when I realized this. We were learning a poem off by heart, by the Aran Islands poet Máirtín Ó Direáin. He had problematic views about women and was ambivalent about being a poet: he seemed to consider it some kind of slight against his gender.
_____ Tá do leath baineann Half of you’s a
_____ A fhir an dán woman, poetman.
_____ Bí fireann, bí slán Be male, safe, be a tree,
_____ Bí i do chrann. Come on. Stand.
Looking at it now, years later, I don’t like his views about women. I hear, though, how torn he is: pulled toward something that seems to shame him. I think he half hates himself, and—like many men—he turns self-hatred into the hatred of others, especially women. This poem, called Bí i do chrann—Be like a Tree—is lamenting, limited, melodramatic, and misogynistic.
Anyway, all of this goes to say that when I was ten we learned that damned poem off by heart, in Irish. Sometimes poetry is difficult to memorize, but sometimes it stays with you like music. Because of the fifth stanza, this poem has stayed with me for over thirty years now:
_____ Uaigneach crann Lonely as a tree
_____ I lár na coille in a field of trees
_____ Uaigneach file is the poet
_____ Thar gach duine. above the people.
Even then, it was clear to me what Máirtín Ó Direáin felt in his struggle with being male. I’d been called a faggot since before I knew what that meant—before I realized they were right—and so reading that poem felt like a private thing. It uncovered me, uncovered my shame and anger at not fitting into a class of boys. I knew I loved poetry and I knew I shouldn’t love poetry. I hated school. My friends—I suppose I should be honest and speak in the singular, so: my friend—was a girl who lived up the road. Patricia, her name was, or Pádraigín in Irish. She’d never talk to me in public, but in the countryside where we lived, we spent hours together.
Nobody needed to tell me to learn that fifth stanza off by heart. I knew it already. Such is its music in Irish. It rolls off the tongue. It was the first time I’d seen writing about loneliness, and I didn’t so much understand it as I felt it. I started writing it in the back of my homework journal, in tiny letters, like some kind of tattoo, or scripture. The word uaigneach, “lonely,” comes from the word for grave. To be lonely is to feel like the grave. Frightening, perhaps. But also fundamentally true.
I didn’t talk much about loneliness for years, even though I circled around it like it was my prey, or I its. My friend Siobhán said to me, once, years later, “You’re going to have to make friends with loneliness. I don’t think you can be an adult without a relationship to loneliness.”And then something began to make sense. I discounted many of the friendships I’d had as a child because of loneliness. The friends were wonderful—kind, funny, caring, spontaneous—but because I was so lonely, I assumed they hated me. It was its own assassination and—in a strange way—its own arrogance. Who was I to think that I was so different from everybody else?
Don’t we all wake up with questions?
Don’t we all die alone?
Don’t we all wonder what the fuck is going on?
So there I was, with poetry and language and loneliness as friends, even though there were friends all around me. I had music, too, and homework, and rants against my parents, and long walks, and nights camping with the friends who I wouldn’t believe wanted to be my friends. Lonely as I was, I had plenty of company. All of us, perhaps, trees in a field of trees. Linked and lonely; lonely and linked—but we didn’t know it.
Jesus was lonely, too.
Otherwise how could he have died the way he did?
Last summer I was speaking at a retreat. There were three hundred adults and about thirty children. I was giving seminars on poetry for the adults. But like a damned fool I said I’d do a children’s talk on Tuesday night.
Why did I say I’d do it? Because I always say yes to things that make me question my intelligence.
I like Ignatius of Loyola a lot, and he prescribed taking a scripture story and entering into it with the imagination. So when working with children—I was once a school chaplain, even though I think I’m terrible with children—I like to do meditations. “Imagine yourself going on a walk, somewhere lovely, and you’re feeling happy,” I begin. It’s nothing unique. It’s simple. On this walk they meet Jesus, and he says hello, asks a few questions. They can say whatever they want, they can ask questions, and then they say goodbye, take three deep breaths, and open their eyes.
The Irishman in front of them says, “I’ll ask you a few questions about what you saw in your imagination. But when I ask a question, feel free to not answer—just say, I’ll keep it to myself.”
I always want to applaud the one who says, I’ll keep it to myself.
(And there’s always one.)
There seems to be an anxiety about aloneness, but as with many things, there’s truth under the anxiety, and we are anxious about anxiety about the truth. Lonely comes from alone, which itself might be a contraction of the words all one. Or else from Old English eall ˉana. We are singular; we are not anybody else. We are just one. We will die alone. This is not a death sentence. This is just the truth.
Anyway, as part of the meditation last summer, I was asking the children—who ranged in age from three to thirteen years—what lovely places they had gone to in their imaginations. Somebody said, “I’ll keep it to myself.” Somebody said, “I was in a candy store.” The three-year-old had just learned to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” so she stomped around singing her dirge in a husky voice, sounding like the End Times. I was feeling alone in the midst of this zoo of humanity. We were sitting in a circle at the front of a hall, and three hundred adults were watching. Some of them were aaaahhhing whenever a child said something sweet. Some of them were asleep. Others were clearly asking who the Irish idiot was.
After I’d heard a few of the children say what lovely locations they’d gone to in their imaginations, I moved on and asked them what it was like to take a walk with Jesus. One small boy—I later found out he was four—put his hand up. He stretched it high. He was wearing fawn-colored shorts, sandals, socks, and a vintage-styled T-shirt with orange stripes. He waited until I asked him what he had to say.
“You didn’t ask me where I went for my walk,” he said.
“True, I didn’t,” I said. “Where did you go for your walk?”
“Sam’s house,” he said.
Like it was bloody obvious.
And I loved him instantly.
He knew that we all knew that everybody needs a Sam’s house. I didn’t know this smallfella’s name, never mind his city, or even his nationality. I didn’t know who the hell Sam was, or whether Sam existed in his imagination or in reality.
There was a particular quality of his language, his simplicity, his pure assumption that we would all know who Sam was. It was cute, sure. But it was also true.
The next day I went looking for the small boy who liked to go to Sam’s house. I found him eating peanut butter on toast with his parents. I nodded to his parents and sat down, but it was the small one I had business with. “Who is Sam?” I asked.
“My friend,” he said. He chewed for a while. Then he looked at me and he added:
It’s very good
because he is
And he’s my neighbor.
he’s my friend.
And I can walk
to his house
by my own
but I have
I have thought about this small boy, and his friend, and his mother and father every day since I met him. Of all things most beautiful, friendship must be the most beautiful of the beautiful. Nobody taught him. It was something he discovered in the space between himself and Sam. They each found a hole in a fence and wandered through. There, they became something—and someone—they had not yet been before: friends.
All of this is true. I am standing at my desk writing this and it is true. His mother told me he likes justice—hence his demand that every child be allowed to answer every question. And she told me that Sam lives next door. And that there’s a hole in the hedge between the two houses, so her son can walk through by himself. It is the only place in the world where he walks by himself—for now—and even though it’s very safe, she watches him through the window as he goes. God only knows what the two boys talk about.
I stand at my desk because of a small car accident a few years ago. If I sit too long it hurts.
Lots of things hurt.
For the rest of the retreat, even though there were a lot of people, I kept seeing this small boy. At this stage, I should give him his name. Clark. Because of his accent, when he first told me his name, I thought he was saying Clock.
I am time, this small person proclaimed,
like he some version of Chronos,
the god of time
and the turner of the Zodiac.
Anyway, I kept seeing him. I saw him dancing with other children one morning. I saw him playing with others. Another time I saw him sound asleep, drooling on his dad. Once he was sitting on the back pew of the chapel, sandwiched between his parents. I think he might have been a bit bored; he was looking around. He saw me with my friend Nadia. He raised his eyebrows in greeting. (When he is forty and I am almost dead, I think I will still recognize him by those eyebrows and that greeting.) Looking for seats, Nadia and I walked by his pew. Clark leaned back, smiled, and put his hand out to give me a fist-bump. My big knuckles collided against his little ones. He turned back and settled between his parents’ bodies.
Nadia looked at me and said, “Who the fuck are you? Mister Rogers?”
“Who’s Mister Rogers?” I asked.
“Never mind,” she said. “There’s a seat over there.”
Quotation from “Bí i do Chrann” is from Máirtín Ó Direáin’s Na Dánta (An Clóchomhar Tta). Translations: Pádraig Ó Tuama.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.