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Heart Strings

I'm not the one to tell you what it is about the Irish, or the Irish fiddle. There's no hope to do that without a pedigree and aside from a great-great-great someone or another somewhere up the Anglo-Saxon family tree, I haven't got one. I'm an American mutt from the lower 48 with as much elan as a Walmart throw rug.

But I can tell you that the tribal gestalt and straining chords work their magic on me just as much as if I'd have been born in Dublin. It's the sound of life and it ripples my heartstrings whenever I hear it. The evocative moaning of the Irish fiddle caught me off guard recently--although it shouldn't have. I was working on a web page for the Fairbanks Concert Association that scans twitter for tweets that include the talent for the upcoming shows and ran across one that lead to a YouTube of Sting on David Letterman. So I follow the link and play the video, with its artifact cluttered image and listen to this charming bit of celtic rock holiday cheer and marvel at the man's voice, still iconic despite the genre. The descending chords established the sorrowful pounding out of life that traps the less fortunate. And then the fiddle joined in, an ebulant defiant counterpoint to the poverty of life.

And back flooded the memories.

° ° °

We'd arrived at a little cove on the far side of Kodiak Island, a couple of pieces of weathered driftwood gathered by the currents of fate and delivered on the rocky beach of now by the tide of circumstance. Both old enough to deserve better, we were untethered by life and not looking for anything more than a break from the press of events. What we found was a common sensibility. What I unknowingly had stumbled across was the luck of the Irish.

She was a broad pragmatic Irish smile inexplicably without companion because of a monumentally unfair cancer, pushing ahead like Tugboat Annie, unwilling to capitulate to remorse. I was a dude on the frontier, convinced happy companionship was a cruel myth and trying to find a way to stop pacing the cage and live a little life before I was truly dead. We were there due to thoughtful invitations, with no expectation beyond a modest adventure and a bit of solitude. Beggars on the doorstep of life, taking what was offered.

"An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry.
Any good thing to make us all merry."

A bonfire on the beached died down to a silent rippling lantern of flame as the rest of the camp turned in. The rare blue moon rose above the far ridge as conversation dwindled to the bare facts of who we were and how we had gotten this far. Nothing could be said about what might lay ahead. The rising tide picked up the remnant campfire and drifted it, still burning, into the channel as we sat beside one another, soldiers of circumstance sharing a foxhole in a war of attrition.

The gentle waves mingled floating firelight and reflected moonbeams. Just when there was nothing more to imagine, a pair of whales breached in the channel, shot their breath into the chill sky and slid back down into the wet darkness below the surface. Partners on a submarine trail. There was nothing to say.

A perfect moment, witnessed by a pair of perfect strangers.

There was nothing for it but to become friends. A day or two later, as she was about to clamber into the Beaver that would fly her party out, she made an offer. There was friendship to be had, but I could expect nothing more. I accepted the terms without hesitation. A friendship with an Irish is more compelling than a lifetime with a trophy.

"Go down into the cellar and see what you can find.
If the barrels are not empty, we hope that you will be kind."

And so began an introduction to the vast scope of Alaska and the free-wheeling love of life of the Irish, for I had fallen in league with an Irishwoman. Little did I know what was in store. We were, as an insightful observer once put it, good for each other.

° ° °

Winter in Alaska is so cold that on the porch in the middle of the night you hear the periodic crack of freezing trees echo out of the forest. It is so dark on a clear night there are a billion microscopic pinpoints of light from a galaxy that has been there for millions of years. On occasion, a silent gleaming curtain of ghostly Northern Lights drapes its erie shifting phosphorescent over the inky black, a massive unconfined neon light charged by the solar wind and shaped by the magnetic field of a planet. In the daylight the road to town winds through a sugar coated crystalline world of frost encrusted tree limbs. In the forbidding dark of overcast night the street lights have phantom light shadows above them, reflections of the fine white powder below accentuated by a faint ice fog.

Amid the cosmic dark and pervasive cold and the vastness and the rigor, however, was a lesson in life, how to persevere, how to build good times out of bad, how to hold on to the exuberant essence of life. I remember the smile, most of all, and the inevitable cheerful conclusion of virtually any elaborate tale of recent events that "It's all good!"

"And all that dwell within your gates
We'll wish you ten times more."

I had the unenviable task of standing in the footprints of a kindly giant of a man so that his absence would not be quite so blatantly obvious. My saving grace was that my physical presence could generally obscure his ghost if she was willing to play along, but I harbored no pretensions. She had the dull glow of several failed relationships to outshine. That wasn't difficult.

The process of sharing the process of living gave us both the cover story we needed and the friendship grew deep. I learned the right way to tap a pint of Guinness and she came to visit the desert. I saw the gnarled frozen forest from the handlebars of a dog sled and she saw the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright in the heat of the noonday sun. The resonant engagement she has for life soared like a counterpoint to the descending chords of my cautious cynicism. She taught me how to make the best of it--whatever it may be. It became, for a time, perfect.

"A soul cake, a soul cake,
Please, good missus, a soul cake."

And in the heart of it, one near solstice evening, we took the winding road into town and arrived at Hening Auditorium. She had a pair of tickets for the Eileen Ivers concert and I was to be introduced to her society. In a way, I was being outed, for the friendship had been for the most part a private thing. But if one is Irish and Eileen comes to play the fiddle, there is no standing on convention to be done. I was not sure at the onset that I could take too much of 'Danny Boy'.

What happened next was a revelation. When Eileen fired up the fiddle and began to saw, the pure joy of life of it all resonated throughout the hearts of the audience. You can see it in her grimacing smile, the dashing flicker of her eyes, you can feel the life in her dance, you can hear the pulse of God in the ring of her fiddle.

Nothing is as evocative now of that lucky period in my life, times made good in extreme circumstance, a quiet partnership despite the odds and improbability. I don't know what it is about the sound of the fiddle that vibrates my heartstrings, tears the emotion out of my eyes. You can say it is Pavlovian. I first heard Eileen Ivers at the apex of an extraordinarily good time in my life. Perhaps the dormant neurons that fire at the sound of her fiddle revive the memories of the simple cheerful joy of living life. But I'm not sure that it isn't simply archetypically wonderful.

° ° °


The Christmas season is on the way and Eileen Ivers is coming back to Fairbanks. I'm a pauper now, looking for a cherry or perhaps a plumb, when once there was a table full of turkey. This time I won't be in the theater to hear the fire come direct from the fiddle. My friend and I don't see each other much any more. She was right, I guess, in warning there could be no relationship. I did not realized at the time how much that would not seem right now. It would make me sad, but that would refute the lesson I was taught when we saw a lot of each other. It was a mutual resurrection. Born again, there are lives to be lived. But around the holidays I can't help but remember, particularly when I hear the Irish fiddle rising in the background. She was a wonderful counterpoint to my sadly rational existence.

It's all good.

"And we'll come no more a-soulin'
Till Christmas time next year."