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The Parting Glass

19 Mar

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The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
In this last of meeting places. . . T.S. Eliot

Saturday’s long drive landed me in Norfolk, VA about mid-day and the afternoon’s walk around downtown in the warm spring air yielded a strange feeling. The sparsely populated city streets were not as I had anticipated, especially on a holiday weekend. Norfolk’s architecture was a curious blend of futuristic modern and historic past, a feel so different from any city I have ever visited. It was as if a fold in time excised a hundred years and only a book seam separated pages 1913 and 2013. Cable cars, now electric monorail, clicked and hummed along, bells pealing in electronic tones. I turned a corner to see the prow of a battleship at the end of the block next to a late winter Japanese garden, behind a set of McCondominiums. Visually shocking, this jumble of sea and land, shopping mall and street café, was criss-crossed by both cobblestone and asphalt street interlaced with electric cable rail. Colorful mermaid statues, their forms identical, yet each one decorated differently, appeared at random amid apartment buildings and Colonial, Victorian, and Edwardian era homes. These sirens were the only consistent visual marker against the puzzle of architecture. The collected city tumbled into a hollow valley of concrete ringed by wind and wave without many souls on shore.

After my strange “ghost walk” of sorts, I decided to go to dinner at Press 626, a local wine bistro in the Ghent area. Saturday evening was one of the first times I had not planned an activity other than dinner, but it gave me an evening like I haven’t had in many months. Press 626 operates from a gorgeous restored Italianate home on the corner of Olney and Colley Streets. For all the atmosphere and beauty upon entry, though, I felt it again, that distinct hollowness. The bartender was attentive, but crisp; two quite loud pretentious young men at the bar discussed education and the university system, awash in their own academic and philosophical prowess, and an older gentleman sat next to me, totally quiet, eyes straight forward, speaking only when spoken to.

This is an empty place, I thought, in more ways than one.

I decided early to move on, to go somewhere else for dinner after an appetizer and a smallish glass of Gruener Veltliner at a healthy nine dollar pricetag. I ordered antipasti which was good, but not spectacular. Fresh pressed bread accompanied it, which was lovely and warm, but not enough for all the other bits and bites on the plate. In the first hour, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t impressed.

But, in hoping for a better evening, I asked the young couple next to me where they would go in Ghent for fun on the night before St. Patrick’s Day.

Nowhere, they said. This is it. There is nothing going on around here tonight. Virginia Beach is where to go. . .the police here are pretty oppressive.

I was floored…nowhere? I began to ask more questions. The young man began to tell me about certain restaurants, which were good,which weren’t. That started a long evening for the three of us. And as I began to listen to their stories, our ensuing conversation became one of the most real, engaging and honest connections I’ve made in travel since Ocracoke. Diana and Peter, junior naval officers, told me their story of Norfolk and of their lives in service to our country.

After a while, I found myself asking more questions, as I once did on the island. I listened more, wanting to hear the stories, why they thought the town was the way I too had perceived it, sort of empty.They began to explain this feeling, as if Norfolk is a rentable city…beautifully decorated, cultural, artistic, but ever so crisp and clean, ready always for the next set of souls to move through. It’s like a perpetual best foot forward, but underneath something just isn’t quite right. They expressed how tough it is to be impermanent, to not have a place that has that feeling of home. In passing through every few years, this tone of Naval service shapes the town. The expectation of long term connection is lost. Press 626 is the closest place to a “home” pub for them. Seeing it in context of the local culture shaped it differently and changed my view. Literally, it’s a house and the bar is the main feature of the living room. In many ways, I was wrong in my first estimation. After spending the evening there, it’s the truest thing to a pub I’ve been in since Ireland.

As the wine and whiskey flowed, our conversations deepened and confidences were made. This is the magic of gathering, of the pub, I thought.

We talked about family.

About travel. . .

About love. . .

and loss. . .

There are no more heroes, Peter said finally, whiskey in hand.

It’s sad that the greatest generation, those that lived and died with honor are no more. I was a history major. I know the stories…there are no more of those stories…no more.

It touched me deeply, his elegiac tone, at such a young age.

I thought about Peter when touring the MacArthur Memorial Museum the following day. He had spoken of the dedication of those men who had fought for a world possessing a sense of moral elevation, of dignity and of glory. Now, he felt, much of the world was a corporation, only concerned with the task at hand and the ultimate result, financial gain. I told him about many of my students, who only see education as set of tasks to be completed rather than as part of their own becoming. He nodded.

I see it, he said. No one speaks proper English anymore or writes well.

It’s as if the realness has gone, I said.

When I toured the MacArthur Museum, I was reminded of my grandmother’s generation, of the sacrifices they made for each other and for the world. They did what my granny would call “making due”. But in their work, there was attentiveness to detail and to longevity. When one set out to do a task, it was the best effort. When one made something, it was crafted. People cared about their creative self expressions. I told both Diana and Peter about what I have seen in other young people, though, in my traveling, a reviving interest in the arts, music, and theater and even areas as simple as food, wine and beer.

It brings me hope, I said. To hear you miss this sense of substance in the world.

That they miss it means there is hope that the world will change. That is the essence of leadership, and of honor. We are the in-between generation, no less heroic than those of the last World War. Our battle will be to recreate a world that has lost touch with its own soul. There is glory in that battle, I think.

And so Saturday night, I had pub hours in a wine bar in Ghent. Three gypsy ramblers found seats together, longing for a sense of realness and permanency that seems somehow erased from the modern world. Having found each other, we shared stories around the heart.

. . .What I have is yours, my friend, if only for tonight. . .

We sipped and shared drinks, ate amazing pressed cheese sandwiches, laughed and teared up at times. We touched shoulders and hugged. And for moments, we were part of a family of our own making. Our connection traveled the evening as all good connections do, and then we said farewell. A song came to mind as I was leaving, an Irish traditional tune. I had been in my Irishness all night and the words came easily as I wandered toward my bed.

Of all the money that e’er I spent
I’ve spent it in good company
And all the harm that ever I did
Alas it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all

Oh, all the comrades that e’er I had
They’re sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I had
They’d wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be with you all

Perhaps in the seams of this town, small threads link like minds together…for a glass, and a moment upon the page.

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