[Black Elk] says, ‘I saw myself on the central mountain of the world, the highest place, and I had a vision because I was seeing in the sacred manner of the world.’ And the sacred central mountain was Harney Peak in South Dakota. And then he says, ‘But the central mountain is everywhere.’
The center of the world is axis mundi, the central point, the pole around which all revolves. The central point of the world is the point where stillness and movement are together. Movement is time, but stillness is eternity. Realizing how this moment of your life is actually a moment of eternity… This is the mythological experience.
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
It is nearly Halloween 2003, and five months have passed since I celebrated my new doctorate by shipping a dozen heavy boxes of books from my old office in Arlington, Texas to the new one in Oxford, Ohio. My position as a post-doc will be temporary; a year, perhaps, if I am lucky enough to find a real job as a tenure track professor right away, or four years at most if I take my time and use up all the funding—so I decided to travel light. I had a trailer hitch installed on my brand new compact station wagon and called three girl-friends to help stack my personal belongings in a five-by-eight U-Haul trailer. I gave away my store-bought furniture and at the very last, abandoned two healthy houseplants next to a dumpster when even the car itself was stuffed. Here in Ohio as soon as the station wagon was unburdened of its load I hit up Wal-Mart for some curtains and scrounged a hand-me-down couch from a graduate student who was moving on to new adventures of his own.
I occupy the top floor apartment in an old farmhouse of whitewashed brick, here in this small village that straddles the state border six miles from the quaint college town where I spend my workdays at the university. I delight in writing to friends and family about how each day I walk across the street to fetch my mail from a post office in Indiana. I also enjoy passing on a local rumor: that the College Corner junior high school gymnasium has a state line painted right across the floor. Since they don’t bother with daylight savings in Indiana, there are two different wall clocks hanging in the gym.
I take long walks in the evening; the roads here are not heavily traveled but they go on through cornfields and bits of forest for miles in every direction. (On weekend afternoons I savor my chance to ride the bicycle I bought eight years ago in Oregon only to store in my closet in Texas where there is no room on the road for a vehicle so small). The homes in College Corner are modest, but even those on wheels are proudly laden with flowerbeds and window boxes. In one front yard downtown stands a swing-set, once a gift for a child now grown, and from its hooks swing wooden baskets full of growing flowers: purple, and red, and blue.
On Thursday I drove our soybeans from the research fields to market, where I took my place in line among the local farmers with their much larger loads, waiting for my turn to drive the trailer onto the scale and watch the beans pour into a hole in the ground to be vacuumed up by the tall metal elevator. Those weathered towers seem to dominate the skyline of every small town. How many times, on how many roads have they turned my head, as I drove past? Lonely and empty, they had always seemed to me. From now on I will picture them as they are during the harvest: buzzing with hardworking men, and brimming with grain.
These past few weeks I have been meditating—or more accurately, ruminating—on perspective; fumbling for a handhold as if that notion were a wriggling salamander I’d just extracted from its hiding place under a rock in a swift-running stream. Perspective. This word, I sensed, was pregnant with the answer to my most pressing questions; and I could almost wrap my fingers around it. If only, for a moment, it would just hold still! I was lying in bed one night (rumination gradually eroding toward sleep) when a memory grabbed me. Grandpa, and Becky, and Mary Ann and I stood surveying the Irish countryside from a hilltop in County Sligo. Here in my second floor back-corner bedroom where I never close the curtains, a moonlit shadow of leaves danced on the carpet, my heart beat faster, and I smiled.
* * *
This is the end of January 2004. I dreamed last night of two bright orbs: the sun and the moon, perhaps, or else two moons unequally bright—suspended like those clocks in the gymnasium, side by side among the stars in the dark night sky. Then during waking a pale sadness came upon me, whose source I could not place. I have tossed and turned and dreamed a lot this winter. With my advisor, Ann, gone away on sabbatical at that other Oxford in England I’m in charge of the Spider Lab here, and there’s plenty to keep me busy. But my energy for making new friends has waned a little, and lately I’ve been startled to realize that I miss Texas.
I know they’re wearing long sleeves and maybe even sweaters down there too right now, but how I would adore a good long talk with Marina and Mary Ann, or Carol, or maybe Ellen, over fruity girly drinks on a restaurant patio. The sun has just dipped, mercifully, behind a building while a swarm of grackles complains loudly that it’s time to settle in for the night. Or else I’m a guest at the lacquered wooden table in Fort Worth, playing cards with Marius and Juno and Dan. The Pfeiffers have brought the fig trees inside for the winter, so the kitchen is joyfully smaller although it’s not quite cold enough tonight to start a fire in the stove. We roll the dice to pair off as partners, then adjust our seating positions and arrange our little piles of colored glass marbles—our life points—in front of us. Now we shuffle our carefully built decks, trading grins and banter while each team prepares to do in the other.
Ohio is not that far north, really (especially down here where you can drive to Kentucky in under an hour) but last week we had four whole inches of snow! I made footprints and tire tracks in the thick white blanket thrown across my gravel driveway and drove slowly to the hardware store—where I walked right past the shovels to buy a disc-shaped plastic sled. But everyone else in Oxford had converged on the same little slope at the city park, where the snow had already started evaporating into a thick fog. So our four inches didn’t last long, and the grass underneath sure took a beating!
* * *
It is now the first week of March, and my new tattoo is freshly healed. I never really fancied the idea of being branded with indelible ink, but then I stumbled across an ancient Norse triad of entwined spiral serpents from whose power I did not want to be parted. My friend Annie volunteered to draw a rough draft on my arm in Sharpie marker, and I liked it well enough to scrub it off and have it done for real. (Mom’s voice on the phone when I told her about it the next day contained equal portions of shock and delight: “My word!”) Now when I look over my shoulder, the triple uroboros whispers a gentle Jungian reminder: Who looks inside, awakes.
It is Wednesday, August 21, 2002. My friend Mary Ann, a fellow graduate student, has joined my sister and me on a nine-day trip to visit Grandpa in Ireland. We arrived last Thursday and have spent a busy week exploring—from Connor Pass to Dublin Castle. We’ve also attended two big parties in County Leitrim with Sarah Carleton’s extended family. Grandpa moved here seven years ago to be near Sarah, and her clan has since adopted our Paul Cryan as one of their own.
Yesterday we visited the homestead where generations of Cryans spent tough, simple lives on the shores of Lough Gara until the lingering hunger that followed the famine drove Timothy, James, Thomas, Mary, Michael, and their families across the sea to Newcastle on Tyne and finally across the ocean to the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. Only their youngest brother, John (who some called Sonny) stayed behind at this place called Under Hill. Here and there, the gutted remains of tiny cottages still poke through the tall grass. But most of these humble structures are long since recycled; they have been transformed into a network of stone walls around what are now cattle pastures on the Hayden farm.
I’ve come down with a summer bug, so I was happy to spend most of today in my pajamas, squinting at Grandpa’s computer to sort out my fresh batch of digital photos. It is now six o’clock, and we are leaving the house with the intention of going to dinner at the Yeats Tavern in Sligo Town. But first we plan to take advantage of the long summer evening, stopping along the way to visit a place called Carrowkeel. The fourteen stone cairns perched on the barren boggy highlands there are some five thousand years old, just like their larger, more famous cousin unearthed on lower ground in County Meath. But the underground chamber at Newgrange aligns with the winter solstice, and these here in the West are lit by the sun at midsummer—for what particular sacred purpose, we will likely never know.
The gravel roads grow smaller and steeper as grassy pastures give way to sphagnum and heather. Following a series of worn road-sign arrows that name our destination, we wind our way past isolated farmhouses and finally pull up to a gate that we must open, then close behind us to follow this path any further. Are we in the right place? As the car rolls to a stop, Mary Ann chuckles gleefully and points to a knee-high post bearing a hand-painted wooden sign: www.carrowkeel.com.
Past the gate, a narrow dirt track curls along the side of the hill whose crown we are here to explore. It looks better suited to hiking than driving, but we got such a late start today, and we are determined to see the tombs before dark. Becky is taking her turn in the passenger seat. Grandpa—the driver—furrows his brow at her sun visor and lifts it from the windshield to better expose her view of the countryside. White sheep with black faces turn to stare as we climb slowly, hugging the hillside and wincing as we scrape bottom on the places where erosion has washed the road downhill.
At the end of the trail we emerge from the car and bounce across the moist, resilient vegetation to the first of the stone structures. The doorway is just large enough to crawl through, and the space inside opens up to a room that could hold a small gathering (as long as no one in attendance tried to stand up). We spot several more cairns higher up, and our party spreads out to investigate. These few tombs, we are able to touch, but the others are spread far and wide among the neighboring peaks, each one revealed by its silhouette—a little bump protruding from the bog—clearly discernable but dwarfed by the greater mound that is the hill itself. I look down across a patchwork of farms, and I am reminded of what shocked me from the airplane nine years ago—the first time I descended over Shannon: for a land with so much green, there are so few trees.
Look there, I can see Lough Gara where yesterday I stood among the ruins of my great great grandfather’s Victorian life. So this hilltop belonged to my people. In the days before Jesus, before the Buddha, before Egypt was graced by pyramids, my people chose this place for their communion with Mother Earth and Father Sky. From this high ground, they could see the World as they knew it. And from this moment forward, I know it too.