Behind The Green Wall

tamalpaisJust about five years ago and at my wit’s end, I sent my ex-husband packing back to Ireland, duffel bag in hand, hoping that some quality time at home would help him sort himself out. With incredible naïveté, I booked him a flight on Virgin Air, a British carrier, rather than on Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline. Alcoholic Paddy + Nordie accent + heartbreak + uptight British fellow passengers + free booze = all bad. Calling his brother the next morning to see if he’d landed in Dublin safely, I instead learned that he’d gotten drunk, mouthed off to an old lady and told a London peeler to go fuck himself. On the plane. Shortly after September 11th. Yeah. I know. Obviously, he didn’t make the connecting flight at Heathrow, and instead was led off the plane in handcuffs and given a two-week stay at Her Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs, where the guards were actually kind enough to let me speak with him by phone (you have to give it to the English, they are just unfailingly polite).

Ever the optimist, a few months later I packed my own bag and headed off to Ireland – on Aer Lingus, natch – for the purposes of seeing whether a potential reconciliation and a possible move overseas might be in order. I had never met his family nor seen his wee village, Castlefinn, which rode the border of the Republic and Northern Ireland with uneasiness. All I knew was that he’d helped his Da plant 80 trees around the perimeter of their property (‘Eighty?!’ I had asked incredulously, ‘do you mean eight?’) and that he came from a village of about 700 people. Seven. Hundred. People.

Now. I have grown up in an urban environment my whole life. I was born in Berkeley and always lived either around there, in San Diego, or in San Francisco. There have pretty much always been 700 people on my block. I cannot even imagine a village of so few, but I was willing to, you know, check it out. And man, it was green. Emerald Hills all around. And fields, lot of fields. And a pretty river with a gorgeous bridge, and plenty of cows and sheep and ravens and…….pubs. One shop, one post office, one police station, and three bars. And not much else. The nearest ATM was 10 miles away, in Ballybofey, and the bus to Letterkenny, the main town in County Donegal, came once in the morning and once at night.

I knew from the minute I arrived that the spell between us was broken, I wasn’t going to live there, and that we were probably going to break up, even if I didn’t want to admit it to myself or anyone else. My visit just happened to coincide with the wettest summer ever on record in Ireland and the dampness matched my mood. We tried to make the best of it, taking slow walks in the forest and dells, playing the child’s game of ‘soldiers’ with reeds plucked from the ground, putting foxglove flowers on our fingers and pretending to have a good time. On the second or third day, I finally broke down outside the abandoned train station in Castlefinn and cried so hard – in big, wracking gasps – that I was snotty and had nothing to wipe my nose on – a total spiritual low. I knew then it was over, but I spent the next month running around the island anyway, hellbent on visiting the northernmost (Malin Head, so completely awesome) and southernmost (Cape Clear) points in the country. We had some good times, definitely, but it was my third extended visit to Ireland and the first where I sensed the dark side of Irish life – the passivity, depression, fatalism, isolation, and brokenness that you don’t see on cutesy postcards or while wilding away the weekend in Dublin. I had this deep sense of the country as a damp, torpid green prison, and for the first time I could not wait to get back to my own loud, hectic, obnoxious country – freeways! Strong coffee! Carne asada! Black people!

Fast forward several years and the man I’m with now is from Bolinas, a mythical small town down an unmarked (because the locals tear the signs down) road way the hell on the other side of Mount Tamalpais. His family has a house there and he and his brothers are attached, by history and spiritual orientation, to the town. It’s a place known for its attempt at being a hippie utopia (gone wrong, but that, again, is another day, another blog) and as a haven for outlaws and renegades; fiercely insular, sketchy for outsiders, and achingly beautiful. There are few vistas as gorgeous as the edge of the mesa above Duxbury Reef, and a childhood spent surfing on Bolinas Beach seems idyllic. Still, when I’m there, the huge green wall that is Mount Tam spooks me, makes me feel cut off from the world, and when I window shop life there, imagining living behind that massive ridgeline, I shiver (ironically, the spot on the beach where locals pass their weekends in a beery haze is called The Green Wall, and no, I’m not linking to any photos of it, damn it, as I don’t want the Bolinas Border Patrol to come looking for me).

‘Babylon,’ the Bolinas locals are fond of calling the City, with a tone of derision and mistrust, safe in their cozy green pocket wedged between the ocean and the mountain, where my town looks like a distant, glowing grid when it’s not shrouded in fog. But I like the City. I love anonymity. I like people minding their own damn business. I revel in the facelessness of urban life, the ability to blend into the river of people and be as known or unknown as you wish to be. I like the way one can disappear in a city, where no one on the bus or the street knows you or your dirty laundry, where you could be anyone, anything, and the only time someone knows your business is when you let them. In the City you develop relationships, of course, little bonds that fuse during one’s daily life – with your barista, neighbor, Steve at Naked Eye video, whatever………..but it’s because you choose to, not by default or simply due to proximity.

At the same time, City life gets to you – the endless jockeying for parking, the astronomical rents, its growing function as a playground for the white and Asian affluent, the political correctness – and there are days when I long for the mythical Simple Life: a man and a dog and a baby on the beach, no bloodthirsty landlords and no fistfights over the last spot on the street. A yard to grow vegetables in, lots of room for my dogs to frolic, and no telephone wires outside the living room window. If only I had the cojones to give up the nail shacks, the plentiful cafes and vast supermarkets, the blessed anonymity and autonomy and give in to the seductive call of life behind the green wall, where the passion flower vines climb over the houses and time moves thick and slow like molasses.

Hindley Wakes

Myra Hindley was not a nice person. So notorious was she, in fact, that following her involvement in the particularly monstrous Moors Murders outside of Manchester, England, in the early 1960s, the use of the name Myra all but disappeared from use and she became popularly known as the ‘most hated woman in Britain.’ Hindley remained behind bars from the time of her arrest in the mid-60s until her death within prison in 2002. She and her psychotic Svegali, the particularly loathsome Ian Brady, were locked into a deeply twisted dance of darkness and sadism that began with Nazi paraphernalia and ended in the murder of children and a lifetime as not only guests of Her Majesty’s Prisons but as pretty much the most reviled people in the UK (particularly for Hindley).

It is interesting to note that in many ways the public treated Hindley far more harshly than Brady, who was generally thought to be the mastermind behind the horrific killings, simply because she was a woman (and Hindley was only too happy to play up this ‘love slave’ role in a calculated play for public sympathy). That a woman could possibly commit such atrocious acts was unthinkable to the popular mind – which conjures up the question, why is it so much less shocking that a man would do these things? Which is a valid topic worth addressing, but that’s another day, another blog.

Hindley spent 36 years in prison, during which she curried favor with figures she felt powerful enough to possibly help her case for parole. Most famously, she allied herself with Lord Longford, an eccentric aristocrat with Irish roots and a penchant for championing the unpopular cause of prisoner’s rights. Hindley hit him up for a visit after an exchange of letters and they embarked upon an unlikely friendship that ultimately cost him the public’s good graces. Even after finding out that Hindley had betrayed him by lying about additional victims and thus soiling his good name, Longford worked through a deep spiritual struggle to arrive at a place of forgiveness.

Their odd friendship was detailed in the very-watchable Channel 4 movie Longford, which caught my attention because the name is the same as an Irish county. My previous knowledge of the Moors Murders consisted of the legend behind The Smiths song ‘Suffer Little Children’ and it’s scandal upon release to the British airwaves in the 1980s. There is a brilliant scene in the film, when Longford, following Hindley’s betrayal, does a radio interview to stump for his new book on the saints. The host is, predictably, far more interested in the salacious details of the Lord’s friendship with Britain’s ‘most hated woman’ and needles the quirky old man mercilessly until he comes up with one of the most beautiful, if brief, speeches on forgiveness I’ve heard to date. The host will not let Longford discuss his book and continues to pepper him with the question of whether or not he regrets championing Hindey’s cause:

Host: It’s a simple answer, Lord Longford, yes or no. Do you regret it?

Lord Longford: Not at all. As a matter of fact, I consider my visiting Myra Hindley, and indeed all the other prisoners I’ve visited for over fifty years, to be one of the great blessings of my life. Now, perhaps, we could get back to the subject of the saints?

Host: But hasn’t she betrayed you? She’s ruined your good name and taken all the hard work you did for her and thrown in back in your face.

Lord Longford: Yes, perhaps there’s some truth in that. Forgiving her has proven difficult, very difficult, not for what she’s done to me, that’s neither here nor there, but for the terrible crimes themselves. Forgiveness is the very cornerstone of my faith, and the struggle to deepen my faith is my life’s journey. In that respect, she has enriched my spiritual life beyond measure, and for that I will always be grateful to her. If people think that makes me weak or mad, so be it. That is the path I have committed to, to love the sinner but hate the sin. Assume the best in people, not the worst. Believe that anyone, no matter how evil, can be redeemed, eventually.

Like both Hindley and Longford, I am an unlikely convert to Roman Catholicism (again, a topic for another blog, another day), and while I certainly cannot claim the same piousness and adherence to doctrine that Longford certainly could (I’m more of a cultural/cafeteria Catholic, a ‘Jesus-Is-My-Homeboy’ type and a Marianist at heart), I found his spiritual path deeply inspiring. While I could never comfortably endorse much of the Catholic dogma out there, I can wholeheartedly get behind the ethos of extending mercy to the most hated and dehumanized of human beings (the thought-provoking U.S. Catholic Bishop’s Statement on Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite recent reads) – prisoners.

In a larger context, I worry greatly about this practice we have of turning each other into things; the penchant we have for labels to help us easily define our fellow men and women, and how we so desperately ache for simple answers (‘she was evil’) to agonizingly complex questions (‘how could she have done such a thing?). I feel a deep uneasiness at the eagerness with which we render one another as less than human by the application of grossly inadequate words and concepts, because we are so very afraid to confront the darkness in the human heart and the illogical, maddening state of the human condition. If we can render an individual inhuman – ‘not like us’ – it is only a myopic and dangerous attempt at brushing the shadow side of our nature under the rug.

Do killers deserve our sympathy? Not particularly. Do I believe some people deserve to die, or to be in jail? Yes, even though I don’t believe the state has the right to take life. Do I believe that some people are simply vile, and should be kept away from the rest of us? Yes, certainly. And do I believe that some people, like Myra Hindley, are irredeemably manipulative or psychopathic? Yes. I do. But at the end of the day, no one is ever not human. These people are the shadow side of us; the faces of the savagery we come hardwired with, viscerally alive if spiritually dead, but no less one of us.