Saturday, October 11, 2014

Omphalos, Omphalos, Omphalos

For Whom the Bell Tolls (Reilly, 2012)


Seamus Heaney tells of the effect of saying the word, omphalos, aloud again and again and how the repetition of the word led him to recall, remember.  He writes:
I would begin with the Greek word omphalos, meaning the navel, and hence the stone that marked the centre of the world, and repeat it, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos, until its blunt and falling music becomes the music of somebody pumping water at the pump outside our back door. It is County Derry in the early 1940s ...There the pump stands, a slender, iron idol, snouted, helmeted, dressed down with a sweeping handle, painted a dark green and set on a concrete plinth, marking the centre of another world. Five households drew water from it. Women came and went, came rattling between empty enamel buckets, went evenly away, weighed down by silent water. The horses came home to it in those first lengthening evenings of spring, and in a single draught emptied one bucket and then another as the man pumped and pumped, the plunger slugging up and down, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos.  (Kindle Locations 72-79). 

Omphalos, omphalos, omphalos.

Across the street from the house where I grew up, sat the Corker's home.  A week ago on my way to the Bronx, I passed by it.  The Corkers were the grandparents I never got from family. Behind their home stood the tallest of hemlock trees. This tree remains today, still towering over the roofline of the house. An elegant tree for sure. Sturdy and yet, welcoming.  Many afternoons I stretched out beneath its branches, drawing and writing in a small diary that locked, occasionally munching a few saltines. I did this throughout my childhood. Safe on the soft needles not knowing how drawing and writing would save me. This was my secret place--one I did not visit with any of my neighborhood friends--not even Tommy Lane.  This was a gift the Corkers gave to just me--a secret place.  And in that crowded neighborhood where I grew, a secret place was no small thing.

Early on, Tommy Lane and I would strip from a clothesline, a newly washed sheet some mom had washed, wrapping ourselves in it. Somedays it was his backyard. Other days mine. Somedays, neither. The sheet was always so much bigger than us.  It was prop of sorts that we used as we played. Wrapped in a white or pale blue sheet, I was a saint--a saint who liked to dance. Some days we would snap the sheet above us and rush beneath it. A sky falling. I don't recall what Tommy thought although he joined me as we moved about the backyard, tumbling in the grass.

There was no point to our games, no sought outcome.  There was only the now--framed by the call of voices across driveways, disembodied.  These bits of disconnected sound worked their way into the stories we told ourselves, told one another, until we dozed.


I loved that boy and knew that life in his home was tough well before my ma told me so.

We know more than we can say.


Omphalos, omphalos, omphalos.

Tommy Lane marked the centre of the world when I was a child.  His ma would screech his name from the top of the stairs over and over and over and we'd run fast from some corner of the neighborhood to see what was the matter for there was always something wrong and there she would stand, leaning her large frame into the doorway, clothed in some old duster that snapped up the front, wobbly, loose-faced and always so angry.

I don't know when we stopped being friends, when our interests vied or how we moved away from one another as surely as we did.  I remember meeting him late summer one afternoon by accident. I was 16, stunned by his height and that he had dropped out of school. We talked like strangers, hesitant, unsure and breached that distance by leaving in his green two-door Plymouth Road Runner for a party he knew on the cliffs.

It's nearly impossible to run from your past.


Omphalos, omphalos, omphalos.

Here. Now. I can recall the sound of his name, always both names,  a steady vibration across my vocal chords like a mantra I repeat.  I can recall his voice more than I can see his face.

There's a temptation to soften the past, to recast it in some soft light, hear it differently. A falling sky. Some cued music. For me the temptation is not to romanticize the past, but rather to intellectualize it--to distance it from my heart, to not say what must be said.  To write it instead in some book I can lock.

The last I heard Tommy Lane was clean and worked as a short order cook at a diner in Jersey City, his older sister had moved north near the Canadian border and married, and his ma had finally gotten sober right before she died.


There was no room at school in those days for the lives we actually lived. School was not the place to drop the occasional bomb. Causal worlds, like schools and churches, make little room for irrationality. That which is outside simply does not exist.

We kept such secrets--the price of doing school, of doing religion, of doing life at our homes.  I've lost track of Tommy Lane across these decades and I am the worse for it.

I left home at 18, never to return to that neighborhood and I never saw Tommy Lane again.

Heaney, Seamus (2014). Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

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