I’ve been contemplating this poem, “Prayer I” by George Herbert, to prepare for a presentation on Wednesday. More and more comes to the surface each time I read it.
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
         God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
         The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
         Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
         The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
         Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
         Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
         Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
         The land of spices; something understood.
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My dad showed me a letter that he wrote when he was five years old. At the top, in his mother’s distinctive handwriting, it says, “Larry’s first letter. 1955.”

Hello Steve:

How are you?

I like my little bird. He goes on my finger and shoulder.

I buried a piece of coal and will have diamonds in a hundred years.

Goodbye.

Larry

Tomorrow I go back to Texas to finish the semester. I too, with all the faith I can muster, am burying coal and waiting for it to turn into diamonds.

It’s been seven months since I packed the car and drove to Texas, and now I’m back in Virginia for Spring Break.

Some things have not changed: my parents’ cabin still sits on Mason’s Knob surrounded by woods, woodpeckers tap the trees in bursts of staccato, the neon star lights up every night from the top of Mill Mountain. Other things are different: my parents’ vegetable garden has grown, a new community library has been built, and two of my friends have new babies. The sameness is reassuring, and the newness refreshing.

Just as home has both changed and stayed the same, so have I.

“That party was great craic!” … “Sit down, have some tea, and give me the craic” … “You just came from town? What’s the crack?” … “That Andy McDonald, he’s good craic.”

Jovial and fun-loving, the Irish relish a little gossip and witty banter over a cup of tea or pint of beer, and dinner parties with lots of games and laughter. The word “craic” (pronounced “crack”) means fun, enjoyment, or lively conversation, and you’ll hear it used everywhere in Ireland. Part of “good craic” is Irish humor, distinguished by vigorous sarcasm and teasing.

“So, Ingrid,” asked the 20-something Irish guy I met at a Christmas party, “have you kissed anyone in Ireland?” Startled by his lack of subtlety, I stammered, “Ah, no, I haven’t.” “Well,” he replied, “not yet, anyway.”

Creeping through the silent house one morning, I went out into the courtyard, where a green door banged in the wind, and then down the hill, through the stone gate, and onto the lane. Puddles lay silver-gray around my feet and mist hung on the mountains. Already the day felt old.

The wind began to move, whispering up the lane, whispering among the trees, tapping in the branches. In a pasture thick with yellow, unmown grass, hundreds of black birds had settled, pecking and twitching. At my coming, they began to rise up in waves, silhouettes sharp and dark against the white sky. They circled above and flew off into the distance. Then, silence.

The bare sky spread behind the trees white and blue-shadowed. Not a hint of yellow sunlight was to be seen, only an occasional faint brightening of the green grass, as if lit from underneath.

I heard the soak of rainwater into soil, the hushed movements of creatures, the creak of tree trunks, the whir of bird wings, the swish of grass. And the wind, the restless wind, moaned across the valley.

The Mournes of County Down, visible from the hill above the Morrisons’ house, are granite mountains famed for their beauty. In the 1800s Percy French wrote a song called “The Mountains O’Mourne” about a young man who travels to London and writes home to his sweetheart in Ireland. Here are the first and last stanzas.

Oh, Mary, this London’s a wonderful sight
With people here working by day and by night
They don’t sow potatoes, nor barley nor wheat
But there’ gangs of them digging for gold in the streets
At least when I asked them that’s what I was told
So I just took a hand at this diggin’ for gold
But for all that I found there I might as well be
Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

There’s beautiful girls here, oh, never you mind
With beautiful shapes nature never designed
And lovely complexions all roses and cream
But O’Loughlin remarked with regard to the same
That if at those roses you venture to sip
The colours might all come away on your lip
So I’ll wait for the wild rose that’s waitin’ for me
Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

I first spotted the Mournes on a cloudy day. They rose gray and shadowed in the distance and disappeared into mist like wraiths. They reminded me of the Blue Ridge Mountains at home in Virginia with their rounded slopes riding off as far as the eye can see. The Blue Ridge grows with trees, bathed in sunlight. The Mournes, however, are bare of trees, clothed in gray rock, pasture, and rough red and purple heather. One evening, we drove into the foothills, past stone walls and crumbled foundations, and spotted sheep grazing high above. Stopping at a lough (lake) next to a dam, we ventured out of the car, straining our eyes in the dim light and fighting the furious wind. The surface of the lough surged up in thousands of little peaks, which glowed with the setting sun’s light. I pushed back the hair flying in my face and looked beyond to the Mournes standing in a ring around us, black and immoveable.

Christmas morning we drove to town for the service at Banbridge Baptist Church, where we smiled at the neighbors, sang carols accompanied by an organ, and listened to a children’s choir and a short sermon.

Afterward, we went home for dinner, a feast that seemed to unfold endlessly. In the dining room, used only a few times a year, we sat down at the table bright with candles, pulled the crackers sitting at each place, and donned our gold paper crowns. Holding each other’s hands and saying the blessing, we then ate the first course, a small salad. The main course soon followed, and its centerpiece was the turkey, which Greer had procured by standing in a long line at the butcher’s shop. Along with the turkey, there was sausage and ham, cranberry sauce, gravy, two kinds of potatoes, carrots and turnips, bread from the local baker, stuffing, and probably other things I’ve forgotten – all delicious. Though we Americans were full far beyond comfort, Yvonne soon produced the dessert – traditional Christmas pudding. A dish that originated in medieval England, it is a dense bread pudding filled with fruit, raisins and spices and covered with a sweet, buttery sauce (my favorite new dish). Finally, to top it all off, there was tea. Yvonne brought steaming cups of Namberrie and a large plate of mince pies and Christmas cake.

After dinner we sat in the drawing room by the tree and opened presents. The Morrisons are generous people, and there were bulging stockings and numerous gifts for everyone. The day ended with a touch of royalty; we watched the Queen’s Christmas address. She stood by a Christmas tree, dignified and maternal, remembered the sufferings and tragedies of the past year, which people in Northern Ireland know all to well, and then spoke of the hope and grace found in Christ’s birth.

On December 22nd I traveled to Northern Ireland to spend Christmas with my brother and visit his girlfriend and her family in their home in Banbridge, a village in County Down 30 miles outside Belfast.

Flying into Dublin early in the morning, I waited outside for the bus. In the darkness, airport lights sparkled blue, red, and white, and the black road shone from a recent rain. I sat on my suitcase, listening to the voices around me: a serious-looking man in his thirties mumbled into his phone, a father admonished his restless son and daughter, two women in long wool coats chatted softly, and a tall strapping man teased his companions. The Irish brogues and unfamiliar expressions delighted my ear.

On the bus, I found a seat amid the sleepy passengers and settled in for a 1.5 hour drive. At first, there was nothing to see but dreary highway in the headlights and nondescript city sprawl. Music, mostly Christmas carols you would hear in an American shopping mall, played on the radio. As light grew brighter, we left the city behind and I saw for the first time the distinctly Irish landscape. Pastures spread out over rolling hills and flocks of sheep grazed serenely. Hedgerows divided the land into squares like a chessboard. An occasional village or hamlet appeared, and I admired the slate-roofed houses, stone church towers, old graveyards, and an occasional ruined castle. After a semester in the flat, dry plains of Texas, my eyes feasted on the dynamic, deep-green landscape.

The gentleman in the seat next to me looked genial, and I confided that it was my first time in Ireland. He brightened, gave me a hearty welcome, and introduced himself as Robert from Bath, returning home for Christmas. We chatted all the way to Banbridge about Irish music and dancing, and parted with a warm handshake and a “Happy Christmas!”

I stepped off the bus into a small village street, looking around with what probably was a forlorn face. In a moment a short, red-cheeked woman stepped out of a nearby car and came toward me with open arms and a wide grin – my hostess Yvonne! Soon her husband Greer was loading my suitcases into the back of the car and we were off, whipping around the curves of narrow country roads and driving on the left side, which gave me an uncomfortable sensation.

I found myself in the heart of the countryside, passing old farms and pastures and chatting easily with my amiable hosts. We turned into a gate marked “The Old Manse” and drove up the driveway to a large, slate-roofed house standing on a hill, surrounded by rhododendron bushes and mature trees. The house, Greer explained, was built in 1821, and for many years it served as the manse for the tiny church down the road.

Inside, Yvonne made Namberrie tea in a silver teapot and we sat getting acquainted and nibbling soda bread toast. I met their son David, a physics teacher at a school in Belfast. Later, Suzanne returned from work, we picked up Caleb at the bus stop, and I fell asleep early, tired from the journey and the time change. It was a beautiful first day in Ireland.

Here’s a taste of why I enjoy Renaissance literature.

Knights in magical armor, ladies whose beauty shines like the sun, ferocious dragons, giants, subterraneous blacksmith shops, river gods, dancing satyrs, Eden-like gardens jousting touraments, castles, warlike amazons, and prophetic dreams … all of these can be found in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, The Faerie Queen.

Not only is the Faerie Queen a delightful tale, but, as an allegory, it explores six virtues. The Red Cross Knight represents holiness; Guyon embodies temperance; Britomart, the lady knight, is chastity; Cambell and Telamond portray friendship; and Sir Calidore’s adventures show courtesy. The Faerie Queen herself, who is mirrored in various characters throughout the poem, stands as a picture of Queen Elizabeth. The poem also contains many evil characters: Malengin the shape-shifter who represents guile; Malbecco, the embodiment of jealousy, who lives alone in a cliffside cave, feeding on poisonous toads and frogs; Despair, a skillful rhetorician, who tempts travelers to end their sorrows through suicide; Braggadochio, who boasts of his greatness but runs away when danger approaches; Error, a snake-woman, who nurses little “dragonets”; Busirane, a cruel and cunning magician who holds lady Amoret captive; Duessa, an ugly witch who disguises herself as a lovely maid.

Sir Phillip Sidney, a contemporary of Spenser, wrote that a true poet creates “speaking pictures” that teach virtue with delight. Spenser is such a poet.

The starlings are restless. This evening, at dusk, they flocked to the Franklin Street parking lot – hundreds of them. Screeching in loud, knife-edged voices, they perched on electrical wires, lined the roof-rim of Diamondback’s Steakhouse, and fluttered in the trees. The trees looked like mythic creatures tossing in the wind and bristling with beaks, feathers, and gleaming eyes. Swooping over my head, the black forms of starlings were silhouetted against the sunset sky. Shoppers stared up at them, then hurried to their cars.

As I drove home, a storm rose in the East. The horizon blushed feverishly and purple clouds dwarfed the earth. Lightning illuminated the empty fields like flashes of a white-boned skeleton. A few drops of rain nailed the windshield and wind blustered my car left and right. It was a scene from Dante’s Inferno.

At home, I pushed through the shrieking wind toward the door, almost unable to open my eyes. Inside, we stood at the windows and watched the birdfeeder fly around the back yard and the hammock whip like the sail of a ship.

A place for detectives. We want to get to the bottom of things, like my friend who plans to search the Paris archives to find out whether Camus was influenced by a certain American novel. A place where we turn the gem in the light and look at it from every angle.

A place for words. We understand the life or death power of words. We understand that ideas shape the everyday lives of our neighbors, for good or ill. We see the need for both change and preservation, invention and restoration in our world. We want truth.

A place for delight. We graduate students sit side by side at the table, climb the wood-banister staircase, drink tea at Common Grounds, speaking a common language. We are lovers of books. We meet at the pub to pour over Middle English lyrics. We admit to an affection for punctuation. Enthusiasm carries us away, and then we laugh at ourselves.

Walking the green from Moody Library to the English Building, back aching from an overly ambitious load of books, I feel the sun’s humming heat on my skin and listen to the voices. Chinese, German, Spanish, Korean, English, Portuguese, Romanian, southern drawl, New England accent. Their faces are earnest, scared, determined, hopeful. They carry books, violin cases, bags, phones, trombones, sandwiches. They are colorful. They wear jeans, uniforms, running shorts, suits, sandals, stilettos, cowboy boots, blue and orange dresses. Bicyclers and skateboarders weave in and out, hair swooping behind them. Many of the walkers look down, texting. They don’t see me. They don’t see the sky’s blue eyes.

But some look up and smile.