“WHAT will the neighbors think?”
Anyone with Irish blood in their veins has heard those five words strung in an accusatory question from their parents at one time or another.
You come home with long hair and a piercing from college. You get off the tarmac at the Aer Lingus terminal packing a chin that wasn’t there the last time you were in Ireland.
You’re in counseling and popping anti-depressants like Pez candy. News of a rough spot in your marriage gets out.
Or worse, you write about any of the above “family business topics” in a column like this.
No matter what the circumstance, a furrowed brow and a shot of worry about what others will think about this latest development is the Irish knee-jerk reaction to every twist and turn of life’s road.
Of course, each one of those “neighbors” in the parish of my youth have skeletons in their closet that could outpace the jigs and reels that our family’s skeletons have done in the dark corners of our house, but that didn’t seem to matter as we analyzed and sterilized rough spots in our lives and appearance before we left the house growing up so that the best possible image was put forth into the world.
Y’know, I thought I mothballed my rebellious streak when I graduated college 20-some years ago. But I find it’s been raging these last few weeks as the This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks book tour shows no sign of stopping at the same time that a select few in my family sit on the sidelines worrying what the neighbors will think of the perceived vulgarities in the book.
In a weird way, it has fueled a fire in me to get this thing in as many hands as possible, so I thank the (precious few) naysayers in my clan for the much-needed inspiration behind all this perspiration.
The week of September 2001 has dark significance in the world, but it has an element of joy and rebirth for me because that was the month that two significant conversations allowed me to break free of a life manufacturing a charade to please a collection of people whose opinion I could care less about.
I had gone to a personal empowerment course shortly before the towers fell, and the instructor encouraged us to reflect on how much time we spent trying to look good and avoid looking bad.
When you’re Irish and forced to spend a weekend taking inventory of what you invested in this ridiculous and vicious cycle, you are struck with how many years you robbed yourself of power, freedom and self-expression in your life. It boggles the mind, and I resolved never to put those confines on myself ever again.
I guess I was still in that self-awareness fog a few days later when I met none other than Sir Bob Geldof for coffee in New York. I remember marveling how his disheveled hair matched the grey pinstripes of his Saville Row jacket perfectly.
I was interviewing him for this column about Sex, Age & Death, a highly personal album about the high-profile suicide of his ex-wife and the affair she had with INXS singer Michael Hutchence that he had just released. During our chat I had the temerity to ask him what he thought the family would think of the lyrics.
“I could give two s**tes about that,” he said with a sneer. “You worry about what the neighbors think and art dies. You die. I never would have accomplished Live Aid or anything else in my life if I thought much about looking bad or feeling a failure.”
Imagine that. Thousands of Africans were saved because one Irishman pushed through the worry about how he would be perceived.
I was so inspired that afternoon that I gave birth to writer right then and there. It was no longer enough to be a scribbler that merely comments on the creations of others as a music critic. It had suddenly become critical that I transform into someone who creates something unique.
I rolled up my sleeves that day and published my first novel within 18 months of meeting Geldof. This new pathway of unconstrained self-expression through writing has added dimensions of joy and creativity to my life ever since that I cannot possibly describe in this space.
I am now promoting my second book, and I have been touched by how many people from all walks of life, Irish and non-Irish alike, are taking the personal essays of This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks to heart. They see the love and wit of their deceased mother in how I describe my living mom and it moves them to tears.
They hear an essay about my deceased Uncle Bob in Yonkers, and Bob is brought to life once again on McLean Avenue as someone recalls hearing his band the Limerick Weavers. Above all, they reflect on the common themes of family, guilt, love, and unity that run through our lives.
This book tour taught me that being a writer means a dedication to writing things that make your neighbors think without worrying much about what they will think about you. I wouldn’t live my life any other way.