The Lesson of McCarthy's Bar

McCarthy's Bar, one of my favorite books, is part travelogue and part journey of self-discovery.

Written by British television presenter Pete McCarthy, it chronicles the author's trip through Ireland en route to a Christian pilgrimage in Lough Derg, once thought to be the end of the world.

This book has enjoyed pride of place on my nightstand for nearly two years. Even before I cracked its spine, I knew I'd love it, so I preserved it, saving it for lean reading times--rare days when I had no interlopers from the library or fresh New Yorkers to keep me busy. In this way, McCarthy's Bar became a companion, a story I could count on returning to over and over.

Last night I began reading the last chapter, and in panic over finishing the book, I sought out more works by the author; his lyrical descriptions of Ireland have become my lullaby and I'm not ready to change the tune.

It was a blow, then, to learn that the author passed away in 2004. He wrote one other book, a sort of follow up to McCarthy's Bar, but succumbed to cancer shortly after that.

I know it's odd to so acutely feel the death someone I never met, but after taking such a long literary journey with the author, I can't help but mourn. His book is transitional, and as his love for a mythical Ireland grows into a real sense of belonging, the reader experiences that connection alongside him. After such a shift, I couldn't help but feel suspended -- what happens next? Sadly, there is no next.

This reminded me of one day shortly after Brad's motorcycle accident. He was still in the hospital, broken and in tremendous pain, his head injury causing him confusion and agitation in turns. His mother came to visit and encouraged me to leave for a while. She was trying to be nice, to give me an opportunity to take the dogs for a walk, take a shower and change into clean clothes. I thought I'd appreciate a break from my vigil, but 20 steps outside the hospital doors, I felt an urgent, desperate need to run back in and reclaim my post in the uncomfortable chair beside Brad's bed. Even though we're used to being apart, it felt all wrong to be away from him just then.

Somewhere in our few years together, his well-being had become so important to me that I couldn't separate his pain from my own feelings; such entanglement was strange, but not totally surprising.

In college I led trips for the outdoor rec program. For each group I took climbing, backpacking, or winter camping, I honed in on the weakest person--the one who didn't really want to be there--and tried to tailor the trip to his or her skill level. It was the wrong way to lead, and I consistently got that feedback from my co-instructors. "You need to consider the forest, not the trees."

It was good advice, considering that I've always connected too quickly, sought to relate when there may have been nothing to bond over. Maybe that explains why, in athletics, I prefer to be the fastest in the group, rather than the slowest. I'd rather help than be helped. Or maybe that's just the easy way out; maybe I'd rather coast than keep up.

Meanwhile, while I've been reading (and thinking about writing, and talking about writing, and threatening to write), a new troupe of poets have charged in and written, receiving grants, winning awards, and getting published in the process.

I now have a whole new collection of poems to pin to my inspiration board, a bunch of new names to move in beside the yellowing work of Doty and Collins and Simic and Yeats.

There's nothing to do but the work. No shortcut or easy way out. So the longer we put the work off, wait for the muse or just wait until we have more time, the more likely it is that the work just won't get done.

Pete McCarthy had plans. He mentioned them more than once McCarthy's Bar. In one passage, he decided to stop reading a book with just a few pages left, choosing to save the ending for later, when he thought he'd be bored and need the distraction. Later, though, there was no power, and he lay in the dark thinking about the unread pages and how we can't know the future.