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Monday, September 27, 2010

Kathy Fagan, Ox

“How’s your crack?” he asked. “You’ve heard this question before, yes? How’s your crack?”

And indeed I had heard the question before, decades before, from my grandparents, both of them immigrants to New York and native Irish speakers. They refused to teach us Irish—called Gaelic in those days—nor did they return, or ever wish to return, to “the old country.” But occasionally, under pressure from family and friends, they submitted to an evening of Irish dancing and music, and the brogues that were familiar to me gave way, if only for a moment, to a tongue that sounded like nothing I’d heard before and nothing I believed at that time I’d ever hear again. For Gaelic was a dying language, or so we’d been told—a rumor that was, evidently, wildly exaggerated.

What I heard as “crack” and is pronounced like “crack,” is spelled craic and means, depending on your source, spirit, joie de vivre, fun. It’s a word I rediscovered yesterday, over coffee with a Greek scholar I’d met at a party last spring. He’d told me then that he’d be traveling to Ireland for an intensive Irish language course in summer and I’d expressed interest in this. He’s launching an Irish language conversation group on our campus this fall—no previous knowledge of Irish necessary—and wanted to know if I’d like to participate.

Last spring I had cast about uncharacteristically for invitations and opportunities such as these. My craic was unwell. My relationship of sixteen years had ended suddenly and brutally in winter—the winter itself had been exceptionally brutal—and by spring I thought if I did not surround myself with human company I might die. I am not by nature a gregarious person; I’m the type who, if I go to a party at all, sits in one spot and talks to the two or three fellow-partiers who happen to wander by. Maybe. So call it what you will—instinct, mental health, avoidance, the biological imperative—I forgot my usual diffidence and threw myself into socializing the moment temperatures rose above 50. I restored old friendships, made friends of acquaintances, found new friends, and even dated a little.

Two nights before the condition of my craic was questioned, I attended an ox roast with the man I’ve lately been seeing. I’m a long-time vegetarian. “Tastes like roast beef,” I told my best friend. “But you don’t eat roast beef either,” she said. Even my carnivorous boyfriend chickened out when he saw in the food tent the slabs of grey meat. But I paid the money so I ate the ox.

At least once each day, whether I’m with someone or alone, the grief I felt nearly a year ago meets the joy I feel now and the two together scoop a pit out of my heart and drop it into my throat. The physical sensation is so intense that I wonder if people can see—or, rather, I wonder why they can’t. And when I consider how I’ve gone on, how many of us go on in the face of troubles far more profound than my own, I think, Of course I ate the ox! I could have brought the creature down and slain it myself. I myself—to paraphrase Milton—am slain. It is curious, this empathy. The thanks I give for meat and the passage of time. The forgiveness I foresee bestowing. The forgiveness I hope to receive.

I’m thinking about how often we reject suffering at the expense of others: leave our homelands, abandon our long-term partners, host community ox roasts. Evil can perpetrate this, of course, but more often the impulse arises out of a simple human desire to worship the life it’s given.

Irish, I’m told, is a language that doesn’t allow for abstraction. As conceptual a term as craic may be, its execution lies in the concrete noun and the active verb. Friend. Fiddle. Dance. Kiss. Ox. I wonder if there might be a word in the lexicon for gratitude.

Kathy Fagan is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Lip. She is the recipient of grants from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the NEA, and the Ohio Arts Council. Her work has appeared in Slate, Field, The New Republic, and The Paris Review, among other literary magazines. She is currently completing a fifth collection titled Sycamore and teaching in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where she also edits The Journal.Further information at Kathy Fagan