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Basia J Wolf

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Basia J Wolf

Journalist and writer currently working on a true crime novel.

White Water Rafting

You can’t drown in frozen water. The only way to do that would be to hack at the ice and submerge yourself. But that’s very difficult and rather time consuming, it’s much easier to sit still and let the numbness take over. If you sat still long enough you’d get so numb that wouldn’t even know you’d frozen to death.

Grief is a predatory bird, sleek, black and oily, perched on the branch of a stripped tree. Only the eyes move, a reaper watching in thin crystalline winter light, waiting for a slight melting, an imperceptible yet discernably delicate cracking in the hard frozen shield upon which you have placed yourself and which surrounds you, you choose to believe, like holy light, guarding you from pain, tears, anger, longing, despair and all the other things a human heart suffers from in the clutches of grief. The raptor grips you by its talons and though you try to avert your eyes, knowing you should fight, it’s easier to play dead.

We have come to Gullfoss, a place that you loved with every heart beat, an assassinous waterfall in a chasm violently knifed into the heart of Iceland, frozen power suspended in time. My hands hold a box containing what used to be you, for it is here you wanted to be for eternity. You once told me that waterfalls are symbolic of life and all that that implies. Like waterfalls, life moves too fast. It’s dangerous, it’s unpredictable, there’s often no symmetry, but the magical part is that the river you see one minute isn’t the same river the next, it can never stagnate or grow tired or stop being dazzling. You said, everyone loves a waterfall, in spite of all the unknowns and the dangers, everyone is addicted, just look at it. But I can’t.

Wintry frozen Gullfoss is a thousand times more intense. The longer you watch water that is frozen in motion, frozen even as it falls from a great height, you begin to see that what is happening is the slowing down of time, the slowing down of the breath, the easing of a bereft soul. Frozen falls are the encapsulation of the seasons, the eternal turn of the Earth around the Sun, the endless cycle of birth, death, rebirth.

Sometimes in chaos there is calm. Life is like going over a waterfall in a life raft, a terrible leap into the void, adrenaline at full throttle. How else, you said, could anyone possibly live? Underneath that glassy beauty is a life-force waiting to return to this life, waiting to ooze out of its icy confines, drop by drop, drip by drip and there will come a day when the tree buds return, the lurking spectral grief will fly away and the numbness will melt into a hopeful spring. The life raft is ready for the thaw, and when the moment comes, I’m going over.

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Did you do it?

What interests me as a writer is the cold slice of life, the against the odds, the grief, the pain, because it is in those moments, often kept hidden from the world by a façade of I’m-okay-look-I’m-smiling, that we discover who we are and just what we are capable of doing.

Leonard Cohen sang, “Everybody knows the fight was fixed.”

You know it, I know it. Everybody knows it. But do you remember when you realized that the fight was fixed and not in your favor? Because that’s the moment that defines you.

Here’s another one: Bobby Womack sang, “You don’t know what you’ll do until you’re put under pressure…”

Put any human being up against the wall with no way out, down for the count, the deck stacked against them, let them know right there and then that there’s no easy exit first left, that the fight was fixed and that the House always wins.

You don’t know what you’ll do until you’re put under pressure…

And some of us have a hell of a tester.

 

What did you do?

 

Don’t You Know That You’re Toxic?

This is the hardest piece I’ve ever had to write, but if it wasn’t for a man, I’d never be writing it. It started with the actor Terry Crews on Twitter, although in all actuality, it began with brave Rose McGowan outing Harvey Weinstein as Hollywood’s predator in chief. For those of you who don’t tweet, Terry wrote how he was sexually assaulted by an elite member of the Hollywood producers club, in public. The man called him the next day to apologize, but the damage was done. Terry Crews is no wimp, neither physically nor mentally. But he was sexually assaulted.

And the floodgates opened. They opened with a force of rage and hurt and anger, all over the world, all over social media. A million women, more. There isn’t a single woman on my Facebook friends list who hasn’t written #MeToo. Men got shocked, men got into denial, men got nasty, men got sisterly and supportive. Men get harassed and sexually assaulted too.

Rape culture and the toxic male centered society is alive and well. It allows men to make rape jokes and everyone laughs, even though rape victims might be in the same room; it allows men who would never rape to refer to women as bitches and whores; it allows male society to view women as nothing more than sperm receptacles; it allows men to be predators and women to be treated as liars if they try and take a stand against it. Ask any woman who has been in a courtroom while the defense lawyer holds up her underwear as if to say, you were wearing these, you deserved all you got. It allows young girls to be denied abortions and to take their own lives rather than go through pregnancy and life after rape. Who made this toxic society? You did. Who keeps it alive? You do.

If you are a man who has listened to another man denigrate women, tell inappropriate jokes, or behave in a sexist manner, you are contributing to the toxic male society. I wonder why men are so afraid or do not care enough to stand up to other men on this? Maybe someone will tell me.

It happened to me. An editor, my superior, walking me to a train station after a night out drinking in the way journalists do, with the whole team, pulled me into a dark alley beside the railway tracks, slammed me up the wall and shoved his fingers down my jeans and into my underwear. His strength and weight against me was something I will never forget. Yet, somehow, I managed to suffocate and erase what happened, something I learned to do a long time ago at the hands of my psychologically abusive mother. The sickening sensation I feel typing these words is physical. It hurts, physically. There is a massive painful knot in my throat and I can’t even get the tears out.

Like Terry Crews, I received a shower of apologies. The trouble is, this man told me all the time what a brilliant writer I was. After that incident, I doubted every word I wrote, and sometimes still do. That’s part of the legacy.

I feel guilty I never said anything. I feel guilty that now I’m saying something. That’s how it feels to be a victim of toxic society. Patriarchy hurts everyone, no one is immune. Men are silenced, women are silenced, children are silenced. But no more, it’s over, we will never be silenced again.

This piece cannot be finished without saying that I have been also nurtured by men that I’ve worked with. Good, honest men who only wanted me to succeed on my own merits and who would never have abused their power to abuse me. I have been nurtured by women that I’ve worked with. Good, honest women who haven’t been jealous of me and who wanted nothing more than for me to succeed. This is what toxic society hates. Solidarity between the sexes. In reality there is no us and them, there is us and we.

Somehow I managed to not let the monster choke me. Revenge is best served in the pages of the novel I’m writing. Thank you Rose and thank you Terry. Thank you everyone who stood up and said #MeToo, male and female. To those of you who are still choking on your silence, I’m holding your hand, whoever you are, wherever you are. You are not alone.

 

 

The Eternal Debt

The high Andes. I cannot go any higher without oxygen and crampons. Humahuaca, Purmamarca, the Salinas Grandes. We waver between 9,000 feet and 11,000. I have been reborn here, because here in the high sky of an intense cerulean blue, a corona wrapped around mountains that command you to worship their magnificence, is the reason that I came to Argentina in the first instance.

I was never a child.

There is a film, Veronico Cruz: The Internal Debt. Except for Argentinians, I do not know anyone who has seen it.  In one searing scene, a boy, a poor indigenous shepherd boy is running across the huge expanse of white salt flats high in the beautiful Andes. A scene and a child I fell in love with and longed to see, a little brown speck moving across the dazzling white sea bed, a sea bed on a mountain range thousands of feet in the thick, heavy, drugging air.

I am addicted.

The Internal Debt was a film that rocked Argentina. Based on the story Veronico Cruz and the poem, Yo Jamás Fui Niño (I Was Never A Child) by Indigenous musician and poet, Fortunato Ramos, it tells the story of an idealistic young school teacher in the dark days of General Galtieri’s dictatorship, sent to the Andes to teach poor indigenous children, one of whom is Veronico Cruz. Years later, the teacher returns to this other world of grinding poverty and hardship and finds that Veronico has joined the navy and is serving on the Belgrano.

Ah. The Belgrano.

In the South Atlantic, on a boat in the Beagle Channel, I met a man who had been on the Belgrano that fateful day. He painted a picture that sank me, of how he listened to 1,093 of his colleagues cry and drown in the dark. As he spoke, I stared down into the same black waters that took them and thought of Veronico Cruz. Galtieri enforced conscription in his drunken war with England over a set of islands and he sent for the cannon fodder, the boys of Humahuaca, Purmamarca and the Salinas Grandes. They had never even seen the sea, never mind the assassinous swell of the South Atlantic.

Gotcha, said the scum British press. I will never forgive them, parasites.

It was time, time to go to the high Andes and look for Veronico Cruz. I took a shared taxi to Humahuaca with Enrique, a local man I’d met in a tourist office. He swarmed everywhere, belly first, loud and knowledgeable, full of pride in San Salvador de Jujuy. I wanted to visit the Quebrada, the Andes of Humahuaca. Get in, he said. The car also contained a woman and her daughter, a daughter with mental problems who yanked on my hair for an hour until I gave her a crumbling, wax paper wrapped cookie from the bottom of my bag. If truth be told, I did not expect what happened in Humahuaca to happen.

Call it serendipity.

The Catholic church, the authorities, all tried to quell the indigenous spirit but they never managed it. Not entirely. They could not rob the people of their music, nor their dead in their sky palaces, nor their love of the sky and the earth, the Pacha Mama. A band struck up during lunch, (Enrique had acquired a table right in front of them), a group of local men, with pipes, charangos and drums and one with an accordion. An accordion, of all things.

Go, said Enrique, talk to him. 

The musician was selling CDs of his music and some thin poetry books. He was humble and polite. And words fell from my mouth that I had no intention of ever saying.

Call it serendipity.

I came here, I said, because of the Internal Debt, because of Veronico Cruz. And he smiled and said, “I am Fortunato Ramos, I wrote Veronico Cruz.”

Six thousand miles, ten thousand kilometres, years of dreaming. The reason I had come and breathed in thin air was telling me he was the one who was honored that I, a writer from Ireland, felt all of this enough to come to the Bolivian border. Could he please, please give me one of his poetry books, it would be an honor, he said.

I let the kid pull my hair the whole way back.

Argentina (and the world entire) owes a huge internal debt to its indigenous people. I have an eternal one, but I don’t know who I owe for that.

Love?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Belfast Child Sings Again

I’m afraid to say that I’ve been afraid half my life. I have PTSD. To be honest, admitting this publicly is quite embarrassing because so many of “us” do and so many of “us” have done what I’ve done, smother the fear down and let it choke us. Some have let it cause cancer in their hearts and minds and bodies, because that’s what it does, that lingering spectre, it poisons. We have let it turn our hearts black and we wear our negativity as a shield. No light escapes, nothing can get in. This is how we lived and how many still do.

I escaped. At the age of 18, I stood in a sunny room of a London university and saw light. It streamed over the Thames and bounced off the buildings in my line of vision – The City skyscrapers, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Palace of Westminster – and it glowed. It was my salvation, my freedom. This is what I believed.

But no matter where I was or where I went, I had to locate the fire exit and sit as close to it as possible. I cracked jokes about going into the pub through the door and coming out through the wall. We all did, black humour kept us from thinking too much. I was instantly suspicious when I met other people from “back home” and they asked for my surname or what school I went to, what part of Belfast did I come from. I ran from them, heart thumping, blood on fire and choked down all the emotions with spliffs and booze and really bad behaviour at music industry parties.

The PTSD confronted me, many years later, in a head on collision in the unassuming, gentle idyll of the Somerset countryside. Rounding a corner into a quaint English village in my friend’s car, after a carefree day at Lyme Regis and its now famous The Cobb (from the French Lieutenant’s Woman), I was confronted with a sea, an ocean, of red, white and blue. There was bunting everywhere. Kerbs were painted in red, white and blue blocks. Union Jacks hung from every window, streamers festooned streetlamps and pub signs. To this day, I still find it difficult to summon up the word that describes how I felt. Terror doesn’t even come close. I recall gripping the dashboard and almost vomiting in relief when my friend said, “Oh, I forgot, it’s the Queen’s jubilee!” or some other valid reason why this little corner was done up in Union flags and that we hadn’t just innocently driven into the wrong side of town at the wrong time.

Later, much later – long after I’d stuffed those emotions down the well of fear and chained them into submission – it dawned on me that my reaction was a form of PTSD. So was randomly remembering a spate of car bombings and hiding, hiding, the cowardly schoolgirl that I was, in my bedroom, the farthest room in the house from the driveway, where I would wait, terrified, for my father to start his car. If someone had planted a bomb under it, he was going to take the blast without me. I never, ever confessed this to him. Or to anyone. I weep at the thought of it all. It is also a form of PTSD to randomly remember that I know how a bomb blast sounds, I know how the air changes in those nanoseconds that follow. I know too much.

I know that when you go to bars and pubs, you hug the fire doors and watch everyone like a hawk. I can spot suspicious behaviour like I’ve been trained by the FBI but I’ve just learned to read the signs in people in an instant.

There is more. There is always more. This side, that side, them and us, tarring and feathering, punishment beatings, Black & Deckering knee caps, disappearances, murders, bombings, shootings, being stared at down the barrel of a British paratrooper’s rifle; finding out from whispering teachers while sitting exams that someone I knew had been killed in a bomb blast; negotiating metal security barriers like we were in some post-apocalyptic movie, bags and clothing searched by soldiers before they’d let you in to buy some make up or a new pair of shoes. This, all of this, was a daily normality.

But there was nothing normal about it. It was a war zone. Forget ‘The Troubles’, that misnomer invented to make it sound not-so-serious. It was a war zone where almost 4,000 people died and we were the original walking dead. Some still are, their battle scars run deeper than mine.

Some like to think they escaped. Some of us have let the emotions bubble up to the surface and we have embraced them, singing hello darkness my old friend. And there are cracks in the defences and some of us, some of us have even let the light back in. The Belfast Child might be singing again, but she won’t return.

 

 

And hell followed with him

Once upon a time in a land not so far away, a land where evil reigned, a soldier of a foreign army tried to intimidate a girl in a car by staring at her down the barrel of his semi-automatic rifle. There was no reason for him to do this, except to be obviously threatening. The girl held the soldier’s stare – she was determined not to show fear – for what seemed like a day and a night until the jeep in which he was travelling turned off up another street.

That girl was me.

I never told anyone about this until many years later. Anything could have happened, people exclaimed in righteous anger. What if the jeep had jolted and the rifle had gone off? They had so many questions and I had no answers. What if, I suggested, he’d just wanted to fire his gun, maybe shoot someone? No, they said, no way.  If you think that would never, could never happen, you should ask Majella, she knows all about it.

Majella was another girl, just an ordinary girl like me, from the same land where evil reigned. We did not know one another and we could never have known one another, for many reasons, but the truth is time and space separated us. I don’t know what it was but something tied me to Majella and tied me forever, because years later I’m still thinking of her.

Take a walk with me, Majella, down the country road to the church. It’s Sunday, it’s hot and there are glorious white blue August skies. The countryside is dreaming in peaceful greens and blues and yellows. The pollen is high, the air heavy with wheat. Look, watch the heat shimmer on the road ahead, beckoning, leading the dance.

Majella’s in the middle, she leans back a little to wave to her father who’s working in the churchyard. He waves back at us and we start humming, what’s the name of that song that’s Number One? None of us can remember, but Majella sings it anyway and we laugh cause she’s out of tune.

Light travels at high velocity; in half a heartbeat it hits Majella hard in the back and blooms out her front, rose red. While the two bullets are mushrooming in her,  the sound splits the air around us in half. Majella’s father hurdles the fence and cradles her, there on the blistering tarmac. The summer air shrouds us in oppression.

Bleeding, dying, the blood runs out of her Sunday dress and the birds stop singing. She is 12 years old.

It could have been me, Majella, but instead it was you.

 

 

Majella O’Hare was shot and killed by a British paratrooper in Co.Armagh, Northern Ireland in August 1976. The soldier claimed he had seen an IRA sniper but witnesses told a different story. At his trial, Majella’s mother asked him why he had shot her daughter and he just shrugged. He was found not guilty by a judge who always ruled in the Army’s favor. The judge was subsequently murdered by the IRA. The O’Hare family received an apology from the British Government in 2011 in which they amended the paratrooper’s testimony saying his version of events was “unlikely”.

‘No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…’  Sir Terry Pratchett

Jean

What did you do, Jean? What in Jesus name did you do? You must have done something surely? Dear God, I can’t imagine it, not for a minute, I can’t believe it. A woman doesn’t just go and leave her family and her kids and not come back, not for nothing. Not without a good reason.

Were you scared, Jean? Sometimes I wonder how it all happened, how it all started, it just seems so mad. Were there any warnings, did you try to laugh them off – that wild laugh of yours – and did you ignore them? Did you not even go to the priest, like?

I still can’t believe it, what they said.

That smile on your face as you turned back into the house, a rare wintry blast of pale December light rippled right down the hall from the kitchen window, hit you full on the back of the head, like a holy corona; it lit you up and my heart exploded, I don’t know how to describe it, I never felt anything like that before. Maybe I knew it’d be the last time I saw you.

And you said, “Ah sure come on over in an hour or so, the pie will be out of the oven by then.”

An hour or so and you were gone.

That fella that hangs around by the chippy, you know the one who goes around picking up everyone’s stubbed out cigarette ends and tries to light them up again? He was the first one who said it. That Jean, he said, she should never have done that. Never.

Who are we? Where’d our humanity go? Jean’s a good woman, a good Catholic, that’s what good people do. Ah, but what would they know about goodness, their hearts have been eaten alive by hate.

Sometimes I wonder. I lie awake at night and let all kinds of bad thoughts feed on me, scare myself stupid sometimes. What did they do to you, Jean? Did they just take you out and put that bullet in the back of your head in the wild salty air?

I try to put myself in your place but I can’t. I’m a coward.

 

 

Jean McConville was kidnapped and murdered by the IRA in December 1972. In 1999, the IRA admitted it had executed her but no one has ever been held to account for her death. Jean McConville was classified as one of The Disappeared. Her body was found on a beach in Co. Louth in 2003.

“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…”  (Sir Terry Pratchett). Never forgotten.

 

 

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Don’t Mess With Mrs Murphy

Heather Horton lied to me.  Well, maybe half a little white lie. She told me, and I quote, that her new album Don’t Mess With Mrs Murphy “is a very heavy and patient listen but I’m pretty sure you will ‘get it’.”  ‘Get it’, I did. But heavy and patient it was not; it flew out of the speakers and punched me right in the heart and ever since then, has been flowing through my veins and into my brain and seeping onto the pages of the crime fiction novel I am writing. This is how inspiration works. However this is not about me, but about Heather Lynne Horton and the jewel of an album she has created.

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Heather Horton. Photo © Terri Murphy

You might not have heard of Ms Horton, even though she’s been working as a musician for the past twenty years. As someone who is usually late to a party, I first heard her sweet musical stylings when she formed the band The Westies with her husband, Michael McDermott. Now, as she put it herself, “I’m over forty and the holding the pen to sign my first legit record deal.” The nerves she felt after fans and supporters backed her Kickstarter campaign to finance the album were due to “self-imposed self-doubts”, with others believing that only the sky was her limit. Now, she told me: “The ‘self-doubt’ is more an evolution and less to do with this album than most anything actually. It takes a lifetime to cultivate a pattern of self-imposed anything. I think we’ve all done a proper job on that for ourselves. The notion of ‘letting people down’ is more about a two decade span of making and performing music without the locked in material goals. Loving people and being loved- knowing that their societal fix would be for me to have fame and fortune to brand the success of my work or efforts. Knowing now, truly, that this has less to do with me than mere luck, has freed me from the guilt of thinking I’ve ‘let down’ people. But also realizing that my aspirations were only clouded by the very act of the art. Making music was my survival but more from a coping mechanism perspective.

“I really believe that people’s acceptance and appreciation for this record comes from them either knowing me or themselves completely. So I feel great about the feedback thus far – it is either silence…or ecstatic bewilderment.”

Don’t Mess With Mrs Murphy is a piece of Heather Horton, body and soul. Perhaps it’s as close as you can get to her without actually knowing her. Gentle and poetic and full of tender, beautiful almost heartbreaking sweetness. There are swift just-passing reflections of Neko Case, Rilo Kiley and Nanci Griffith, but for all this album’s beauty and empathy, there is an undercurrent of strength and grittiness. “Jolene ain’t got nothing on you,” in FU is a clear and precise warning shot; Wheelchair Man is a step inside someone else’s painful world that only an empathetic artist can do with lyrics that conspire to yank your heart out of its cage. There’s the flirtatious joy of Did You Feel That, the pure soaring lullaby Save the Rain and I Wanna Die In My Sleep, perhaps the most poignant love song you’ll ever hear. If the exquisite purity of Heather’s voice doesn’t move you to deep emotional levels, you have no soul. Then there’s the stunning bonus on the download version, a cover duet with Michael McDermott that turns the cheesy Travolta/Newton John hit into something seductive and tense: You’re The One That I Want

If the lyrics on this album seem intensely personal and a slice of the artist’s life, then maybe they are. Heather says: “There are many smaller messages throughout the record, of course. And even those are intended to be taken in and translated/related to the listener, directly and personally. But the overall message of the record is actually an invitation for an open conversation. Permission for myself and from myself ‘to enter’ – enter with ‘truth’ into the space between my heart and brain and the interpreter. As a woman who seeks and craves for others, ‘empowerment’ – also completely relative- here I am trying to practice what I preach…to become completely vulnerable and say the details of what I really see, what I’m asking others to see, and that they feel safer to do the same.”

If empowerment is the end game, for herself and for others, then this album is a clear million selling gold star winner. It deserves to be. Heather Horton deserves to be a Grammy winning superstar, but artistic genius will probably suffice. For now, this writer continues to play this album for the women in her novel and she bathes in inspiration from the deep, empowering wellspring of Don’t Mess With Mrs Murphy.

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http://www.heatherhortonmusic.com

Buy the album from Heather Horton

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The Westies

Photos of Heather Horton in concert by Terri Murphy.

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