Creative Nonfiction: You Don’t Push the River by Kathleen McKitty Harris

And it takes the child in you to know

The woman an’ you are one

—“You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River” / Van Morrison

 

***

The Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison wrote his eighth studio album, Veedon Fleece, while in Ireland on holiday in the fall of 1973. It was the first visit to his homeland since 1967. At the time, the country was embroiled in The Troubles, a nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted from the late 1960s to 1998, fueled by centuries of oppressive British rule. Because of the escalating violence, Morrison couldn’t travel to Belfast, the city where he was born and raised. He couldn’t go home. He had to stay outside of it, somewhere in southern Ireland, and he wrote most of the album in a three-week frenzy.

***

My earliest years took place in one of the most violent decades of New York City’s history. I was the child of a child of a child of a child of native New Yorkers—good, flawed, hardened people who worked the docks and the utilities, who had police beats in rough neighborhoods, who were orphaned at early ages and buried their babies in small wooden boxes six feet deep in unmarked graves, who were begotten by those who left Ireland’s shores to escape similar fates.

The Troubles were across the ocean, and yet we set a place for them at our Sunday table. There were so many ancient whispers, so many warnings in Celtic tongues and Brooklyn dialects. We accepted our steerage class fate and our collective anxiety, and treated it more like a vocation than a curse. It was our destiny. It was unescapable. We lived within its parameters, as our fathers had before us, and as their fathers had before them.

I jutted my jaw and squared my hips just as my father had taught me to when I walked in Manhattan or rode a city bus, but never made eye contact. To do so was to invite connection, humanity, conflict, trouble. I instinctively turned my body away from oncoming pedestrians on city streets, shielding my flesh from the threat of a knife or the unwanted touch of a passing man in the normality of a three-piece suit. My physical being was reactive to the threat of violence, of oppression, of being marked and lessened. For years, my body tensed, retracted, expected it. It said this is what you were born to, what you deserve. In the effort of physical self-preservation, in the tamping down of generations of trauma and hardship, my emotional being—like so many before me—had laid dormant in its wake. I’d been trained not so much for greatness or achievement, but for practical survival.

I wrote a bad check to get you and your mother out of the maternity ward at Mount Sinai. What were they gonna do? Make me give you back?

You were born in the Irish ghetto, kid. Remember where you’re from.

Turn your rings around and tuck your crucifix under your blouse when you take the Q29 bus.

Never sit with your back to the door of a restaurant. God forbid somebody comes in shooting. You wanna be ready. You wanna see what’s coming.

Do well enough to make us proud, but not far better to shame our station in life.

For dust you are and to dust you will return.

***

I first got drunk when I was two years old. My parents thought it was cultured to give a child wine at the dinner table, like the French did. They felt it was classier than the bottles of Rheingold and Ballantine that they’d been given as Brooklyn-born children of the working class. They told themselves this because my father had a drinking problem and my mother needed to deny it. They gave me half-filled glasses of wine, blood of the Irish Catholic covenant. This was in the early 1970s, when drunk toddlers were still funny, when Dutch elm trees still formed Gothic green arches over New York City streets, when hope had not yet been wrung out of the decade altogether.

At the age of four, I’d been lifted up on midtown Manhattan barstools and told to place orders for whiskey—two fingers neat—for my father. Red-jacketed, combed-over men behind brass and mahogany bars smiled and patted my cheek as they poured. Good girl, they said.

At five, I was given my own mug to split beers with my father on weekend afternoons.

At six, I was sent to the corner store to buy cigarettes for my father, and I already knew to ask for matches.

At eight, I was following my mother’s instructions and inserting shiny silver coins into the slot of the cigarette machine near the shushing automatic doors at the supermarket, pulling the knob just as my father did to select his hard pack of Marlboros, waiting for the satisfying thunk of packaging to prove my moxie, my worth, my existence.

At twelve, I was stealing my father’s cigarettes and smoking them in the backyard while my parents were at work, holding the filter just so on my lip, squinting at the smoke like my father did while he fixed broken things around our house.

At thirteen I was buying six-packs of beer with friends by rapping on the painted-over window at the back of a Queens liquor store, and drinking it in the tangle of woods between Myrtle Avenue Park and the Interboro Parkway.

At fourteen, I was sneaking sips of white wine from the corked bottle in our refrigerator, and refilling it with tap water.

By the time I reached high school, my father came to the abrupt conclusion that his alcohol abuse had taken a toll on our family, and he valiantly—and unsuccessfully—sought sobriety for the first time. His was a solitary stance, a self-induced extrication from our shared New York Irish code—where babies lay limp at the touch of mothers’ whiskey-wet fingertips on their throbbing gums, where toddlers were given sips of cold beer in cemented backyards to refresh their forming palates, and where one’s first adolescent taste of alcohol was viewed as a rite of passage by uncles with bloated bellies and calloused hands.

This language of drink, this mother tongue of booze, was stunted and wrong, abusive and cyclical, and it was what we called love. Now, my father stood outside of that circle, outside of our clan of dysfunction, and his actions quietly implored me to consider the same.

It was a difficult time for me to comply. My upbringing had infused me with a taste for alcohol, and I had long suckled at the teat of dysfunction. In 1988, I left for college—the first in my family to do so —with milk crates and cassette tapes, and with the knowledge—if not yet the understanding—that the DNA of addiction had laid a minefield within me, just as my peers and I were unleashed in college towns with fake IDs and books of EZ rolling papers in hand.

At the time, I resented the light shed on the subject, the Alanon code words and the Blue Book language of sobriety. I’d already had my own pulls of Jameson and drags from Marlboro Lights, at ages too young to admit to others. While other college students crowded campus bars with hormones and insatiable thirst, I’d been counseled by my conscience—and by a family therapist—to keep my lips dry and say no to pitchers of Molson and plastic cups of Long Island iced teas. At eighteen, I begrudged the distance I was asked to keep from alcohol. I wanted to belong to it, to be cocooned in the dysfunctional safety of our clan, to compulsively repeat the past. I wanted to be seduced by alcohol, to be pulled under and to succumb to it. I thought that’s what I deserved. For dust you are and to dust you will return.

 ***

 In the summer of 1973, Van Morrison’s marriage to Janet Rigsbee had ended, and he was in the midst of a grueling three-month tour. By the fall, he’d written most of the tracks on what would come to be Veedon Fleece, an album initially viewed as a commercial failure, and now seen as nothing short of a forgotten masterpiece. The mysterious object in the album’s title and in the lyrics of one of its songs, “You Don’t Pull No Punches, You Don’t Push the River,” was the Veedon Fleece, a Celtic Holy Grail of sorts, a talisman and a symbol, a receptacle of answers for the many questions swirling while he toiled on his quest. He wrote it while he was isolated and apart, a man without a home, an Irishman without a country.

***

That first semester, I avoided keg parties and frat houses. Instead, I spent off-hours by myself at the campus record store. Music soothed me in my self-induced isolation, lulled me into believing that I’d be alright, maybe even—please Jesus Mary and Joseph—saner than my parents.

One day, while I browsed the racks, the upperclassman working behind the register dropped a vinyl copy of Veedon Fleece onto the turntable.

I was transfigured. I heard “Fair Play,” then “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights,” “Streets of Arklow,” and then, the last song on side one, a lingering, lyrical paean—“You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River.” I recognized the voice as Van Morrison’s, but in a form I did not yet know. It was familiar and foreign all at once. I walked up to the checkout counter to ask about it. The cool, bored clerk smirked and said she was so happy that I wasn’t asking her about fucking “Moondance.”

“You like Van Morrison?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I answered—because it was true. Van Morrison’s scats, his lyrics, and his jazz-infused, blues-borne madness somehow made me feel less alone in my head. His music warmed me. But this album seemed to delve deeper into Morrison’s Irish roots. It was undeniably Celtic, mystical and haunting. It spun and it flowed. It spilled into the aisles, grazing my cheeks as I thumbed through the stacks of LPs. I understood its rhythm, not as something to describe, but as reincarnated marrow, as something that my blood and my bones had already mingled with in another lifetime, something I felt within me, something I inherently knew.

The clerk talked with me more about Van Morrison—seemingly eager to share some thread of knowledge with a clear-eyed freshman who, she must have gathered, had a slim chance at harboring a deeper understanding of music—one greater than the rote memorization of the chorus of “Our House” while swaying drunk in a Greek-lettered sweatshirt. She told me that he’d written it while rubber bullets flew on Londonderry streets. She told me that he’d culled mysticism and grace from the chasm between Northern and Southern Ireland. While I listened, I held out some semblance of hope that I’d become as self-assured as she was, that my damaged nervous system would calm down by the time I was twenty-one, that I’d enter into adulthood lucid and sure-footed.

***

At 29, I was ordering a drink at a crowded Irish bar in San Francisco in the late 1990s, a watering hole where IRA mass cards were tacked up by the cash register, and a hush fell on the crowd. Some guy tapped my shoulder, whispered that’s Bobby Sands’ widow, let her pass.

The Troubles stay with you, no matter how far you travel. I knew what I was from. I knew what had preceded me. But I didn’t have to reenact it to belong to it. There were markers of addiction and madness in my DNA, but there was also beauty and strength in my lineage. There was possibility. There was something awakening within me, something strong and centering. It would ultimately help me to stand apart and alone, when the simple fact of choosing a healthy life risked being outcast from my clan. I could climb out, somehow. I could survive this.

The hem of the widow’s garment grazed my hand as I stepped back to let her pass.

Kathleen McKitty Harris is a fifth-generation native New Yorker whose work has appeared in Longreads, CRAFT Literary, Creative Nonfiction, Sonora Review, McSweeney’s, and The Rumpus, among others. Her essay, “A Timeline of Human Female Development,” appears in the anthology My Body, My Words (2018). She has also performed as a storyteller on The Moth Podcast, and co-hosts the ‘What’s Your Story?’ live-reading series in northern New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two children.

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