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This series I’ve been writing over the last year concerns the curiosity to understand why we respond to art in whatever form it takes. We become curious as to why we are affected by art and seek out reasons. Curiosity leads to us to research, to inquire into our emotional reactions to art. One evening last week I listened to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon in full and became overwrought with emotion when the last song on the album ‘Natural Beauty’ played. I was taken by the acoustic strum and poetry of the song. Caught up with emotion I then became conscious that I had been thinking about my friend Vicky Phelan and her struggle with cancer. I wanted to know why the song had affected in this way, made me think specifically about Vicky at this time. I suddenly felt this impulse to inquire into the connection and to then write about it.
I was on the bus to Dublin when the seriousness of Vicky’s returned cancer became apparent to me. I was trawling unthinkingly through Facebook when a #SaveVicky post appeared on my feed. I had known Vicky’s cancer had returned but I only realised the extent when I came across her gofundme campaign on-line as the bus made its way into the city. It read as a massive call for help. Vicky had been told that her best hope of survival would be to be accepted on a cancer drug trial in the United States, the cost of which could run into hundreds of thousands. Her sister encouraged her to set up the gofundme campaign to raise funds in case she was accepted. The news had me in a spin. I couldn’t imagine how Vicky showed the strength and purpose to act. In the next few days, the wheels of her gofundme campaign began to move, the story appeared in newspapers, fundraiser events sprouted up, and Vicky gave impressive interviews on the radio. I wanted to write about the story in some way but didn’t know how. I wanted to help, as so many do, put a human face on this disease called Cancer, this thing that inflicts itself on us all. But I didn’t know where to begin. Wanting to help, and actually helping, can often seem so far apart.
I had stuff to do that day in Dublin when I had read about Vicky, but – of course – struggled to put the news to the back of my head. Cancer will do that. I kept thinking about my friend. Everything I did brought me back to thoughts of Vicky’s campaign. I thought of her husband Jim; her kids Amelia and Darragh. I tried to stop myself thinking of cancer. I didn’t want to think about cancer. I didn’t want to think about how it invades every walk of life, every family, irrespective of who we are or whom we think we are. Then one evening I sat listening to Harvest Moon and ‘Natural Beauty’ came on. It sparked a journey through the recesses of memory and time.
I first met Vicky when we were students at the University of Limerick. I arrived in the city to begin a PhD. I was a young man very much lacking in confidence after a number of personally trying years. I had been working as a landscape gardener to build up my confidence; having left academia. Going back to college was something I yearned for yet feared. Like a lot of people trying to secure their future, I felt intimated by the world in general. Many of the postgrads I mingled with were overtly confident. Their confidence bothered me, made me uneasy. But the great thing about the university back then was the fact that all research postgrads mixed together, all students were given a desk in an open plan space where we all got to know each other in some capacity. You became part of a community whether you wanted to or not. After a few months I had met everyone except for this one student called Vicky Kelly I was told was a brilliant French student, someone with an exceptional understanding of the language. I suspected Vicky would remind me of what I wasn’t. But my memory now of back then is when we did meet she had a manner and personality so direct and warm; she was very much herself. Among so many students struggling to know who they were, she had no affectation. She wouldn’t have known this then, but her ease in being herself helped me feel more at ease in being myself. That little moment in time was an important vista in my own personal journey.
We hung around different groups. We were part of the same wider community but moved in different circles. Then years later, I bumped into Vicky and her husband Jim at the starting line for the Great Limerick Run when we were all running the half-marathon. We had trained for the run not knowing each other was doing it. That crossing of paths, when Vicky romped home ahead of us, ended over a few drinks in the pub, and preceded the gradual intersection of our lives, our families, resulting not just in our becoming neighbours but close friends. Jim and Vicky moved back to Limerick from Kilkenny and our friendship took a different turn. We dug each other out through good times and bad. Our children are much the same age, and funnily enough, for years I’d refer to Vicky’s daughter Amelia as Vicky. Now I think it’s because Amelia’s resemblance to Vicky complements her mother’s straight up way of looking at the world. Such is the force of Amelia’s personality I could see only Vicky.
That force of personality came to mind as I listened to ‘Natural Beauty,’ that elegiac end point to Harvest Moon, Neil Young’s follow up album to Harvest, his most commercially successful. Most of those who have commented on the song praise it as a celebration of nature in an age of environmental destruction. This is a plausible reading given Young’s own green politics. The song lyric ‘a natural beauty should be preserved like a monument to nature’ is a testament to this. But the song, I believe, is more allusive and mysterious to warrant one reading alone. On the level, it’s a song that impels us to make a monument of nature; a song that suggests the natural world grounds what is considered beautiful. On another, the song concerns the natural beauty that lies within each one of us. It’s a song about qualities that are unique to each individual alone. In this second sense, the song encourages us to make a monument of the beauty we find in other people; such as friends. It’s a song that celebrates the qualities that distinguish one person from another; what makes us and others unique. ‘Don’t judge yourself too harsh, my love,’ Young sings so serenely, ‘‘cause someday you might find your soul endangered.’ To judge too harsh is to risk alienating oneself from those qualities that make you unique. To trust in natural beauty is to trust in what makes you yourself and what makes others themselves.
Harvest Moon is considered the album where Neil Young makes peace with himself, celebrating – in the process – the things he had taken for granted. It’s an album where he takes stock of what’s important: friends, family, the stuff of everyday life. He was recovering from illness when he began recording. Switching off technology he immersed himself in the acoustics of earlier records. The album is now considered a landmark Neil Young album; it’s laidback ease the hallmark of someone comfortable in their skin. It’s an album that celebrates the many forms of natural beauty.
When wondering why I reacted in the way I did to the last song on the album that evening I began to piece together reasons. I thought of Vicky’s unique strength of personality as itself a ‘natural beauty’; first encountered twenty years ago. I encountered this again recently when Vicky spoke at the opening of ‘A Night for Vicky,’ a fundraiser held to raise money for her campaign. Vicky spoke at the beginning of the night about her struggle so eloquently, and in the process drew attention to her own battle as a struggle to do for others what they were unable to do. It became apparent as she spoke that her attempt to save her own life was fueled by a desire to save others with the same diagnosis. It was a fight against cancer, full stop.
I drove home the evening of the fundraiser feeling something often diminished in modern day Ireland: community. Everywhere I looked that evening I saw people coming together to fight cancer; bringing their own personal narrative to bear on this disease. One could take a cynical view and ask why so many sick people lie in hospital corridors on trolleys when the Irish can show such support to the needy? But perhaps it’s better to see these expressions of community as what needs to be harnessed for a more purposeful Ireland to emerge. It was a similar expression of community that I thought about when reflecting on the emotions that overtook me listening to ‘Natural Beauty.’ I thought back to times I stood with Vicky outside our homes, as our kids played, discussing the problems in our lives. I’d often give out about stuff, but Vicky would remind me of how lucky I was. She’d tell me straight out to cop myself on and get on with it. That she did it with such grace is the ‘natural beauty’ that I thought about when I listened to Harvest Moon that evening and which I have come to associate with the #SaveVicky campaign.
I had no idea how to finish this article. And so I took a time out and drove into town. On my way out of my driveway, all I could see were battered and bruised daffodils. The snow – the result of the Beast from the East – seemed to have smothered the flowers before they had even blossomed. The yellow heads were withered, no longer able to thrive. I drove looking at little emblems of Spring, diminished, dying before they were even born. And then, when returning, almost like some kind of minor miracle, the sun had come out, melting the snow, and the little vibrant yellow heads had begun to sneak out into full bloom. Never before had I felt so close to the life-force of a flower. Never before had I felt so close to a flower chosen to represent Irish Cancer Society Day. That these very flowers were now so alive on my driveway gave me hope. Hope was, in this very instance – ironically – everything I could have hoped for.
To donate to #SaveVicky go to: https://www.gofundme.com/savevickyphelan
To donate to Irish Cancer Society go to: https://www.cancer.ie/get-involved/fundraise/major-fundraising-drives/daffodil-day#sthash.2mGCJfY8.dpbs