Category Archives: Love

Politics and Religion

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Whitewater United Methodist Church (Photo courtesy of Val Jennings)

 

Midwesterners often live by the adage that you should never talk about politics or religion. If we don’t live by it, we’ve heard it enough and have probably kicked ourselves at least once for bringing either topic up in “mixed company” only to have the conversation fall flat or get heated in un-enjoyable ways. Were I a better arguer, then maybe I’d love the challenge of heated debate or see such discourse as entertaining, educational or satisfying.

 

But I’m not.

 

I don’t enjoy strife. Z once got in an argument with a peace protestor by Westlake Center, and I skedaddled half a block away from him so I could avoid hearing whatever words he shared with the tired-looking woman with the “Give peace a chance” sign scribbled on cardboard. I’m not sure what I was afraid of: Z is not rude OR hawkish, but he does like clarity and finds idealistic platitudes useless and so wanted to know what giving peace a chance looked like to her in regard to the quagmire the Middle East had become. Still, I didn’t want to hear their words even if it was a pleasant exchange.

 

Were it not unseemly for an adult person to put her fingers in her ears and sing “la la la la” whenever there is a disagreement, I would do it.

 

At home in Indiana, I basically know the rules. I can have a religious or political discussion with a good friend who I already know basically believes what I believe. I know that with my extended family or friends who have differing beliefs, we can ignore uncomfortable topics (the best choice, really) or, if we are feeling brave, each say one conflicting thing politely to the other before we start talking about something innocuous like pie. The objective of these exchanges is that everyone knows there is no ill-will even if someone’s belief system is faulty. The closest I ever got to a political argument was when my uncle, the farmer, sputtered about how difficult the EPA was making his life re: what weed killer he could use on his crops, as if somehow my first-ever vote in the presidential election of 1992 a few months before had caused his headache. Of course even this wasn’t an argument. My uncle said his piece and I said, “Hmmm. I hadn’t considered that,” and then the subject got changed, though neither of our minds did.

 

But this political cycle is like the beast from the Book of Revelation, thrashing around, wreaking havoc where previously there were harmonious relationships. Usually, during the primary season, people who are not on the podium are relatively civil to each other as they try to figure out who would best lead their party of preference. They say things like, I don’t know, I kind of like the look of _______. Have you listened to him? and they save the ugliness for the second half of the year when they want to tear the opposition from limb to limb. But with the help of social media and everyone’s lack of tolerance and increased righteous indignation, this has been the some of the most stress-inducing six months of 2016 (and I’m  including the parts of the year where beloved pop icons died of drug overdoses, terrorists killed people trying to have a good time/do a hard day’s work, and my mother had a stem-cell transplant). One political party has almost completely imploded and the other has turned against itself like one of the more grizzly battle scenes from Game of Thrones.

 

Most of these battles are being fought in the media or on social media. Certainly, my own shouting fits and blood pressure spikes have only come from Facebook feeds and comments sections and not from any “real” interactions with humans. I don’t want to suggest that before Facebook was a regular part of our lives that we were a polite and genteel culture, but surely we’ve gotten ruder, haven’t we? And more full of ourselves? More certain that we are right and if we say something over and over enough times, everyone else will eventually be forced to agree with us because our logic and our words are so superior? Also, I’m not sure what convinced us all that our opinions actually matter and must be heard, like we’ll shrivel up and die Wicked Witch of the West style if we don’t speak our minds.

 

There’s got to be some diagnosis in the DSM-V that explains this lunacy.

 

A couple of weeks ago while I was talking to Mom on the phone, her call waiting went off and she came back, a bit breathless, and said that the church was on fire and she and my stepdad had to go. I sat around the rest of the afternoon feeling like I was waiting on a health report from someone who’d been rushed to the ER. The church is in the middle of the countryside and I knew the prognosis probably wasn’t good; it takes time for firefighters to do their job when they’re called in from the small neighboring towns and villages miles away. Later that night when she reported that the church was still standing but charred on the inside nearly beyond recognition and likely a lost cause, and later still when the photos rolled in, I cried. It felt like a family member had died.

 

I haven’t been in that little white church for probably two decades, and I haven’t attended services there since I was 19, but I always imagined it would be available to me. It is the oldest Methodist church in Indiana, nestled on the outskirts of a teeny village in the country, started at the time of circuit riders. It’s the church my mother and I started attending right after my maternal grandfather died unexpectedly and we were trying to find our way in the world without our patriarch. The church we started attending just before she and my stepdad started dating. It’s the church my great-grandmother went to and the church my great-great-grandparents attended. One particularly hot Sunday morning when I was bored during a sermon, I looked out the opened stained-glass window at the field behind the church and I could imagine the generations before me sitting there, so much hotter in their long dresses and suits, staring out the same window, their horses tied up outside, shuffling feet and nickering.

 

For me, the church was a source of great love and great conflict. Any church for me is that way, really, but this is the church where I came of age and where I first felt those tugs in opposing directions. I longed to belong, but never fully did. I was a divorced kid in a congregation that mostly wasn’t. I was an introvert in a congregation that, it seemed to me, preferred people not too timid to stand up and perform some service. I was living in the city and everyone else was from the country. I played the piano briefly when we lost our much more accomplished accompanist, but I wasn’t really a musician, so even that didn’t feel like the right fit. Plus, I’d spent more Sundays in mass with my father’s family than in a Protestant church until that time, so while I liked the deviations from the script that the Methodist minister took for dramatic effect or because he felt spiritually led to do so, I missed the comfort of the ceremony, beauty, and sameness offered at the Catholic Church.

 

There was an awful lot of politics in the church. People who thought they ran things. Other people who did a lot of the daily maintenance that kept the church running but got none (and asked for none) of the credit and had none of the say. People who had strong opinions about what the youth of the church should or shouldn’t be doing. People who had opinions if you skipped church to go to a Cincinnati Reds game. People who assumed that because you went there you must believe exactly how they believed and vote exactly how they voted. I’d feel crabby some Sundays, but then as the service came to a close we’d all stand to sing the doxology, say our goodbyes, and before getting into our cars and heading home, a sort of peace would descend that felt an awful lot like belonging. Like maybe despite the differences, we were all on the same team. And we were. If someone was in crisis, there were the prayers, the casseroles, the quiet concern.

 

In retrospect, I suspect I was just an emerging feminist trying to figure out what exactly my place was in an institution—or, at least, certainly a little country church—that liked it best when a person fit into a role. Though no one expressly told me my role was to be a good girl until I was a wife and mother or that I shouldn’t be overly interested in the leaders of the Women’s Movement or worldly concerns, it seemed to me that that was the track I was supposed to be on: one that didn’t ask too many questions, shake too many boats, or rattle any cages. So what to do with the secret knowledge that I spent as many Sundays in the sanctuary thinking lewd thoughts as I did concentrating on God? What to do when I felt cantankerous when someone made a request of me about performing some activity (lighting candles, speaking on behalf of the youth group in front of all those people, babysitting in the nursery) that I didn’t want to do? As a female, shouldn’t I be compliant and happily subservient? What to do with the realization that while I wanted to be one kind of person (a good, church-going, rule-following woman who read mostly Christian books and listened mostly to Christian music and shied away from anything too earthly), I also wanted to be myself (someone who devoured all texts, dipped toes into a variety of musical genres, and maybe rubbed up next to a boy I might not marry).

 

I never did make peace with that quandary, but eventually, my desire not to feel controlled outweighed my desire to conform.

 

I’m not sure what my little country church has to do with the 2016 election except on Facebook I read today that I can’t be a Christian if I vote for a Clinton and I also hear regularly in Seattle and online that if I were really a humanitarian—and surely that’s what Jesus was—then I would have chosen Sanders and not a “criminal” as my candidate. My “favorite” criticism this year has been the implication that by voting for a woman, I’m clearly making my choice based solely on our shared gender and have not relied on logic. As if I’m too feather-brained to realize I shouldn’t vote for someone for whom I hadn’t done some research and weighed the options.

 

All of that external judgment shares the same quadrant of my brain as my earlier internal conflicts in church. To be good? To be unapologetically myself? It isn’t lost on me that I’m still just as conflicted about being “good” and getting approval now as I was then, but also just as determined to be true to my own beliefs. The best example of this conflict hashing itself out is my choice this election season to wear a tiny, dime-sized button with a vivid pop-art picture of Clinton’s face that I pin on my purse and can cover up with my hand if I know the person viewing it will get too riled up. I’m not proud of this compromise, but it’s a good Midwestern coping mechanism as deeply ingrained as my need to be viewed as good and my desire to be an independent entity.

 

When I was home this winter, my stepdad would return from Sunday services, and I’d want to hear the news. The church, which was ten times larger when I went there, had dwindled down to a congregation smaller than ten and there’d been talk of closing. When I imagined it in February, I didn’t picture a tiny congregation of which my seventy-year-old stepdad was the youngest member. When I imagine it today, I don’t picture its now-charred remains. Instead, I imagine it when I was 16: people in every pew, friends of mine lighting the candles up front and our plans for the evening’s youth group activity being written about on the week’s program, my step-grandfather leading the singing as my step-grandmother plays the organ or piano, a message I’m half listening to while staring out the window or trying to catch the eye of a guy I have a crush on, maybe communion, an offering, another prayer, the smell of thousands of earlier church services, the doxology that ended it all so well (and that maybe we should be singing to each other now until after November to remember we’re all on the same human team): God be with you ‘til we meet again/by His counsels guide uphold you/With His sheep securely fold you/God be with you ‘til we meet again.

 

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(Photo courtesy of Val Jennings)

 

 

 

Hoosier Ecclesiastes

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For the last ten weeks, I’ve been in Indiana, sleeping in the bedroom of my girlhood home while my mother recuperated from a stem cell transplant. It’s a pretty scary and significant medical ordeal if you are unfamiliar with it, but she was in good hands at IU Health in Indianapolis. The day my stepfather and I brought her home with her brand new immune system I felt like I got a teensy inkling of how nerve-wracking it must be to bring a baby home from the hospital for the first time. Everything seemed like a danger. I got on Facebook and threatened to taze anyone who stopped  to see her or even thought about breathing their germy breaths on her. I fielded all calls because she didn’t have the energy to answer. (A bath would require a two-hour nap afterward, so there was no bonus energy for entertaining even her favorite people.) I stayed away from everyone myself—even perfectly healthy friends—because I was afraid I’d catch some bug  and give it to Mom.

 

I did my best to assure her that she’d feel like herself again eventually—as the doctors had promised—even though I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about and Mom clearly knew it. Also, the Domestic Arts are not really in my skill set. I rubbed all knobs and switches with antibacterial wipes as if I were sprinkling the house with holy water. I had to try to figure out what food would taste good to her, and then felt like a failure (but also slightly relieved because it required no cooking) that the main thing that she could tolerate was Cherry Garcia. There was the ER trip after she broke out in hives for no good reason and the ensuing fear that she was rejecting a platelet transfusion. There was the frustration of her not acting quite like herself—no interest in TV, in conversation, in reading—and worrying that my “real” mother would never come back. There was the night my step-dad ended up in the ER and then the hospital for a few days and I felt torn between which parental unit I should be with—there’s the true curse of the Only Child…there’s only the one of you to go around.

 

Then there was the date of my return ticket to Seattle at the end of three weeks and my sense of impending failure: what sort of daughter leaves her mother to answer her own phone, fend off visitors, and go to a germy grocery to buy her own Cherry Garcia? I’ve never completely come to terms with the normal guilt I feel from moving to the other side of the country, but now? Ugh. At night when when I was alone in the bedroom of my teens, I’d feel cranky with myself that when Z and I got engaged eight years ago I didn’t at any point think that I could say, “Yes, of course, I’ll marry you, but I’m not leaving Indiana. We’ll buy a house with more square footage than any apartment we could ever afford in Seattle and we’ll learn about things like caulking and lawn mowers together and I’ll teach you to hate Daylight Savings Time, appreciate Mellencamp lyrically,  and to be more tolerant of the 14-haired mustaches so popular here on  Hoosier youth.” But I didn’t say any of those things then, hence the post-transplant-impending-flight-back-to-Seattle frustration.

 

Fortunately, Z is always clever, thoughtful, and clairvoyant about my feelings. He called one night to say he thought I should stay in Indiana awhile longer and since his sabbatical would be starting soon, he’d join me for a few weeks in Indiana. (Right now we will not discuss the state of my feminism—weak, apparently—and how I needed him to make this decision instead of me making it for myself. I’ll save that for some later blog post when I’m feeling more self-fulfilled and we can all just laugh at silly, silly Beth and her inability to name the thing she wants. Ha ha ha. But let me tell you, there were tears.)

 

Z arrived and went with me on my regular trips to restock ice cream and we all watched reruns of “King of Queens” every night. Mom started to laugh more and to want to eat things not made by Ben and Jerry’s. After she got the okay from her oncologist, we’d go out for dinner and I quit looking at her as if she were a toddler about to put a bobby pin in a light socket. Z and I took a road trip to Minnesota to see a friend get married. I texted Mom photos of every state line we crossed, interesting roadside attractions, a church where Laura Ingalls Wilder attended, landscape photos so she and I could try to scientifically determine if the flatness of Iowa was equal-to-or-greater-than the flatness of northern Indiana. She seemed interested in the world. When we got back a week later, there was a massive stack of books next to the sofa; she’d read every one of them while Z and I were away. Suddenly, when we’d enter the room, she’d be peering into a book through the $1 bright green reading glasses we stuck, as a lark, in her Easter basket.

 

I don’t know how you parents do it—not crowing about every achievement your child has made—because I was telling complete strangers, “Mom is reading again!” while they looked at me with confusion. Seeing her stack of recently read books is one of the sweetest sights ever. She was back. I won’t say it made it easy to leave her a week later, but it definitely made it easier.

 

It was a weird trip home. One of those strange moments in time where great joys (a mother on the road to recovery, the announcement of a cousin’s new baby, good health news from Zimbabwe about Z-ma who had been living under a potentially very dark medical cloud, another family friend whose post-cancer surgery scan was all clear, young people counting down the days until their driver’s licenses/ graduations/weddings) bump up against terrible sadness. There was a lot of drama and loss in the local community while I was home, and it was not lost on me that while I got to leave on the happy note of a mother who was nearly herself again , some of my cousins were called in to be with their own mother who is critically ill.

 

It was two-and-a-half months full of all the things that make being human glorious and terrible.

 

So now I’m three days back in Seattle, and I’m suffering my usual culture shock. Monday morning I was lying in my old Indiana bed, looking out the window at the long shadows of the trees in the backyard that were stretching west towards a cornfield, listening to birdsong, and feeling amused by a cheeky cardinal who desperately wants in my parents’ house and hangs on the screen, peering in, flapping his wings. This morning in Seattle, I woke to the bus out front that idles there during rush hour, waiting to dump off a host of workers at the neighboring hospitals. Outside my screen, there’s been one domestic altercation, one woman weeping because something unfortunate happened to her backpack, and at least five sirens. And let me not forget the early morning leaf blowers because at some point cleaning the street and sidewalk with a near noiseless broom became passé and you apparently aren’t really cleaning anything if you don’t have a leafblower strapped to your back causing a racket before the more artistic types among the citizenry are ready to get out of bed (ahem). Since I’ve moved here, there’s never not the sound of traffic, dogs, humans. There’s never not something unfortunate in the street to step over: trash, dog crap, or someone passed out in a doorway. If a bird were tweeting here or pecking at the window, I’d never hear it.

 

This is not to say I hate the city. In a week or two, I might like it again. No doubt the next time I leave it, I’ll feel a little blue about being parted from its company.

 

But today is not that day, and the news that Prince just died—thus sealing the door on the vault of my youth forever—isn’t helping. Other people who knew the intricacies of His Purple Majesty’s guitar licks and the nuances of his lyrics will be writing about him for the next weeks with passion, but I was never more than a middling-level fan who knew his major hits, his full name, can quote a line or two from Purple Rain, believed his Super Bowl halftime show to be the best in memory, and who still feels happy if one of his songs comes on the radio. But I don’t deserve to say much about him because I haven’t put the time in. I never went to a concert. Never read an unofficial biography. Never really “got” his movies. Didn’t follow his Princetograms. I’m glad that his music was playing as part of the soundtrack of my life, and I’m glad that when I hear one of his less-played, more raunchy songs, I still get the devilish thrill I did when I was a teenager as I sing along, that I’m still waiting for my mother to say, “Beth Lynn!”

 

And I’m glad that I never go to a wedding without mentally finishing the officiant’s “Dearly beloved…” with Prince’s “we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”

An electric word, life.

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The Ill-Planned Grand Tour Part IX: The Final Chapter

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Renvyle sunrise

One of the advantages of being married to a Communication professor is that Z is a great communicator himself and an excellent interpreter and facilitator of other people’s communication. He’s not exactly psychic, but it’s close. I’ve never figured out exactly what he sees in my face or hears in my tone when I say, “Sure, we can have lunch at Jimmy Johns” but he seems to know by some bat of an eye or lower decibel to my voice that I’d rather eat almost anything than to eat one more Turkey Slim #4. We don’t argue. We never have to worry about going to bed mad because we aren’t ever mad at each other. (Hopefully, by writing this, I’m not jinxing us.) Our biggest sin against each other is the occasional loud sigh or growl when, say, I have to push in drawers he’s left open, or, say, when I insist I’m ready to go and then he has to wait another ten minutes while I look for my phone, my billfold, my shoes, my hat, my gloves, no-not-these-gloves-the-other-gloves before I’ll walk out the door. Home for us is peaceful and supportive (if not messy, with all the open drawers and cast-off gloves), and I feel lucky that we work like this.

 

Plus, it turns out if you aren’t hollering at each other all the time, it frees us up to talk about other things, like books or politics or current events or, a subject we spend a lot of time on that we like to call “what do you want for dinner? I don’t care. what do you want for dinner?”

 

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Grotto, Kylemore Abbey

When we started planning our Grand Tour last spring, it was fun and easy. One of us would toss up an idea and the other would say, “Sure! Why not!” And then it was time to plan Ireland. Suddenly he was looking at photos of cottages on HomeAway and getting figures for twelve-day stays, though he’d never been in Ireland and I had been there seven times. He wasn’t picking up on my “non-verbals” or maybe he was ignoring them. For weeks, he kept looking at one cottage in particular that was too close to Galway for my liking. (If I’m going to be close to Galway then I want to be IN Galway, not Galway adjacent, even if the cottage itself was adorable.) I felt frustrated that he wasn’t just handing the Irish reigns over to me since I was the expert and simultaneously like a spoiled only-child for wanting it exactly how I wanted it. As I remember it, there was no actual growling at each other, but I’d feel my eye twitch whenever he’d start poking around online looking for lodging and I knew he was about to turn my idea of our magical trip to Ireland into a lengthy stay in a holiday home that we could just as easily have had in the Pacific Northwest.

 

Finally, because he’s clever with the communicating, we talked about it, and because he’s reasonable, I didn’t have to purse my lips or go silent, as is my inclination. He compromised on the length we would stay in a cottage and where we would stay, and I struck the Dingle Peninsula, County Clare, and the Aran Islands off of my “must do” list. There was a certain reasonable-ness to his request that we spend more time in one place and not be constantly on the go that I had to agree with. Plus, if the cottage was a dud, I’d be out nothing myself having been to all of the places before and he wouldn’t know what he was missing anyhow.

 

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Ashleigh Falls, Connemara

As we leave Inishbofin for the last leg of this grand tour, I’m indifferent. Sea for Miles, the house we’ve rented in Renvyle, looks lovely in the photos and I’m sure we’ll have a nice time there, but it is Z’s dream of what he wants to do, not my dream of what I want him to do. Instead of the cottage, I have my sights set on the last Irish hurrah, our two nights with my cousin Mary and family, and a party across the road at my cousin Gerry’s. Sea for Miles will be fine, but I’m not getting my hopes up: HomeAway photos can be taken at deceptive angles with beauty-enhancing filters, and sometimes you find yourself in a cracker box that smells of someone else’s life.

 

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Kylemore Abbey

We load up the Galway Hooker, which was unmolested by man or donkey in our absence, and head north. Because I have a very Midwestern sense of space, I once again imagine we’ll be in the car for hours, but in about twenty minutes we’ve arrived at Tully Cross, which is our turn-off for the cottage. It’s too early to check in, so I suggest we drive further down the road to see Kylemore Abbey, a beautiful Benedictine Abbey that was originally a private stately home, built in the 1870s at the foot of Dúchruach Mountain, a spot where legend has it that the folk hero giants Fionn mac Cumhaill and Cú Chulainn once fought, tossing stones at each other.

 

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Kylemore Abbey church

I’ve been to Kylemore Abbey multiple times and though I love the way it looks from afar, the throngs of tourists lumbering out of tour busses always puts me off. Plus I go into full-on Irish Republican mode and get indignant about the Big Houses of Ireland oppressing the people yadda yadda yadda, as if it is still the early 1900s and I’m a scullery maid whose boyfriend is about to die fighting the long arm of colonialism. On this visit with Z though, it is so early in the morning that the tour buses haven’t rolled in yet. A mist hangs down from the mountains, and it feels as if we have the whole place to ourselves.

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Kylemore Abbey church interior

Since my last visit, the house is no longer a girls’ school and is in a bit of a transitional phase, but it has never looked lovelier. Because we aren’t being pushed and rushed by tourists on a schedule, I get to read all of the signs in the big house, admire the treasures therein, meander around the Victorian garden that is being restored to its original splendor, and saunter up the path to the miniature Gothic cathedral that the original owner had built when his wife died suddenly from malaria.

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Shamrock stonework inside the church

From the literature we’re handed with our tickets, I learn how much Mitchell Henry loved his wife, how much they loved their tenants, how much their guests loved visiting this splendid house, and later in its history after the Benedictine nuns turned it into a school, how much the girls who were students loved their time there. For the first time in 15 years’ worth of visits, the Abbey seems like a warm, happy place instead of a Brontë-esque misery.

 

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Kylemore Abbey Victorian Garden and Head Gardener’s House

After lunch and a gift shop stop, we wend our way back towards Tully Cross, through Tully itself, and along the coast as we look for Sea for Miles. The mountain range, called the Twelve Bens and Connemara National Park are in the background, and though we don’t see it, I know that Inishbofin is just around the bend in the road. When we spy the two-story castle ruin—again said to have been one of the pirate queen Grace O’Malley’s–we know we’re near our destination. Sea for Miles is not so much a cottage as a house, and it is fabulous. The owner built it as her own home but is currently teaching in Abu Dhabi while family members and a tenant in a small space where the garage would be watch after the property. It’s clear that the house is well-loved and cared for, as are the guests who stay there.

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Our home away from home

 

As soon as we walk in and see the three bedrooms, the gorgeous views, and the fresh hydrangeas that have been cut just for us, we feel disappointed that we didn’t invite someone to come along with us and share the bounty. Big picture windows in the living room and dining room look out at the Atlantic as it crashes against the coast. We can see neighboring Connemara ponies, the mountains in the distance, and later, when the sun starts to set, it hits the chapel at the top of Croagh Patrick, the mountain in County Mayo where pilgrims climb—sometimes barefoot—if they can work their way around the throngs of health nuts who race up and down the dangerous mountain using it as their personal training ground.

 

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A kitchen big enough for us to live in.

The owner’s mother comes over to greet us and we stand in the kitchen chatting, less about the workings of the house and more about the family and the weather and the beauty. She seems so nice and the view is so lovely that I feel badly that her daughter, Debbie, is living in Abu Dhabi instead of in her own house, though lucky for us that she is. Her mother gives me the sad news that Mrs. Murray on Inishbofin has died and reports that she saw the helicopter hovering over the island to either pick her up or to return her body, she’s not sure which. Though I’m sad for Mrs. Murray’s passing, I’m glad I am hearing the news when it is fresh and while I am in Ireland instead of reading about it three years from now online.

 

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Our neighbors, the Connemara ponies

Even though the house is lovely, I’m still not quite ready to concede that Z’s plan is a winner. I wonder if we’ll get bored over the next few days, sitting out here in the back of beyond. I gather up a stack of books from Debbie’s shelves and scan them. I jot some notes down for a blog. Z (ever hopeful that I’ll turn into the productive writer I sold myself as when he married me) sets up the ironing born at desk height in front of the living room window so I’ll have a place to write with a view. I like the idea of writing there daily and maybe doing a watercolor sketch, but I also feel as if I should be soaking in the views for later instead of sticking my nose into my computer. It’s a regular struggle with me. I write a blog, I paint a picture, I read half a book about Nell McCafferty, but mostly, when we are in the house, I stare out the window and think about what a lucky place this would be to live.

 

We unpack our bags and then walk down to the beach, hop on rocks and listen to the waves. We walk around Grace O’Malley’s tower and wonder at the 16th century engineering. The thickness of the walls is considerable, and we can just make out where the stairs would have been. I try to imagine the landscape Grace would have been seeing from her tower before there was the smattering of houses and barns, though it’s likely her eye was always trained on the sea.

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Living room view and neighbor.

 

While we’re in Renvyle, we drive through Connemara, visit Killary Harbor—a fjord where there is some controversial salmon farming taking place, we have picnics on the beach, and go on little errands into Tully Cross to buy groceries and stamps. On one of these trips, the post mistress asks where we’re staying and because I can’t remember Debbie’s name or the name of the house, I tell her I can’t remember but the owner is teaching in Abu Dhabi. “Oh, that’ll be Debbie’s place. Isn’t the view there lovely!” I’ve no idea why my heart quickens at this level of familiarity—that at home would no doubt make be feel completely spied upon and invaded, someone knowing my whereabouts or that my house is sitting empty while I’m on the other side of the world—but here it feels charming, and I love the connection, love that for these few days I have a (tenuous) connection to this place.

 

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Killary Harbor

In the evenings, Z cooks dinner and I clean up, realizing how much less cranky I am about my job when there is a dishwasher, a view, and the kitchen in question isn’t the size of half a postage stamp. We watch the sun until it sets and then turn on the TV, watch the news, some non-American TV, talk about the day.

On this trip, the Syrian refugee crisis that is on both the UK and Irish news every night is often a topic of discussion. While we’d been in London, the situation seemed particularly dire to me because the city already felt too crowded, yet the numbers of people pressing themselves against the safer borders of Western Europe had grown to critical mass. Over the course of the trip, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing the crisis, the impact it might have on Europe, and as I watch the disproportionate number of males to females headed west, I also worry about the women, when so many of the refugees appear to be mail. Plus, because Z and I have been dealing legally with the extensive hoops one must leap through to become a permanent resident in the U.S., my feelings about those who arrive in the country without following regular channels are complex and conflicted. When we turn the news off to watch Stephen Frye host the celebrity quiz show QI every night, it is a relief, but the day’s footage of refugees angry or terrified about their plight, still plays in my mind. It seems ludicrous that we can be enjoying our holiday when other people are so miserable.

 

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Near Killary Harbor

While Z and I are in this part of the world, I determine that he needs to see Doolough Pass. As we drive there, Z has to keep his eye firmly on the twisty road that hugs the water and is more likely to produce oncoming traffic in the form of sheep than car.

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Rush hour on the open road.

Though it is a sunny day as we make our way through the valley, there is something ominous about the way the rocky hills around us hug the water. It is a picturesque piece of the country but it feels desolate even as the sunlight plays off the mountains and water. Doolough, which means “black lake,” feels haunted. The first time I visited in 2001, I felt the sadness even before I knew about one of the more tragic Famine stories that happened here in 1849. Aside from the haunting, it is also magnetic. I have yet to make a trip to Connemara wherein I don’t feel an urge to make a pilgrimage to this spot.

 

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Doolough

The Famine itself—caused by both a blight on the potato crop (the staple meal of 90% of the Irish in this region) and by bad, colonial politics—left an estimated million Irish people dead and another million as emigrants. Because the powers that be didn’t want to hand out food relief to the undeserving, they required those who had less than a quarter acre of land on which to feed themselves, to come to Louisburgh for “inspection” to determine their suitability for assistance. However, when the already starving and tattered group got to Louisburgh, the men who were supposed to evaluate their need, had gone to Delphi Lodge, 12 miles to the south. The miserable crowd was instructed to get themselves to Delphi by the next morning. On the grueling walk there, people died along the road. It was cold, rainy, and the river was at flood level. When they did arrive in Delphi, they had to wait outside while those in charge finished their lunch before the relief would be distributed. Only the relief was not distributed and the group of people—in some estimates, over 400 men, women, and children—were sent back to Louisburgh with no promise of food, clothing, or aid of any kind. On the walk back, the storm kicked up and many of these people died—blown from cliffs, drowned in the lake, or they simply dropped from starvation. The number who died on this pointless journey varies wildly from 20 to 400, but regardless of the number, it had to have been a harrowing sight. Those who died were buried without ceremony in unmarked graves where they fell.

 

There are two markers here now to commemorate this tragedy, one of which has a quote from Gandhi: “How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?” Z and I stand at the other, plainer marker and take in the view, which is beautiful, but too horrible to enjoy. He says he feels a melancholy sensation here, but admits he isn’t sure if it’s because I’ve told him the story or if it’s something in the air. I wish I’d kept my mouth shut and just brought him here to see if he picked up on it, my own Zimbabwean ghost detector. I stand looking at the water and think about those huddled masses of people, making their way not once but twice through this valley, and I feel some shame that I can so easily churn up emotion for people whose suffering ended over a century and a half ago, but when we turn on the TV and I see the refugees, I allow myself to think pragmatically instead of compassionately. Though I want to say, “Yes, but these people who were so badly treated all those years ago were my people” I can’t come up with a good argument as to why they seem any more “mine” than people who are on the planet at this same moment as me, pushed out of their homeland by politics and hatred.

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It’s a relief to leave Doolough and its sadness, as we head back towards our temporary home in Renvyle. We stop at the grocery and fill the cart with more food than we have days left in Ireland to eat it. I’m mad for the Tayto crisps.

 

The next morning, I wake early and watch the sun come up, casting the mountains in silhouette for a time. I wonder what it would be like to wake every morning with a view like this instead of 9th Avenue and the sirens and yapping neighbor dogs and people hollering on the uneven sidewalk in front of our building. I’m overcome with a sense of friendly envy of the poets Ted and Annie Deppe, who taught my MFA summer residency in Ireland six years earlier and who have arranged their lives so they are able to live in Ireland full-time. I don’t know them well or where they are living in Ireland, but I’m compelled to send Annie a message on Facebook telling her that I’m looking out at the Atlantic in Connemara and feeling jealous of her life. Within minutes, I get a message back saying that she’s just looked at the photos I posted the day before and she’s sure that Z and I are staying not far from where she and Ted have been living. We agree to meet that evening for a drink. Ireland delivers more of it’s magic.

 

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View from Sea for Miles

Z and I spend our last full day in Renvyle hiking the least vigorous of the trails at the nearby Connemara National Park. On the way, we meet a cow that is rare and one of the oldest Celtic breeds in Ireland. It looks surprising like. . . a cow.

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Irish Moiled Cow and friend

We look at wildflowers and heather. I complain about steep inclines while Z waits patiently for me to catch my breath. I huff and puff and glower at the younger, fitter folks who are zipping past us to trek the steeper incline. When we reach the summit of our particular trail, it feels like all of Ireland is stretched out in front of us. I’m reminded of the cover of my old copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, as we look down on the patchwork quilt of fields and hills and sea. It is beautiful and hard to imagine there is any strife here or anywhere else.

 

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View from Connemara National Park

That evening, we sip pints with the Deppes at Paddy Coyne’s pub in Tully, and talk about their life in Ireland, my alma mater, writing, and Hugo Hamilton’s novel about Nuala O’Faolain (which I become obsessed with getting in the remaining few days in Ireland, sure I’ll never find a copy in the U.S.). Ted is a fellow Hoosier and both he and Annie went to Earlham, so we also talk of “home.” It’s a delightful evening. I love being in this pub with people I actually know instead of as an outside observer whose soul purpose is to watch the locals in action. It feels as if we nearly belong right where we are.

 

Later, while Z and I start packing up at Sea for Miles, it’s hard to remember that  I  thought our time in Renvyle would be a waste, that I was just humoring Z. I love Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula, the lunar-landscape of the Burren, and rocky isolation of the Aran Islands, but now I’m glad I didn’t try to force my own itinerary in lieu of this respite. We both agree that Renvyle—and if available, Sea for Miles—will be on our “must do” list on future trips to Ireland.

(I can’t tell you what it does to me to hear Z refer to our future trips to Ireland!)

 

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Rainy road to Westport

The next morning we leave Renvyle and make the long, soggy drive to my cousins in Caherlistrane by way of a lunch stop in Westport. I remember Westport as a picturesque little town built around a meandering creek with a be-flowered stone bridge that I’ve always wanted to return to, but when we get there, it is raining so hard that even Seattleites are put off. We spend a leisurely lunch in a pub writing postcards, that later, I will leave on a shelf in a bookstore, so excited am I to see the Hugo Hamilton novel. (The postcards have, as yet, not been sent by a well-meaning passerby who finds them. But we’re still holding out hope. If you didn’t get a postcard from us, this is why!) We try walking around Westport, but it is a miserable day and I just want to be home, though I’m not sure what I mean by that word: with my cousins? back in Renvyle? on Inishbofin? at Petra House with Frank and Joan? Across the Irish Seat at July’s cozy digs? At the hotel in Kensington? We’ve been gone nearly a month, so the likeliest answer is Seattle, but as on all of my other trips to Ireland, the thought of leaving makes me sad. I will never be a person who travels exotically (I don’t think Zimbabwe counts if you are married to a Zimbabwean), but when I do travel, I’m always focused on the “what’s next” instead of the “how soon can we head back?”

 

The remaining two days zip by in a flash. The family entertains us, feeds us, plies us with drink, and makes us feel like royalty. It is good to see everyone again, including my grandfather’s first cousin, Kathleen, and her husband, Tom, who first hosted me all those years ago when their grandchildren—now adults—were introducing me to cows and the delights of Crunchie candy bars. The last baby, born not long before my arrival on that first solo trip all those years ago, has her 16th birthday party our last night here, and I am amazed at how quickly time has passed.

 

More drink is taken.

 

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Ashford Castle–I’m _sure_ I can prove this is the family estate.

The day before we leave, Mary drives us to Ashford Castle—a gorgeous Anglo-Norman turreted creation—and we walk the grounds, see the falcons  from the falconry school, walk the various gardens, look out across Lough Corrib, and speculate as to whether the Burkes in my family tree (and Mary’s) are related to the de Burgos (which over time become Burke) who built and lived in the caste for a few hundred years beginning in the 13th century.

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Lough Corrib, Ashford Castle wall

My brain begins building a case that relies on this key piece of evidence as to why I’ve always felt a tiara is my God-given right. Now Ashford is considered the premiere castle in Ireland and has hosted various Hollywood royalty as well as Prince Edward and Princess Grace. The majority of its guests now are Americans (rich ones) and the majority of those are from California. We are not rich and therefore are not allowed inside—stone dogs guard the door. We pay for the privilege of walking on the grounds–where parts of John Wayne’s The Quiet Man were filmed– and it truly is a beautiful piece of real estate.

 

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Beware of dog

I’m more interested, however, in the real estate where my cousins both live because their grandfather was my great-grandmother’s older brother who farmed that land, and Grandma Bridget and her brother grew up there, as did their father. I love looking out across the fields, at the old stone walls, at the flowers and imagining that this is what Grandma Bridget saw, speculating about how difficult it must have been to leave when she knew it would be nearly impossible to come back from America with any regularity. I always wonder at her decision to emigrate: did she feel like it was a choice or a necessity? Was she afraid, with only a black-thorn walking stick to protect her on that trip across the Atlantic? She wasn’t a refugee—most of her siblings and the aunt with whom she would live were waiting on the other side—but for me, making that sort of choice to put that much distance between myself and home before there were trans-Atlantic flights would have been a misery.

 

Kathleen hands me a stack of letters that her sister Patricia—whom I met once before she died and who was the family historian—saved. They are from the American cousins and their children. Some of the letters are written by cousins I know, others are those I’ve only heard of who died before I was born. One is from my grandfather and I get tears in my eyes when I see his elegant, familiar penmanship. (In the letter, he offers information about his children and grandchildren, and I smile wryly as I see the only description next to my name: “single.”) Most of the letters from America spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the weather, which seems a shame, until it dawns on me that what the writer is really trying to do is keep open that line of communication “back home.” Kathleen once told me—when speaking of her husband whose numerous siblings all emigrated—“You lived and died by the post. It was a lifeline to family.”

 

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The Great Grandmotherland, near Caherlistrane

And then it’s time for us to leave. Z’s first trip to Ireland is winding down. Mary and John drive us to Shannon where we say our goodbyes and then spend the night in a personality-free airport hotel before our early morning flight back to London, and from there, we’ll fly back to Seattle. Our whole grand tour is about to unwind itself and soon we’ll be lugging our ever-multiplying baggage up First Hill. I’m like a mad woman in the airport gift shop, trying to stuff the last little bits of Ireland into my already bulging carry-on and coat pockets, greedy to hang on to what has been, with no question, the best trip of my life.

 

My favorite of the letters that Kathleen shared with me the day before is from Sister Mary Baptiste, my grandpa’s first cousin, whose name was always spoken with reverence because of her vocation. In her careful penmanship, she describes in detail the changes that have come with Vatican II and how now she and her fellow nuns can drive cars because they no longer have the big, vision-shielding wings on their habits. There is joy in her description of the freedom that has been afforded her, and I imagine, joy at the promise of the open road.

 

 

 

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour Part VIII: Connemara, A Castle, and Cromwell’s Barracks

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A better person would have taken a non-reflective photo for you.

There’s an old travel poster hanging above our bed back in Seattle that says Connemara “Ireland This Year”, and since we got married, it has been a daily reminder that this wild and wide-open hunk of Ireland has been on our to-do list. Kerry’s landscape might be green and lovely, and the lush mountains and charming villages dotting the countryside of Wicklow might make it a big tourist destination, but Connemara haunts my dreams.

 

It is moody in places and feels desolate in others, I often don’t know if I’m looking at rocks or sheep, but it stirs my soul and calls to me every couple of years. Once I’m out there, I don’t even necessarily know what to do with myself, but I’m happy to be looking at bog cotton and the barren mountains and little thatched cottages that look like something from a dream of Ireland instead of the real thing. As Z guides the Galway Hooker along the narrow road, he says, “It’s a lot browner than I imagined,” and I’m so in love with where I am, that I don’t feel like I have to apologize that there are fewer of Johnny Cash’s forty shades of green here than in other parts of the country.

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Connemara and a few of Johnny’s 40 shades.

A decade ago, I spent a week at a castle with a group of writers with ties to Aspen Words. We were at Kinnitty Castle in the Midlands and though it was lovely there and I had one of the most enriching writing experiences of my life—studying under novelist/memoirst Hugo Hamilton and spending a day and evening with novelist Colum McCann—I felt let down not to be in Connemara. When I arrived at the castle, which had been in existence in one form or another since the 13th century, I felt off my game. It was not in the Ireland that I was most familiar with, and the others in the group were all older than me and richer than me. We had in our midst, amongst others, a couple on the Fortune 400 list and a countess. The first night, alone in my four-post bed, staring out the Gothic window, I was near tears and ready to head home because I felt so out of place. But then my cousin Mary called me to see when I’d be coming “home” to County Galway, and suddenly, I felt not so alone and more than a little spoiled that I would let myself get into this low state when I was staying in a castle in very princess-y accommodations. Never mind I didn’t have a second home (or even a first one) and hadn’t been a major donor to a presidential campaign.

 

That week at Kinnitty was grand. Hugo Hamilton’s writing workshops changed the way I led my own, I realized that despite the size of their stock portfolios the people in this group really were just people, and I made a few friends. The owner of the castle chatted with us one night in the dungeon pub about the various ghosts in residence, and he seemed a little too pleased that a ghost hunting show had come to the castle to film paranormal activity. Later though, talking to two different members of the wait staff, the tales of haunting seemed more legitimate. One server said she refused to go in the banquet hall alone and reported that someone down in the Dungeon Pub had seen a hooded monk there. It felt like the perfect setting for a murder mystery like Ten Little Indians, where one by one, various guests are picked off.

 

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Kinnitty Castle, 2005

With Kinnitty as my only Irish castle experience, I’m not sure what to prepare myself for when Z and I pull off the N59 in Clifden looking for Abbeyglen Castle Hotel where we’ll be spending the night. As we wind our way up the drive and spill into an overflow parking lot, the buildling is impressive enough there on the hillside overlooking the little town and the estuary that eventually spills into the Atlantic. It’s more Victorian than I’d imagined, and with its helipad and tennis courts it seems more like a stately home. It’s too early to check-in, but when we enter the lobby it’s clear that it is more 19th century than actual archers-in-the-turrets castle like we were clambering around in Wales. Though it is much bigger, it gives me a sense of Fawlty Towers at first glance, perhaps because there is a parrot near the reception desk that says, “Goodbye” whenever guests walk past.

 

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Abbeyglen Castle Hotel, complete with throne to greet you and a piece of our luggage.

 

Mary has recommended the castle restaurant for our evening meal where, it seems, you eat what is being served for the night instead of ordering from a menu. I am a picky eater with the palate of a four-year-old and the delicate stomach of an octogenarian, so after we walk back into town to kill time, we phone the front desk multiple times to see what will be on the evening’s menu so we’ll know if we need to make alternate plans. Every time we call, we’re told to call back later because the chef hasn’t decided yet what he’s serving. On the last call, the receptionist says brightly, “Whatever it is, I’m sure it will be lovely. It always is!” We decide that a better plan for us might be to have an in-room picnic, so we walk to the nearest Clifden Gas-n-Sip and piece together the makings of a meal, and then head back to check in. Later, when we finally get the final word on the menu, it was the correct choice (for me anyhow–I am not a duck confit kind of person).

 

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Abbeyglen Castle grounds looking towards Clifden

Our room is massive with a canopy bed, a fireplace, wing-back chairs, and a bathroom that our living room in Seattle would easily fit into, complete with a claw-foot tub where I spend an hour soaking and pretending my lady-in-waiting will be ushering me into a velvet robe when I get out.

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The bed I’ve been looking for my entire life.

We watch rugby in our room, sitting in the worn wingback chairs by the fireplace, our feet propped on the single bed that randomly juts into the sitting area, and nosh on our meal. Z says, “This place is an interesting combination of ‘posh’ and ‘worn’, isn’t it?” It is. But I feel strangely pleased by this combination and by our dining choices. It is comfortable, and I don’t feel haunted or homesick at all. Also, there is supposedly a tie in our family lineage to Eleanor of Aquitane, so that canopy bed is feeling like my divine right even if we are in Ireland instead of England or France.

 

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Abbeyglen Castle room with bonus single bed.

What does make me homesick, however, is the lack of room wi-fi. After dinner, we head to the lobby to check our mail. Though I know it is “ugly American” behavior, I feel indignant that I should be staying in castle where the website boasts fine amenities, but then I have to sit in the lobby with all the other guests glued to their screens. I grumble. It feels like an airport, as if we’re killing time on Facebook before our planes take off to their disparate destinations. That said, I am wearing my glorious green cape, which makes it feel slightly more glamorous than the all Internet Call Shops I used to have to frequent on my Irish trips.

 

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My kingdom for a hotspot.

We leave early the next morning for the teeny town of Cleggan and the ferry that will take us to Inisbofin, an island hanging off the western coast and a favorite spot of mine since I went there ages ago with another group of writers and poets Mickey Gorman and Gerry Donovan. Because we’re so early and the ferry doesn’t leave for a couple of hours, we wander into a pub next to the field where we’ve been directed to park, ask if they mind if we sit with our luggage, which still seems too huge despite John and Mary having reduced our load by half. We sip early-morning-appropriate beverages, eat crisps—the only food on offer at this time, write postcards, and wander outdoors to introduce ourselves to the neighbor donkey. While I sit there, I think about my fantasy of living in a small village and how idyllic it would be, but then simultaneously realize how much I’d feel like I was in a goldfish bowl with everybody down the pub knowing your business. There’s no pleasing me.

 

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Cleggan welcoming committee.

Finally, we roll our bags down to the dock to catch the ferry. A decade ago when my mother and I made this same trip, we stood at the back of the small boat like a pair of lunatics, getting soaked from the waves that splashed us, and cackling with glee as the boat heaved and ho’d through the icy Atlantic. I’ve been telling Z that the ride will be rough, but when we arrive at the dock, the boat is much larger than last time and it turns out we’ve had rougher rides on the sedate Washington State Ferry System than we will on this one.

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ShellE, regular stowaway on all my journeys, enjoys the Inishbofin ferry.

We opt to sit out front and look at the mountains, the craggy cliff faces, and eventually as we nose our way into the island’s harbor, Cromwell’s barracks from the 16th century, where supposedly Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen, once lived. (Grace O’Malley seems to have lived a great many places in the west of Ireland!)

 

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I prefer thinking of this as Grace O’Malley’s castle instead of Cromwell’s barracks, but suspect there is more historical accuracy in the latter.

 

On my other two trips here, I’ve stayed at the Doonmore Hotel, high up on the hill, partly because it was the only hotel on the island. On one of the rainy, gloomy days Mom and I were there, the power was cut while repairs were made to the cable that brings the electricity to the island, a relatively recent development: the island wasn’t electrified until the 1980s. So Mom and I poked our noses into the hotel lounge to see if it was a place where we could pass some time, and as luck would have it, the owner, Mrs. Murray, was there. She ushered us in, commanded someone to bring a pot of tea and biscuits, and we settled in for the rest of the afternoon, getting to know her and learning about the island hotel life. It was one of those delightfully happy accidents that happens to me only in Ireland. Because of this fond memory, I can’t say what made me book our room at the newer, closer-to-the-docks, Inishbofin House Hotel, but I did. Nearly as soon as we arrive there, who do I spy but my cousin Brendan (Catherine’s brother), who has been working at the hotel for the summer. Another happy accident I wouldn’t have had the benefit of if I’d been true to the Doonmore.

 

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Inishbofin, heather and sheep/rocks.

 

Our room has a view of the harbor, and it’s glorious out. Possibly the most beautiful day I’ve ever seen on all of my visits, and therefore I cannot explain what compels me to leave my camera back at the hotel when we venture out. I have no photographic evidence of how sunlight hits every surface in a perfect, magical way, and scenery looks like it was fabricated by a Hollywood prop department. But it’s true. Everything sparkles and shines.

 

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Inishbofin, view from our room.

I grew up with access to the country—spent summers frolicking in the cow pasture at my grandparents’ farm, played with kittens in the hay mow at my aunt’s farm—but until I am on Inishbofin, it is a quality of freedom that I forget ever having had. (Possibly, because there are no parental units here warning us off of a particular walk or activity, it is actually more free than those childhood rambles.) If you asked me what there is to do on the island, I would be honest and tell you the truth as I see it: absolutely nothing. And it is glorious.

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Inishbofin

There are cars on the island, but they aren’t really a worry and the drivers seem to know that tourists will be gawping in the middle of the road. (Plus, Irish drivers are at least 80% more careful and polite than in the US, even on the mainland.)

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The narrow roads of Inishbofin.

So we walk. We talk to cows. We watch sheep scuttling across a distant hillside as a dog nips at their heals. We stop at an old cemetery and marvel at the Celtic cross gravestones marking the resting places of centuries of island dead. When we get to the water I’m shocked by how the best descriptor for its color is sapphire. It’s windy and too cold to comfortably wade, so we find shelter next to a tall rock, eat a packet of crisps, and try to soak up all the beauty. We’re on island time and the ocean air relaxes us better than any drug could. We eat supper in the hotel restaurant and sleep well.

 

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On the island, we sleep like babies, but fortunately not like this one, found lashed to a post on one of our rambles.

The next day I’m determined to see the seal colony on the other side of the island. On the last two trips here it has been a failed goal due to weather or lethargy, so Z and I pack our lunch, grab the map that has little on it other than three trails we can take. I pick the one with “seal colony” written along the far coast and we start walking. On the way, we pass the public school, where the children have painted murals depicting the history of Inishbofin, including the 1927 Cleggan fishing disaster that is mentioned in all of the island literature because it was so devastating, the island getting electricity, and a mysterious panel from the 1960s called “The Cocoa Years” that leaves me hankering for a café and an explanation, neither of which is forthcoming.

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The Cocoa Years predated the Electricity Years. Which would you pick?

The ground on our walk is uneven, rocky most places and then surprisingly spongy when we reach the bog—from which turf is cut to heat island homes. There in dark peat someone has spelled out with small rocks, “Aisling, will you marry me?” and someone, one hopes not Aisling, has spelled out beneath it a rocky “NO.”

 

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Maybe next time DON’T propose in the bog?

We reach the seal colony, and there they are, waiting on us, bobbing up in greeting. I peer west and pretend to see America. We settle down on a rock, ready to tuck into our picnic when the midges start biting. We move. They follow. We move again. There’s no getting away from them unless we keep moving, so we have a walking picnic instead, munching and traipsing across the hillside. It’s not part of my magical dream and we’ve walked about six miles so I had been looking forward to sitting down for a while, but I can, on occasion, still tap into my inner Girl Scout and adapt to changes of plan.

 

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Amerikay is out there somewhere.

The place is covered in sheep and thus, sheep crap, but it is my idea of heaven. We run into very few people, so the walk is desolate (other than the sheep). I spin in circles with my arms outstretched, Julie Andrews style, and sing the first few bars of “The Hills are Alive” and Z just shakes his head.

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Steep hill, sheep crap, midges–yet I couldn’t be happier here.

I love being out here with no place to be, no one pushing us along to the next tourist site, no sense that I should be dong something better with my time. In the front of my journal, I have written “You are here; this is now.” It’s meant to remind me not to live in the future or the past, but I daily fail to live up to this goal and distract myself from the present with some memory or plan. Even if we are at a beach somewhere lovely, I often find that I’m troubled because I feel if I close my eyes for a nap or pick up a book to read, that I am somehow not fully taking in the moment. But on this day, hiking around these sheepy hills? This day, I reach my goal.

 

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Inishbofin.

 

As we walk along the edge of the island, we can see the derelict buildings on Inishark in the distance, an island that is no longer inhabited. We hear the water crash against the rocks below us. A colony of big rabbits has threatened to take over the island, and I’m happy to see so many of them only because I’m not an islander and don’t have to deal with the havoc they are wreaking.

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A Bofin Bunny.

As we make our way back towards civilization, we pass the Doonmore and I say hello to it and think good thoughts about Mrs. Murray. By the time we make our way back to the hotel, we’ve hiked twelve miles and we’re both in need of Advil, but this day will be one of my favorite memories of this entire trip. In the evening, a traditional céilidh band is playing, and I nudge Z away from the room and towards the music for what to me is the cherry on the top of a perfect day.

 

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Inishbofin cottage

Before we arrived, I assumed I could comfortably make this my last trip to Inishbofin in lieu of future trips to other islands I’ve never investigated, but after today, I’m not sure I’ll ever be done with this outpost. And what I don’t know yet but learn the next day when we leave the island is that Mrs. Murray has just died and as we are sailing back to the mainland tomorrow, her body will be returning to the island one last time. This is no “happy” accident, but even so, I feel weirdly lucky to have been on Inishbofin, thinking of that afternoon tea with her eleven years ago, when her own island story was ending. It’s a melancholy thing, but it warms me.

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The Ill-Planned Grand Tour, Part VII: Galway, a Girl in a Cape, and a Dream

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When I was newly out of college and driving into town to work at the public library—a job I thought I’d love but didn’t—I’d often find myself giving tours to imaginary people riding in my Dodge Omni. I don’t know who the people were or why I thought they’d care about the historic train depot or the various beautiful but poorly attended Victorian churches in my little Midwestern town, but I’d sometimes arrive at work completely uncertain of how I got there because the intensity of my gig as an imaginary tour-guide had made time disappear.

 

It never occurred to me that this was odd behavior for a 23-year-old woman to indulge in. Certainly, it makes one wonder why I was in hot pursuit of a fiction degree if my imagination couldn’t cook up better fantasies than driving figments around my hometown and pointing out the Tiffany windows at Reid Presbyterian Church. When my college friends (real humans, not imaginary) would visit from out of town, I’d often figure out routes to drive them from one of our two historic neighborhoods to the other, explaining about Richmond’s Quaker heritage, telling them about how at some magical point in its history there were supposedly more millionaires per capita in Richmond than anywhere else in the U.S. I’d point to the old mansions that more recently had been turned into mortuaries and B&Bs as evidence. My friends always indulged me even if they were bored out of their minds.

 

This wasn’t Richmond-exclusive behavior. I did the same when showing people around my college and grad school campuses, around Chicago after I’d spent years there with some regularity, and eventually around Ireland. Not only did I offer tours to family and friends, but on two occasions I invited people I’d met in other parts of Ireland to come with me to Galway so I could show it off. As an introvert, this behavior was out of character for me: inviting people who were very nearly strangers to come with me on a sacrosanct trip to Galway? But it felt like a venial sin if not a mortal one not to introduce them to this city I love and then point them into Connemara.

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I’ve dreamed of giving Z the Grand Tour of Galway since before we were even a couple, so the minute we get off the train I’m hurrying him towards the luggage storage at the station so we can maximize the few hours we have before checking into our B&B. He is heavy laden with suitcases, but even so, I am an oversized border collie nipping at his heels to hurry him along. It is frustrating that we need lunch before my formal tour can begin because there is so much to show him and so little time: in three days we’ll be heading into Connemara and the next leg of our adventure. Already, I’m regretting that I didn’t schedule an entire week here in the City of Tribes.

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Free of our luggage, we go across from the station to a pub that looks like it’s been there for two centuries even though I know a decade ago it was a nightclub with sleek, modern decor. It’s deserted, except for the barman who is friendly and fills us in on the upcoming sporting events that have Dublin, Galway, and neighboring Mayo full of excitement for rugby, Gaelic football, and hurling.

 

Galway is not, perhaps, the most Irish of Irish towns. Historically speaking, it was more English than Irish with a helping of Spanish influence. The course of Irish history was never changed significantly because of anything that happened here, and other than Claddagh rings (those rings with the heart and hands and crown that Irish Americans love), not much is exported out of Galway to make it noteworthy. Yet the twisty old Shop Street, the rapidly flowing River Corrib, the churches, the area by the bay called the Claddagh? It all calls to me. If I don’t get there every few years, I start to twitch.

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My plans are thrown into a tailspin when we leave the bar and find ourselves standing in Eyre Square in the midst of a heavy downpour. Because I had all those years of imaginary tour-guiding in the 1990s, I know that the hallmark of a good guide is one who can adapt to circumstances. I hurry Z into the shopping center across from the open park square. He hates shopping centers and is no doubt disappointed with my choice, but I nudge him towards the back where the medieval wall that used to surround the city still stands, incorporated into the heart of the mall. On the one hand, it’s an historian’s nightmare to have something so noteworthy jutting out of a Pennys. On the other, were this wall in America, it would have been ripped down with little thought of preservation. We admire the quirk of it and then head towards the Vodaphone store to see if it’s possible to make our English cell phone magically Irish. It isn’t. The woman who delivers the sad news is so charming that we don’t really even mind forking out the money for another phone. She tells us that the store across the way might be able to help by cracking into our English phone (they can’t) and refers to them as “the likes of them over there” with a dismissive head nod. Though it’s not a phrase unique to Ireland, with her lilt, it sticks with me for the rest of the trip and I try to figure out ways to work it into my own conversation. Phone in hand, we venture back out where the rain has disappeared as quickly as it arrived.

 

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Medieval wall-in-the-mall as decorated for Christmas, 2005.

Petra House is my favorite B&B ever, and that includes some posher places I’ve stayed in Ireland and America over the years. It really does feel like a home away from home.  Over a decade ago I randomly picked it out of a Rick Steves’ tour book when my mother and I were in Ireland, and now it is the gold standard to me of what an excellent B&B should be like: tasteful accommodations, a spotless room, a delicious breakfast, and friendly hosts who make you feel you’re being looked after. Mom and I both had crushes on the owners, Frank and Joan, a couple who embody the “thousand welcomes” that Ireland is famous for. At one point, Joan and my mother were talking so animatedly that they could have been mistaken for girlhood friends, and Frank endeared himself to me on my second visit two years later, when he saw me at the breakfast table and said, “Ah, last time you were here, you were with your mother and were leaving us for Inishbofin. You know, the new dock they were building burned down right after you were there.” This visit is no different, and when Z and I leave in three days time, Frank will walk us out to the car, hand us road maps, tell us to be careful on the narrower, rougher roads of Connemara, and generally make us feel like we’re forlornly saying goodbye to a family member. Other than all meals with my cousins at the end of our trip, we won’t have another meal as delicious as Joan’s either.

 

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Galway Hooker venturing towards Galway Bay

The three days we are in Galway, I walk the legs off of Z. I want him to see it all immediately. Admittedly, I tell some fibs so he readily agrees to walks that are three times as long as he is led to believe. I walk him along the River Corrib, the canal, to the cathedral, the Claddagh where we see postcard-perfect Galway Hookers (red-sailed boats that were used to haul turf to the Aran Islands but now seem to be used to sail tourists around in circles). There is an extra long walk along the Salthill Prom overlooking Galway Bay and the rocky moonscape of the Burren across the water in County Clare. I force Z to sing a chorus of Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl.” When we reach the end of the promenade, I insist that he “kick the wall” like a true Galwegian. Here, I am disappointed that where there was once just a wall and where you could imagine decades of citizens kicking it instinctively, now there is a donation box sloppily cemented into the wall for some charity wherein I’m meant to deposit euros for the privilege of the kick. In protest, I do not deposit coins ( also because I think we might need to take the bus back to the town center because we’re knackered from the walk) but I do spend the rest of the day feeling guilty and uncharitable.

 

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View from our damp dock picnic perch

Perhaps my worst sin against Z is the day I lead him on a long walk past the university to the area where I lived for a summer so we can have a picnic by the river. The walk takes longer than planned, Z is hungry, and when we arrive, the picnic table that had been there over a decade ago has been removed in an attempt to make the youth of Galway behave themselves. The view across the river is still lovely—with the city behind us, we look out across fields, at some oldish stone ruin and larger house. A boat tour glides past us and we wave, happy to be less touristy than the people on the boat. I feel momentarily victorious that I’ve brought us to such a lovely spot, but then, as we lower our middle-aged bones to the dock so we can eat our sandwiches along the river, it starts pouring with rain. Z has a look of annoyed resignation on his face. He’s a trooper though and never says a word about the inconvenience of our lunch, or even the annoying walk to and from our destination during which I have lamented at every turn all the changes that have befallen the UCG campus since I was there last. The biggest sin, as far as I am concerned, is that the pub where the writer Dermot Healy once bought me a pint is no more (much like Dermot Healy himself). But I also lament the trees in the wooded area through which I’d walked to class every day like a modern, thirtysomething Red Riding Hood; they’ve been chopped down and an athletic center built there. It all feels like a travesty of justice. The place should have been laminated after I left. Buoyed from his lunch and a lessening of rain, Z happily sits with me in the inner courtyard of NUI Galway that is modeled on Christ Church at Oxford and lets me reminisce about the summer before I met him when I was here.

 

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In the UCG courtyard, recounting past glories

 

Z has some research to do on this leg of the trip as well, and the half hour he turns me loose to interview someone, I make a beeline to a shop I like. Within two minutes, the clerk has dropped this rich green cape thing (don’t even think about calling it a poncho) over my head and clearly it is meant for me. Another clerk comes up and says it matches my eyes and when I tell the likes of them that we’ll soon be spending a night in a castle, they both nod their heads and say, “Sure, you’ll be wanting this to wear while you sit by the fire with a glass of wine.” This trip has not been about the buying of mementos, but even so, I’m an easy mark. I hand over my money and the clerk hands me the bag. I’m only half way out the store before I’ve tugged it on—all of this within five minutes of having said goodbye to Z. To my credit, it’s lovely and I do not look as ridiculous in it as I did on the first trip when I bought a thick Aran sweater and insisted on wearing it daily even though it was summer and the sweater was heavy enough to be a winter coat. (Mom wears it as a coat now actually.) I have no doubt any Irish person passing me on the street must have thought then, “Americans are ridiculous.” On this day though, I can only imagine they are all admiring my new purchase and assuming I’m a native Galwegian. When we are reunited, Z grins at me and shakes his head when he sees me sashaying up shop street in it. Because he likes to name things, he dubs it “Capey” and it becomes a sort of family pet for the rest of the journey. Did you pack Capey? Don’t spill Ribena on Capey! Don’t leave Capey behind?

 

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Z with spendthrift wife, elderly passerby, and the beloved Capey

 

We do the things I always do when I am in Galway too. We poke our noses into the restaurants in the Latin Quarter trying to select the best one. We go into my favorite sweater shops and fondle sweaters we aren’t going to buy. We look in the windows of jewelry stores at Claddagh rings we’ve no use for since I seem to already own three and Z refuses to wear one. We go into St. Nicholas Collegiate Church, a 14th century church said to have been visited by Cromwell. We look at the Spanish Arch and I tell Z about how Columbus popped by Galway when he was off on his exploring adventures. I point out Lynch’s castle, now a bank, where the mayor of Galway hung his own son, who had killed another young man, and the mayor became a recluse afterward. Sometimes serving justice is a heart breaker.

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Galway’s Latin Quarter, geared up for the big match

We go to Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop and buy books we’d have to work hard to find in America, including the latest Jack Taylor mystery by Ken Bruen that is set in Galway. Z and I are both big fans of this brutal series, and I know now that he’s seen the city, the books will be even more (horrifying) fun—I’ve spent these three days reminding him of plot points and where I think Jack Taylor lives, where various crimes unfolded, etc. As we’re checking out with our purchases, I spy a Charlie Byrne’s tote and Z gallantly tells the clerk I’d like one; the clerk even more gallantly says, “No charge.” In no time, I’ve filled it with books and postcards and pieces of detritus and added it to the increasing pile of luggage hogging our room at Petra House.

 

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Oh, Charlie Byrne’s–you never disappoint!

On our second night in the city, Z is presented to my cousin Mary and her husband John, who have driven into town to meet us at the hotel where their son Eoin is working for the summer. I see Eoin first, and am shocked that he has grown approximately 12 feet since last I saw him. On my first meeting, he was in “junior infants” (kindergarten) and finagling sweets out of his mother when we stopped to get petrol. It is a real joy to reconnect with all of them since I haven’t seen them for six years, and a greater joy that at the conclusion of the evening when Z and I are snuggled in at Petra House, he tells me how much he enjoyed Mary and John, and I shortly receive a text from Mary telling me that they approve heartily of Z and are happy to see me so happy and healthy. The next night, we have dinner with Mary’s niece Catherine—my “little” second-cousin-once-removed–who introduced me to nearly every cow on her grandfather’s farm when she was about six and now she is a grown-up college student who loves to read and has a wicked sense of humor. Another delightful evening with family, and I feel so happy that all those years ago I was uncharacteristically nervy enough to demand that my grandfather give me the address of his cousins in Ireland so I could claim kin and be the first member of our little American branch of the tree to meet them. What a lucky day for me.

 

This day is also a lucky one for Z and me because John and Mary take half of our ridiculous amount of luggage back to their house since we’ll be seeing them again, thus relieving us of the Samsonite albatrosses that have been weighing us down. There’s a ferry ride to an island in our near future and I don’t want to be seen as the ridiculous Americans with the steamer trunks for a two-night stay in the Inishbofin House Hotel.

 

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Galway Cathedral window

On our last morning in Galway, Z and I walk down the hill to pick up a rental car—a little red one that we dub the Galway Hooker—and head back to Petra House to settle our bill and collect our luggage. Because I have trouble with The Leaving, I want to insist to Frank and Joan that they tell their next guests they have to find other accommodations because we’re staying another eight nights and just forego the next leg of our adventure. They’ve made us feel so well taken care of, that I even feel a little nervous leaving. Who will be looking after us once we pull out of their driveway? Surely, we need looking after.

 

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Galway Cathedral

 

Though I’m looking forward to the next leg of our trip—some of it familiar to me, some of it brand new territory—I am loathe to leave Galway. We’ve hit the highlights, but you can’t really settle into a place in three days. I’m lucky to have had those days, but I am greedy and want more. No matter how much time I get here, I always want more. A week. A month. A year. I’m not sure how long it would take me to tire of Galway, but I’d really like to push those outer limits.

 

After Frank has kicked the tires of the Galway Hooker and waved us off, we head west into Connemara. We’re out of Galway in a matter of minutes, and I distract myself from the sadness with self-congratulations that I was clever enough to have married a man who is used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road as I now have a built-in chauffeur. We wind around the bends and I feel giddy to be doing this with Z, pointing out favorite places of mine from past trips and oohing and aahing over sights I’ve never seen or have forgotten. Though I haven’t hung up my tour guide cap entirely, from this point on, there will be a lot less of me giving Z mini history lessons and a lot more of us discovering places together. Abbeyglen Castle, here we come.

 

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Galway’s iconic swans

 

 

 

 

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour, Part VI: A Little Irish Anxiety

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Before Z, there were other loves. Z and I do not speak their names because he is a jealous husband in the best kind of way, and though I am perhaps more curious, he knows at heart that I am wickedly jealous myself. He is a Scorpio (“jealous” being one of the main descriptors in your better astrology books) and I have a Scorpio Rising and a Scorpio Moon (“double jealous,” I guess), so it is an arrangement—burying our heads ostrich-style to the pre- Beth & Z past—that works well for us. It probably works best for me because Z does not write personal essays or keep a blog where he occasionally feels an urge to mention some former object of his affection. He is also not confessional by nature, whereas I, well…you’ve read me. I might not tell you all my details over lunch, but somewhere, they are being typed into an essay or post.

 

There is one photo of him going to a formal dance in high school with, he tells me, “a family friend”, and I’ll admit it, I hate that girl whenever I see that photo. She’s probably a lovely person and could now, easily be my daughter, but I can’t help myself. (Frankly, when he tells the story about the six-year-old twins who used to fight over who got to carry his school bag when he was in first grade, I don’t much like them either.) So I’m not really sure how Z handles it when I accidentally mention an apartment in Chicago I used to frequent in my twenties where my art-student boyfriend lived or how Z felt the night we watched a documentary about the famous-ish brother of my high school boyfriend, and there, in the middle of the show, said boyfriend appears looking uncomfortable in front of the camera, staring through dark sunglasses right into our living room.

 

Irish Ferries Club Class which looks the way I imagined the Love Boat's Lido Deck.

Irish Ferries Club Class which looks the way I imagined the Love Boat’s Lido Deck.

But this is all old news. Z and I are all about being in the present moment, and the present moment has Ireland on the horizon. As Z and I board the ferry in Holyhead and the horn sounds as our three-and-a-half-hour journey across the Irish Sea commences, I have butterflies in my stomach. My palms are sweaty. I get ratty with Z while we try to find the Club Class area that we paid extra for so we’d have free wi-fi and complimentary snacks. Z looks at me bewildered. We’ve had a lovely trip so far in England and Wales with none of the tiffs or dramas other couples might expect, and we’re about to start the last two-week leg of it—the part certain to be the best from my Irish-American perspective—and I’ve turned into a shrew. I bark at him as he (ineptly, I think) reads the ship map to try to locate this Brigadoon of spaces on the ferry, a place no elevator nor staircase seems to want to take us. I stomp around. Roll my eyes. Huff. We can’t get to Ireland fast enough and somehow it seems he is impeding our progress, even though he is not piloting the ferry. In the end, his “inept” reading is correct and he ushers me into the quiet, sparsely populated club room, and we settle into a comfy booth at the front where a vast bank of windows gives the impression that we are at the world’s best drive-in movie. I take a few deep breaths. It doesn’t take long into our three-and-a-half hour journey before a grey silhouette of Ireland comes into view. My eyes fill.

 

I met Ireland for the first time when I was 32. My college friend, Anaïs, and I booked a week there without knowing much about it other than we both had some vague family ties there, both listened to U2 and Sinéad O’Connor, and had read Ulysses together in a college Modernism class, taught by a bore of professor who refused to let us read any female writers because he didn’t believe any women had written anything worthy of being studied. We also both liked the idea of Guinness. At the time, I’d recently begun writing letters to my paternal grandfather’s first cousins in County Galway who farmed the land where my great grandmother grew up, and the only real itinerary Anaïs and I had, other than a vague plan to go to Dublin and Belfast–the only names on the map we really knew–was to get ourselves to Galway to meet my kin.

 

I don’t know when I fell in love with the place exactly—whether it was love at first sight or if it took a couple of days, the whole week. Nor do I remember the catalyst: did the light hit it just right when we were riding on a bumpy bus through Connemara or was it the smell of my first peat fire or the sound of the voices? Regardless, I fell deeply, madly in love with the place. I’d spent the whole of my adult life thinking what was missing was the perfect boyfriend or an acclaimed writing career, but what had actually been missing was an entire country where for whatever reason, I felt most myself. On that first visit, I stood in the ivy-covered quadrangle at the national university in Galway and vowed that I’d take classes there, and two years later, I did: studying Irish poetry, scribbling  some halting poems of my own, but mostly, loving Ireland up. Two years after that, I brought my half-brother over to celebrate his 21st birthday, then my mother, then I attended a writing workshop at a haunted castle, a spring break with my friend Belle, and so on.

 

I was hooked, body and soul. I studied the history, read the literature, taught classes on it, carried Edna O’Brien’s suitcase through the Denver airport after an Irish-themed writing festival in Aspen and thought—all the while trying to make clever conversation with her—“this suitcase is going to Ireland”(only it wasn’t: Edna O’Brien lives in London). The only way I could talk about Ireland was with the over-exuberant language of the infatuated, which shamed me because it made me seem like just another American with an idea of Ireland in her mind (leprechauns and rainbows and Aran knit sweaters) who could just as easily be talking about any vacation destination. Like a teenager whose parents believe she just has a crush, I wanted to stamp my foot and shout, but you don’t understand—this is real! Even so, if I heard a commercial for the Irish tourism board come on, I stopped what I was doing and stared at the television, haunted that it was playing “our” song by the Cranberries. I listened to heart-wrenching Celtic music and wept for no real reason. I refused to wear any perfume but the sweet Irish lavender I special ordered, and every day when I dabbed it on, I’d be transported to what felt like the life I should have been living.

Irish Ferries ferry

Irish Ferries ferry

As Z and I watch Ireland get closer—stuffing our faces full of free fruit, muffins, and Jacobson’s crackers—I am conflicted. On the one hand, I cannot wait to be reunited with my beloved. On the other, Z is my beloved now, and I am afraid he will not share my affection, will not like the idea of Ireland as a sort of sister-wife in our marriage, afraid he will point out all the ways it is sub-par (the showers are almost always more complicated than they need to be for starters), afraid he’ll see me differently after meeting the place: who is this woman with the irrational obsession with a somewhat grey and rainy landscape?

 

And also, my last tryst with Ireland was not my best. Six months before Z and I got married, I spent a summer residency for my MFA program in Dingle. I was without my normal klatch of friends and with, instead, a group of people I didn’t know. I’d just said goodbye to Z for the entire summer, and I was so homesick for him that every morning in the half-light before workshops started, I’d walk half a mile to a phone box to call him in Zimbabwe for a few minutes just to help me get through the day. Furthermore, though I kept it to myself, I was having issues with shortness of breath and vague chest pains that I now know from a slightly disgruntled nurse were not “mini heart attacks” but panic attacks about the impending nuptials and move across country. In other words, I was not fully present for Ireland, and Ireland knew it. After the residency, I met my cousin and her daughter at the Shannon Airport to introduce them to the country I loved, but something was off. None of us were as bouncy and excited as I imagined we’d be, swilling Guinness at trad sessions, traipsing through monastery ruins, standing over the bones of our great great grandpeople. We were glad to be together, but we all had our own internal wars being waged though on the surface, all was well.

 

I was relieved to get back to America after that last trip, and I don’t even remember saying a proper goodbye to Ireland or any promises to return soon. The best I can compare it to is a romance that you know is faltering and you aren’t sure if it is worth fighting for or if it should just become a shoebox full of memories. Maybe my time with Ireland was over. Maybe my head had been turned too much by Z, by the mystery of Zimbabwe that was now on my radar.

Dublin from the Irish Sea

Dublin from the Irish Sea

As Dublin gets closer, Z squints and says, “But where are all the buildings?” A week ago, we were in London with a skyline so bizarre and full of both tall buildings and cranes making more tall buildings, that Dublin’s low-to-the-ground profile must be a surprise to him, and I feel instantly defensive of it, but also disappointed that it is disappointing him before we’ve even landed. The only thing we can really see are the twin smokestacks of the Poolbeg power station, but already my brain is seeing the Liffey as it moves through the docklands and goes under O’Connell Street, the country as it stretches west towards the place that is always my destination: Connemara. My gut clenches. If Z is disappointed before we’ve gotten off the ferry, how is he going to feel about the rural bits I love where there is nothing much but sheep, rocks, a pub, and the random “Up Galway” banner? I send a sort of prayer across the remaining expanse of water directly to Ireland: Please be good to Z, I implore. I need for him to love you a little. For me, that is what is on the line here: if we have a bad time, if Z does not take a fancy to Ireland, this could conceivably be my last trip to a place that has felt like my heart’s home for nearly twenty years.

 

When the ferry docks, it takes forever for us to be let us off the ship, and the anticipation and anxiety builds. Finally, we work our way through customs, as usual, a process that is quicker for me with my U.S. passport than it is for Z with his Zimbabwean one but even so, within fifteen minutes we’ve gotten our passports stamped, our luggage collected, and a taxi hailed. I sit forward and peer out the window, like some kind of over-eager Labrador retriever. As the cab moves through the docklands, I look for the spot where ten years ago Mom and I walked in the dark of the night with a Swedish woman we’d just met to U2’s recording studio; this unlikely trio of groupies stood outside until nearly midnight, hoping to get a look at the band. We heard them recording songs for the next album, saw Bono’s wife drop someone off (not Bono), and caught a glimpse of the top of Edge’s knit cap when he stuck his hat out the door, but that was the extent of that night’s adventure. Now, the docklands look quite different. They seem more vertical than the last time I was here, less tatty. As we move into the city center, I have to ask the cabbie the name of the two new bridges that are crossing the Liffey: one, the Samuel Beckett Bridge, which is lovely in that it looks like a harp but strikes me as something a little too Irish for Beckett himself to approve of, and the Rosie Hackett Bridge, which is named for the founder of the Irish Women Workers Union and which pleases me more even though the bridge itself is no work of art. Z peers out the window; it’s all new to him.

 

I ask the cabbie, “What else has changed in Dublin in the last six years?” (How can six years have passed since I was here?). He sighs at the traffic jam we’re tangled in because the semi-final for the Gaelic football game just ended in a draw—fans pour into the street, most wearing Dublin’s light blue, but a few in the red and green jerseys of Mayo, both sides celebrating, sure their team will win the re-match in a week—and he chuckles, “Nothing much.” The Angelus bells start to play on the radio, which he turns up and we sit quietly there in traffic, penitently waiting as each bell strikes, despite the cacophony outside the cab as the revelers revel. After the last bell chimes, he turns the radio back down and explains that he’s going a roundabout way to our hotel to try to get through the crowd, and it pleases me that I am familiar enough with this little hunk of the city to know he’s not padding the fair and is getting us there as best he can.

The Liffey

The Liffey

Our hotel sits on Bachelor’s Row, just across from the River Liffey, and the city tugs at me before we’ve ever checked into our hotel. In the mere day and a half we have in Dublin, I’ll drag Z to my favorite spots—touristy, all, but I will be an unapologetic guide. I march him up to the General Post Office (GPO) and force him to admire the bullet holes still in the façade from the 1916 Easter Uprising that—in an overly simplified blog-sized history lesson—was the beginning of the Irish Republic. (Think July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, only with gunfire and men shortly to become martyrs for the cause of independence.) I never come to Dublin without buying stamps here, even though there’s now a machine outside built into the building façade where you can make your purchases. I like being inside, imagine the noise and the barricades and the smoke and people willing to die for a little freedom.

The G.P.O. always makes me start humming rebel songs.

The G.P.O. always makes me start humming rebel songs.

From there, we head to Trinity College, another of my regular pilgrimages. The campus is beautiful—a walled respite in the heart of the city—but the real reason I’m there is to see the 800 A.D. illustrated gospels depicted in the Book of Kells on display there. Every day, a page is turned, so though I’ve seen the scrolled letters and intricate knotwork that decorate it six or so times, I’m always seeing something different. What is always the same, however, is the disorganized crowd of people around it, all jockeying for a prime spot right in front of it. It’s a frustrating labor of love when it’s just me, but because Z is here, I want to push people out of the way so he can have a few precious minutes admiring the craftsmanship. Finally we, push our way into position and refuse to give up ground until we’re satisfied that we’ve properly admired it.

 

My annoyance with tourists around me (always “they” are tourists, whereas I see myself as having some divine right to be there) disappears as we climb the stairs that spill us out into the Long Room of the Old Library. It smells of books and knowledge and mysteries unsolved. Though it takes my breath away, I normally walk through it quickly after a few cursory photos that simply cannot capture the vastness or atmosphere of the place because I am gift-shop bound. But on this trip, Z and I are not in the market for trinkets, so we linger over each case, read the placards hanging up for the display about myth and folk tale through the ages. We sit on a bench and soak it all in, and it is, no contest, my best ever visit to this library because I am just there and not anticipating our next move or the Book of Kells tea towels and key rings calling out to be purchased downstairs.

The Long Hall

The Long Hall

We do the other things you do when in Dublin: we wander down Grafton Street, which is a shopping area where buskers are often attracting attention with their songs or puppet shows; we try to pick our favorite of the distinctive Georgian doors on the townhouses that surround St. Stephen’s Green; we meander through both St. Stephen’s Green and Iveagh Gardens in the rain, exclaiming about the beauty, the dampness, the half-breed Scottish terrier that defies description in that it is equal parts cute and hideous.  In Iveagh Gardens, we traipse around a hedge maze, though the hedges have not yet grown much higher than our knees, and we are perplexed when we get to the center and find a sundial, which seems a useless thing to have in a shady park in a climate that tends toward cloud. We search for an ATM that isn’t opposed to Z’s bank card to no avail, and then briefly wonder what the rest of our trip might look like without cash in hand. I convince him—as I have convinced others—that’s there’s really no need to go to the Guinness Storehouse because it’s gotten too chic and sophisticated since my first visit, when it still felt kitschy. We eat Mexican, Italian, and a full Irish breakfast. We saunter around the Liffey, stand at the peak of Ha’penny Bridge and watch the night lights dance on the water.

The Liffey

The Liffey

Both nights there, I drag Z through Temple Bar looking for the Ireland v. Zimbabwe rugby poster I had seen in a pub there in 2003 that felt cosmically placed specifically so I’d remain focused on him despite the fact that my confession of love had fallen on his somewhat clogged ears just a month before. I had visions of taking a photo of 2015 Z standing next to the poster as a sort of triumphant conclusion to my earlier, more forlorn and very single trip, but alas, the poster is nowhere to be found lo these twelve years later, and though the most likely reasons are the pub in question has redecorated or I had taken too much drink the night I saw it because it was my half brother’s 21st birthday and only ever imagined it, I’m convinced it was one of those weird synchronicities that only Ireland delivers where you see the thing or meet the person or hear the bit of information that you most need at that very moment. And certainly that poster and a few other of these mystical occurrences on that 2003 trip kept me hot on Z’s trail even though he’d tried to gently put the kibosh on my love.

Temple Bar, where IS that poster?

Temple Bar, where IS that poster?

I regret that we have budgeted only two nights in Dublin. Though Z has professed to like Ireland, I hear an unsaid “so far” in his voice that worries me. As me make our way to Heuston Station with our mountain of luggage so we can head to the western edge of this country I love, I begin to worry again. What if after Dublin, the rest of Ireland will pale in comparison? What if he doesn’t fall in love with Galway’s twisted streets and Spanish Arch and raging Corrib River? What if he sees Connemara as a rocky sort of wasteland? What if he doesn’t like my cousins? What if, what if, what if…?

 

Like the ferry ride two days before, as the train lumbers through the Midlands towards Galway, my anticipation of arriving in my favorite bit of Ireland begins to override my fear that Z will not fall in love. My throat constricts as soon as we are out of the city and the countryside and villages speed past the window. As the fences surrounding the rolling pastures begin to change from wire to stone, as the sheep become more plentiful, as the train stops are names more familiar to me: Ballinasloe, Attymon, Athenry, it seems likely that I will come unhinged with excitement. I will never understand why Ireland affects me this way, and still does after all of these years, but I am glad for it. I want Z to love this place as much as I do, but as we pull alongside the estuary that spills into Galway Bay, I begin to believe that even if he hates it—and why would he anyhow?—my ardor hasn’t dampened. It is still mine and I can love it enough for the pair of us.

Iveagh Gardens

Iveagh Gardens

 

 

 

 

The Ill-planned Grand Tour: Part 2

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In 1988 when I flew to London with some of my classmates from Anderson University, the song that was stuck in my head was Kate Bush’s “Oh England My Lionheart” which had the most gorgeous, historical and literary lyrics and the refrain, “Oh! England, my lionheart/I don’t want to go.” As we boarded our plane for home, at least half of us were mentally humming this song. We weren’t ready to say goodbye to this city that existed for us previously only on the pages of the books we were studying.

 

As Z and I walk along the Thames, by Parliament, up Whitehall past the statue of Charles I staring forever towards the place where he lost his head, through the tombs in Westminster Abbey where Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I are stretched out side by side despite a lifetime of distrust, imprisonment, and conflicting religious ideologies, what song is in my head? Why, Fergie’s “London Bridge” with lyrics that I won’t repeat here because my mother-in-law reads this blog. It will NOT leave my head. I walk around looking at sights that quicken my heart while mentally, there’s Fergie, getting her groove on: All my girls get down on the floor/back to back drop it down real low.

 

This difference pretty much epitomizes the alterations that twenty years can make on a place. I’m not sure if those differences I see are primarily in my head or if they are in the city itself. Certainly, London has changed. I need only look at the skyline across the Thames to South London to see the difference. Skyscrapers, the London Eye (a massive Ferris wheel built to celebrate the Millennium that wrecks that old world feel I loved so long ago, though demonstrates what a modern tourist destination London is), and the general hubbub makes the south side of the river suddenly seem like the place to be instead of the stuffy historical sites on the north side. (We stay on the north side.) Also, though one of my previous trips was during the tourist-laden summer, London feels positively stuffed to the gills with people. There is no room for us on the tours, on the sidewalk, in the Tube. I can’t decide if this is my age, the fact that now that I live in a city I’m no longer as enamored with them as I used to be, I’ve become a claustrophobe in middle age or because the EU and globalization have turned the city into the world’s oyster. Also, a new development since 1992: at least ¾ of the people we pass have their faces buried in their smart phones with no awareness that the throngs are having to dodge their zombie-esque lumber down the middle of the sidewalk.

 

At one point, I actually think but don’t say, “London may be due another plague to thin this herd.”

 

Lest it seem like I haven’t enjoyed myself and don’t love this city, fear not. Z and I have had a great time. It’s hard to see a red double-decker bus, a red phone box (a few less since last time I was here), or the iconic red mailboxes without catching a little London fever. Samuel Johnson said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, and I’m inclined to agree. I will never be “over” London, though I do wonder if Dr. Johnson was ever tired IN London as we have been, and if he didn’t ever long for a little respite in the Lake District. Certainly, at the end of our days, we’re happy to stumble into our hotel room.

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Our hotel, The Regency, in South Kensington, is delightful. Its location just a few blocks from the Tube is why we picked it, but when we walked up to it we knew we’d be in good hands. Queen’s Gate Avenue is a wide, flower-lined street with Georgian homes that lead into the Queen’s Gate in Kensington Gardens. Though the room is small and the water pressure is non-existent, the quirkiest thing about it is the high tech light system that the hotel staff is very proud of. If you get up in the night, the lights sense your movement and pop on. This would be handy if you were in a room by yourself, but with two people, it’s unsettling to have the lights flash suddenly because your spouse needed to make a late-night trip to the loo. The hotel is quiet and they accommodated my ice addiction by bringing me a bucket of ice every night. (Though on the last night, I only got a glass of ice, much to Z’s delight. He couldn’t quit laughing at my disappointed face.)

 

In Seattle, the city parks planners have recently started a “parks to pavement” movement, the result of which means on our block of First Hill we’ve lost about six parking spaces that have been painted aqua. They chained some jaunty folding chairs to sign posts and we’re meant to think it’s a park (and it’s worth noting, it’s five feet from a non parking lot park). But you only need to be in London about five minutes before you see proper parks, both big and small before you realize that Americans often don’t really do parks right at all. The ones in London are under huge canopies of trees and there is everywhere evidence of landscape design. Aside from the big parks, there are also little “squares” in the midst of Georgian row houses that are private for the residents around the block. It’s a bit disconcerting to be on the outside of the locked gate looking in, but it must be such a delight to live across the street from one and know that you have access and can find therein a park that is less likely to have litter strewn about, needles cast aside, and a safe haven from the stress of the city. There should be more of these everywhere and not just in wealthy neighborhoods. It seems like it would foster a sense of community more than our little patch of aqua pavement. If we went to a park every day of our stay here, I’d ask to go to two.

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On our first jet-lagged afternoon, Z and I head off to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (the two parks bleed into each other and even my pop-up map is vague about where one ends and the other begins, but combined they are larger than the whole of Monaco!). Henry VIII created Hyde Park for hunting, and London is all the better for it. Marble Arch in Hyde Park was my very first tourist stop in 1988, so I’m always happy to return there, even in a gentle rain. Z and I stop for photo ops at the Albert Memorial, created by Queen Victoria to pay tribute to her beloved husband, and I remember in college how silly she seemed to have gone into a mourning that lasted the rest of her life though her husband died when she was 42 and she would live to be nearly 100. Standing there with Z, it makes much more sense to me now that a woman who ruled half the geographic world would feel she’d lost her own when her husband died. Is it possible that I’m more romantically inclined in middle age than I was as a twenty year old?

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While in the park, we walk along the serpentine–a swan-laden lake that twists and turns—and we visit Peter Pan, pass the Italianate garden that looks like it belongs in another country. It’s a peaceful re-introduction to London.

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The next morning, we manage to get ourselves to what was previously my favorite place in London: The Tower. It’s a fortress comprised of multiple buildings that span centuries in architecture and that was the backdrop for some of England’s more grisly history, including the place where wives lost their heads simply because Henry VIII had in mind to wed another and where people whose faiths differed from the monarch’s were put to death for heresy. When I was 21, this place sizzled for me. I walked along the parapet where Elizabeth I walked when she was being held prisoner by her sister and felt alive, like I was somehow touching the past. I watched the ravens hopping freely across the green and recited to myself the myth that if the ravens leave, the Tower will fall. (They haven’t left because their wings are clipped, and now, sadly, they are in cages.) I traced Jayne Grey’s name, carved in the wall by her husband before the pair of them were beheaded at the end of Jayne’s 9 day reign as queen and got choked up. I stared at the Crown Jewels and imagined which crown I’d get to wear when Prince Edward finally saw sense and married me. Full disclosure, I also stared at Henry VIII’s codpiece and wondered if I could get Edward to don similar armor periodically to keep things spicy.

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On this August day, the Tower is crawling with tourists. Since last I was here, they’ve built a souped up tourist center and started charging a lot more, including a “voluntary donation” that is in the price posted! There are lines for the Crown Jewels that snake around the White Tower and leave Z and I shaking our heads: I’ve seen them before and he isn’t that interested, so we move on. They’ve refurbished apartments above Traitor’s Gate that belonged to Edward I, which are fascinating in their medieval-ness. In other places, I feel disappointed that “improvements” have been made to entertain children—unnecessary sound effects that make it impossible for me to do my own imagining, a lot of hands-on feeling of feather ticks and metal soldiers’ helmets, and an array of animal sounds from the menagerie that used to live there. I understand the inclination to make history come alive so young people will be interested, but what I notice is most of them could care less about the history and simply want to move from experience to experience. I feel sad for them that they live in an age when grown-ups feel they must entertain children instead of helping them develop imaginations that can fill in blanks, but mostly I’m sadder for myself and Z. There is no time or space now for reflection about politics, faith, war and affairs of the heart without hearing “tigers” growling and the clang of swords from a mock joust. Even Tower Green, which used to have a sort of tacky chopping block to illustrate where heads were lost now has a beautiful monument made of glass and stone with a lovely poem etched into it and a sculpture of a pillow.

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I’m still unsure how I feel about this. The poem is nice and offers a sort of benediction for those who have become cartoon characters in the history books of our minds, but it’s a little too pretty. For me that chopping block was jarring reminder in such a beautiful setting that the Tower wasn’t all banquets and Tudor-era tennis.

 

But still, why am I complaining about any of it? For an American whose history barely goes back 200 years, it’s amazing to stand in a structure that has existed since William the Conqueror in the 11th Century. I get chills standing in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula knowing that two of Henry VIII’s wives lie beneath the floor, heads no longer intact, and can’t be having much of a peaceful rest with all the tourists that trek through on a daily basis.

 

Because I’ve always wanted to walk along the Thames—mistaking it, I suppose, for the Seine—Z and I leave the Tower and walk towards Parliament on the Thames River Walk. It is a longer distance than our pop-out map indicates, and more to the point, London is a boom town with a lot development happening along the river, so we walk twenty feet and then have to circle around construction; walk another twenty feet, circle around. It’s hot. We are tired. Honestly, I prefer the Thames in my mind. As we walk away from Tower Bridge, towards London Bridge, Fergie cranks up in my head, and I sigh. I think I’m missing 1988 London. Possibly, I’m missing 1588 London.

I’m Fergie Ferg. Me love you long time.

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The Ill-planned Grand Tour: Part I

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My first trip to London was in 1988 with a small group of my fellow liberal arts majors and my beloved mentor, Gibb. I’d just read 84 Charing Cross Road, I was 3/4 of the way done with a lit degree that focused heavily on British Lit, I was studying British history as an elective, and I had an unhealthy attachment to the Royal Family. (Specifically, I was sure I was meant to be one of them and was holding out hope for Edward.) It was my first trip abroad and as soon as I discovered that the ability to read a train schedule, a guidebook, and a metro map opened up a person’s world exponentially, I was hooked. And so a love affair that began in books was finally consummated.

Four years later, a family friend agreed to act as tour guide for Mom and me, and we spent two glorious weeks living in a house owned by Stephanie, an Austrian octogenarian who was friends with the doctor who delivered Prince Charles and knew from first hand experience that Winston Churchill’s wife’s  Siamese cats had ugly dispositions. Her three-story brick house was on Muswell Hill and on the first day there we looked out the back windows to discover not just rose-covered walls but also a community bowling green where men dressed in whites looked like something straight out of a Merchant Ivory film. In America at the time, we were obsessed with all things British, all things Victorian and Edwardian. It wasn’t just Mom and me; entire stores were dedicated to bringing a little 19th Century British class to our ranch houses and condos. Though the city was modern, it was as if the plane that carried us across the Atlantic had also been a time machine. Because of the lady of the house’s age and social class and the length she had owned her beautifully appointed home, we could, at the very least, pretend we were in pre-Blitz London. At night, I’d eat biscuits and work on a needlepoint project I’d purchased at Liberty while Stephanie and I would watch TV. In my twisted memory, instead of viewing episodes of East Enders though we were listening to the wireless and hearing news about impending troubles in Europe. We were delighted one day when Stephanie was in a tizzy because she couldn’t find her hat for Royal Ascot, and the next day, we were lucky enough to see the entire Royal Family leave Windsor Castle for the big race. They were waving and all be-hatted, while we stood along the road, cheering and clapping and taking blurry photographs. (Sadly, Edward did not notice me, and one of us noticed how miserable poor Diana looked despite the fact we were all about to be surprised by her tell-all biography and impending separation.)

Because Barb, our tour-guide friend, had traveled extensively, I studied her actions carefully. She carried a small backpack so she was always ready with a rain coat, London A to Z, and space to shove bread and cheese from Sainsbury’s for lunch on a train to Dover. She understood the Tube and planned well a day’s itinerary so no time was wasted. I could do this, I thought, unadventurous as I was. I was in my early twenties and determined not to spend the rest of my life in Richmond, Indiana, waiting on the Barb’s of this world to take me to the places I wanted to see.

When Mom and I left, we had an extra suitcase full of all the bits of England we’d purchased in gift shops in an attempt to take the experience home with us. In our carry-on luggage alone, we had three teapots. All these years laters, it remains one of the Big Moments on the timeline of our respective lives.

Seven years later, I fell in love with Ireland and never once looked back  across the Irish Sea to England’s green and pleasant land. I became obsessed with Irish literature and Irish history, and the best I can do to explain this is to compare it to the difference between a first love and a soul mate. There would always be a tiny corner of my heart that belonged to England, but I was in love with Ireland body and soul, and because England had been, over 700 years, badly behaved towards Ireland, it was like realizing that first love of yours was actually a bully who’d been taking your (eventual) soulmate out into the school parking lot and beating him senseless while you were eating a cheese sandwich in the cafeteria. In 1998, I started seeing Ireland exclusively and I never regretted my decision. The landscape, the literature, the people—it all felt like mine. The first week I was there, it occurred to me that  I’d spent my twenties looking for the right man when really what I should have been doing was looking for the right place in the world. Ireland was that place. If I could have easily moved there, I would have. Because I couldn’t,  after every return back to America, I’d start planning my next trip, enlisting other people to go with me, traveling solo if the situation dictated it.

So now Z and I are spending a month traveling through England, Wales, and Ireland, while he does research and I write and stare at views and buildings that quicken the heart. It is the most ill-conceived, ill-prepared for trip ever because we’ve had to postpone it twice and didn’t know until two weeks ago that it was even going to happen because of visa issues. (If you have a US passport, might I recommend you take it out of its hidey-hole and kiss and bless it for the ease of travel it provides–not all passports are created equal). Also, the day I decided to extend my trip to Indiana by a week, we got the news that this trip was a go. I don’t regret being home to visit Mom and her ailing back and to help my stepfather celebrate his 70th birthday, but what this means is I was back in Seattle for just two and a half days before we had to be on our Heathrow-bound flight. And finally, in the eleventh hour, I thought I was coming down with shingles again, which would have thrown a further kink into all of our plans. While in my suitcase there are the clothes and equipment for every conceivable weather condition and natural disaster, the rest of the trip has only the vaguest of outlines. Barb nor my Girl Scout leader would be proud with my planning and preparedness levels at this moment. Case in point, we seem to be in London on the brink of both a train and Tube strike, which could make things interesting.

But even with delays and missed connections and the realization there’s no way to do “it all” in just a few weeks, I’m looking forward to reconciling my past love with my current one and sharing both (plus Wales!) with Z, who is better than any Windsor prince, any day, any time.

Stay tuned.

Flashback Friday: The Wages of Sin

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[I’m annoyed with Paris Hilton because of her plane crashing terror stunt, and so this seemed a timely flashback.]

 

Saturday, June 09, 2007

 

Lord, I am heartily sorry.

I have been shamed. Not more than twenty minutes ago, I was clutching a book to my chest and having a cry because the book in question seemed so good and true. The shame part comes in because I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks publicly decrying the author as superior and unkind to her townsfolk and completely unable to string together a satisfying non-fiction narrative. And this after five years of being more silently contemptuous of her, in no small part because she was writing about Indiana during my era and she had the gall to have a nickname too close to one I had.

Also, I once went to a workshop she led and was annoyed beyond repair by the way people gushed over her when she was a mediocre teacher at best. So talented, so clever, so unique, they said. Bleh. I began to loathe her. I began to feel she had stolen away some title I deserved. The fact that I have not written a memoir of my Indiana girlhood for critics and readers to gush over did not alter my sense of injustice. The fact that I loved her fiction did not strike me as being a contradiction when I would curl my lip if someone dared mention the name Zippy to me.

So anyhow, I was fairly surprised when I slammed shut She Got Up Off the Couch and promptly burst into tears. All I can figure is Haven Kimmel got something right—some alchemy of description of a blizzardy Hoosier winter or growing up in the 70s or loving common items shrunk down to miniature size—that made my heart shift positions and not turn so bitterly against her.

I feel much better now that I have confessed that sin.

Other things that have been disturbing me today: I think Paris Hilton is robbing me of quality time with Z.

Since Z, I have a laundry list in my head of things to tick off until I see him again. In fact, when he was here last month, healing me of terminal hypochondria, I even happily ticked off his departure because I knew that meant I would see him all the sooner.

My shrink would say, “Why do you think you are this powerful—to speed up time?” and I’m not sure why except that my maternal grandmother soundly chastised me once for
wishing away my life, something I should never do, even if it was for a truly good thing, such as I wish summer vacation were here. (That one, I still contend, is not bad because life in the confines of the public school system was not worth living.) My grandmother’s belief that I had the power to fast-forward thru my life must have made an impression, because I do. I do honestly believe that when I see Z on Tuesday morning at the airport, it will be in no small part because I thought so long and hard on how to get through the minutes more quickly until I could see him again.

But then there is this: not only have I been wishing away my life, but it occurs to me, I’ve also been, with my desire for speedier clocks and quicker reunions, wishing away other people’s lives—Z’s, my mother’s, my aunt who dreads the passing of time because it removes her further from her recently departed husband, my other aunt who is now—with no thanks to me—down to about nine thousand heart ticks of her own—and so on and so forth. I’m pretty sure this makes me a selfish, bad person.

And the wages of such a sin is this: this flagrant speeding up of time that I have caused means that at the end of those paltry few days I’ll have in Seattle with Z, he flies off to Zimbabwe for…oh, I keep hoping there will be some papal dispensation that will make this untrue!…two months. No nightly phone calls; no reliable, multiple-times-a-day e-mails; no possibility of a mid-way weekend meeting place if the Travelocity deals are superior. Just me, my suitcase of abandonment issues and the void sprinkled with occasional emails when he has electrical power and occasional phone calls when I can manage to punch in the international codes correctly and the phones on his end are actually working, and daily news reports of how things in his homeland have slid so far past “pear-shaped” that they aren’t even in the fruit category anymore. That’s what I have to look forward to for not taking heed when Grandma told me to stop wishing.

No. I must require of myself and insist that others—including Paris Hilton who is no doubt in a hurry to get out of the L.A. County jail—QUIT WISHING THE DAYS AWAY. I believe if we are all united on this front time can be slowed to a crawl and Z will never leave my shores for his native ones. I’m not sure what the pay off will be for Paris or how she can be convinced to cooperate, but I’m working on it. Her money, power, and connections give her an unfair advantage in persuading the earth to rotate a bit faster, so I’m hoping she’ll see reason & find peace in her current unfortunate circumstances.

Girls Growing Up

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Dear diary.

Dear diary.

If it weren’t a sin to make additions to the Bible, I’d probably implore the folks at Zondervan to include a verse that reads something like: Woe unto the adult woman who happens upon her junior high diaries and reads them, for she will be sorely mortified.

 

I found the red calico receptacle of my seventh-through-twelfth-grade thoughts on the bookshelves while I was back home in Indiana babysitting Mac the Wonder Scottie. I tucked it into my suitcase before I returned to Seattle, anxious to see what messages I had had for Future Beth. Because I had no such biblical warning and because I was a bookish girl who was overly concerned with grades and my future, I assumed that I would discover raw genius on the pages. I also suspected that early 1980s Beth had a clearer perspective on who her essential self was before she was shaped and twisted by the outside world. I settled in to read these nuggets of teen wisdom with anticipation.

 

Sadly, what I discovered was that aside from having truly atrocious handwriting, the only thing in my head was apparently boys. Pages and pages about my feelings for and the merits of this boy or that boy. Boys whose names no longer can bring an image to my mind. Boys I barely knew. Boys who likely didn’t know me at all. Sentence after sentence of heartfelt evaluation of the various boys in my school, in my youth group, boys I had known for all of 15 minutes when we were visiting family friends out of town. I had a vivid and completely imaginary romance with a mortician’s son from one of those trips. In one entry, I marveled that I had not gotten depressed when Mom and I went to the wedding of “S”—“S” was the son of a friend of my mothers who was about six years my senior and with whom I had never once had a single conversation. It is a mystery as to why it seemed likely his nuptials would have made me blue.

 

It was hard not to be retroactively disappointed in myself. Z suggested I should be kinder to the younger Beth because she was just behaving age appropriately, but it took me a good two days to get over the shock of realizing that I hadn’t been some writerly savant. I was no Anne Frank. No junior Virginia Woolf. No teenage girl Pepys. I sure wasn’t writing pages about my career dreams or my hopes (outside of boys) for the future, which disturbs me greatly because I know in 7th and 8th grade I was obsessed with getting a 4.0 GPA, I learned to play string bass because the orchestra had no bass player, I took piano lessons, played a flute, loved art, read, thought regularly about college, and wanted to know everything about the world and the people in it. But none of that is recorded. No one would ever know from the evidence before them in the red calico journal that I had a brain in my head or aspirations beyond convincing the boy I liked to like me back instead of hitting me on the arm so hard I’d have bruises.

 

(What was that about? Who was I then that I’d let a guy sock me in the arm and not flatten him. I blame his dreamy blue eyes but am thankful that after about three weeks of the daily arm slug, I determined that he “wasn’t really the guy for me.” Ya think?)

 

The whole time I was reading my journal, I kept texting my oldest friend, Leibovitz, to tell her what 1980something me was concerned about, what she’d been up to, who was annoying us in 7th grade.

 

“You just danced with J.T!” I’d text, to which she would reply, “Oh, don’t remind me.”

 

Possibly, my texts were annoying. Her oldest daughter was about to graduate from high school but I was so immersed into the early 1980s–wondering if I’d be more appealing to the boy of the week if I asked for a pair of Bass Weejuns for Christmas—that I couldn’t even fathom a Little Leibovitz existed at all, let alone talk coherently about her high school graduation. It was as if the last thirty odd years never happened (and it may explain why this weekend I bought a pair of Tom Mcan tasseled mocs for $12.99 on a K-mart clearance rack even though, my mother pointed out, I made fun of her for wearing the same in 1998). I did not need a DeLorean to go back to the future; I was wedged in it.

 

Plus, I admit, I did not like the way Little Leibovitz had recently made me feel ancient. While I’d been home, I took her out to dinner—something I did more regularly when she and her sister were little and I was still living in Indiana. She’s beautiful and seems supremely confident in ways I could not have mustered at her age (or now). Maybe she doesn’t feel like she has the world on a string, but it seems like she does. We chatted about school and her summer and college plans. After we were finished eating, I offered to take her out for dessert or to the mall or something. She shook her head and said no thanks, and then it hit me: Little Leibovitz had been humoring me. She didn’t need me to drive her around town: she has her own car, a rich collection of friends, a busy social life. My offering of taco chips and boring old-people questions about her future plans was not the draw it might have been a decade ago.

 

The thought of her in a cap and gown made me feel old and I wanted to keep on feeling like I’d just seen Urban Cowboy for the first time. (One advantage to not having children of your own is that you can more easily live with the delusion that you are ageless.)

 

A few days after reading my journals, I started reframing what I’d read there. Yes, I did talk obsessively about boys, but on a second thought, it was not random, mindless chatter. I was analyzing and evaluating them like I was a detective or a zoologist: what were the subject’s good qualities? Bad qualities? Did those qualities mesh with mine? What was the likelihood of our future contentment? I was picky and dis-inclined to flirt. As my detecting progressed, I moved more quickly reached the “not the guy for me” evaluation and moved on. I seemed to know exactly the sort of person I wanted in my life and I was willing to wait for him. Which is a good thing since it took Z a few plane rides and three decades to arrive on the scene.

 

If I had the superpower of time travel, I’d put a Post-It in that diary for 12-year-old Beth to read that said something like, “Honey, calm down. It’s going to be a few years before you find the right one. Why not jot down some current events while you wait?”

 

 

I'm certain my dog-eared copy of _The Preppy Handbook_ did not allow for shoes from K-mart.

I’m certain my dog-eared copy of _The Preppy Handbook_ did not allow for shoes from K-mart.