Category Archives: Random Conversations with Strangers

Veering Toward Wonderment

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Z and I were once on a bus after returning a rental car and a guy got on selling batteries that we suspect he’d just lifted from the drugstore behind the bus stop. The bus was crowded and it was one of those days when I was feeling very much that metro buses are not that far removed from the ones you see in the movies, creaking through the mountains of Central America, packed full of people, their luggage, and a host of chickens and goats. I like a quiet bus and as such, was hoping the guy would realize no one was interested in purchasing his wares and sit down.

 

And then suddenly, this man said to the battery guy, “Lemme see those?” and the next thing you know, the two are shooting the bull and the man is digging in his wallet to pull out some bills to give to the battery guy. It was like a very public drug deal only without the drugs. Z and I looked at each other, fascinated by the notion that business transactions like this were happening on the #21. What makes you sell batteries on a bus? What makes you realize you need batteries while on a bus? The mysteries of life are many.

 

When I’m my best self, this is the attitude I’ve found most helpful when riding the city bus: instead of annoyance, veer toward wonderment. A woman gets on the bus with a stack of books and a hamster in a cage? Do not worry about the hamster getting loose and crawling up your rain coat. Instead, ask yourself if the woman often takes her hamster on jaunts, if she reads the books to the hamster. Really ponder the questions. Then consider using her for story fodder.

 

But often I am not my best self. Perhaps I’ve complained to you about my Bus Feelings before. I am not anti bus. I’m all for my taxes paying for a metro system that allows people to transport their carcasses around the city, but my enthusiasm for the bus is one of a belief that other people should ride it and Z and I should not. My greatest joy would be to move my car, Hildegarde von Bingen, from my folks’s driveway in Indiana so we could leap into her at any given moment and drive wherever we want. In this fantasy the roads are miraculously traffic free because all other humans are using public transportation.

 

My reasons for hating the bus are varied, but by and large those reasons can be boiled down into two categories:

 

  • Control: I have none. Will I have a seat? Will it be crowded? Will it be really hot or really cold? (It’s never 68 degrees.) Will music be pouring out of someone’s earphones at Metallica levels? Will someone be cursing and threatening a brawl? Will someone be shouting into their phone like it’s a walkie talkie? HOLD IT UP TO YOUR EAR. WE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO HEAR BOTH SIDES OF YOUR BORING CONVERSATION. Will someone’s dog be licking my foot? Will a baby be screaming or thwacking my leg with a sticky lollipop? There’s no way to know the quality of the ride you’ll have until you get on the bus at which point you’ve lost autonomy.

 

  • Germs: I do not want any. People are dirty. Some by preference and others by necessity of their hard lives. They cough without covering their mouths, they dig into their noses before pulling the stop-request cord, they rest their greasy heads against the windows. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m this close to instituting a policy wherein Z and I both have to wear “bus pants” like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory because I don’t want our pants that have been on the bus sitting on our sofa. Especially after I read the article about how rarely people—even people with relatively good hygiene—wash their blue jeans. We’re talking six months. People brag about this as if it’s normal. It’s not normal. My most recent pair of Levi’s encouraged me not to wash them with any regularity lest their structural integrity be damaged. (Doesn’t this mean you aren’t selling a very good product if by using it the purchaser increases the likelihood that said product will fail to perform as expected? Also what’s with the the passive-aggressive way the label implies if the jeans fail to withstand regular laundering it will be all my fault.) WASH YOUR JEANS; BUTTS ARE DIRTY.

 

Bottom line: I do not love the bus. On the days I ride the bus, I often get off thinking less of humanity and their bad habits and worse hygiene.

 

Nevertheless, it is a necessity of city life, and last week I found myself on a bus trundling up Broadway because of a recent unfortunate eye incident of mine.

 

I’ve got weird eyes and have had since I was in 7th grade. One is so near-sighted I can’t read the big E on the eye chart and the other is minimally far-sighted. Over the years, I’ve treated this ailment with glasses and a single contact, both of which I wore haphazardly until my ophthalmologist and I agreed it was pointless. I can see fine so long as no one tall sits in front of my good movie eye at the theater and I can read a book so long as there is good light over the shoulder of my book eye. (There was an unfortunate incident in grad school caused by my low-quality depth perception when I drove over an entire bale of hay because I thought it was just a little straw in the road, but I like to think that was a one off.) The eye doctor even assured me that this would be an advantageous eye situation when I hit middle age because I basically have eyes that already work like bifocals. And sure enough, for the last several years as my friends had to pull reading glasses out of their purses to read the menu at Cheesecake factory, I could squint just right and read the fine print.

 

But apparently I’ve hit some point of no return now because when I go to the bookstore, no matter how I contort myself, I cannot browse titles. It’s all a blur. While I can read fine, that middle distance is a killer, so I’ll often pull off a brightly colored book from the shelf, pull it close to my eyes, and then discover it’s a book on squirrel mating habits or the gross national product of Papua New Guinea when what I had in mind was a collection of Joan Didion essays or a Marian Keyes novel. Usually when I go to the bookstore now, I just browse through the journals with all of their nonthreatening blank pages and think about the words I would write there if the journal were mine. It’s much less frustrating to do this.

 

I finally went to an ophthalmologist here and she told me what I need now is a pair of “computer glasses.” She explained that all-day glasses for my wonky eyes would do me no good, but I should be wearing something for that middle distance when I’m in a bookstore or working on my laptop.

 

Because they aren’t glasses I will wear all day, it seemed like a good opportunity to try my hand with a style that is fun. Over the weekend, Z and I looked at some frames and I settled on a bright red squarish pair, though we decided I’d come back later in the week because the shop was so busy and we had a weekend life we wanted to live instead of standing in line to place my order.

 

Thus my bus ride a few days later.

 

There were only about ten of us on the bus, and at a stop not far from my house, a guy got on in a rumpled red track suit. He had on Coke bottle glasses, big earphones that were plugged into a phone he was carrying in a long narrow box. In the box were some tatty DVD cases, signs that said “restrooms  for customers only,” and a small board with coat hooks screwed onto it. He himself had a permanently startled expression and a back pack that had crawling out of it’s pockets and zips a ruler, an electrical cord, a big spray can of air freshener, and a golf umbrella without a handle.

 

It was a fascinating conglomeration of items, though I was particularly drawn to the coat hook board for reasons I can’t explain. Had he pried it off the wall somewhere? What kind of space would he be hanging it up on? Did he have a coat to hang on it? Did he have a home in which to hang it?

 

I had a lot of questions about the coat rack.

 

I’m easily overwhelmed by the sadness I perceive in other people’s lives sometimes, and I was on the verge of having to look away so I didn’t end up weeping on the #60 because of the sorrowful plight I’d imagined for this guy. He wasn’t dirty and he didn’t seem to be responding to any voices in his head, so I’m uncertain why I determined his life was a misery except for his expression and the fact that his shoelaces were mismatched.

 

An older man in a ball cap started to exit the bus and stopped in front of Track Suit Guy and told him what a good-looking coat rack he had there in his box. The guy couldn’t hear the older man because of the earphones and I thought to myself, “Just move on, old man. Don’t engage him. He’s probably nuts.” Track Suit Guy pulled off his earphones and the older man repeated himself. Track Suit Guy looked down at his coat rack and said, “You can have it” in the softest, sweetest, most sane voice. “Take it,” he said.

 

For half a second, I felt a flash of shame. If someone on the bus admires anything of mine, my inclination is to say a cool thank you and then pull the item closer to me for protection. Even with a mismatched bunch of junk like this guy had, I can only assume he had imagined some use for it or he wouldn’t have been carting it around the city, and yet he seemed almost eager to part with it in order to please a perfect stranger.

 

Frankly, I felt a little indignant on his behalf when the older man said, “Well, thank you,” picked up the coat rack and walked off the bus.  I come from a place where people offer you things and you have to say “no” about six times before you can comfortably accept their offer of a cool drink, yet in a single second, goods changed hands, and the two parted company with no protesting or no sense from Track Suit Guy that his offer had been polite but insincere. The coat rack out of his possession, he went back to fiddling with his earphones and reshuffling the remaining items in the narrow box.

 

Wouldn’t the world would be an interesting place if we carried around arbitrary items and handed them to whatever person admired them or had use of them? Not that I’ll be doing that anytime soon. I like my things. But it would be a fascinating way to live your life.

 

People are glorious amazing.

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Though not IN the bus, we see this guy around town doing what we believe might be Mt. Rainier worship. He is always pointed towards the south and he’s always in the middle of the crosswalk.

 

I have some decision-making deficits that tax Z because I often stand gawping when he asks something simple like “what do you want for dinner?” or “what do you want to watch?” Even so, I felt very good about the prospect of marching into the eye place, plunking the fun red glasses on the counter, and saying, “I want these.” I could do this without Z standing next to me, nodding his approval. I was sure of it.

 

The place was deserted except for the two women working there, and they devoted all of their attention to me. The red ones were nice, they said, but they were a little tight on the bridge of my nose. How about these?

 

I probably had on 60 pairs of glasses in the span of 90 minutes. They were very patient with my indecision and didn’t try to overwhelm me with their opinions. Yet after an hour, I succumbed to their coos of approval when I put on a pair of purple tortoiseshell glasses. The glasses did look stylish and fun, I thought. They did bring out the green in my eyes because purple is a natural complement to green. The shape seemed right for my face, neither too square nor too round, though it was not a shape I could have identified in my 10th grade geometry class.

 

I snapped a selfie to show Z later, plunked down the money, and ordered those frames. The woman helping me also ordered the green frames that weren’t in the shop because she said I might like those even more, and she could switch the lenses out if I do. I felt really thrilled with my glasses experience and the nice women who had so helpfully led me to the most attractive pair.

 

I strutted down Broadway to meet Z, quite pleased with myself for making a choice without him. I popped into Dick Blick to get some markers and thought how I’d soon be able to hold my own with all the art students there because my glasses are so hip. I stopped in the bookstore to look at the blur of books one last time before I return next week with glasses that will make each title readable. I met Z at the drug store and told him about my adventure and showed him the photo I’d taken.

 

He took one look at it and laughed a short, hard laugh. It was the kind of laugh he could not have held in if he’d tried. It was like a sneeze. I don’t know that he actually said this with his mouth, but even if he didn’t, the message was clear:

 

Girl, you look crazy.

 

I wanted to be cross with Z for not saying what I was expecting which was either “You look cute!” or “Good choice, Sausage!” but with the evidence in front of me after I’d grabbed my phone back and stared at the photo, how could I be mad? He was not wrong.

 

I looked unstable. The glasses were huge. They looked black instead of purple and thus way too dark for my pale, pale Irish-American face. Also, apparently my face is crooked or my ears are uneven, and thus the glasses were sitting in a way that made my eyes look off-kilter, like something Picasso would paint. Looking at the image on my phone, I was reminded of a mentally handicapped girl in my hometown when I was in my twenties who wiped off trays at McDonald’s with great pleasure and authority. I always loved her enthusiasm and her sweet nature, but it is not a look I’ve aspired to all these years.

 

My thoughts returned to Track Suit Guy and how possibly I’d misjudged him and his life circumstances when I’d been racked with that wave of sadness earlier on the bus while studying the junk in that narrow box. Maybe there was nothing wrong with his life outside of his unfortunate glasses and his mismatched shoelaces. Maybe he was just a guy getting through his day, being pleasant to strangers and not being judgmental when one of them took him up on his offer. Maybe I should try to be more like him.

 

Maybe my new glasses, hideous as they will no doubt be, can help me remove these filters so I see things more honestly and with less judgment.

 

Though I seriously doubt that they’ll make me enjoy the bus.

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Get on the bus.

 

 

A Horse with No Name

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Ponygirl

Today, I came into my writing studio, cracked open my laptop and flexed my fingers, ready to roll. Yesterday, in my notebook, I’d jotted down a genius idea at the bottom of a list of things I’m thankful for and I was sure that genius idea was going to make the words flow at record speed. I scrolled down the list anxious to be reminded of what had inspired me and made me feel so confident. Those words:

 

Horses aren’t arbitrary.

 

Well, that was disappointing. I thought it was something better than that. Something that maybe actually made sense.

 

I am not a horsey person. I read one horse book when my adolescent friends were six books deep in that series about the wild horses of Chincoteague. I inherited a ceramic horse collection from someone who had outgrown it, but I never went through a horse phase like a lot of girls do, unless you count my beloved rocking horse, Charger, who betrayed me by getting too small to ride.

 

I’ve ridden exactly one non-plastic horse, a pony really, and I did not feel like we were of one mind. I did not feel whatever it is that horse people feel. The view was nice and I wished I had one, but that was largely about transportation because I was six and a horse could take me anywhere I wanted to go.

 

What a horse could not do, however, was make itself comfortable in a one-bedroom upstairs apartment.

 

I’m in awe of people who ride horses regularly the way I’m in awe of people who ski. It looks like fun at some level, but skis and horses have always struck me as situations you only think you have control over, and so I’ve given both a miss. Life is precarious enough in my mind without me putting my body on something that could gallop me over a cliff or skid me into a pine tree.

 

For these reasons, I don’t think of horses as metaphors when I’m writing because they mostly just aren’t in my consciousness. They’re lovely and powerful and I like the way they smell when I have occasion to smell them once every five years when I find myself in the horse barn at the Great Darke County Fair. But I’m more of a dog and cow person. Maybe a monkey person if I’ve had caffeine.

Not a horse. (Also, not my dog.)

Not a horse. (Also, not my dog.)

My first cousin once removed would ride her horse from her parents’ farmhouse down to my great-grandmother’s when I was a kid, and it seemed to me, the equivalent of Glinda the Good Witch of the North arriving in her giant Oz bubble. It was the stuff of fairy tales—much more magical than my boy cousins driving up the gravel road in a motorized child-sized car (also amazing, but incomparable). We played hide and seek once and none of us could find Carol because she was hiding in the barn with her horse. Perhaps it was shadowy enough to keep her hidden in that old barn that leaned so far to the south that it had to be propped up with a pole (we were warned repeatedly not to go into it and repeatedly we went in anyway), but I think it was something else. Carol and her horse were like one entity. We could not find Carol because there was just one creature in that barn and it was “horse.”

 

Around the same time, a friend of a friend told me the sad story of having to say goodbye to her horse. (She was moving or the horse had to move, the specifics I have forgotten, though—because she was a rare creature like I was in the early 1970s, which is to say a child of divorce—I blamed her loss of horse on her parents’ failed marriage). Her horse was long gone when I met her, yet she spoke of how on the last day with it, she sat in the saddle wearing some special riding hat, maybe covered in flowers, and her friends stood around her and sang. Her longing for the horse was still palpable. It’s been decades since this vicarious heartbreak, but still, I imagine her there, sitting on a horse I never met, weeping because her other half was taken from her.

 

Leibovitz recently did a photo shoot with her beautiful 16-year-old daughter in a beautiful, ethereal dress on a beautiful chestnut horse. Though it pained me to see Baby Leibovitz looking all grown up, it pleased me more to see her—at this age, as she’s just figuring herself out—on one of the horses she’s loved since she was a  tiny girl and she was looking very much herself.

 

Also, I just watched a Martin Clunes documentary on heavy horses (watched largely because I like Martin Clunes and not because of the horses), so I can only assume this “genius” phrase of mine was inspired by these two recent equine-related occurrences—a photo of a favorite kid and a documentary narrated by “Doc Martin”—but goodness knows what I thought I’d do with Horses aren’t arbitrary when I wrote it down. It doesn’t really inspire the Great American Novel. And clearly “blog about horses” isn’t even possible since right now I’ve said all I have to say about horses and we haven’t moseyed down the trail towards anything close to a point.

 

Okay. Here’s a point.

 

I’m stuck. My non blog-writing has been refusing to shape itself into anything resembling coherence. I sit (sometimes) at my gorgeous desk with my city view surrounded by all of my helpful books about writing and other books full of writing that inspires me, and yet I am stuck.

 

Also, there is a perpetual reel of conversation in my head (maybe you’ve noticed) of how I miss home and the city makes me nuts, but then when I consider leaving the Pacific Northwest, I feel unhappy too. Leave this weather and Puget Sound and the mostly snow capped mountains? Why would someone want to do that? I’m zinging between wildly happy (Z inspired, largely, though I’ve read some good books, written chunks of things that please me, and just discovered that Mom has the doctor’s thumbs-up for a visit to us) and angry and/or weepy. (Last week I yelled at a total stranger who was walking like a sloth while reading her phone, serpentining along the sidewalk in such a way that no one could get around her. Her obliviousness enraged me and made me feel trapped, so I growled as I finally stormed past her, “Either walk or read your damn phone!” Z just laughed at me. The woman passed us further up the street, still seemingly oblivious, but her phone had been tucked away. I am not a yeller at strangers unless I’m in my car with the windows rolled up tightly. Yelling is not the Midwestern way! The city is turning me into an animal!)

 

I spend too much time looking backward instead of forward even though if you asked me (you’re asking, right?) I would tell you that this moment right now and the moments surrounding it are absolutely the happiest period of my life.

 

Also, fall is approaching. I’m three years out of teaching. While I don’t miss lecturing, obsessive faculty meetings, or some administrators who will remain perpetually in my Little Book of Hate, I miss my students. God I miss them. I miss talking to them about their writing and how to make it sing. I miss watching them take some truly deplorable crap and sculpt it into something beautiful. I miss them popping into my office to talk about their ideas or ask for advice. I miss hearing their thoughts about some piece of literature, telling them mine, and all of us seeing the text in a new way. I miss recognizing people in some other major during  first year comp and knowing they were meant to be in my classes, and then later having the satisfaction of them stopping by my office to say they’re thinking of switching majors to English. And later still, seeing them in their last semester, finishing up a creative writing portfolio or an Honors Thesis that exceeds both of our expectations. I even miss having those dreaded conversations during advising sessions about the uselessness/utility of an English degree.

 

My first and favorite office.

My first and favorite office.

In short, I don’t really know who or what I am these days. It might be a midlife crisis. Or it could just be something I ate.I’ve always been better at knowing what I’m not than I have been at knowing what I am.

 

Things I know I am not:

  • inclined to work with numbers, in sales, or with bodily fluids
  • an extrovert, an athlete, or a savant
  • a lover of noise, reptiles, or clowns
  • likely to eat vegetables, follow trends, or brush my hair on the regular

 

So that’s where I’m starting.

 

It occurs to me that the reason I’ve remembered these horsey stories for forty years is not because I particularly wanted a horse myself, nor is it because I wanted to be like my idol mystery-solver/horseback riding heroine, Trixie Belden. I don’t even want to climb upon a horse for a photo op (largely because I’m unsure that horses really want to be climbed upon in the first place).

 

No. The reason I can still see my cousin on her horse or imagine the friend of a friend weeping on a horse I never met is because I quite liked the idea of being a horse girl.

 

Horse girls always know exactly what and who they are. Their heads are full of horses and there is no dissuading them or convincing them that an Irish Wolfhound is nearly as big and just as good. They love their horses so much they don’t mind mucking out a barn, swatting horse flies, or doing those 800 things you have to do to keep a horse happy and healthy (things I used to know when I was reading Trixie Belden). There’s no question there. They want to be on the back of a horse, or standing next to a horse with curry comb, or in a house that is adjacent to a barn in which a horse resides.

 

Even now, when I run into my cousin at Meijer or see a Facebook post from that friend of my friend, the first thing I think: horse girl. And the second thing I think: I wish I knew myself as well as you always have.

 

Horses aren’t arbitrary.

Connemara Ponies, Renvyle, Ireland

Connemara Ponies, Renvyle, Ireland

 

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 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.

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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

 

 

 

 

Saigon Keeps Falling

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Forty years ago today, I remember playing with my Barbies on the braided rug of our living room with our little black and white TV blaring in the background. I was oblivious to whatever was on the screen, so the reports that Saigon had fallen and the Vietnam War was over must not have come during afternoon cartoons. Mom left the living room, stood at the kitchen sink, and sobbed. The newscaster’s announcement was less real to me than whatever drama was unfolding in front of me with the dolls, but the sound of Mom crying was different and distressing enough to halt my play.

 

I followed her into the kitchen and asked what was wrong, and because we are not the sort of women who can beautifully and coherently talk while crying, the only words I remember her eeking out were that the war was over. Though I think of myself even now as a child who had always secretly been an adult, the richness of her sobs momentarily had me convinced that the Vietcong would soon be coming to Indiana because we’d lost the war. I was terrified. I can’t remember how she comforted me: if I was a nuisance interrupting her grief or a welcome distraction. I only remember the sobs and the confusion I felt; surely the war being over was a good thing, so why the tears?

 

My father wasn’t in the military. None any of my uncles went to Vietnam. Though there may have been Vietnamese refugees who ended up in my hometown, none were at my school. I can’t say the war affected my life, but it was the background noise of the first eight years of it. My mother lost high school friends and one of her best friends lost her fiancé. I can still remember standing near his grave, kicking clods of dirt with my canvas shoes, not entirely understanding the level of adult sadness on such a beautiful day with flags snapping in the breeze. It was no more real to me than my GI Joe doll with the missing foot, who had, in my mind, been to Vietnam; he perpetually wore fatigues because he was too muscle-y to fit into Ken’s leisure suits–a good guy but so world-weary only the lesser Barbies with missing limbs or brown hair would date him.

 

So no, it didn’t influence me directly, and I’m not entirely sure why I spent a portion of this morning weeping over forty-year-old news footage of people clamoring onto helicopters, remembering something I didn’t understand when it was unfolding live. But it did give a melancholy flavor to my Gen X childhood, perhaps a weird obsession with China Beach when it aired twenty-five years later, a distrust of military actions, a strange mix of both respect for and wariness of the men my mother’s age who wore bandanas and fatigue jackets and looked down and out.

 

The catalyst for today’s tears was an on-the-scene interview with a man who had tried but failed to help his college friend and family—a friend he’d  met at Washington State University—escape Saigon in those last hours. He was reduced to tears. The reporter tried to suggest that maybe his friend would be okay, but the man stood there, choking back sobs and shaking his head saying, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” I tried this afternoon to figure out some magic way to use Google that would answer the question of whether that man’s friend survived or not; I failed.

 

It’s the same melancholy I felt talking to my old  students returning from the Gulf or from Afghanistan, trying to make sense of the lives they were now supposed to assimilate back into. How I feel when I talk to Hudge about her military career and the affects, both positive and negative, it had on her life. How I feel when I think about the non-military personnel in faraway places just living their lives, trying to get by, while men with money and power–and some with questionable ideals–make decisions that will affect whether those people’s homes will become a battle zone.

 

I wish now–my Barbies packed away lo these many decades–that my over-read, over-reflective brain could make sense of such events. See some pattern, some unanticipated benefit, some reason for pain and suffering so I could say something wise about the disruption of lives that might have been otherwise lived, so I could feel more positive when my cousins’ sons consider joining up, feel more hopeful when they ship out.

 

But I don’t know. I don’t know.

 

 

 

 

Hey There, Little Red Riding Hood

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“Alas for those girls who’ve refused the truth: the sweetest tongue has the sharpest tooth.

—Jack Zipes Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic French Fairy Tales

 

 

I’ve been lost in the writing woods for a few months, hence the lack of blog posts or tangible proof that I’m a writer. For the last hour, I’ve been jotting down lines for this little ditty and then immediately deleting them. I stare at the screen. Make a list of things I think I want to say. Crunch through a cup of ice (which feels really productive even if it is bad for my teeth). Stare at the screen. Read a chapter of a book. Write a line. Delete it. I keep reminding myself that this is a single blog entry and not the opening lines to a novel I hope will win a Pulitzer Prize, but still, the words won’t come. Z will be home in three hours and I have zero faith that this post—let alone an essay I’m trying to finish and ship off—will be done before his key is in the door.

 

Even eating the last remaining strip of Easter Marshmallow Peeps has failed to get the juices flowing.

 

Last fall while Mom was visiting Seattle, we were at a fabric store because the elastic on a skirt I wanted to wear had gone rogue. While I was supposed to be finding the necessary repair tools, what I found instead in the kid section was the most delightful Red Riding Hood material. A more sophisticated woman might see it and think it would look nice in someone’s nursery, but I saw it and felt certain that my life would not be complete until I had it whipped up into some curtains to hang in my writing studio.

 

When I showed the material to Mom and asked her if she thought it would be hard for me to make into curtains, we both knew that what I really meant was, “Could you do this for me, pretty please?”

 

Poor Mom. I can’t tell you how many of my hair-brained projects she has gotten roped into because I have great faith in both her skills and her love for me. Could you just paint my bedroom that perfect shade of blue? Could you just make me a mirror out of flattened out soda cans? Could you just design, carve a linoleum block, and hand print all of my wedding invitations, even if it gives you temporary carpal tunnel? The fact that she never says no to me is testament to what an excellent (long-suffering) mother she is. Were our roles reversed, I’d probably say something like, “Honey, why don’t you find a YouTube video that will show you how to do it yourself?”

 

Thus, my favorite Christmas present of the year from Mom was a bank of café curtains that have transformed my little writing studio.

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I grew up on fairy tales, both the sanitized Disney and the grimmer versions where badly behaved step-sisters were inclined to get their eyes plucked out. Though I liked the ones that ended with princes and castles, Little Red Riding Hood was always my favorite. As an introverted only child who tried hard to follow the rules, I loved Red’s solitary walk through the forest, her purposeful journey to get to her destination with a basket of treats for her ailing grandmother, her stylish outerwear. Though admittedly, I could never imagine my over-protective mother sending me out into the woods on my own when she knew there were sinister forces lurking behind trees.

 

A lot of the time when I’m writing, I feel like Red, trudging through the forest, hoping to stay on the path, attempting to avoid wolfish distractions. Often, I fail. It seems only fitting that she should be there with me in my writing studio, while I try to stick to a plan.

 

When I would teach a fairy tale unit in my composition class, we’d often end up talking about Red Riding Hood and the various endings that befall her depending on the teller of the story. With most other folk tales, I’m always keen to know the oldest, most original version because I see that as the “true” one. But with Red Riding Hood, I don’t care how it ends. It doesn’t matter to me whether she is eaten whole by the wolf and either digested or rescued by a woodsman and his sharp ax just as she begins simmering in gastic juices. I don’t even really care if she saves herself. (Okay, okay. I hope she saves herself.) For me the real crux of the story is that moment when she must choose between following the rules given to her by her mother (“never talk to strangers” and “stick to the known path”) or whether she will follow what I always believed was a Midwestern cultural imperative to be polite. On the surface, the wolf demonstrates no savage tendencies, and in most versions he isn’t even trying to get her to leave the path. Instead, he offers to accompany her once he knows where she’s heading, and it is very difficult for a girl to say, “No thanks” without feeling rude. Even so, when I read the story, I want to shout at her, “Ignore him! Tell him nothing!”

 

It occurs to me now, that pre-Z, this might explain why my dating life was so abysmal. On multiple occasions the most benign of men might say hello to me or ask me a question as a sort of opening line, and instead of being flirtatious in return, I could see only wolfishness in the eyes, a salacious sheen on the teeth, and I would run—sometimes literally—the other way. I have no doubt, the “danger” was all in my head. Often I give Z a hard time that he made me pursue him for so long before he was willing to admit we belonged together, but the truth is if he had seemed even the least big eager, I’d have zipped away at lightening speed. Well played, Z. Well played.

 

Monday I went down to the International District to sit in the waiting room of a doctor’s office while Z was inside getting some results from a routine doctor’s visit. It’s not our neighborhood and not a doctor we are familiar with. Though the receptionist and nurse were friendly to me while I sat there, I felt out of my element. It was just me sitting across from a fish tank that appeared not to have as single fish in it, reading the signs plastered on the walls in English and then trying to find meaning in the Chinese characters beneath the English letters, as if I were finding a pattern to crack the Enigma Code.

 

A tall, older guy came in, moaning and dragging his leg behind him. Oh no, I thought. Drama. I hate public drama and there is too much of it in the city. He dragged himself up to the window and said something to the receptionist and they both started laughing. Tension broken. He wasn’t really in pain—he was waiting for test results too—and he’d just been trying to add a little levity to the day. He sat down across from me and waited. I poked around on my cell phone.

 

He sort of relaxed against the wall and started singing low and sultry like Barry White: Girl, come on back to my place. You know we’ll have a good time. Girl, come on back to my place….

 

Sexy as I was there in my green fleece hoody, un-brushed hair and big middle aged Midwestern body, I felt fairly confident that he wasn’t singing to me. And even if the amazing Z hadn’t been on the other side of that door, I wouldn’t have been inclined to follow this guy out into the concrete forest that is Seattle if he had been making up this song just for my ears. There was a certain confidence he emanated that seemed related to his belief that his dulcet tones would stir something up in the women of the International District, and that confidence annoyed me.

 

I stared at my phone like I was cramming for an exam, like I was deaf and couldn’t hear this serenade that filled the small room. (Never has an article about global warming been so mesmerizing.) I could not allow myself to look up. I could not do what I normally do in a doctor’s office and smile at the person sitting across from me before quickly looking elsewhere lest I see overly interested in what might be ailing them. It felt dangerous. The guy sang several more choruses—all with similar lyrics—before letting out a big yawn and then asking the receptionist to be let into the back to use the restroom. My sense when I heard the yawn was that he found my response uptight and boring, though in all likelihood this entire storyline was unfolding in my head only. Even so, when Z came out, I nearly leapt into his arms.

 

This is why I need to brave the forest in my mind, sit at the desk, get the words in my head out onto the page. Because if I leave those words inside for too long, it just gets weird.

Flashback Friday: An Omnibus

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Lighthouse, San Juan Island

Lighthouse, San Juan Island

[Herein are three baby posts from the first spring break I spent with Z in Seattle in 2007 right after we’d first gotten together. There are other posts from this visit that I’ll flashback to at another time.]

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Flying Alone

The main reason I shouldn’t fly alone is this: I hate people. When I fly with another person, I’m usually too engaged in conversation to notice that despite a sea of empty chairs at the Indianapolis airport, two different sets of people have decided to bookend me. But today, I am alone, so I loathe them instantly for crowding me, and even though I know it is the airport that smells of dirty feet and not my new neighbors, I blame them just the same. The lady next to me just flopped down a red and white L.L. Bean tote that has “winkdogs” embroidered on the side. There’s no telling what a winkdog is, but I’m pretty sure I don’t like them either. I imagine they are small and yappy.

Anyhow, this is one of my character flaws. When it is 6:30 in the morning and I’ve been up since 3:00 a.m. and I had to drive thru the spring rains Central Indiana to get to the airport, I just don’t want to be bothered. I should be excited because I’m on my way to Rick, but it is just too early in the morning for so much humanity. Add to this that it isn’t even the REAL 6:30 but the imposter 6:30 the governor imposed on us when he made us adopt Daylight Savings Time. My jeans are soaked to the knee from the walk from the car to the shuttle stop and back to the car to retrieve my iPod, which, it turns out, was actually in my pocket, and then back to the shuttle.

On the plus side:  so far my flight is on time and Z is on the other end of it waiting on me. (Well, technically Z is asleep, but if he were awake, he would be waiting on me.) I must learn to embrace my co-travelers and their winkdogs.

 

Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle

Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle

Friday, March 16, 2007

Eternal-ish City
When I was in Rome two years ago, I met a friend of the cousin I’d gone to see who was resident director for some American college students who were staying in the university’s hotel/dorm. She was in her early twenties, small and perky, and she was climbing onto the back of a motorcycle with a handsome Italian man. They even said ciao as they sped away into the night. God help me, I was jealous. I was jealous because I was no longer twentysomething. I was jealous because when I was twentysomething not only was I not living in Rome, but I was in Indiana not riding motorcycles with handsome foreign men. I was jealous because I imagined their ride would end somewhere romantic, outside the Pantheon, on the banks of the Tibor, near the Trevi fountain, and then at some point they would get back on that bike and go somewhere private to have loud, hot, sweaty, Italian sex. While Puccini played in the background.

I really kind of hated that girl and I only knew her about three minutes.

Today, I was in Seattle, which is not as sexy as Rome. I was walking in army green Crocs (not sexy leather boots) instead of riding on the back of a sexy motorcycle. My hair was it’s typical Seattle, Meredith Grey unsexy. Instead of looking at ancient, sexy lifelike sculptures carved into Italian marble, I was looking at abstract cubes and giant typerwriter erasers in the Olympic Sculpture Park. But I was with Z, who smelled so good and held my hand so well and who occasionally molested me in little, welcome ways behind particularly big sculptures. I thought about that girl and realized young, young her could not have been half as content, half as giddy, half as sexed up as I was, standing next to my 50% Italian as we tried to figure out what in the world a series of rusted shapes could possibly mean, as we laughed at the sometimes pretentious explanations of the hulking heaps of metal, as we noticed a young mother who was breastfeeding her baby on one of the works of million dollar art. The sky was clear, the Olympic Mountains were in the distance, the waters of Elliott Bay were calm.

Yeah, I feel a little guilty about that hate now.

SanJuanIsland

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Island Girl

Here’s a tip: when you find a deal for a cheap room in an historic inn on the San Juan Islands, make sure the room has a bathroom included and that you aren’t expected to share with other guests.

The ferry ride on Monday from Anacortes to San Juan Island was beautiful but cold. We wended our way between islands and Z and I made periodic dashes outside to stand on the bow for a cold but unobstructed view. We guessed about what islands we were passing, and as is typical of me, I feared we were passing better islands than the one we had made arrangements to be on. In a little less than an hour we had docked in Friday Harbor—the “city” by island standards—and made our way up to Friday’s Historic Inn, where we were cordially greeted and given a key to our room. That’s when we discovered that despite beautiful antique furnishings and a harbor view, we would have to go downstairs for the shower and toilet. I’m not a princess, but I am an introvert with certain hygiene requirements, and I was not prepared to spend my two-night un-honeymoon in the hallway of Friday’s Inn making small talk with hair-shedding, toilet-seat-leaving-up tourists while I waited my turn. No, it wouldn’t do.
The desk clerk didn’t seem surprised at all when I came lumbering back down the stairs with my credit card in hand and was directed to a slightly pricier suite with private bath and Jacuzzi.

I don’t know if I’m cut out for island life. The San Juan Islands are beautiful and the views are breathtaking. This is landscape I was meant for instead of the tropical tableau that comes to mind when one hears “island.” The people are friendly and the pace is very laid back. But there is this tiny panic in my core—what if I need to go to Wal-mart at two in the morning for nail polish remover? There is no Wal-mart unless you go back to the mainland, and there is no ferry at 2:00 a.m. WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU HAVE A LATE NIGHT NAIL POLISH REMOVER EMERGENCY??? I’m reminded of my last visit to the much less inhabited and much more rustic Inisbofin off the western coast of Ireland, when the electricity was shut off for the entire day while they did upgrades on power supply from the mainland and I had this sudden, crazed desire to plug something in.

But mostly I am able to keep the dogs of anxiety from barking. Z is good for that. We have tame adventures, driving around the island, having an impromptu picnic on the doc in front of the Hiro Hotel where Teddy Roosevelt stayed a couple of times. We walk on the beach and pick up driftwood for a shelf Z hopes to build (but fears will stay driftwood on his kitchen floor) [Note: it DID stay on his kitchen floor for over a year and then was unceremoniously thrown out. Also, we discovered belatedly it might have been a crime to collect the driftwood in the first place.] We look for whales and see them with every crest of wave, only to discover a log or a shadow instead. We look at a seal/sea lion and try to remember how you can tell one from the other before it swims away. We drive past Pelendaba Lavender Farm after buying lavender from their shop in town, where Z impresses me terribly with his international-ness when he asks the clerk what the South African connection is because he recognizes the name as Zulu. (I can’t remember what it means now, but think it is “please do not gag while eating our lavender-flavored chocolates.”) We visit baby alpaca’s and I consider buying $75 alpaca slippers and say a silent prayer of thanks when they do not fit. It’s a good life, this island one.

There is a lot to be said for a few days of relaxation on vacation instead of the style of tourism I usually sign up for, which involves packing as much activity into as little time as possible so I can say I’ve done it all. They say Friday Harbor is hopping during high season, and if that is so, I’m glad we came in March when the roads weren’t crowded, their were no waits in restaurants, and we had our pick of rooms that were en suite. We both agree that it is a place we would return to, though I know as the ferry takes us back to Anacortes I’m going to wonder if next time we shouldn’t visit one of the other islands to see what it has to offer.

Flashback Friday: Ring Out the Old

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Nashvilleclock

(In this flashback, I’m making my first trip back to see Z since we’ve become a couple. It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m desperate to get to him before the clock strikes twelve.)

 

I’ve already failed the first test of a long distance relationship. I had a little, almost tearful, freak-out. United had a bit of a problem, so I was late landing in Chicago and missed my connecting flight to Seattle. As did, apparently, everyone else in a 500 mile radius. I had been assured that United really takes good care of their people and that they’d have it all sorted for me and have me on the next flight by the time we landed at O’Hare.

Hardy har har.

Once in O’Hare, I stood in line for a half hour and then gave up because it was clear that if I continued to wait, all flights to Seattle would have departed. Then I waited on the customer service line for 40 minutes, and the situation got more and more desperate. Finally, the customer service representative told me that she could get me out in TWO DAYS. She said this cheerfully, as if this is all just part of their friendly service. As if I would like the whole Tom Hanks “The Terminal” experience for myself. Because it was weather related (rumor has it that it wasn’t technically weather but that United had run out of de-icer), there would be no compensation, no nice hotel. Just me, wandering around O’Hare for two days, buying travel pillows at Brookstone and covering myself with McDonald’s sacks.

So I did what any normal girl does. I called my boyfriend and almost, but not quite, cried. You would have thought I’d just missed the last helicopter out of Saigon in 1975. It was as if this meant I would NEVER see him again. The end.

He is a world traveler and thus was not as disturbed and had a variety of suggestions, all of which meant me standing in long lines, talking on a crappy cell connection to strangers, and, as he put it, “being firm.” What I could see that he could not was that this was hopeless. There were 60 people ahead of me for a flight out the next day.

“You must be firm,” he said. “That’s the only way to get anything done.”

This is one of our bigger differences, Z and me. In the world of Fight and Flight, he is the Fighter and I am the Flighter. (Only today my wings were clipped by de-icer.) What I wanted to do was quick book another ticket on Alaska Air for a thousand bucks and run away to him. Do I have a thousand bucks? Uh, no. But I do have plastic and this seemed like an emergency. I told him I had to go because I feared the crying and I’d like to save tears for something really important.

I wandered around, stood in line, felt hopeless, called my cousin in South Bend to see if perhaps I could spend two days with her. (She wasn’t home.) And then Z called. He’d found a flight out of Midway if I wanted to book it. “It’s pricey,” he said. How much? Half the cost of what I secretly paid to get to him on New Year’s Eve so we could start the year right. I told him I was being punished for greed and he laughed when he found out how much I paid because of my own impatience, and that made it all okay. Z’s laugh should be made a ringtone.

I had time to kill in the Loop so I made my way downtown on the El with all the TSA workers whose shift had ended, so I felt very safe and very much like I was just one of them. Someone asked for directions, and I was pleased that I could (sort of) answer them. Chicago always comes back to me like, well, what? Riding a bicycle?

It’s still Christmassy and Chicago is a great city for Christmas. I went to the former Marshall Field and was disturbed by how Macy’s has made it, somehow, more tacky, less grand, and just like every other store at the holiday. The Christmas windows were still good with animatronic Mary Poppinses, but the inside decorations could have been JC Penny. Carson, Pirie, Scott, the other former staple of downtown Chicago shopping,it turns out is going out of business. In the past, their window displays have rivaled (and frequently surpassed) Marshall Field’s, but this year the displays were just of things you could get inside for 40% off. I decided to run over to the Midwestern-Sized Woman Store on Wabash to buy something to sleep in in case my suitcase doesn’t catch up with me tonight. (It supposedly caught the next flight to Seattle—the one I wasn’t allowed to catch!) Only there is just a shell of a building where it used to be, and next to it at the Champlaign Building where I spent many hours lurking in the lounges of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is also a shell. The sign proclaimed that a new skyscraper will be built there that will change the skyline.

I can hardly wait. Don’t people know the world as I knew and loved it is meant to be laminated?

So I bought some haircare products (Meredith Grey hair has begun in anticipation of Seattle, it would seem), gave money to some homeless people because they were full of New Year spirit, and I marveled at how I must have lost a lot of weight in the last two months with all of my difficult gym work because my pants were really bagging in the seat. Some more people asked for directions. I cruised around my favorite streets. Then I hopped the Orange Line to Midway, checked in, bought an oversized Chicago T-shirt just in case my suitcase never shows up, and then went thru security. The TSA officers suggested I should have a happy new year, but also, perhaps I should zip my fly. My pants felt huge because they were unzipped and my giant turquoise underwear was greeting tourist and native a like.

Now I am at the gate, waiting for the plane to get here to whisk me off (please God) and as I look around at my fellow travelers I wonder how many of them saw my underwear earlier.

To recap, 2006 has ended with flight woes, flat hair, and underpants flashing. Here’s hoping for a brighter, “fuller bodied,” well-zipped new year.

Betty MacDonald Had a Farm, E-I-E-I-O

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RGSSketchBook

Mom is visiting us for three weeks, and to celebrate her birthday, Z and I decided to treat her to an overnight on the farm of one of her favorite authors. Betty MacDonald wrote The Egg & I, her memoir of time spent on the Olympic Peninsula raising chickens, in 1945. A movie was made from the book and starred Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert and was followed by a string of “Ma and Pa Kettle” movies that were based on back woods characters Betty described in her book. (She was later sued by people who believed she had based the unflattering but beloved Ma and Pa on them). Though I’ve never actually read this particular book, I grew up feeling like I knew the author. Mom was often reading passages from one of the books and telling me anecdotes from Betty’s life as if they were old friends. (The author died in 1958.) I did, however, read her series of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, which I was convinced were the American answer to Mary Poppins, so I had my own “Betty love” going on.

 

When Z and I stay somewhere, we study the descriptions and photos on VRBO and airbnb as if we are buying the property instead of just staying there for a night or two. I’m pickier than he is and because I’m what they call a “Highly Sensitive Person” I’m affected negatively by ugly things or dirty things or even spaces that seem too much to belong to someone else. My ideal spot to stay is one that looks like one of those little IKEA display rooms, where you can imagine living your life without having to think about how anyone else has maybe trimmed his toenails on the sofa.

 

So when we’re looking for a weekend getaway, Z will often find a spot he thinks looks perfect, but I’ll see a throw pillow with a color scheme that makes my skin crawl or a poster of an eagle on a back wall, and I’ll insist we keep looking. I can’t express this enough: I am not a princess. Really, I’m not. But I have a lot of feelings and other people’s things affect how I feel and when I’m on a little vacation, I don’t want to have to deal with turmoil inside of me just because a chair is scratchy or there is bad lighting. I had to quit going into antique stores a few years ago when I realized I always left depressed and a little obsessed about how wasteful and tacky we are as a people. So online photos of potential digs have to give me a good vibe before I’ll send the payment information.

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The Betty MacDonald Farm Bed and Breakfast website has a few beautiful photos, but it’s a little short on specifics. So when Mom and I arrived after a twenty-minute ferry ride from West Seattle, we didn’t know what to expect. Finding it felt like an adventure in itself because we weren’t exactly sure where we were going and other than a very generic “LODGING” sign on the main road with an arrow, Vashon is not a neon-light or billboard sort of place that will direct you anywhere. You “discover” things on the island, which is part of its charm. Other things you will discover: quiet and an easy slowness that would be honked out of existence in Seattle.

 

We were greeted by the owner, Judith, who gave us brief directions up to the third story of the barn and a warning to shut all the doors to keep the animals out, particularly a mother raccoon and her babies who had been trying to find some indoor accommodations. Mom and I hauled our bags up the multiple stairs, and as I was dragging my stuff up, I was thinking, “Oh, geeze. We’re staying in a barn.” Now, it was clear from the website that we’d be staying in a barn, I had specifically made a reservation and paid to stay in a barn, but somehow in Seattle I was imagining something less barn-y. No spiders, no feeling of the hundreds of chickens that used to live there, something in the shape of a barn but with dry-wall and track lighting to illuminate my way. (Before you judge me, please re-familiarize yourself with my camping adventures through the ages here and here.)

 

And then we popped up into the loft and we instantly moved from “barn” to “antique store.” The loft was vast as it was literally the barn loft that went from one end of the three-story barn to the other in a big open space. It held a full kitchen, an antique bed, various gorgeous bits of tables and chests and bookcases, this giant dual-couch construction made out of wood and covered with woolen carpets that looked like it belonged in a bunk house on the range, a wood stove, and a table laid out with Spode for our meals. There was not a horizontal surface that wasn’t covered with books, and the bookcases were all full as well. Good books. Books you wanted to lose yourself in, or at the very least flip through and then order a copy for yourself. The couches faced the wall of windows, which overlooked the six-acre farm, Puget Sound, and the idea of Mt. Rainier that was out there under the cloud cover.

 

rgsmacdonaldloft

 

Initially, I sat on the sofa staring at the view with my lips pursed, uncertain if I should be pleased or disappointed. The bunk house couch was surprisingly comfortable. The view couldn’t have been better and I loved being in this “writerly” space, but there was absolutely no way for my highly sensitive brain to pretend that this place was the blank canvas of a slicker vacation rental cottage. There was absolutely no way to imagine that it was my personal living space because it was so filled with the owner’s belongings. So I kept sitting there, thinking.

 

Mom was excited, soaking up the view from the balcony, as well as a good bit of weather since it was misting a little bit. When she finally had to come in because it got too wet and cold to reasonably sit outside, she started foraging for books, creating a huge stack in front of herself, and then curled up on her section of the bunkhouse sofa and started reading.

 

Imagine Mt. Rainier in the distance. We did.

Imagine Mt. Rainier in the distance. We did.

The books were too hard to resist. My lips un-pursed a little. I got my own stack, and we spent the night reading and talking, and never did get around to watching The Egg & I video that the owner had at the ready should we want to steep ourselves in Betty MacDonald’s life a little more.

 

I’m not sure when exactly the scales in my brain tipped towards “pleased.” The quiet and view certainly worked some magic on me. And the sheets in the little bedroom helped because I’ve never felt anything so soft and crisp (except for the impossibly fluffy towels that were waiting for us in the bathroom, along with robes and African baskets filled with everything we could need to pamper ourselves). Possibly the fact that Mom, who was on the other side of the door sleeping in the main loft got momentarily freaked out because something was on the roof, and then we fell into hysterics like we were at a slumber party when we realized the sound she heard was not the mother raccoon trying to break in but was really just me turning the pages of a Country Living article about Corbin Bernsen’s house.

 

No, I think it happened well before that, when I was looking at all the stacks of books, and all the little nooks and crannies where you could cozy up with a book or a writing pad. It is hard not to hanker for a good reading and writing space, and this one was the best. The place is too unique to turn your nose up at it. Plus, it was clean and our every need was anticipated. By the time I fell asleep I felt like I was spending the night at my grandmother’s house, cozy and well-cared for. And when I woke up the next morning after a perfect night’s sleep on a very comfortable bed, I felt sad that we’d only booked the single night.

 

Mom and I sat on the porch the next morning so entranced with the view and the books we wanted to skim before leaving that we failed to shower and make ourselves breakfast. Showering and eating could happen after check-out time when we’d made our way back to the grit of the city. (Z would be none the wiser about our slovenly choices because he’d still be at work.) We begrudgingly packed up our things, tidied up after ourselves, and trudged down the stairs to the car.

 

The Betty MacDonald Farm B & B

The Betty MacDonald Farm B & B

I made my way over to say hello to the adorable Irish terrier who lives on the property and ran into Judith. I asked her a few questions about the farm and the island, and she started what turned into a fascinating history and horticulture lesson. Mom joined us, and an hour later we knew how to get a start of hydrangea, more about Betty MacDonald’s life, more about the history of the island, the personality of Irish terriers, and the property itself. We even got a peek of the cottage on the ground floor so we could see if we’d like to stay there in the future. (It was cozy too and called to us, including a beautiful old claw-foot tub, perfect for reading that was situated in the bathroom surrounded by windows so you could read, sip some wine, and stare at the Sound and Mt. Rainier. If we ever tried to book a weekend there and couldn’t get the loft, we’d be perfectly happy in the house.) It was the perfect ending to a delightful 24 hours.

 

By the time we climbed into the car and made our way back to the ferry, I was solidly in love with the place and wondering when we could come back. I’ve no doubt that there are people who arrive on the farm and don’t adjust to its quirky self and wish they’d stayed in one of those IKEA-furnished cottages where everything is new and personality-neutral. But for me, I was glad I was able to hit the pause button on my own peculiarities and enjoy the gorgeous peculiarities of the Betty MacDonald Farm B & B. I sincerely doubt that I’ll ever find another place like it, and isn’t that what we should be out here doing? Acquiring unique experiences instead of the cookie-cutter ones?

Betty MacDonald's Underwood

Betty MacDonald’s Underwood

Flashback Friday: The Rules of Engagement

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Monday, October 16, 2006

[It’s worth noting that when this entry was written my life was about to change in a big, surprising Zimbabwean way in less than ten days. Tune in next Friday for more in the saga of Z and Beth’s Love: The Early Years.]

I’ve been thinking about the rules of attracting a mate lately. You know the ones. Some are probably holdovers from the days of courtly love. I’m talking about the ones no one really teaches us, but we can quote them more quickly and accurately than we can the First Amendment or the Ten Commandments. (Pick your politics.) They are:

1) Love comes when you least expect it.
2) Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
3) You must love yourself before love will find you.
4) Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

There are variations of the above but all fit comfortably in one of the four above groups. For instance, if you’ve read enough self-help books or watched movies like Runaway Bride, you’ll recognize a combination of one and three. That is, you might love someone, but until you quit being devoted to your idea of love of them and learn to make hideous lampshade art on your own like Julia Roberts almost always does in whatever movie she is in, you will not find true love. A variation of four that I prefer because I am mildly lactose intolerant is that you must withhold your love if you expect the object of your affection to return your warm feelings.

I’ve followed most of these rules, off and on, with some regularity, and I can’t say that any of them work. For me. That’s fine. Single is okay, so don’t think this is a blog of self-pity. It is not. For instance, I had a flash last night of all the horrible décor I’d be forced to live with if some of my former loves had come to a point of cohabitation: dogs playing poker, posters of Johnny Cash, farm implements as art, eagle blankets as window treatments….

It annoys me when people explain their newly found love by relying on these platitudes, usually because they are not true. You cannot believe anyone who says they weren’t looking for or expecting love. They were. Okay. They were. We all are. If you are between the ages of 12 and dead and you spend more than 15 minutes a day watching television or listening to non-talk radio, then you are expecting at some time to be “surprised” by love. If you weren’t expecting to be surprised by love, you wouldn’t have the good underwear and you would never shave your legs. Don’t kid yourself and don’t try to kid me. You might not have been expecting it today between 12:00 and 12:15, but you were expecting it eventually.

What annoys me even more than this, though, is when someone willingly breaks one of these rules and finds true love in spite of the rule breakage. For instance, I know a woman who loved a man who did not love her back, even though they had a steamy sex life. By all accounting with Price Waterhouse, this relationship was doomed, she was being used, he would never respect her, and thus she would never win his love, no matter what acrobatics were involved. It’s the cautionary tale every young girl hears from her mother or Sunday school teacher. Yet after a year of this FREE and FLAGRANT milk giving, the guy realized he loved her and couldn’t live without her. They are now married and have matching tattoos celebrating their love.

When you have been a rule follower your whole life, this is one of the jaggedest little pills to have to swallow: rule breakers win; rule breakers do not necessarily go straight to hell. (Though this is a young marriage, and so the verdict is still out on that one. Hell has many manifestations.)
What is the MOST annoying, however, is when someone willfully breaks the rules but presents her story of love as if she were adhering to the above. Recently, my mother befriended the wife of the first boy I loved, grades K thru 3. He was cute, smart, skilled at kickball, and was regularly awarded the title of “Good Citizen.” His wife (an excellent and good person by all accounts) tells the story of how she was not interested in dating anyone and told the friends who set her up with him that she wasn’t. She told him she wasn’t interested in him repeatedly on that first non-date, and three days later she moved in with him and they’ve been blissfully happy ever since. She followed those rules of courtly love and rejected him multiple times, but still, she went on the non-date. Still, she answered the phone after the non-date when he was calling to tell her he wanted to see her again. And when, later that same night, he drove through the country looking for her house so he could kiss her soundly and show her that there was something between them, she told him where to find her driveway.

So, at cocktail parties, she can tell people that she wasn’t looking for love and in fact discouraged love, but even so, she gave it directions.

My luck with absence making the heart grow fonder has been no better. It can make the heart grow fonder, but only in people who weren’t into you enough in the first place to realize they should stay put. Them joining the military and then realizing they really miss you is not really a testament to how lovable you are so much as it is a testament to how miserable it is in a desert. Or Duluth. People have had good, long marriages based on this absent, fond heart mythology, so perhaps I should not judge it so harshly. But I do, primarily because I am the kind of person who feels that the separation by just a two- mile stretch of road is too great. I do not need to go to Duluth to realize I am in love.

Also, statistically speaking, what absence does is make people unfaithful. They’re lonely, Van Morrison gets played on the jukebox, and they bump up against another lonely some body.

Am I too cynical? Bitter? Frustrated? A case could be built for any of these. But I don’t think so. I’m just wondering, that’s all. How is it that other people know when to follow the rules, when to break them, when to break them but pretend they didn’t? How is that whatever I do seems like exactly the wrong thing to do, but then if I switch to the exact opposite tactic, it immediately seems like the inferior one?

These are rhetorical questions, you understand. I’m beginning to suspect the truth is that no one knows anything, and the platitudes we rely on and untruths we tell are simply needed because it is an unbearable thought that our lives and loves are a crapshoot, that it is, at it’s very basest level, just an issue of timing: who was available at 12:15 on a Monday afternoon.

No, this version is even less satisfying than the lies. I find myself once again in the precarious position of needing to quote Fleetwood Mac: Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.