I wrote my last entry from the sky as I departed Puerto Rico 5 weeks ago. Returning, once again 27,000 feet high, I’m collecting thoughts in my notebook. I’ve written my way into a three part essay in effort to express the feeling of living three lifetimes in five weeks, yet finding something same.
Over and again, Claudia said “more leaf please” and I plucked a wide, spade-shaped one from the bush growing next to the creek. She’d reply, “thank you, up please” and I’d lift her above fence level so she could toss it down to the flowing waters below. Each time, her face was pure anticipation, then concentration, then satisfaction as the leaf tumbled out of sight.
My heart was at the same time broken and filled with all the joy there is—a surge of emotion that altered vision: crisp edges, blurry hues. It was like knowing a “secret to life” was inside this moment, but being unable to grab onto it.
I suspect it is this that inspires people to have children and love affairs. As in fairy tales, we imagine love as total protection and bliss. We want love to be floating leaf boats down river, clasping our hands in joy, magically producing leaves for as long as we want them, ensuring we clear fences, and protecting who we love from everything, forever.
Which is why this moment at the same time held tragedy. The heartbreak when we fail our children, our lovers, our parents, our planet…or feel they’ve failed us. But failing an illusion isn’t really failure is it?
Taking Claudia to the farm and assembling a host of friends and family there, reminded me (emotionally) of a five day hike I took in Northern Thailand. I located a native guide to take me to visit some remote hill tribes; an unsponsored, unchartered “tour”. Of this experience I wrote:
Then there is your first village arrival. Older children who have not seen white people for years and younger children who’ve only heard stories rush down the trail to greet you, flitting in and out of a safe distance. You feel like royalty escorted by fireflies. There are skirts and head cloths—dyed brighter than the flowers from which the ink was leaked—wrapped around women insisting you eat the dinner they had been preparing while they beat clean the mats of their children who will double up to make you sleeping room. There are men so wrinkled they seem older than the tradition of the opium pipe they offer. There is smoke, curling off cone, the smell of earth macerated in time. You perceive how many worlds there are and in how few of them you’ve lived. You exhale and lay back under a new sky.
Gathered at the farm were generations of people whose lives have been intertwined for decades. There we were—young and old—dancing through dew-damp grass, chasing fireflies and waving sparklers. I was a child again: full of curiosity about how bugs glow and fearless to chase after them in the dark because I’m surrounded by people who’ve loved me as long as I’ve existed and others who haven’t loved me as long but whose love is no less. And when the night finally grew quiet, the very sky I’d grown up under stared back at me. Not a new sky, but a new you that lies beneath it. A steady sky is more like what love is. Many of the stars we see at night have died long ago, and may have since been replaced by new galaxies that we can’t yet see, but it always feels like the same sky.
I returned to Ireland to go about with my hitchhiking-acquired, adopted family I met last year. Mum and Da (Gráinne and Danny), Sisters/Aunts (Deirdre, Una, Bernie, Eimear, Aine, Niamh, Breda, and Angie), Brothers/Uncles (Dee, Declan, Bob, Tony, Eddie and Toss). Can’t forget Auntie Betty over in Castlebar, plus the younger generation of Ailbhe and her French husband, his parents, my ex-fiancé now brother Diarmuid (the joke that started it all), and our best man/brother Conor with his fiancé Victoria and new baby Caroline. And these are just the members of the clan I got to visit with! There are more in Galway, England, Australia, America…
It’s been ten years since I travelled through Northern Thailand and “perceived how many worlds there are and in how few of them I’ve lived”. Despite visiting another dozen or so countries in that decade, I’ve only kept discovering more. Worlds in which people eat different foods, behave in different ways, wear different clothes, believe in different things. But I’m becoming less and less convinced that the world changes much at all.
Whether it was with my Nicaraguan family who materially have very little, my Irish family who have more than that, or my Moldovan family who’ve suddenly found themselves with more than many; I have yet to spend time with family—blood or chosen—where we didn’t talk politics, reminisce, complain, voice hopes, have heated debates about the “system”, tells stories, share heartache, have sessions of gut-clenching laughter about nothing at all.
Storms pound the earth with wind and rain. The sun shines. Power operates to concentrate wealth and privilege. People love and people die. Flowers bloom in all kinds of colors.
My Aunt Deirdre and I were discussing this phenomenon, how so much of a peaceful life comes down to acceptance. She proposed that country folk have a better relationship with acceptance because Mother Nature if often at cause of their difficulties and they have no illusion of being able to change her. She gave an example: if it rains too much and your crops don’t grow, or your cow dies, you don’t spend a lot of time and angst asking why. You figure out how to feed your family that year; or you starve.
It struck me how often modern life has us primarily dealing with people (institutions, regulations, public policy, the price of gas are all a result of people making decisions) and so we develop an illusion that fighting against another’s point of view will result in changing the world. What’s the saying? What we resist persists.
It had gotten late at Deirdre’s house, and we realized we hadn’t logged in to buy my train ticket to County Mayo. Advanced purchases are significantly discounted. On her smartphone, I fidgeted with small print screens and Irish Rail apps. The website wasn’t working and we only had until midnight to make the deal. Our perfectly good feeling conversation was interrupted; we both began, instead, to take up a slight level of stress.
Until I remembered: each of us views this whole thing called life from our perspective, and that’s the only thing that really changes. I swiped the phone off and set it down. Deirdre looked surprised, apprehensive maybe. I shrugged and said, “It rained and my cow died.”
Our laughter carried us into the dawn, at which time we opened the curtains before heading up to bed lest the neighbors think we were still sleeping!