My best friend said once, in reference to his ex-boyfriend, “You know what they say about Geminis – their circumference is everywhere, but their center is nowhere.” I think sometimes that being the writing type is similar…..a lifetime of being an observer means sometimes feeling like being on the outside looking in, metaphorically peering through the warm, yellowy windows of other people’s houses, imagining if their lives – for better or worse – were yours.
I feel this way, in particular, about Ireland and Irish life. I stumbled upon something this morning that led me to thinking about Belmullet, a little backwater in Western Mayo, truly the back of the beyond, as they say. My ex’s Uncle had built a holiday home there back in 2002, so when I went over to see if things might work out, we decided to spend a few days out that way. What looked in pictures to be a relaxing, serene seaside town was in fact one of the strangest, most insular, lonely places I’ve ever been.
The house was about two miles outside of town along this road. Granted, we did have a great time walking back and forth to town (our best times together were always on long walks), and I do have a great ‘martyr’ story to tell my grandchildren about being caught in a storm after Ireland’s loss of the World’s Cup, bitterly leaning against the wind and rain, carrying 20 pounds of coal on my back, alone, on that country road.
But the fact is that it was a desolate place, the natives were suspicious (of us? A dodgy fucker with a Nordie accent and his bristling American alpha female companion? I can’t imagine why), and there was something quite ‘get me the fuck out of here’ about it. When I thought we had missed our bus the morning we left, I nearly cried. I was never so happy to get to Ballina, and that’s saying something.
I had been to Ireland several times before, but this was the most intensive trip I’d taken – a month spent traveling up and down the west coast, from Malin Head at the very northern tip to Cape Clear Island at the very southern tip, as well as time spent at my ex’s family’s place, in rural, rural Donegal, a few miles from the border with the North.
It was a rude awakening. All my prior trips to Ireland had involved lollygagging about in Galway or engaging in major party action in Dublin, this was my first extended experience with country life in any nation. And, while it was in some ways beautiful, I also became intimately acquainted with the dark side of Irish life – isolation, insularity, boredom, small town gossip, grudgebearing, depression, the living as the walking wounded and the maddening Irish propensity for indirectness and passivity that makes my Yankee blood boil. I was so burned by the experience that I could hardly wait to get back home to the freeways, chaos, and bluntness of America.
And yet. I still think, occasionally, about the Road Not Taken.
Once in a while I imagine my life – a life I came very close to living – there, and of course it’s cloaked in a gauzy, golden veil for the first few moments – and it involves a house with a range, some squirmy kids who play footie and/or camogie on the weekends, the occasional raging piss-up, the coziness and rhythm of family life, the closure of the diaspora’s return, and the omnipresence of the ocean.
All of this is very beautiful, and it’s a lovely, bittersweet daydream for a few moments, because it’s a life I probably could have very easily had, but there’s so much more to it, and I turned my back on it and came home – to my enormous, roiling, fucked-up-but-in-many-ways-amazing home. To the freeways. To the insane right-wing lunatics trying to make this country a theocracy. To negotiating race and class every minute of every day. To insane corporate control of our cultural dialog. To the ladder-climbing rat race. But also, to the jumble of Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and English. To directness. To problem-solving and innovation. To carne asada. New York slices. Proper salads. Hot water on demand, the open road, and the Holy Trinity of American cities – New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles (you too, New Orleans).
Sometimes, though, I think the curse of the writing mind is to be able to empathize and imagine so much that you can see yourself in any one of hundreds of different lives – and so what does that do to our own life? Do you play eeny meeney miney moe, and choose one? Or do you kick it and do your thing, until your life chooses you?