Category Archives: Ireland

The Shore of Ireland

A month in Ireland and I would never feel dry, the entire time. It was the wettest summer on record and the water was coming from everywhere – the sky, the ground, the sea, my eyes, my very heart.

The second day I was there he walked me through his silent village, the river a black ribbon and us under a bell jar, walking in molasses, sticky and slow. He took me to the abandoned train station, overgrown with reeds and foxgloves and the loneliest place I’d ever been and there on the platform my face broke open and turned to water, my nose my mouth my hands, and I keened my sorrow into the green. Inside I admitted what I’d known the moment I’d put my arms around him at the Dublin airport and felt the birdlike bones in his back – he was mine no longer, I mean he was mine for the taking but I knew he wasn’t made for me or me for him; it was out of order, disordered, it didn’t fit, but I put on my weak American smile and soldiered on for a day or two until we sat on the platform and I knew it was gone.

The next night he disappeared into the smoke of the bars in town my insides scraped raw and for the next four weeks we tried, we pretended, we rode from one end of the country to the other and we kept at it. Solstice rainbow on Malin Head, as far north as you can go, the silent treatment on Clare Island, him out of his mind in the green muck of Belmullet, and all the while me letting the love die, coiling out of me and left there in the soil of his country and nearly mine, a place with her fingers so deep into me that to this day I weep like an exile. I emptied myself of the dream, the life I could have had all of it, I still can’t tell you why, my best friend says it would have been ‘too small’ for me, but I can tell you that although I answered the call of my truth and that’s the best thing you can do in many ways it broke me and I have never been the same since. I never believed after that and I am now only so many grains of salt – I know better now and I will never break on the shore of Ireland again.

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Emotionally Slutty

suddendepMy own capacity for emotional sluttiness frightens me. The historic ease with which I have given passion and devotion, and the perhaps even more sobering ease with which I have withdrawn it, leaves even me (to say nothing of my past loves) puzzled and reeling and not a little ashamed of myself.

A few years ago, with some amused clicks of the mouse, I found that OK Cupid pegged my ‘dating persona’ as ‘The Sudden Departure,’ and while at first glance it was funny, I found a lot of ugly truth in it: when I finally fall for someone, the connection is so visceral as to border on the animal; it gets deep and primal in a way that would frighten most mortals (but will be well understood by Scorpios, wink wink), but just as quickly it can plunge into Arctic temperatures and tundric emptiness, triggered perhaps by something as innocuous as the wrong shoes, a slight tic, an offhand confession that reveals their vulnerability and lack of human perfection (the nerve!) and when that happens, I’m out, as remote and unreachable as I was once present and involved.

Sometimes the division isn’t so simple; there have been times when The Sudden Departure has been supplanted by The Irish Goodbye (this comes from the nickname I once gave the way the Irish wind it up at last call, which is to say, slowly, painfully, and with reluctance) and the exercise at couplehood goes on much longer than it ever should have, as does the associated emotional turmoil.

I remember sitting in a small, tidy room in County Donegal nine summers ago, talking to my then-husband’s therapist while he sat next to me. I was asked to describe what it felt like to send him back to Ireland while I remained in the States and I told her ‘it was like cutting off my hand to save my arm,’ and burst into unexpected tears. The last time I saw him was in the Dublin airport on July 10, 2002, beneath the ironically titled ‘Departures’ sign. I hid my puffy eyes behind huge Bono sunglasses and wondered when, or if, I’d ever see him again (and I never have, in case you were wondering). I had loved him with all the fierceness and depth I had, which is to say, copiously and without reservation. Our love affair scaled heights and reached very dark depths and burned a layer off my skin and changed who I am permanently. When I left him, the pain was so intense it felt like drowning, or being unable to get air. I thought I’d never be the same again.

But I was. Well, maybe not the same, exactly, but just fine any way you slice it. The sun came up and it went down again and life went on, and now when I think of him I feel only a small, benign affection and a sense of puzzlement and having been so enmeshed in anyone or anything. I look at pictures on Facebook of him and his long-term girlfriend (adorable) and his daughter, now four, and I realize I don’t know him at all – at this point I feel that I know his girlfriend better than I do him, and I wish nothing but great things for all of them, but honestly, after all that Sturm und Drang, I can’t see what I was so worked up about and I sense a little egg on my face.

And it’s not just him; it’s every boy (or girl, or cause or situation) I ever felt quite so heated (positively or negatively) about – it’s all faded into the fabric of my experience and isn’t even cause for the batting of an eyelash any longer. This is not to say I forget – I’m Irish, after all, and thus can hold a grudge for decades – but I have learned that no matter how poignant or wrenching a given relationship feels, usually once the initial agony of leaving/being left is over, it’s pretty much a cakewalk and I feel embarrassed at having been so bothered about the whole thing.

This is not to say it’s okay to pour it on and then bail because hey, time heals all wounds and it’s all good in the end anyway. There’s a larger lesson than here, one about remaining mindful of the currents of emotion and how swiftly and deeply they can sweep us along into dangerous waters if we aren’t firmly anchored in the richness of our experience and self-knowledge. I have learned about myself that (like God!) what I giveth I also sometimes quickly taketh away, and that I have the capacity for making myself look and feel like an ass and making other people cry while I’m at it. I’ve also learned that no matter how acute the angst or how desperate it all feels while in the thick of it, with time it will end up as nothing more than a chapter in my textbook, so to speak.

I have made promises I can’t keep, and told others I was someone I wasn’t – and those weren’t lies, they were just misrepresentations originating from a lack of self-awareness. My intention is to move forward at a more reasonable pace and depth and with the knowledge of self that I can be little loose with my emotions and the need to check that tendency. I see how I’ve wasted so much energy that could have been better directed elsewhere, and I want to remember to hold steady and feel the earth beneath my feet, even as my head gets lost in the clouds.

The Poppy Fields

People generally come in one of two varieties – those who stay in their hometown (whether a depressing little steel-mill burg or a palm tree-punctuated paradise), and those who leave it. I’m a leaver. So are most of my friends. Some places seem harder to extract oneself from than others – I guess when you’ve got nothing to look forward to but a career in checkout at Wal-Mart or the sterility of a vast suburb filled with faux-Spanish Revival McMansions, it’s a no-brainer. In other cases, it’s not so simple.

I’ve been in love with two small-town men now and let me tell you, if I was suspicious of small towns before, I’m now positively paranoid. Both (the towns, not the men) had striking similarities – a verdant greenness bordering on the obscene, a plethora of pastoral fields, and a veneer of bucolic serenity thinly veiling a rabid insularity and a drinking culture that would make Amy Winehouse and Brendan Behan look like teetotaling Mouseketeers.

In my ex-husband’s small Irish border village there were two tiny convenience marts, a post office, a library, one daily bus into and out of town, and five bars. And not one ATM. Getting a job in a local factory was considered an enviable gig and the proportion of out-of-wedlock infants born to teen parents was inversely proportional to the number of college degrees earned by the town’s kids (to my knowledge: zero). There was an uncomfortable element of schadenfreude to the failures of one’s peers (for example, my ex having gone off to America and come back with little to show for it) and the hangover of the historical Irish suspicion of success and concepts of ‘gettin’ notions’ served to keep any inappropriate ambition in check. Expectations, in short, were low, and time passed with that syrupy rural slowness in which the long summer days bleed into one another in a way others might find peaceful but I find numbing.

In my most recent boyfriend’s (‘Tree Guy’) West Marin town, a glittering jewel on the the tip of the Point Reyes Peninsula, there is one bar, and it is all that matters. Other than the town’s notorious insularity and locals only ethos (‘our beach, our waves, our girls, go home!’), it is its singular calling card and the hub around which all spokes rotate, and has been so since 1851 (it’s also got the only ATM for miles – heh – tell me that isn’t strategic marketing). The topsy-turvy little hamlet is the kind of place that makes it difficult for some to know which way is up, its gestalt a heady brew of spectacular natural beauty, 60s counterculture radicalism, redneck isolationism, straight-up self-indulgent hedonism, and a moral slipperiness that seems to breed adults in an arrested state of adolescence.

The first time Tree Guy took me to hang out there, I was keenly reminded of my misspent youth in San Diego, afternoons and nights on the beach, at house parties and nightclubs, in parks and parking lots; drinking, dressing up, being seen. Back then there was just as much mischief and mayhem and dysfunction going on as anywhere else, and a lot of that same ‘locals only’ vibe, but the difference, and I recognize this only now, was this sense that we were all going somewhere. Maybe we didn’t know where, exactly, but the forward trajectory was palpable. It wasn’t so much a ‘goal-oriented’ mindset as it was some sort of expectation out of life, the sense of putting one foot in front of another, being open to possibilities, and keeping it moving.

This same sense of motion feels largely absent in Tree Guy’s hometown, with the requisite exceptions. The town’s progeny tend, true to form, to be disproportionately divided amongst two groups: those who venture over the mountain and keep roaming, and those who either never leave or boomerang back and are suspended, like amber, inside the prism of their history. It seems this place produces either exceptional high achievers or stunning underachievers, boasting more than it’s fair share of legal troubles and substance abuse woes.

On the one hand it seems a lawyer-heavy town, producing soy-eating kids who grow up to score their JDs before 30, which for such a lawless place is pretty interesting, don’t ya think? Tree Guy once commented that very few of the girls get out, but the ones who manage it tend to do extremely well for themselves, which I find true across most subcultures – the females who do rise above do it with a vengeance. There also seems to be a healthy crop of musicians, artists, and DJs whose work is, and I mean this sincerely, really good.

On the other hand, there is the dark side of those who don’t make it out, whether literally or metaphorically, who cling to their town tribalism as fiercely as they do the bottle, only growing older and more fossilized in the nautilus shell of their pathology, days and months and years disappearing beneath the fog and eucalyptus groves. There’s a heavy incidence of alcoholism (as is probably true of many small towns), yet an attempt at sobriety is met with, on rare occasions, awe and admiration or, more ordinarily, derision – as though it were an indication of a lack of (rather than evidence of) character or, worst of all, a compromised masculinity – which is nothing short of criminal, in my very unsolicited opinion. The bitter aftertaste of that Irish ‘gettin’ notions’ and ‘not knowin’ yerself’ rises in my throat when I witness this betrayal and the pressure to remain complacent, stagnant, to just drink a beer and pretend everything’s OK while the years flow by like the tide and lives fall apart in spectacular fashion.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty about both places that I deeply appreciate, and I met some priceless people that I have a sincere fondness for, but for me there is a genuine terror of the way consciousness and evolution are held hostage by complacency and how time passes like molasses, the narcotic torpor of summer days on the boozy beach giving way to winter mornings beneath the dripping canopy in an endless, hypnotic, poisonous cycle, all ticking by and melting into the same narcoleptic river of time, day in and day out, everyone asleep in the poppy fields, dreaming without waking.

Loving An Alcoholic: Loneliness Defined

Last summer as I headed down a dry, rocky ribbon of freeway towards Mexico with my homegirl of 13 years in the passenger seat, we stumbled upon what I call a Topica Non Grata – any of an assortment of subjects of which one ordinarily simply does not speak; this time, the raging alcoholism of two men we loved – my boyfriend and her father. So taboo was this topic that only after over a decade of being tight friends were we able to be forthright about it with one another – the secret is that shameful. And yet, like abortion, addiction is so widespread that I believe one would be truly hard-pressed to find a single individual whose life has not been touched by it.

When one is the family member, friend, or lover of a problem drinker, one develops a power of observation and an instinctive understanding of the alchemy of alcohol that would make any NIH-funded scientist proud. You learn, very quickly, what types of booze, in which combinations, consumed on which day or at what time of day or in certain situations or with particular foods all brew into what is almost inevitably trouble. You learn that Dad can drink beer but not spirits, or clear spirits but not dark ones, and the first four beers he’s fine but that fifth one, that’s the ticket. Or as long as Mum has a bite to eat before she hits the wine, she might be okay……and the boyfriend, well, so long as he stays away from tequila or Jim Beam he might be all right, but then again, probably not.

Recalling this recently to an Irish friend of mine while we – perhaps ironically – enjoyed a pint at our local, she told me she remembers kneeling on the floor at seven years old on Christmas Eve, below the framed photos of the Virgin and the Baby Jesus on her wall and praying, “Please God, don’t let Daddy go to the pub tonight (incidentally, her father also managed to drink the family business away),” and my own lover’s brother once told me he essentially grew up waiting outside the bar for his parents.

We laughed bitterly about how every holiday is automatically an excuse to drink – is it your birthday? The dog’s birthday? Jesus’ birthday? New Years? Groundhog Day? The Macy’s White Sale? 80s Night at The Roxy? The third Thursday in August with a quarter moon? Time for a drink! Similarly, any mood can be a trigger – good day at work? Got a raise? Salut! Bad day? Got sacked? Bottoms up! Any reason at all seems to do. We spoke of the terrible loneliness of it: one learns that sometimes declining an invitation or withdrawing from social situations is far easier than dealing with a drunk or performing damage control. Your alcoholic loved one makes the most of any special occasion whilst you train yourself to miss out on life’s milestones and rituals. You become closely acquainted with disappointment and you make good friends with low expectations. You soon find that even when you’re in the company of your loved one, you are well and truly alone.

These are not bad people. On the contrary, alcoholics and addicts can often be some of the sweetest, most intelligent and interesting people one could ever hope to meet. Most genuinely love their children, families, and significant others, and they’re often deeply sensitive souls and a joy to know. But any relationship or marriage in which one or both partners is an alcoholic/addict is essentially a love triangle. I teased my boyfriend once that the drink was ‘the other woman,’ and I never worried about him being unfaithful to me with anyone but the bottle. My mistake was in thinking that the bottle was his mistress, when in truth that was my role – a bright distraction, a stolen moment of happiness – and in the end, he would always go back to the liquid-filled wife he married a long, long time ago.

The Longest Day Of The Year

Five years ago I was in Ireland, and had this funky little obsession with being at northernmost point of the island, on the tippy top of the Inishowen Peninsula in a place called Malin Head, for the solstice.

The ex, Brian, and I had just come back from four hellacious days in rural Belmullet, County Mayo, and he wasn’t all that eager to get back on the road, but I was having none of it. We were going. So on a Sunday afternoon, I called up the bus depot in Letterkenny (County Donegal’s main town) and asked if there were a bus headed up that way. Being Sunday, there wasn’t. However, said the fella on other end, ‘Our Dave lives up that way and he’s headed home tonight, so let me check and I’ll call yis back.’ Yes. For reals, people. And sure enough, five minutes later the house phone rang and it was yer man, asking us if we could get there by four to get on the bus. We said yes and since it was about three-thirty by then, threw a bunch of stuff in a bag and begged a ride off the ex’s Mam into town.

We got there by the skin of our teeth and boarded the empty coach. The ride up through the Inishowen Peninsula and along the banks of Lough Swilly was breathtaking, and I laughed when we drove through the village of Carndonagh and saw a pink-haired teenager skateboarding down the street….I might as well have been in Venice, or Carlsbad. When we got to Malin Head, the driver (Dave!) dropped us off at the side of the road and pointed vaguely west, telling us we’d find our hostel ‘just down the road’ (note: everything in Ireland is ‘just down the road.’ I don’t care if it’s 20 paces or 2 or 20 or 200 miles, it’s always just down the road). Thus began a pleasant, moseying journey through about a mile of bucolic farmland until we reached the stellar Sandrock Holiday Hostel, where we checked in, dumped our bags, and headed out to do the most important of things: find a pint.

The ex rapidly noticed that he and his wallet had become separated, and thus he was now out of his ID and about sixty euro. He figured he’d left it on the bus, and I was pretty sure it was a write-off. We refused to let it bum us out, though, and we set out from the hostel in search of Farren’s: Ireland’s Northernmost Bar (note: everything in Malin Head is Ireland’s Northernmost Something). Shortly after leaving the hostel, we came to a fork in the road, at which we could have either gone right, and back the way we’d come, or left, along an unknown road. The ex chose left and I enthusiastically agreed. While being bothered by swarms of midges, we made our way though a scintillating a collection of cattle: a black bull sequestered from the rest of the herd who bellowed of his isolation mournfully, and a charming bovine I immediately christened The Flirtiest Cow In Ireland. Happening upon a field full of sheep, I called and cooed to them until the ex christened me The Sheep Worrier of Malin Head, a title I relished.

Around a bend and almost into town we ran smack into a storybook white house. With a giant motor coach out front. I stood there in amazement, with my jaded urban jaw hanging slackly, whilst the ex marched up the door and explained to Dave (who answered) the wallet saga and to which Dave replied, ‘Sure go on, it’s unlocked.’ Unlocked! An enormous bus! Brian clambered aboard and found his wallet on the rear seat and we headed off happily to Farren’s, where he had a Guinness, I had a vodka & Coke, and we played with a little boy of about three who was fascinated with a bouncy ball I had in my bag. It was the only shop in the town, so we bought a pound of Inishowen beef, a bottle of spaghetti sauce and some pasta shells and at about 10pm headed off northward along the twisty road that eventually leads to Banba’s Crown, the real northernmost point of Ireland.

It was a magical walk, lit by the sunset-ish hue that is late night in Ireland (it never really gets truly dark at high summer). Along the way we posed in front of a rainbow dipping into ‘The Saddle,’ a rock formation off the coast, encountered Ireland’s Rowdiest Sheep (who ran up the fence bleating like he was about to whup my ass), peed in ditches, and ended up in this eerie valley with a few traditional cottages planted on it (the northernmost houses in Ireland) just before you ascend the final hill to the top of the Crown.

We reached our destination and just before midnight, with a bit of light still illuminating everything, including the word ‘EIRE’ painted on the rocks below. Just when the majesty of being in this remote, otherwordly place was beginning to sink in……..Brian’s mobile phone rang. It was Mum, just checking in. We laughed hard and bummed a ride off of what we assumed was an older guy and his younger mistress, who had joined us at the peak. They dropped us off on the main road and we ambled back towards the hostel, past the tinker’s spooky house.

In the morning I woke before 6 (it’s hard for me to sleep in a room full of strangers) and the view out the windows was unreal: expansive, unbelieveable cliffs, sea, and sky. But by 9, when I managed to roust the ex, the rainclouds had taken over and all was grey and sodden. We had breakfast at the Seaview (me: toast, him: beer), then killed some more time (and him, more beer; me, collecting rocks) in a pub on the main road and then caught a bus back into Derry, where I was greeted by the cognitive dissonance of seeing Union Jacks flying on Irish soil. He peed in a water bottle on the bus (all that beer) and I lost the phone. He got pissed at me in Strabane because I had the rush-rush attitude of city folk. I was getting tired of the country, and the rain.

Behind The Green Wall

tamalpaisJust about five years ago and at my wit’s end, I sent my ex-husband packing back to Ireland, duffel bag in hand, hoping that some quality time at home would help him sort himself out. With incredible naïveté, I booked him a flight on Virgin Air, a British carrier, rather than on Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline. Alcoholic Paddy + Nordie accent + heartbreak + uptight British fellow passengers + free booze = all bad. Calling his brother the next morning to see if he’d landed in Dublin safely, I instead learned that he’d gotten drunk, mouthed off to an old lady and told a London peeler to go fuck himself. On the plane. Shortly after September 11th. Yeah. I know. Obviously, he didn’t make the connecting flight at Heathrow, and instead was led off the plane in handcuffs and given a two-week stay at Her Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs, where the guards were actually kind enough to let me speak with him by phone (you have to give it to the English, they are just unfailingly polite).

Ever the optimist, a few months later I packed my own bag and headed off to Ireland – on Aer Lingus, natch – for the purposes of seeing whether a potential reconciliation and a possible move overseas might be in order. I had never met his family nor seen his wee village, Castlefinn, which rode the border of the Republic and Northern Ireland with uneasiness. All I knew was that he’d helped his Da plant 80 trees around the perimeter of their property (‘Eighty?!’ I had asked incredulously, ‘do you mean eight?’) and that he came from a village of about 700 people. Seven. Hundred. People.

Now. I have grown up in an urban environment my whole life. I was born in Berkeley and always lived either around there, in San Diego, or in San Francisco. There have pretty much always been 700 people on my block. I cannot even imagine a village of so few, but I was willing to, you know, check it out. And man, it was green. Emerald Hills all around. And fields, lot of fields. And a pretty river with a gorgeous bridge, and plenty of cows and sheep and ravens and…….pubs. One shop, one post office, one police station, and three bars. And not much else. The nearest ATM was 10 miles away, in Ballybofey, and the bus to Letterkenny, the main town in County Donegal, came once in the morning and once at night.

I knew from the minute I arrived that the spell between us was broken, I wasn’t going to live there, and that we were probably going to break up, even if I didn’t want to admit it to myself or anyone else. My visit just happened to coincide with the wettest summer ever on record in Ireland and the dampness matched my mood. We tried to make the best of it, taking slow walks in the forest and dells, playing the child’s game of ‘soldiers’ with reeds plucked from the ground, putting foxglove flowers on our fingers and pretending to have a good time. On the second or third day, I finally broke down outside the abandoned train station in Castlefinn and cried so hard – in big, wracking gasps – that I was snotty and had nothing to wipe my nose on – a total spiritual low. I knew then it was over, but I spent the next month running around the island anyway, hellbent on visiting the northernmost (Malin Head, so completely awesome) and southernmost (Cape Clear) points in the country. We had some good times, definitely, but it was my third extended visit to Ireland and the first where I sensed the dark side of Irish life – the passivity, depression, fatalism, isolation, and brokenness that you don’t see on cutesy postcards or while wilding away the weekend in Dublin. I had this deep sense of the country as a damp, torpid green prison, and for the first time I could not wait to get back to my own loud, hectic, obnoxious country – freeways! Strong coffee! Carne asada! Black people!

Fast forward several years and the man I’m with now is from Bolinas, a mythical small town down an unmarked (because the locals tear the signs down) road way the hell on the other side of Mount Tamalpais. His family has a house there and he and his brothers are attached, by history and spiritual orientation, to the town. It’s a place known for its attempt at being a hippie utopia (gone wrong, but that, again, is another day, another blog) and as a haven for outlaws and renegades; fiercely insular, sketchy for outsiders, and achingly beautiful. There are few vistas as gorgeous as the edge of the mesa above Duxbury Reef, and a childhood spent surfing on Bolinas Beach seems idyllic. Still, when I’m there, the huge green wall that is Mount Tam spooks me, makes me feel cut off from the world, and when I window shop life there, imagining living behind that massive ridgeline, I shiver (ironically, the spot on the beach where locals pass their weekends in a beery haze is called The Green Wall, and no, I’m not linking to any photos of it, damn it, as I don’t want the Bolinas Border Patrol to come looking for me).

‘Babylon,’ the Bolinas locals are fond of calling the City, with a tone of derision and mistrust, safe in their cozy green pocket wedged between the ocean and the mountain, where my town looks like a distant, glowing grid when it’s not shrouded in fog. But I like the City. I love anonymity. I like people minding their own damn business. I revel in the facelessness of urban life, the ability to blend into the river of people and be as known or unknown as you wish to be. I like the way one can disappear in a city, where no one on the bus or the street knows you or your dirty laundry, where you could be anyone, anything, and the only time someone knows your business is when you let them. In the City you develop relationships, of course, little bonds that fuse during one’s daily life – with your barista, neighbor, Steve at Naked Eye video, whatever………..but it’s because you choose to, not by default or simply due to proximity.

At the same time, City life gets to you – the endless jockeying for parking, the astronomical rents, its growing function as a playground for the white and Asian affluent, the political correctness – and there are days when I long for the mythical Simple Life: a man and a dog and a baby on the beach, no bloodthirsty landlords and no fistfights over the last spot on the street. A yard to grow vegetables in, lots of room for my dogs to frolic, and no telephone wires outside the living room window. If only I had the cojones to give up the nail shacks, the plentiful cafes and vast supermarkets, the blessed anonymity and autonomy and give in to the seductive call of life behind the green wall, where the passion flower vines climb over the houses and time moves thick and slow like molasses.