It is easy to recognize the gifts when you are exploring a place that is new to you, easy to witness them piling up, one after another after another, to barely keep up with the unwrapping, to know there is no way these gifts are going to fit into a backpack or a suitcase or a handbag, that you are going to have to leave some behind when you fly back to your home after two weeks of meandering around a foreign country by car and on foot. That’s what we did, my friend, Mary O’ Donnell, and I; we rented a car, took off from Dublin, Mary behind the wheel, and we headed to Ireland’s west coast, first to Galway then north along the Wild Atlantic Way and over to Northern Ireland, to Derry and Belfast, and finally back to Dublin again. Each day was spacious, and jam-packed, too, and the hikes were glorious, the connections with people life-changing, the synchronicities plentiful. We tapped our feet to Irish music, listened to a storyteller in a pub’s cozy upstair’s room, bought ourselves more than one Donnegal wool sweater, discovered brown bread and renewed our love for butter. We ate fresh hake, walked miles of wild beach, and, at night, sometimes, or in the early morning, I wrote in my journal. And now, I look at these entries and the e-mails I sent back home and I realize I can retrieve the gifts, at least some of them, in story form. And so, it is the time to open them up, these vignettes from the trip, to remember and to savor them, and to share them with all of you. Here is one that I just retrieved, and more will follow in blog posts in the coming weeks:
I have made a new friend. Actually, in every stop-over place, as Mary skillfully and graciously has driven us around the whole of northern Ireland, from Dublin to Galway, across the northwest coast to Derry and now to Belfast on the east with the Irish Sea in sight, as we now make our way back to Dublin again, our starting point, we have connected with people, so many of them, a whole list with names like Marita and Shawn, Bernadette and Paeder. And Seamus. He is the friend I am talking about. It’s not like I hadn’t heard of Seamus before. I’ve known of him since my graduate school days in the early 90’s. But he was a mere acquaintance back then, Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, someone with a poem now and again in The New Yorker, someone whose work I might have found in an anthology, someone, a few years later, who won the Nobel Prize. His poems were approachable, fun to read out loud, a window into life in Ireland, and that was the extent of it. Until Dublin, that is.
It was nearly two weeks ago, within hours of landing in that charming city, on one of the first errands to buy road maps, in a store across the river from our hotel, that I spied a book, a new hardcover stacked by the check-out counter, 100 Poems by Seamus Heaney. And I picked it up, this book, decided it would be my first purchase in Ireland, and the woman behind me in line saw what I was holding in my hand, started talking to Mary and me. Her young granddaughter had read one of his poems in class the other day, she said, and had cried — it touched her so. “You must see his exhibit,” she added, “It’s wonderful.” So, that’s how we spent our first afternoon in Ireland, at a retrospective exhibit of Seamus’ poetry and life. Though Seamus Heaney died a few years ago, he was very much alive in this exhibit, his words, boldly beautifully, displayed across walls, his photos life-size, young Seamus, old Seamus, eyes twinkling. He was writer and teacher, political activist and family man. We were mesmerized, broken open by his words. And we carried them with us in quotes and poems on our phones, read them to each other that first night and the next day as we drove west to Galway. A friendship had been kindled.
But it was yesterday in potato-growing country that both Mary and I dug in deep, committed to this friendship. From Derry, Mary drove us to Seamus’ hometown, a small farming village in Northern Ireland, to the brand-new modern structure on the village outskirts called Seamus Heaney HomePlace, to a many hour immersion through room after room of poems and photographs, and headsets for listening to Seamus read his own words, to a whole family, a whole town, a way of life illuminated through a poet’s words. I left the building wobbly-legged and busted-heart-open. And this is what I want to tell you; it wasn’t just about Seamus. This exhibit was extensive, a labor of love by all who created it, including his wife and his children. And Seamus Heaney’s life and work were honored, for sure. But through his writing and through his living, he bore witness and honored the others, his family who, for generations have lived close to the land, his home place village, the whole of Ireland. In a land of storytellers, he became master storyteller, honoring us all who have lived and breathed.
Mary and I left the exhibit loaded with books and pamphlets, with cell phones filled with photos of photos, photos of words. But the HomePlace and Seamus Heaney himself gifted us with so much more. I can’t quite put it into words, this gift from the poet and the people who love him so. Perhaps it is only in the language of poetry that we can explain it, or perhaps it is beyond words all together. I just know I felt it, that our lives are exquisite; each one of us worthy of a HomePlace exhibit. And I relish the details we share with one another, the stories we tell through action and word. And I am ready and eager to pick up pen and share my own.