As I sit in the terminal at London Heathrow Airport, I'm astounded by the multitudes of people around me, the myriad languages being spoken, the sheer chaos of people rushing to and from every food court and gate. The irony weighs heavily on me, for I know everyone around me is also thinking about the Brexit and what that entails for the European Union and our increasingly connected world. As a frequent traveller, it is hard for me to understand how one could imagine turning back the clock, building walls and barriers between peoples in a world that has been globalizing at a breakneck pace, but I suppose I can understand why the roller coaster of modern times can be scary, and why you'd want to hold onto and protect the identity you have.
And that's why Ireland, and county Clare especially, was so refreshing. I was away from the hustle and bustle of New York, where one always has a distinct, burning purpose and intention that drives them through their days. When shopping at the grocery store in Ennistymon, you would be lucky to make it in and out in 2 hours because of all the local people who say hello and stop you for a chat. In a small town like that, everybody knows everybody, and you can't walk out your door without being offered to sit down and have tea.
What a great couple of weeks it has been-- refreshing for the soul. Often when you take a vacation you feel like you have to fit all of a new city into a few days. How the heck are you gonna see all of Madrid or London in two days? You're just stressing yourself out. My days in Doolin consisted of waking up, drinking tea and having breakfast, learning a few jigs or reels, taking the dog, Whistler, for a walk around the beautiful countryside, meditating, taking a nap, and joining Christy for one of the local Irish music sessions he hosts 6 nights a week in Doolin, Lisdoonvarna, Liscannor, and Fanore. It's hard to feel the compelling, uncomfortable need to be somewhere else or to do something crucial when you wake up, look out your window, and are awed by the natural beauty of the landscape around you and the peace of the animals. I guess I'm lucky that the line between work and leisure is so blurred for me. Like that famous quote by Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand: "A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”
Christy and I would spend much of the day appeasing their shining, gorgeous golden retriever who was only a year and a half old--- and if you know goldens you know how crazy they can be in their youth. Yes, Whistler needed attention, and lots of it. The only way he would really calm down was if you tired him out from walks or playing fetch, after which he would collapse for a few hours in a heap on the floor. Otherwise he'd be banging on the windows or barking until you payed him some mind. We might tie him to the post if he got too bad, but sometimes we considered how much of his craziness might be because he shouldn't be tied up-- the chains and leashes were going against his nature and making him act even worse. He got less jumpy and was tied up less during the weeks I was there but he still needs to learn not to nip people with his teeth (he doesn't bite down though, thankfully).
He made up for his attention-whoring and manic energy with his beauty, his intelligence, and the sheer joy he exhibited when bounding off during the times he was finally set free in that day's landscape of choice. On our first walk, I remember being astounded by the speed with which he could clamber up and down the rocky outcroppings just beyond Doolin. That day was great--- as Whistler jumped around I pondered the massive rock faces, indented with century's of rain and ocean spray, bringing to mind the famous quote from Ovid's metamorphoses: "Dripping water hollows a stone." As I gazed out at the tumultuous Atlantic, cool damp wind at my face, I considered the power of the elements, the impossibility of such giant, square stone slabs being cut and then brought up and left in absurd positions across the coast.
I also pondered the resilience of life. How could so many different breeds of wildflowers sprout up through crevices in the rock that ran so deep, how could they survive the unrelenting push and pull of nature? How could there be such lush and verdant fields of grass only 20 feet away on the other side of the rock face? Ireland contained that impossibility within it, it felt deeply aware of the source and miracle of life itself. I would smile when Christy picked up a few rocks and put them in his car because he thought they would suit a rock wall he was building. Gone was the dividing line between man and nature that was so apparent in New York or many of the places I'd been. For once, I wasn't afraid to get my hands dirty.
Whistler is an interesting dog. On my last night I took him for a walk to my favorite river-side spot only a ten minute walk from the house. I gripped his leash tightly and acted stern to keep him in line but he pulled and pulled as he sniffed the grass on the side of the road, with what felt like an unquenchable thirst and savage need for something. I saw the wolf in him, alert and vicious, marking his territory, jolting from one side of the road to the other, restless as his head remained inches from the ground. Yet when we arrived at the small stone bridge that crossed over the river, he suddenly grew calm. I don't know whether it was the sound of the water rushing by, the difference in wind currents as we arrived at the spot, or the sense of reaching a planned destination that finally made him stop. I gazed down at the river below, a frequent object of meditation for me during the week before. Whistler hopped up and rested his two front legs on the top of the stone wall overlooking the water, peering down at the river and pausing, standing on his back two legs and thinking. What a change had come over him from only moments ago. I witnessed some type of unfathomable realization come over the dog.
On the short walk back a beautiful brown and white horse who lived next door came up to us, walking up to the wooden fence that enclosed his yard. As whistler and the horse checked each other out, I urged him to move along. But the horse made a strange gesture, almost beckoning, "don't you like me? I have no one to talk to here all day," while batting his or her feminine, long eyelashes. I stopped for a moment and Whistler and the horse stared each other down for another minute or two. The horse then turned deliberately to the side and began to gallop with more swiftness and grace than perhaps I had ever seen in person. Whistler took the cue immediately, running parallel to the horse in the road beside the yard as I ran close behind them. I didn't have time to stop and think, I just ran with the animals. As we left, they faced off once more and I pulled Whistler along back up the path to the house. I appreciated the moment but was also left with a slight tinge of sadness for that lonely, beautiful horse.
Now that I've described some of the natural wonders I experienced in Ireland I will speak briefly about the people. In a similar way to New Orleans, I perceived a welcoming aspect and friendliness coming from complete strangers who i would meet. Another thing--unlike some places where people don't like Americans too much, i spoke with more than one person in Ireland who told me they loved Americans for their frankness and straightforward manner. Maybe it's the historical bonds between America and Ireland-- bonds that resulted in my birth (3 out of 8 of my great-grandparents are Irish), bonds that were exhibited by the many bars that had dollar bills plastered to the walls or images of JFK, an Irish Catholic beloved over there. It also could be something to do with personality affinity, but all I can say was that I was surprised to hear the refrain "we love Americans" when the mood in other places and the world in general isn't so kind. But I'm not yet gonna go into the global political situations that have often justified such hatred.
I met a few young people from Cashel, Perlis, and Galway one night who said they were on vacation for a bit of the "craic," a word meaning fun or a good time that was so commonly used while I was there that it has started to enter my vocabulary. They encouraged me to join them for a smoke and I said thanks-- they joked that they hung out with an American who joined their group last week and they had given him a new Irish name. They called me "John Ryan" and after getting a little stoned they commented about how different areas of Ireland have different inflections and tones. "Oh she's class, like," they would say here. Or "she's pretty dayyy-cent" in another county. As they mentioned these minor differences in speech across Ireland, I thought of when Christy would talk about the locational difference in Irish music during his music house sessions. This is the classic sound of east Clare for one song he'd say, or "these are the three kilfenora jigs." I was struck with the thought that language and music are no different, developing organically and in truth a product of the environment in which they are grown.
I've felt a new appreciation and connection with my Irish roots-- I've really felt at home in Ireland. I'm sad to be leaving but I'm excited to be traveling to Europe to meet the Swamp Donkeys for a rollicking three-week tour. And as I sit amongst the crowd of people in London Heathrow airport, I again consider... What goes into identity? What makes us who we are? How can we preserve the natural beauty and character of places like Ireland while also allowing for the free flow and combining of people and cultures across the world?
America can be kind of featureless culturally (see the identical shopping centers all over the country), but that has also allowed it to adopt such a mix of cultures. With assholes like trump vying for power, we need to reflect upon the fact that America was born from immigration--any discussion of America after the native Americans were here that doesn't acknowledge that the nation was originally composed of a variety of peoples and cultures is deeply flawed. Also, New Orleans culture is uniquely American, but that is a whole other discussion.
People think so much about blocking people out, about short term solutions---I think we need to think more about the problems and their sources. Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are war torn and politically unstable, until the problems are fixed there, migrants will have no place to go, no home to return to. Maybe these different ethnicities can't fit into the modern notion of a nation-state, or maybe the borders need to be redrawn across the real lines. I don't know. What I do know is that we need to preserve and respect the different cultures and ethnicities of the world--so much of the beauty of life comes from that diversity. And we need to fucking realize that a person is more valuable than a dollar.
Balancing the preservation of a culture with the exchange of ideas in a increasingly globalized world seems difficult, and these ends can seem at odds at times. But they don't have to be. You don't need to block out the rest of the world to preserve who you are, respecting the other wholly and fully might just have a better effect to that purpose. Only when the policies and governments that rule the world reflect this sort of basic human respect and dignity will some of these problems begin to be solved.
Anyway, enough of the idealism, I'm off to Switzerland. Until next time...