Sometimes you don’t realize how important an event or time period is going to be in your life until you’re well beyond it, and can look back at it with older, wiser eyes.
I’ve never really written about my trip to Dublin in 2017, and I think I should. Winter makes me nostalgic. With time on its hands, my mind starts dredging up old memories, and it’s my nature to analyze them all. I’m also feeling so very middle-aged, and am wanting to take stock of my life so far and get a clearer idea of where I want to go next.
This introspection started ramping up around my 40th birthday, back in December of 2016. I felt like I had made such a mess of my life, and had lost touch with who I was, and who I wanted to be. As a teenager, I had found myself in Europe, and it called me back, promising to do it again.
I hadn’t been to Europe in 15 years, mostly because September 11th happened right at the cusp of my independent adulthood and it seemed scary to fly abroad for a while, and then I had small children, and flying to Europe and jaunting around the Old Country with toddlers just seemed like masochistic.
But in 2016, I was determined to return. I had waited too long. I was single. Adrift. Had had a series of awful, short-lived, absolutely-nowhere relationships. I hated my job. I hated where I was in life. I was going through all the motions, and yet hadn’t made any big steps. Going to Europe seemed like a bold step in the right direction.
London will always be my favorite place on Earth. The very air sings to my DNA and I feel more at home there than I’ve ever felt anywhere in the world. Initially, I was going to go there. But then I happened to catch P.S. I Love You on TV, and the thought of going to Ireland started to appeal to me. When I looked up flights to Dublin, it was substantially cheaper to fly there. It seemed like the universe was giving me a nudge.
It was so absolutely random that I decided to go there. It would have made much more sense to go to London, where I’d always been planning to go.
I don’t always make sense though–not even to myself.
Anyway, I went with my gut and booked the trip.
I knew so little about Ireland that I went in search of some insider information, in the form of an Irish pen pal. That is how I found myself on Irish Craigslist one day, reading ads from Irish folks looking for pen pals around the world. No one inspired me to write until I came across an add that seemed more thoughtful than most. He was 48, separated, feeling a bit gut-kicked in life, and looking for a friend. I knew immediately that I was that friend. I sent him a message. He replied. And so began an avalanche of correspondence that went on for almost a year.
His name was Colm and he hit me like a bolt out of the blue. I can’t really put into words what it was like to get to know him. Only that for the first time in my life, I really felt seen, and understood. We were at similar points in our lives, having chucked a marriage to the wayside, and were figuring out where to go from there. Both of us were struggling with what we’d been told we should do versus what felt right to us. Neither of us gave a whit about what people thought of us, and I think we both needed to know that there was someone else, on the other side of the world, feeling the same feelings and wanting the same things from life.
If you’re wondering if this is the start of a love story, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but no, it’s not. Colm was more like an older, wiser brother to me. Someone who’d been around the block a few more times, had a been-there-done-that mentality, and tried his hardest to keep me out of trouble (without being the slightest bit parental).
Our friendship was intense and life-altering. Even now, I struggle to describe what it felt like. As I said before, I felt immediately seen and known. It was as if he’d been my lifelong friend, who’d been called away for a time, and suddenly reappeared. Finding me not quite as happy and shiny as he’d left me, he immediately set to work setting me back to rights.
I don’t normally have intense relationships like that, and it was so intense and unexpected and mid-blowing that I searched for some kind of an explanation for it. The best I can figure was that Colm was my twin soul–or someone you are intensely bonded to, who you work with to tackle cosmic life lessons and achieve inner peace. Sorry to get all metaphysical on you, but I think I fell off the path at some point in my life, so the universe sent Colm to Craigslist in order to leave me a breadcrumb trail.
So I went to Ireland. Alone. Colm picked me up at the airport and took me on a tour of the Irish countryside. We went to Drogheda to see the martyr Oliver Plunkett’s sainted head, preserved in a jar inside a cathedral there (a strange first experience in Ireland to be sure, but whatever). Then he took me to Newgrange.
It doesn’t look like much on the outside, but it pre-dates the Egpytian pyramids and should be on everyone’s bucket list. It’s a mystical, magical place. The sort of place that is few and far between in this world, because it makes you think about the people who came before, and what they created, and why they created it. Newgrange is thought to be a burial mound, and the swirls carved on the walls signify the cyclical nature of life. Colm thought I needed to see it.
Newgrange holds a secret. During the Winter Solstice, a beam of light pierces the roof box, which causes sunlight to stream into the dark tomb, illuminating it completely. It is amazing to me that long-ago humans worked out how to do this, and built a monument that so quietly, but perfectly, sums up so many different ideas and theologies about the relationship between light and darkness.
I think it is so ironic that of all the places he could’ve taken me in Ireland, Colm felt I needed to 1. See the man with his head in a jar–a metaphor for the life I no longer wanted to live, if there ever was one. And 2. Newgrange, a perfect metaphor for my future. It was a profound experience to be there with him because, in many ways, he was that shaft of light that had pierced my inner core, letting light back in.
After Newgrange, Colm drove me back to Dublin, dropped me off at my hotel, and I resumed the rest of my trip alone. In light of the story I was building up to, you would have thought we would have spent more time together, wouldn’t you? He lived 20 minutes away. He could have popped back to Dublin any number of times. But so it goes. The universe sends us what we need. Colm fulfilled his mandated Twin Soul mission. The rest of the work, I needed to do myself.
I walked around and explored a lot. I took a bus tour through every loop in the city. I learned a lot about Dublin’s history and culture. It was not all churches and leprechauns and pubs. But there was certainly a lot of that, too.
I went to the Dublin Writer’s Museum for inspiration. I went to the Viking Museum. The Leprechaun Museum. Ate fish and chips. Gorged myself on fresh brown bread and butter with steaming bowls of soup. I took naps in the afternoon. I people watched and people listened. I met my blogger friend for drinks. We bitched about our marriages and our frustrations with dating and writing. She had just been published and her book was everywhere. It felt like meeting a celebrity. And she was so inspiring. Living the sort of life I wanted for myself. I felt the light coming in. The love of art. The love of travel. Poking around museums. Being alone. The love of writing. The desire to create again.
And then I got a tattoo.
I have vasovagal syncope and wasn’t even sure I’d be able to make it through a tattoo without passing out cold on the floor. I once passed out because I scraped my heel on a brick, so it was a legitimate worry. Instead of a little test tattoo to make sure I could tolerate it, I went for a six hour one with color for maximum pain and endurance testing. And I didn’t pass out. So, go me.
I have a new appreciation for tattoos now and the reasons why people get them. While I was under the needle, it was almost like some kind of vision quest. Forcing me to confront all the little hurts I kept bottled up. Giving my emotional pain a physical manifestation that I could identify and deal with.
I put that emotional pain on my skin–the feeling that I’m different from most people–and wanting to keep myself closed off for fear that the wild, unruliness of my soul is more bother than beauty. In some ways,getting tattooed was a form of visible self-acceptance, and it felt good to get the words that described me permanently etched into my skin. The quote is from the Princess Bride – “Her heart was a secret garden and the walls were very high.” The garden is only slightly visible through the keyhole, but the light from it beckons and it hints at a very warm, magical place, if only you can get in.
I’ve never loved anything more in my life.
I came back home different. In a completely new headspace. I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted my life to look like and who I wanted in it. Colm and I still talked nearly every day. He still dispensed great advice. I figured we’d be friends forever.
But one day, soon after Jeremy and I started dating, Colm fell off the face of the Earth. I sent him a message. Two messages. No reply. Just as quickly as he appeared in my life, he disappeared.
The universe knew I didn’t need a pen pal anymore. What I needed was Jeremy.