You have to watch yourself, writing books. They have a tendency to write you. Imagine you’re in control at your peril.
For me, it’s worse with nonfiction; every book I am embark upon sets off a heart-searching, a soul-searching. I’m now attempting to find my way into my third contracted nonfiction book, Hagitude, which is about the myths and stories of elderhood in women. Begs a few questions, that. What myths and stories have I created about my own not-so-distant elderhood? Who have I convinced myself I want to be when I begin to grow old, and where do I imagine I want to do it?
Easy enough, you might think; surely I want to be exactly where I am now, doing exactly what I’m doing now. I live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and I’ve worked my way through a good few cycles and seasons of life to get back to Connemara, where something important began when I came here for the first time, at 30 years old, in 1991.
Some of you will know that story, if you’ve read my other two nonfiction books and followed this blog for a year or three. If you haven’t, it doesn’t really matter; what I’m trying to say isn’t what you might call ‘following a narrative arc’. It’s all, and always, about my own transforming and transformative relationship with place.
Those of you who’ve found your way into one of my retreats or workshops will have heard me say it: the deepest lessons of my life have been learned from places. Not from the people in them (though that’s not to say I haven’t learned from people too!): I’m talking about the nature of the places themselves, and the way they’ve reflected me back at myself during critical periods of my life. Like any profound friendship, that’s what my places have done. They’ve led me to the lessons I’ve badly needed to learn; they’ve broken me open; they’ve held me when everything else has crumbled by the wayside and I haven’t been able to see a way to go on. They’ve called to me gently when there’s something they think I should learn.
I haven’t had to live in all of those places for this to happen. I’ve never lived in New Mexico, but it’s wrapped its snake-skinned tendrils around my ankles and pulled me to it at two deeply transitional times in my life. Because sometimes, what comes around goes around. Sometimes you need to learn the same lessons twice.
If I’ve learned anything from my deep, deep relationships with place, I’ve learned this: sometimes you have to stay, and sometimes you have to go. If you have to go, if there’s a new lesson to learn, a new phase of life to enter into, there’s no virtue in insisting on staying. Those of us who are apprenticed to place know this to be true. Don’t tell me you’re only a good person if you stay in the same place all your life. Because I know for a fact that this isn’t true. We each have different ways of belonging to place. Different ways of belonging which reflect who we are, and help us map the songlines and placelines of our lives.
I guess that’s happening to me again now, that needing to go. I wrote about that call in If Women Rose Rooted:
‘Like the first August swallow fidgeting on the telephone wires, we know there is something we should be doing. We know there is a Journey we should be undertaking. We cannot rest; we cannot sleep. Something in us knows that there is somewhere we should be going. And in the end, whether or not we think we can, we go because we must. We go, on a wing and a prayer, because to stay is to die.’
So, against all odds, against everything I ever thought might happen, against everything I’ve planned for over the past five years, something is calling me back to that funny, freaky old island on the other side of the Irish Sea where I was born. So you came back here for a while, Ireland is whispering to me now. You came back when you badly needed to find an old friend. You came back to a place you felt safe; a place where you could rest and recuperate and feel loved; a place from where you could create the vision for the work you want to do for the rest of your life. It’s just that maybe you shouldn’t be doing that work here.
Well, there are long stories and there are short stories and I’ll leave it as short as this: some time, probably in the latter half of next year, we are relocating back to Wales. Yes, that last blog post I wrote about following the ancestors seems to have had its consequences. That’ll teach me always to joke that I really love stories with consequences.
In the meantime, I am going to spend the next few months taking a gentle, loving leave of Connemara. Saying goodbye to what is perhaps the most beautiful little village I’ve ever lived in, and the most functional, comfortable house. And on that note – maybe I’ll finish with a bit of a narrative arc, after all.
An Teach Buí, in the trees, from across the lake
You want to know how places draw me? Here’s how. Three years ago, I was decamping alone to Connemara from Donegal, where we then lived, for a couple of weeks at a time. I was trying to begin writing my second nonfiction book, and I couldn’t seem to get my head straight. A little time alone to focus in on it helped, and The Enchanted Life was finally birthed into being. I’d rented a wee cottage in the Maamturk Mountains for the purpose, and I’d write in the early hours and walk and rest in the afternoons.
One afternoon, I was driving down a road I hadn’t driven down for the best part of twenty years. I passed a signpost advertising ‘House for Sale’; the house in question was on the market with an old estate-agent friend and neighbour of mine from the days when I’d lived in Connemara in the 90s. The road the sign was pointing down was unmarked, and looked as if it headed off into the middle of nowhere and probably ended up in a bog. It certainly didn’t look promising. But that day it seems I was curious curious, and I found the car turning itself down the distinctly unprepossessing track, and before I knew it, I was cresting a little rise in the road and looking down on one of the prettiest little Connemara villages I’d ever seen, stretching up into a long range of green-and-grey hills. Green fields, stone walls, holly hedges, a beautiful, curving village lake – it was picture-postcard pretty, and you’d really never have known it was there, from the main road.
So then I came to the house, and a shambles of a thing it was. Neglected, bizarre, a 1970s bungalow with an enormous vaulted-ceiling, mezzanined extension added on, and all of it behind a wall of thorns that would have done the Sleeping Beauty’s palace proud. Except that there wasn’t just one house – there were two: a pretty little studio-chalet on the other side of the ‘garden’ was all part of the package.
Well, I’d hardly clapped eyes on it before I realised that I badly wanted to live in this house, in this village, in this place. I had dreams of running workshops or mini-retreats in the studio-chalet. I knew exactly where the polytunnel would go, and where the hens would live, in the wooded acre which surrounded the house. It had been on the market for three years – an unlikely turn of events here in beautiful Connemara. Clearly, it had been waiting for me!
So it was arranged, and the house became ours. Two days after we moved in, I discovered that this was the village where John O’Donohue (author of Anam Cara and so many other books) had spent his final years. So, John, whose land-based work on the Celtic imagination was similar in so many ways to mine (though mine lacks the Christian/Catholic overtones), and whose wee house I’ve passed almost every day on my way down to the lake, has been for three years now my own personal ancestor of place.
This is a village which inspires writers; a village which is steeped in the Celtic imagination. I can’t quite believe I could be leaving it, but I’m that August swallow fidgeting on the telephone wires, so I know it’s time to go.
(If any readers are interested in knowing more about An Teach Buí, ‘the yellow house’, which is now for sale, please find details at this link.)