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Dublin Doorways

In 2003, I went to Ireland for three and a half weeks over the Winterim through a program offered by Mount Mary College. We had to choose one of three courses to take during our stay — I chose Irish Literature, no surprise there. I’d have taken theoretical mathematics and failed it miserably if it meant I could go to Ireland (thank God it didn’t come to that).

I had wanted to go to the British Isles ever since I could remember. And at the start of the semester, I walked into school, and saw the flier taped to the wall: Winterim in Ireland. My heart absolutely stopped. I marched straight down to the office and made an appointment to find out just what I needed to do to get there. They only had two spaces left, and they needed a deposit today in order to hold my place. I wrote a check, asking that he give it a day or two for the deposit I’d need to rush home and make to clear in my account.

I didn’t discuss it with my parents. I didn’t consult my then-husband. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I just did it.

The Liffey River, Dublin

I think now and then about all the what if’s — what if I hadn’t had that overage check from tuition socked away in my underwear drawer? What if I’d consulted my parents/then-husband and they’d tried to talk me out of it? What if I hadn’t seen that flier? What if I had and the trip had already been filled? But that didn’t happen.

What did happen was that I told my friend Char V. about the trip, and she signed up. We went together on an adventure that cemented a friendship into a sisterhood. I fought a little bit with both of my parents about going so far away — something they didn’t really like, because they didn’t really understand my need to do it. And then I went out and got my passport. I fought with my then-husband, knee-deep in the ashes of our failing marriage, a day before I left to go, after no protest from him whatsoever for four months. And then, at one in the morning, he helped me finish packing.

Ate, drank, and laughed here.

I cannot describe to you what it felt like for me to just go off and decide this, to follow through with it, despite all of the opposition. I’d been such a good daughter, and such a good wife. Always looking to please others. Making this decision, and going through with it was the first hammer-blow to the chains I’d bound myself with. I left here a girl, and came back a different woman.

The moment we landed in Dublin, we boarded a bus that would take us to our lodgings for the first week. There was something flapping wildly in my chest — which I thought then was just a reaction to the way that the busdriver was navigating the busy streets of Dublin (he, and everyone else I saw, drove as though they were driving a tank at breakneck speeds on open roads…even when they weren’t).

Discovered silence and sanctity here. (Glendalough)

That feeling wasn’t a result of being imperiled by a rogue busdriver. It wasn’t nerves, or fear. It was the most powerful sensation of coming home that I’d ever had in my entire life – to a place I’d only ever been in my dreams.

The moment we got our room assignment and toted (by hand) our incredibly heavy bags up the two flights of narrow stairs, I grabbed Char’s hand and said, “Let’s go!” To which she replied, “Where?” Anywhere! I wanted my feet on the ground. I wanted to smell the air. I wanted to stand there, knowing I was in Ireland, feeling the fluttery joy of homecoming in my chest.

At a holy well in the mountains near Derry, after our bus almost went over the side of the mountain.

From that first foray, through the entire trip, I struggled to swallow that feeling. I couldn’t understand it. I’d grown up in Wisconsin. I felt at home at my parents’ house. I loved it there. In the intervening years I’ve learned that some things aren’t meant to be understood. They’re only meant to be felt or experienced, without attaching reason to them.

The president of the college — a woman who I had a bit of hero-worship for – had married an Irishman, and used those contacts to craft a truly incomparable journey for us. At one point, she told me that I looked like I’d been born there, I fit in so well. I’d seen that myself — no one knew I wasn’t Irish until I opened my mouth and my Midwestern accent flowed out, exposing me.

Early morning walk around Inch Island, near Derry. Even in January, it was still so green.

I savored each minute. I took 33 rolls of film. I went to every single talk and presentation we were offered, and went along on misadventures with our smaller group of cronies every night. I barely slept – I didn’t want to miss a minute of it.

And there are times now, here, when I walk out the door and something about the day triggers a deep and inconsolable sense of loss and homesickness. Something about the moisture in the air, or the freshness of the breeze, or the quality of light shining through overcast skies. And I could just weep.

Char & I huddling under about the 13th umbrella we bought. They don't stand up well in the wind.

I don’t though. I swallow that longing, and store it away. Because I know that someday, I’ll go back. Someday, I will stand on the shores of the home of my heart, and feel that fullness again. Someday, I will stand on a bridge spanning the Liffey, and look around at the low buildings that feel so familiar and know that they’re mine. Mine, whether I’m there on the Liffey, or here in Wisconsin longing for them.

I was feeling nostalgic today. Something about the way the air’s so fresh coming in our apartment windows. Enjoy the pictures. And wish me luck on, someday, getting back home.

One of Ireland's many secrets hidden in plain sight.

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If you don’t understand how a woman could both love her sister dearly and want to wring her neck at the same time, then you were probably an only child.  ( Linda Sunshine)

There were no truer words written than that quote. My sister just left our apartment – and for the past several months I’ve edged far closer to the urge to throttle her than to just “love her dearly.” The confounding part of it all is that even as I plot her imminent demise, my heart is wrenching for her and because of her.

There has been no one in my life as controversial as Kate. There has been no one as exasperating, as infuriating, as utterly maddening as my sister. There has also been no one who knew me quite so well, so intimately – very few who saw inside the boxes I’d drawn shut against prying eyes, no one who saw so well into my darkest corners or who ferreted out my weaknesses or my secrets and shames quite so easily.

God help me, there is no one like my sister. She was born here in possession of a manual detailing exactly where to find each of my buttons, and in which combinations to push them in order to achieve nuclear fury. There is no one who has inspired me to walk the floors at night, a maternal vigil, worried sick, worried fiercely for them, like Kate.

I know some sisters who only see each other on Mother’s Day and some who will never speak again. But most are like my sister and me…linked by volatile love, best friends who make other best friends ever so slightly less best.   (Patricia Volk)

I don’t know if it has more to do with me being the oldest child or with the exact conditions of our childhood circumstances, but I have always been like a tigress about her (and about our brother – but he needed a different kind of sistering from me – a blog post for another day). Kathryn required someone strong enough to intimidate those who’d she’d riled up into refraining from giving her the sound trouncing which she’d earned (no matter the situation, you could put money on it – if there was drama, my sister was there). She needed someone calmer than herself – and who possessed sound judgment –who was determined enough to cut through her scatter and chatter to chuck some sense into the maelstrom from time to time.

No matter what has passed between us, I have tried to be a “good sister.” I have succeeded admirably at times, and I have failed horribly at others. And right now, her life is a minefield of her own making. I am finding it hard to carry on with the roles that we’ve adopted and lived since childhood. I am tired, and I find myself out of patience, and out of common sense advice, and out of synch with our hereditary patterns. I feel left-footed in our relationship, and I cannot regain balance long enough to resume the dance.

I don’t believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings, gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.  ( Maya Angelou)

All I can do now, is listen to her. Love her. And hope – hope that things will turn out okay, hope that she will find her way, hope that she knows that I love her passionately, even if I have a hard time showing her sometimes. All I can do is accept who she is, and instead of reacting to her way of being by changing my behavior, know that she and I will find a new way of relating to one another that leaves me feeling like the sane, rational being I was before she blew through my door.

Throughout our entire childhood, I tried to protect her, to shield her, as best I could from all the ugly things – whether they were of her making or not. That’s not working so well anymore, and it leaves me to wonder what role I am to play now in her life, if not as her champion and defender? As Dani always says, “Who would you be, without that story?” There are parts of me that are working at cross-purposes now: one part of me still takes pride in being her shield and sanctuary, and another resents it.

Who will I be if not the eldest child? The eldest daughter? Who am I without that story, and all of the roles I play in it? But then, who am I to step in and take her chance to be her own defender? Who am I to so little value her ability to decide for herself what is right? Because isn’t that what I do by incessantly charging in on my white horse, so confident that my way is the right way?

At what point do I take that step back, and allow her life to unfold in either joy or pain? At what point do I stop enabling her, and crippling her?

Like everyone else, we are evolving and growing. The old story no longer fits us – and we lack a new myth to live by. The only thing we can do, I suppose, is allow it to write itself in love and pain, in sorrow and triumph, over time and page by page. All I can do is open my door to her, and open my heart to her, and have faith that we will find our new myth, we will recast our roles, we will learn new steps to old music. All I can do is have faith that our sisterhood is strong enough to survive this and all storms to come, and know that even though the shoreline may be reshaped, it remains one strong, unbroken line between ports.

Come have a look through my kaleidoscope eyes. Come walk with me, as I make my way down the Path of Mastery (complete with fits and starts and pitstops and potholes). Our very impermanence is what makes us burn so brightly, and struggle so valiantly, and feel so deeply – it’s what makes us seize the day, and the moment. Come in, settle in, share a moment with me.

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"Who are YOU?" said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, "I--I hardly know, sir, just at present-- at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then." (Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 5)