The other day, I was trying to consolidate photos on my computer (Does anyone besides me miss the old photograph albums?), when I found around a hundred pictures from August of 2009 when Mary Lee and I participated in a “Stonecoast in Ireland” program. Looking at the slideshow I created (Okay, computers have their advantages) I realized I’ve never thought of my week in Dingle on the southwest coast of Ireland as a pilgrimage.
At the same time, it wasn’t a vacation.
I decided the best word to describe it would be an “edu-cation.”
Now there were certainly elements of a vacation. Our program leaders, Ted and Annie Deppe, (both fine poets, teachers, and really cool people—check out their work), had planned each day: mornings devoted to each participant’s teaching a class on a writer we admired, critiquing the essays, fiction, and poetry we’d submitted (I’d never been in a mixed genre workshop before), and listening to guest lecturers; afternoons and evenings eating in Dingle’s fine restaurants and listening to Irish jigs and reels in the pubs, and being chauffeured and guided around southwestern Ireland in style.
Dingle is a town geared for those on vacation. In addition to all the places to eat and drink, there are gift shops, a lovely book store (where we did a reading one night), woolen shops, and an aquarium. Walking the streets, I heard German, British, Italian, French, and Japanese, as well as American accents. The week I was there, Dingle harbor was full of yachts for some regatta. Tour boats took passengers out to catch a glimpse of “Fungi,” a beloved dolphin and tourist attraction since the 1980’s. The Coastline Motel, where we stayed and had our classes was comfortable and the breakfasts were scrumptious.
On the other hand, pilgrimages are supposed to be difficult, and traveling to Ireland was more difficult than any pilgrimage I’ve been on. When Mary Lee and I put together our trip, we wanted some retreat time, so we booked our first night in Ireland a day early in Glenstal Abbey outside of Limerick. Due to thunderstorms and something called “pilot time,” however, we spent the first night of our trip in Saugus, Massachusetts. (To help me write this blog, I put on the Skyteam tee-shirt I still have from Delta’s overnight bag.) On the day we’d planned to be in silence and slow time at Glenstal Abbey, we spent thirteen hours in Kennedy Airport in New York City, trying to find an internet connection so that I could explain to the Brothers why we weren’t there (They were very nice and didn’t charge us), running back and forth from one end of the terminal to the other because the plane to Shannon Airport kept changing gates, and listening to people screaming at ticket agents in eighty-seven different languages. (If someday for my sins I go to Hell, I expect it will be a lot like Kennedy Airport.)
The other challenging trip was to Great Blasket Island, three miles off Ireland’s western coast. Because of weather conditions, we didn’t know when we were going, and the trip we did make came at the last minute, when the captain of our tour boat saw “a window of opportunity.” (Which, I found out later, meant that the ocean swells had dropped from twenty feet to six to ten feet.) In a steady rain, we boarded the boat, and chugged to the island, where we transferred to motorized rubber rafts to go ashore.
Once on the island, I entered the same kind of liminal space I’ve talked before about in these blogs on pilgrimage. Empty windows of stone houses peered at me from the furze and heather growing on peat bogs. Wild sheep and donkeys grazed and rabbits scampered across foot paths. The island had been abandoned since 1953. Before then, it had been inhabited since the 16th century, and by the early 1700s, there had been as many as 170 people fishing and farming there. The reason Ted and Annie included this trip in the itinerary was because in the 1920s and 30s, Great Blasket Island was known for its writers, publishing in the native Irish language about life on the edge of European civilization. But after that, the population kept declining until there was no one left.
By the time we disembarked from our rubber rafts, the rain was coming down hard. Good Mainers that we are, Mary Lee and I had our L.L. Bean raingear and waterproof hiking boots, so we took off for the northern part of the island, past the houses and the sheep, splashing through mud puddles and a bog that seemed to be breathing.
My wife was in heaven. In her other life (our term for the years before we met), she’d owned a donkey, and she thinks of the donkey as her spirit animal. She immediately gravitated to those descendants of the work animals Islanders used instead of horses.
I was more interested in the views of the water and the fifteen seals bobbing up and down like kids waiting for the movie theater to open, and the melancholic sense of standing on the soggy, uneven ground between life—Mary Lee petting the donkeys, the seals below me, the seabirds circling overhead—and death, symbolized by the collapsed stone houses.
Great Blasket was not a “spiritual” destination as such. Although I gather monks lived here in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were no ruins of monasteries, not even a cemetery (when someone died, they were taken to the mainland for burial). Unlike most of my pilgrimages, there was nobody in particular I had made this journey to honor.
Still, as far as I’m concerned, the day was a spiritual experience.
Which raises the old question: what does “spiritual” mean? Writers on pilgrimage often refer to “the call to pilgrimage,” a longing to reach a destination, one connected with a destination within yourself, one that ties you to the transcendent. One of the reasons I wanted to participate in “Stonecoast in Ireland,” was that I yearned for my writing to be published, and fulfill a vow I’d made to my daughter Laurie after she died to become a writer as a way to honor her memory. (And the essay I took with me to Ireland did eventually become published as part of my novel Requiem in Stones.)
I was also paying homage to writers I admire and want to emulate. I taught a class on Frank McCourt, one of my literary heroes, both because he was a former high school English teacher and because he didn’t publish his first book, Angela’s Ashes, until he was in his late sixties. (Which as far as I’m concerned is a triumph of the human spirit.)
So while the call to make this trip probably wasn’t “spiritual” in the sense of my trying to become closer to God, it wasn’t simply to get away, either. My edu-cation to Dingle became an interior journey to creative parts of myself I didn’t know were there. I began writing poetry. I developed a love of Irish music. I made friendships that continue to this day.
Edu-cations show me how blurred the line between pilgrimage and vacation can be. Which reveals how blurred the line between spiritual and secular can be.
More and more, I’m coming to believe that no matter how they begin, my real pilgrimages are the journeys I make through the landscapes—the bogs and ocean views, the empty houses and spirit animals, the loud conflicts and lilting music (not to mention through the digressions that keep pulling me off track)—of myself.