Ever since I was a little girl, I’d dreamt of visiting Ireland. Two years ago, I decided to do it. The truth is, I’d begun to feel I’d lost myself, due in large part to a cascade of losses from which I was still recovering. Six years earlier, I’d gone through the traumatic birth of my daughter, Cate, and in the process had nearly lost my own life. I was forever changed: I had to reassimilate after having lost my entire blood supply and my heart’s health.
Two years later, my beloved grandparents died, one following a long battle with cancer and the other a week later, of a broken heart. At the time of their deaths, I was struggling through a difficult divorce, writing a dissertation, and wondering how I’d ever make it as a single mom.
On the day I woke up and decided I’d had enough of the emptiness gnawing at me, I made a choice that seemed natural for a girl whose family had passed through Ellis Island about a century earlier: I’d go to Ireland and find myself again.
I booked my flights, hotels, and rental cars. Then a week before I was to leave, a now-famous Icelandic volcano erupted, making the prospect of the trip as cloudy as the ash floating over Western Europe. I spiraled down into an existential panic at the thought of missing my opportunity. What if I couldn’t get there? What about my dream?
It didn’t take long for me to realize that a volcano was, ahem, actually out of my control. Somehow, I gave it back to the universe to sort out. Two days later, the ash cloud dispersed and I was Ireland-bound.
Saying good-bye to Cate was hard. I hugged her compact little body and then looked into her tearful green eyes. “I’ll be home soon,” I promised. She wiped my kiss from her cheek and placed her hand on her heart, her way of telling me she’d keep me with her. As I watched her waving from my rearview mirror, I felt a pang of guilt and self-doubt. At 6, she was unable to understand what called me away from her.
I landed at Dublin Airport the next morning and quickly found bus transportation into the city. Once I’d settled into the comfy window seat, I exhaled. “I dreamt of you,” I whispered softly, resting my head against the damp window. The swaying, emerald grasses on either side of the road seemed to beckon me closer. Never in my life had I seen so many shades of green, made brighter and more vibrant by the heavy gray sky. Never had I felt so close to the truth of who I was than in that moment, seeing my own reflection cast against the blurred backdrop of my ancestors long gone.
I wondered how I’d experience this visit. Would I wander about like a tourist, devouring every morsel of space and time? Would I feel oddly connected to strangers walking past? Would I just sit, experiencing the air–actually feeling it feed every cell of my body and spirit? I imagined journaling about my every passing thought, emotion, and experience in an effort to bottle time. To say the least, I had high expectations for this trip–for myself and for Ireland.
Perhaps I should explain what a trip to Ireland was supposed to mean to me. I spent my childhood dreaming of the enchanted Emerald Isle. I read stories about funny little men dressed in green who lugged pots of gold to the foothills of rainbows. I believed that all fireflies were fairies, that there was at least one four-leaf clover in every field, and that breaking a mirror meant seven long years of bad luck. I believed (and still do in my heart of hearts) that unicorns exist. At core, I was–and perhaps still am–a dreamer.
Then in my teenage years, I learned of the collective heartache of this strong, proud people and what they’d endured, both at home and far away in the strange, new land of America. I was appalled and outraged by the injustices and brutality heaped upon my people. Carrying a self-righteous chip on my shoulder, I vowed to someday visit the land that seemed to hold the answer to a question that had always eluded me: who am I?
The Dubliners told me what they could. I learned that there’s a difference between the “True Jack” (someone born and raised in Dublin) and the “Blow-In” (someone who moves to Dublin from elsewhere). I discovered that Guinness made in America is considered poison compared to Guinness poured in Ireland. And who knew that you hadn’t eaten a true breakfast unless you’d consumed at least 3,000 calories? I found out that driving on the opposite side of the road isn’t nearly as easy or intuitive as you’d think, and that when you factor in a manual transmission and a roundabout at every intersection, the process can be downright tooth-grinding.
After two days in Dublin, I went off to explore counties Wicklow, Cork, and Kerry, whose landscapes I’d traversed over and over in my dreams. Surrounded by Ireland’s landscape, weather, energy, and profound beauty, I could feel the power of the feminine. Like the many beautiful Irish women I know (including my sisters), Ireland is an enigma, and at the same time, utterly approachable. She welcomes you with the charm of her people, but simultaneously challenges you with her landscape: her rocky shores aren’t for the faint at heart. Her weather changes continuously, ensuring that you never take her glorious gifts for granted.
Toward the end of my trip, I traveled the Ring of Kerry, a daylong drive that boasts some of the most awe-inspiring, sheep-speckled vistas in all of Ireland. It was on this route that I happened upon a small village called Sneem, where I decided to stop for lunch. Settling back into a comfortable booth at the local cafÃ©, I casually glanced at a newspaper left by a patron. On the cover was a photo of a large mushrooming ash cloud, and I thought to myself. That’s funny! Why would someone be reading a paper from last week? I did a double-take when I glanced at the date at the top of the page and realized it was that day’s date. I looked down at the caption below the picture, which read: “Second Eruption.”
Swallowing hard, I scanned the story’s lead paragraph until I came to a sentence that froze me: “All airports in the Irish Republic are closed.” In an instant, my longed-for escape had become my prison. Instantly, I thought of my little Cate. I knew she was being well cared for, but eight days without her was pushing it–for both of us. Now, how long would our separation last–10 days? Two weeks? Even more? Equal parts dread and guilt settled in the pit of my stomach.
I spent the next day mentally strategizing my escape, as though I could somehow affect the jet stream. I concocted plans A, B, and C, each of which involved different combinations of airports and rental cars. I’d get home some way. Once I felt that I’d accounted for every possible contingency, there was nothing to do but sit tight and wait.
That night, when there was no more planning to do, no more news to watch, no more futile attempts to control the uncontrollable, I allowed myself to feel. As I knelt, weeping at the thought of being stranded away from my daughter, I prayed–not to God, as one might expect, but to Ireland. I asked her to let me go.
“I dreamt of you when life wasn’t fair, on the days when I felt small, and when I was bored,” I admitted. “I thought that you could save me, or at the very least, give me a reprieve from the ordinary. I wanted you to show me what life means, and you’ve done it. Now, please, let me go home and live it.”
The next morning, my flight was the only one to leave Shannon Airport for Dublin. Then I caught the last flight to leave Dublin before the ash cloud shifted, trapping thousands of travelers for the next several days.
Thinking back to my fervent prayer the night before we’d left, I realized that I wasn’t just pleading for divine intervention to reunite me with my daughter; I was also mourning my expectations of Ireland. I wept because she was exactly what I’d expected she’d be–majestic, wild, and free–and because she wasn’t what I needed, after all. It wasn’t until I arrived home and saw my daughter’s face that I understood what truly mattered to me: she was nearly four feet tall, and thought it entirely appropriate to catch bugs while wearing pink taffeta; her eyes, as often as not, twinkled merrily (she’s part Irish, after all).
Next year, I’ll travel back to Ireland’s shores with my husband, leading a group of 20 therapists to study mindfulness and positive psychology while trekking across the southern countryside. Although I’ve already visited most of the sites on our planned itinerary, I believe that I’ll see them with new eyes–without the desperation that accompanies the search for a lost self.
This time, I believe I’ll travel with the confidence of a woman who’s a bit more settled in her own skin, and I’ll carry with me a set of adult expectations. This time, I’ll take in each moment–smelling the moss-covered hills, feeling the mist on my face, listening to the lilt of Irish voices. Perhaps I’ll even spot a unicorn or two.
Illustration @ Adam Niklewicz
Michelle Flaum Hall
Michelle Flaum Hall, EdD, is an assistant professor of counseling at Xavier University and co-owns the private practice The Highlander Group.