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Isle of Dreams : Communities of Practice can reveal new paths to excellence

By Michelle Flaum Hall

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?

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