Continued from – “Ireland is for Walkers”
In Galway I sat on a tall curb, or a short wall, perched over my clutch of bags like a mother hen. I thought to walk a bit, see the famous city, but I’d just found the bus that would take me to Sligo and I didn’t want to lose it. Instead I chatted with the old man seated next to me, his life and possessions significantly less complicated and cumbersome.
I boarded the bus and asked if it stopped in Collooney, not to be confused with Coolaney which I noticed on a map was equidistant from Sligo.“Just for you,” winked the driver, which my literal mind processed like a glitchy robot. Is he going to make a special stop for me? Of course not, I finally decided, on the way down the narrow aisle to my seat. Just some Irish charm.
I told Valli I’d be the one with the excessive amount of baggage (smirking silently at the ironic double entendre), and she said she’d be the one with the red van and kayak on top. I found her easily. She was parked right where the bus stops on one of two perpendicular streets that makes up the village of Collooney. Red VW transporter van (manual, turbo-diesel), red kayak strapped on top, cherry red hair. I hugged her, excited, wanting her to be something very particular. She gave a quick squeeze back, surprised. Her eyes shone fierce, icey blue behind her rectangular glasses, and an inch of grey roots pushing at her dyed red hair exposed her age. Her accent and tough demeanor hinted that she was not Irish.
I slid in on the left of the right-hand drive van, and Owie the dog leaned against me. I let her smell me and then wrapped an arm around her, fingers clutching her rough black fur, begging for affection. She tolerated, but intently watched out the windshield, awaiting her chance to run up the driveway. It felt a little backwards, craving attention from a dog. But then again, I was in serious need of some snuggles.
Collooney was over as soon as we spun away from the bus stop. We drove two miles of narrow country road to turn right up a long drive, bumpy and neglected. Old stone walls and sheds crumbled at the edges of purple dusted pastures. That low spiney shrub spreading everywhere was Heather. Classic Ireland. I had just missed it’s peak purple bloom.
I was all eager questions and expectations as we bumped along. Dazed in that somewhat misty border between lifetimes, before you’ve recovered from the last adventure, but entering into all the excitement, possibility, and planning of the new one. An awkward threshold. We parked behind a second VW van, blue and broken. I fantasized about fixing it up and driving all over Europe. There were problems with insurance of course, but I imagined miraculous loopholes.
To the right of the driveway the hill kept rising behind a row of random buildings, starting with a camper trailer, evolving into crooked wood sheds, a cement workshop, and finally the old stone house.
“How long can you stay?” Valli asked me. I couldn’t give her a straight answer. I’d put myself on a waitlist for a Vipassana meditation course in England, a semi-attempt at reinvigorating my practice. Not a full-on commitment, because I’d still have to wait and see. It was out of my hands. Like “kind of” trying.
“Well, if you stay and we have good weather, we really need to put a new roof on the woodshed, before the winter rains.” I was eager to work. Some tasks would be good for me. We walked through the yard, on a cement path dotted with wet splats of chicken shit, and into a sunroom.
“Conservatories” they’re called. All windows and warmth, arching tomato plants and climbing grape vines. A cozy haven in a grey land. Immediately to the right was a cottage with the kitchen, her bedroom and the craft room. At the far end was another holding the bathroom, my room, and laundry room with the refrigerator. (She couldn’t stand the sound of the fridge.) It was essentially this conservatory (which she built), connecting the two original stone houses, (which she rebuilt.)
This was Valli’s house. People would come and help, friends and volunteers from workaway, a current boyfriend, but this whole world was her creation. She did it alone for twenty years.
She and a friend came to Ireland as young women. They wanted to be potters, but that is not so simple in Germany, where you must do apprenticeships for years and years. So they hitchhiked to the ferry and floated to Ireland. Not such a leap, as Valli had been hitching for years, to visit her sister in Vienna. “I knew where all the service stations were. I was good at getting people to tell me where they were going first, then asking for a ride there so they’d feel bad not to take me,” she explained with a self-assured German grin and glowing eyes.
They had a lead on a potter in Kinsale, on the Southern coast of Ireland, a friend-of-a-friend. When they arrived however, they knocked on the door and found a wife in tears. The friend-of-a-friend had just run off with another woman. Having the girls around turned out to be a pleasant distraction and the abandoned wife of the friend-of-a-friend found them a job in a pottery. But they were just cleaning floors, and so soon they made their way up north towards Donegal.
On the way they stopped in Sligo, met another German woman who let them crash on her floor and “dry out” a bit. They stayed a while, made friends, left, came back. Eventually, Valli’s friend moved on, and Valli, who had given up on pottery, borrowed 12,000 pounds to buy two old stone cottages on the outskirts of Collooney.
For the first years, she travelled by scooter to bring supplies up to the property, including 16-foot wooden planks, stuck under her bum on the seat. She finally moved in Christmas Eve, and slept on cardboard on the kitchen floor. A wood fire pressed back the cold that flooded through the opening where a front door would eventually hang.
And so slowly, over the course of 20 years, she scribbled and scrapped together her homestead. The idea of such a committed achievement baffled and intrigued me. How do you know when or where to stop and settle? Does it just happen one day? Or does it happen gradually, growing without you noticing as you plug away in one spot.
She showed me the old German water heater in the bathroom, a tall copper cylinder, explaining excitedly that sometimes they’d start a fire and have a “few baths”. There was also a way more convenient on-demand electric water heater attached to the shower head which she didn’t seem as proud of. Her boyfriend talked her into it just the past year. Until then she built fires.
I pried into her sure independence. I asked her about partnership, if she ever craved it. I tried not to betray my current state of vulnerability, my intense desire to be held and loved, a relentless craving that had threaded through my life. I was intrigued by someone who didn’t have that. She explained how she just never really needed it, that having it then felt a bit strange, distracting, like she couldn’t get as much done. That at least I understood.
Valli was a builder, she “made” things. All sorts of things. Her workshop stood beside the parked vans, a big room with skylight panels in the corrugated roof. Creations hung from the ceiling, dusty costumes, figures and puppets that I couldn’t even begin to imagine how to build. It was like being backstage and learning the tricks of the theater. The walls were lined with jumbled shelves of paints and fabrics and materials.
Currently she was laboring over a project that she hated. A company in England had asked her to replicate a costume of a sausage, with a sneering, thick-lipped smile and big, white gloved hands. She joked that it looked like a giant creepy penis. It had been a hassle from the beginning, fabric delays, foam inconsistencies, lack of interest in the project. Her shop was trashed, rags and foam all over the floor. I put on my West-coast optimism and said cheerily that it was a good thing she had to mail it the next day because then it would finally be over.
“Unless they don’t like it and send it back!” She countered. My West-coast optimism wilted.
She led me towards my room, at the far end of the blessed conservatory. I squeezed through the clutter of projects and plants, already planning how I might clear a yoga space in this sun haven, wondering why every Oregon house doesn’t have one.
My room smelled musty, it was chilly. I greedily eyed an undoubtedly inefficient electric radiator in the corner and wondered how often I was allowed to use it. The window could not open all the way because the frame was rotting at the bottom. The stone walls were two feet thick and painted yellow, bright, happy. Three Black-eyed Susans, freshly picked, stood in a thin glass vase on the wide window sill, enhancing the walls with their subtle presence. There was a shelf loaded with plastic boxes of extra blankets and clothes, spare chairs folded against the wall, and a big, wide bed that I touched longingly. It had been two long month of sleeping on a boat bunk.
Valli told me I could arrange the room how I want. I scanned the space, making mental notes for later, set down my bag and used the bathroom, with painted fish on the walls.
Despite her curtness, I felt safe and comfortable and nurtured. Out back there was a garden, and greenhouse. The garden needed weeding, the chicken coup needed cleaning. It was nice to just put down my bags and spread out in a room where I could close the door. I eyed a guitar hanging on the wall, looking forward to when I relaxed enough to play it.
But I needed to move. I’d been on busses all day, with a mind full of transition that could use some shaking loose. Valli told me how to just walk behind the house, up the hill through the sheep pasture to the top. She pointed to a row of extra rubber boots lined side by side. “Wellies”, they’re called here. “Because it’s pretty soggy up there.” I slipped on a pair that fit. Owie would love to come. She would stay with me, ensured Vallie, just put her on the leash the first 200 meters, to appease the sheep farmers.
So we set out. It was soggy, almost like a marsh. Each step squeezed water out of the springy mosses, and rushes (wetland plants) spiked all around me. Late afternoon light pushed its way through grey clouds to glint on their round stems. “Rushes are round, grasses are flat, sedges have edges,” I recited from my time guiding kayak tours, comforted by familiarity.
I let Owie off the leash and we trudged up skinny sheep paths, dotted with small piles of pellet turds. She moved slower than I had expected, stopping to look back at me through the grasses, sniffing and peeing a map she must have thought I could read. Doggie social media.
We moved through cool moist air, bright greens enhanced by dull skies. I didn’t know where to settle my anxious mind, coming from an exhausting adventure and heading towards a future of uncertainty, so I focused on feeling my body move and work. I was proud of myself for walking, reflecting back to all the years when I would sit stuck waiting for movement to come to me. That could take a long time. I’d learned by now to get out regardless, that movement helps to shake up the blocks and push them through.
We broke from the rushes onto moss-covered rock slabs, over an old stone wall, through a break in a wire fence, and finally to the top. Owie ran up ahead and stood with that regal dog-smelling-the-wind gaze, awaiting my reaction to the view. We stood high on a bald granite cliff, looking across miles of rolling green hills, expansive sky, clouds broken by sun rays. Straight ahead was a body of water, a bay I would learn, reaching in like a finger from the Atlantic. I stretched and sighed a little, twisting and humming out some tension, dangling my mind carefully just above the clump of anxiety that had become a well-tightened habit this past year. I arched into a back bend. Let the unwinding process begin.
Coming down, a rain sprinkle set the rusty ferns glittering. I assessed my achievements, my desire to have my life “mean” something, my desire to be interesting, extraordinary. How that desire brings such misery when unfulfilled. “Right now, for instance, I feel like doing nothing,” I thought. I walked and wondered if my only motivation was to prove to myself that I was not so OK with doing nothing. “Motivation…what is my motivation for any of it?”
I caught myself. That thought process was getting nowhere. “How about this, what feels good? Right now. What seems doable, comforting?”
“Well,” I reasoned, “right now all I crave is some nestling in, a place to write, rest, and stretch. A clean, warm, comfortable space.” Ok then, just go with that for now.
Owie and I clumped into the house. She ran straight to her bed and I slipped off my boots and stepped into the kitchen, steamed with smells of dinner. Valli set pots on the solid wooden table, butter, salt, knives, forks. We sliced into boiled potatoes, eggs sunny side up, and veggies from the garden cut small and stewed, carrots and green beans.
Felix, the orange tomcat nuzzled up on my lap. Everyone loved him and his lazy affection, but I would come to prefer Mowzie, the scrawny female with the twisted face and peculiar voice. As we ate, Valli mentioned she would be leaving for a few days.
“A friend of mine is a travel writer and photographer, and she’s asked me to come along for a kayak and hike around Killarney Lakes.” Despite my ragged exhaustion, my ears perked. Somewhere deep inside me, my adventurous soldier lay face down, dead tired in a field, and tried valiantly to raise her head.
The agenda seemed agreeable. Three women, a van trip, kayaks, camping, hiking. I had already considered exploring Killarney Lakes as one of my Irish exploits. And the friend made a living exploring and writing. I could learn so much. On paper, it looked perfect. Was this then a challenge to overcome my exhaustion and just keep charging. I could rally! Couldn’t I?
Or, I could stay, have a house to myself, just me and the animals. Silence, bikes, gentle tasks, hill walks with Owie, the warm conservatory, a guitar. Hadn’t I fantasized about this very situation a week ago on the boat, wondering how it could possibly come to pass? How would I possibly acquire a house, a space to myself?
The idea of a camping trip pressed on my lungs like smog, while the idea of solitude settled into my bones like a warm broth. There really wasn’t much of a choice. Even my boisterous self-criticism could barely be heard over my crying need to do nothing.
“I’ll stay,” I declared. My valiant soldier laid her head back in the grass and rested, ‘thank god’…
That night, back in my musty little rock-walled room, I dug out Dad’s down sleeping bag, which he had generously donated to my uncertain adventures. It smelled familiar, not nearly as rancid as one might imagine after two months at sea. I lay it under the other blankets, close to my skin, protective.
I expected to be restless. I’ve heard the first night sleeping in a new place is always uneasy. So I crawled into the weight of three blankets, agreeing to the slow process of transition, pledging to try and be patient with myself, to have faith that my energy and inspiration would return as I nourished myself. I closed my eyes and slept instantly.
Continued in – “I Am a Writer”
5 thoughts on “Valli’s World, Collooney, Ireland”
Michelle, I just can’t say how much I enjoy your writing. It’s the kind of writing that needs to be read slowly, because it’s so rich. The way you explore your inner landscape has an alluring degree of intimacy. It’s hard to resist.
Your dad and I grew up in those Babylonian circles not the biblical one’s, but the place by the bay. Having known him is a gateway to knowing you and the place you’re coming from. It makes your writing seem familiar.
We met you once when you and your brother were very young. Julian and my wife Michelle, née Vanderveldt, are second cousins. I think it may have influenced they’re naming you Michelle, but I could certainly have that wrong. I remember your mom saying how much she liked that name. But I could be wrong about that too.
We hopped into a Handsome Cab in Central Park one time many years ago, and got to talking with the driver, a vivacious young woman apparently our age. She didn’t fit the Handsome Cab mold. She described a boy she was interested in who lived in Babylon. You can imagine our surprise when he turned out to be Julien Davies.
Tidbits from the past.
Keep writing. Your voice is important.
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Hey Blake! Sorry for the delay and the gap in writing, it’s so hard to find a rhythm while traveling, even though traveling can be the inspiration as well! The story will continue soon, I promise. I’m glad you knew my parents back in the day, their early life is an intriguing story I would like to tell. I may pick your brain for memories someday.
I’m sure your wife did influence my name, but it was a second choice, my mom fought for three weeks trying to name me what she wanted, and finally was ok with Michelle:) I’m happy with it, although I’ve heard the Beatles song sung in enough accents to make me sick and then finally accepting of it.
Thank you for reading, and your encouragement, more to come!