Valli’s World, Collooney, Ireland

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 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 robot. Does he mean that? Is he going to make a special stop for me? Of course not, I finally decided, 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 behind the bus stop on one of two perpendicular streets that made up the village of Collooney. Red VW transporter van (manual, turbo-diesel), red kayak strapped on top, cherry red hair. I hugged her, excited, grateful, needy, 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 wasn’t Irish.

I slid in on the left side 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 2 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 hilly pastures, which were dusted with dull purple. 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 my mind imagined I could find miraculous loopholes and solutions.

To the right of the driveway the hill kept rising behind a long random row of 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 asks me. I can’t give her a straight answer. I’ve put myself on a waitlist for a Vipassana meditation course in England, starting in a week and a half. It’s a semi-attempt at reinvigorating my practice, not a full-on commitment, because I’ll still have to wait and see…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 am eager to work. I think some tasks will be good for me. We walk through the yard, on a cement path dotted with wet splats of chicken shit, and into a sunroom.

“Conservatories” they’re called here, all windows and warmth, arching tomato plants and climbing grape vines. Immediately to the right is a cottage with the kitchen, her bedroom and the craft room. At the far end is another holding the bathroom, my room, and laundry room with the refrigerator. (She can’t stand the sound of the fridge.) It is essentially two old stone houses, which she rebuilt, connected by this conservatory, which she built.

This is her house. People come and help, friends and volunteers from workaway. She now has a partner who lives here part time (Gerri, the man with the surf camp on Achille Island), but this whole world is her creation. She did it alone for twenty years.She and a friend had come from Germany 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 she’d been hitching for years, as a teenager 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 explains with a self-assured German grin and fierce 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, unexpected, 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 cleaning floors, and so they soon 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, which she stuck under herself 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 has scribbled and scrapped together her homestead. The idea of such a committed achievement baffles and intrigues me. How do you know when and where to stop and settle? Does it just happen?

She showed me the old German water heater in the bathroom, a tall copper cylinder, excitedly explaining that sometimes they’ll start a fire and have a few baths. There is also a more convenient on-demand electric water heater attached to the shower head (always seems a bit sketchy to me) which she doesn’t seem as proud of. I learned later that Gerri finally made her buy it just last year. Until then she built fires.

I pry into her sure independence. I ask her about partnership, if she ever craved it. I try not to betray my current state of vulnerability, my intense desire to be held and loved, a relentless craving that has threaded through my life. I’m intrigued by someone who doesn’t have that. She explains how she just never really needed it, that having it now feels a bit strange, distracting, like she can’t get as much done. Well, that at least I understand.

She leads me towards my room, in the stone building at the other end of the blessed conservatory. I squeeze through the clutter of projects and plants, already planning how I might clean and organize to make a yoga space in this sun haven, wondering why every single Oregonian doesn’t have one.

My room smells musty, it is chilly. I greedily eye an undoubtedly inefficient electric radiator in the corner and wonder how often I’m allowed to use it. The window cannot open all the way because the wooden frame is rotting at the bottom. The stone walls are two feet thick and painted yellow, bright, happy. Three Black-eyed Susans, freshly picked, stand in a thin glass vase on the wide window sill, enhancing the walls with their subtle presence. There’s a shelf loaded with plastic boxes of extra blankets and clothes, spare chairs folded against the wall, and a big, wide bed that I touch longingly. It’s been a long month of sleeping on a boat bunk.

Valli tells me I can arrange the room how I want. I scan the space, making mental notes for later, set down my bag and use the bathroom, with painted fish on the walls.

Valli is a builder, she “makes” things. All sorts of things. Her workshop is beside the parked vans, a big room with skylight panels in the corrugated roof. Creations hang from the ceiling, dusty figures and forms that I can’t even begin to imagine how to build. It’s like being backstage and learning the tricks of the theater. The walls are lined with jumbled shelves of paints and fabrics and materials.

Currently she is laboring over a project that she hates. A company in England has asked her to replicate a costume of a sausage, with a sneering, thick-lipped smile and big, white gloved hands. She jokes that it looks like a giant creepy penis. It’s been a hassle from the beginning, fabric delays, foam inconsistencies, lack of interest in the project. Her shop is trashed, rags and foam all over the floor. I pull out my cheerful voice and say it’s a good thing she has to mail it tomorrow because then it will be over finally.

“Unless they don’t like it and send it back!” She counters. My West-coast optimism wilts. No Hawaii rainbows here.

But I feel safe and comfortable and nurtured none-the-less. Out back there is a garden, and greenhouse. The garden needs weeding, the chicken coup needs cleaning. It is nice to just put down my bags and spread out in a room where I can close the door. I see a guitar hanging on the wall, and look forward to the time when I relaxed enough to play it.

I needed to move. I’d been on busses all day, with a mind full of transition that could use some shaking loose. Valli tells me how to just walk behind the house, up the hill through the sheep pasture to the top. She points to a row of extra rubber boots lined side by side. “Wellies”, they’re called here. “Because it’s pretty soggy up there.” I slip on a pair that fits, who knows the size translation, I think they say six. Owie would love to come. She will stay with me, ensures 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, feeling comfort 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 trail she must have thought I could follow. Doggie social media.

We moved through cool moist air, and bright greens enhanced by contrasting dull skies and plentiful rain. 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 years before when I would sit stuck waiting for movement to come to me. That could take a long time. Now I know 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 walk and wonder if my only motivation to do anything is to prove to myself that I am not so OK with doing nothing. Motivation…what is my motivation for any of it? Alright, this thought process is getting nowhere. How about this, what feels good? Right now. What seems doable, comforting? Well, I reason, right now all I crave is some nestling in, a place to write, rest, and stretch. A clean, warm, comfortable space.

Owie and I clump into the house. She runs straight to her bed and I slip off my boots and step up into the kitchen, steamed with smells of dinner. Valli sets pots on the solid wooden table, butter, salt, knives, forks. We slice into boiled potatoes, eggs sunny side up, and veggies from the garden cut small and stewed, carrots and green beans. It is hot and healthy and filling, perfect.

Anika, a long term workaway-er and friend also lived there, but was working a lot lately and out with friends that night. 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 peculiar face and expressive 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.” Somewhere deep inside my adventurous soldier lay face down, dead tired in a field, and tried valiantly to raise a hand to the opportunity.

The agenda seemed agreeable. Three women, a van trip, kayaks, camping, hiking. I had 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 all looked perfect. Was this then a challenge to overcome my exhaustion and just keep charging. I can rally…can’t I?

Or, I could stay, have a whole house to myself, just me and the animals during the day (Anika would be home in the evenings). 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? 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 a month 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.

2 thoughts on “Valli’s World, Collooney, Ireland

  1. Blake Gilmore says:

    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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • knowinghome says:

      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!


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