And so I’m in Europe, my first time, arrived by epic adventure across an ocean, served on a small wooden-boat shaped platter, and all I could do was huddle against the damp Irish chill in my father’s down sleeping bag, glued to Caribbean weather reports on the screen of my tiny iPad. I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of my funk and be the kind of traveler I admired.
Gerri drove me to Achill Island in his blue Nissan cargo van, past peat bogs where cakes of earth were sliced and pried out and left to dry, soon to feed the hungry mouths of wood stoves. Gerri was an impenetrable man, talkative but serious, all business, showing little emotion as he laid out his history, like I’m sure he’s done for dozens of Work-away-ers before me.
He was from Northern Ireland, grew up in the time of the “troubles”. He was not an old man, couldn’t even be my father. I didn’t realize how recent the troubles had been. Living with the whisper of war, what was that like?
“It’s just your reality,” he said frankly, eyes ahead on the road. “You get used to bomb drills at school.” I thought of tornado drills in North Carolina, crouched under our desks, and hurricane cancellations, leaving summer camp early to secure our house. Not nearly the same kind of threat, but a reality you get used to. How adaptable we are.
Achill Island was shut down for the season, a short warm season that had just passed. Gerri gave me the tour, the tiny village school that his two grown children had attended. His daughter had a Gaelic name. Kids here learn Gaelic in school.
“Do you speak it?” I turned to him.
“Yes,” he stared ahead, “But it’s not very pretty.”
He drove us to the cliffs, red sheer walls topped with rounded grassy tops, the road winding through their dipping curves and a grey heaving sea below. I stood in the wind and breathed in the sun and took pictures. Beautiful. Gerri stood outside the car, not quite impatient, but not quite enraptured. He’d seen a lot of these cliffs. It was obvious we were here for me, the tour for the work-away-er.
Then past the house he’d given his first German wife in the divorce. Valli is from Germany too. “I like Germans,” he said. “They get things done.”
And finally to the beach where he taught surfing in the summer. I had originally applied to work with him, but late in the season, and he’d led me to Valli’s house instead. Now I was glad, standing here against that cold Atlantic breeze, staring at that mushy bay the color of churned gray clay. Surfing Ireland would have been a nice check off my list, but right now, after all that cold ocean, I just wasn’t in the mood.
We stayed the night in his second house. Downstairs was a dark, closed surf shop, upstairs a cozy apartment, and the driveway home to a double decker surf-school bus. His hospitality was minimalist but sufficient. Bathroom here, bed here, heater, dinner. Then he set in on the business he’d come to finish, and I closed myself in my room.
Just as well, as both my period and the hurricane hit that day. My mind pulled thousands of miles away. Feeling that I’d paid sufficient dues to the day and travels and new experiences, I let myself dive back into the addiction of social media. Pictures of brown islands, news reports, messages from people calling for aid and declaring themselves safe.
My reaction those next days caught me off guard. I’d watched destruction before. Mega typhoons, super cyclones, earthquakes. We all have. Hurricane Mathew had wiped Haiti clean of leaves and food just the year before. Hell, the bombs we drop cause as much destruction as these natural disasters. And for each of them I do care. I pause a moment, a few days of sadness. I fantasize every time about going and helping…and then that passes and my life goes on while others’ are permanently altered.
But then it hits home, and it all gets very personal. Like, you remember that street, that tree, that building. You can relate to what is lost because you knew what it was like before. Or…I don’t know, just the fact that you know the place, and the people. They are part of your tribe.
It’s so much easier to dismiss suffering when it’s not our tribe. How could we ever inflict suffering on others once we’d known that suffering? Sometimes we become connected through disaster, even across worlds, because similar experience brings understanding, creates its own sort of tribe.
Back at Valli’s homestead I still tended my tasks, although reserved and introspective, which mainly went unnoticed or disregarded by the others. I told them enough of the news and progress to stay updated, but they were not the coddling kind, more the efficient business kind. And just as well. I needed the emotional distance they gave just as much as I needed the simple tasks to balance my day.
In the morning I woke to a light load of gentle, but regulating chores. Clean the chicken coup, weed the garden, wipe bugs off the conservatory windows, help build a new woodshed roof. In the afternoon I disciplined myself to explore, if just a little. ‘Stay here, stay engaged.’ Walk the hill with Owie, ride a bike to town to eat at the cozy local cafe.
It was not until the evening chill set in that I gave in to dwelling and grieving. I shamed my grief, like a strange, undeserved sadness. Who was I to grieve? A woman who’d once lived on an island, but who hadn’t bothered to return in 13 years, who had no commitment to the community that had formed without her contribution. Who wanted the island only as a means of catharsis and inspiration for her art.
What had I actually lost, anyways? Nothing in my life was changed, nothing I depended on for my own survival or livelihood. Yet I wept those days as if it had. Maybe I felt that I had lost a piece of my past, or a piece of my future. In a way, the impact felt cleansing, an uncontrollable emotion that revealed how close to my heart a place can be. And how open and alive that heart still is.
In those days, I needed to feel connected, reassured. So I called my family, those from the island chapter of my life. I called my brother, to share disbelief, and amazement. I called my father, for his meteorological analyses and predictions and observations. And I called my mother…just to whine.
“But the trees!” I’d sob. It was the nature that hit me the hardest. I had little connection to the buildings anymore, but I believed (as I’m sure everyone did), that the land had died, as if a storm could blow a rocky island out to sea.
“Oh honey, they’ll grow back,” she crooned.
“Really?” I guess I’d thought once the leaves were gone the trees were done.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “They did after hurricane Hugo.”
And with those few confident words came relief.
If the first manifestation of grief was loss, the second was helplessness. I tried to help. I followed news, I donated what I could, I relayed a couple messages. One grand scheme to contact cruise ships and enlist their help, but they were already on it, of course. Because there are networks and organizations much more prepared than one wandering nomad on a small homestead across the ocean.
I felt, however, that in some way my diligence and compassionate grieving was in itself necessary to show support. In my own corner of the world I followed the progress, rejoicing as islands banded together, as relief arrived, and wept for their struggles. And throughout it all rose that burning desire. “I want to be there!”
This reaction was by no means new to me. Every disaster sparked that same urge. The urge to sign up for the Red Cross, to be trained in disaster relief, and be flown gallantly into the thick of it, handing out water filters and bandaging cut legs (the reality which is way less glamorous than my dramatic savior fantasies). I’m sure it is some sort of primal survival, adrenal longing, as if being closer to the suffering, being a hand to help lift it, could ease my own discomfort at just witnessing it helplessly.
But then the main surge would pass, and I would forget. I would not sign up for the Red Cross, and when the next disaster came, I’d still be in the same place, untrained but wishing again nobly that I was.
Yet here was an opportunity! A place I had already planned to go, just slowly, with an undetermined arrival date. The fuzzy end point to an uncharted travel itinerary had suddenly bolted into sharp focus. And how convenient, as I was currently rolling in uncertainty.
“I could fly back now…” I mused, bypassing the challenging journey ahead of me…that lonely walk through Europe, through money worries, through grieving my last relationship, through rediscovering some sort of self-sufficient happiness.
I saw the unfolding events in the Caribbean through selfish eyes, a personal opportunity for purpose. I envied the camaraderie that was forming before the eyes of the world, the community and solidarity that would inevitable arise, and I longed to be part of it, part of something. As much as I genuinely wanted to join hands and help, I wanted to join hands and be held too. I cringed at this realization.
The hurricane offered me an escape fantasy, though unrealistic. People were leaving the islands, not going. And I could bring nothing to offer. I was a tired traveler, broke and nursing an injured shoulder. Or was that an excuse? I called my mom.
“Sweetie,” she said, “There is nothing you can do there right now. People don’t have water or electricity. You’d be more of a burden at this point.” Her words sobered me, relieved my guilt, settled the flittering possibilities in my mind. I would be a burden, that makes for an obvious choice.
“You have your own thing you are doing right now. You just have to focus on the journey set ahead of you.” I agreed solemnly.
That night I lay awake, readjusting my beam of focus. Pulling myself back, surrendering to my own reality, and re-committing to my trek. I wouldn’t bail out early. Nothing would come save me from the effort of planning my own path, step by step, and I was starting to accept that. No purpose would reach out and grab me, I’d have to design my own. And no man lay waiting at the end. I would come to be OK with that too, slowly…that would be part of the journey.