Sometimes – though there is a strong argument that as a psychologist I should know better – I make the mistake of thinking that there are only so many transformations a person can or should make in their life without looking like an adventure-junkie, or a fool. Sometimes I think that once you’ve had a couple of good serious old-fashioned midlife crises, you really ought to be a bit more grown-up, and learn to settle, to stay put. But then sometimes there’s a shift in the air, a scent on the wind, a shadow on the water … and off I go again, looking to shed another skin and see what might grow in its place. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to emerge out of my own choices, but from someone else’s actions, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or whatever. But wherever it springs from, somewhere along the difficult and painful journey into the darkest woods that is a necessary part of any shedding of skins, I get a sniff of a scent and off I pad down a new trail, wolfpelt prickling with excitement.
And so yes, there now comes a new adventure. Those of you who are regular visitors to this blog will know that this has been a difficult year in many ways, though of course only a small number of our stories can or should ever publically be told. It’s been a difficult year especially on the croft, and as our work around EarthLines has grown and my own writing and narrative psychology work has expanded again and David has been deeply embroiled in community crofting activities, we came to a point in the middle of the summer where we recognised that we were living too many fulltime lives simultaneously, and that something, or possibly everything, had to give.
Everything gave – or almost everything. And so it is that we have emerged from that crisis of faith and meaning and decided to move on from this beautiful place, sell our croft, and head off again with our eyes seemingly always set on the distant western horizon, to Ireland.
There are threads here, to be unravelled. Threads of my own weaving that now I’m trying to follow back to their origin. To explain why it is that I can be so deeply rooted in a place, and so deeply love it, and yet often find it easy to move on. My mother usually laughs when I say that, and reminds me that one set of my great-grandparents were Irish travelling folk. Including the notorious Jimmy Dunne, who fathered thirteen children on his first wife until she died finally, giving birth to the last of them, and then fathered thirteen more on his second wife, my great-grandmother. Irish genes are strong, she’ll remind me, and sometimes indeed it does seem so. And I was brought up with an Irishman for a stepfather, brought up on rebel songs and poetry and stories which seemed to spring directly from that Celtic Otherworld which was so vividly alive in my imagination. I was 31 years old before finally I set foot in Ireland, though it wasn’t for want of yearning in all the years in between, and I gave up my job and moved there the following year. How do you explain that strong an attachment to the idea of a place? For all my fine words, I have no idea. It simply is. And so I lived in Connemara for four years, both full-time and part-time, and when I left, fleeing an increasingly lunatic first husband, I left behind a big chunk of myself both rooted and fossilised in those gloriously windswept bogs.
David and I moved here to the Outer Hebrides in 2010. We didn’t know when we first came house- and croft-hunting that we were going to move here; we were just looking for somewhere – anywhere – remote from a world and a civilisation that seemed to be growing increasingly pathological with every year that went by. And as we drove for the first time down the long winding road to Uig from Stornoway to see this house that we would eventually end up buying, at a certain point in the journey I sat up straight and said to David, ‘It’s just like Connemara!’ – and then I began to feel at home. Everything that I have loved about this landscape, I loved first in Ireland. Everything in my life has, does, and I suspect always will, point me back there. Not necessarily to Connemara; right now my heart tells me Donegal. But either way, my compass is still very clearly pointing west.
And so I move from wondering whether I’m not simply a serial rooter-in-place, with gypsy genes too dominant for my own good, to a sense that no – maybe there really is sometimes just one place in the world for each of us where we can truly feel at home, where we can truly belong. It’s a humbling idea, because I’ve argued against it in my own writing – not least in a recent long article I wrote for EarthLines on the subject. I find myself – literally, in some ways! – all at sea. But after all, isn’t that part of the adventure? To be able, even after 52 years on the planet, to overturn deeply held ideas on the strength of a sudden flash of insight? To be able to let go of precisely the thing that you thought defined you, and follow the new path of understanding wherever it might take you?
I don’t know any more about place, but I do know about belonging, and belonging isn’t just about place but about culture. It is an Irish culture that has always drawn me, and that always will – the culture that I grew up with, a culture that oozed music and poetry and laughter. Which was a culture of exile in many senses, and was never rooted in the reality of the present-day country until I came finally to buy an old tumble-down stone cottage in a Connemara bog in 1993. And a culture to which I will return and find that after these difficult economic years the reality of the present-day country will have shifted again, and again I will not know it. But I will know something that is more important: something fundamental, something that endures in the fields and the hills and the sea and the stone. And I will know for sure that however strange it might seem, it is a place where I seem to belong.
And so everything will change, and yet some things will not. EarthLines will endure, and I believe will be all the richer for the move. My own work will endure and my courses and my writing, and I believe they too will be richer for the move. But some things will not. We will never again try to run two or even three full-time lives in parallel, and smallholding to the extent that we embraced it should always have been a single full-time job. Livestock are tying and all-consuming, and we found that to our cost. So in future it will be a vegetable garden and a herb garden and a few hens. And time to write, and to be.
In so many ways this is a move that runs deep; it is also very much about a return to a world which I seemed to need to abandon for a while way back in 2010. I’ve written before about the importance of the Return part of the Hero’s Journey, about how a Retreat must always be followed by a Return, and for sure this is no simple return in the sense of going backwards. It is rather a Return in the sense of bringing something back into the community and the world – something precious hewn out of ancient, solid Lewissian gneiss during that necessary stay in the shadowy caves of the Underworld.
I’ll be sorrier than I can say to leave this beautiful place. But I hope we’ll pass on the house and the croft to someone who will care for it, and the sea and the mountains, as much as we have.