September: The road goes ever on and on

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.

13 thoughts on “September: The road goes ever on and on

  1. I do understand, and how big of you both to ‘see’ and be able to find a way. We were always moving house when I was a kid, and altho’ I was born on the Isle of Mull, since we were ‘ferry lopers’ I never felt that I truly belonged to that Hebridean culture. I loved it painfully deeply. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I now live in remote, rural Portugal, and am still on the outside of things. I will never feel culturally at one, I guess, but deeply connected to the earth, this amazing planet.
    Good luck with your next venture.

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    1. The notion of outsider and insider in the context of place and belonging is such a deep vein to mine … one of these days I’ll get to grips with it but at some level you have to go with the places that smell right … Thanks for the kind words!

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  2. Beautifully honest and at the same time humbling. I have ventured on your journey and I also run a smallholding but it is horticulturally based and that will make a big difference. I have spent my year stripping back my life so that I can write and just be and it has been a revelation in how to live. Wishing you speed with your new journey as the decision is obviously made. Very much look forward to the course in May. Xx

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    1. Thank you, Fiona, and yes, I think livestock are such a different thing – not that horticulture is an easy ride, though! The course in May will go ahead, even if the house sells ahead of time, & I look forward to meeting you there.

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  3. A place that feels absolutely right at one time may cease to be so at another. Sometimes we just know that we need to move on, dragging our roots out of the soil yet again. The tragedy comes when we deny that what served us once serves us no longer. I admire your bravery in moving on, and wish you luck on your new adventure.

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  4. Honest and familiar. Thanks Sharon. Having done a few similar moves myself, and in the process of making painful decisions around ‘which full time life do you want?’, it’s great to read this. I like the phrase ‘sacrifice for a harvest’ at these times of stripping away, that engender tricky choices. Also, just finished re-reading The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall. Smallholdings generally need a good tribe to manage them. Blessings on your new patch wherever it is and many happy chicken tractor returns to you.

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  5. Some of us are dwellers, some wayfarers, others travelers or nomads and some have us have tried them all. So go with the flow and enjoy the journey.
    We all have difficult years and the best one can say is that at the end we may have been enriched by the experience even if we end up sadder and not particularly wiser.

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    1. Ah, but those first two sentences of yours may yet be the wisest of them all 🙂 Thank you for the reminder; it’s hard to remember sometimes when the trees in your head seem to be so very intent on crowding out the wood …

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  6. Sharon, I shared your blog on Facebook with a reply I realised should have been posted here…apologies, I’m not very clever with blogs.

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  7. If I had the capacity to do it – I;d buy the croft! I sometimes think actually being or feeling settled somewhere must be rather comforting. I know I don’t belong where I live now but I have no choice and, when the chance comes, I may be too old.
    I hope you find the next place is the place you want to be,

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  8. I think there are many modern day travellers experiencing these changes in direction and fortune.
    Please don’t be upset by the uncertainty you are experiencing. There is no such thing in this life as certainty. We’ll only understand it when its all over. All we can do is make the best choices with what we know at that time.
    My wife, Jenny & I have had several such changes in the last few years. We moved to Scotland from Ireland in search of the good life in our mid fifties. We both had strong Scottish roots & needed to get a few things out of our system. We believed Scotland was the place for us. We thought we had exhausted possibilities in Ireland.
    We tried hard to put down roots for over 4 years but in the end we had to admit that the land or something was telling us to go ‘home’. We had just too many setbacks.
    We came back to family in Ireland and that was the last (we hope) of our setbacks. Family difficulties caused us to be made homeless & living in our caravan high up in the Mournes in beautiful weather. It was possibly one of the best places to be homeless.
    I often wondered what it felt like to be homeless. Now I know. With our life savings gone in trying to make things work in Scotland, we believed we faced the prospect of life on a sink estate and not the rural idyll we had hoped for. Then the wheel of fortune turned, energies shifted.
    Out of the blue we found a small house to rent that we could afford in a lovely village on the north coast.
    Never again will I agonise over what appears to be my fate because within a day it can all change so dramatically. The fear of homelessness – the nightmare of the middle classes – holds much less fear for me now.
    I have come back to the roots of my youth on the north coast of Ireland. Full circle as it were, but somewhat wiser. It seems to me that sometimes you have to go along way round to come back to the start. In this way I appreciate what I couldn’t the first time round.
    I am more at ease now than I have been for many years. I last lived here 30 years ago. Many of the people I knew are no longer in this world. That in itself teaches me much about the transient nature of life & to wear life lightly.
    I have made peace with Ireland and its people.
    In my youth, living through the worst of the ‘Troubles’ ,Ireland caused me great trauma. I grew to despise the place. Felt trapped by responsibilities.I was confused about my identity. Was I British, Irish, Scottish? Now I know I am Irish. I like the Irish energy whether its Planter or Gael. Its the land of my spiritual ancestors – the Celts. We’re a quarter mad, a quarter bad, a quarter saintly and a quarter full of fun. It was here I grew up. It formed me. I understand the people and the culture. I finally feel I belong.
    I wish the same for you in Ireland.

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