Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Ireland Diaries, Part Three: Emotional Grab Bag

There are a lot of things I wanted to talk about my trip to Ireland but the memories and thoughts are not coming to me in any cogent, linear way, but rather in dreamlike shreds and little bits and bites of emotion that bubble up at unexpected times and in unexpected places. So this post will be a grab-bag of feelings and thoughts, in no particular order:

Expectations, Sheckpectations

Because it took me so long in my life to actually make this journey, I created a great deal of mythology around it: That this trip would change me in some fundamental way, that I would return wiser, inspired to write again, spiritually renewed, and somehow magically divested of all the problems that I had before I left. I fully understand on an intellectual level how completely delusional this is, but nonetheless, I had somehow mentally categorized my life into Before Ireland and After Ireland: After Ireland, I would know what to do about publishing my novel, and I would be filled with wild inspiration to write again. After Ireland, I would be a better, more forgiving person and would have Perspective on this terrible situation with my family member. After Ireland, I would be a totally improved person in many ways—how could I not be? Yes, I know this is an absurdly unrealistic expectation to apply to what is an ordinary and routine excursion for many people, but I have been so thoroughly ravaged by the past few years, that these delusions were the only thing I had to hold on to.

As it turns out, they weren’t all delusions. I do feel stronger and more confident in myself. I realized that I’m good at travel. I managed chaos well, I got lost and found my way back, I ventured off most beaten paths and came out okay, and I do feel that in some fundamental ways, I have returned to myself. I have a renewed faith in other people, and a renewed sense of my own strength. But I am not a better person. I’m just the same person I’ve always been, with all of my disappointing flaws and foibles, still confused and fearful, still uninspired to write great poetry, and unduly annoyed by petty, day-to-day grievances. Going elsewhere didn’t change me at all.

I realized that fundamentally, I am an idealist, and this causes me great pain and feelings of let-down when my ideals do not match up with reality. But I have come to accept that this is a part of who I am, and to just laugh at my own silliness when I come face-to-face with expectation vs. reality.

Snake Dreams

A few days after I got back, I had a disturbing dream about a Druidic snake cult in Ireland. I woke up in the wee hours, very confused, with racing thoughts about how this made no sense because I was pretty sure there are no indigenous snakes in Ireland. After a coffee-fueled internet search, I found a number of links relating to snake myths in Ireland, aside from the old tales of St. Patrick driving snakes from the land. Despite there being no actual snakes in Ireland, serpent imagery is all over the place in Irish art, including the Book of Kells and on a vase I am unduly proud to have found for four Euro in the window of a charity shop in Limerick. According to internet wisdom, there was, against all logic, some sort of snake-worshipping Druidic cult in Ireland at some point, but it’s unclear what happened to them and where they ended up after Catholicism took over. All of the snake imagery must have gotten to me, along with the Viking invasion stuff—I’ve also had a lot dreams about Viking invasions. Oddly, my subconscious seems to be fairly indifferent to the English. The evils they enacted upon the Irish went more or less ignored by my fever dreams.

A Mystical Encounter?

I met a drunk American anesthesiologist in a pub in Killarney, accompanied by his very sweet wife, a former critical care nurse. The anesthesiologist had a lot of opinions about my life, the future of health care, Reno, Nevada, and driving in Ireland. I talked to him for a long time, and while I didn’t agree with him on everything, I left feeling a smidge more forgiving about the doctors who told us to give up on my family member. I understood more where they may have been coming from, given their training, their experiences, and what they see on a day-to-day basis. I’ve been struggling to put together my own Advanced Directive since All of This Happened, and when I flat-out asked this gentlemen what he wanted for his own end-of-life plan, he said, “I don’t know.” This was not comforting, considering that he had been a doctor for 35 years.

When I told my very pragmatic, not-at-all-prone-to-the-mystic sister about this encounter, she posited that it was not an accident.

Jewelry! Jewelry! Jewelry!

Speaking of my sister, it turns out she is a genius at jewelry. She knows all about rose gold and sterling and chains and design and stuff like that. She put the jewelry sales people through the ringer, helped random customers, and saved me from an unadvisable amber pendant purchase at an open market. I didn’t really understand her fixation on jewelry until I walked into a shop and saw...The Necklace. I wasn’t there to buy anything; I was just along for the ride. But low and behold, when I saw this necklace, the heavens opened, angels sang, and I was smacked in the head with a raw, helpless sense of overwhelming desire. It was a mother-of-pearl pendant with a rose gold Tree of Life design, and it was completely perfect in every way. I could see myself wearing it every day: It could be my Signature Piece, and it would define me as a person and as a woman. It was stunning, and I wanted it with an irrational urgency. But alas, it was 600 hundred euro, which was just a bridge too far for me. I don’t think I’ve spent more than thirty bucks on a piece of jewelry in my life, as I am a cheapo and I have self-esteem issues.

So, the gorgeous mother-of-pearl necklace is still hanging there in that shop in Killarney, and in the shadowy fringes of my dreams. But all was not lost—my sis found me a very lovely rose gold and sterling silver Tree of Life pendant in the duty-free shop in Shannon, which was “only” around 200 Euro, and the lady gave me a killer deal on it. So now I have a very nice “piece”, and I’m inspired to weed out all my crap jewelry and keep only the few, quality pieces I do have, all of which have been gifts. I’m damn new half a century old as of this weekend, and it’s time to rid myself of the junk and set some standards, gosh darn it.

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Ireland Diaries, Part 2: The Deep and Ponderous

For context, I wanted to give a quick recap of our route through Ireland. Looking back on it, I realize we covered an enormous amount of ground, much of it very remote and rural. I’m bad at geography, but I’ll do my best—basically, we traveled in a rough horseshoe shape through the middle of the country: We flew into Dublin, and after a two day stay, departed by train to Killarney, which was a three-hour trip through the rural countryside, (and we remembered to change trains at Mallow!, which we were repeatedly admonished to do), then we were taken by private chauffer (because we are fancy) through Adare, into the Cliffs of Moher, and finally to the seaside town of Galway. We spent the last full day in the small city of Limerick, which was a little bit of a backtrack towards the south, but a very pretty drive.  “Very pretty” describes all of rural Ireland. It was like driving through an illustrated fantasy children’s book, so absurdly picturesque that it almost felt unreal.  

I have always believed that Ireland is my spiritual home, and that when I arrived there, I would feel immediately embraced and loved by the land, and would feel like I returned to my birthplace. But in spite of its beauty, I did not feel welcomed with open arms by the earth. The land felt savage, alien and infinitely unknowable to me; a self-contained terra that holds it secrets close and has no interest in nursing the wounded soul of an outsider. Ironically, I felt this most strongly as we were flying out of Shannon and I looked down at the spooky mists rising from the vivid green islands of the coast. It struck me in that moment that this regal land belongs only to itself, and that those who walk on it are strictly guests.

After so many years of believing that home was somewhere else, it turns out that it was here all along. The Pacific Northwest is the land that loves me: The familiar lakes and trees and forest, the herons in the park, the smell of Evergreens on a rainy day. The land here covers and protects three of my passed-away cats, and holds all of my offerings. I have walked on its paths and received its gifts time and time again. It’s a healing land, and it knows and understands me. Ireland is beautiful, but it didn’t feel like my “nature home” the way the northwest does. It felt good to return its embrace.

That having been said, I felt very connected to Ireland in other ways, in part through its people and their deep commitment to preserving their history and culture. I may just be missing something about my own city, but it seemed to me that Ireland, especially Dublin, was home to an extraordinary number of museums and national parks, all dedicated to preserving their art, their history, their land, their language, or their literary legacy. I’ll talk more about the Book of Kells exhibit and the Natural History Museum in another post, but there were so many more museums I wanted to see and just no time to take them all in. I could have spent an entire day in just one museum and still not feel that I’d seen everything adequately.

While there is this remarkable dedication to preservation, and there are large swaths of of Ireland that feel as though they’re frozen in time, it is also a country that is bumping up against the aggressive elbowing in of modernization. It seems to exist in a weird suspended tension of both.  So far preservation has a narrow lead, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen in a few years. It’s clear that Dublin has already lost that battle. It was great to tour the city and see the historical buildings, but I was also glad to leave. It was extremely overcrowded, smoggy, and loud, and it has clearly gone the way of Seattle—they have packed in massive numbers of people in a short period of time, and they don’t have the infrastructure to support the rapid population growth. All of the locals we talked to had the exact same laments native Seattlites do about the housing shortages, crowding, traffic, and the loss of the soul of the city. Walking in Dublin was very claustrophobic, the noise, traffic and smoke was grating, and everyone seemed stressed out, unhappy, and rushed. It was like being in a super-concentrated version of Seattle. It was a relief to leave that energy and get out into the country.

Speaking of the country, I give Ireland mad props for being so dang good at tourism. Somehow they manage to get a massive number of people to popular sites such as the Cliffs of Moher and the Ring of Kerry, all while still keeping the landscape pristine and seemingly untouched. With the Ring of Kerry in particular, there seems to be a stubborn (and wise) refusal to make it more accessible. The entire Ring is accessed by a tiny, narrow, two-way road that the giant tour buses somehow defy physics to travel on, all the while deftly ducking idiot self-driving tourists who take blind hairpin turns way too quickly and don’t have any respect for how treacherous it actually is. Sadly, some tourists who forgot what side of the road to drive on were killed in a car crash on that road a few days before we arrived. If you do travel through Ireland, I recommend that you do not self-drive, and that you hire a private driver or suck it up and book a bus tour, especially in the country. The roads are unforgiving, and Ireland's drivers are total pros, so there is no reason to put yourself through the stress of driving.

As I’m writing, I realize there are so many more things I want to tell you about—the Cliffs, the Book of Kells, Galway, our warm and hilarious Ring of Kerry driver, and our chivalrous private chauffeurs who went out of their way for us numerous times. So over the next week, there will probably be at least two more parts to the Ireland Diaries. Stay tuned for more, and thank you for indulging me as I process my journey!

--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Ireland Diaries, Part One: The Petty and Shallow

I’m back, folks! I’ve just returned from Ireland and I’m fresh off the high of being a worldly world traveler and all urbane and knowledgeable and stuff. It was my first trip out of the U.S. (I don’t count Canada as foreign travel), and my first time flying over the Atlantic. Over the last few days, as I’ve slowly recovered my senses and gotten over my jet lag, I’ve had a million thoughts jostling for space in my head and wanting to be written. As I was considering how to properly document everything, it occurred to me that the only reasonable way to do this is to divide all my intense thoughts and feelings into two categories: The Petty and Shallow, and the Deep and Ponderous, as the trip brought out both of those in me in stark relief.  Therefore, I shall break this blog post into two, possibly even three parts. Let’s start with the Petty and Shallow, divided by sub-categories:


I have to give credit to my sister and travel partner, Laura, (hi, Sis!) who set all of this up. She arranged the trip, made all of the decisions, worked with the travel agent, and Organized All the Things. One thing she made certain of was that Breakfast was included for every morning we were in Ireland. To be honest, I was dreading Breakfast. I somehow imagined a giant, imposing platter of beans, bacon, blackened toast, and greasy fried eggs thrust at me in the wee hours by an imposing innkeeper who would hover over me and ask in a hurt tone why I wasn’t eating anything as I stared at my plate in sleep-deprived nausea. I normally can’t eat until a few hours after I’ve woken up, and even then I usually only have a boiled egg or a half slice of toast.

But Breakfast in Ireland was the culinary highlight of the trip, dear readers. A buffet smorgasbord of lox, exotic cheeses (Brie! For breakfast!!), scrambled eggs, steamed tomatoes, sausage, grapefruit, boiled mushrooms, thick bacon, smoked meats, toast, and these irresistible little mini-croissants with fresh butter. Plus they cheerfully bring you your own personal silver pot of piping hot coffee. After only one day of Breakfast, I felt weirdly entitled about it. I thought a lot about Breakfast when we weren’t at Breakfast. And now I feel slightly let down every morning as I peel my pathetic boiled egg and gaze into the buffet-less abyss. It’s probably for the best. With all of the smoked meats, sausages, bacon, and butter I snarfed down every morning, I’m pretty sure I have about two functioning arteries left, but who needs arteries when you have…Breakfast!  

Side note: The Irish are great at Breakfast. However, salads are not in their wheelhouse. By the third day in, I was dying for some fiber and I ordered a Caesar Salad at a pub. It came with a few limp, dressing-drenched leaves of lettuce and nine (I counted) slices of bacon. If you don’t believe me, ask Laura. She saw it with her own eyes.


I was fairly shocked to find that in all my interactions, I didn’t once run into a single bored, gum-snapping, eye-rolling teenager glued to their phone as they sullenly shoved my hotel key/store purchases/dinner plate at me. Everywhere we went, the service was impeccable: Polite, respectful, kind, attentive, and patient. I like to think we were pretty low-maintenance travelers, but nonetheless, the staff at every hotel was a consummate professional and immediately jumped in to resolve even the vaguest suggestion that something wasn’t quite right. For example, at one hotel we didn’t have a door sign to hang indicating we wanted the room cleaned. When Laura asked at the desk if the room would be cleaned even though we didn’t have a sign, the staff immediately picked up the phone and made sure that the room was cleaned on the spot. Every single time we checked into a hotel, they somehow magically made a room available for us three to four hours before our official check-in time. They made sure our suitcases were taken care of, our cabs were called, our purchases were expertly packaged for plane travel, and that every need was anticipated before we even knew it was a need. Even the lady at Security in the Shannon airport was a delight: “I’m so sorry; do remove your shoes now, thank you so very much, you are lovely ladies, the two of you are. Thank you for visiting us, and have a wonderful journey home!” I don’t know if this is a European thing or a specifically Irish thing, but it was a joy to behold.

I have some things to say about our drivers while we are on the trip, but that will come in Part Two. Hint: The drivers were phenomenal.

The Stupidity of Others:

The vast majority of the people I encountered on this trip were great—polite, nice, happy to be there, cheery, seemingly intelligent. But the few that I ran into who were frankly stupid were amplified in my mind because their stupidity seemed to stem from the luxury afforded by them to be jaded. I think there is way too much obsession with privilege these days and it’s unhealthy, but to me, there was something particularly galling about the privileged attitude of these people.  This trip was not trivial for me. I have waited most of my life to be able to do this, and it wasn’t just another place to gawp at and add to some checklist of sites seen. I couldn’t afford to be jaded about it. Travel has not been a given in my life. I didn’t get an all-expense-paid gap year trip as a teenager or get to bum around Europe after high school—I had to work to survive. This trip was very hard-earned, and I have wanted to go to Ireland for as a long as I can remember. So when the idiot from Southern California complains that he doesn’t want to get off of the bus in the Ring of Kerry to look at the dazzling coastline because “he’s from a beach town and the water looks really cold and gray here”, I wanted to punch him. Same with the snotty English girl with cat-eye makeup and fussy boots who snubbed me at lunch, sniped at me for being in the wrong seat on the bus, and then complained petulantly that the weather was “simply not cooperating.” Oh, really??? The weather is “not cooperating”?? The water is cold? What the hell is wrong with you people? You are in a coastal country in October, for God’s Sake! Why travel if you’re not going to embrace where you are? Dumb, dumb, dumb. Fortunately, we were only on a tour bus for about a half a day, and I didn’t have to encounter any more idiots after that.

European Hotels

I have made a very disappointing discovery about myself, which is that I do not care for “character” in my hotel rooms. Excellent service aside, European hotels are jenky and grimy and cramped and there is always a game of “find the light switch” because none of the electrical wiring makes any sense, and there are never enough outlets and the hallways are frighteningly narrow and even the non-smoking rooms smell like smoke mixed with a faint whiff of death. By the end of the trip I came to appreciate the bland, anonymous sameness of a good old American corporate hotel. I’ll take a cookie-cutter Super 8 over a historical European inn any day. I know this makes a me a bad person, but when you’re exhausted and overstimulated and jet lagged, you just want a toilet that flushes properly and a switch that is in reasonable proximity to the lamp you’re trying to turn on.

Note: I don’t want anyone to think that the cleaning staff didn’t do a good job. They work really hard to keep the rooms clean. It’s just that when a place is hundreds of years old, you get inevitable patina of grime that’s impossible to get rid of. It’s no one’s fault; it just a hazard of age.

Scary Movies on the Plane:

Tip of the week: I watched a really scary movie on the plane thinking it wouldn’t affect me because I was on a plane, but I was wrong. I’m still scared from it. So don’t watch scary movies on the plane if you’re easily frightened. Being in the air doesn’t magically make it less scary.

Alright, now that the petty stuff is cleared away, Part Two will be a bit more substantial and in-depth. Stay tuned!