Cosmic Kiss : A Valentine’s Day Letter for Sara

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I took a walk last night along the river Lee, feeling lonely and missing you as much as ever. I sat on a bench watching the dark water pass and enjoying the cool night air. Then I looked up at the sky, at all the stars, and noticed the constellation Orion, one of my favorites along with Cassiopeia. Now, it would be cliché to just say that I gained a great peace from looking into the heavens and knowing you could look up at the same stars—that’s been said a thousand times in a thousand songs and cheesy movies—but, nevertheless, it really did. However, my thought process and feelings were so much more than that.

a08f4d7918df9d876c01b9b2de47d18dYou see, for whatever nerdy reason, I know an awful lot about the Orion constellation. I know that mammoth ivory-carvings of it, which date to over 30,000 years old, were discovered in Europe less than 50 years ago. So that means that it’s not just you and I that can look up and see the same stars, it’s all of human history. I know that, almost inexplicably, every ancient civilization from Chinese antiquity, across the middle east, through ancient Greece and Rome, all over Europe and across the ocean to the Americas, North and South, Orion has been depicted and believed in as some form of mythos or religion as a hunter of some sort. I know that in his earliest incarnations, by the Babylonians, Orion wasn’t simply a hunter but a messenger to the gods, from humanity. Also, because Orion’s arrow always points north, it has guided ages of sailors—and ancient Egyptian traders in the Sahara— safely home. So in that sense, Orion represents a long history of hope—hope that we are connected to something greater than ourselves, and that we will not become lost.

Orion ChartThen, scientifically I know that Orion consists of a number of stars including Rigel, Betelgeuse and Bellatrix—some of the brightest stars in our night sky, which are over 100,000 times more luminous than our sun. I know that Rigel and Betelgeuse are supergiants nearing the end of their lives. When they finally go supernova the explosions will be visible in our daytime sky. Then, in Orion’s belt is a binary system of stars, orbiting around each other about once a week.   Also, I know that one of the stars in Orion’s sword is not a star at all, but the Orion Nebula (M43).orion-nebula-ricky-barnard  A star factory, all collapsing clouds of gas and dust, over 2,000 times more massive than our sun, which gives us insight into the formation of stars around it and planetary systems throughout the galaxy. I look at it and I feel small, and huge—we are a singularity, we are infinite.

In Orion is the wonder of the universe, and of us.

Now, all of this seems like a lot to sit and think about on a bench along the river Lee at midnight, but that’s just how my mind gets going sometimes. So, there I was, missing you, staring up at the stars, thinking all of these things, and finally it came to me; a spectacular peace settled over me as I realized this simplicity:

IMG_0986My darling Sara, across a billion-billion years of mysterious time, and hurtling through the infinite wilderness of space, it is my profound and humbling privilege to do it with you.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day, my love.

 

 

Living on Irish Time

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Arriving to Cork, Ireland almost two weeks before the start of semester gave me plenty of time to tour the UCC campus.  On my first walk about the grounds—and every time since—I was captivated.  My flatmate expressed the same excitement after he toured the grounds.

“Everything is so old,” Austin said.  Then his girlfriend chimed in with a comment, the likes of which I’ve heard—and made—a lot over these past weeks.  UCC

“I feel like we’re going to school at Hogwarts!” she said over steaming tea.  Sami was quick to abandon the skinny vanilla lattes of her Minnesota home and dive head first into the tea-culture here. “We should all take Defense Against the Dark Arts, or Muggle Studies,” she said, sipping.

Now, as I am wont to do, along with that excitement came the strong and impossible-to-ignore need to plan out my entire semester’s schedule.  I think a lot of students who spend a semester, or year, abroad have this similar problem.  We’re planners, you see—we’ve planned this trip for over a year.  We’ve been on the ball, submitting forms for passports, housing, visas, plane tickets.  Hell, I’d been making lists of what to pack and researching international shipping and customs guidelines for months before I left.  I had been told before leaving Montana that I would not be allowed to register for classes until I arrived in Ireland.  All you planners out there can imagine the sweaty-palmed  frustration this caused in me.  What?!  You mean I can’t sit down with my Academic Advisor and force her to help me chart out the next two years of my life, including the parts impossible to find in a foreign school’s nonexistent catalog?!  THIS INJUSTICE CANNOT STAND!  Nevertheless, I somehow managed to quell my anxiety and wait until I arrived in Cork.

So, there I was, sipping tea with Sami and Austin, contemplating my coming classes at UCC School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; anticipation burning in me with the fury of a thousand suns—waiting, waiting, waiting to register.  To have control.

I went to Orientation, ready—so ready—to sign up for classes, only to find that the torture would continue.  You see, at UCC—as with many schools in Europe—there is no advance registration for international students.  WHAT?!  How can anyone possibly live like this?!anxiety-symptoms-cartoon

At UCC, apparently, you just start going to classes.  Then, after a week of going to all the classes you can possibly fit into your schedule, you choose which ones you’ll be taking for credit and only then do you register.  Anyone like me—obsessed with planning and knowing—can understand what a unique type of hell this is.  I’d be well into the fourth week of classes before I received confirmation of my registration and ability to gain credit from the International Studies Department.  This kind of vague daily operation feels something like what I imagine being covered in bees would be like—the unbearable knowledge that anaphylactic shock is surely seconds away.

When I expressed my frustration and growing unease to an Irish student at the campus pub, between my first set of classes, he laughed:

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Unknown-2“Relax man.  You’ll get your classes.  Have a pint and some music.”

And this isn’t a sentiment that comes solely from this single Irish student.  This is the way things are here.  When I’d searched for a place to live in Cork, back in September—a mere four months in advance—all the emails I received in response to my queries went something like, “Please contact us in December regarding January lets [let-rent].”

Even the traffic direction here expresses the pace at which Ireland operates.dead-slow

I asked people here, in order to confirm my feelings, if they have opinions about Americans being too fast or anxious.  The last gent I asked summed up perfectly what they’d all been telling me:

“Americans are good craic, man [craic-fun/enjoyment].  But you’re all in such a bloody hurry.  Bigger, faster, louder, yeah?  Ye all have a watch on your wrist, piping on about how busy you are, like its a point of pride.  That’s mental [mental-crazy].”

This, I think, will be one of the great lessons I learn while I’m here. There is no way Ireland will allow me to move at the frantic pace I’ve grown accustomed to.  There is an age, a history, to things here that seeps into everything, including the people.  This place has been weathered by a thousand years of Atlantic rain, imperial invaders, religion, war, famine—it’s not going anywhere.  Try to push it, and it will dig in its heels, the way it has for centuries, and push back, harder.  To worry then, that my college classes could somehow go anywhereseems a bit silly in hindsight.

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My flatmates and I were right to call this place magical.  But its not some storybook magic from Harry Potter that we’re immersed in.  It’s the magic that saturates a place as it patiently, and often stubbornly, trudges through hundreds and hundreds of years of plodding time, attempting in earnest to wear it away.  W. B. Yeats knew of it when he wrote that “the world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”  In my case, the sense which needs sharpening is the more abstract sense that, with or without my frantic actions, things are going to be okay.  Time is an essential ingredient in the making of anything worth doing right.  This magical place, Ireland, didn’t grow into the wonder that it is in a few short weeks.

Nor will I.

 What I’m listening to—

↜Quest Plots↝

Quest plots

This first week of the semester has been quite an experience.  You think you know how you’ll exist in these new places, but only time can really tell.  Excitement and wonder carried me through the first 48 hours of my time in Cork. pub-clonakilty_20130218_1585563503_20131027_1038018766I wandered around town with wide-eyed little-boyishness; gaping at everything; browsing old bookstores; smelling; tasting; pub hopping, eagerly swilling Murphy’s and Kilkenny—because drinking Guinness and Jameson is just too tacky, after all.  In 48 hours I managed to walk nearly 20 miles around a downtown with an area of about 3 square miles. I was a hobbit blundering around Middle Earth. All was quixotic adventure; dragon slaying, tilting at windmills, a search for the holy grail.

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Then the jet lag, and the beer, set in.

My third full day in Ireland was the hardest one so far. After a deep, Rip Van Winkle type sleep, I woke to the realization that I needed to—without sugarcoating it—get my shit together.

You don’t realize how many comforts you really have until you are without them. My flat was empty, save for the essential appliances, a few basic kitchen gadgets, and a bed spread. I’d brought the necessary toiletries and clothes, but I didn’t realize how much I’d be in want of a few basic things and how—ridiculous as it may seem—the lack of these things seemed to make the prospect of the coming months unbearable.

I needed a bath mat, because this is a humid country and water on your floor will stay there for days. I became oddly fixated on this one. I needed a bathmat more than anything in the world. Also, I needed groceries: coffee, bread, coffee, something for dinners, and to pack for lunches, and coffee. Bathmat and coffee. Oh, and I wanted a salad. Just a salad. Some lettuce and some dressing. Okay, bathmat, coffee, salad. These things will save the world.  Let’s do this.

Now, there are no Targets or Wal-Mart’s here. So, if I could just go find a few things, from somewhere, then the day would be a success. Armed with my rain jacket, an empty backpack and a pocket full of Euros, I set off. The first man I met aimed me, in a heavy southern Irish accent, at, “PaulStreetTesco, ’boutakilometeroff, thatshouldhavewhat yaneed.” Perfect.  Well, possibly perfect. I marched on, in search of this Paul Street Tesco, to a quest-like rhythm:

Bathmat–Coffee–Salad.  Paul Street Tesco.  —  Bathmat–Coffee–Salad.  Paul Street Tesco.

Finally, like Chaucer’s pilgrims might have finally spied Canterbury, Paul Street Tesco appeared gleaming before me, at the end of a narrow street, rising up from the saturated stones, hidden, all this time behind yet another incredibly old brick building.DENIS SCANNELL

Tesco is my new favorite place.  They have all the things—a dragon’s hoard of essential items.  I had to be careful not to buy too many of the things because I’d walked quite a long way and I only had the one backpack—you don’t get plastic bags here.  Quickly, I sought out the hallowed items: Heinzsalcream1bathmat, coffee (instant but beautiful), and salad fixings.  When I asked a clerk where the dressings were, I was brought to this: (see photo). What the hell is this?  Salad Cream?  After staring at the shelf, and the bottle’s label, trying to glean what exactly I was dealing with, I simply laughed, telling myself, “Hey, Joel, what dip or dressing don’t you like?” 

“Very true,” I answered myself silently, dropping the salad cream into my basket, realizing that sometimes, things just aren’t going to be the same.  The salad would be different, but the ordeal was done.  The day, a success.

So, with a grey backpack bursting with bathmat, coffee, salad, and a wild assortment of things I normally take for granted, I rushed home to my flat.  Quest complete!

One of my favorite English professors at the University of Montana likes to tell us often, “the best stories take place during the moments from which the main character realizes that, nothing will ever be the same again.” I think it’s exactly this wisdom, when applied to real life, which makes a semester abroad so profoundly meaningful. After all, every moment since I left Missoula has been part of the constant realization that, indeed, nothing will ever be the same again.  My salad is different—actually quite tasty.  My Kenco coffee is instant—also quite tasty.  My bathmat is red—not so different really, but I still can’t figure out the bizarre shower controls.  All these collections of seemingly minuscule moments condense together and burst forth into a grand revelation of the world’s vastness and variety.  If a bathmat, coffee, and salad can seem so important as I gain my footing in a new country, imagine the importance of a friendship made, or a heavy green moor traversed.  Imagine what is yet to come.

Quest plots, as my English professor taught me, should have five recognizable parts:  The Call, in which the hero must set out to perform some task because the place, or time, he occupies is somehow lacking.  The Journey, through strange territory and obstacles wild.  The Arrival and Frustration, when things are revealed to be harder than originally assumed, and great perseverance is required.  The Final Ordeal, is the climax, or greatest test for the hero.  The Goal, in which the task is finally accomplished (or not accomplished) and the hero’s world is somehow forever changed.

It occurs to me now that much of life is the constant embarkation upon quest plots.  And, if we let them, even the smallest tasks can become epic adventures, and the most meaningless goals become strange discoveries and dragon hoarded treasures.

We are all the heroes of our own stories.

What I’m listening to— 


Libertas Volandi

Icarus Human Flight Patent Artwork - Vintage

You have to warm up your wings before you can fly in subzero temperatures. Flying is a delicate and intricate process, after all—not to be done in haste, or without care. To remove frost, a pink colored liquid is sprayed with force all over the plane. The steam, billowing, blocks out my view of the Rocky Mountains to the south.

5,730 miles to Cork, Ireland. We take off. Missoula, Montana falls away.

There is a nervous knot, somewhere above my stomach but below my heart, vibrating like a jet engine. Up to now the excitement, anxiety, and wonder have come in small, carry-on size packages. Now they come in oversized, extra-fee type baggages. Before leaving the house this morning I found myself spending the New Year becoming irritable over silly things. The bookshelf needs dusting; the dogs need brushing; the coffee this morning, not ground finely enough, makes me think that the coffee will go on, not being ground finely enough, for the next five months. How many things are going to be neglected their rightful attention while I’m gone? Then, like Missoula, the metaphor fell away and I realized that I was already missing Sara and that it’s not the coffee, but the way that I want to hold her, that will not be properly accomplished for 137 days.

Of course, I know she has my back, and that I shouldn’t feel guilty for leaving her. She texts me a goodbye message, just before my phone goes into airplane mode:

“Fly safely, Joel.”

She loves me, and I love her, and, after all, the world is not so large as those 5,730 miles that separate us because I can measure distance in the light-seconds it takes to send an email half way around the world. Now, somewhere high up over Middle America, I feel peace and excitement and profound pride, for the freedom of flying to Cork in order to continue realizing my dreams and passions. A freedom not possible without Sara.

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It occurs to me that, as much as we so often project the lie, the majority of us are, sadly, not the sum of all our dreams. We do such a great job of pretending, don’t we? We use words like freedom and liberty as we drive to our jobs, where we work to enrich someone we do not know, in order to pay rent, or mortgages, or fees for things we become beholden to. It is, I think, very hard to experience moments of true freedom, where we feel as though we have tapped into some destiny or fate we have known all along we were absolutely meant to live. We must work hard for these fleeting moments. Flying now, toward Europe, to live for five months—writing, traveling, reading, studying—is a freedom to make my world bigger, better, and more full. A freedom that comes with all the weight of this Delta jet plane.

It’s interesting, flying has long been associated with freedom. Daedalus made wings for his son, Icarus, so that he could fly free. Milton’s Eve, before the Fall, dreams that she can fly, out from Eden and across the cosmos. Even Marquez’s very old man with enormous wings eventually disappears over the horizon and away from those who did not believe he was a miracle. Flying has always been, for us, a metaphor for the realization of our deepest aspirations.

So, here I am.  Free to fly.

Years ago, when Sara and I first began dating, we text messaged each other constantly—sometimes to the detriment of sleep, the way silly lovers do. One such late night conversation I remember very specifically now. I can’t recall exactly how we came upon the topic, but I remember the exchange:

“I dream most nights that I can fly,” I sent. “I love those dreams. Sometimes I’m jumping really far, sometimes I have hawk wings, and sometimes I’m like a super hero. Almost weekly though, somehow, I dream that I can fly.”

“Well,” she sent back—and I remember her words in that green text-bubble perfectly—so similar to the ones I received just now, before the airplane went wheels up:

“Fly safely tonight, Joel.”

 

What I’m listening to—

Thoughts on Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane”
by Neil Gaiman

Reading Neil Gaiman has always been something special for me. All of his books have had a meaningful impact on me.  He’s a storyteller so different from anything I’ve ever read or aspired to be.  There is no one like him.  There are no books like his.

“American Gods” showed me that it’s possible for someone to write a book bigger than what I knew a book could be.  “Good Omens” still rattles around in my chest joyously like a flitting bird.  “Stardust” lets me know that it’s okay for adults to wish desperately for fairy tales to be real.

So, obviously you can imagine my excitement to read his latest novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”  However, I had no idea that it would be so lovely.

I won’t critique it the way ‘book critics’ have been doing it.  I’ll just say that it is simple, and sad, and terribly beautiful.

When I was a child I knew, in my heart, I could be anything at all.  Not in the sense that I could be a surgeon or a sword-swallower but in the sense that I could travel the universe, or discover other universes, or even make my own if I tried hard enough.

Gaiman’s latest novel makes me realize that, as a child, I was probably more right than I have ever been as an adult.

My soul is from elsewhere. I’m not sure exactly where but I intend that it make its way back there.