Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Beach in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland

I feel completely at home on a small stony beach outside of Ballycastle, Northern Ireland.  I first laid eyes on this stretch of noisy waves, whipping wind, and tiny pebbles when I was a junior in college. I held my camera in my lap as I was jostled up the winding roads of a country I had never been, with people I had only just met.

I LOVED Northern Ireland at first sight and thought the patchwork mountain of green we stayed on those first few nights was magic, but this country-raised girl could NOT WAIT to get to the city as soon as possible.  The minute our here-is-everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-next-four-months-orientation was over I blew the sea air and green landscape a kiss goodbye and jumped onto a bus headed to my next adventure, which just so happened to land me right in the middle of a city.

Those first weeks I spent in the city were electric.  Between classes and Irish Dance lessons, my roommate and I had adventure after adventure.  I thought I had finally found my place in this world - on a bus, in a city, surrounded by thousands of people.

This idea was challenged halfway through the semester when our entire group was presented with the opportunity to go back to the coast and live on the very cliff I drove past that first day we arrived in the country.  It didn't make sense for me to want to leave the city, and I knew this as I listened to each member of the group say "not me" one by one.  When it was my turn I surprised myself by whispering "Take me".

For 2 months I lived and worked at a peace and reconciliation center that stood atop a cliff overlooking the sea. As they would tell me over and over again, the fresh sea air changed me.  I went from being surrounded by thousands of people, to walking silently alone along the beach that rested beneath our cliff. This beach was full of the most delightfully colorful pebbles that jumped as the waves retreated back into the ocean.  In the distance the small town glistened like something out of a storybook.  Seals stood atop great rocks - a sight I never really believed to exist.  It was magic.  It was the first time during that semester that I felt like I was home and whole, and I wanted to bring everyone I loved to see it.

When it was finally time for me to leave in mid-December I packed a giant suitcase to send home ahead of me as I ventured on to other countries with two friends.  In that suitcase I packed a tiny little velvet bag of the pebbles I loved so dearly from that beach.  I couldn't stomach the idea of being away from that beach for a lifetime. The weeks that followed were hard and challenging, and when I was finally reunited with my suitcase, I couldn't wait to tear it open to remind myself of a time I felt completely at home. 

When I unpacked my bag I found the pebbles strewn all over my clothes, broken pottery, other damaged art.  Instead of beautiful and shiny, they were now dull and not unlike the pebbles I could find in any manicured lawn back home. I knew instantly that I had abandoned a part of me on that beach.

Eleven years later, in the very same unexpected and spontaneous way, my husband and I quit our jobs, sold our home, and packed up our (then) two little boys to go back, but this time for two years. I couldn't wait to take him to my beach - the very beach I had written about in letters to him while I was living there the first time. We lived and worked in the same center I had lived and worked 11 years earlier.  I lived in the same apartment, and everyday we walked on the same beach.  The minute the weight of my feet shifted the tiny pebbles underneath, I knew I was home.

Today I have even more memories of this "home".  Memories of feeling my third son kick hard from inside me days before he was born while I watched the waves on warm August days.  Memories of my oldest two boys running along the water, promising not to get wet, and finally abandoning their clothes so they could succumb to the ocean, no matter how cold it was.  Memories of climbing rocks in tiny rainbow boots and picnics after church while the baby slept on a blanket.  Memories of my boys having their hair thrown by the wind, and getting too close to the water on instances when the waves were particularly huge.

We moved back to the Midwest nearly four years ago, because this is also our home. While I was there I missed the cornfields and summer sun.  I missed autumn colors and Michigan beaches.  So eventhough I am once again home, in an entirely different continent, a part of my heart is still at home on that stony beach, and I can't wait to go back.

Saying goodbye to my home in 2013