Seeking Inspiration in a Thin Place

“Sometimes travel is an excuse for a spiritual journey,
a way to crystallize thoughts and clarify complicated things.”

I’ve come to Anam Cara, a writer’s retreat on the rugged, windswept southern shore of the Beara Peninsula in Ireland, for inspiration. I’m stuck, my brain churning on an endless stream of thoughts, but no words landing on paper.

Anam Cara sits on a sloping piece of land, about a mile from the shore of Kenmare Bay, and the rain whipping through at regular intervals carries the sound of cows in the distant farmland across the fields to my room. It’s so calming that I could sit and stare out my bedroom window for hours.

I’ve been told this area of Ireland is thought to be a thin place. Not knowing the term, I pull up a search on my phone. “Thin places are places of energy. A place where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin. A thin place is where one can walk in two worlds – the worlds are fused together.” I desperately want to experience this but know how hard it will be for me.

“Just turn off that pragmatic brain of yours for a bit,” Number Four texts, and I know he’s right. I grab my coat and find a pair of Wellies that fit me so I can walk the property to the northwest of the house, anxious to feel something.

The map from my room is crudely drawn and difficult to read, but when I abandon it, I keep hitting dead ends. I don’t care, because the plants and water and paths are so pretty at every turn. I sit on a couple of the benches that are hidden in little nooks in the woods and try to relax. When I feel nothing in particular, I get up and move to the next spot. Eventually I arrive at the cascades, a soothing section of the river with about six or eight waterfalls spilling down over the rocks. I shiver for a minute, goosebumps running up my body, as I try to discern if I’m feeling something from the eternal world. I know I’m trying too hard; likely I’m just cold from the damp wind.

I continue over a footbridge to a tiny island and sit down on the bench. For some reason unknown to me, I decide to try to meditate yet again, despite many failed attempts over the years. After just a few seconds I’m reminded of trying to meditate when Greg was hospitalized, and I give up. I brush the sticks and leaves off of the bench and lie flat on my back, staring up at the canopy of a small tree. I think about the people I’ve lost, and very quickly my dad comes to mind. Whether I’m just remembering him or he’s in some way with me, I don’t know, but I can hear his voice in my head. “I’m proud of you, Mic.” I think about my mom, but all that comes to me is how she used to answer the phone when I’d call her, a few years into Alzheimer’s when she was rather childlike, but thankfully still knew who I was.

“Hi Mom, it’s Mic.”

“Hi Mic, it’s Mom!”

I am missing our exchange, missing her, but push her from my thoughts for now. I stare into the tree above me, the sound of the river running beside me, wondering why I don’t feel Greg’s presence. I see a small bee flying overhead and wish desperately for a dragonfly to make an appearance, but nothing happens. When I glance sideways and lock eyes with a large spider in his web just inches from my face, I quickly abandon the bench and begin walking through the woods again.

I’m trying desperately to let go of the physical world so that I can feel something from the spiritual world. Why is this so difficult for me?

I pass a string of Tibetan prayer flags hung between two trees and think of my daughter. I snap a picture of a pretty section of the path. I marvel when I pass what looks like the world’s largest fig leaves, half expecting a sleeping giant to rise out from under them. Before I know it, I’m walking out of the woods into the meadow.

I glance at the house and the chicken coop and pull the crude map from my pocket one more time, trying to discern my location on the property. When I realize I’m standing in the meditation meadow, I orient the map and start walking, in search of the labyrinth, turning left into what looks like the path, only to discover I’m heading to the compost pile and a dead end. Frustrated, I turn back around and walk out to the grass again. I take the next turn into the brush but come upon a small waterfall through what I think is a drainpipe from the road above. It’s so pretty and peaceful that I sit down again for a few minutes seeking inspiration. Nothing.

I’m frustrated and ready to give up when I glance down at my feet and see I’m actually standing right in the labyrinth. The circular path that’s cut into grass is only about a foot tall. I’ve been looking for something bigger and grander, so almost missed this subtle maze. I know there’s a lesson to be learned from this experience, so I tuck the thought away.

I start walking the path from the outer most point, following each twist and turn, until I reach the very center. It’s raining quite hard now, but I can’t abandon my walk. I desperately need to feel that I’ve accomplished something out here, knowing I’m more comfortable solving concrete problems than mysteries. I turn around at the center point and very methodically trace my steps back out of the maze to the beginning. I mentally check the labyrinth off my list as I slip off my Wellies and head inside the cottage.

*******

The next day it rains hard for most of the day. The kind of rain that makes you want to curl up with a book and a cup of tea in front of a fire. The kind of dreary that makes you want to go to sleep in the middle of the afternoon. The precise kind of storm that seems to light a fire under me to write. I send a text to Number Four asking him what he’s up to. When he responds that he’s getting ready to shave and shower, I can’t stop imagining him standing in my bathroom back home. I open my tablet and in just minutes have penned a very intimate essay about watching him shave. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the thin place, but at least I’ve found some writing inspiration.

*******

On Wednesday the wind is chasing the clouds away and I can’t stand being inside any longer. I begin walking down the narrow road – what the map calls a minor road which means it’s barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other, and not at all wide enough if I happen to be standing on the side picking and eating wild blackberries like I am. The Irish seem very careful and friendly as they pass. Two men on bikes glance behind themselves before swerving to miss me, and both shout out a friendly hello. A large truck flashes his lights to thank me when I step out of the road to let him through. Every car that passes moves away from me and the drivers all wave. I’ve loved the Irish people since my first trip here with my parents a decade ago.

I can’t get enough of the berries; every five feet I pause and pluck a few more. Some are a day short of being fully ripe, but I don’t mind the tartness. Some are just hours past their prime, but I savor the difference in texture and flavor. I eat blackberries all the way down the road that leads to the strand, stopping the feast only when I see something interesting to photograph. Some of the clusters of berries, the ones that look the absolute best, are just out of reach and require me to take a risk, to plant my foot in uncertain ground, in order to reach them. I recognize instantly that this is a metaphor for my life, and my new relationship with Number Four.

“I’ve just eaten about two quarts of wild blackberries while walking to the beach,” I text him. “If it turns out they’re not edible, please tell people at my funeral I died happy.”

During most of the walk, the wind doesn’t just blow, it seems to whistle and speak to me in an eerie way. I strain to hear the sounds, try hard to hear my father’s voice, knowing how much he loved both Ireland and the ocean, but I can’t catch anything tangible. I let it go and tell myself again to stop trying so hard.

When I turn the corner towards the beach, the wind is so strong coming off the water that I have to plant my feet firmly in the rocky sand to stand upright. I look down and see a perfectly smooth oval stone, about four inches long, and I pick it up, turning it my hand, thinking I might take it home and write something on it. As I’m considering that, I see a small heart shaped rock at my feet and I instantly drop the other stone to reach for it. The heart isn’t perfect, and the stone is a little heavy. It’s such an obvious physical representation of my own heart that I know I must take it home with me.

I continue looking for a better heart shaped stone for what seems like an hour, but then realize this is just like looking for love. You can’t make a person magically come into your life; you can only be open to it happening. You can’t make yourself fall in love, but you can open your heart to the possibility.

*******

On Thursday night, long after darkness has descended on the rugged hills, I push open the door to Mary Maddison’s house on a particularly desolate and windy point not far from my cottage. The 80-year-old Irish oracle has agreed to do a reading, and I sit down across from her more than a little cynical about what’s going to happen.

I’m instructed to choose stones from a large basket and to lay them in six rows of seven stones each. I’m trying too hard, trying to figure out which ones are in some way calling to me, and eventually I start choosing them more quickly and placing them on the table beside me. When I’ve finished, Mary suggests I turn on my phone to record her reading, and I sit back, straining to understand her thick Irish accent.

“The next month or two is very busy with work,” she starts. When I tell her I’m not really working, only busy with travel, she insists, “but this travel is for work, yes?” Of course, she’s right. I’ll be taking 18 guests on a trip to Italy ten days after I return from Ireland. She has my attention now.

She continues reading the rows of stones that represent the next six months of my life. She highlights so many things that I know are coming, things she would have no way of knowing since she only knows my name, that I have goosebumps.

When she’s finished with the reading of the stones, she prepares to contact my loved ones in the eternal world. Despite the accuracy of the stone reading, I’m still completely skeptical, but when she starts, I’m blown away. One by one, she calls out a trait of each of my grandparents as she listens to them from the other side. She chuckles about my Nana, sees my Papa in his Navy uniform, notices the social side of my Grandma, and smells my Grandpa’s pipe. Her observations are so accurate, I’m on the edge of my chair as she speaks.

“Your dad says he knows it was hard that he died so quickly, but he wants you to know that it was better for him.” He suffered a major heart attack seven years before, and I was told he was dead before he hit the floor. “He’s so proud of you.”

“I think your mom was taken too young. What did she have?” she asks. Alzheimers, and yes, she was only 82 and otherwise in good health.

After telling Mary that I am widowed, I’m waiting for her to say something about Greg, but she stops, confused for a second. “There’s a man with your parents who is too young to be there,” she tells me. When she asks who this is, I tell her it must be my brother who took his own life.

“He doesn’t know why he did it,” she says. “He wanted to come back as soon as he did it, but of course he couldn’t. He wants you to have a happy life.” That night I’ll have the first pleasant dream about him that I’ve had since his death four years before.

Mary is ready to end our session when she asks if there is anyone she’s forgotten. “What about my late husband?” I ask. “Do you see him?”

She closes her eyes one more time and then chuckles. “He was sitting quietly to the side wondering when I was going to talk to him.” That sounds so like Greg’s character that I almost feel him in the room with us.

“He wants you to know that he fought as hard and as long as he was able, but he just couldn’t do it any longer.” Yes, he did, I tell her, realizing that she has no way of knowing how he died, that I’ve told her nothing, and feeling very strongly that she’s connecting with Greg in some way I can’t really grasp.

I leave Mary’s house that night with an appreciation for this thin place that I’ve been unable to understand until now. Although I’ve not been able to connect with the eternal world, it feels like Mary has, and for that I’m grateful and in awe.

*******

It’s early Saturday morning and I’m packing my suitcase to leave the retreat. I’ve carried Greg’s ashes along on this trip, but never once felt compelled to scatter them. Until now.

Without much thought, I throw on my coat and stick the small velvet pouch into my pocket, then wander back down through the woods to the cascades. Greg loved the water and he loved Ireland, and this feels like a place he’d want to stay.

I don’t want to fall, so I sit down on the flat rock above the rushing water, and as I do, I feel a whoosh of air seem to press through me. Is that just the wind and the drizzle, or something more? Is that Greg? As I open the pouch of ashes to let them fall into the water, a lone dragonfly flits past me so quickly that I’m not certain I haven’t just imagined it.

I smile, knowing I’ve finally experienced something in the thin place, even if I’m unable to identify or explain it.

*******

I’m missing Number Four, anxious for the first time in more than two years to return home. As I head to the airport, I smile when Mary Maddison’s words come back to me. “Oh look, there’s a man here. Thank God he’s here.” Yes, thank you, I say silently. I was stunned when she also told me the gorse and heather that blankets the rough hillsides of this peninsula would always draw me. I had purchased a painting of these wildflowers just the day before after fixating on the gorse and heather in the painting for half an hour. I’m carrying the painting with me now, wondering where I’ll hang it at home, knowing that each time I look at it I’ll be reminded of the magic of this place and this experience.

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