Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Flashes of Understanding

I have, lately in my life, been feeling disappointed by the big choices I have made. Not in any life-shattering way, but to be sure, there is a general aura of quiet disappointment. It's been elusive and hard to define and has left me questioning my happiness and the way in which I define the same.
But today I have had, as I often do, a sudden moment of understanding. Apparently, W.B. Yeats and myself are two of the same.

As Seamus Deane once said of the great poet: “Yeats began his career by inventing an Ireland amenable to his imagination. He ended by finding an Ireland recalcitrant to it.”

And thus is the lonely, disappointing life of an idealist.
I chose to go to UC Berkeley because I expected to find people full of life and passion who, upon their soap boxes and through their academic endeavors, would call the world to arms, would demand change actively and daily, and would live their lives as fully as possible in every way. I thought I would jump readily into a fight, a surge of change and start making the difference in the world that I wish for. I was so convinced of this, my own invention, that I vowed to go to Berkeley or no other and closed my mind to any other possibilities.
Though I have found a place at Cal and a love for the city of Berkeley, the second half of my first year was strangely depressing. Instead of political fervor and world shaking movements I found a conservative campus that was fully permeated with an competitive obsession with one-up-man academics. I found flailing and floundering movements that lacked logic, direction and the ability to succeed. I failed to find myself among those who were more passionate and more experienced than myself who would take me under their tutelage. And, thus disappointed, I gave up.
I set my sights and hopes on studying abroad. On Ireland. Or, as I have found, on the poetic and literary image of Ireland. The Ireland that I know through the literary revivalists of the turn of the century. The image of Ireland created by nationalists who sought to revive their beloved country and raise her up to be worshiped. The Ireland of mysticism, spirituality, nature and countryside, heroes, and music. The image that was preserved and fiercely guarded by immigrants to protect themselves from the harsh reality of a new country and the troubles of living. The image they passed down to their children which was augmented and enforced by the enchanting music and literature that came from those on the island who also wished to escape raw reality.
And so, wandering pilgrim searching for fulfillment of an ideal, I arrived in Ireland, hoping to find that image of Ireland that is still perpetuated in movies and music today by national pride and patriotic love of the Irish and Irish immigrant descendants alike. Hoping to finally live that dream ideal I've been searching for since the innocent and sweet light of my idyllic childhood was pulled from my by the hands of time.
And I arrived. I arrived in a city. I live in a dorm. I am surrounded by Americans who came looking to drink. I see construction and modernization out my window and wake to it each morning. The only aspects of this city which I expected and hoped for are unappreciated and unnoticed by all, the Irish and the foreign students alike. Who notices the river Lee, eddying beneath the great, sturdy stone bridge and surrounded by blackberry bushes? Who appreciates the sound of footsteps echoing along the painted tile floor of the old church in which I study Irish music? Who wants to admire the old stone buildings up on the hill, smudged with lichen and set in a bed of old growth trees and moss? Who, in a modern world and in a country that has recently pulled itself, literally by its bootstraps, up from poverty, wants to be forever associated with an image of rural, simple and superstitious life?

So I, the ever idealistic wanderer, was dealt a double blow - culture shock/homesickness (which is normal for all) and a disillusionment that crushed my last hope for an idyllic life. But acceptance is the first step to recovery. And I am beginning to pick up the pieces with a new understanding.
My love of travel stems from the security in spending short periods of time in a place. I mean, if I never spend more than a week in one place, I will always be in the awestruck honeymoon stage and will never have to accept the brutal reality that has always disappointed me. But I can't always be on the move. I can be as active as I want, but at some point, I have to face reality, I can't keep running forever hoping that by the time I stop, I will have gained the knowledge and experience to deal with the feeling of being jaded. Which is impossible, of course.

And so today, I see Ireland with new eyes. It is not what I expected, it is not what I hoped for. But at the same time, I know I am lucky (which also tends to happen). Although I am not living every part of my life here the way I expected, I can still find it. The one aspect of Irish society which is true to my imagination is the music. That expected love of traditional music, and the image of the twisting lilting strains twining themselves around the bottles and out the door of small pubs is true. It can be found, even in this modern city in which I live. That, is exactly what I pictured and wanted. So it's lucky I came here to study Irish music, huh?

Yesterday, I arrived back in Cork and for the first time in a month, I felt at home. Not just in my room where all my stuff embraces me daily, and not just in my apartment with its places and things I know and understand by now. I feel at home in the city. It's not yet a comfortable home, but it was the only feeling of belonging than I've had so far. Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed here, all I can think about is the places and things I love back home. I have a mental list of things I want to do when I get home. But last night when I sat down to write it out (I was in a list writing mood), I couldn't quite think of any. I mean, of course there are places I'd like to go, and things I'd like to do, but the yearning that I'd felt for them earlier was gone. I've ceased longing to go home and have started longing to become a part of this city and this country and to make the most of my time here.

Is this just part of the cycle of culture shock? Is it Mercury coming out of retrograde and FINALLY letting me live my life again? I don't know. I don't care. But if you want to come visit me in the next two months, I'd love to show you around my current home.
(My Ireland. The River Lee, Cork City and the hills beyond.)

(I bet I can use some of that for my final English essay on the literature of Modern Ireland..."We're all searching for that ideal identity...")


Greeley's Ghost said...

Fantastic post, Maggie. You should absolutely not give up your idealism. Now is PRECISELY the time for idealism after two decades of crass consumerism. It is you and your generation who will define the next 50 years of American and the world. You can obviously articulate thoughts, emotions and concepts very well.
It's great that you've gotten over the honeymoon. Now understand that change is slow in coming, but it does come and often from the mind of a single person at a single point in time.

Heidi Fuller said...

This clarifies a lot after our IM marathon earlier today. Go, go, go for it, babe. This is your poetry before the words.

The Monster said...

i've been feeling better, so mercury must be ending its bombardment on our lives.

you know what keeps me going? the belief that there must be someone out there that is kinda like me, with the same beliefs and desires. there's that saying that "every pot has its top." there's hella people out there, you just got to find the right places to look. i guess im just saying that youre not alone, and your new friends are waiting to meet you. thats just my two cents, so take it as you want.