November 2004 Reflection

A month and a half in Ireland has passed, and this makes no sense. To one part of me, the part that catalogues the minutiae but lives for the moment, a year has passed already; I live here, in Dublin, and so I call it home. It may well have been home all along, so little do I feel the real passage of time. Already I am full of this crowded city, packed with people, alleys, details. I know where I can buy my music, my books, my daily bread. I have found my favorite street markets, a different one for every purpose. Even the stranger items on the list — sushi rice, couscous, jalapeños — all have their hiding-places, and I have done my best to run them down. On each quest I learn the city a bit more. I find the accidental coffee shop that becomes a favorite haunt, or the neighborhood pub that is far from my neighborhood, but which I adopt just the same. I have begun to answer the tourists who ask me for directions with some confidence — if they ask an easy one.

Dublin and I do not act like we just met. Our relationship is not the tempestuous first love, full of passions and betrayals, but rather like the marriage of two grandparents, when even our faults have become endearing to the other. The things we don’t know about each other do not surprise us, or at least that’s how we act. Sometimes I stay out all night, usually when nursing my American nostalgia, the Red Sox or the election, over an obligatory Guinness. Quite often Dublin is in one of her moods and goes storming around, pouring rain, hurling wind, and the streets are like a psychotic puzzle of which I can’t make any sense. But on these jigsaw days I find myself smiling and forgiving, ducking my rain-soaked head into a warm room for one more tea time. Even during her rush-hour tantrums, or on the weekends when Grafton Street is wall-to-wall teeming with tourists and buskers and hawkers, I find myself walking slowly and serenely through it all.

I drink it in. Everywhere I find only truth-tellers. Everywhere there is a fragment worth keeping. I wish to love the worst in Dublin, to know even the dirt and refuse at its outmost margins or its most conflicted center. To love anything else would not be love — at least, not the 40-year marriage kind of love.

I bring the city into it because of how much place affects my work. Living in a city and loving it at the same time, I have found, is not unlike the project of art or the labor of education. One must cultivate a permeable membrane around the self, a thin but strong skin, so that each new occurrence is allowed to take root, to grow, to inspire. The temptation, especially in graduate programs, is toward protection, certainty, and insularity. Trinity College encourages this, albeit inadvertently. It is a serene oasis in the seething downtown, and it would be easy to stay within its high walls. It is easy to lose myself in the library and in my work. Plenty of “free time” is taken up with cooking in my kitchen, meals with my roommate and the wealth of Irish friendship that he brings, poker with Mitchell Scholars, my radio show on Monday nights, the climbing club on Tuesdays and Thursdays. My impulse has always been to fill every empty spot in my schedule like so many bricks in a wall. But the beauty of the Mitchell Scholarship is that it buys you the time and the freedom to explore outside a common bound. During the Dublin Theatre Festival I managed to attend ten productions. I have made my excursions to the Irish Film Institute and the National Gallery routine. These rituals are intimately connected to the project of the grant, extracurricular though they are. Already I have memories and loves that are inextricable from this land; surely this, too, is a process that is part of the goal.

There is another side of me that is unconcerned with minutiae, that thinks in abstract, broad strokes. To this side my six weeks, far from the year’s worth of experience I have described, have been shorter than a day. This side knows how much remains to be seen and done. It knows I can’t plan for all the things I am not looking for, but that will change me forever. It knows above all that a city cannot be grasped by the mind of one person, whatever James Joyce might have to say about it. It knows that if Dublin has filled me, I will never be able to fill it. And in the long run, it will be enough for me to contribute my own footprints to the vast, dear dirty palimpsest that lies invisibly on these cobblestones.

In any case, it hasn’t been six weeks.

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