I don’t like to ride my bike against the wind. So I often double back alongside Lough Atalia, letting the air guide me past the expansive lake. I learned early on in the semester to always leave for class two hours early. Then I can allow myself to stop, to get lost, and to appreciate the chattering streets of Galway in the autumn.
In particular, I always dismount my bike halfway down the road so I could stop and look at St. Augustine’s Well. Sometimes the entire embankment is flooded over with water and swans, but occasionally I can walk right up to the well and its cross. There are so many swans in Galway. They put me in mind of funny water cats with the way they approach for food, only to glide away, shielding disappointment with elegance.
The noises of cars rushing by mix with the calls of the birds, and of children and dogs in the park nearby. On days when fog rolls over the entirety of the lake, I sit on a bench and imagine that there is no boundary between lough and sky.
With no synagogues in Galway, I sometimes wring my hands beside that hidden well, mixing Jewish guilt into borrowed Catholic spirituality. I never considered myself particularly religious, but come Friday nights I inevitably take the long bus ride to Dublin where I can attend services.
After Shabbat services, the Rabbi collects all the foreign stragglers into his home for a dinner. At a recent dinner he told a story, both distinctly Jewish and Irish:
A man tries to visit his Rabbi. The Rabbi turns him away at the door, shouting and screaming, forcing him away. The man is distraught by rejection, and sits on the curbside crying. A group of passerby see his distress and bring him with them to the pub. Together, they toast, “L’Chaim!” – A Hebrew phrase meaning, “to life”.
When the man next sees the his Rabbi, the Rabbi explains, “When you came to my door, I saw the Angel of Death behind you. I tried to scare you away so you could spend your last remaining moments with your family. But now I see you are well, and the Angel of Death has departed!”
The man, confused, explains that he never made it home, and instead drank with strangers. The Rabbi understood and says, “Every L’Chaim shared amongst friends encourages a small bit of life.”
“L’Chaim,” we toasted one another.
Time moves slowly in Ireland and yet the air thrums with vibrancy, of life lived consciously. Shabbat dinners last until midnight, as strangers become friends. The walk to school takes hours, paths ever changing, guided by a kind of lackadaisical curiosity, and saturated with questions of permanence. Likewise, my hand now moves slower as I paint, influenced by the humor and tranquility of swans that inquire after food from one who is watching the fog.