After and Again

Chelsea Thomeer
January 10, 2016
An image of graffiti on the side of a building on Camden Street in Dublin, which reads, "DON'T BE AFRAID."

             When I woke up this morning, there was a half-second – a tiny lingering moment – where I didn’t know where I was. It’s something that comes, I guess, with traveling. My body has been on both sides of the Atlantic this year, has slept in rooms in Dublin and Cork, Country Clare and Country Antrim, London and Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Vienna. Sometimes, it’s a little disorienting.

            By the time I sat up and looked out my window at the pine trees, the old brick buildings, the American flag flapping back and forth, back and forth, in the strong winter wind, I’d remembered that I was back in Massachusetts, back at my home university, in the dorm I’d moved into just the day before. The place I live now is just across the quad from the room I lived in last year, in the time I have to call “before” – before Ireland, yes, but before something else too, some change I struggle to quantify, qualify, and even, sometimes, believe in.

            Some changes, I suppose, are obvious. There are postcards taped across the top of my mirror now. A little green shamrock charm dangles from a hook on my pockmarked white wall. A dark green sweatshirt sits on the top of my closet and reads, “Dublin” in big block letters. My phone buzzes periodically with messages from people who are far from me now but who once lived with me in the land of Guinness and soda bread and Roddy Doyle. I can’t remember what a proper tip for an American taxi driver is anymore, and when I hear the news of another gun death, somewhere in America, there is a new intensity to my anger. It seems even more ludicrously tragic that these things happen in my home country, when I know now that such horrors are so much less possible in the place I used to be.

            So I know I’ve been in Ireland. I’m not likely to forget it. Still, it’s odd to sit again in a Massachusetts dorm room, to be in this place that is both “again” and “after.” What does Ireland mean to me now? Was it just a relocation, a temporary respite from the bitter cold of the American northeast? (Dublin is, after all, a “breath of fresh air,” at least according to the posters plastered all over its airport as part of some new ad campaign.) Or was it something bigger, something that will alter the course of my life, something that changed me?

            I have the sense that it was, of course. It’s just that I struggle to put this change into words.  Does it consist of the Irish stories I read, the words and writers that clutter my brain now, echoing in the hollows of my heart? Is it made up of the Celtic myths I learned, or the Irish history I now have a much greater sense of? In some ways, I suppose it is. These are, after all, the changes I expected to take place. They are the things I went to Ireland wanting to know – the things I outlined in my very first blog post, in which I spoke of James Joyce and quoted Samuel Beckett. They are things I’m glad I learned, things I hope to continue to study – perhaps in my senior thesis and certainly this spring, in a course I’ll be taking on Joyce’s Ulysses.

            Ultimately, however, I think the change that Ireland wrought in me runs deeper than books or myths or history. It is an alteration that can perhaps be most succinctly summed up by quoting my Irish short story teacher, who was himself quoting someone else. On the last day of the program, standing before my classmates and me in the darkly lit room of our final showcase, he shared with us the last words of the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney: “Noli timere.”

            It’s Latin. It means, Do not be afraid.

            I wasn’t afraid in Ireland, where I read new works, where I wrote in a new way, where I wrote more than I ever have before.  I wasn’t afraid in Dublin, where I arrived in September to live with strangers. I walked into new parks and new restaurants and new libraries and new museums, and I didn’t linger at the doorways. I went inside. I wasn’t afraid on the airplanes to Austria or Holland, London or Edinburgh, wasn’t afraid on streets where the signs were mostly not in English, where the public transportation systems defied my understanding.

            Or, well, okay, I was afraid. I was constantly half-terrified by the sheer unfamiliarity of what I was doing, the strangeness of every step. But I wasn’t afraid in the way that I have been at so many other times in my life, scared in a way that made me hunker down or shut up or walk out. I failed in Ireland. I was scared in Ireland. Nonetheless, I didn’t give up.

            But if I am very, very honest, I have to say that while I’ve given myself this little pat-on-the-back for being so good, so lovely, so brave while abroad, doing so was, to some extent, easy – or at least easier than it would have been to do all those things at home. I was in a whole new country, this past semester. I was in a place where I came knowing no one and left without knowing when, exactly, I would get the chance to see everyone again (this latter realization was not without tears). It is easy to be brave when you have to be, when the plane ticket is purchased and your bags are packed and all you have to do is go. It is easy to be brave when you know that everything you do is temporary, that you have forty-eight hours to explore Edinburgh and so you better make the best of it.

            It is harder to be brave – or it is harder for me, anyway – when you are in the familiar plane of your life, when there is always tomorrow to reach further, to dream, to dare, when it is all too easy to sink into routine, to even forget that you have an alternative.

            I woke up today in the same valley I’ve lived and worked and studied in for the past two years, a beautiful place I sometimes find it hard to be. I woke up today with memories of Ireland all around me, hanging on my wall, rattling around in my brain. I don’t want to forget anything: the people or the prose or the poetry of the island that is, for me, one of the most extraordinary places in the world. But most of all, I don’t want to forget Seamus Heaney’s most final, ultimate postscript.

            Noli timere. Do not be afraid.

            Or be afraid. But go forth anyway.

            So I end saying thank you to Dublin and thank you to Ireland, thank you to my American friends and my Irish teachers (especially the one who taught me about Seamus Heaney) – thank you, thank you, it’s all been so much more than grand, such craic, Jay-sus, thanks a million.

Chelsea Thomeer

<p>I&#39;m a rising junior at Williams College majoring in English and political science. I love reading and running, Jane Austen and J.K. Rowling, pumpkin bread and pretzels, The Grapes of Wrath and green tea. I&#39;m spending a semester in Ireland to study Irish literature and to work on my own writing.</p>

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