In February of 2002 I sat in a lecture hall at Trinity College Dublin while fellow aspiring academics gave papers on bits of Irishness. Instead of hanging on their every word I outlined an essay I have thought of often but never had the courage or purpose to actually compose. Despite my blind terror in the hours before I was to present my own first paper, or perhaps because of it, I was struck by the peculiarity of this collective obsession with a culture and a nation and I began to be troubled by my part in such an endeavor. Certainly there had to be an awareness of the fact that this place upon which we were so fixated was at least in part only a creation of groups like ours, packs of scholars who pirated myths and raided hilltop mounds to weave a self-perpetuating narrative that would help publish books and secure tenure. Even as I was about to dedicate myself to the game of academia, I was aware that my own desperate passion for the trappings of a foreign nation came at least in part from a different source. The person I wanted to become needed to declare her own country; she needed an entirely new land upon which to forge her identity.
This moment of crisis resurfaces because it is October 31 and until a few years ago I would have shuddered before having to call it “Halloween.” It was Samhain, dammit: the Celtic new year, the final harvest, the moment when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. I had fully embraced all that was “Celtic spirituality” because I needed a history that receded back into a mist-shrouded past, goddesses and warrior queens who could guide and inspire me, and magic that would enliven the quaint horror of everyday reality. With a passion that must be an essential aspect of the “conversion” path, I rejected everything that had been touched by the “invader” Saint Patrick and those who came after him. That I missed a lot in ignoring much of Christian Ireland goes without saying.
That conference five years ago was not a time to call my meandering spiritual path into question, however; I was too busy wondering at the hollowness of my own experience that demanded I borrow someone else’s country in order to uncover my own identity. One reason I have never written this story is that I still do not know what to make of feeling like a cultureless American left to feed on places that had remained “pure.” It was as if I had been born into an historical void with which I left no connection on a land that was stolen from the people who knew the real myths of the sandbars and mountaintops. I realize the ways in which these are cruel generalizations and that in saying such things I discount my own love of where I grew up, but faced with a manageable sized country with a past as old as Burren limestone, I just felt orphaned. Not connected to my own world and destined forever to be a tourist in the world that I so wished would take me in. It will take more serious consideration than I can give to a blog post to determine if this is a unique aspect of my own psyche or something that I share with my generation; would I feel so unmoored if I was from Rio or Bangalore or Kinsale? Was this a typical longing for the exotic or a testament to a real sense of lack in dominant American culture? Your thoughts?
On Samhain as on All Saints’ Day we remember those who have died, but we can also stop to honor the ideas and beliefs that have waned and faded from once influential places in our lives. I celebrate the aspiring PhD who wanted to dream in Irish and spend her life discussing Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s poetry. I honor the girl on her first steps on a spiritual path who had to reject everything and embrace the dreams of others before she could build her own tradition.