Celebrating endings

I have left more places in my life than I care to think about. So many places I thought I would stay in forever, and yet something has always moved me on – straightforward restlessness, the call of some new adventure, the development of some new need that only a new place could fill. As if the places I’ve lived in have somehow mirrored the psychological processes that were happening for me at the time. When we moved here to Lewis that need was for the wild. As wild as I could get. Away from the encroaching suburbia of a once-remote once-crofting community I lived in on the mainland. And wild was precisely what we found, here in this tiny village at the end of ‘the longest cul-de-sac in Europe’, with a view of St Kilda from the back windows and red deer and sea eagles for company. This place in which I’ve walked freely for four years, wandering along coastlines and into hills and alongside lochs where I’ve hardly ever encountered another person, except maybe in the height of summer, in the distance. And for all the open spaces and beauty of Donegal, there will never be anywhere quite this wild again for us, and that is the choice we make now, that is part of our Return. This is a place that we choose to leave, and for all its stark glory, we leave with some relief. It would be easy, then, just to fix on the fertile river, on the joy of green fields and trees amidst the mountains and the bog; on our hopes and expectations of music again, and laughter, and community, and to flee from this old, extreme wilderness without a backward glance.

It can be so easy to move on. I’ve always been able to focus on what’s ahead; I have never found leaving hard, and have learned never to look back.

But this place deserves more. This leavetaking must be mindful, because this endless island shoreline has taught me more about the role that place plays in our lives than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. (It has also taught me that place alone is not enough – but that is another story, and one which may later be told.) And this is a place that I’ve inhabited more deeply than any other I’ve ever been in. Coming back from Donegal for this final wrapping up of our lives here, I feel it all the more. The first afternoon, fresh from the ferry, walking out of the gate, feeling my way along the track with the dogs, down to the sea. I know every pothole in that track, know where the mud is deep enough to suck you in, know which stones are solid to step on and which will wobble under your feet. I know every inch of that headland and of the loch at the bottom of the croft: the places where the lapwings nest and where the bog asphodel will be thickest in summer. It is a place filled with my stories, and the stories of our life here. The rise where we stood on rare and unexpected snow to watch a lunar eclipse over the sea in the middle of a starbound night. The place where we buried the dead otter; the field that almost broke us. Whatever we may feel that we have failed to give to this land – our lifelong commitment, our eternal allegiance – we gave it love and we gave it blood. And it gave us something essential back: the lessons that we needed to learn. Maybe the biggest lessons of our life.

And so, amidst our relief as the final parting approaches, and the strength of our longing for the river and all she represents, we make another mindful choice: we celebrate this place, this ending which cannot be separated from the celebration that accompanies any much-desired new beginning. Today is Beltane, the first day of May. The beginning of summer, a time of optimism and fertility. I’ll light a fire in the stove in the hearth here, perhaps for the last time now that the days finally begin to grow warm: a small ritual to mark this turning point, to celebrate both our endings and our beginnings and that great cycle which never ends but always begins again.

Mist gathering

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6 comments on “Celebrating endings

  1. Sharon, thank you for your reflections, which have helped me feel more deeply into my own life. I’ve just moved, as well, from an abundant farm in a lovely, lush valley, to a nearly flat, nearly bare, degraded piece of land in the desert of the American Southwest. I lived in the valley long enough to populate it with memories and associations (the stone where I sat and held the frightened rabbit, the place where I was walking at the moment when I learned to trust …). My new place feels both unknown and blank, and I have looked forward to coming to inhabit it, as you say. When I first arrived and walked across it alone, voicing my gratitude for its peace and solitude, an answering voice corrected me: this land is not so peaceful as you believe, and you are not so alone as you would like to be. There’s history here, some of it ancient but very much alive. Last week I found a shard of Zuni pottery, and, nearby, a chunk of petrified wood. The thought I’m coming to is what palimpsests places are. The place where I plant a tree might be the spot where a woman miscarried a thousand years ago, where another tree fell fifty thousand years ago. I will create another layer and inevitably move on, but never completely.

    • Someone I was speaking to, a native inhabitant of Lewis, earlier this week (I was interviewing her for a book I’m writing on just these subjects) described her attachment to this land in similar ways. She said that each generation on the land is like a layer of peat, building up into a bog over time. In some sense, whenever she planted her feet on the land, it seemed to me that she was standing on, and taking into herself, the memory of all the humans and others who had inhabited the land previously. She was deeply aware of them, and of their stories, and this is why place (I believe) is inseparable from culture. Place and memory … too much there to explore in a reply to a comment, but thank you for raising the issue and I wish you well in the beautiful southwestern desert which I too found compelling a decade or two ago …

      • Thank you for the reply. I hope to take one of your courses next year – would love to explore all of this more deeply. Best wishes to you in your new home, too.

  2. This is a beautiful farewell. May you find what it is you seek in your new place and with new people. Good luck and if you ever come back remember there’s always a spare bed in Mangersta.

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