Nov 3, 2012

The North, Part I: think of the sauna.

Friday evening, around 6 pm: Hello, friends, from the coach bus I’ve gotten to know quite well over the past few weeks.  I write as the bus trundles up a hill, on the last leg of a journey up to Co. Derry.  This will be the North – yes, the bit that’s part of the UK and prefers sterling to the euro.  My itinerary boasts accommodation in a Best Western, and rumor has it that a pool and sauna are there, just waiting for this overtired girl.  (Since there hasn’t been any hot water in the apartment for a week, I hope this sauna actually exists.  It might just be what my shoulders need.)

We’ve stopped just once along the way, to visit the Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery.  You might imagine it as a smaller Knowth.
Carrowmore claims to be Ireland’s largest cemetery of megalithic tombs.  To date, archaeologists have located over sixty, the oldest of which predates Newgrange (Knowth's sister site) by some 700 years.
It feels appropriate, somehow, that this is the one class trip during which we haven’t enjoyed entirely brilliant weather (so far).  When I got off the bus this afternoon, I was promptly greeted by wind that ripped through my jacket as if it weren’t there, and knifing rain that whipped my cheeks raw.  Shivering, I pressed on, up and up and up hilly terrain to a humble mound of stones.
These, like those at Knowth and Newgrange, are passage tombs.  I was interested...that is, until the tour guide pointed out these tombs’ distinguishing quality: the hollow part inside.  He was oddly casual – calm, almost – as he laid out the factoid at my feet.

“That is where the cremated remains of the dead were interred.”

I choked on nothing at all.  No warning.  Is this payback for yesterday’s dreaming?  I’m freezing my tail off and yes, this is a cemetery, but should I have expected a tour guide who would prattle on about cremation?

In numb disbelief, I mechanically set one foot in front of the other until the next tour stop materialized before me: the largest passage tomb in the cemetery.
For perspective's sake, it was just a little taller than I am (which is about 5 feet).
This contraption was located in the cemetery’s center so all of its smaller partners were positioned like rays radiating from it.  The guide chirped something like, “And in this one, sometimes they didn’t even cremate the bones, but laid them inside while they were still whole!”

Leave.  Leave now.  Catch your breath.  Get a grip.  I excused myself, and half-marveled at the wind’s morbid power.  Each gust at once held me like a friend and tossed me like a rag doll.  The tears seemed to be icing over while they were yet on my cheeks.

The last twenty minutes of the tour were to occur on the other side of the cemetery, so as the others crossed the road, I slipped off to the bus.  I have no regrets that I didn’t see another two or three tombs; at that stage, their purpose was clear to me.  It also felt clear that I needed some time to regroup.  Breathe, woman.  It’s not the guide’s fault.  How could he possibly know?
The perfectly satisfactory view from my bus seat.  The mountains, though ominous, aroused some kind of awe in me.
I haven’t lost it yet today, not once.  Perhaps I speak too soon, for I haven’t yet had a moment to myself.  But for now, I claim a personal victory.

I peer out the window...and note for you that this journey's as picturesque as I’ve come to expect of Ireland.  Sometimes we pass through stretches of highway lined with cliffs, and I fantasize that they are the Palisades, and I’m driving through Harriman.  I just saw the sign for Exit 16 on I-87, in fact.  Almost home.  Home.  My sweet boy, I’m coming.

It’s a dream.  Every few minutes, I spy another set of cottages, clumped into a village.  Turf smoke curls in paisley patterns from the chimneys, and I note perhaps the billionth pasture speckled with sheep and cows.  Bushes, hedges, entire forests spring sudden and wild along Highway N15.  I spot one fragment highlighted burnt sienna and remember a friend who loves that color with me.  Suitably pasty clouds obscure mountaintops which I suspect, at temperatures like these, are snow-capped.  At other – visible – peaks, the clouds prowl about like dry ice in a magic trick.  And those yellow trees over there remind me of the gingkos at Union.  I’ll concede this: God really was thoughtful with this terrain.  And quick on that idea’s heels, the irresistible, inevitable follow-up: if only He could've been as thoughtful with His loved ones.  Ah.

Derry – 54 km”, the signs proclaim, but the driver warns me grimly that city traffic will be “horrid”.  I smile inwardly, and say nothing.  Tackle the George Washington during Friday night rush hour, my friend, and then we’ll talk about traffic.  Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is playing on the radio, and there’s talk in the back of planning a “pool party” because the Carrowmore weather left everyone a little worse for wear.  So I’ll absorb the landscape until my mind tires of that distraction, and then hope for sleep.  Hope with me, friends?  Anything to calm my rampant imagination.  Anything to forget about how the bones might have smelled as they burned, crackled, disintegrated to ash.  Oh, I love you so.  This can’t be real.

Think of the sauna, Sonika.  Think of the sauna.  Think of the sauna.

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