Read an Excerpt
The Healing Power of Place
By Clare Cooper Marcus
Nicolas Hays, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Clare Cooper Marcus
All rights reserved.
Coming to Iona
In the process of writing, of discovering our story, we restore those parts of ourselves that have been scattered, hidden, suppressed, denied, distorted, forbidden, and we come to understand that stories heal. As in the word "remember," we re-member, we bring together the parts, we integrate that which has been alienated or separated out ... self-discovery is more than gathering information about oneself.... It alters us. We re-store, re-member, revitalize ... Writing our story takes us back to some moment of origin when everything was whole ...
She turned and spoke to me in a firm but quiet voice: "I own a house on Iona." I did not know this woman. She was gray-haired, in her sixties perhaps—about my age. We were standing in line for lunch at a conference in Scotland in the fall of 1998. My surprise at her statement—which had come out of the blue—must have shown on my face.
"I have a house in the village. I am often away traveling. I like people to use it." She fingered a stray blue thread on the arm of her embroidered jacket, then brushed a strand of hair away from her eyes.
"There's some building work going on. It should be done by next April. I don't want any rent." We both moved forward in the lunch line. She turned to face me once more. "It's yours," she said as she briefly touched my right shoulder. Then she walked away.
I was dumbfounded. Who was this woman? Had she seen me on one of my many visits to the island? Even if she had (which I doubted), how could she know that I yearned to return there for a long period of quiet? I had told no one—barely admitted it to myself. My dream was to live on Iona, reflect on a difficult period in my life, and write.
Later that week, I saw the woman again and asked her why she was offering me her house when she didn't know who I was, not even my name.
"You know how thoughts drift through your mind and most of them you don't say out loud? Well, I'm strange that way. Sometimes I have to say whatever is on my mind. I knew I had to tell you that I have a house on Iona."
At the time, I was living in California, retired from academia, recovered from a post-retirement bout of illness, and all too aware of an inner voice that kept nagging at me: "Now what? Are you ready to slow down and reflect on your life?"
Though part of me still yearned for the camaraderie of campus life, another part longed for an extended period of solitude away from familiar routines. My life was comfortable enough—movies and the theater with friends, restaurant meals, a book group, evening classes, visits with my adult children, listening to famous authors at Berkeley book shops, tending my garden, occasional out-of-town lectures—but it wasn't enough. Retirement had left me dangling.
Now comes the offer of a house on a remote Scottish island. It is an invitation both completely unexpected and perfect in its timing. On previous visits to Iona, I had felt a powerful attachment to the place, as if it were the home of my forebears, which—as far as I know—it isn't. I met people there, visitors like myself, who told me that, inexplicably, when stepping ashore, they had found themselves in tears or had the feeling that they had at last come home. This mysterious attraction of Iona is strangely echoed by this offer of a place to live there that has fallen unbidden into my lap.
In the six months following my meeting with Elinore (for that, I discovered, is her name), I made the necessary arrangements for my move to Scotland. I booked a flight to Glasgow, said good-bye to my children and friends, and packed what I needed for the vagaries of weather at a latitude comparable to Hudson Bay and Siberia. Leaving my California home in April 1999, I had no idea what was about to happen.
At last I am on my way. Flying east across the United States, I look down from 30,000 feet onto a snowy landscape in Montana. I see river meanders, ox-bow lakes, dendritic drainage, deltas, peneplains—vocabulary from fifty years ago and my first scholastic passion, geomorphology, the study of the physical features that make up the crust of the earth. That discipline now seems as remote as the landscape beneath me: those years of high school field trips to the Yorkshire Dales, pouring over ordnance survey maps, the excitement of seeing in the real world what I had only seen, until then, in dog-eared high school textbooks.
Flying over the Midwest: long straight roads; township lines; a mosaic of square and rectangular fields in beige, brown, and dusty green; the glint of farm ponds catching the sun like tiny mirrors. A landscape etched with human imprints. As my youthful passion for geomorphology faded, my interest turned to how people mold the landscape to their needs. The study of historical geography led me to archaeological digs—to archives, rare books, and yellowing maps. I was inching my way toward looking at real live people in the present moment—including myself. But back then, I said: "No, no, not that. Not too close." Better to look at the landscape than what may be lurking beneath the surface. Safer to follow my fascination with the outer world than to delve into the murky dimensions of the inner.
We land at Glasgow airport. It has been an overnight flight of fitful sleeping. I board the train that will take me on the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Oban, from whence I will travel by boat and bus to Iona. My body feels pregnant with yearning. Heavy eyelids. Staccato chatter of wheels on iron rails leading north and west. At Helensburgh Upper, spring growth of clover and buttercup pierce through the red gravel of a platform rarely trod upon. In close-cropped fields, tufts of sheep's wool festoon the grass like flickers of late-winter snow. We stop at Ardlui. Mountaintops across the loch are hazy, cloud-covered; hillsides are patched with hummocks of last year's dead bracken. We rattle past the carcasses of two sheep, their ribs showing bare through grimy wool. Trees beside the tracks—oak, birch, alder—stand still and leafless in the mock death of winter.
We stop at a station that has no name. No one gets on or off. Moss invades the platform through jagged green cracks in the asphalt. A mother and son seated across the aisle hold hands in sweet embrace. The boy sits up excitedly, pointing as two shadowy deer leap away from the track and into the mist.
We draw into Oban. The train slows down as it follows a wide curve above the town and finally stops at the terminus near the harbor. I swing a small pack onto my shoulders and pull my suitcase the short distance along Shore Street to Harbour View Guest House.
At last, a bed. I sleep without stirring for eleven hours and wake to the sound of a clock striking somewhere nearby. I lie in bed thinking about the complicated journey I am on: shuttle, plane, bus, train, ferry, bus, ferry. Lots of stops and starts. Iona is so remote that there is no easy way to get there. Maybe that is the point. Although it was the physical landscape of the island that first entranced me, now I sense it is something deeper that draws me back. Something deep inside me that I do and don't want to acknowledge. I pull the bed clothes up to my chin. What if I don't like what I find? Perhaps it is better left undiscovered.
I am hungry. Mrs. MacDougall serves me a breakfast of fried egg, bacon, tomato, mushrooms, toast, and tea in her cozy front room. The TV news drones on at low volume and seagulls glide by the window in graceful white arcs.
The next stage of my journey—a ferry to the island of Mull—doesn't begin until noon. I walk to Tesco, the local supermarket, to pick up items I may not find on Iona (my favorite dark-chocolate digestive biscuits, soy sausages, organic rolled oats) and then wander along the main street of town. I stop at the windows of the Edinburgh Woolen Mills store. There are thick knitted sweaters and tartan kilts, Celtic-style earrings, and beer mugs decorated with the crests of Scottish clans. I start to move away, but then see a reflection of the harbor behind me. There is the ferry coming in from the Isle of Colonsay; fishing boats bob at anchor and herring gulls whirl about, hungry for scraps. There is a smell of ozone in the air.
I turn to take a look at the real scene instead of its reflection and catch sight of myself amid the sweaters, the kilts, the Celtic-style earrings. There is a gilt-framed mirror in the window display, the glass slightly tarnished with tiny gold explosions. I turn to see if anyone is watching me—watching me looking at myself—but no one is. People hurry past on their way to do the weekend shopping, chatting about last night's episode of Big Brother. I look back at the mirror.
Who is this woman, on her way to spend six months alone on a small rugged island? She is wearing black stretch pants, sensible walking shoes, a burgundy parka zippered shut with a gray-green sweater just showing at the neck. Her hair is nondescript, mousy with hints of gray. She lifts her hair, exposing where it is white beneath, and quickly arranges it back into place. Deep lines angle down from nose to mouth; more lines from each end of the mouth furrow down to her chin. Lines of aging, signs of having lived; skin rumpled like sod furrowing down hillsides, unable to resist the pull of gravity, unable to hold tight to the smooth softness of youth.
I look back at the mirror, startled. I am the woman I see in the mirror, not someone else I am dissecting. I smile as I push my glasses onto the bridge of my nose, smooth down my hair disarrayed by a sea breeze, and taste a hint of salt on my lips. Not bad for sixty-five—still some traces of the attractiveness that brought many men into my life. For an instant, familiar, long-ago names and faces cascade through my mind. I sigh and turn away. Retracing my steps to the guest house, I collect my luggage and make my way to the ferry bound for Mull.
A young man in a navy-blue sweater casts us off and the "Isle of Mull" slips slowly out of Oban—past the shops and hotels on the Esplanade, past rocks painted olive green and black with seaweed and a million breathing tides. Stone houses with sharp-peaked gables and white trim step up the hillsides around the harbor. The gray-green sea is wrinkled like the back of an old watery hand. As the mainland recedes, green transmutes to deep blue, to dark gray, to paler gray—as if gossamer curtains are slowly being drawn across the past. Ten oyster catchers skim across the stern of the boat, black-and-white commas punctuating the vast blank page of the sea.
The prospect of six months alone on a remote island, away from the usual demands of life, fills me with deep contentment. No more calls on the answering machine—no more junk mail, appointments in my calendar, getting the car fixed, days frittered away in a dozen necessary but unfulfilling tasks. After years as a single-parent full-time academic, each day a logistical nightmare, I am ready to sink into a life where no one needs me except myself.
I look forward with relish to exploring the island on foot, beachcombing, finding half-hidden ravines, watching families of eider ducks, bending to examine the blooms of sea thrift, bog asphodel, and heath-spotted orchid. A country childhood spent largely alone has primed me to enjoy the outdoors without fear or hesitation. But sleeping in a house alone? That is a different matter. A wartime childhood punctuated by fears of air raids and enemy invasion has left me anxious at night if no one else is near. I tell myself that it will be different on Iona, an island with barely 100 inhabitants, no police, no crime. I will be able to live there without fear.
I return from my daydreaming, draw in a deep breath, and look around me. No place to be but here, anonymous among jacketed men with glinting binoculars, boys below decks playing video games, elderly couples dozing in tipped-back chairs. The comforting pulse of the ship's engine throbs through the soles of my feet.
I enter the brightly lit cafeteria and am momentarily caught off-guard by the choice of tea-time goodies from my childhood: Genoa fruitcake, buttery shortbread, flapjacks, Bakewell tarts. Shades of Proust. For an instant, I am back at Sunday tea in Grandma Cooper's formal dining room at 2 Parkside in north London, arrays of homemade cakes on three-tier silver platters and steam rising from delicate, gold-rimmed teacups decorated with flowers.
The ferry judders to a stop against the dock at Craignure. Children are plucked from high chairs; the cafeteria quickly empties. People find their luggage and the crowd shuffles awkwardly down the long ramp, pulling suitcases and carrying bags of groceries. Dogs strain at their leashes, thankful to be on land once more. Several buses stand waiting, their drivers in a convivial cluster, smoking and talking. I board the bus bound for Fionnphort. The door closes with a gasp-like hiss. Our driver, alternately whistling and coughing, starts the engine and we are on our way, following a narrow winding road across the island of Mull.
I stare out of the window at the passing landscape. When did I first visit Iona? It must have been in 1979 or 1980. It was a convoluted journey that, strangely enough, began on another island on the opposite side of the world.
It was 1976 and my husband, Stephen, and I were on holiday on Maui, in Hawaii, with our two young children. One morning, Stephen handed me a book. "I found this—The Findhorn Garden. I think you would enjoy it." I thumbed through beautiful photographs of vegetables and flowers, skimmed the first few pages, and motioned to Stephen. "Take the children to the beach—please. I want to read."
I settled onto a comfortable chaise longue in the lush courtyard of the Pioneer Hotel and read the book from cover to cover. I was enchanted. The book told the story of a spiritual/ecological community that had grown up around a garden in the unprepossessing setting of a trailer park set in sand dunes at a place called Findhorn in the far northeast of Scotland. "I must go to this place!" I told Stephen excitedly when he returned hours later with two sand-covered and slightly sunburned children.
It was several years, however, before I did go to Findhorn. Eventually, I attended a workshop there, and afterward traveled by mini bus across Scotland to the west coast to spend a week on the Isle of Erraid, where some people from Findhorn had established a small offshoot community. It was from Erraid, across a mile-wide stretch of sea, that I first saw the island of Iona.
One day that week, four of us journeyed by small motor boat to spend an hour at Traigh Bhan, a cottage on the eastern shore of Iona that had been given to the Findhorn community as a retreat house. Elizabeth, the custodian of the house, led us upstairs to a room known as the sanctuary. Here, under a raftered roof, with views of the white-flecked sea, we sat in a semi-circle of chairs and meditated for half an hour. By the time we filed downstairs for tea and biscuits, I had a headache pounding behind my eyes like the throb of a jackhammer. I almost never have headaches. I mentioned this to Elizabeth. She smiled sympathetically as she poured steaming tea into a deep-blue ceramic mug.
"Yes, sometimes people who come here get headaches, or colds, or feel immensely tired, or cannot sleep, or want to leave immediately." She finished pouring my tea. "Or never want to leave," she added. Her eyes closed for an instant before she turned away.
Two years later, I returned to Iona to stay for a week at Traigh Bhan. I hiked along rugged tracks, lay on white-sand beaches, took in the view of other distant islands, and began to fall in love with the place. No more headaches, just a quiet, contented sinking-in to some kind of mystery lurking beneath the surface of the land. I returned several more times, but, each time, a week seemed too short a stay. Now I will stay for six whole months.
As we approach Iona, I feel an immense upwelling of happiness, as if I were coming home from a long involuntary exile. Leaning against the window, I find myself smiling at the familiar olive-green seaweed along the shores of Mull, at daffodils bending in the wind, at a blue heron standing knee-deep in water. Pale yellow blooms of primrose (my birth flower) are visible as the bus slows down to allow vehicles to pass on the single-track roadway.
Excerpted from Iona Dreaming by Clare Cooper Marcus. Copyright © 2010 Clare Cooper Marcus. Excerpted by permission of Nicolas Hays, Inc..
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