Recently, talking with a friend, I was asked to describe my “life’s moment.” I had never heard this phrase, and I asked for clarification. He told me: “if you had to choose one moment that stood for your life, the moment you could condense it all into—tell me that one. Tell me the memory that comes up when you think of joy.”
When I was sixteen I went to Ireland for the summer. I’d answered an ad at the back of Friends Journal: elderly woman seeks summer caregiver to cook and read aloud. She was losing her sight. I went to meet her in the retirement community where she spent her winters.
Her hair stood out in snowy tufts from her face, a face with the sharpest blue eyes I’d ever seen. She evaluated me twice, once with her failing sight and once with her intuition, ticking away there behind her eyes so that I could feel it, almost, a finger on my skin. And then she reached for my hand and hugged it to her, cackling “You are far too young, my dear, but what the hell!”
She met me in a taxi at Shannon airport and we rode through narrow stone-lined streets, past the Burren, along cliffs, through green land desolate and strange and beautiful beyond belief. Jo–her name was Josephine Phillips, dear Jo—took me to a pub in Miltown Malbay for lunch. I could eat nothing—nerves, and new-minted veganism that would have constrained me to stewed cabbage anyway—but Jo devoured a sandwich, laughing at my pretensions, and then ordered the driver on, down to her tiny cottage by the sea.
There was just one rule, said Jo, as she settled me into my room at Freaghvallen. I was not to break her crystal sherry decanter. It was lovely, old and faceted, set up on a tray in the cozy main room, always filled with sweet sherry that we offered to each visitor–and there were many–that made their way down the bohereen to talk with Jo. This room was made remarkable by one wall-sized window, set with a cushioned windowseat in which Jo would sit for hours reciting poetry and listening to BBC radio or just watching storms sweep over the ocean, the changing colors of sky and field and water.
Naturally, I broke that sherry decanter before summer’s end. She forgave me. I was coltish that summer, exuberant and curious and expanding, and I think I knocked it over while attempting to execute an indoor handstand.
Jo had hired me on from instinct, I think, and I was desperate to prove myself worthy of her trust. We bought a refurbished bicycle from the tiny courtyard shop of a liquor-scented man, brown and gearless (both bike and man), and on that bike I pedaled daily the narrow road between Miltown Malbay and Freaghvallen. I brought the post and bought the milk and soda bread and Ribena we needed, putting the change in the little silk purse Jo had given me for purchases.
There wasn’t much to Miltown Malbay–a fish and chip shop, several pubs, a church, a bank–and I did not spend much time there. When I wasn’t cooking inedible vegan repasts for poor Jo (the results of one memorable foray into crepes had to be flushed down the toilet), or reading out loud from her volumes of poetry and biography, I was down at the coast, exploring. There were cliffs, and rocky pools large enough to swim in, and a tidal island covered in thrift and meadowlarks, and an odd thrusting platform composed of geometric stone columns upon which I would do tai chi. I named every crevice of that coastline, every pool and cave, and I can still smell the salt and meadowsweet.
One evening after tai chi I stayed to watch the sun set into the water as the ocean drew closer, huge waves dashing themselves into dramatic spray against the rocks. By the time the sun dropped below the water and shot up that rare dying line of turquoise into the sky, the tide was fully in and raging. I scrambled up the cliffs to the stone-walled fields, skirting the one that held the bull, still watching the last light of the sun and the water. And then I turned to face Freaghvallen and there was the full moon, rising impossibly huge and blue and luminous. I do not know yet what will happen, but this far into my life, that is the moment. My life’s moment, what I have to say for myself, what I know. I choose that one.
Before I broke the sherry decanter, my friend Ruth hitched in from Manchester to visit and we hitchhiked up the coast, catching a lift with a truckdriver named Alan who claimed to have met the Queen. Ruth had a jar of sprouts soaking in her backpack and a recipe for vegan carrot cake that we ate on the floor of her friend Oona’s house, breaking off chunks with our fingers and dipping it into hot lemon glaze. My boyfriend came then, too, all the way from Oregon. I took Ruth and Nate down to the cliffs, inducting them both into my lonely coastal queendom. It wasn’t the same after that. There was something I couldn’t bring over, something I felt silly and wrongfooted trying to express, and they wanted to walk into town for chips instead of doing tai chi.
But Nate and I sat late into the night in Jo’s windowseat, holding hands, trying to hear each others’ thoughts, and the power of the connection made me cry. It was his last night in Ireland, so stealthily, around three in the morning, I led him from his sleeping bag on the floor into my bed. Mere moments later Jo scratched at the door, announcing boisterously “the wicked witch is awake! Lissa, make me some Ribena and let that boy sleep!” Her sight was going, but there was nothing wrong with her hearing.
Oh, Jo. How much did you know? (You were absolutely right about Nate. The next summer when I went to visit him, he broke my heart.)
I learned to make scones that summer, and to sing folk songs with our neighbor Mick, who had a silver palate. I learned to step dance and played tin whistle with the nomadic musicians who camped along the coast for Willie Clancy week. Jo taught me to memorize poetry against harder times, and I still carry the Robert Frost poem she had me say back to her, over and over, until it was in my heart:
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.
‘Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
Jo has been gone now for several years. But I still see her in that window seat, eyes bright, the summer of my life’s moment. I hear her reciting Yeats in her dramatic voice, arguing with BBC commentators, sharply seeing into me, then unfocusing her eyes and gazing out to sea. When I think of joy I gaze over that sea too.