If you asked me what one of the greatest paradoxes is in processing my work in the humanitarian sector so far, it is that the settings of the disaster or violence are often stunningly beautiful places. There is a dissonance to interviewing people who experienced wartime sexual violence one day only to make finding a waterfall your greatest driving force the day after that. Ancient ruins and modern ones, side by side. Giraffes and refugees. Crystal clear beaches next to injustice. The urge is there to shout from a hilltop atop I perched that Colombia (or Egypt, or Syria, or Uganda) is unequivocally beautiful – if it weren’t for the critical voice that remains in my head and remembers to ask “for whom?”
I have never quite known how to process the beauty or our hunt for it in those environments. Can one truly apologize for beauty? How can we take it in, draw hope from it, without romanticizing what is at the foreground? Is this beauty accessible to all and, if not, what are we to do with the somewhat dubious privilege of parachuting in and out an emergency and its beautiful backdrop?
These are some of my thoughts as the bus weaves through the Northern Irish countryside. “You can’t possibly be going for work – that’s the safest place you’ve professionally traveled in years!,” a friend remarks. Technically, she’s right. According to my very proud guide, Belfast was recently rated the second safest city for tourists. The Troubles ‘ended’ in a highly publicized peace process, though many are holding their breaths for the kind of ending that does not invite quotation marks. What does an ‘ending’ truly mean for the people who experience(d) violence? Who decides when we have entered the ‘post-conflict’ and what does the pronouncement of an era as the ‘aftermath of violence’ do to the narratives and memories of violence that linger?
“This is not a political tour. Today is not about violence,” the driver declares over the microphone, triggering my every skepticism about what counts as political and the various stakes at play in the conscious act of depoliticization.
I am seated next to a young couple, likely college students. They are most definitely a couple, they exude couple, even though they do not touch. I wonder if they met studying abroad here.
“I don’t have time for fun,” she says emphatically. “I have too much work for that!”
“Mmmm,” he replies.
“By finals time, though, I’m not stressed. I’ve been working all semester. That’s when I’m most chill.”
I wonder how long they have known each other. They do not know if the other’s parents get along, but they know how many siblings the other has. There is a lot of exposition. “My dad is like this…” “My mum named her Kindle, that’s how much she loves it.”
I remember the days of ceaseless exposition, trying to make up for the fact that you didn’t know each other your whole lives. You have those conversations meant for private spaces in public, but the public itself melts out of your view. I have been there – at sheesha alleys near Tahrir, at Horreya, which served only beer and cigarettes and whose ‘bathroom’ was square in the middle of a room full of men, with only a curtain around it. Or at the Odeon, a rooftop near Elijah’s then apartment, where I bought my only bottle of wine in Egypt, and paired it with backgammon and exposition. In those moments, you do not care who is listening. You just want your stories to intertwine already.
“I think I’m going to write a story,” he says with a confidence that makes you think he just does that. He writes stories, and it’s not ‘a thing.’ (Northern Ireland is rich in the quotation marks, as it turns out). I wonder if he will include the odd girl sitting alone, curled up into a ball by the window, looking at the sheep.
I have never seen more sheep.
The driver points everything out: this hospital built the first wind turbine in Northern Ireland. This is where a famous golfer lived. This is where a curler lived—you don’t know what curling is! Look at the mural on the wall, then. On the right-hand side. That’s curling. This is where a race car driver lived.
“Folks, there are no strangers here.”
He means that, as his tone alternates between pride and self-deprecation about this place and its journey through time.
There are no strangers here. That sounds like a home to me.
“If you live here, folks, you were born here. You would never ever choose to move here,” he says, reading my mind. This village has 25 houses. That one has 16 and everyone is related. I wonder how 13-year-olds find someone to kiss here. Do you have to move out of your 16-home town once the urgency of kissing registers with you?
“By the time you reach the upper years of schooling, you must move. There simply aren’t schools here for the older kids.” Well, that answers the kissing question.
The more he insists that you wouldn’t want to live here, the more I see the parallels between these views and my alternate imagined life in Vermont. Vermont has captured my imagination since I first drove through it – not in the way that vacationers say “oh I could move to Aruba! I could get used to this!,” about the sun and cocktails. Rather, Vermont represents a more community-driven, more present, smaller life for me – for us – , and I wonder if we will ever truly make it our own.
“Wait till you retire, Roxanne,” said one of my favorite mentors, when I shared this quiet dream with him. I thought that he must have been joking. I couldn’t possibly wait until retirement to live in the woods. The more time that passes, the more I realize that he was not.
We arrive on the Atlantic coast, and this is where our paths split off. This is where we walk. Off the bus, there are more sheep and a hotel perched on seemingly both a hill and a cloud, which immediately makes me think of Niki, a favorite co-pilot in all matters that require wandering. Niki would know which jams to eat here, and that the British and Irish and Northern Irish love jam and marmalade, and everything else there is to be known and shared.
I am, however, walking alone.
I study the maps behind a crowd of college students. One of them tries to take charge and plan the itinerary. Another interjects: “Let’s just see the cool stuff.”
I set out to see The Cool Stuff too, trailing behind couples this time. I am a rather strange sight, if I may say so, in my pristine ivory wool coat made for the work part of the trip, not the climbing of hill after hill, and the Colombian sneakers with the bright pink shoelaces, made for a 7-year-old with my size feet. The coat, the mark of my incongruity, keeps me from giving up on the slippery bits (all the bits, then) and scooting down the mountain on my butt, as I am wont to do. This restriction, given my relationship to gravity, is a very good thing.
I’m crouched photographing puddles of mud catching the light. Every time the wind blows, I have to fish my pashmina out of the photogenic puddle. “This is why we can’t have nice things,” Elijah would say if he were here. A group of hikers walks past, while I am crouched in a misty bush in my too white coat and pink sneakers and we all exchange a look and a smile in acknowledgment of the oddity of the moment.
Up the hill, down the hill, and up again. I graduate from a puddle to a bench. Every so often, a group of men will amble past. “Picture? Picture?! PIC-TU-RRRRE?!,” they say slowly and loudly, as though I either don’t understand English or that my photo should be taken here.
Grief has fueled so many of my own journeys, but not this one.
I sit on my bench and gaze at the spot where “the Irish sea meets the Atlantic Ocean.” I am transported to a different bench, near Khartoum, where the White Nile meets the Blue Nile. Even though I do not have the heart to tell my guides, whether in Sudan or Northern Ireland, I can never tell where the intersection is, I can never see the water blending. I know it is meant to be a seminal marriage, but all I see is blended water.
November 17th marks a Yahrzeit, a memorial of loss in my life. And because life experiences tend to layer atop each other, it is also a day that marks all the other breaks in my life, from the literal – ankles, feet – to the metaphorical – mothers, spirits, optimism.
And here I am. A year ago, I was condemning myself to immobility and heartache alike. Here I am, breathing fully, scaling slippery hills steadily.
Yet, this is not a story of “how much things change in a year.” (Or seven. Or fourteen.) This is not a pep talk to my slightly younger self. It is not even a moment of communing with the clouds to honor the loss.
Rather: I feel no pain in this moment. Not in my bones, not even in my memory. This has only happened once before and it was charged with the anxiety the absence of pain brings with it. I remember thinking then, with horror: Am I starting to forget?
The calendar reminds me of just how seminal mid-November has been for me. Today, though, I am unaccompanied by grief. Perhaps more surprisingly, I am unaccompanied by the guilt of its absence.
I know better than to think it’s gone forever. I’ve known surprise grief, triggered by a stray smell or, worse, by nothing at all. I have lived with it for enough that I’m not sure I would know how to fill the space occupied by it if the grief had left me forever. This is not that moment. This is not a portrait of ‘recovery’ or ‘healing’ – more quotes, more ambiguously definable words – beyond the bones.
It is, however, the first ‘anniversary’ when I have not felt the need to mark the occasion. That was then, this is now, and I can’t tell the Atlantic water from the Irish Sea water, the Blue Nile from the White. It’s all a blending of the seas, and I can’t see the seam.