My Irish Skin

Because I’m adopted, it wasn’t until my daughter was born that I saw my face in someone else’s. I would like to say that it was in my infant daughter’s eyes that I first saw myself reflected, but actually she was almost two and it was her mouth. She has my tongue. My coloring- to a degree, my temperament- some, but my tongue- exactly, unmistakably and precisely duplicated: mine. I cried anyway.

I have no information about my biological lineage but my coloring, and particularly that of my daughter, marks Ireland, pretty clearly, as my ancestral land, so one of the things I’m hoping for as I travel there, is the chance to see in a face of my parents’ or my grandparents’ generation, or in a crowd or a landscape something as certainly mine.

My vacation is coincidentally chronological. The first night I take in a play at Dublin’s Abbey theater based on the ancient Irish saga of Deidre of the Sorrows and the next day move from Ireland’s mythical past, into her pre-historic one driving north to Newgrange. From there medieval castles and later churches and finally a U2 show back in Dublin.

Deidre is somehow so quintessentially Irish, and the actress is extraordinary- beautiful and more brave than I have ever seen a woman be on stage. She has only a few moments of peace in the play. One comes when her father sees her for the first time and is able to tell her how deeply he always loved her. She never learns who he is, but through all the impending horror, is able to receive the gift of his love and finally, having made it through the rest without tears, I cried- for the love given and received- if not the specific love of biology finally seen and spoken, then for the general love of return and recognition.

Driving into the country north of Dublin the next day, I know that love again, not of recovered bloodlines or recognized features, but for the unknown roads and alien beauty I am beginning to learn today. I love this motherless child of a country, conceived from co-mingled ancient indigenous, old occupier and recent oppressor bloodlines. Ireland’s an infant country, not yet 70, happy to be alive, but still grieving the mother who died bringing her to birth whose blood she is not completely willing to wipe away. I understand the feeling.

I drive around Ireland on the backroads, tracking standing stones and distilleries, touring haunted castles and stumbling on abandoned cottages. I love those ruined beauties left to the wildness that aggressively reclaims its own while just across the street the new houses, like second wives, boast fresh paint and modern touches. They still seem expectant, awaiting their next inhabitants, their shelves held empty, their interior doors open in invitation. I love them for their wabi-sabi beauty, because they’re inherently modest, because they blend the hand of man with the process of nature, the intimacy of home with the openness of field, they’re permanent impermanence, perfect imperfection, complete incompleteness. They’re symbolic of the transcendental truth that everything contains its opposite, that life implies death, that departure is implicit in home.

I saw an eccentric range of things, from the utterly obscure to the nationally significant, from the pre-historic to the trendy. It was a hodgepodge, but I found it representative, if not of Irish history or culture or architecture, then of Irish spirit. It was a paradoxical mix, and that- that torque of paradox, is what I have come to think of as the gift of this trip. It is in the moments that my heart spans the poles of opposite desires and contains them both without breaking, that I feel most Irish now, and the ache of that stretching I now recognize as my Irishness in me.

And in a surprise gift, I got the moment of genetic homecoming I’d hoped for. Walking back towards my hotel on my last glorious, sunny Irish day, I noticed a peculiar correlation of skin, clothing and accent. The native Irish had been sunburned in the clothes they were wearing. This is my skin! These are my people! And I walked back, one adopted child a little less alone in the world, still not quite fitting in because in Texas, I have learned to always wear sunscreen.

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