An Ocean Away
Updated: May 16
My journey to Belfast began with strep throat and poetry. It was June 19th, 2017 and I had just gotten back into bed for a nap when I heard my phone buzz. I reached for my phone and saw an email notification from someone I didn't know. It turns out, when it's curiosity vs. sleep -- even with strep throat -- my curiosity still wins.
The email began 'As you know...' and mentioned a strange acronym, QUB. Something about full-time study in the fall. My brain felt foggy; I had long since heard back from all the MFA programs I applied to (mostly rejections). I sat up and re-read the email and realized that 'international applicants' meant me. Under the lecturer's signature, it said 'Queen's University Belfast.'
The first time I chose Belfast, I didn't have a clue. I had never before been to the island of Ireland. My knowledge of Northern Ireland was limited to Wikipedia, a sports documentary of George Best that my dad had stumbled upon while flipping channels, and a hefty anthology of modern Irish poetry that I began to read but was too heavy to pack in the single (!) large suitcase I would take with me.
After completing my MA in poetry at the Seamus Heaney Centre, I chose Belfast for a second time, for a PhD. This time, I had a slightly better idea of what I was getting into--- more gray days, more late nights at the pub, and more poetry.
A surprisingly sunny day at Helen's Bay,
one of my favorite places in Northern Ireland.
After my first year in Belfast, it was finally starting to feel familiar. Belfast wasn't home, but I had the feeling that one day, it could be. I wanted to hold onto all the things that I cared about--- my friends from the MA, tea with Mary in Bookfinders Café, and poetry workshops with Ciaran Carson. So I stayed, thinking that everything would stay the same, or at least, that it wouldn't change as fast as it did.
Between fall 2018 and fall 2019, some of my friends left Belfast -- temporarily and permanently -- for China and India. Bookfinders closed. Ciaran became ill and his workshop stopped. I started my PhD. I moved house. I started dating again; after a few months, I broke up with someone who loved me. I made new friends over pizza and watercolor paints.
The third time I chose Belfast was in mid-March of 2020. The US had just imposed a travel ban on all of Europe except the UK, but I knew it was only a matter of time. Lockdown has been difficult for many people in many different ways, but it was these few days of limbo, of 'will-I-won't-I' and 'where do I belong?' that were the hardest for me.
'You'll be happier at home,' my housemate said. 'I live here, you don't.' She was referring to the fact that her parents moved to France while she was at university, whereas my parents still live in my childhood home, in the town I lived in for 18 years.
One of my isolation crafts was to draw my house in Swarthmore, PA.
Drawing my home line by line helped me feel grounded.
The uncertainty was the worst part--- if I stayed in Belfast, how long would it be until I saw my family in Pennsylvania and New York again? What if someone got sick and the worst happened? But if I left Belfast, how long would it be until I saw my housemate again? How would I feel to be so far from my adult life, away from my work and my friends?
Whether I chose Swarthmore or Belfast, either way, I'd be 'in a city an ocean away' and thinking of someone I loved 'in a city an ocean away', to borrow one of Ciaran's images from For All We Know.
I often think about Ciaran as I walk through Botanic Park for my socially distant daily exercise. I think about how Still Life was built on the rhythms of his walks through the Waterworks, built on his attention to all that was familiar and all that was changing before his eyes: 'And as we enter into Glandore / from the Antrim Road / How clean and fresh and green are the newly sprung leaves / of the chestnut tree!'
Choosing to stay in Belfast -- choosing anywhere -- means choosing the place where you want to weather through the changes. My home in Swarthmore reminds me of the things I love that never change. My home in Belfast reminds me of the things I love that do change.
Sending love, wherever you are!