Monday, February 5, 2018

WINTER IN PARADISE?

Inishturk is a winter paradise if you like long stretches of days reading by the fire while the sideways rain lashes at the windows! 
It seems the ferry has been cancelled more often than it's been running these past few months due to rough seas. Temps have held steady in the 40's mostly, dipping into the mid 30's a time or two, but the wind! It is ferocious at times, working hard to knock you off your feet if you're fighting against it. Hail/sleet hitches a ride on many of the storms that move past the island and as it moves over the mountain to the west, it works its way across the harbour leaving small piles that look like snowdrifts. I've been loving it! My morning ritual is to get up a bit before sunrise, make a cup of coffee and drink it while sitting at my front window watching the sun rise over the ocean. Bliss.
Hailstorm aftermath on my front deck
I haven't posted anything since right before Thanksgiving when I was preparing to cook Thanksgiving dinner for the Islanders. What a fun endeavor that was! Although I've cooked Thanksgiving dinner in Texas for 60-90 people for the last 14 years, this year felt so different. Because it wasn't a "job" per se, but simply a labor of love, I felt so much less stress (although those 14 years at Cypress Springs Ranch were full of more love than I could have wished for...). I thought maybe 30 people would show up, but we ended up serving more than 45. So many of the islanders volunteered to help in the kitchen and they set beautiful tables with white tablecloths and candles. If you're on Facebook, you can see a few pics from the evening-just search for Inishturk Island. About a dozen folks stayed after the meal and subsequent clean-up to sing Irish ballads and toast each other again and again. I smiled so much my cheeks hurt.
The ferry by the light of the November full moon
Folks here go all out for Christmas. Strings of lights brighten the houses and there's a live Christmas tree decorated on the hill above the harbour. Sitting in my living room, I had a perfect view of it every night, the blinking lights bobbing in the wind. Every visit to a neighbors house meant having a drink-most often a hot whiskey. I'd never heard of it before coming here and it's pretty good...pour a few fingers of whiskey in a glass, add a teaspoon of sugar (I'm partial to brown sugar) and stir to dissolve the sugar. Fill the glass with boiling water. Yum.
I didn't have a tree or decorations and was worried I'd feel sad or lonely, but it was a jam packed month, with lots of socializing. Towards the middle of December I started feeling like I was living in a fishbowl. In Texas, my home is in the woods with few neighbors. Here in Inishturk, I'm in the "City Center" as Mary Jo calls it. In the course of a couple days I was on the receiving end of conversations like, "I see you started your fire early today..." and "Pete saw you walk down to the beach and you didn't stop to visit him when you passed his house." and "You haven't gone out much lately, have you?" I decided I'd go into the mainland for a few days, finish Christmas errands and have some privacy. I booked a room for 2 nights, which increased to 3 when the weather turned and it was "get off the island early or don't go at all." In Westport I shopped and mailed packages and went to the movies and relaxed. My first morning back on the island, I woke before dawn, dressed really warm and took off on the loop walk. As I walked up the hill I saw there was a light on at Brid & Joe's and wondered who was up. As I passed Mary Catherine's, I noticed the kitchen light was on and assumed Bill was starting his day. Looking back down the hill at the houses in the harbour I took note of any activity and then suddenly realized I was doing the very thing that annoyed me so. Imagine having your existence limited (for the most part) to less than a square mile-this area on the east side of the island. It's not a small amount of effort to leave the island, so your immediate surroundings are the center of the Universe and you notice most everything. Distractions are few and life becomes an exercise in observation. I had a complete mind change during that walk, ruminating on what it means to be part of this community and I have to tell you, the good far outweighs the minor annoyances. 
The last moonrise of 2017 over Caher Island
So the holidays came and went, Christmas and New Years' and then some down time recuperating from too much sugar and alcohol and rich food. I read a lot and wrote a lot (but obviously not here) and baked a lot. The flours here are so different from what I've used in the States. There is no such thing as bleached flour here- the white flour is a gorgeous buff color with bits of bran. The whole wheat flour, called Wholemeal flour, is coarse and grainy with nubbins of wheat kernels throughout. It makes wonderfully hearty bread. 
A batch of seaweed bread dough before the first rise
Vegetables in Ireland are inexpensive and of good quality. Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and other cole crops are the best I've ever had. I've been making Gomasio to use on the sprouts and have made extra to give away. When my kids were young, it was a staple in our house to sprinkle over brown rice. Two ingredients and about 10 minutes time and well worth the effort. Here's how to make it: Pour about 1/2 cup of raw sesame seeds into a skillet. Turn the heat to medium high and wait a minute or two until the sesame seeds begin to jump. As they pop, shake the skillet, really move them around. You'll notice the color of them change to a light brown. When they seem consistently browned and you can smell a toasty smell, take them off the heat. Add 1-2 teaspoons salt and immediately pour into the bowl of a food processor (or into a tall narrow vessel and using a wand blender) and whizzz away until you have a brown powder that smells like bacon. So good on rice or baked potatoes or most any veg. Keeps for quite a while in a covered container in the fridge. 
February 1st was St. Brigid's Day which is considered the first day of Spring. St. Brigid is one of the Patron Saints of Ireland along with St. Patrick and St. Columba. A group of about a dozen of us met at the school and with the two students enrolled this year, we made St. Brigid's Crosses from rushes gathered on the island. 
I made a cross this morning from rushes I collected on my walk yesterday
I scoffed at February 1st being the first day of Spring and then yesterday awoke to the most glorious Spring day! Greeted with a cloudless blue sky and barely a breeze, I got a load of laundry hung out on the line and took off for a walk. I sprawled out on a rock slab above the lake and enjoyed the sun beaming down. I took pictures of mosses and the ocean and the brilliant blue sky. I gathered rushes to make more crosses and noticed the honeysuckle was leafing out on the west side of the island. It was really spectacular to have that little preview of Spring although today it is grey, rainy and windy again and my fire has been roaring since mid morning. 
The north side of the island. On the very top of that mountain are the remains of a Napoleonic signal tower.
 Tale of the Tongs and the lake. I like this spot because you can see the Atlantic ocean on both the north and south sides of the island from here.
A myriad of mosses growing on a rock
These planting hills are nicknamed lazy beds. They're plentiful on the island and are where potatoes and maize were grown in times past. In Texas we situate our beds horizontally to catch the rain-here the beds are made vertically to shed the rain.
A wild, but friendly horse that roams the west side of the island
So here's to Spring as it is right around the corner!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A HUNDRED MIRACLES

It is wonderful to be in a good space after some emotional upheavals. I've realized what a steep learning curve is involved in a more idle life, how thinking a lot requires discretion and that one can never underestimate the power of companionship. As I sit here beside a blazing fire with the wind whipping about outside I am so grateful for lessons learned and new experiences. It feels like I'm shown a hundred miracles every day. It is such a blessing to be surrounded by such rugged beauty here on the island. Every day the scenery changes and anytime I think I know this place, a new and magnificent secret reveals itself.
I have a dog! A funny and incredibly earnest little Jack Russell who has become my constant companion. He belonged to my neighbors and when they went to the mainland for an bit, they asked me to look out for him. At first, I dutifully went to their house morning and night to let him in and out and feed him, but then I decided to just let him stay with me and the die was cast. When my neighbors returned, he continued to stay at my place and they told me it looked like I had a dog! He follows me everywhere and is the very best walking partner. 
Dappy the Wonder Dog
My friend Frank from Australia came for almost a week and took some good hikes and did a lot of visiting with the locals. Frank is an affable guy and was on the hunt for information about Achill Island, up the coast from Inishturk, as his grandmother was from there! After Frank left, my friends Esther and Rick from Texas came for a week. As always, we took lots of walks and shared meals and late night talks. It was good to catch up! Returning home from a walk one afternoon, my neighbor Bernard stopped us on his way up from the harbour, asking if we'd like some fish. There, in a small trailer behind his vehicle, was a crate of fresh caught pollock. He handed me two and drove away. We ate well that evening!
What a gift!
Rick, Mary Jo, Esther and Doreen
In mid October, my sister Doreen returned to the States and I was sad to see her go. We had created a nice easy rhythm here and I so enjoyed her company. Before she left we took a weekend trip to Galway, a busy city a few hours south of Inishturk and discovered a weekend culture festival going on. We walked with throngs of people through the busy streets and rested our heads at a B & B in a quiet neighborhood just a few minutes walk from downtown. We then headed to Lahinch further down the coast, a small beach town where I'd WWOOFed last year. It's comprised of one main street and an expanse of beautiful coastline. We spent hours one afternoon sitting in a coffee shop watching surfers at the surf school there. She is planning on coming back to Inishturk next year for another long stay.
Winter on the island is so low key with few visitors. The Club has a slate of classes scheduled and it seems there are activities almost every day. I gave a bread class and expected 5 or 6 people to show up. I admit I was a bit overwhelmed when 13 folks crammed into the Club kitchen for a hands on class. It was fun and I was thrilled a few kids from the island joined us! There's also a walking group and we had our first walk yesterday. We started at the Club and discussed our strategy, then took off to the west side of the island. 
The view at dusk looking towards Inishbofin island
Our Walking Group: Mary Ann, Me, Mary Catherine, Helen, Jack and Corena
We will be starting earlier in the day from now on and I know our numbers will increase!
 Helen and Jack took me on a new walk to a beautiful and secluded beach.
 I'm told it's a good spot for collecting seaweed.  
 Wild and wooly
What a backdrop!
 The Harbour at night. Taken from inside the Club which explains the bit of glare in the middle of the photo.
 A bench on a trail in Westport
 Sunrise on Inishturk
 Sunrise over Caher Island
  Dappy patiently resting in a bed of seaweed as I explore the coast
WHAT A PLACE TO CALL HOME!
With all my visitors gone until Spring, I find myself writing a lot more and doing some baking. Next week I'll be cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the Islanders, bringing a bit of an American tradition to this tiny bit of Ireland. I can't help but remember all the years cooking Thanksgiving dinner at Cypress Springs Ranch as it was a highlight of my year. New memories are being made now and they are no less poignant for me. The more grateful I am, the better life becomes and the more I recognize the miracles that surround me. 
Hope you're staying warm and feeling thankful.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

WELCOME TO AUTUMN!

Friday is the Autumn Equinox and signs of the impending season change are everywhere here on Inishturk. Bags of coal are stacked beside houses and timber and turf are being hauled in on the boats. Still the weather is beautiful for the most part and we enjoyed two warm, sunny days in a row this week which found us taking our meals on the front stoop and being drawn outside constantly. My friends Jeannette and Tom came for a few days before making their way to Scotland and then, just days later, I headed to Dublin to meet my mom and 3 sisters and accompany them back to the island. After a week my mom and 2 sisters headed back to the States, but my sister Doreen stayed behind until mid October. It's great to have her here as she's pretty laid back and independent. 
Jeannette and Tom's visit was terrific with lots of day time walks and late night talks (I didn't intend for that to rhyme). One afternoon as we were heading off on a hike we got word that Jack was heading over to Caher Island to help load sheep. Maybe we'd like to join the crew and take a walk to the Monastery ruins? This was an opportunity that I'd wished for since my stay here last year. I ran to the harbour to ask (plead, cajole, beg) for a spot for the three of us and an hour later we loaded up with Jack, Helen, Eamonn, PJ and Father Desey for the short ride out to Caher. A small boat (a type of curragh) which would actually take us to the island was tethered to the back of Jack's big boat as there is no dock or pier on Caher. I was excited, and just a bit apprehensive, about climbing into the small boat and, after arriving at Caher, climbing up onto its rocky shore. 
Father Desey and Helen on the way to Caher
Jeannette and Tom ready for an adventure (Inishturk in the background)
Jack anchored quite a ways offshore and Eamonn (a most intrepid sailor) hauled the small boat to the side and, with PJ's help, got us all safely seated and off we went. When we arrived at the small cove on the southwest side of Caher (called Portariff), there were other boats there and a few island men along with lots of sheep waiting to be hauled back to Inishturk after spending much of the summer grazing on the deserted island. We pulled up beside the craggy boulders that jut out into the sea and one by one unloaded ourselves on to the sacred shores of Caher. As we strode across the island I felt moved by the history of the place - the site of a 6th and 7th century monastic settlement. What is left of the tiny hermitage seems precarious, the entrance wall on the west end is leaning quite a bit and the south wall all but gone. 
 A view of the northeast side of the hermitage ruins.
Looking out the entrance wall from inside the remains.
 There are numerous carved rock crosses on the island with an abundance of them surrounding the ruins. 
 This particular slab features a Greek style cross in a circle and below it, two dolphins curved to face each other. The depiction below is from an article on Caher by Michael Herity.
Another excellent example.
We sat on boulders outside the monastery walls and ate apples, gazing out to sea, talking little. Soon Helen's phone rang -  Jack calling us back to the boat. As we crossed the marshy, heather strewn hills back to the cove we could see the last of the sheep being loaded into the small boats. We clambered over the slippery rocks and loaded into our own for the short ride out to the big boat. 
The last of the sheep being moved back to Inishturk.
We motored up beside Jack's boat and could see it too was full of sheep. I realized it wouldn't be as easy climbing up into the boat as it had been climbing down out of it, but it went surprisingly smooth and, after pushing through the tightly packed sheep, we sat in the cabin for the short, 2 mile ride home.
The view out the cabin door.
A few days after Jeannette and Tom left, I took the train to Dublin for an overnight stay at Trinity College (they rent out dorm rooms during the summer months - quite spartan, but spotlessly clean and a really good price) before greeting my mom and sisters off a very early morning flight. Their flight was uncharacteristically early - arriving at 4:38 instead of 5:15! When I got to the airport, they had already been through baggage pick up and passport control, so we caught the first bus to the train station and were able to make the 7:35 train to Westport. They were exhausted after the overnight flight and at one point my mother remarked that they had been awake for over 24 hours. I think she kinda' amazed herself. We arrived in Westport, got a ride into town (it's a 10 minute walk from the train station into town - most all downhill - but when the ride was offered, I grabbed the opportunity), and tried to fill up the 6+ hours until we could catch the shuttle to the evening ferry. After visiting a few shops and the ATM, we settled into the coffee shop attached to the downtown grocery store and had a snack and coffee and tea. At one point, I looked across the seating area and there was a table full of my neighbors - Mary Catherine, her daughter Brid and her children! I was so glad to be able to introduce my family to my "island family" as I spend almost as much time at Mary Catherine's house as I do at my own. We eventually did our grocery shopping and installed ourselves at the edge of the parking lot behind the grocery store where the shuttle would pick us up. My youngest sister Liz and I walked the few blocks to my favorite restaurant and picked up a few wood fired pizzas to go and we sat behind SuperValu, eating pizza, chatting and nodding off from time to time. Finally the ride to Roonaugh Pier and boarding the ferry for the hour long ride to Inishturk.
Aboard the ferry
It was not a smooth ride, but everyone seemed to weather it pretty well and soon enough we were on Inishturk loading luggage and groceries into Jack's car and heading to my cottage. We had secured additional housing a one minute walk from my house, a two bedroom, two bathroom place where two of my sisters stayed. I'd realized earlier in the summer that one bathroom for five women was not going to work. And it was perfect with an open living room, kitchen and dining room where we tended to congregate for meals or to play cards if the weather wasn't great. We walked to the club one afternoon, a very steep walk uphill that my mom (at 83!) hiked like a champ. The next time we ventured up there for dinner, Helen gave us a ride.
Heading up to the Club.
By the end of the week, the forecast looked bleak. The family had a mid day flight out of Dublin on Monday and would have to leave the island Sunday to make it in time. I walked to the pier on Friday to talk to James, the ferry captain and he suggested we leave early as he suspected the ferry wouldn't run at all on Sunday. We booked a hotel for two nights in Westport and took the early ferry out Saturday morning. 
The ride was crazy and my sister Dawn wasn't taking any chances as the boat pitched and rocked. 
Exciting!
Our two days in Westport were fun - Saturday night after a raucous dinner (when we are all together we tend to wear raucous like our favorite shirt) we hit a pub. Thank goodness we got seats early as it was shoulder to shoulder, standing room only by the time the music started. A jam session of musicians young and old on accordians, fiddles, guitars, a piano and a flute. Other musicians came and went, joining in for a song or two or playing a solo. A few times the room would be hushed and a lone voice in the crowd would sing a plaintive ballad and at one point a group of older men all wearing yellow shirts pushed through the crowd into the room and sang a rousing song to loud applause. We left the pub after midnight and were relieved to gulp the fresh, cool air outside after being in the stifling close quarters inside. We went to Mass Sunday morning and it was lovely with a sermon on a hardened heart versus a soft heart. Early Monday morning Doreen and I accompanied the family to the train station and saw them off before walking back into town to the hotel. We'd planned to catch the evening ferry back to the island, but found out the seas were still too rough and the ferry wouldn't be back on schedule until Tuesday! I knew Helen and Jack were also on the mainland and texted Helen to see if she knew there was no ferry that day. They were going to day trip out to Achill Island and invited us along. We could stay at their mainland house that night and ride to the ferry with them on Tuesday. What a win! Achill Island is a big island north of Inishturk accessible by a land bridge. I consider Helen a naturalist and if I don't know the name of a plant or bird I go to her for clarification. Not a better person to visit Achill with! After the hour drive to the island we stopped at an expansive beach and watched seals playing in the surf; Jack drove a narrow, curvy road up a cliff and we stood at the rim in rain and ferocious winds taking pictures; we visited a graveyard from the 1800's on the ocean edge.
 Looking out the window of the ruins of a church built in the 1700's into the graveyard and beyond to the ocean.
 This gravestone astonished me. Mystical midwife and Mama...Wow!
 A picture board at the beach about turf cutting.
An old photo of women carrying turf.
 It was early evening before we made it back to Askillaun to Helen and Jack's mainland house. A beautiful house perched on the side of a hill overlooking lush green fields and, off in the distance across an expanse of ocean, Inishturk. As wonderful as it was to be with Helen and Jack in their serene home, sharing meals and talking by the fire, I spent hours it seemed gazing out the windows looking at the island, wanting so to be home. 
The village below Jack and Helen's house with Inishturk in the distance.
Jack showed us the pile of turf in the shed and explained the process of cutting and drying it. The fire it created was lovely and clean. It made me wish I had a fireplace at my cottage instead of a woodstove! 
 A shed of turf; cut, dried and ready for the fireplace.
Turf close up.
We caught the 1:30 ferry on Tuesday and no sooner were Doreen and I settled into our seats (we sat inside as it was raining quite heavily) than we fell asleep, lulled by the rocking of the boat and a deep exhaustion. We awoke a few minutes before we docked at the harbour and were ecstatic to be back!
We had all afternoon to unpack, do laundry and settle back in. 
During our time on the mainland, Charlene, the chef at the Club finished her stint at the restaurant, so I've been picking up the slack opening up in the evenings for dinner now and then. Doreen's been my sidekick and it's been fun and just a bit disconcerting, but I've learned some new skills. Mary Catherine, who ran the restaurant 2 days a week most all summer while Charlene took days off, walked into the kitchen one afternoon as I was struggling to fillet a pollock. She offered to show me how and made it look miraculously easy. I'm much better at it now than I was, although I'll probably never reach Mary C's level of proficiency (she also dropped by the cottage yesterday afternoon to show me how to make a coal fire as I've had pathetically anemic results every time I attempted it - we enjoyed a roaring fire all evening thanks to her lesson). I was surprised at how hesitant/shy I was about running the kitchen. It just felt foreign and, although I've been cooking as a job for over 35 years, I've never run a restaurant kitchen. I've been a pastry chef in quite a few restaurants and have helped out in others, but have never been a short order cook. I was astounded when my food order came in and I was confronted by turnips the size of a child's head and apples almost as big. Doreen and I laughed over my mistakes but persevered and after a few days off we're looking forward to getting back up there to play. As always, the islanders are kind and polite (and forgiving) and the best sort of people to serve. I am well aware how fortunate I am.
Me and Mary Catherine at the Volunteer Appreciation Dinner.
Doreen and I picked seaweed yesterday. Sea lettuce and sea grass for seaweed bread (which has gone over well in the restaurant) and carraigin for winter use. It's so relaxing to wade in the tidal pools.
 Sea lettuce ready for 10 minutes in the oven to dry.
Carraigin to air dry to use for winter "pudding".
Friday Doreen and I will head into the mainland for a few days to explore some other towns. I'd hate for her to spend six weeks here and only experience Inishturk and Westport, so we'll see Galway and maybe Lehinch and Ennistimon before heading back to Westport to greet my friend Frank at the train station and have him out to Inishturk for a few days. I met Frank last year in Madrid and we participated in VaughanTown together. We've kept in touch over the last year (he lives in Australia) and since he's been traveling in Europe the last month or so, he thought he'd take a side trip out here. So very excited to see him again as he's great fun! The following Saturday, friends from Texas - Esther and Rick -  are coming for about a week on their way to Germany. So still lots of guests for a bit before life settles down for a long winter.
I've been reading "Braving the Wilderness" by Brene Brown and when I came upon this early in the book, I was stopped. She's a phenomenal writer and cuts to the core of what it means to be a human in our complicated world.  I so love #4 and sometimes in my meditation it's my mantra.
Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart. 
How Grand.
Hope you are all well and looking forward to Autumn.