Meetings at the Edge

Thirty years ago, when I first landed here, I felt a deep sense of recognition. It was where my parents came from, and their parents, and their parents, and so on until my family tree seems to fade around 1600. That was the year that Maria da Silveira e Ávila was born, in Topo, São Jorge.

I am an anomaly on the family tree, a strange sprout out the side, born in a foreign land after centuries of life here. I may not be from here, but I am of here.

scenic view of Sao Jorge

The Azores are more than beautiful to me. They are sacred ground. I follow paths that were familiar to my ancestors, and look out at the sunsets like they did. It is different, of course. As Heraclitus said, “No one ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and s/he is not the same person.” The landscapes, both internal and external, have changed. Regardless, I experience a somatic familiarity with this place. I feel a deep sense of possessiveness and protectiveness about this long rock that stretches like a dragon in the middle of the ocean.

I spent five days here, in silent solitude with a panoramic view. I watched the waves churn and listened for the rain. I huddled under a blanket with a cup of tea and watched a watercolor sunset cast pink light across the water. I wrote. I listened to music. I read. I walked. But mostly, I sat.

“You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.”
John O’Donohue

Here a few notes from my journey.

Day 1

G spent the first five days with me, revisiting our favorite hiking trails, discovering new places we hadn’t yet visited, and soaking in the views from our perch. We visited my cousin, who now lives on the property that had belonged to my father. Then it was G’s time to return to life in Lisbon, and I had the generous gift of this retreat.

Alone at the cabin, the entire day yawns before me in a lonely stretch. I am not sure I’m ready for five days of this.

Originally I had planned this out. I had downloaded dharma talks from Spirit Rock, and bookmarked inspiring TED talks. I brought a book, a fully loaded and charged Kindle, a journal, art supplies, my camera. I would meditate, do yoga, draw, go on photographic hikes. My wise friends advised against such a packed agenda, and gently suggested I let each day unfold. I sit on the couch for a couple hours watching the sky turn different colors.

pink skies

Day 2

The island is nearly deserted this time of year. You can drive for several kilometers and not see a single soul out. A few cars rush from one end of the island to the other, tailgating you in a hurry to get to…where?

I visit my mother’s family’s village, and chat briefly with an older gentleman, trying to see if he recognizes any of my kin. My mom left this place nearly 60 years ago, so memories are fading. I sit on a stone wall near a church and take in the vista my mother saw every day of her younger life. She never bothered to mention this view when she told stories about her life here. It wasn’t until I came with her that I realized how beautiful this place was.

Day 3

It’s raining and windy. The cabin shakes in the wild gusts and the downpours obscure views to the other islands. I’m shrouded in gray. Now and then the sun peaks out and I sit on the porch to soak in the warmth. It’s so quiet that I can hear the rain coming again. I wear sunglasses facing the sun to the south, and can hear rain pounding against the window on the north side of the cabin. I tuck back into the cabin before the rain reaches the porch.

I’m restless and unfocused. I read a paragraph in my book, then get up to make tea. I start writing in my journal, then set it down to investigate the changing pattern of waves or to assess the misty clouds hanging over the serra. I can’t sit still.

I feel like I’m in a cold version of a sweat lodge, being purified of my tendency toward distraction with the various electronic gadgets always available to me.

When I am on the porch, in those short moments of sunny respite, I feel myself sink into the landscape. Birds rush from tree to tree or pick at the ground, making no mind of my presence there. I blend in, unnoticed.

Day 4

I haven’t used a hair dryer or make-up since I arrived, and I’m starting to feel and look like an eccentric mountain woman as my wavy hair gets a bit wild with the wind and humidity. No selfies, please.

My host drops off some fresh bread every day from the local bakery. It’s much more than a person can possibly eat and the bread rolls have started to pile up on the kitchen table. I walk over to feed them to the chickens, turkeys and ducks. It’s the most excitement any of us have seen all day.

I’m craving fish, but the fishermen aren’t going out in the stormy weather. I snort at the irony of being surrounded by water and yet…no fish. But it’s not nearly as offensive as the fact that, on an island with more cows than people, it is impossible — nay, illegal — to sell or buy fresh milk. The only milk available is the shelf-stable UHT stuff. Agribusiness has taken over. I rage over lost tradition.


Day 5

My intention when I set off on this experience was to sit with the unknown. It has been a massive upturning of our life to move from our comfortable life in San Francisco to an unknown future in Lisbon. I don’t regret a minute of this great adventure. But I am haunted by uncertainty.

What’s next for me? Where do I belong? In Lisbon, friends are amused by my “Azores accent.” Here, in the Azores, I’m told I have an “American accent.” Close, but not quite. It’s a perfect metaphor for how I have felt the last year.

Here’s the thing: I am not stuck for lack of ideas. I have at least half a dozen ideas of what I could do. My perfectionism and tendency to “go big” have kept me from jumping in with abandon. I sit on the sidelines and watch with envy as others pursue their dreams, some of which are very close approximations to my dreams. I am an observer, a wall flower at the school dance.

I came here with this crazy idea that my ancestors or this land, or something, anything, would speak to me and just tell me what do to. I was hoping to gather up enough courage to leap toward something. But it’s silent. I have had no great epiphany and today is my last day. I had a schedule and the spirits have not cooperated.

For the last few days I have driven past two properties. One is an organic farm with little cottages on it; the other is a former stone house rehabilitated into a stunning boutique hotel. I call the owners of both and schedule visits. I meet with each, and they are very generous with their time, proudly showing off all the work and time they have invested into these spaces. They are living the ideas I had 20 years ago. I’m jealous. Yet, I also see an opportunity for at least one of my ideas. More on that in weeks to come.

When you cease to fear your solitude, a new creativity awakens in you. Your forgotten or neglected wealth begins to reveal itself. You come home to yourself and learn to rest within. — John O’Donohue

Earlier this year I took along the river in Lisbon. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, just ruminating like I do about my future. During that walk I heard my mother’s voice, clear as though she were walking beside me. “Go live your life.” I stopped in my tracks.

Sitting alone in a rickety, drafty cabin, I recall this moment. I hear a chorus of ancestors, “How much more obvious does it have to be?” What kind of divine inspiration am I waiting for? Go on, get on with it. The engraved invitation is not coming. That was it. Move along.

A big storm is coming and they plan to close the airport tomorrow, the day I am scheduled to leave. The locals assure me that my morning flight will depart, but if I’d scheduled an afternoon departure I’d be here another three days until the storm passes.

Day 6

It always makes me a little sad to look out toward the serra from the airport. Every time I am reminded of the first trip I took here with my mom. It was her first time in 20 years since she had left and as we landed she started crying.

Everyone at the airport knows each other, and the talk of the town is Elsa, the named storm that is on the way. I board the plane and as we fly away I watch with saudade as the island, a lush green rock dotted with white houses, disappears in the distance.

I arrive safely in Lisbon, back to the activity and noise. It’s not as jarring as I expected, but I do feel like I’m floating invisibly through the crowds. In the apartment, I get back to the banality of daily life. Unpacking and starting a load of laundry. Stocking up the refrigerator. Sorting through email.

I am ready to go live my life, whatever that means.

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