The Touchstone

I have on my desk a tiny stone, plucked from the sand on a sliver of beach behind a small house on the fringes of a town called Ballyferriter on the west coast of Ireland.  As stones go, it is unremarkable: a flat slab of grey basalt, about an inch and half long, somewhat rounded, and worn smooth by time and tide.  My original intent was to use it as a “worry stone;” something to pull out of my pocket whenever I needed something to keep my fingers occupied should a cigarette be scarce. To anyone else, it would appear an insignificant thing, a stray piece of debris picked up at some point and left to collect dust as the memory of its finding fades. To me, however, it is a touchstone; a memento of a time and place when a great change occurred, where the path of my life took on a new, and more interesting, direction.


Growing up, well… let’s just say I was a bit of a mess. For the longest time, I kept separate, and fiercely guarded, two distinct personalities.  On the one hand, there was the “outside” face: the mask I wore among friends and, to a certain extent, family, that I imagined everyone wanted to see — a friendly, easy-going persona, designed for maximum social compatibility. On the other, an “interior” face: an observant, keenly self-aware identity that I fiercely protected out of fear that it would somehow alienate me from the companionship I so desperately desired. Thanks to an infernal insistence maintaining a division between the two, I had enormous difficulties achieving a state of personal equilibrium, and my mind was, shall we say, lacking an evident inner peace. In short, I had reached the awful conclusion that I really didn’t much like who I had become.

It got to the point where I was so miserable with who I was that I placed myself in a chrysalis of sorts, hoping that a metamorphosis would occur if only the right environmental conditions existed. I began to consider the idea that maybe what I needed was a serious change of scenery. As luck would have it, a return to college — at the ripe old age of twenty-seven — followed by a swath of good grades, a helpful pointer by a beloved professor, and an unexpected bounty of grants and awards delivered a sudden influx of enough money to make just such a change possible. A doorway opened, so I packed my bags and hauled my ass off to another country.

It’s a hell of thing, trying to redefine your life after some twenty-odd years of wearing what you’ve realized are the wrong psychological clothes. When I packed up for Ireland, I made a point of taking only the barest essentials to get me started in what would be my new home for the next couple of years. Minimal clothing, no books, no personal “stuff,” only a pair of journals to write in, and a small computer for coursework.  Bags in tow, I bade my farewells, and made my way east over the Atlantic.

I settled in quickly — making friends with students both local and European, and set about the business of adjusting to the Irish university system and way of life. I grew comfortable with the omnipresent rain, took long walks in the countryside, and bought sweaters (lots and lots of sweaters) to keep the winter chill off my southern bones. My routines consisted of classes in the mornings, lunches in the city center, and evenings at the pub with friends and classmates who knew nothing of who I was, anonymous in the sense that I was finally free from the memories of others to be the person I wanted to be.

In March of 1995, I accompanied a group of fellow students on a weekend trip to the Gaeltacht, or Irish speaking district, in West Cork. Our destination was a small house between the villages of Dún Chaoin and Ballyferriter, on the westernmost tip of the Dingle peninsula. The purpose of the trip was to give us students an “immersive” experience in the Irish language; time among the native speakers, far away from the risk of exposure to the heathen English. To say my Irish at this point was atrocious would be understatement — I lacked the capacity to deliver the Irish equivalent of the linguistic standby, “I have a pencil.” — and I had hoped that a few days in a submersive environment, chatting up folks who only spoke Irish, might force my brain into the proper groove for learning.

Circumstances would prove otherwise.

My agent provocateur came in the form of a book on philosophy — a gloss on how philosophers from Socrates to Bertrand Russell had wrestled with the concept of identity — which, for some perverse reason, I thought it would make a breezy time-killer for a four hour ride. Maybe it was some kind of emergent self-confidence, maybe it was masochism, but I should have known better. One does not simply breeze into a debate over the nature of the self; the questions grab you by the balls and demand consideration whether you are prepared or not. I thought I was prepared, but the act of reading the book destroyed that notion, and the old arguments over which “me” was the real me darkened my thoughts yet again. The book put me in a deep funk, and I spent the bulk of the drive stewing on the same old questions, cribbing the same old notes into a monstrously over-analytical notebook long on postulation, short on thesis.

Upon our arrival, the rest of the gang gamboled about the village, chatting away happily in an elementary Irish perfect for ordering up a pint o’ Guinness and a packet of crisps. We sat in the pub and listened to some local musicians play traditional music, my companions tapping their feet and singing along when they knew the words. They were young, beautiful, full of life and having fun, and here I was among them, a wretched sod sulking in a corner over-thinking thoughts I should have cast aside decades before. I felt out-of-place because I had once again managed to make myself so, erecting a barrier of self-pitying self-involvement that magnified my sense of isolation to intolerable levels. I was just about to excuse myself when Sasha began to sing.

Sasha was a Swedish student, a literary major with wild dark hair and eyes that twinkled behind lashes almost feminine in length. He was in his early twenties, a little shy until you got to know him, but with a kind and open soul that made him easily approachable. The band had taken a break, and the students were going back and forth asking one another for other songs to sing.  Sasha mentioned that he knew an old traditional ballad, and, after some genial prodding from his classmates, agreed to give it a go.

He sang without accompaniment, his voice high and clear as choirboy’s, perfectly suited for the tenderness of his ballad of unrequited love. As he sang the room fell into total silence, students and musicians sinking into the sound of his voice with absolute reverence. It was a magical moment, and it had a profound effect on everyone in the room. We were set adrift on the ocean of time between the past of Sasha’s song and the present of our own heartstrings tugging forth the memories of our own pains and longings. I listened enthralled, swept away by emotions that ran deeper than time, deeper than thoughts of my own self-interest. And when it was done, I could only sit and stare, tears at the corners of my eyes as my heart opened to the dawning realization that this was a moment to cherish. This was something to treasure.

The next morning I rose before the others and left the house for a walk on the beach. It was a soft morning, and the path to the beach was fringed with the remnants of an early morning fog. As I watched the waves come in, small and brown, weakly sliding over a tiny spit of sand, I bade farewell to the man I used to be. Removing my shoes, I stepped into the frigid water and, like a penitent, waited for the baptism of the waves. For the longest time I stood there, the water washing away the senseless worries of the past, making room in the memory for worthier, more beautiful things. There were tears, yes, but they fell not for what I was leaving behind, but with a joyous hope for things to come. I was granting myself permission to be happy, you see, for the first time in my adult life. It was an epiphany, and it was electrifying, and it demanded a record of its existence.

I stepped from the water and, after rooting around for a few moments, came across a small stone and a short stick for scribbling. Placing the stone in my pocket as a keepsake, I walked to the tide-line and knelt to write my testimony in the sand. Four words was all it took, single syllables as simple and profound as the moment itself. “I love my life,” I wrote, and for the first time ever, I actually meant it.