I’ve been thinking lately about a night I spent alone outside of Dublin last year.
It was at a retreat center, but I wasn’t on a retreat. I was there because the place also served as a budget hotel and was near the airport; my dad had booked for me to stay there before an early morning flight back to New York. He’d forwarded me the booking months earlier, saying the reviews were good, but he’d cancel if I’d prefer more traditional lodging. It was $72 a night, including breakfast. I trusted his ability to choose lodging, it is a talent of his, and the pictures looked nice.
We were in Ireland for a holiday. My parents had invited me to spend a week with them driving through the southern and southwestern part of the country: a few nights in a port town, a few nights in a beach town, a few nights in a cliff town. This trip was their third time in Ireland. They loved it there and wanted to share it with me, and I was lucky enough to be able to take the time off work to join them. The whole week was very special: to spend so much time with my parents, to spend it with them abroad, to spend it with them in such a beautiful place. The trip was over, though, by the time I got to the retreat center. My stay there was purely functional, a cheap place to rest before an early flight. But it was also special in its own way.
Part of what made it special was that I was alone. I had a really, really good time with my parents on the trip, but we’d been together for a week! And back home in New York, it was very rare to spend a night alone in our apartment without Matt. At that time, we’d been living together for two years. A night totally alone was novel, a treat.
The road to the center wound through acres of forest until it opened up on the building, which looked institutional but also friendly. My parents came inside with me to check in and check the place out. We were given a key, a proper one, not a card, and were directed up a bright, windowed stairway to the wing where my room was. As the three of us made our way up, I felt a bit like when they had checked me into summer camp or settled me into my college dorm — excited and anxious at being imminently left to fend for myself. We dropped my bag in my room, which looked exactly like a college dorm room, extra long single bed and windows overlooking a quad, and I walked them out to say goodbye. I cried as they drove off, my beautiful parents. And then I went back inside.
The center is owned by a Catholic organization, though not the Church itself, and hosts programming like “Heal Your Life Vision Board Workshop,” “Journeying Into Light: Scriptural Reflections With an Advent Focus Using Wood Symbols,” and “An Intensive Silent Week of Centering Prayer.” They also host private conferences and trainings and some secular programming focused on wellness.
I decided to hang out in the lobby and have a cup of tea from the little tea cart in the corner. It was early evening in the summer, and the lobby had good light and a few sofas and shelves of books. Every now and then someone would come through the large front doors and the kind man at the front desk would direct them to a seminar that was happening in another wing. The place felt rather empty, and I felt rather comfortable. I sipped my tea and perused the bookshelves. I remember thinking, I could read one of these books, wouldn’t that be a nice way to spend an evening alone in a retreat center in Ireland. I picked one up about a nun’s life —exactly the kind of book that I would like to read in this little fantasy — but it didn’t sing to me. I put it back. On the table was a laminated card that detailed a walk one could do on the front drive. I considered that too, and also put it back. I got up again and wandered down the hall and found a vending machine. I still had some Euros and so maybe for the last time of the trip got to experience the tiny thrill of using foreign currency. I swapped out my tea for a Coke — dicey, so late in the day, but I was on holiday.
Then I went on a wander. I knew from the brochure that the property was on many acres and so I envisioned an adventure, but there was a neat path to follow and it mostly went around a lawn behind the building. In one place, the path dipped into a wooded area, and there in a clearing was a statue of a woman and a child with an inscription: Lay all your cares about the future trustingly in God’s hands. And let yourself be guided by the Lord just like a little child. Edith Stein (1891-1942). I remember pausing to read this phrase and thinking, this moves me, and then walking a few steps more and turning back to take a photo, so I wouldn’t forget it. Just like a little child. I saw many large rabbits jumping around, and I liked them. Also I kept hearing gunshots in the distance.
I just Googled Edith Stein and here is what I learned: she was born in Germany to a Jewish family, and then became a nurse and then a doctor of philosophy and then converted to Catholicism and was a philosopher nun and then was imprisoned and sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered. She was later beatified as a martyr, though apparently there is some disagreement as to whether she officially qualifies. If she was murdered for being Jewish, then no. But if she was murdered for being Catholic, then yes. The former seems to be the more obvious cause of murder at Auschwitz, but in the year of her death, the Danish Church condemned Nazi racism and so perhaps she was killed for that reason, which would qualify her as a martyr. And did, controversially. Seems absurd, to have the sum of one’s life determined by a Nazi’s reason for killing you. Anyway here’s what else I learned about Edith Stein: “Her work contains original approaches to empathy, embodiment, the emotions, personhood, collective intentionality, and the nature of the state. In her later work, Stein developed an original philosophy of being and essence that integrated Husserlian phenomenology and Thomist metaphysics.” I only took one philosophy class at university and so I cannot parse what this means, exactly, but it sounds nice. I am sorry that Edith Stein was killed by Nazis. And I do really love what she said about letting yourself be guided by the Lord, just like a little child.
And so I let myself be guided back to my room. When we’d checked in, the man at the front desk had said that there was a pantry with snacks on each floor, and so I checked it out. There were apples and yogurts and juice boxes and little packets of cookies. I took several of each, dinner. Back in the room, I sat by the window and listened to the gunshots in the distance, for a bit. I called the front desk to ask if they knew what they were for — I’m not sure what I thought they’d say — but the woman who answered said, oh it’s a farmer, you know sometimes farmers have to shoot things. I assumed the things were rabbits.
I looked at the desk and thought, maybe I could write something. And then I laughed and plugged my phone in. Took a long shower, washed my hair. Ate my cookies and apples and yogurts. Sent Matt a photo of me drinking a juice box. Got in bed. Fell asleep.
In the morning my alarm went off and I packed my things and went downstairs for breakfast in a very nice hall with skylights and big windows and a small delegation of African priests. A woman brought me tea with milk, and I filled a plate with toast and fruit and nutella. I ate. Then I returned my key and stepped outside to meet the driver who would take me to the airport.
I remember so many details of the trip with my parents: the swirl of a vanilla ice cream cone, a walk in a lush green park, tea and cake in a cafe in a historic house, the deep blue of the water below a cliff, the taste of a salty french fry, the excitement of a harrowing drive, the view of an empty windswept beach, the joy of sitting at a table in a pub in a foreign country with the two people who have known and loved me longest.
But I hadn’t thought of that last night alone outside Dublin since it happened, and now it keeps popping up. A quiet evening alone in an assuming place in a foreign land. A small happy memory.
Watercolor by Matt Davis