Valley News – Column: Meeting the challenge of COVID travel to find a place of peace


Oh, for those days when all you had to worry about was whether the Bernoulli Principle could really hold you up in the air over 3,000 miles of open water. Now it’s the COVID-19 tests, before, after and during the trip, passenger disclosure and attestation forms, passenger tracing forms, pre-booked rapid antigen tests, conditions pages. entry to read and complete to enter the country you are traveling to, and the instruction pages for (hopefully) getting you home.

But I took it, and so one misty fall evening, I found myself disembarking from a small ferry at Iona Pier. Iona is just a bite of an island, a tiny comma on the map of Scotland, almost invisible on a world map. I’ve been here before, but was predeceased by Columba, an Irish monk who landed in his cove in AD 563

Depending on the story you read or believe, Columba was either a villain or a saint. Whoever he was, he was certainly a man of immense energy. On Iona, he founded a monastery and then flew to the mainland, the western islands and Orkney to convert the Picts to Christianity. There are no buildings left from the Columba era. The present great abbey dating from around 1200 AD was already in complete ruins in 1773, when Johnson and Boswell visited.

But in 1938, George MacLeod, Presbyterian and socialist pastor, established a new community on the island and began to rebuild the abbey. His belief that Christianity should be centered on practical efforts to help others drew many people to the Iona community. The restored abbey is magnificent, a large honey-colored cathedral. And the ethics of the Community and MacLeod – working for equality for all – must contribute to the atmosphere of intense peace here.

I booked a room at the Argyll Hotel, built in 1858, which faces a small garden directly on the water. I had stayed here before. The timeless quality of the place, with peat fires burning in the living rooms, and a large old-fashioned dining room, suits me. I turned the brass key to my bedroom door (no complicated computer cards here) and took it at a glance: a single bed propped up against a wall, its upholstered headboard of Harris tweed, a small Scots pine bedside table just large enough for a reading lamp, my book, and an apple. Two pretty watercolors hung on opposite walls, and a large window opened onto a fuchsia hedge. The tub was huge and the towel rack was hot. It was absolutely correct.

The island, just 5 km long and 1.6 km wide, is perfect for exploring on foot, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I had come to this island to find my center, reflect and recharge my batteries, find out where I had gone wrong and set sail.

The first morning I headed north, through the pink granite ruins of the Augustinian Convent, then past the restored abbey, which I had explored several times before. I continued following the road all the way to the end, then took a grassy path that meandered over an elevated beach. The waves crashed onto the rocks below, the sheep were bleating in the tall grass around me, a brisk sea breeze ruffled my hair and I relaxed in a deep, deep way, in a way that I have been unable to do in my day to day life.

The path skirted a promontory and descended to a beach where two intrepid swimmers played in the waves. He then drove over a mound on a heather moor and up to a large field. Here I got confused. And so, in the end, the day went well and the walk was pretty flat, except that somewhere, somehow, I got lost and climbed a small mountain by mistake. It certainly seemed like a metaphor for my life.

The next day, I had planned to go to the other end of the island, Martyr’s Bay, where Columba had landed. I had done this before and eagerly packed my bags: water bottle, rain gear, snack and glasses stowed in my upper left pocket. The walk started on the single-lane road that circles the island, narrow and forcing me to jump onto the shoulders when a car passed. I walked for about 15 minutes, sometimes leaving the tarmac to make room for a car. And then I absently searched my pocket and realized, to my dismay, that my glasses were gone. Impossible, I thought, then noticed that the seam of that pocket had come loose. The glasses had fallen out, sometimes within the previous 15 minutes.

No problem, I thought, I’ll just retrace my steps. And I did it carefully, scanning the road and combing the grassy shoulders. I was so sure to find the glasses that I built a dish. Nothing is ever really lost, I told myself. This experience should remind me not to lose hope, to always assume the best; be positive, be strong.

But despite my optimism, I couldn’t find the glasses. Never mind, I said to myself, I’m sure I’ll find them later, and I left for Martyr’s Bay, determined to have a good time. After some confusion again, I found my way, over a golf course – what appeared to be the most remote golf course on the planet – through a herd of highland cattle, notorious friendly but who really knows, and on top of a hill, Pasta lochan, or small lake. Soon the path went deeper and I was rewarded with a vast expanse of tall green grass leading to a rocky beach, bordered by a turquoise sea.

A scattering of small islands leads the gaze towards the horizon, which ends up curving towards the Irish coast from which Columba had sailed. Here I spent a happy afternoon, daydreaming, thinking and writing.

On the way home, I looked for my glasses again, without success. Maybe I just thought I pocketed them, I thought, still sure they would arrive. But later, after a thorough search of my tiny room, I still hadn’t found them. The next day, before boarding the ferry to leave the island, I retraced my steps again. Now I had to admit it: despite the first law of thermodynamics, some things are really lost.

So I changed my parable: it’s a lesson for learning to live with loss, I said to myself. An important reminder that loss is part of life and that what is left is more than what was lost; a reminder that joy can bloom again after loss and that the lost path can be found.

And I thought, leaving a small pledge of myself, even inadvertently, on this island isn’t a bad thing. It is a link between me and a place of peace, beauty and growth.

Joan Jaffe lives in Norwich.

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