I’ll never know what it’s like to be rooted. Not really. I live between worlds, a beat behind those with clear connections to place. I’ve lived in Tennessee, in Switzerland, in Ireland. Irish poet Eavan Boland talks of not quite belonging to any one place because her accent has given her away in some places, or she has lacked the spoken shortcuts of place in others — which is like a language that lets you belong. When I read that, I thought of how those shortcuts fell from my tongue in Ireland, in my hometown, and again in San Francisco some years later. I was in an Irish bar in San Francisco on Paddy’s Day when an Irishman heard my accent.
“Where ye from?” he asked.
“Bray.” (I didn’t need to generalize and say Dublin because his accent had given him away the moment he spoke. I didn’t need to note that Bray was in Co. Wicklow, about 14 miles south of Dublin, on the East coast of Ireland. I could use the shortcut “Bray” and be immediately understood.)
“Where in Bray?”
“D’je know Dargle Road?”
“Well, ye know Foster’s Shop?”
“About a quarter of a mile up the road, on the right hand side.”
“The house with the tennis court?”
“Ah, sure I know your sister then, Leah.”
Like that. Suddenly rooted in a place so far from home, speaking the shortcuts of my hometown to a man who could decode them because he was from there too. We drank a few beers together all right, and parted cordially. But then I had to leave, to go back to my home state of the time, and as the miles lengthened behind me the sense of loss and drifting that has followed me for a lifetime bubbled up again.
I have roots, but they are peculiar roots. I am Irish, but only in part. And yet the core of who I am is Irish, despite my American mother, American birth, and my early years spent outside the island. Despite these later years spent in the States. Home, for me, still means Ireland, if only in memory. Phantom unlawful roots slip from me, grow from the yearning I have to belong, across landmasses and under an ocean to ground me in the hills of Wicklow, on the Sugarloaf Mountain and Bray Head. No one except me recognizes them. Not the officials of Ireland. Not those who would hand out Irish passports.
So my roots are phantom roots, nursed in longing, and without substance. I cannot look to them for security or a sense of belonging. I am rooted in rootlessness.