I knew I wasn't in Ohio anymore when I walked out the door of the airport and smelled the pungent odor of peat fires and saw cars driving on the "wrong" side of the road. I had left the familiar cornfields and mooing cows for the land of 40 shades of green and Frank McCourt. Ireland.
This was a professional trip with a personal quest. I had come to the Emerald Isle to attend a writer's retreat, with hopes of finding my writing voice, which had been drowned out by thumping car speakers, cellphones that don't ring but squeak awful ditties, and questions from my offspring such as, "Why did you put onions in the meatloaf?"
After 30 seconds of instruction from the rental car agent, I was given keys to my Ford Fiesta.
"Do you have a place I can practice driving?" I asked.
"No," he answered. "Just watch the roundabouts."
Away I drove, chanting my mantra, "Stay on the left."
I began to wonder if this trip was really a good idea. But after a nice night at a bed and breakfast, I felt more hopeful. Soon I was off and venturing down every back road I could find.
As recommended by Sue Booth-Forbes, the owner of the Anam Cara Writer's and Artist's Retreat where I had come to stay, I was taking a few days prior to my arrival to journey through Ireland. She had said that doing so would help eliminate a feeling while at the retreat that I really should be out seeing the country.
She was right.
When I arrived at Anam Cara, the writers who were in residence were heading out to the Bantry Fair. Having become a full-fledged Irish driver, I volunteered to drive.
By the time we had seen the world champion sheep shearer and watched future Riverdancers tapping their toes off, I had become "best friends" with a folk singer from England, a blues singer from Chicago, an actress from California, a writer from the Midwest, and another writer from London.... And that was long before we performed "West Side Story" in Ms. Booth-Forbes's living room.
At the retreat I was ensconced in a room with a spacious window that opened to a view that would be the envy of any writer, artist, or dreamer. Peaceful fields crawled down to Coulagh Bay.
A desk stood under the window. A queen-size bed was surrounded by bookshelves. That meant works such as "Letters Home," by Sylvia Plath, "My Dream of You," by Nuala O'Faolain, "Paddy Indian," by Cauvery Madhavan (written for the most part while in residence at Anam Cara), and "After Rain," by William Trevor, were a finger's reach away.
First thing each morning, Booth-Forbes walked to the heart of the house, the kitchen, and cooked breakfast for her charges. She's a former Boston editor who, after a change in marital status, decided to follow her dream and move to Ireland to create an environment where writers and artists could come to find and hear their muse. She serves as part friend, part editor, part travel guide, and part midwife in each resident's hoped-for creative rebirth.
She's also an excellent cook. Throughout my two-week stay, Booth-Forbes made sure we started our days with omelets, French toast, and a mean bowl of oatmeal topped with sultanas.
Then writers and artists filtered back to their rooms to get to work with their laptops or paintbrushes.
Some chose to work in the glass conservatory that overlooks the garden and the henhouse that's home to "the ladies" who provide those golden-yolked eggs for the omelets.
Sometimes I walked down the path and the hill to sit and write by cascading waterfalls. Other times I cozied up in front of a peat fire, yellow legal pad in hand. Mostly I used my rented laptop.
At first the sound of my fingers tapping on the keys was disconcerting. Freedom to think and dream - hard-fought goals - came abruptly, and it took a short time before I knew what to do with it. But soon creative thoughts took over. My words began standing solo on the page.
When I became tired of myself and my thoughts, I strode out to the living room or took a walk down the road and talked to some cows. I found solace in their advice, which was very nonjudgmental and usually right on.
In the middle of the day we gathered again in the kitchen. Most of us had worked ourselves up hearty appetite. Mainly, we were hungry to take a break from ourselves.
The first couple of days we discussed our work in general terms, but soon, we were reading and listening to one another's works as we shared our literary dreams and doubts.
This was not a critique session, just a receptive audience, although if you asked for input, you received it. If we chose to, we talked about our lives, but we didn't feel the need to try to impress our listeners. The camaraderie was as nourishing as the meals.
Afterward, seductive voices sometimes whispered temptingly, "Let's take a nap." Most of the time I resisted the impulse, but occasionally I gave in - telling myself that sleep and dreams are part of the creative process.
A couple of times I walked or drove to the small nearby village of Eyeries, awarded a Tidy Town designation. The Easter Bunny appears to have painted thehouses, pubs, and storefronts in a variety of pastel colors.
One day, Booth-Forbes arranged for the actress/singer and me to go to the local high school and teach a couple of classes. I am sure I learned more than the students did.
If you have a car, you can drive about three miles to Castletownbere, a fishing village where you can chat with fishermen while they sew their nets, sit at a picnic table outside Breen's Lobster Bar and have a crab salad, or drive down to the strand, the Irish word for beach.
Around sevenish, Booth-Forbes served dinner in the dining room. Soda bread, lamb stew, cabbage and corned beef were part of the fare during my stay, along with evenings of tacos or spaghetti.
Dinner conversation was lively and good-natured. Exchanges of creative breakthroughs or the search for that perfect word filled the table, along with stories of visits to Dursey Island on a cable car that can carry six people and one cow or one person and 10 sheep.
If you are fortunate, you might be at Anam Cara when Booth-Forbes invites local friends over for a hooley, or gathering. Irish accents fill the living room along with stories and songs performed by anyone willing to sing.
Sometimes we sat in the living room listening to someone play the piano while we discussed writers, books, or our own creative processes.
One quiet evening, we went to Ardgroom Outward Stone Circle. Planted on a hillside in a circle - possibly by Bronze Age tribes - these boulders are fascinating. There seems to be one to fit each person's individuality - tall massive stones, pointed stones that resemble rockets, and squat stones whose sturdiness is their source of pride.
The night I visited the stones was the longest day of the year. On that June evening, about 10:45, we climbed through the field and up the hill, trying to protect our faces from the blustery wind and rain.
As our group of four stood in the stone circle, the wind and rain stopped. We knew it wasn't magic - just Ireland.
Each visit to Anam Cara Writer's and Artist's Retreat is similar, yet different. One week when I was there, I was among individual writers and artists, each working on his or her own projects.
Another time I visited, there was a group of Canadians attending a writing workshop. If you are part of a workshop, you have a teacher who instructs and sets the schedule and curriculum.
Recently, US Poet Laureate Billy Collins led a poetry workshop at Anam Cara that was organized by the Taos Institute of Art.
Tears tend to fall as residents leave to return to their homes in Australia, England, California - and even Ohio. Friendships often continue afterward, since people who gather in a place such as Anam Cara have common bonds. Excerpts of work are sent through cyberspace. Accomplishments are applauded and failures cushioned.
I have visited Anam Cara twice and plan to return this fall. After a trip I am rested, centered, and ready to take on the world. And each time I come home I not only hear the voices of the Irish, but more important, my own voice. Which, for a writer, is the most important voice of all.
• For more information about the Anam Cara Writer's Retreat see www.ugr.com/anamcararetreat.
• To start your search for a writers' or artists' workshop, check the listings at Shaw's Guides, www.shawguides.com.
• Before booking a plane ticket and making a reservation, ask for references from other guests who have visited the retreat, and be sure to check them out.
• Decide what type of program suits your needs. Some are highly structured; others leave you on your own a great deal.
• Stay a minimum of a week; it's better to stay two to three weeks, if you can afford it.
• Do some sightseeing and traveling before you arrive so you don't sit at the retreat pondering what you are missing.
• Have a project in mind when you go. It is best to plan what you will be working on so you can focus.
• If the workshop you're attending is overseas, rent a laptop there so you don't have to cart yours across the sea.
These hints saved me from problems many times:
• When driving in Ireland, make a vow not to turn your head and look at the scenery while the car is moving.
• On the narrow roads, if a car approaches, don't try to squeak by. Pull over as far as you can, stop, and let the other car pass.
• If you arranged a self-drive travel package that includes rental car and stays at bed-and-breakfast inns throughout Ireland, it's good to make reservations early in the day. But that's not always practical, since you may not know where you'll be by that evening. One solution is to wait till afternoon and stop by the local tourist board office in or near the town where you want to stay. Ask them to make arrangements with a B&B for you. It will cost a couple of euros, but it is well worth it.
• Brush up on your knowledge of kilometers before going on your trip.