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The city of Galway is protected from surging tides and increasingly ferocious, year-round, storms by a fabricated wall of rocks stretching from the modest docklands four kilometres west. The promenade, snaking alongside this wall, has allowed the city’s residents a much-needed outdoor respite throughout a year of rolling lockdowns. It is, mercifully, within five kilometres of my sublet and so I break no rules by going there.
I park my bike at the shelter by the diving board where, no matter the storm warnings nor below zero temperatures, swimmers can always be found throwing themselves into the North Atlantic. Yanking my keys out of the frozen lock, I eschew their camaraderie and attempts to make small talk about tides and jellyfish. I do not have the energy to reply, nor do I trust myself enough to speak without them noticing the crack in my voice or the pools of saltwater threating to spill from my eyes. I smile politely but hurry off, saving my tears for the rocks.
Moving away from the diving board, on the final stretch of promenade before reaching the edge of the city, the crowds begin to thin. I clamber the metre or so up onto the top of the wall and pick my way across the uneven folds and crevasses of the badly poured concrete. Shards of crushed rock pinch my feet through the thick soles of my winter boots. I approach the edge of the wall, looking for the secret spot I found at the beginning of the summer. But it, or my memory of it, seems to move around. In the end, I settle for any suitable perch above the tide where I remain hidden from view of those promenading on the other side.
Galway Bay opens out before me. The beach is blissfully empty. Hardly anyone ventures down this far: The tide is almost always licking at the very base of the wall and when it recedes it leaves behind vast islands of bladderwrack which make walking a slippery pursuit. I rest my back against the wall, lay my bare hands on the rock, and allow the soft breeze to caress my skin. The gentle lapping of waves, the click-clack of pebbles being pulled out to sea and the chirping of curlews fill my ears. The sacred peace of this liminal space, where the earth dissolves into the sea, and on the horizon, the ocean pours into the heavens, consumes me.
The rock I am sitting on, however, is not in its natural habitat. It was gouged out of the earth from a quarry in some other part of this country, set there by a machine and is held in place with a rough mixture of pulverised rock, sand, and water. Its purpose is to hold back the wild Atlantic swell from devouring Ireland’s most westerly city. I run my hand over its pinkish surface, my gaze catching on glinting quartz crystals, and feel a certain affinity with its dislocation. It is of this territory, but does not quite belong where it has been settled.
Across the bay, the rolling hills of the Burren’s grey limestone terraces, a 300-million-year-old landscape of fossilised sea creatures, rise out of the ocean. Some days they cut the sky with their sharp edges, their steps and crevices crystal clear even at a distance of 14 kilometres. On warmer afternoons they soften to a deep purple behind the haze and on other days they disappear completely behind the impenetrable sea fog.
I had never paid much mind to rocks. It was Carmen Alvarez, a Mayan Aj’ijq or counter of time, who first invited me to consider the life of rocks. Presiding over a full moon water ceremony to mark the beginning of the Mayan New Year, Carmen explained how the Mayans consider rocks to be among our oldest ancestors. By carrying the memory of the tectonic energies and the ancient creatures which formed them, rocks mark the passage of time on our planet. Humans have made sacred spaces of caves and used rocks to build temples for millennia, but I had always considered them lifeless forms onto which we project our spiritual beliefs, rather than beings in themselves.
Removed from the chaos of my house-share and the buzz of city streets, I mould my body to the hard surface of the rock wall and open myself to their energy and any wisdom they might have to offer. Carmen’s words have gained new meaning since the beginning of the pandemic. The permanence of these rocks grounds me as I find myself stranded and rootless in the land of my birth, mourning my prolonged separation from Guatemala. My mind slides down the wall, skims over the water and sails across the ocean, traversing tropical jungles and mountains, finding its way to the dusty city streets I learned to love as home and the people – my chosen family – I left behind there.
In a year during which human touch has been more or less prohibited for those of us who find ourselves removed from affective relationships with partners or family, I touch rocks to retain a connection to a world from which I feel increasingly disconnected. Their solidity slows my thoughts as I careen down the well-trodden alleys and dead ends of multiple anxieties: worries for the future, dwellings on the past, frustrations with the present and the sometimes overwhelming panic that what little is left of my youth, among other things, will be consumed by the black hole of the global pandemic.
For most of my youth I did not feel young at all but old beyond my years. Even as a teenager my friends’ parents knew me as “the responsible” one. The Spanish have a word for women like me, “niñora”: a mix of niña and señora, to describe a girl who acts more like an old lady. The opposite exists too: “seniña.” I chafed under my (pre)maturity and longed to be just another carefree, señina. And yet, recently, I have felt trapped in a kind of evolutionary stasis, which is only partly to do with the suspended animation of lockdown.
Over the last 18 years I have worked, travelled, gone to university, travelled again, worked some more, rented at least 20 different houses, gone to countless parties, had some lovers, and fewer relationships. Now I am back at university, muddling through the first half of a four-year PhD, of which the pandemic has already absorbed one year. But rather than progressing it is beginning to feel like I am going around in circles avoiding, unconsciously or not, the trappings of adulthood: a home and a family. There are days when the idea of property or children seems as distant and abstract as it did when I was 18. And there are days, more frequent of late, when I long for a modicum of attachment and the stability that comes with an encumbered life. Half my life ago, I assumed these things would happen in their own time, if I so desired. At 36, I realise I have spent my adulthood avoiding such burdens and eschewing responsibility.
Youth and aging are elastic concepts, whose weight is determined by gender, time, and territory: the reverence or contempt with which our shifting lifecycles are held by our cultures of origin. The West clings to its cult of youth as the currency of success. The Mayans believe a person reaches the age of their destiny, when they finally grow into the person they are meant to be, at 56. In Guatemala, elders still command respect. On days when the anxiety over my dissipating youth threatens to overwhelm me, I remember that in Mayan time, I still have another 20 years to grow into my full potential. Indeed, compared to the rocks I sit on, or the five-billion-year-old world I call home, 36 years are hardly more than a blip in time, a fraction of a heartbeat. So I sit on rocks and contemplate life cycles while waiting for the world to start turning again so things might start happening to me.
There is a tug in my lower abdomen, however, telling me my waithood is running out. A monthly reminder that despite the stasis of the last year, my biology continues leaping towards a barren abyss. I shift on my perch trying to find a more comfortable position and ease the pressure on my right ovary. The right one is particularly troublesome. I speculate as to how much longer the discomfort will allow me to stay. I worry about the cycle home and regret not keeping a blister pack of ibuprofen in my bag. I close my eyes again, letting the rush of waves breaking under the hollows of the sea wall wash over me. My attention turns to the throbbing gland encased in my bone cave and I imagine the microscopic ovum – a potential human – struggling to break free from its hundreds and thousands of potential siblings and push through the outer membrane. I will them on, imagining them breaking through and wish they would find their way to my womb.
A watery yellow sun hovers a few inches above the horizon. I pull my stiff limbs back across the rock wall before the sun is swallowed completely by the sea. I retrieve my bicycle from the shelter, where only a few swimmers loiter in the dusk, rubbing towels over their blotched red skin, and take the short route back to my shelter-in-place. The pain persists. It pulls me from sleep at two a.m. and sends me stumbling to the bathroom where I find a stringy egg-white-like substance caught on the toilet paper. It is streaked through with scarlet. I return to bed, slip an ibuprofen, and lament another failed ovulation, imagining the blister forming on the surface of my encrusting ovary. With each lunar cycle my own potential futurity is sealing itself off. It is not that I want to or plan to get pregnant this month, but I want the possibility of pregnancy to still exist for me.
The cells in the human body are constantly regenerating and replacing themselves, remaking us every day. Of the woman sitting on the rocks in late December 2020 there is almost no cellular material left of the baby born 36 years ago, except my ovaries. They were formed in my mother’s womb complete with their million or so eggs. My potential progenies, my mother, and I all inhabited the same body for almost 20 of the 40-week matrixial encounter. The ovule that would eventually produce me, inhabited my grandmother’s body while my mother gestated in her womb 60 years ago. Three for one, like a Russian doll, getting smaller with the penetration of each layer. My grandmother passed away when I was 10 and my own mother when I was 23, marking an abrupt discontinuity in my maternal line. To smooth the painful edges of the fissure this premature loss opened in my life, I take comfort in the memories stored in my cells from these Russian doll moments.
The resonances of these encounters give me strength as I struggle with the reality that I might never hold a potential child, with their own potential children, within my own womb. I am old and wise enough to realise this could be for the best. Contemplating children as a single woman, in her mid-thirties, still living in house-shares and earning less than minimum wage, seemed daunting before. In a post-COVID-19 world teetering on the edge of a climate collapse, it can feel all the more impractical, if not utterly foolish. The continuing uncertainty, coupled with preexisting conditions of wage stagnation, employment precarity, limited prospects for home ownership, and the exorbitant costs of childcare: A woman in my position must genuinely ask if she possesses the capacity to provide a secure and nurturing environment to a potential child.
Still more of my friends have decided against reproduction to avoid adding further burdens to our already over-burdened planet. My own desire to become a mother means I have struggled with the idea that individuals’ choices around reproduction bear the weight of responsibility for the earth’s future. And yet, the Mad Maxian and Waterworld-esque dystopias I watched on VCR as a 10-year-old are beginning to look like how-to manuals for surviving the climate apocalypse. That this could be the future any possible offspring of mine might inherit is something I can no longer turn away from.
I wonder if motherhood was to be part of my destiny, perhaps it would have happened by now? Perhaps I would have made a space in my life for it to happen, rather than remaining on this circuit of unencumbered, albeit precarious, liberty? Perhaps I would have chosen partners who wanted children as much as I, in theory, do? Sometimes I hope biology or destiny will relieve me of the burden of decision-making, one way or another. In the meantime I search for other sources of connection and community: whether it is the rocks which ground me, the traces of my ancestras in my own cells, or in gravitating towards other lost and lonely exiles with whom I might form a chosen family. The word saudade, in Portuguese, is used to express the feeling of missing something that never was. I may never be a mother, and there will always be a part of me which will mourn this unrealised desire, but the world is full of beings from whom to draw strength and connection.
Ursula K. Le Guin, in her Author of the Acacia Seeds, longs for the emergence of “geolinguists,” individuals capable of interpreting the “still less communicative, still more passive, wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic, poetry of the rocks; each one a word spoken, how long ago, by the earth itself, in the immense solitude, the immenser community, of space.” The Mayans, with their continued reverence for our geological ancestors, are perhaps the real world geolinguists Le Guin speaks of. It is not too late to recover and learn the languages of the cosmos, the earth, and the body, and in doing so fill our immense solitude and build immenser communities. The memory of the brief moment when my grandmother, mother, and I shared one body does not exist in my conscious mind; rather its resonances can be felt in the nourishment, love, and trauma communicated throughout the matrixial encounter, persisting across time, space, and territories.