Oh, for the days when all you had to worry about was whether Bernoulli’s principle could really sustain you in midair over 3,000 miles of open water. Now it’s COVID-19 tests, before, after and during travel, passenger disclosure and attestation forms, passenger locator forms, prebooked rapid antigen tests, pages of entry requirements to read and fill out to get into the country you are traveling to, and pages of instructions to (with hope) allow you to return home.
But I prevailed, and so one misty autumn evening I found myself trundling off a tiny ferry onto the pier of Iona again. Iona is just a mouthful of an island, a small comma on the map of Scotland, nearly invisible on a map of the world. I have been here before, but was preceded by Columba, an Irish monk who landed in its cove in 563 A.D.
Depending which history you read or believe, Columba was either a scoundrel or a saint. Whichever he was, he was certainly a man of immense energy. On Iona he founded a monastery and then took off for the mainland, the Western Islands and Orkney to convert the Picts to Christianity. No buildings remain from Columba’s time. The large, present-day abbey dating from about 1200 A.D. was already in complete ruins in 1773, when Johnson and Boswell visited.
But in 1938, George MacLeod, a Presbyterian minister and socialist, settled a new community on the island and began rebuilding the abbey. His belief that Christianity must be centered on practical endeavors to help others attracted many to the Iona Community. The restored abbey is beautiful, a large, honey-colored cathedral. And the ethos of the Community and MacLeod — to work for equality for all — must contribute to the atmosphere of intense peace here.
I booked a room in the Argyll Hotel, built in 1858, which, fronted by a small garden, sits directly on the water. I had stayed here before. The timeless quality of the place, with peat fires burning in the lounges, and a large, old-fashioned dining room, suits my taste. I turned the brass key to the door of my room (no fiddly computer cards here) and took it in at a glance: a single bed hugged up against one wall, its headboard upholstered in 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 sizable window opened up onto a fuchsia hedge. The bathtub was huge and the towel rack was hot. It felt exactly right.
The island, just 3 miles long and 1 mile 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, to reflect and renew, to discover where I’d gone wrong and to reset my sails.
On the first morning, I headed to the north, through the pink granite ruins of the Augustine nunnery, and then past the restored abbey, which I had explored many times before. I walked on, following the road to its end and then took a grass pathway that meandered onto a raised beach. Waves crashed onto the rocks below, sheep bleated in the high grasses around me, a brisk sea breeze ruffled my hair and I relaxed in a deep and profound way, a way I have been unable to do in my day-to-day life.
The path curved around a headland and down to a beach where two intrepid swimmers played in the waves. It then led up over a hillock onto a heathered moor and onward to a large field. Here I became confused. And so, in the end, the day was fine and the walk was mostly flat, except that somewhere, somehow, I got lost and climbed a small mountain by mistake. This certainly seemed to be a metaphor for my life.
The next day, I planned to go to the other end of the island, Martyr’s Bay, where Columba had landed. I had done this before and packed with anticipation: water bottle, rain gear, snack and eyeglasses tucked in my upper left hand pocket. The walk began on the single-track road ringing the island, narrow and requiring me to jump up onto the verges when a car drove by. I walked for about 15 minutes, occasionally leaving the tarmac to make room for a car. And then I absentmindedly felt my pocket and realized, to my distress, that my glasses were gone. Impossible, I thought, and then noticed that the seam on this pocket had unraveled. The glasses had fallen through, sometime in the previous 15 minutes.
No problem, I thought, I’ll just retrace my steps. And carefully I did, scanning the road and combing the grass verges. I was so sure I would find the glasses that I constructed a parable. Nothing is ever really lost, I said to myself. This experience should remind me not to give up hope, always to assume the best; to be positive, to be strong.
But despite my optimism, I did not find the glasses. Never mind, I said to myself, I’m sure I’ll find them later, and I set off for Martyr’s Bay, determined to have a good time. After some confusion again, I found the path, over a golf course — what felt like the most remote golf course on Earth — through a herd of highland cattle, rumored to be friendly but who really knows, and over the brow of a hill, past a lochan, or small lake. Soon the path plunged down and I was rewarded by a vast sweep of high green grass leading onto a rocky beach, edged by a turquoise sea.
A scattering of small islands leads the eye to the horizon, which curves eventually toward the Irish coast from which Columba had sailed. Here I spent a happy afternoon, daydreaming, thinking and writing.
On the way back, I looked for my glasses again, without luck. Maybe I just thought I pocketed them, I mused, still sure they would turn up. But later, after a thorough search of my small 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 really are lost.
So I changed my parable: This is a lesson on learning how to live with loss, I told myself. An important reminder that loss is a part of life and that what remains is more than what has been lost; a reminder that joy can blossom again after loss and that the way misplaced can be recaptured.
And I thought, leaving a small token of myself, however inadvertently, on this island isn’t a bad thing. It’s a link between me and a place of peace and beauty and growth.
Joan Jaffe lives in Norwich.