Time-travel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Shortly before I left, I heard a mention on the radio about the effects of jet lag on memory — it sounds worse than marijuana by far. I heeded the advice to expose myself to plenty of sunshine, though (I was fortunate that my visit to Wales and England coincided with an unusually sunny period) and managed to reset my body clock fairly quickly. What I didn’t get used to was the longer day. I would wake up when the blackbirds started singing at dawn and discover that it was only 4:30 in the morning.
Traveling home, of course, I got back the time I lost on the flight over. It was just about the longest morning of my life, starting at midnight when I was en route on the express train from London to the Birmingham airport, continuing for many hours at the airport lounge (I didn’t bother getting a motel room), and then on the flight itself, which left at 9:00, lasted for seven and a half hours, and arrived at noon. I had a window seat at the very back of the plane, and spent much of the time gazing at the tops of clouds from 35,000 feet in a state of mild stupefaction, the combined effect of sleep deprivation, a recently contracted head cold, and the sheer wonder of it all.
The plane was a Boeing 767 and bucked and heaved a lot more than I remembered from my previous intercontinental flights on 747s, and this combined with the wave-like tops of the clouds made it feel almost like a sea voyage. From time to time I’d switch on the screen in the back of the seat in front of me to check our position and verify that we were, in fact, hurtling along at 500 miles per hour. I thought back to my very first day in Wales, when I got a chance to ride in a small, flat-bottomed boat known as a coracle, a version of which the Irish St. Brendan supposedly crossed the North Atlantic in. Thousands of newly hatched mayflies were rising off the river as we took turns trying to pilot the rudderless, slow-going craft against the current.
The boat had just been made two days before by John and Cathryn Warren, the next-door neighbors to my hosts in Wales, Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Peter Wakelin (that’s Peter in the coracle after me; Clive’s voice is in the soundtrack, and he did the filming while I took a turn in the thing). I had simply happened to mention that a good friend of mine in the States was crazy about coracles, and asked if they knew where I might see one.
Somehow the unreality of flying across the Atlantic in a few hours was balanced by the unreality of having my desire to see a coracle instantly granted, sitting in it and finding myself unable to go anywhere very quickly except in circles. In fact, at that moment, there was nowhere I particularly wanted to go. Though the ancient ocean-going coracles did probably have rudders (and according to The Voyage of St. Brendan, could be fitted with a sail), their relative unsteerability constituted part of their attraction to Celtic monks, for whom the ideal form of travel involved surrendering to the will of God and going wherever the winds and currents took them. Some of the more God-besotted ones set off without even an oar. I could see their point. Almost everything — trees, wildflowers, birdsong — was new and miraculous to me, and I wanted nothing more than to stop and soak it in.
UPDATE (5/19): I’m honored to report that this post has spawned not one, but two responses from my friend Kristin Berkey-Abbott. Check out “Coracles and Communication,” which includes a poem called “Coracle of Prayer,” at her personal blog, and “Coracles and Currents” at Liberation Theology Lutheran.