To Hold One’s Own, by Surnaí Molloy

Making the world her own

There is a stone from a shore at home that I carry with me wherever I travel. It has a hole through it, which makes it lucky, and it was given to me by my mother, which makes it precious. Whenever I feel landlocked or lonely or homesick, I hold this stone in the palm of my hand.

In the bare branches of the magnolia tree outside, something tiny and pink flitters. A humming bird.  A pink—pink!—hummingbird. 

In a few weeks, the magnolia blossoms in all their cluttered abundance will bloom and, lying in bed, looking out, I will think how those petals are brand new; not dusted off, and brought out for the season, but entirely fresh. And I will think how that freshness must be within me. 

Sitting on a stool in my bare bedroom, having just moved across the world to a place where I know no one but my sister, I see my first hummingbird among the barely budding branches, and I gasp and leap off my stool. 

In this new part of the world, I walk along the streets that are named for the ghosts of trees, and I think of walking the roads at home, and how I may pass a local and we’ll pause and, within long silences, comment on the sun or the rain or the quiet. 

Tá an lá go breá. Tá sé socair inniu.

And we are saying nothing, but we have stopped and stood with each other: an elderly farmer on one side of the road, and a young woman on the other. 

Here, people comment on the weather too; they say all of the right things, they fill the silences, they smile and wish me a nice day. But they do not see me. They have not stilled for long enough to see me. 

The sun is setting and it is cold, but I take my guitar and I sit outside on the wooden balcony.  A hummingbird squeaked out her heart from the top branches of the cherry tree earlier. Why shouldn’t I?

It is sunset here, and dead of night at home, the date already changed. Chickadees hop along the branches in front of me; buds are appearing, pink. The dark elegance of a hawk passes overhead.

With numbing hands and the guitar slipping out of tune, I am strumming, humming, and then singing into the softening evening. I play songs that I have grown up singing, that were sang in chorus with a whole community; I play songs my mother taught me.

Announcing myself. Entwining my voice with all of the other sounds of this new part of the world; the strangers on the footpaths, the neighbors downstairs. And the birds, of course. They’re the loudest.

The sunset soaks the branches of the tree. I sing softly:

I am here. I am here. I am here.

People with dogs, jogging; couples jogging; parents with babies in buggies, jogging. All air-podded, all speaking to themselves. 

It is also where, as I stop to notice a cherry blossom, a hummingbird materializes a hand’s breadth from my nose. Like an oversized bumblebee.

It gives me such a fright, I laugh for the day.

There is a many-layered memory that I hold often. I am swimming at the shore below my house, maybe on my own, or maybe with my sisters, or my mother, or a friend. I have left my wellies on the stones and have sunk myself into the bay that is like a well when the tide is high. The cold has shocked my spirit back into my body, and this water that has held seals, dolphins, and basking sharks is holding me. There is a spiral fossil etched into the stone over there. Locals honk as they drive by. 

Whenever I am stumbling and fumbling around strangers, whenever I am wearied by anonymity, whenever I feel graceless or foolish, I touch this scene in my soul and remember who I am. 

I wander to the beach most days; it is lovely and long with a vibrant view of sharp monochrome mountains. All of the mountains at home are green and soft. There are too many people, so I take off my shoes and walk through the cold water and focus on my footing. There are blue mussel shells that we have on the beaches at home, and oyster shells that we don’t. A seagull steals a purple starfish and jets off. I always bump into my sister here. 

In a self-defense class, I’m told to hold my arms out before me.

“That space is yours.”

In the mornings, I take my coffee out on the wooden balcony that rests in the cherry blossom; it is my tree house. Though there are buildings and people and noises all around, this is mine; I have claimed it. I am learning to hold space. Eagles circle above me; far, far above me. Instantly recognizable, for their size, for their calm. When I watch them, I immediately want to stretch out my arms wide and so, with my head lifted up and hanging back, eyes following their easy spiralling, I welcome that eagle spirit, that assurance, that sure and soaring yes.

Stepping into the forest is like stepping under water.

I am leaving soon and I lie out on my wooden balcony as the cherry blossoms fall around me and I float into sleep. I hear the wings of a hummingbird strumming air behind my head and I flip onto my belly so as to see; she floats by the yellow potted daisies, then zips all along the breadth of my body, brushing my skin, and floats beyond my feet. She drifts above me, she holds space, she tastes a cherry blossom. And then a male hummingbird materializes within the pink branches and they meet and twirl and disappear. 

“I wonder what that means,” my sister says when I tell her.

The plane shakes and this usually frightens me but I envision two great hands holding the plane as something very precious. 

I am leaving the eagles and the hummingbirds and my sister on the far side of the world. At home, people wait to welcome me. My sister and I held each other as we said goodbye. To belong is to hold and be held.

The plane lands safely in Dublin, and the hostess reads out the Irish blessing that is so sweetly familiar, and of course ends with the prayer:

… may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

At home, I step out into the wild garden and wrestle with my dogs and I hear the echoing staccato of the cuckoo, and I watch the flickering swallows zip through the fields; I am told that I am like the swallows, for I leave and return with them.

Now, there is a many-layered memory I have of my sister and I sitting on a log on a beach that belongs to a different ocean than the one we grew up with; and maybe it is sunset, and maybe we are talking, and maybe we are saying nothing, and we are each holding home within us. And beside each other, in a part of the world that neither of us belong to, we are at home with each other. And the sunset is beautiful, and maybe there is thunder and lightning over the mountains, and maybe eagles circle overhead. 

Now, whenever I am flustered or frazzled or afraid, I hold this memory in the palm of my hand. ◆

This piece is excerpted from the Fall 2022 issue of Parabola, BELONGING. You can find the full issue on our online store