County Carlow, Ireland
The rain is colder in Ireland than just about anywhere. I’m running through the trees along a path, trying my best to ignore it. It runs down my neck and glides under my collar, making me do a weird shiver dance as if someone had just dropped a bunch of spiders on my head. Thank God nobody is around to see.
My Southern American blood is primed for gravy and humidity; it does not acquiesce to the cold. It’s been years since I’ve lived in my home state of Arkansas, but right now I’m remembering the delicious, steamy summer rains of my childhood and how lovely they are compared to this frigid mess. The tunnel of trees ahead of me is a lousy shelter. The trees assault me like rude wedding guests pelting rice at my bare face. I wish I’d brought an umbrella. I’m sprinting now and trying not to slip on bits of grass and earth that litter the ancient, untrodden pathway. There’s nobody around to ask how far to go; it’s just me.
He said it wasn’t too far away. But I don’t see it. My husband’s exaggerations make me irritable. Who’s going to take care of the kids when I get pneumonia? My husband is waiting for me in the car with our sleeping brood as we take turns dashing in and out of various tourist sites in the rain. It feels ridiculous, but gone are the days of backpacking, crashing in hostels, and wandering wherever the wind blows. Tourism is different when you have small humans in tow.
I slow down so I can shield the rain from my eyes, looking frantically for the rock. Thailand, our current home, is a million miles away. I’d rather be on the sun-blessed shores of Railay Beach drinking a Tom Yum cocktail, building drip castles with my kids than getting dripped on by cold rain, but I’ve come too far to turn back. I hear thunder in the distance and speed up again. One foot in front of the other, I trudge forward in a rhythm that seems to sync with the rain.
The beat of my heart syncs with my feet, as if an unseen presence is propelling me. The presence is Mystery itself, and it is thrumming louder. I didn’t always run in this lane. But today, I’m running for the girl who used to wear shame like a boxy boyfriend blazer, trying her best to accessorize her awkwardness. I’m running for the girl set free from a neat little box with straight, predictable edges. I’m running for the girl who turned into a woman and found a home in her own divine skin. I’m shivering, but my body hums with curiosity and lights a fire in my belly to keep running.
We are all running from something, right? I remember the days when I first ran away from home, when the wanderlust itch rooted in my soul, was nurtured by failure, and then transplanted me from the only place I’d ever called home. You could call it running away, but for me it wasn’t. I was running toward the places where my heart could be reborn.
It was more than a pilgrimage; it was a peregrination: a one-way ticket to far-off lands. Like a peregrine falcon that migrates from the arctic tundra to the jungle to the desert and gets its name from the Latin word for wanderer, I would need to take flight to the most obscure corners of the world in order to resurrect the strangled, decaying parts of my soul and infuse it with new life. After ten years of wandering, I carry pieces of myself found strewn all over God’s very good earth.
I can see it. This has to be it. I turn the corner and see the enormous gray rocks stacked up on the earth against a canvas of farmland, misty and still: the Brownshill Portal Tomb. The rain stops abruptly as if mother earth is calming and hushing the weather gods long enough for me to take it in. It’s a dolmen burial chamber built by Ireland’s first farmers between 4000 and 3000 BC. The plaque near the road told me it’s the heaviest of its kind in Europe.
What in the devil? I can’t imagine how anyone without a crane could have placed a 150-ton capstone on top of a group of rocks in the middle of a field. It used to sit like a table across a group of smaller rocks, but time has taken its toll; its rear is almost on the ground.
I want to touch it. I run my fingers across its bumpy, lichen-speckled surface. Who were these people and the Druids that followed? I wonder, as I stand on my ancestral grounds. I’m told these Neolithic dolmens are all over the world in places that don’t seem to have much in common, like South Korea, Europe, and India. My toes are numb, but I’m paralyzed with curiosity imagining the love and care these ancient people must have had for each other to go through such great (heavy!) lengths to honor their dead. Or were they built for another purpose that has been lost to history? Archaeologists are unsure.
For a brief moment of marvel (or maybe it is much longer, as time seems to stand still), I’m transported from my ordinary life as a wife and mother and suspended in the flow of divine Mystery. The ancient Celts believed in “thin places,” geographical locations where the veil between heaven and earth becomes papery thin. There’s a particular energy that isn’t seen, an ineffable realm that is felt with a sixth sense.
I’ve come to believe in the existence of this metaphysical phenomenon. For me, it’s a feeling of nostalgia, as if I’m coming home to a place that I didn’t know was home; it’s pangs of deep belonging; it’s echoes of sensations I felt only as a child—like having cousins come stay the night and waking up the next morning, ecstatic at the first remembrance of their presence.
Thin places can be found in nature—feeling a tropical waterfall at our face or watching the sunset over a coastal cliff. Or they can just as well be found in a Victorian library in Appalachia, a Zen garden in Japan, or in a dive bar in Budapest. This is what makes travel so exhilarating: finding the thin places . . . or letting them find us.
The rain picks up again, and I bid the dolmen farewell and turn back down the path. Drenched, I make it back to the edge of the road, where my husband is waiting for me in the car.
“Amazing, huh? Here, take this,” he says, tossing me his sweater to wipe my face.
The rain drums steadily on the windshield of our rental van as we drive through winding roads in the Irish countryside. Shades of green and gray stretch for miles through dense forests and rocky clearings.
My husband behind the wheel is usually a man with a plan, but this day he is content to wander. Our plans to visit the Glendalough monastic site were spoiled by the weather, but the stars have aligned and all three kids are fast asleep in the back, so we take a long drive and relish the captive stillness and uninterrupted conversation, taking turns to see sites while the other sits with the kids.
The kids are jetlagged from the long trek from our home in Bangkok, Thailand, to America. We decided Ireland would be a good midway stopping point with fresh air and the chance for three city kids to collect chicken eggs from the coop and pet sheep, and for all of us to literally lie down in green pastures.
I glance back at their sleeping faces, buckled in car seats, snuggled in jackets they aren’t used to wearing. How sweet they look when the batteries have slowed down.
I wipe the rain off my face, pop a few Advil, and dig around the diaper bag for a tube of mascara. I open the mirror on my sun visor and am alarmed to see the face of my mother staring back. I lift the edges of my cheeks and stretch out the deepening eleven between my eyes.
Singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile’s song “The Story” plays faintly in the sleepy folds of my mind. It’s a song about the stories our faces tell; the well-earned lines that come from our unique journeys and the need to share the lines with a lover like pages in a book.
It was the same song I once heard on a road trip from Amman, Jordan, to Damascus, Syria—when the lines were still baby fine and my wounds still gaping open, held together only with an artificial bandage—a flowery facade.
There’s power in telling our stories honestly, and there’s healing that comes when we can connect all our dots—the good, the bad, the proud, the embarrassing. The moments of our lives are strung together not like neat pearls on a strand—shiny and tidy and sequential.
They’re more like wild, pulsating stars in a constellation. Some stars are farther away, but might shine brighter. They say a star can be dead and dark now, but we wouldn’t know it because we see the light from millions of years ago. Memories are like that too. They linger and glow in our consciousness, some blinking in the periphery and begging for our attention more than others, until one day we take the time to stop and put words to them, reframing our collection of stories to get a complete picture. I’m still learning to do that.
Carlile’s bridge guitar riff plays in my head while my eye catches something up the road—“Wait! Let’s stop here real quick!” I see an old church.
“We have tons of old churches to see tomorrow,” my husband says, trying to dismiss this one.
There were other churches we’d passed. There were other churches up ahead. But something about this church was calling out to me like a dinner bell, clamoring: come eat!
As usual, the Hubs gives in to my impulsive request and pulls over. The rain picks up again. “You first!” he nudges.
I dash through the rain again, regretting my fresh mascara. It is a dark gray stone church, almost Gothic, with a small graveyard on one side and courtyard on the other. The wide, wooden doors are unlocked and the church is empty. I close the door behind me and absorb the silence that rings in my ears with the roaring rain outside. It smells like an old library. The lights are out, but the dark skies cast a soft light in the sanctuary.
It was my idea to stop here, but churches are hard for me. They can be both places of comfort—old swaying hymns that remind me of my grandparents in Arkansas or lullabies my mother sang—but they can also be painful triggers, as my background in the evangelical subculture conjures up feelings of shame and rejection. But this time I check all my spiritual baggage at the door. I breathe in a cool stream of air and exhale the dust of a meandering journey that has stretched the span of a decade. I am only passing through, but it feels so good to be home.
I belong in this space, I tell myself, as I walk slowly down the aisle. It’s hard to make out the shadowy altar. It’s so ill-lit that I wonder if perhaps I’m breaking and entering. Suddenly I’m stopped in my tracks by something crazy on the sidewall. It’s an inscription that takes my breath away. Surely, it can’t be there by accident . . .
Praise for Wanderlost
“With irresistible wit, humor, and literary artistry, Wanderlost takes the reader on a journey across continents and cultures. But it’s far more than a captivating memoir. Every line of this book is imbued with an invitation, not to an epic adventure to exotic locales, but to exploration of the interior landscape. Wanderlost is a summons to embark on a pilgrimage to a place many of us have long forgotten: the spiritual home within.”
—Ryan Kuja, therapist, spiritual director, and author of From the Inside Out
“Natalie Toon Patton writes for explorers who enjoy detours and eschew anything well worn. Her prose is elegant and easy, like falling into a conversation you don’t want to end. Wanderlost will serve as a trusted guide for anyone willing to take the long way home.”
—Steve Wiens, pastor and author of Beginnings, Whole, and Shining Like the Sun
“I’m grateful to Natalie Toon Patton for showing us how richly God’s mercy dwells in all the corners of this big earth. This memoir is a moving account of a life on the run and a faith on the mend, but it is also much more. Watching Patton find pieces of herself through her travels, we learn an enduring truth: wandering is a deeply formative part of the Christian life, one that can bring us home again.”
—Lisa Deam, author of 3,000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers
“Natalie’s beautifully-written Wanderlost shares her gleanings from various cultural landscapes of which we can all learn. But more deeply, this book honors and exemplifies the movement away from perfection — the movement away from what we once thought was the only home we were allowed to abide in and strive for — and shows us how to bravely build a new home honoring our former foundations yet deciphering what we were enculturated to think of as normal and right in order to more clearly see all the wonders that are good and holy, human and divine, in the thin and the thick places we occupy.”
—Gena Ruocco Thomas, author of Separated by the Border
About the Author
Natalie Toon Patton was born and raised in Arkansas, where she learned all the correct answers until she lived abroad for ten years and became very confused. She writes on the intersection of travel and spirituality, as well as refugee causes. She currently lives in rural Virginia with her husband, three children, and Burmese cat named Genghis Khan, but she’ll soon be moving to Botswana. Her work can be seen in Sojourners, Relevant, and SheLoves.