A Second Life

A writer begins an open-ended journey around the world.

An illustration shows a figure running across a field through the rain toward a warmly lit cottage.

In September 2022, I gave most of my possessions away. The rest, I put in storage. The pandemic had erased my life, and I had to start over.

A few months before, I walked along Foster Street in Durham, N.C., looking for an outdoor café where I could work safely. It was the same street where my friends and I used to do theatre—in a black box, a storefront, a park, a condemned garage, the street itself. Now we were being forced to return to “life as normal” while the pandemic raged on. Meanwhile, developers with earthmovers had gouged up all the places I loved.

As a science fiction writer who studies the near future, part of me knew that it was only a matter of time before late capitalism would uproot me, too. And so it did.

I wanted to leave the United States. I was disgusted by the mass shootings. Gun worship. Bought politicians. Police brutality. Corporate landlords. Unregulated development. Inaction on climate change. And a Democratic administration that chose corporate profits over the health of its people. Who would take care of me if I contracted long COVID? I was 41 years old. I wasn’t born into wealth. I had no partner and didn’t want one. My career ensured that I would always be part of the precariat. And a simple surgery to restore my writing arm had taught me, in no uncertain terms, that privatized American health care would destroy my well-being as surely as any disease.

I had to create a new life on my own terms, instead of continuing to let COVID create it for me.

In my study in Durham, where I quarantined, I had a family heirloom: a portrait of my great-great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Hartnett. Her glassy tourmaline eyes watched over 11 years’ worth of labor—two novels, five plays, eight pledge drives, 60 journals. Family lore held that she came from Cork. So the idea of a new life took shape: to travel to Ireland, reversing my ancestor’s journey; and then from place to place, indefinitely, until I found somewhere better to be, and some way to stay there.

I drew up a budget, expecting the cost to be exorbitant. But I found that it would actually be cheaper to live on the road than it was to live in Durham. In addition, though I wasn’t cash-rich, I had three forms of wealth that can’t be measured in dollars: 1. a U.S. passport; 2. the ability to work from anywhere; 3. a living wage, through my online Patreon patron community. Traveling indefinitely wasn’t just a daydream. It was doable.

That fall, I pet-sat in exchange for accommodation all the way up the East Coast, and celebrated Christmas in my hometown. Then I boarded my flight on New Year’s Day. My first view of Ireland was the peninsulas of County Cork, patched green on blue like a stained glass window. Jet-lagged euphoria overtook me. I got silly. Could those tourmaline eyes of my ancestor see me setting foot on Irish soil, all the way from storage in North Carolina? I told myself I was home. I didn’t understand a word my taxi driver said, but I tipped him 10 euro and wished him a happy new year.

Six hours later, I woke up in a tiny cottage with cube glass windows, like the pod of a spaceship. I didn’t know where I was. Then I remembered: Ireland. The fact alone was unbelievable. I was surrounded by Irish people, breathing Irish air, eating Irish apples. The pubs were all still drenched in Christmas garlands. I took long walks in the rain—hard rain, wispy rain, cold rain, warm rain. It turned on and off 10 times a day, like a spasming faucet.

Everywhere I went, I scrutinized the houses. Lace curtains and water-stained cottages. Wet cobblestones and leaden skies. I left Cork and went to Limerick. I stayed in a hotel, discounted for winter. I bought fresh produce and put it by the window to keep it cold. It was too rainy even to go out for walks. Two weeks gone, and I didn’t like Ireland nearly as much as I thought I should.

What am I doing here? I thought. What am I doing, period? I have no place to go home to anymore. I chose this. Why? Everything in me needed to get unstuck, and now I’m more unstuck than I want to be. Is this where I want to stay? Freezing Ireland, with its tufted fields and wind-whipped cliffs? I squinted at every house, asking myself: Would I be happy there? If I like it, what to do about it? If I had the money, could I buy a big estate in the country and install solar panels, so my family could have somewhere safe to stay as global warming accelerates? Or maybe a cottage just for me, with a nice view from the study? Where would I get coffee? Which pub would be my pub? Even if I like it, how would I ever get residency? Where will I be when the music stops, and I have to scramble for a chair?

Finally I realized that my question was not “Could I be happy living here?” but “Would I be happy dying here?”

My mother died when I was 20. I grew up watching her pore over maps and atlases to keep her eyesight sharp. She’d traveled through Central America before she was married, and now that all her children were born, she fantasized about a second life of endless travel. She invited me to learn with her: the capitals of Africa, the states of India, the genealogies of Europe. But I didn’t want to. Her cancer had rendered her unrecognizable by the time I was 7. I was ashamed and scared and angry and sad. Eventually, Mom lost her eyesight, her mind, and her mobility. She died the summer before my junior year at Wellesley. She never got to travel again.

Watching your parents die changes you. Now, the clock is running. Now, all time is overtime. Three years of COVID only compounds that awareness. And you’re all the more aware because your peers are not. How can they be, when their parents are still baking pies and running marathons? Meanwhile, you rehearse your parents’ deaths in your dreams, over and over, even though they’re both already gone. Memories jump up out of nowhere and slap you in the face. Dad wheels Mom back to her room to change her diaper, while I sit at the kitchen table in my brown lipstick and velvet choker, refusing to help. I’m 15 again.

Grief takes a thousand forms.

For me, it’s living the second life my mother never could. I’m finally accepting her invitation to pore over the atlas. This is one of the last ways I can love her.

When I got to Galway, the sun came out, and hundreds of people turned out to stroll the seaside promenade. I walked along the harbor, then upstream along the foaming River Corrib. I wrote to my Airbnb host to ask if it was OK if I practiced guitar, and he replied, “Play whenever you like for as long as you like. The more music in the world, the better.”

Happiness doesn’t always present the way you think it will. You think that it’s some permanent state, fixed in resin, out of reach. That it’ll happen when you’re watching a sunset with tea, just like in tampon commercials.

Not when you clip the curb while driving on the left for the first time and swear F—ING F— S–T at the top of your lungs.

The heart finds pleasure in learning.

We long for an end that matches our ego. But no one is guaranteed that. I don’t have control over when, how, or with whom I will die. And it won’t be my fault. It won’t be because I made the wrong choices. It’ll just mean that’s how the cookie crumbled.

Meanwhile, I can practice death. We’re commencing an era when so much will change, so quickly. I feel like I need to let go of everything. Maybe I’ll settle in one place again someday. But I can’t see that day from here.

I loved Galway. What to do about it?
Let it go.
I loved Connemara. What to do about it?
Let it go.
I loved Wicklow. What to do about it?
Let it go.
I’ll leave my heart smeared across the world, like the sparkle of a snail.
Grief takes a thousand forms, yes.
So does love.

Monica Byrne ’03 is a writer living on the road. As of press time, she’s in Greece. By the time you read this—no idea. But she’s happy.

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Kelly Kiley (Wallenstein) ’07
I absolutely loved this. My ancestors are from Ireland too, and I’ve often fantasized about going on a solo trip just like this. Beautiful piece.
Nico Addai (Ntim-Addae) ’20
Monica, that was beautiful. I hear you and see somehow like those tourmaline eyes that you are living a beautiful life. Travel onward!
Belinda Tepper (Wilkins) ’71
If this is appealing, look into the Mary Elivia Stevens fellowship.
Monica (Byrne) ’03
I second this! I was awarded one in 2008 and I used it to research my first novel. Changed my life!
Belinda W. Tepper (Wilkins) ’71
Correction: Mary Elvira Stevens Traveling Fellowship.
Jane (Flynn) ’83
What a beautiful meditation. I'm intimately connected to Ireland, the place my grandparents came from, and to Greece, where I married, raised my children, lost my marriage and my younger son and re-gained my identity. I find the framing of living as though you are preparing for the end is liberating, and allows for moments of happiness and grace. Thank you.

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