I met Alessandra in what turned out to be the last year of her life. We had been overlapping for years. There were people we knew in common, shared networks. Ours were parallel lives which never quite touched, until the redwoods brought them together.
We met in a bubbling pool. The giants rose in front of us, lending us their shade and turning us to awe. The trees leaned in to listen: click. That was the sound of us meeting: the clicking. Our connection was instantaneous and immediately sealed with two vital ingredients for a long and lasting friendship: laughter and listening.
By virtue of synchronicity we had been assigned as roommates for the next few days. We were attending a gathering about Being on the west coast of California. She had travelled from Oxford, me from the west coast of Ireland. We joked that the Europeans had been put together for safe-keeping. For the next few days we listened to the talks, shared ideas, shared travel tales, and dreamed. She told me of her love of writing, and the books she had bubbling. Then she shared stories of her work in war-torn places and her aspirations to move forward into the new frontiers of psychology and service. After all the chat, when the night was turning back into day, we read poetry to the stirrings of the forest. I marvelled at this new friend, this old soul. There was little sleep.
From the forest it was time to catch a ride to the city. Another new friend, Juliana, had opened her heart and home to us too, and so we followed. There were days of more wanders. The streets of San Francisco offered us their colour and their memories. We lingered in bookshops, getting lost. I’d find Alessandra between the pages of poetry and the pages of memoirs. We ate Japanese food, and hunted down the best bakeries. Our cameras came out on the backstreets. She loved the murals of the Mission, and our lenses took us down the alleyways. Here was someone you could wander with—a rare find, a keeper.
When the city got too much, we —Alessandra, Juliana and I—found our way back to the trees. We hiked an ancient trail through ancient woods. There was talk of what it means to truly live, what it means to really serve, and what it means to fully love. As the woodland floor gave itself over to our footsteps, the trail led us to a high meadow where we picnicked overlooking the redwood canopy. Beyond was the sea.
You could feel the pull in her. She longed for that sea, for its power of place and its power of movement. I think she longed for its waves to work their mysterious way on her too, into her deep corners, and the places of yet unacknowledged hope. She knew there was peace there. Looking on, I could see why, for Alessandra and the sea were kin— moving mountains with their tides, dismissive of obstacles, strong and soft in equal measure, quantified in flow and never in stagnation.
That day, the mountain led us back to a harbour. Another bookshop. We passed Mary Oliver’s Felicity between us, weaving the gift of words; each pass another thread in our bond. A friendship gets woven in words, it seems, with poems being among the best of them. Then we caught a ferry back to San Francisco. The wind was now sharp, the light golden. I stood on deck for a few moments, until the wind got the better of me and I retreated below to read from Braiding Sweetgrass, my new book purchase, an essay about strawberries, wisdom and gifts. Alessandra stood outside, hooking her camera to the sunset, the wind and sky all open, the water nothing but glistening, her face nothing but a mirror to the light. Here was the life she loved, condensed into this moment, and her next footfall and her next blink. It all happens so quickly, and she knew it.
I soon returned to Ireland. She returned to the sea. From a little house she had rented by the ocean, we shared Skype calls and more laughter. By summer the calls were fading. I heard the pain was in. So I sent poems, and blessings from my land, and when their was no response, I walked to the waves and sent them out there too.
Brevity is never a mark of meaning. Sometimes we meet someone whose blueprint for laughter and living, wonder and mischief, imprints itself on the map of your own life, your own becoming. Alessandra’s mark is indelible. She has given me signposts and clues. She has reminded me that in these footsteps and these paths, in these backroads and these sunsets, in that tree or that way, in every inhale and each exhale is a preciousness to hold and behold.
‘Don’t worry’, Alessandra requested.
She meant the Mary Oliver poem. So I read it aloud for her:
‘Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.
How many roads did St. Augustine follow
before he became St. Augustine.
Then we laughed.
Now, when I read it, I’ll forever think of Alessandra. The memory of those days made all the more precious with their brevity. Her memory, and her blueprint, my forever friend.
Dedicated to the wonder and mischief of Alessandra Pigni