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When I was at Mount Mary College studying and learning and growing and climbing Mount Everest-like peaks of educational heights, I met some truly interesting and influential people. I’ve always wanted to write a series of blogs honoring them, and the gifts that they gave me. I will, someday.
Today, though, I started thinking about one particular gal who I met and became friends with on that leg of the journey. I met Jen (her name’s common enough, so I’m not changing it – names have power & I prefer to use real ones whenever possible…) in one of our mutual English classes. We had a LOT in common, and hit it off fast and famously.
Speedy chats before and after class quickly segued into the two of us perched into the wee hours on the wooden Adirondack chairs, weathered and worn smooth with age and use, tucked beneath the sheltering eaves of a hidden nook near the back of the college.
We laughed until our faces hurt and our sides ached. We mused and pondered and what-if-ed our lives. We solved the world’s problems, and railed against its injustices.
We formed a sisterhood. In the long shadow of an edifice built for permanency, we transformed for flight. The chill of fall gave way to winter’s bite, and winter relaxed its iron fist and softened into the sultriness of spring. We sat, young and strong and foolhardy, full of our own beauty and importance and invulnerability, and dreamt and talked and worried and ranted.
And Jen graduated, and fell into doing what new graduates do – wonder if they’ve made the right choices, look for gainful employ, and rediscover reading for pleasure. And I continued to run up that hill and take classes and bury my nose in books, while the ashes of my failing marriage swirled around me. And days bled into weeks and weeks into months, and I missed the sister I’d discovered.
One day, I went out to the mailbox, and there, hidden amongst the dross of bills and residential mailers was a sparkling gem – a letter from Jen. She wrote to tell me that she was leaving, shaking the dust from her boots and the Wisconsin chill from her bones, to go to film school in California. Because of me, because of what I’d said to her.
I sat at my kitchen table, the epicenter of my volatile life, and held that note before me for a long time – an unlooked for beam of light in an otherwise gray day. And I thought, “But, what did I say?”
To this day, I have no idea what it was that I said in the long, continuing conversation of that friendship that lit a fire in her belly and whetted both her longing and resolve for fulfillment. I remember wishing that day, that someone would say something like that to me – something that would eat at my complacency and vault me into action. Eventually, many someones did – eventually, I was able to tell myself the right things in the right moments, too, spurring me to action.
The power of that experience stayed with me. I remain in awe of it – that something I didn’t even clearly remember saying could burrow into another person’s mind, effecting changes I could never have foreseen.
And it makes me wonder how many intrepid souls set out to sea, or crossed mountain ranges, or slayed dragons – literally or figuratively – because someone, somewhere, said something to them. Something that captured their imagination, something that seized them, that caught hold of them and wouldn’t shake loose.
And it made me realize how powerfully we affect one another without ever being aware of it. It made me realize the power of the ideas we share, the power of longing and passion to infect the human heart with desire.
I wonder about her now and again, whether she went on to glory in California, or disaster. I wonder if she’d recognize me now – a phoenix risen many times over from the ashes of the life I light ablaze and burn to cinders around me.
And I’m grateful to her – because while something I said sent her haring off in search of her destiny – something she said taught me a lesson: We are each more important than we can ever know, and that while our legacies are often unseen, intangible, and unheralded, they change the landscape, raze mountains, and alter the course of rivers – with only a word spoken gently into the ear ripe to hear it.
In 2003, I went to Ireland for three and a half weeks over the Winterim through a program offered by Mount Mary College. We had to choose one of three courses to take during our stay — I chose Irish Literature, no surprise there. I’d have taken theoretical mathematics and failed it miserably if it meant I could go to Ireland (thank God it didn’t come to that).
I had wanted to go to the British Isles ever since I could remember. And at the start of the semester, I walked into school, and saw the flier taped to the wall: Winterim in Ireland. My heart absolutely stopped. I marched straight down to the office and made an appointment to find out just what I needed to do to get there. They only had two spaces left, and they needed a deposit today in order to hold my place. I wrote a check, asking that he give it a day or two for the deposit I’d need to rush home and make to clear in my account.
I didn’t discuss it with my parents. I didn’t consult my then-husband. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I just did it.
I think now and then about all the what if’s — what if I hadn’t had that overage check from tuition socked away in my underwear drawer? What if I’d consulted my parents/then-husband and they’d tried to talk me out of it? What if I hadn’t seen that flier? What if I had and the trip had already been filled? But that didn’t happen.
What did happen was that I told my friend Char V. about the trip, and she signed up. We went together on an adventure that cemented a friendship into a sisterhood. I fought a little bit with both of my parents about going so far away — something they didn’t really like, because they didn’t really understand my need to do it. And then I went out and got my passport. I fought with my then-husband, knee-deep in the ashes of our failing marriage, a day before I left to go, after no protest from him whatsoever for four months. And then, at one in the morning, he helped me finish packing.
I cannot describe to you what it felt like for me to just go off and decide this, to follow through with it, despite all of the opposition. I’d been such a good daughter, and such a good wife. Always looking to please others. Making this decision, and going through with it was the first hammer-blow to the chains I’d bound myself with. I left here a girl, and came back a different woman.
The moment we landed in Dublin, we boarded a bus that would take us to our lodgings for the first week. There was something flapping wildly in my chest — which I thought then was just a reaction to the way that the busdriver was navigating the busy streets of Dublin (he, and everyone else I saw, drove as though they were driving a tank at breakneck speeds on open roads…even when they weren’t).
That feeling wasn’t a result of being imperiled by a rogue busdriver. It wasn’t nerves, or fear. It was the most powerful sensation of coming home that I’d ever had in my entire life – to a place I’d only ever been in my dreams.
The moment we got our room assignment and toted (by hand) our incredibly heavy bags up the two flights of narrow stairs, I grabbed Char’s hand and said, “Let’s go!” To which she replied, “Where?” Anywhere! I wanted my feet on the ground. I wanted to smell the air. I wanted to stand there, knowing I was in Ireland, feeling the fluttery joy of homecoming in my chest.
From that first foray, through the entire trip, I struggled to swallow that feeling. I couldn’t understand it. I’d grown up in Wisconsin. I felt at home at my parents’ house. I loved it there. In the intervening years I’ve learned that some things aren’t meant to be understood. They’re only meant to be felt or experienced, without attaching reason to them.
The president of the college — a woman who I had a bit of hero-worship for – had married an Irishman, and used those contacts to craft a truly incomparable journey for us. At one point, she told me that I looked like I’d been born there, I fit in so well. I’d seen that myself — no one knew I wasn’t Irish until I opened my mouth and my Midwestern accent flowed out, exposing me.
I savored each minute. I took 33 rolls of film. I went to every single talk and presentation we were offered, and went along on misadventures with our smaller group of cronies every night. I barely slept – I didn’t want to miss a minute of it.
And there are times now, here, when I walk out the door and something about the day triggers a deep and inconsolable sense of loss and homesickness. Something about the moisture in the air, or the freshness of the breeze, or the quality of light shining through overcast skies. And I could just weep.
I don’t though. I swallow that longing, and store it away. Because I know that someday, I’ll go back. Someday, I will stand on the shores of the home of my heart, and feel that fullness again. Someday, I will stand on a bridge spanning the Liffey, and look around at the low buildings that feel so familiar and know that they’re mine. Mine, whether I’m there on the Liffey, or here in Wisconsin longing for them.
I was feeling nostalgic today. Something about the way the air’s so fresh coming in our apartment windows. Enjoy the pictures. And wish me luck on, someday, getting back home.
When I was in the second grade, my best friend was Paul W. We hung out each and every day. We talked – we didn’t play on the playground: Paul, Holly, and I would take her boombox (which dates me right there) out into the field beyond the jungle gym and the swings and the running children and sit there and listen to music and talk. We were eight. I was an odd child – and Paul was a bit odd with me: we were old inside young bodies. The next year, he and his family moved to Indiana. I was crushed, devastated – I bought him some trinkets to remember me by, and I cried every night. It was horrid.
After that, I had a series of girl friends, but none of them matched that relationship. On into high school, I formed friendships within a group of girls that lasted into my mid-twenties. They had jobs and babies: I was in college. At get togethers, they’d sit around the table man-bashing while their men stood in the garage drinking beer and having man talk. I played with the kids – I found the conversation more stimulating. As time wore on, I just didn’t fit there anymore. When I got divorced, inexplicably, all those friendships came to a screeching halt – and I suppose I should have mourned them. In a way, I did – a part of me mourned the fact that I took a different path, and had to wave goodbye to the companions I’d had for such a long time on my journey. I think of them and our times together fondly. I wonder how they are. I hope that they’re doing well.
Preceding my divorce (from my ex-husband and soon-to-be ex-friends), I started forming friendships with girls in my college classes – some were fleeting meetings of the mind and heart, others sank deeper roots and continue to grow.
In the past two years, even those relationships have shifted and changed. I’ve discontinued association with wide swaths of people, and I’ve welcomed newer friends into my life and heart.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately – all these shifts and changes, all these goodbyes and welcomes. Today, I bid adieu to a friend who’s going off and away on a grand adventure – I said goodbye with joy for her new horizons, and a small dollop of the bittersweet, because she’s leaving. Later, I gathered with newer (and wonderful friends who I’ve been blessed to have come into my life), and we got to talking about this. One of them called it “pruning the friend garden,” and said that it’s sometimes necessary. I’ve talked to Dani about this, too – and she says that really, “the struggle is that there’s no struggle [in letting them go], and that this makes us wonder what kind of people we are to let go so easily.” They’re both right (totally unsurprised by that).
I’m grateful for all the companions that life and fate has seen fit to bring my way, to all those who walked down any stretch of my path with me. I find myself deeply grateful for the newest group who’ve entered my life – my relationships with them remind me of my friendship with Paul. That I can just sit there and be. That we can say so much without saying a lot. That I can speak pretty freely, and they get it. That they ask me how I am, and actually want to know (instead of asking to ask, and then hurrying to what’s going on for them … and staying with that for the duration).
I wonder about Paul. Is he married now? Does he have kids? If we lay side by side in a field and gazed at the sky, would we have the communion that we once did? I’m sentimental tonight, and while letting go of things that no longer fit feels good, there’s a little bit of grief sneaking in there, too.