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Well, our final Mitchell reflections have been posted – marking the official end of my year in Ireland.  As always, check out my fellow scholars’ reflections about the year and our time on the Emerald Isle.

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I’m famously terrible with goodbyes. I get teary in the days leading up to a big goodbye, and everything sets me off – the mere thought of a final farewell, the symbolism of a sunset, etc., etc. It’s a bit of an embarrassment when I find myself reduced to tears so easily. So I knew that my last month in Ireland would be rough: many opportunities to publicly humiliate myself with goodbyes to the Mitchells, my Irish friends, and #24 The Waterfront (our lovely home in Galway on the River Corrib).

The Mitchell goodbyes went better than expected. After a great week of activities – meeting Irish President Mary McAleese and receiving our class rings, becoming one with nature at Glenstal Abbey, participating in Listowel Writer’s Week, and enjoying time in the beautiful Glin Castle – we had one last big group hug in the parking lot of the Limerick train station. I held back my tears and laughed at the antics of the group as we said our goodbyes.

Saying goodbye to Galway and my friends there was another story. Once, in the days leading up to our departure, my husband Jon just said the word cry and I burst into tears – apparently unable to stop myself. As we packed up our belongings (…miniature Eiffel Tower from Paris, leggings I purchased at Dunnes for only €3, books on gender and economic development…) I thought about the many things I’d miss about Galway. First and foremost, my friends Laura and Avril, who share my interests and now know my quirks enough to tease me mercilessly; not to mention the community of friends I’ve built over the past year. But also: the swans, the Saturday market, the guy on Shop Street that sculpts a sleeping dog out of sand, the habit of taking tea four times a day, the discussions of local politics and the recession on Galway Bay FM. After days of preparations, Jon and I gathered our things and boarded the train. I thought about the loss of our happy little Galway life as we pulled out of the station and began to miss Ireland even though I was still within its borders. Just as expected: at least one public show of tears.

*****

When we arrived back in the United States, my dad welcomed us home with bottles of Guinness. He wanted us to have a little piece of Ireland when we returned. Over dinner with my grandpa and grandma, we cracked open the bottles and poured them the proper way. Grandpa took a couple of sips and asked, “Do any of you actually like this stuff?” He was right: Guinness from a bottle is not as good as it is from the tap. This was not a surprise, but Grandpa’s comment made us all laugh. The funny interaction between an American and something Irish reminded me of all the other interactions between the two cultures that I’ve seen over the past year.

There was the time, a couple weeks before we left Galway, that I checked my email and received a poem. Avril, who was sitting beside me, exclaimed, “I LOVE this poem!” The poem was one about summer by Carl Sandburg, a poet I have come to love from living in Chicago. Avril read it aloud, her Donegal accent filling the room, and I reflected on the beauty of finding an Irish friend who appreciates a Chicagoan’s poetry as much as I do.

I remember another time, months earlier, when my classmate Grainne happily informed me that her uncle was also from Chicago. “Maybe you’ve heard of him?” I laughed, reminded of the many times that Irish friends have asked me hopefully if I know their cousin who lives in Idaho, Pennsylvania, or Texas. “Chicago’s a big city, Grainne!” She defended herself by responding, “Well, he’s involved in politics. He’s worked really closely with Governor Quinn.” Oh, I thought, that’s different! It turns out that Grainne’s uncle is well known in Chicago, and Grainne was quite knowledgeable about Chicago politics. I would have never expected that one of my Irish classmates would have hosted the future Governor of Illinois at her home in County Mayo – but, she did!

I think back to an American Bluegrass festival held in Galway, conversations about American politics with the parents of Irish friends, and the time I explained the meaning of Thanksgiving to my classmates. In the US, I’m bombarded by Irish flags hanging over pubs in every city I visit and the ubiquitous Claddagh rings on women’s fingers. We spend our time reconnecting with friends and family, and talk to them not just about the ancient beauty of County Kerry, but also of the immigrant communities that we encountered in Galway, how the Irish educational system is different than the American one, and our peers’ viewpoints on social issues like gay marriage.

*****

As all of the thoughts of the connections between the US and Ireland flash through my mind, a truth emerges. Ireland has become a part of me more deeply and permanently than I expected. When I took the train out of Galway at the end of June, it didn’t represent the end of anything. My relationship with Ireland, as well as the other Mitchell Scholars, is far from over. It’s just beginning.

Since we left Ireland, my life has been sort of a big, beautiful blur.

Leaving Ireland was, as expected, nearly impossible to do.  Saying goodbye to our idyllic lives by the sea and our lovely group of Irish friends was really, really sad.  We tried our best to keep our chins up and to enjoy every last second – all the while working on our theses and packing up another year of our lives.  We did take some time to check a couple of things off of our list, including spending an afternoon at the historic Tigh Neachtain pub with friends.

A perfect June afternoon at Tigh Neachtain

After a teary goodbye at the Galway train station, we were off … on our way to our whirlwind tour of America.

First stop: My hometown of Mahtomedi, Minnesota.  We made it just in time for my dear friend Hilary’s wedding, and spent the week both working on schoolwork as well as catching up with family and friends.

We had a lovely time with family, and loved seeing Grandma M and her newest quilts.

Next: Rockford, Illinois.  This time, Jon’s family and friends (and don’t forget those pesky theses).  We crammed a lot of quality time in with parents, grandparents, and our adorable little nephew.

Ryne's got a golf club in his hand - he LOVES to play golf!

Next stop: Chicago, Illinois, for a very quick hello & goodbye to our dear friends Becca and Sam. As luck would have it, we’re finally in the US  just as they’re on their way to South Africa for a year.  Good thing we have that wonderful kind of friendship that you can just pick right up where you left off.

Becca & Sam, Lauren & Jon reunion

Next? Naples, Florida, and then the Everglades, and Miami, Florida.  Jon and I were so excited to visit my mom’s new home in beautiful Florida.  Moving to a warmer climate has been one of my mom’s lifelong dreams, and it’s been so much fun for me to see her in her element in Florida.  Unfortunately, we STILL (!) had thesis work while we were visiting the tropics, but at least we could escape our punishing academic work by going to the beach.

Miami beach.

Well, we’re not done quite yet.  Next, we spent a week in Washington, D.C. We got to attend an annual Mitchell Scholar party and officially started the job search by doing informational interviews.  In between, we visited with friends and worked on theses.  And then… after many months and a final all-night session, I FINISHED MY THESIS!  It’s officially printed and turned in.  I am just waiting to hear back whether or not I’ll pass! 🙂

(I neglected to take a single photo in DC… not like me, but my mind was very much elsewhere).

Right now, Jon and I are sadly separate.  He is in Rockford, putting the finishing touches on his thesis and spending more time with family, and I am back in Florida with my mom.  The big news here is that she just got an adorable puppy: Mabel, a teeny tiny Italian Greyhound.

Me & Mabel

Although the last couple of weeks have been spent solely in the US, we’ve seen so much it seems like we must have left the country a couple times.  We’ve had moments of quintessential Americana, like catching a Saint’s Baseball game with my dad, watching a small-town fireworks display with Jon’s dad, and walking along the Washington DC monuments at night.  We’ve also seen the diversity of American life: I talked with my friend Tena about her Somali students in Minneapolis, visited a wedding shop in search of a traditional Korean dress with my sister in Chicago, and enjoyed Brazilian food in Miami for Jon’s birthday.

Overall, it’s been a beautiful blur of a couple of weeks.  We’re still not quite sure what’s happening next in our lives – where we’ll be “settling down” or what jobs we’ll have, but we’ll be sure to keep you posted.  Until then, you can be sure that we’ll be savoring our downtime in the good ole USA.

Bill and I getting ready for a rollercoaster ride in Bremen, Germany. October 2009.

The Mitchell Scholars’ third set of reflections about our time in Ireland has been posted.  I’m re-posting mine here, but you should definitely check out the other scholars’ writing too!

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What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question that you are asked a thousand times as a child, and with less frequency as an adult. At various points in my life, I’ve known exactly what I’ve wanted to be (in no particular order): an archaeologist, journalist, Broadway actress, Vanna White, neonatologist, gymnast, explorer, or rainforest researcher. I’ve been asking the question to myself lately, trying to decide what my next step should be in my quest to become someone who does international development work for a living. But as I ponder what I hope to become, I can’t help but think about who I want to become. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. The what is about profession and the who is about character.

My time in Ireland as a Mitchell Scholar has introduced me to a number of people that give me insight and inspiration into what and who I want to be. I’ve encountered them at Mitchell events, in my program here at NUI Galway, and in my daily life in and around this beautiful country.

Let’s start with someone pretty easy, and fairly obvious: George Mitchell. Although I haven’t met him, this year has given me a lot of exposure to his life and work. The sheer number of roles that Senator Mitchell has taken on is inspiring – judge, Senator, peace broker, Chancellor of Queens University Belfast… the list goes on. Although I could probably write a dissertation-length essay about how Senator Mitchell inspires me professionally, I’ll just highlight one point here. After a life filled to the brim with public service, Senator Mitchell has certainly earned a relaxing retirement on the golf course in Arizona. Instead, he said yes when he was asked to take on arguably today’s most challenging issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His life-long commitment to service is something I will always strive to emulate in my own career.

Another person that I have taken career inspiration from is Naila Kabeer. Dr. Kabeer is one of the preeminent scholars on women’s employment and empowerment in the Global South. My department hosted her for a public lecture last week, and she also facilitated a private session with my classmates and me earlier in the day. Dr. Kabeer has spent her career trying to understand how women are able to make decisions in their lives, and her research directly impacts what development agencies do on the ground. Dr. Kabeer’s explicit link between academia and the lived experience of marginalized people is something I hope to be able to bring to my career as well, no matter what role I am in.

While Senator Mitchell and Dr. Kabeer have taught me a lot about what I want to be professionally, others I have met in Ireland have reminded me of how I want to live my life. Of course, it goes without saying that I am constantly learning from the other Mitchell Scholars and taking inspiration from them. I still cannot get over how energetic and ready to learn the group is – constantly open to new experiences and new ideas. And I could extol their virtues for another dissertation-length essay. I will spare you the mushy stuff, this time, but please know that the Mitchells are a well of perpetual inspiration for me.

My Irish friend Bill has been a model for me in terms of the kind of person I want to be, as he is one of the most hospitable people I have ever met. Hospitality may seem a minor thing – that is, until you are lost and alone in a new place and don’t know who to turn to for help. Michael met Bill right at the start of the year and introduced Jon and me to him several days after we arrived in Galway. From the start, Bill has been warm, welcoming, and helpful. Anytime we have had a stupid question about Irish life, we’ve known that Bill is the person to ask. He always gives great advice and doesn’t make you feel like a fool for asking about the tipping protocol at a café or where to find reasonably priced office supplies. Bill’s ability to take in total strangers and treat them as equals and friends is something I would like to practice in my own life. Although I think that Irish people generally do welcoming and hospitality quite well as a culture, I still think that Bill wins an award for the best!

If you’ve been reading the other Mitchell scholar’s entries already, I have a feeling you’ve stumbled across a character known to us fondly as Sir John. Sir John is a 94-year-old aristocrat from Monaghan and a man who has lived a very full life. Growing up in Castle Leslie, a glorious estate on the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic, Sir John led an exceptional life from the beginning. He went on to fight in World War II and was held as a prisoner of war. Sir John later traveled the globe, and settled for 40 years in Rome, rehabilitating old buildings to their former splendor. When he returned to Ireland 15 years ago, Sir John decided to focus his energy on something new: dancing. Not just old time Irish step dancing, but clubbing. Weekly, Sir John gets dressed in his Saturday best and hits up his two favorite Monaghan spots, the Squealing Pig pub and the Forum club. We were invited for a night out with Sir John during our midyear retreat at Castle Leslie and danced alongside him while he jumped enthusiastically to Lady Gaga. It really was a sight to behold. After meeting Sir John, I have taken a new approach to thinking about aging. Now, I don’t want to age gracefully, but I want to age the way that he has: with reckless abandon and complete joy.

These examples represent just a handful of those I’ve taken inspiration from this year. I know that I will always look back to my year as a Mitchell Scholar as hugely formative – not just professionally, but personally as well.

I awoke this morning to an email from the people at Andrew Sullivan – a photo I took in Donegal and submitted was the View from Your Window yesterday! Check it out. 🙂

We visited the gorgeous Ross Strand beach while driving the Ring of Kerry with my dad and uncle.  I love the red in the sand and mountains and the blue sea and sky!  It was a gorgeous day.

Two weeks ago, Jon and I were in Bray, just south of Dublin, for our friend Laura’s birthday celebration.  It rained like crazy while we took the commuter train down to Bray, and we waited out the last couple minutes of the storm in the train station.  As soon as the rain let up, the sun started shining through the clouds, and Jon and I knew we were in rainbow territory. It only took a minute to find one forming in the sky, in the direction of the beach.  We rushed towards it, hoping to enjoy it before it disappeared.

This was the biggest, brightest rainbow I’ve ever had the chance to see.  We spent the next 15 minutes admiring, snapping photos, and walking along the beach.

The reflection in the puddles was pretty cool.

A stunning look at the Irish sea looking north towards Dublin, and then south towards Bray Head.

More cool reflections.

And shot of us together before the rainbow vanished.

No pot of gold – the rainbow was treasure enough!

Apart from furious paper writing, the past week has been almost completely defined for me by the craziness of the Icelandic volcano. Now that the chaos has subsided a bit, I thought I’d reflect on all the ways we’ve experienced the volcano’s effects over the past week.

  • If it weren’t for that stupid volcano, Jon and I would be enjoying time with his mom and grandma, here in Galway, at this very moment. They were due to arrive on Wednesday this past week, but their flight was cancelled. We are just sick about not being able to see them, but there was nothing anyone could do about it! We are slightly consoled by the fact that we’ll be home in the US in just about two months. But we are missing both Cindy and Vanesse this week!
  • We had one unexpected guest for a night, which was a pleasant surprise! A friend of mine from Northwestern, Robert, got stuck in Ireland for almost a week. We hadn’t seen each other since graduation, so it was really great to catch up face to face. I got to show off my beautiful adopted hometown and hear more about Robert’s life in Los Angeles. Robert is a budding travel writer/movie maker, and is documenting his epic Europe adventure (and other travels) here. Check it out – he’s hilarious! – and I’m sure he will be a household name someday.
  • Michael (my fellow Mitchell scholar/dear friend in Galway) got to spend a whole extra week with his visiting friend, Ryan, while he was in travel purgatory here in Ireland. Poor Ryan was the best man in a wedding which took place yesterday, and worked so hard to get home in time for it. He ended up getting a flight that would bring him home to Chicago just in the nick of time… so we trust that he eventually made it!
  • One (of many) sad local stories we heard: An older gentleman in Ballybofey turned 80 last weekend. He was born in England but settled in Ireland. To celebrate his big day, he had all of his relatives flying in from England and elsewhere: kids, grandkids, brothers, sisters, cousins. Everyone. Of course, all flights were cancelled and no one could come. Apparently, he held the party anyway, but was devastated that his most dear friends and family were an island away. Breaks your heart just thinking about it!
  • The market for flights has been all messed up ever since the volcano. Jon still needs to buy his one-way flight home, and the prices have jumped pretty significantly – we’ll have to wait for them to drop a bit. And Ryanair has used this as an opportunity for a big promotion – over the weekend they advertised dozens of flights at only 3 euros each way!

All in all, it’s been a pretty crazy, surreal week. Full of stories about the strange ways that this volcano (and by extension, air travel) has affected our daily lives. It has brought people together in unexpected ways (seeing Robert again!) but also kept people apart (Cindy and Vanesse). And it has reminded us that, although we’ve been able to use technology to do some pretty amazing things, Mother Nature is still boss.

We just returned from a spectacular weekend up in Co. Donegal with our friends Laura and Avril. Avril was gracious enough to invite the three of us up to her family’s home in Ballybofey for a night and then to the family’s vacation cottage in the wee village of Kilcar for the next two nights.

We were treated to some home cooking from Avril’s lovely mom and enjoyed beautiful weather in Ballybofey. We took a nice long walk around the family land with Avril’s adorable dog Millie, and simply enjoyed being outside and not thinking about assignments for a couple hours.

Me, Avril, and Jon enjoying some wine after our walk around Ballybofey.

On Saturday, we headed to tiny Kilcar, a tiny village situated right on the Atlantic ocean and in the shadow of a beautiful mountain, Slieve League. Our host and chauffeur, Avril’s dad John, asked us to help with a chore as soon as we arrived: moving his flock of sheep from one field to another. Of course, we said yes. I was very hopeful that I’d get the chance to grab a sheep and snuggle up with it. If I only knew what was coming my way…

yes, you are seeing that right... me and a precious little lamb.

While moving the sheep, two young lambs were moving a little slowly and got scooped up by John. He passed them off to the four of us for a couple of minutes of cuddling. Turns out the twin lambs were born just THREE HOURS earlier! Needless to say, I was in absolute heaven. Dream = come true.

Laura and a little lamb.  Note the umbilical cord!

Laura and a little lamb. Note the umbilical cord!

Jon, me, lamb. Ecstatic.

After much nuzzling and squealing, we returned the lambs to their (understandably upset) mama.

While the lambs were definitely the highlight of our first day in Kilcar, we still had lots to do to finish out the day: Laura tried her hand at driving a tractor, we took a 2 hour walk and hung out on the seashore with the tide coming in, and devoured a lovely stew. Then it was out to experience Kilcar’s nightlife at the John Joe pub. We knew we’d be noticed as outsiders, but weren’t expecting to hear someone utter “Who are THEY?” approximately four seconds after we walked in the door. We enjoyed a couple pints and headed home to get some rest for day of fun number three.

Day 3: Climbing the great Slieve League mountain. They’re known as the highest sea cliffs in Europe (although it seems that title is contested), and we started the hike around lunchtime. It was a gorgeous day and a perfect hike. We took our time, taking lots of photos of the incredible cliffs and the sapphire blue sea, and stopping to enjoy the view whenever we felt like resting a bit.  Afterwards, we headed back to the house, exhausted but happy.

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County Donegal has officially won my heart.

Spring is finally making its way to Galway!  This photo was taken over a month ago, on a randomly gorgeous day.  Since then, we’ve had a lot of rain, some snow, a couple rounds of hail, and generally chilly temperatures. But it’s getting better now – buds on trees, flowers blooming, temperatures rising…

To welcome spring in, we’ve planted a little herb garden in planter boxes on our back porch.  I’m terrible with gardens, so we’ll see if we can keep everything alive! Photos to come.

Diane, Lauren, and Julie test their jumping skills outside of the Louvre in Paris

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day in Ireland (or, as the Irish tend to call it – Mum’s Day).

Luckily, we were able to celebrate it with Lauren’s mom Julie, who was visiting us along with her sister Diane. Julie and Diane’s trip, which included 4 days in Paris, was one of the most enjoyable weeks of our time in Ireland. It was also the fulfillment of Julie’s lifelong desire to visit Paris. Making it to Paris is the second life goal Julie has accomplished so far in 2010. Last month she moved from Minnesota to Naples, Florida!

Towards the end of Julie and Diane’s visit, I learned that my mom successfully achieved ‘ordination’ in the United Methodist Church as an elder. This is similar to a teacher achieving tenure, and is a very difficult status to achieve within the clergy. Mom’s journey towards ordination began almost a decade ago when she started a course in clinical pastoral education (CPE) that ultimately led her to seminary.

As I settle into my ‘quarter-life crisis’ and contemplate the many competing pressures of adulthood – money (particularly debt), family, vocation, belief, politics, friendships, etc – I take inspiration from the recent activities of my ‘mums’.

In their own ways, they have both shown the courage to follow their passions in the face of uncertainty. And, in doing so, they have provided their kids with an example of how to live in the same way. So, for Mum’s Day from Ireland, we say a big ‘thanks a million’. ☺

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