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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.

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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.

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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.

Last week the other Mitchells and I gathered for our last Irish adventure.

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First, we had an event at Farmleigh, once the home of the Guinness family in Dublin, where we received rings commemorating our year in Ireland.  The President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, was on hand to present them to us.  It was a lovely reception, and President McAleese was a wonderful speaker and very warm in person.

The next day, we headed to Glenstal Abbey, a monastery in County Limerick.  The Abbey is situated on some gorgeous grounds with glens, conifer forests, and gardens.  We were given a guided tour by one of the monks, who told us the history of certain trees, and wove in thoughtful reflections on humans, their environment, and life in general.  We also got a chance to visit a small chapel that holds a number of old Russian and Greek icons, complete with explanations of icons and the Orthodox church from a monk who has written books on the topic. Afterwards, we visited the Abbey’s library, which holds a number of rare and antique manuscripts, including texts from the 1400s and first edition Irish novels.  Oh, and how could I forget the tea and freshly baked cakes and pastries that awaited us when we needed a break!  All in all, the most perfect way I can imagine to spend an afternoon.

The remainder of our final retreat was spent in the town of Listowel and at the gorgeous Glin Castle.  We were in Listowel, in County Kerry, for the annual Writer’s Week festival, which brings in authors and poets and playwrights and artists for readings, discussions, and plays.  Two of the highlights for me were seeing The World’s Wife, a play based on the poetry of British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and hearing Irish author Roddy Doyle read some of his work and answer questions.  I also had a lot of time just hanging out around town with the Mitchells, which was nice.

I hadn’t thought too much about the goodbye at the end of the weekend.  So I was not prepared for the dread and sadness I felt as we pulled up to the Limerick train station at the end of the weekend, where I hopped out to take a train back to Galway.  Although I know that I’ll be seeing my Mitchell friends pretty frequently in the years to come – both at official Mitchell alumni events and wherever else we happen to be – suddenly I realized that this goodbye marked The End of our year in Ireland as a group.  This makes me acutely aware that it is almost time to say goodbye to everything else in Ireland – our gorgeous apartment, my wonderful Irish friends, and beautiful Galway.

Before the goodbyes, though, I have to finish a draft of my thesis. I’ll be trying to focus all of my energy on that rather than mourning my departure.  Hopefully I’ll be able to turn some sad emotions into positive outcomes… Wish me luck (I’ve got a week and a couple days to go for the thesis draft)!

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.

For some reason, I have a hard time admitting to people that I’m currently studying philosophy. When people ask what I’m doing in Ireland while Lauren completes her Mitchell scholarship, I usually mention my work for an Evanston-based law firm, my pathetic attempts to learn some French and grow some herbs and vegetables, and then, with eyes down and voice trailing off, add that I’m also doing a course in philosophy.

I suppose this is true for a few reasons.  For one, I’m not very sure myself what philosophy actually is. Thus, if/when pressed to elaborate, I get nervous and ramble off incoherent platitudes and unassertive evasions. Also, I struggle internally about the wisdom of taking on debt to do a graduate degree in a subject that doesn’t have direct career implications while staring down a forthcoming job search in the worst economy in a generation. (I guess philosophy teaches you to think about wisdom, but not to practice it…)

But, I suppose the key reason for my hesitance is that I know how philosophers are often perceived by people (including myself). They are those peculiar folks that have an air of arrogance and aloofness. They can write hundreds of pages about single words like ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, and ‘happiness’ but they can’t give you a straight answer about anything. They lack any applied skills that can actually make a measurable difference to people’s lives here and now like engineers or teachers or doctors do. At best, they can give someone a few different ways to think about a particular question. At worst, they can only ask a question in a needlessly confusing way.

I suppose this is why I took such joy in a recent article by Simon Critchley posted in a new New York Times blog on philosophy called The Stone. In it Critchley asks the question, What is a Philosopher?

He starts by recalling the story that Socrates tells in his dialogue Theaetetus about Thales. Thales – perhaps the world’s first philosopher – falls into a well while concentrating on the stars with curious awe. A servant girl then passes by and comments that in his eagerness to know what went on in the sky, Thales forgot what was going on right in front of his face.

This story reminded me of the time during my freshmen year at Northwestern that I crashed my bike into a car stopped at a stoplight while riding to a political theory class where we were reading Rosseau’s Social Contract. In class I wanted to ask the professor whether Rosseau intended the social contract to be a literal activity that societies undertake, or if it is more of a hypothetical device to explain how states derive their legitimacy. If we are literally supposed to come together at some time and place and form a contract, what happens when new members enter the community later – like immigrants. Are they part of the social contract? Are they outside it? Does the contract evolve? Or do the newcomers have to change to assimilate into pre-existing contractual agreements? Steeped in thought, I veered right and, in the middle of Sheridan Road just outside of the Kellogg School of Management and in front of at least a few hundred students rushing to class, I crashed. Quietly, I later paid the car’s owner a few hundred dollars I didn’t have for door panel damage and rode my bike with crooked handle bars for the rest of the year.

But, could there be value behind the philosopher’s seeming absent-mindedness and lack of acute skill? Critchley thinks so, and so does Socrates. Critchley writes,

“Socrates says that those in the constant press of business, like lawyers, policy-makers, mortgage brokers and hedge fund managers, become ”bent and stunted” and they are compelled “to do crooked things. The pettifogger is undoubtedly successful, wealthy and extraordinarily honey-tongued, but, Socrates adds, “small in his soul and shrewd and a shyster.” The philosopher, by contrast, is free by virtue of his or her otherworldliness, by their capacity to fall into wells and appear silly.”

And,

“Socrates adds that the philosopher neither sees nor hears the so-called unwritten laws of the city, that is, the mores and conventions that govern public life. The philosopher shows no respect for rank and inherited privilege and is unaware of anyone’s high or low birth. It also does not occur to the philosopher to join a political club or a private party. As Socrates concludes, the philosopher’s body alone dwells within the city’s walls. In thought, they are elsewhere.”

Thus, at his or her best, the philosopher pursues questions that go unasked in contexts where the next news cycle, election, or quarterly profit report are the only outcomes that matter (even if this means falling into a well or crashing a bike from time to time). And, the philosopher engages others in this pursuit, approaching anyone, no matter the size of their bank account, the color of their skin, or the number of SAT vocab words they can rattle off, with the same genuine desire to listen, to learn, and to dialogue.

I’m still pretty sure I don’t want to be a full-time philosopher when I grow up. Too much of a desire to be in-the-world working on practical problems. But, at least now  I might be able to look someone in the eye when they ask me what I’m doing this year.

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