I’ll be Seeing You, Ireland!

As classes end and summer nears, I have had to face the harsh reality that my Mitchell year will soon come to an end. With this as motivation, I have spent the past few months hastily accomplishing everything I said I would do when in Ireland – from visiting some of Dublin’s most magnificent museums to trying new restaurants in Cork and, yes, even kissing the Blarney Stone.

As I’ve been checking off items on my Ireland bucket list, I’ve begun to reflect on what all these memories of Ireland will mean to me and what I will remember about Ireland when I return to the US.

Before I arrived in Ireland, I thought my Mitchell year would be like travelling to a foreign planet. I would marvel at the foreign customs and traditions for a year, and once I’d return home, I would tell my “real world” friends and colleagues just how different it was. Indeed, at first, I was enamored by the differences. I learned a few Irish words, tried the blood sausage, and counted the number of sentences my professors would end with the word “like”.

But over the course of the year, I discovered that Ireland isn’t some foreign land to visit and then leave behind – Ireland is everywhere! Ireland is central to global commerce, innovation, arts, culture, and academia. Of course, there are well-known examples of Irish influence – like Guinness beer and friendly pubs. But spending a year here has shown me just how much more  pervasive Irish influence is. Irish trad music formed the basis of American folk and country music. Gargantuan businesses such as Google and Facebook have their EMEA Headquarters in Ireland (in fact, Apple and Pfizer’s EMEA Headquarters are in Cork!). Halloween can be traced back to a Gaelic harvest festival. Ireland led the way in social health by introducing comprehensive workplace smoking bans. Irish academics like George Boole developed the theories that guide the digital and information age (and he did it just minutes from my accommodation!).

When my mother and brother visited me in Ireland, we spent an inspiring afternoon in Dublin’s EPIC Irish Emigration Museum which houses dozens of exhibits depicting how profound and  pervasive Irish culture is. The Irish gave us labor unions, boycotts, and whiskey. Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, C.S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde, Frank McCourt, and Edna O’Brien are all Irish. Ireland was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage via popular vote. Flute, fiddle and harp music came from Ireland, as did U2, the Pogues, Van Morrison and Enya. In the US, 11 signers of the declaration of Independence were Irish and more than half of the Union army was of Irish descent. Irish immigrants built the railroads and the Brooklyn bridge. Perhaps Barack Obama said it best when describing Irish influence on the US: “Never has a nation so small inspired so much in another… There’s always been a little green behind the red, white, and blue.”  And he should know…since he too is of Irish descent.

Indeed, it seems to me that Ireland is the world and the world is Irish. So many of my favorite things in life would not be if not for the Irish. The Mitchell year did not expose me to Irish culture; instead, it opened my eyes to the Irish culture that had surrounded me my entire life. I hope that, upon returning to the US, I won’t “remember” Ireland as much as I will recognize and appreciate Irish influence wherever I am. I won’t need to board a plane to “return” to Ireland, nor will I need to swipe through old pictures to reminisce. I will be in Ireland every time I read a study from an Irish university or enjoy a night of camaraderie at an Irish pub – even if that pub is technically located in Boston. Heck, if I’m ever really missing Ireland, I might even bend over backwards and kiss a rock.

I’ll be seeing you, Ireland. Everywhere I look – there you’ll be.

 

 

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Finding Joy

“So, how are you finding it?” My Irish friend squealed in reference to my first few days at UCC.

Well, at first I was using google maps….” I rambled on despite her puzzled look, “but now I don’t really need the map because I just know where to go.”

Laughing, she explained that finding something doesn’t literally mean locating that place or thing, but instead how are you finding the experience of it.

I have inadvertently taken this phrase to heart this year, after learning what it actually means, of course. Rather than just questioning how am I finding my time in Ireland, I have begun noticing how I am finding myself through this experience. What parts of myself am I uncovering here?

From the classroom, to the local prison and community centers, sitting around having tea with new friends, and everywhere in between, I am finding pieces of myself are being returned to me. Pieces I didn’t even realize went missing. I am softer. Lighter. Freer. More open. I am learning and still growing. Grateful. I am so incredibly grateful.

The Jesuit Priest and activist Greg Boyle, SJ uses the saying “Now. Here. This” as a constant reminder to live in the moment and find joy. He urges everyone to “embrace perfect presence in the moment in front of us.”

Ireland has a way of doing just that, of revealing simple joys in each moment. Of making me stare directly at my goals, fears, and doubts, put them in perspective, all while finding a sense of comfort. I am starting to learn that maybe, just maybe, at the end of the day everything will be “grand, like.” From walking alongside the Giant’s Causeway to sitting around a table chatting about the future with my Mitchell Scholar family or Irish friends, there is no shortage of “how did I get so lucky?” moments here. Living, breathing reminders that in the right here, right now, this life sure is good.

During our first month here the Irish singer Nóirín Ní Riain read the poem, “For a New Beginning” by the poet John O’Donohue aloud to the Mitchell Scholars at Glenstal Abbey. One section reads:

Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

When I first heard this poem, I was moved by it but couldn’t predict the ways in which it would take shape in my life. Yet, here I am nine months later and I am at home here. Ireland has taught me that there is a real difference between finding a place and finding yourself within that place. I look forward to uncovering what else awaits me here, in the place I am grateful to have found myself calling home.

Giggling alongside the Giant’s Causeway

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On the Pacific, In Pubs, With Time

On Sunday afternoons in the oldest pub in Dublin, there’s music in guitars and in glasses of Guinness.

I go sometimes. I duck under waving pints and make my way to the center of the room.  It looks like every other room in every other pub––there are sticky wooden tables littered with paper coasters and amber windows––but it’s the most crowded and I like this room the best. Everyone is singing. There’s also a fiddle and a banjo and an accordion and I always wonder how they play without sheets of music to guide them. I’d like to think that time and whiskey hold their act together. Sitting at this low stool, at a wooden table, in the center of the room, I feel as if I’m at the center of living.

Oddly, this always makes me think of the summers we used to spend at Leo Carillo beach, a wide strip of sand between edges of the Santa Monica mountains. As kids we would take old surfboards out past the waves and sit next to the beds of kelp. Sometimes we would dive beneath and try to swim through the tall stalks reaching leisurely towards the sun, our eyes stinging from the salt. This, admittedly, has nothing to do with Irish pubs, but, looking back at the shore, I always had that same feeling––the feeling of being enveloped in the joy of existence, the feeling of just being, the feeling you get at the center of living.

 

On a grey Monday at a crosswalk in Maynooth, I was on the phone with an old friend and mentor of mine. We talked about becoming a physician, about having a family, and about people we love. I asked him about the pub and the ocean and about being alive. He thought, and he said, “Living is not meant to happen in chunks of time, but daily.” Daily. This struck me as both obvious and profound. I thought, and I said, “Living is what the Irish do well.”

They do. In almost a year in Ireland, I have concluded that they live well. They make snow angels at every age, leave work early to take advantage of sunshine on the Dublin canals, and jubilantly congregate on Tuesdays through the days of rain.  Meeting each other on the road, time is often suspended to reiterate fables and to chat absentmindedly about the weather. Having one such chat, I realized that what links those moments in the pub with those moments in the ocean is the feeling of enjoying the passage of time, without acknowledging that time is passing.

There’s poem I like by Mary Oliver about a grasshopper. This, admittedly, also has nothing to do with Irish pubs, but has everything to do with living. The last (rather popular) line frequently roams around the corners of my consciousness. It reads, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

with my only wild and precious life?

Ireland has taught me that, while I want to spend my one wild and precious life chasing beautiful and worthy goals, I also want to live. I want to sit in pubs and on old surfboards. I want to collect perfect afternoons, like incandescent beads on a string, and carry them with me wherever I go. I want to practice the act and the art of being.

Somehow, I think that Mary Oliver and all the guitar players at all the Irish pubs I have ever patronized would be pleased.

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A Close Fall in a Year of Lessons

When I was an EMT in college, I responded to a 911 call to find a man in his fifties, white as a sheet, panting in a stairwell of a parking garage. The paramedics’ ECG quickly and unambiguously confirmed that he was having a heart attack. Despite this, he refused to accept that he was having a heart attack and spent twenty minutes insisting that he was just dehydrated. We couldn’t even get him to look at his ECG. When his wife finally convinced him to go, he still continued to say that nothing was wrong. His wife told us that he was a cardiologist who had been practicing for over thirty years, which shocked me at the time. I didn’t understand how a cardiologist with thirty years of experience could fail to recognize a textbook case of myocardial infarction.

Fast forward to two weeks ago. In the midst of medical school application fever, I decided to set myself a personal goal of running a half-marathon. After four months of training and preparation, I arrived in Limerick ready to run a good time. I’d run the half-marathon distance twice already in my training (once two weeks before the race and another time two weeks before that) and I was excited to see if I could break my time of 1hr 38min. I’d written May and Tyler’s numbers as emergency contacts on the back of my race number as an afterthought, convinced that my training and preparation had been more than enough for this race.

At mile three, I knew something was wrong. In the midst of the excitement I ignored what my body was telling me and pushed onwards, convincing myself that I was just dehydrated. Less than a quarter mile from the finish line, I lost consciousness and was caught by a bystander. I remember waking up with a good third of my Mitchell cohort as well as 3 Irish EMTs huddled around me. A few days of rest and recuperation was more than enough to get me back on my feet because I had no further symptoms of stomach ulcers after that day; however, my stubbornness in refusing to recognize that something was wrong not only cost me the race but could have resulted in more serious consequences if a bystander hadn’t caught me when I fell.

In medicine, we are so used to objectively observing illness and disease that we forget that we are never objective about ourselves. Collapsing at the race gave me an important wake-up call. During my time in Ireland, I am most thankful for the chance to take a break from science to study literature and gender studies. Taking time for myself, to pursue personal interests and passions, will be crucial to my self-care in medical school. There is a culture in medicine of working astoundingly grueling hours and bearing extreme emotional burdens in the name of helping people. While I do want to give as much as I can as a medical student and as a physician, I need to recognize my own limits and not be too proud to remember that doctors need to stop, listen and sometimes ask for help, too. It isn’t weak to recognize the limits of your own body. It’s human.

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Where You Are, Not Where You’re From

It was the first week of 2018 and I found myself stumbling to the window of an emergency department in Cork. In a disoriented manner that definitely warrants mockery with his friends over drinks, I half-explained/half-sobbed my symptoms to the attendant. I knew I was probably experiencing kidney failure; however, Cork was in the middle of a massive flu outbreak and I fully expected to be turned away to make room for EU citizens.

Four days later, I regained functional consciousness in the ICU and was met with unspeakable kindness and Irish hospitality. Once graduated from the ICU, I befriended one of my roommates in the renal ward. We spent the next few days chatting between naps and needle stabs. I told him the hospital ice cream reminded me of the ice cream parlor I worked at in high school; he told me about his experience waiting for an organ transplant and ranked the hospitals he had visited across Ireland based on the quality of their food. We discussed the differences in our respective health care systems and I admitted I had been floored by how little I had been asked of my accent or home life. “Health is a good equalizer,” he mused. “From my experience, when you’re in the hospital, it’s where you are that matters; not where you’re from.”

Where are you from?

It is a question that has followed me for most of my time in Ireland and one I have found hard to answer accurately. Colorado raised me; Nebraska developed me, and Kansas… Kansas has the advantage of being my most recent place of residence (I kid, of course). As the answer, “America,” usually results in a push for location, I typically pick one of the three states at random knowing the subtle taste of a lie will linger on my tongue. Technically, I no longer hold official residency in any of these places. Lacking a defined home in my own country, I grappled with a lost sense of belonging early in my Irish tenure. Months later, introspection following my hospitalization has revealed that my answer does not – and should not – harbor the significance I once thought. Not without a nod to the various levels of privilege I am afforded for my age and skin color, I was alone and vulnerable and desperately ill when I surrendered care of my body to a hospital in a place I did not yet consider home. It should have been lonely; it should have been terrifying. That it was anything but speaks volumes of the quality of Irish care and culture. Ireland is home; if not for forever, at least for this moment.

I recently made the trip back to the States for a few follow-up appointments. Regaling my US doctor of my time in the Irish hospital, she remarked, “Well, they took impeccable care of you. Probably saved your life.”

She has no idea how right she is.

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Not Apologizing: On the Role of Art in the Referendum

“We’ve covered the stage in flowers and lights,” the emcee says, “because we want our poets to feel appreciated in this space. The way you’d decorate your house before the arrival of a cherished guest.” I’m at a Poetry Marathon for Repeal. The room is small but packed. Many people in the audience have been tirelessly canvassing and campaigning for weeks; here they can still participate in activism, but in a warm, supportive, and restorative environment. It is a space for healing. It is a space for friends to convene. “When female poets bring politics into their work,” the emcee notes, “they are expected to do it in the most apologetic way possible.” Tonight is about rejecting that expectation.

Fifteen female, trans, and gender non-conforming poets read their work. Their poems are funny, angry, whimsical, melancholy, political, contemplative, and hopeful. Listening to these voices, I was reminded of one of my favorite pieces of writing, and one to which I return again and again, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” by Audre Lorde. In it, she argues that “poetry is not a luxury” for women, but rather “a vital necessity of our existence,” because writing poetry allows women to shape their emotions first into words, and from words into action. For Lorde, emotions have profound political power: “within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive. Kept around as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pastimes, feelings were meant to kneel to thought as we were meant to kneel to men. But women have survived. As poets.” The fifteen poets who read in this marathon spoke from a place of vulnerability and deep feeling, but, rather than apologizing for what they felt, they channeled these emotions into powerful critiques of Irish society and hopeful visions for what a more equal Ireland might look like.

This poetry marathon represents everything I will miss about Dublin when my Mitchell year comes to an end. People who care deeply about their country and each other. People who make daring art and create platforms for their fellow artists to share their work with a wider audience. Women who lead grassroots initiatives to fight for their bodily autonomy and men who support them, quietly but wholeheartedly, with warmth and active listening.

I don’t know which way the referendum will go. But I do know that, even if the pro-choice movement does not succeed in this present moment, it will not have been for nothing. My studies of American and Irish history have taught me that it takes decades for profound societal change to take place, and progress never occurs without its setbacks. Whether or not it achieves its goal in this referendum, this movement has brought new art, new ideas, and new communities into existence, and has carved out space for them in the public sphere. These are meaningful achievements in and of themselves. The Irish discourse on women’s rights has pivoted on a social and cultural level, and I believe there is no going back. Whether or not the Eighth Amendment is repealed this month, I am optimistic that future generations will learn about this movement, and will read the words of these poets or other young Irish artists from this moment. I have faith that the art will endure long after May 25.

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An Idyllic Irish Year

This spring’s schedule has been a whirlwind for me, and I still have over a month remaining in Ireland, but this last Mitchell blog post has suddenly thrust me into a mode of reminiscence. Not to worry – I hail from country music’s capital and have now lived in Ireland for nearly a year, so I’m quite familiar with the art of nostalgia.

Part of me wanted to write about a singular experience I’ve had that yielded special lessons and insights. There have been a few of those, to be sure: our sit-down with Senator Mitchell at the Shelbourne, an extended talk with an elderly sheep farmer in Co. Kerry over tea and apple tart, and a recent Dublin play at the Abbey about the Troubles, among others. But this year is a great, big bucket of anecdotes – some trivial, some meaningful – that all play a role in shaping my Irish experience.

I’ll miss the sheep. And the emerald, Eden-esque countryside. And the long train rides watching both of these co-exist. I’ll miss the Beef and Guinness pie; the Digestives; the poached eggs at Queen of Tarts; Bewley’s coffee; O’Donnell’s chips (“crisps”); the cool breezes; and the piping sound of the fiddle at a local pub, with countless voices humming in accord.

Co. Kerry sheep farm

I shall bring the endless Irish tropes and phrases back to America with me – and try to re-enact the classic humor therein. I will use the example of the people here, lacking of pretension and always self-effacing, to keep me level-headed.

Perhaps the Irish inclination to prioritize a pint or a good, friendly conversation over the completion of the next ‘task’ is the underlying basis for their legendary procrastination. Whatever the reason, I’ll miss procrastinating with impunity. Indeed it was Oscar Wilde who said: “I never put off till tomorrow what I can do the day after.”

How could I not forget the people? I’ve found meaningful fellowship at my church congregation, with fellow students in my program, with colleagues at work, and with the lads on the UCD *American* football team (it cringes me to have to clarify it … by the way they’re off to the first 4-0 start in school history). I’ve found community with the other Mitchells. One of the truly great benefits of this year, besides the traveling and all else, is the friendships that are forged among our group of twelve. I cannot wait to see where my friends go from here and all the change they will make through their lives and careers.

After a recent road trip down to Dingle, my grandmother sent me the transcripts of a couple of short stories that her mother – my great-grandmother – wrote upon journeying to the same area some decades ago. True to her Irish ancestry, “Maymommy,” as we fondly called her, could work wonders with a pen. While imagining her potential Irish cottage home, she writes: “I am not familiar with the seasons in Ireland … the wind would always be at my back, wouldn’t it? The soft Irish rains would keep my valley verdant and provide sustenance for my sheep, my livelihood and company, since that seems to be the going preoccupation. Really, it appears to be an idyllic life.”

Slea Head, Dingle

Indeed, it has been an idyllic year. The scenery and way of life has imparted serenity. The company and community has been rich. I’ve read more, I’ve reflected more, and I’ve learned. Assumptions have been challenged, and in some cases upended. Meaningful new relationships have been forged. I know I’ll take these experiences back with me: experiences that will hopefully set the stage for further progress and make a difference in my life and others’ too.

Cheers, Ireland.

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Friendships

When I moved to Ireland I had been told of how welcoming and friendly the Irish were. Despite this glowing reputation, I had concerns as anyone might have about being able to develop close friendships with such a dramatic move away from nearly all the close relationships I had ever known. As my time here has passed, I’ve come to see how completely misplaced any such concerns were.

Over the year I’ve grown close with my fellow scholars, whose diverse talents and interests have never ceased to amaze me. However, it’s not been their talents or gifts that have been the most memorable, but rather it has been the opportunity to share such a life-changing experience with a grounded group of exceptional people. I’m a better person for being challenged on my political beliefs by Tyler, for having experienced Lacey’s good spirit and wit while attending multiple doctor’s visits for her somehow two broken feet, and for enjoying what seems to be an endless stream of one-liners suited for any situation from Kat.

Fortunately, my friendships have also gone beyond my fellow scholars and into the wonderful community at UCD. Through my program I’ve been lucky enough to make several dozen new friends throughout the year. Every Friday we’ve gone to the pub on campus and discussed and debated everything from politics to my lack of understanding of Gaelic sports. Before the Olympics kicked off in February, several of us got together to watch the opening ceremonies with American and Irish pride flowing through the room, despite the notable lack of athletes from one country. At the end of the semester, several of my classmates and I organized a ball for the program, an opportunity for everyone in the UCD MPP program to get together and have a night out before many moved on to summer internships, moved back to their home countries, dove into theses, or returned to full time jobs. Getting to spend time with these friends outside of the classroom has been enriching and it’s been wonderful to get to know so many students from such disparate backgrounds with whom I’ve been able to have such enlightening conversations and experiences over the last year.

While my time in Ireland is coming to a close, I still am looking forward to a summer of enjoying time spent with friends. I’ve been told I have to attend a GAA match at Croke Park, go hiking in the Wicklow Mountains, and take time to visit more of rural Ireland. I look forward to doing some of that with family and friends from the US who are planning to make visits over the summer. Yet it is the opportunity to get a pint at the pub, go to a match, or simply relax with the friends I’ve grown close with here that I will remember most fondly about my time in Ireland. Relationships are what make adventures in life worth pursuing, and I will forever be fortunate for the relationships I have been blessed with this year.

Most of the 2018 UCD Master of Public Policy Class

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Musings about resolving conflicts

I have often told an anecdote about the first time I heard the words ‘conflict resolution.’ I was in the process of separating from the military after nearly six years, attending a transition course that would fall woefully short of equipping me for the civilian world. Surrounded by young tough Marines, we were given lessons in the basics: the college application, veteran benefits, making a budget. It was during the tutorial on résumé writing that our instructor, without a hint of sarcasm, explained that we should list conflict resolution as a resume bullet. We laughed at ourselves, trading real bullets for resume bullets, not giving a second thought to the irony behind the idea of resolving conflict with bullets. Today marks the fifth anniversary of this story’s origin, and, as I write this final blog post and approach the completion of my master’s degree in conflict resolution, it seems an appropriate entry point into a conversation about what Northern Ireland has taught me about the future of resolving conflicts.

My introduction to the idea of conflict resolution came from a world in which conflicts were ‘solved’ by violence, speed, and intensity. Tactical combat is a zero-sum game, which we won by maneuvering elements to subdue a threat before they could subdue us. As we were the bearers of force, did that logic not also make us the resolvers of conflict? Wasn’t that what our nine-month deployment to Afghanistan was all about?

Five years after my time in the military ended, I still find myself searching for examples of a successfully resolved conflict. Studying conflict resolution in Belfast, I’ve spent the last year looking to the resolution of The Troubles in Northern Ireland for answers. As my studies progressed, this case contradicted what I was taught in the military; focusing on the tactical logic of winning battles, rather than the strategies that would remove the causes to fight. I found that conflicts are rarely resolved with the timeliness and simplicity of the tactical level. Learning about The Troubles has not given me all the answers; this case study is anything but complete. The reality is a tenuous peace, struggling to deal with its past and prevented from realizing its future because of a collapsed government, political mistrust, and a divided society. Although it maintains a veneer of stability, as our program scratched the surface with conversations amongst victims and prisoners, terrorists and freedom fighters, we learned that the problems of a post-conflict society are incredibly complicated and often have no easy solutions. However, this time in Belfast has illustrated that the nature of conflict is fundamentally changing and underscores the necessity that conflict resolution adapt accordingly.

Conflicts have evolved in step with modernity. In a world convoluted by globalization, they no longer tend to follow the old styles of ‘state on state’ wars over ideology or colonial conquest. Instead, we’re faced with conflicts of identity, where compromise is akin to sacrificing your cultural values and betraying your people. These new conflicts are deep and messy, relying on non-state actors, multinational coalitions, international orders, a global economy, and insurgencies – all with competing interests. In this context, peace processes often get a mixed review with expectations demanding they address every individual problem for each actor. But when it takes decades or centuries for divisions to metastasize into a conflict, perhaps it’s unreasonable to assume that root causes can be resolved within anything less than a similar timeline.

The great paradox of our time is that the more technology we invent, the more educated we are, the more diverse our opinions become. The most important lesson I’ve taken from this year has been that different groups of people need to find creative ways to live alongside each other, together, instead of clustering around a singular ethnic identity. This process can only begin when the violence ends and the combatants do so voluntarily. Otherwise, the only other way to resolve a conflict is to annihilate those who hold an opposing worldview, a dubious prospect given the growing plurality and our reluctance to commit crimes against humanity.

In 2018, there is no shortage of conflicts to resolve in the world, and after 17 years of continuous war waged by the United States, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that most conflicts can no longer be resolved with bullets.

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All Good Things Must Come to an End: “Lets Get After It”

It is not lost on me that my 8-month experience in Dublin has largely been shaped by being the only African-American Mitchell Scholar this year and in my course at Trinity. That compounded with the majority white population in Ireland only made that fact – albeit obvious – even more non-ignorable. However, my reality here has pleasantly surprised me in a way that I will never forget.

I can remember first receiving the Mitchell and informing my parents of the wondrous opportunity. I was met with bewilderment and pause as my parents tried to understand what the Irish could possibly teach me about race – it is interesting how the fight for racial equity is inextricably linked solely to the African-American plight. They, like many others, made the common mistake of seeing Ireland through the lens of its colonialist and degraded history and not as an equal to their nearby neighbors, equipped to educate and influence.

As I approach the end of my time here, it is funny the things that come back to memory. I am reminded of the privilege it has been to live abroad in Ireland. I can recall sitting in a Dublin wing restaurant waiting to order with a friend. In the background carried the muffled sounds of Drake, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar. Customers were blithely unaware and undisturbed; it was beautiful. I cannot remember a time where such a clash of cultures was ever unnoticed in the US. I will miss that.

Countless times in class a certain fascination with the US civil rights movement arose. For a country whose own fight for independence stoked its embers from the fight for racial equality in the States, a special relationship exists between African-Americans and the Irish that is storied. In my research, I stumbled upon an unpublicized fact: Before Frederick Douglass became a renown abolitionist, he found comradery here in Dublin with Daniel O’Connell – the Irish liberator who was a political leader in the first half of the 19thcentury. President Obama relished in this same fact during his Irish address in 2012. And to be honest, being a pseudo-expatriate has only increased what was already a distinct pride I had in being African-American – our struggle is famous not just for its success but for its resilience. I will miss that.

My last intracontinental trip was to Geneva, Switzerland, increasing my total number of visited countries to fifteen. After that, I swore to no further travel and to spend my last month and a half in Dublin to deepen my experience – a great decision in retrospect. Classes end at Trinity unusually early in April and students are then free to study and write their respective dissertations. I have an incredible wealth of unstructured time to read, pontificate, analyze, rest, socialize, and repeat. Every day recently is filled with exploring sociological journals/books related to police brutality, white policing, social movement effectiveness, stereotypes, methodological queries, South Carolinian history, etc.  I will definitely miss that.

I define amazing years by towering highs and ghastly lows. This year meets that criteria. From the joys of traveling with fellow Scholars to the anxieties of figuring out next steps, this year, ironically, has been the most restful year of my life. 

I am eternally grateful and will definitely be returning to this spiritual land. I have made lifelong Irish friends, and Dublin is yet another home. I cannot thank the Mitchell program enough for providing this needed outlet. Nevertheless, in the words of Chris Cuomo, “Let’s get after it” – however ‘it’ may be axiomatically outside my own control. Slainte.

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Care, Growth, Water, and Rain

While March saw Ireland looking with wonder at the largest snow storm in decades, April and May have seen Galway flaunting daffodils and tiny white flowers and producing shades of airy greens as sunlight scatters through the trees that would leave any painter (or any rushed masters student hurrying to campus) suddenly, inescapably in awe. Some of my earliest memories involve gardening and watering house plants with my mother and grandmother, and my love of plants always reminds me of them. Any of the Mitchell Scholars who were with me in the gardens around Blarney Castle, or near the mosses close to Giants Causeway, will tell you that I am constantly pointing out plants.

It came as no surprise then when the first addition to my room in Galway was a small bonsai tree. As my mom took care of my bonsai from college in the states, I gave her updates about my new one as we grew together into our Galway home. Over Christmas, those updates switched from FaceTime to face-to-face time as I went home for the holidays – a trip that restored me but brought draught and panic to my Galway tree. Unfortunately, as I returned to Ireland, I found myself also struggling with several health issues, some new, some old and exacerbated. Prohibited from fencing, sleeping more than ever, and nearly always exhausted, I was suddenly spending a great deal more time in my room. Looking over towards my plants, I remember holding my breath as I scratched a small area of bark on my bonsai’s trunk – still green, still alive, just in need of care. I continued to regularly fill her water basin underneath (fun fact – always water bonsais from underneath), to spritz her with water, to tell her she was doing the best she could (unproven fun fact – always tell your plants they look beautiful and are doing great).

Although I continued to require much rest, I often pushed myself too far, failing to acknowledge my own needs and limitations. I was incredibly frustrated that I seemed to be making little progress, not meeting recovery goals when I thought I should. I was encouraged to go to mindfulness sessions at the university, and I soon found my (literal and figurative) head in the hands of Martina, my mindfulness therapist, listening as she repeated advice about accepting the state of things as they are; about allowance, openness, and softness. She challenged me often to accept my current conditions, my natural pace, and that progress could be made even when it wasn’t apparent. Meanwhile, she also taught me about the power of compassion, asking for help, and allowing others to assist. Just this past week, my bonsai tree began to show signs that she may regrow leaves. That night, as I drank tea on my balcony looking out at Galway Bay, I reflected on how my time here in the past few months has altered my ideas of strength and care. Just as I continued to care for my tree even when she appeared beyond hope, my fencing team continued to invite me to any events I could partake in, my friends kept checking in and bringing me out, my professors provided help, flexibility, and extended deadlines, my family encouraged me from afar, and I attended mindfulness sessions and doctor appointments. Standing on my balcony, I realized how all of those things had quietly fostered recovery even when the progress had been unrecognizably slow – for my bonsai tree but also for me.

Sometimes the test of strength isn’t pushing beyond limits to accomplish everything perfectly and as quickly as possible. Sometimes it’s care even when care is the hardest to give, when conditions are bleak, when the roots seem dry. Sometimes it’s continuing even when growth isn’t recognizable for months. Sometimes it’s allowing others to shower you in empathy, love, and kindness as you grow into yourself again. And I am forever grateful to have received these Irish showers that I hope will bring about many new flowers.

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Making Memories One (Ladder) Step at a Time

I had to take a medical leave from University College Cork for the fall semester, and so by the time I returned to Ireland in January, I was anxious to make up for lost time. One of my top priorities was to visit the quaint villages and historic sites scattered around the Emerald Isle. When I found that I shared a day off from classes with Maggie, I jumped on the opportunity to plan an outing. The trip we took — a day-trip to the small town of Kilkenny – turned out to be one of most memorable experiences I’ve had in Ireland so far.

Kilkenny is an old Anglo-friendly stronghold in the middle of the Republic, punctuated with several historic churches and cathedrals and the famously opulent Kilkenny Castle. We spent the day listening to tour guides, snapping pictures, enjoying the cuisine, and shopping for matching mementos (we were unsuccessful). Two parts of the trip were particularly memorable:

On our tour of Kilkenny Castle, we were both impressed by the staid portraits of aristocrats. Maggie found one of the subjects particularly compelling, and asked a nearby docent about the subject’s story. After providing a thorough history of the subject’s role in the aristocracy, the docent made a poignant analysis of our current place in history: while the subject was gorgeous in the portrait, she was almost definitely not as beautiful in real life. He explained artists would often embellish their subjects’ appearance. I study public health at UCC, and within the field of public health, several have hypothesized that social media gives people a glamorized sense of other people’s realities, causing stress. While social media widens this phenomenon, these portraits demonstrated that it wasn’t entirely absent hundreds of years ago. I pondered that point throughout the rest of the day, even as we scrutinized our selfies.

In the afternoon, we visited St. Canice’s Cathedral, which dates back to the 13th century. As we walked in, I saw someone walk into a small cutout of a cylindrical tower. I excitedly turned to Maggie, hoping that we could climb the tower as part of the tour. When we discovered climbing the tower cost just two extra Euro, Maggie, indifferent to medieval tower climbing, obliged. I began climbing the stairs only to discover that, once inside the 1100-year-old tower, stairs gave way to a series of steeply inclined ladders. After just a few flights, I developed a sudden onset fear of heights. Maggie had to coax me up the remaining steps. The view from the top was magnificent — but then I had to figure out how I’d get down. After assuring me that a helicopter rescue was unlikely, Maggie coaxed me back down the stairs – walking backwards the entire way. Each step was a trust exercise.

On the bus back to Cork, it dawned on me that, without the Mitchell Scholarship, I’d likely never meet someone like Maggie. We have vastly different interests – she studies national defense and diplomacy, while I work in health and economics. She lived an international childhood, inhabiting several countries I’d have to look up on a map. Until this year, I’d spent my entire life in the contiguous 48. We have different political views, different career aspirations, and were involved in different activities in college. Despite (or because of) our differences, however, we now share unforgettable memories of Kilkenny. Though I’ve only been in Ireland three months, I know I am part of the Mitchell family, and I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve gotten to spend with the other Mitchells. I look forward to the adventures I’ll share with my Mitchell family this year and beyond — in fact, I’m writing this post from Tyler’s room in Dublin!

 

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