I was terrified to leave Maine. The weeks before I left for Ireland, I busied myself with cleaning clothes, packing, and sewing up all the little tears in my shirts and jacket and in the quilt my Nana made years ago. I didn’t want to be frayed at the edges, from the very beginning. I said goodbye to the garden by picking carrots and then canning them. I plucked the tomatoes, hot peppers, and onions and made salsa. These pieces of home would come with me, wrapped in layers of plastic bags and sweaters. My father piled my luggage in the van; his worn hands pressed the trunk door closed.
When I arrived in Dublin, the quilt was the first piece to come out of my suitcase as I unpacked in my new room in the Graduate Memorial Building at Trinity College. Its patches of red, purple, blue, and green stood out from the gray cobblestones beyond my window. The first person to greet me was a cleaning lady named Liz, and I was grateful for her company. She chatted about cheap places to shop in Dublin and warned me not to store food in my room, or I’d be fined. She said it like it was our secret, like the college wanted students to store food in their rooms, so it could fine them.
When there was a knock on my door a little later, I jumped to open it. It was Catherine, the other Mitchell Scholar at Trinity, and we hugged. We were the exact same height—five feet, three-and-a-half inches—and we both went to small, liberal arts colleges. I soon learned she was immensely talented at speaking in a high-pitched, helium-induced-sounding voice. And, she brought an entire Corelle dinnerware set in her suitcase to Ireland. We’d be fine together, I thought.
A few days later, at the four-day Mitchell orientation in the west of Ireland, I met the other Mitchells, a group of unselfish, intelligent people who were ready to rule the world. We ate dinner with U.S.-Ireland Alliance benefactors at Doonbeg Resort, where Catherine and I also made use of the hotel’s luxurious spa. We watched the play The Cripple of Inishmaan in Galway, running through the rain during intermission to grab sandwiches at a nearby corner shop. We caught the Cliffs of Moher on a sunny day and were treated to dinners with good wine and conversation. We biked around one of the Aran Islands, Inis Mor, and, coming back on the ferry, I stood outside with the wind whipping my windbreaker, looking for whales.
Back in Dublin, Catherine and I explored the city’s many streets, pondering the depths of our map. I was surprised at the number of immigrants and foreign visitors and often stumbled down my steps in the morning to find tourists taking pictures outside my building. For one of the few times in my life, I had stretches of time to run, and so everyday I woke up and explored Dublin by running for hours, fighting through the throngs of city centre to the urban-suburban sections and then the outreaches of the city.
Once, I even made it to the ocean. Past the Travelers living in campers, I ran down a breakwater to a lighthouse, and at the end was a sign for a men’s swimming club. It was so windy I could barely run, and it was freezing, so I couldn’t imagine swimming in the ocean there. But the light appeared to be shining up from the bottom of the water. Another day I ran until I reached a cemetery and then ran through it. All the old gravestones were either falling apart, or the horizontal slabs were removed, so I was slightly afraid of seeing bodies. There was gravel everywhere instead of grass—truly a dead place. But it was a good space in which to run and a change from the row houses and run-on of small businesses, all attached to one another.
One weekend, a few Mitchell girls and I took the train to Wexford, located two and a half hours south of Dublin. Wexford was having an opera festival, and so I saw my first decent opera, an Italian comedy. The resonance of the tenor’s voice was so honest and clear, I was awestruck. Vicki and Lara each wore a head clip with feathers, all for good laughs, and a well-dressed woman commented to Vicki, “You look nice!” Vicki was so surprised she said, “Really?” And we laughed.
My life began to take more of a hold at Trinity. I joined a singing group and a quartet on campus, and then I found my classes starting in my creative writing program at the Oscar Wilde Centre, the house in which Oscar Wilde was born in 1854. It’s a small building on Trinity’s campus, and I can imagine it as a home. We have class in rooms that used to be bedrooms or living areas; and the rooms’ small sizes, the entryway from the street, and the steep stairs, give off a feeling I understand from my ancient farmhouse in Maine. It has to do with the smallness of the doorframes and the worn nature of the walls. It’s as if the older a house gets, the more it comes alive. So many writers have passed in and out with hangovers, leaves of genius, empty notebooks, holding hands, drinking tea, lonely, loud; and each of their footprints are still there.
There are only fifteen people in my program, and we are becoming more relaxed around each other—drifting towards becoming a makeshift family. The first day of class, we stood squished in a circle where we introduced ourselves and then were let loose to talk. Eventually, everyone left the room except Rahul, Danny, Maírín, and me. During a moment of silence, Danny looked around and said, “Shall we grab a beer?” We looked at our watches and saw it was only noon.
We walked to the Pav where Danny got his Guinness, and the rest of us bought lunch. It was so calming to sit outside with three strangers, and I loved talking to each one. Throughout the fall and the half-eaten vegetables on my plate, I thought, this is what I’ll miss when I leave.
There would be many firsts. The same week the U.S. elected the first black president, I also ran my first marathon, along with three other scholars. It took place Sunday, Nov. 9, in Athens, Greece, and, according to legend, covered the same course run by the Athenian messenger Pheidippides when he brought news of victory from the battlefield of Marathon almost 2,500 years ago. While following Pheidippides’ footsteps, I more importantly felt I was following the path set by my mother who has run six marathons and continues to run to this day. At her last marathon—the Boston Marathon—she completed six miles of it because she was eight months pregnant with me. Growing up, she never forced me to run, but I went to her 5K and 10K races, and I watched her slather Vaseline on her face before running in negative temperatures during Maine winters. At an early age, I picked up the habit of running, secretly driven by complete adoration for the most important woman in my life.
After finishing the Greece marathon, I hobbled through the queues; scarfed down bananas and granola bars and chugged juice; changed clothes; and waited in line for a free massage. I sat on the pavement, exhausted, not believing I’d just run 26.2 miles, and imagined my mother there, with her arms around me, proud. I might be walking to class, writing in a café, or riding the bus, and it strikes me how lucky I am to have been given the chance to do what I love: to write, read, sing, run, travel, meet new people, and grow. I’ve been given time, a place, a purpose, and gradually I’m building a new place to call my own. As my plane from Athens landed in Dublin, a flight attendant said over the loudspeaker, “Welcome home to Dublin. And for those who are passing through, safe travels.” Falling into both categories, as people usually do, I unclipped my seatbelt, stood, and reached for my suitcase. I found I couldn’t wait to get back to Trinity.