on the scourge of graduating from notre dame

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I’ve been wanting to write about what it feels like to graduate from Notre Dame for the better part of the last year that I’ve been away from it. And I’ve tried, but things were too close to be able to see correctly, they were too much the water I was still swimming in.

At Notre Dame, one of my most impactful professors taught us something important about telling personal stories: before you tell your story, make sure the emotions around it are at least mostly healed. In other words, make sure you have reckoned with it, lived in it, breathed it, and know what you think about it— all this while understanding that inherent flux of life, memories, emotion. I am just now getting there.

It’s been a year now since I’ve left the place that my dad, previous to my freshman year, liked to call “Catholic Disney World”. The place where two of my older siblings also studied, prayed, celebrated, and lived. The place that shaped them so entirely and so lovingly (and sometimes not so gently), that any time they could, they reminded me to appreciate the best four years of my life while I was in them.

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A year out, I’m still living into what it means to have so fully and purposefully drank the Kool Aid that is loving your college experience, family, and traditions. Because, admittedly, the thought that your best four years are behind you is rather depressing. Yet, at the same time, dorm mass and football weekends and the Backer and cinnamon rolls at Waddick’s with best friends while the always-present snow falls outside—these years were deep years, shaping years, joyful years. How do you deal with both of these truths simultaneously? What do you do when, a year later, watching Notre Dame transform for football weekends from a few states away brings not only the old excitement, but a new and breath-taking nostalgia?

I did not go to the Michigan game this past weekend, and it physically pained me to stay away. I am in my second year of medical school, we have tests in a week, and I am not smart enough to be able to not study for a whole weekend and still pull a good grade. I watched the game and it was good, but not the heart stopping, emotionally-wrenching, all-senses experience that is being there. I didn’t get to see everyone who went who I haven’t seen in a year—people who were your favorite person to find in the dining hall or walking across South Quad on a Friday morning, but whom, miles apart, you may not feel close enough to to schedule a FaceTime session or visit with. (As an aside: TELL THESE PEOPLE YOU MISS THEM. Even if they won’t be in your wedding. Life is short, love is large. That is all). The people who made ND welcoming, warm, home.

For me, to go to the game would have meant choosing my old life rather than my current one. Not because visiting ND is not a beautiful and connected thing that keeps us ensconced in a wonderful community, but because it would have meant screwing myself over for tests and coming back exhausted when I needed to take care of myself. It would mean choosing a couple days to get to re-immerse myself in the beautifully built world of my old college life—one that made sense to me and is already a finished product—instead of staying in the still new-to-me place of St. Louis and medical school that was demanding and needing my attention.

The hardest part of your “freshman year of adulting” (as my rector at ND called it), is that everything is your choice. When you wake up, what you do, what you value, who you’re with—it’s all up to you in a wide, wide way that I, at least, never dealt with in college. I made some decisions— roommates, clubs, dining hall, abroad or no, Backer or Finnie’s (…Backer.). But now, all the decisions are mine, and they don’t read like a multiple choice test with only, say, four viable options. They read like the number of tulips on campus at Easter, or the candles in the Grotto—countless.

This is Terrifying. This is Hopeful. This is New.

This is going to be, without a doubt, ugly for a WHILE.

And it is empowering.

The first time I watched a game from my couch instead of from the House that Rockne Built, I wept. Real, fat, tears—and I don’t even like football that much (a sin, I realize). As lame as it sounds, I had real grief, a real crater in my chest that my college home previously occupied. How do you move on from that?

This strange and ridiculous grief lives and crawls around like any grief—which means you won’t move on from it. You will carry it with you, and it teaches you. Perhaps this is rationalization, or comforting and untruthful optimism. Or perhaps, this is what is real.

On the day of the Michigan game, I had a lazy morning reading poetry and writing. The poetry was recommended by my best friend from Notre Dame, who was the one watching snow and sharing cinnamon rolls with me. I met with a couple friends for brunch, and gave advice that had been instilled into me during my time working for a summer program for Notre Dame. I studied outside on the balcony I share with my roommate, one of my best friends from medical school. When I first met her, I was not the scared or shy person I had tendencies toward in high school, because many aspects of Notre Dame loved me into being myself.

The worst part of sallying forth from college is that you have to become more of your own person. The best part of sallying forth from college is that you get to choose who that person is. Believe me when I say Notre Dame has not left me alone, not for one second or one day, because who we are made into there is the person we bring out into the real world.

This is where graduating is hopeful and exciting. We saw beauty. We were loved into ourselves in community. We were taught to work intentionally. We, all of us missing our university, found and fell in love with some form of beauty there. Whether you know it or not, you were educated by that beauty you now miss. The hole in your chest is painful, but it is also a call to go out and build. The call is not to rebuild or regress to your college experience, nor to have the most powerful Notre Dame Club in the Nation (Chicago will always be the largest). The call is to work from the nostalgia for the beauty you were invited into, and build something new from your longing in the place you are now.

This is not easy. We have never built. We have never had to choose. We were dumped in a treasure chest of wonderful things that already knew what they were doing, and we never had to learn how it all came together. That’s okay—we will make junk first, and again, it will be an ugly mess. Then we will try again, and again, and it won’t look the same as our first experience of that beauty, but it will be deep and meaningful and different and *yours*. That being, yours to share like you yourself were shared with.

This is long and rambly, but that is okay— it is from the place of longing that misses what ND represented while I was there. It is my junky first draft. It is an attempt to go out and create and be where I am now, being changed by ND as I was.

Graduating sucks. You will always miss ND.
Go build from that.

Go Irish.

 

 

Note: I don’t think that this is true for only ND. I think this is true of any beloved alma mater, but my experiences are with that one school in South Bend. Carry on!

Your Favorite Heroine

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If you’re a girl who read Harry Potter while you grew up, it’s likely you looked up to Miss Granger, the superiorly intelligent, spunky, and not always most beautiful girl in every classroom at Hogwarts.

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Or perhaps you read other books, like the more classic Anne of Green Gables, and looked up to the imaginative redhead who was as sensitive to beauty as she was to the slight pinprick of a slight.

Or maybe you saw Jo from Little Women, and followed her story of writing and romping with her sisters. You admired the girl who was so independent that she could not even be captured by a predictable plot.

Regardless of who you looked up to, you probably loved a certain heroine, and had dreams of being like her someday. Whether that be her intelligence, her beauty, or her kindness, you saw in her something that you wanted to be.

The common trait behind each of these female characters is good writing, and in good writing comes complexity—even in children’s stories. Each character has a good side and a bad side explicitly mentioned, yet we mostly focus on the good while we look up to them.

Hermione Granger is ostentatiously a Know-It-All in the first order. She is not the most socially intelligent girl in school, and she has a withering crush on RON WEASLEY for 7 years before she makes a move. She is, definitively, not cool. And yet, we see her for what she is more often than what we see her for what she is not.

Anne of Green Gables sees the good quite easily and is moved to great heights, but she also falls into the pits of despair just as quickly. She is the opposite of emotionally stable, even as she grows up. Anne has an enormous temper. And yet, we see her in the positive light of her imagination rather than in the dark side of what her sensitivity drives her too.

Lastly, Jo is stubborn. She loves her younger sister, Beth, for the softness and gentleness she does not have. She recognizes this weakness and this craving for independence in herself as she gets older, but the only thing we recognize is the strength of the other traits that exist alongside this.

We see book characters, thanks to the way the narrative is laid out, according to the good in them. We see and remember their victories much more than any loss they may endure. In other words, we give them the benefit of the doubt and the trust that they are a hero in the story, not a villain or an unimportant tangent.

This is not the way we think of ourselves in daily life. More often than not, we look at ourselves as characters in a skewed way, removed from context, and maybe even with the perception of ourselves as off or as simply bad. We do not give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, but perhaps put ourselves on trial to prove that the good is there, alongside the bad.

We take many stories—lovely and ugly—from our childhoods. We take stories about fairies, about others, about the worlds, and about ourselves. These can be true, false, damaging, uplifting, and everything in between, but the most impactful ones are often the ones we learn about ourselves.

When you encounter stories about yourself today, check them the way an author would check theirs. Check it like this:

Does this story get at the complexities of the character? 

            Does this trait make sense in the context of the story, or does it assume the worst?

            Does this story ring true and authentic, or does it reduce this many-faceted character to a flat pancake of who they actually are?

It is a big ask to try to have someone go from thinking of themselves as an antagonist to a protagonist. It is difficult to switch one word in the thought, “I am bad” to “I am good”—even if the latter statement is the truest.

One step on the way there, though, can be switching how we ask questions and make assumptions about ourselves. Instead of assuming the worst traits or the worst stories, let’s ask how our favorite author would write about this character—good and bad—if they liked them. We may find a happier and truer story in this gentle way than we could have otherwise imagined.

We may just find ourselves on the same side as our childhood heroes.

2018: St. Paul Is Super Relatable

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You sit down and pull out that one random and multicolored notebook that you’ve had since you were inspired by the beginning of 2014 to start a journal. It has a hodge podge of pages that are random attempts at the following: gratitude lists, stream of consciousness, and a bad poem you wrote after a break up you were STILL not over (just me? oops). You wonder how high the chances are that you will set off the fire alarm if you try to burn that page.

You sat down, what for again? Oh right—to write down a brand new list of New Year’s resolutions for 2018. Nevermind the fact that this notebook was part of a short-lived attempt at a resolution in the first place. What will this new year be full of?

When I sat down to write things down that I WOULD do, DAMMIT for the next year, I looked back at the promises I’d made to myself in the past: promises to care more about health, or faith, or kindness, or accomplishment. Some things really did get better or got done, but many of the ones that were most important to me didn’t. Why?

First of all, maybe I just really am not built to ever be able to do a pull-up. That’s under consideration for this year.

More importantly, my resolutions in the past were for a fictional person. This new person would pull a reverse Cinderella—when the clock struck midnight, she would drop any bad habits or unfortunate coping mechanisms and suddenly pick up the habits that it takes other people months and years to build. But God, planning to be a new person is so fun—and you can use those colored pens you forgot you had.

As fun as the planning is, it’s less enjoyable when the big plans you make never pan out, because you never created a way for them to pan out. I, at least, would create resolutions that didn’t take into account that I would get tired, or frustrated, or sick, or be a human. None of that was allowed in the new year! Either-Or logic would then take over: either I stick to this perfect new way of existing, OR I get discouraged by messing up once and quit the whole thing by January 5th.

I write all this because I think this is a common experience. In the words of my boy St. Paul: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
(Literally never has a saint been more relatable. I will fight about this one.) While I think the not doing what we want to do thing is a common part of the human experience, I also think knowing this about ourselves can help us make resolutions towards being better that fail less. If we plan for failure, at least we won’t be scared of it. If we plan for the fact that we are a bit scatter-brained, then when we are lost and confused by our big ideas, we will know it’s okay. If we see the problem coming, then we are much less likely to give up when it comes.

This year for resolutions, I am making a plan for who I already am, not who I want to be someday. And instead of saying “I will do x, y , and z for the next 365 days or die trying”, I want to say “What is a choice I can make today, this week, this month that will help me towards the good things I want to live out?” Instead of making a rigid plan that I will almost definitely end up not following within one week, I’m going to treat the process like trying to unlock a safe: listening and trying to find the click when I hit the right number, keeping what works, and moving on methodically to the next thing. Logistically, this means is I am going to try to do better and keep track of three small habits a month. I will try to learn what works and what doesn’t, what brings joy and what definitely does not (will be writing on this more in the future!).

My only real resolution is this: to sit next to the smelly and ugly fact that perfection is not possible this year. I’m going to try to give that fact a big embrace, and then introduce it to my other favorite fact for 2018: just because you will never be perfect, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your hopes a grand, ugly, and perhaps successful try.

Building Community the Notre Dame Way…When You’re Not There

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I was recently asked to answer this question: How do you form community in post-grad life, and what are some challenges you’ve run into in forming one?

My first response was:

This is my second response:

My Dad’s favorite way to refer to Notre Dame: Catholic Disney World. I knew Notre Dame was a different and beautiful type of place, but I never really believed that fully. For better or for worse, it truly is.

 

I was super involved with faith life and community at Notre Dame. I lead retreats and small groups for campus ministry, I did Vision twice, I had a theology major, and I was an RA. In other words, I bought in HARD. My experience or advice thus might not be applicable for people who were excited to leave Notre Dame. I was ready to leave, but I didn’t want to. I knew it was time to “go forth”, to use a bit of a cliché.

There’s a story by David Foster Wallace called This Is Water. It is essentially about a bunch of fish who are swimming around, constantly bathed in water, but because they are so used to it being there they cannot name it because it’s ever-present. This is what community is like at Notre Dame—you barely realize how much is there, because you are enveloped and surrounded by it constantly.

So when you leave, you’re a fish out of water?

No, Adulting is not that bad. However, You Are Bad AT IT. If you’re at all like me, you’re bad at many things, but it is like this with community, too. At ND, there are tons of structures and clubs in place to help people cultivate and be wrapped up in a sense of belonging. In post-grad, you mainly have to build these things for yourself. In this sense, it is both terrifying and satisfyingly liberating. If you’re anything like me, you will feel both.

That being said, you will form community. It just might not be as immediate or look how you first want it to. Since you’re building it yourself, you have to do the work—put yourself out there, seek to find common ground, and perhaps embarrass yourself a bit. It’s not comfortable.

Think back to your first year at Notre Dame. It didn’t feel how it does now, as a senior about to leave. You were most likely scared and uncertain, and definitely felt alone sometimes. But eventually, it became home. Post-grad doesn’t build in community like Notre Dame does, but you’re also no longer 18. It’s harder, but you are better at it than you were four years ago.

My Rector referred to your first year out of ND in a really apt way: it’s your freshman year of adulthood. You will not know how to do super basic things, you will get parking tickets, you will accidentally eat an expired egg and be sick for two days, and you will miss the automatic love that surrounds you at Notre Dame. Luckily, you probably won’t make the freshman year lanyard mistake again.

Last things:

You will be in a brand new place with people who think and act and talk differently than what you got in the Notre Dame Bubble. This is difficult but a wonderful blessing. Choose to have a learner mindset rather than a judging mindset. This is one I had to be taught and am still learning.

You will get lonely sometimes, whether that be when you’re by yourself or you’re with a ton of new people. It’s okay–don’t run from it. Even in loneliness, you don’t ever have to be alone. Let it deepen you.

Notre Dame may be physically far but it will always be near. Your memories, relationships, and the ways you’ve changed at Notre Dame remain and grow with time. It has changed you, and it will continue to change you in new ways you cannot yet expect. Our Lady has taught you, and now you get to live it out in a real way because you are ready to. Trust yourself, and when
you don’t, learn to lean on the family of Notre Dame that loves you from near and far.

At the end of the Notre Dame Prayer Book, Fr. Jenkins write about something called the Notre Dame Spirit and taking it out into the world. For me, the Notre Dame Spirit is community that does good. While leaving Notre Dame is disorienting when trying to find community, it also opens up in you a huge sense of gratitude for ND and an awareness of what it has planted in you. You carry in you an agent of and an ability to create those lovely communities where you go, and that’s how you take Notre Dame with you.

It’s tough, but it comes, and you love it more for the time you had to spend making mistakes and building it. Wait and see.