college

when the nights were full of promise

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My husband and I went to college together. But we didn’t go to college together, you see. In retrospect we figured out that we met during freshman orientation. A failed, forced scavenger hunt mixer between our respective dorms, in which all I remember is lounging on the lawn with one of my budding best friends, laughing snarkily about how those guys over there were so weird but at least they didn’t care about the stupid scavenger hunt either.

But we didn’t start dating until senior year. And only halfway through that.

So whenever we wax nostalgic about college days, we each have our own memories, our own stories, our own epic escapades with our own groups of friends.

Last week we stood outside in the settling dark of a warm summer night. We’d let the dog out before turning to head to bed, all three boys already lost in slumber upstairs.

And as we stood there, barefoot on the edge of another lawn, August grass already curling into early autumn’s brown, I turned to him and asked -

Do you remember when every night was full of possibility? 

When every weekend beckoned with the prospect of an unforgettable night out and unbelievable stories to share with our roommates the next morning. When promise hummed in the late-night air as our group headed for the bar or the party or the dance. When there was always the prospect that tonight might be a night we never forgot – that we’d meet someone, that we’d run into fun just around the next corner, that we’d end up with one of those classic college stories only hilarious to those who were there, who never forgot the mayhem or the nickname that ensued from the night’s events.

When the air was electric with anything possible.

When I think about what changes once college recedes in the rear-view mirror, it is this sense of wide-open prospect that seems farthest gone.

Not only that any evening could turn epic, that even a late-night run to the grocery store could prove entertaining, but that the next class or professor could be the one that changed an interest into a major. That the semester abroad could lead to a career. That the retreat or the alternative spring break or the service project could open up a whole new calling.

Our eyes were open wider than they had ever been before. 

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And we almost knew it while it was happening. We had a hunch that the alumni who reappeared faithfully for fall football weekends weren’t simply missing friends or classes or campus clubs. They were missing a way of life. The promise of possibility that opens briefly for those of us lucky enough to call a college education our own. The widening of four years in which the world becomes our proverbial oyster and we get giddy off the aphrodisiac.

But of course it cannot last forever.

The choices we all began to make – graduate school and cross-country moves and first jobs and engagements and marriages and babies and houses – they were good and necessary choices. The rest of our life was waiting to happen, beckoning to begin when we stood outside the convocation center, clutching our graduation caps while wild May wind whipped through our hair.

Is every night full of promise and possibility now? At first my instinct says no. These are our tired thirties, after all.

Now nights are full of dirty dishes and diaper changes and wrangling wiggling children into bath and bed, then turning to the disheveled house and the day’s to-dos left unfinished at work, and then how is it 11:30 again? We’re going to be wiped out when the baby wakes us at 5. Let’s get to bed – wait, did you take the dog out and is the dishwasher running and did anyone switch the laundry into the dryer and where did that stack of bills go?

The air around us starts to feel old and tired. The furthest thing from electric.

But sometimes when I try to look with wider eyes, eyes that used to spark at any possibility, eyes that still sense the shadows of what’s most important, even on a dark night under a cloudy sky, I see that maybe the promise of our nights is still there.

Muted tones, softened edges. But still so present.

Every night I get to slip into bed next to that boy I fell in love with when we were 21. Every night one of our children wakes needing something from us – milk or water or simply a snuggle back to sleep. Every night our house stands strong and safe around us. Every night we rest to ready ourselves for another day’s good work.

There’s so much promise brimming there.

Sure, the prospect of possibility looks different at 33 than it did at 22. I’m sure it will shift to change again at 44 and 55 and on and on. Our lives become limited by the choices we make, but these aren’t all harsh constraints. Simply sharper definitions. We become ourselves. Partly the selves we have chosen, partly the selves we have shaped in response to what life has given us.

So perhaps the better question is not where does promise lie but how sharply can our eyes see it?

Back then, footloose and fancy free, we never could have imagined what lay before us. Life’s never this way. Even those easy, eager conversations of oh, I definitely want kids, too that we must have had while first dating – we never dreamed that those breezy hopes would stumble over infertility or miscarriage.

But neither could we have grasped the depths of how all that was tough and hardened would bind us together, closer than we could have glimpsed when we were laughing on that loud dance floor, the night it all began.

. . .

Lately I’ve been mulling over that line from the end of John’s Gospel. Jesus sitting on the shore in the gray light of dawn, staring at the water and telling Peter that when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished.

But - and there is always a but, isn’t there? and you feel Peter cringe because he knows it, too – when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.

And even though our end will never be as dramatic as Peter’s tale will twist, we still sense this truth about adulthood. The truth you cannot grasp when you are on its giddy brink.

You will be taken where you do not wish to go. Your heart will want things it cannot have, and your soul will struggle with truths it does not want. You will be pulled towards people and places you never imagined.

But there can still be promise there, enough possibility to keep you looking skyward even on the dragging days and the darker nights.

As long as your eyes can keep blinking open. Wide enough to see it.

and our hearts forever…

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Forgive me, friends. Today I can think of nothing but Notre Dame.

We’re playing for a National Championship for the first time in decades. And I say “we” because Notre Dame is a place and a people that have always been plural: ours, us, we.

irishOur team hasn’t gotten this good or this far since I was a child, but I couldn’t sleep last night as if it were Christmas Eve, thrilled with what the prospect of this day might hold. Regardless of the game’s outcome, it’s a day that Domers will never forget.

Last night as I lay awake in the dark, I thought about how Notre Dame has changed my life. All the “soggy sentimentalism” of an alum, of course.

Because it was where I made my closest friends.

Where I fell in love with the suavest engineer this side of South Quad.

Where I learned how to be part of something bigger than myself.

Where I even learned to follow football – the sport I swore I’d never understand, let alone love – as it taught me rituals all its own.

But as my thoughts trailed off into the wee hours ticking towards game day, I thought about how Notre Dame changed my writing, too. All those years working for the student newspaper. The semesters I spent as an English major. And the awakening to faith that keeps calling me deeper into a vocation of words.

This blog is shot through with my alma mater, from one mothering spirit to another. What I know about home and family and prayer is all touched by its people and place and presence, even as my college years fade farther in the rearview mirror than that last shot of the Golden Dome leaving campus.

So today and always, Tom Dooley’s words still ring true, the small metal plaque by the brave young doctor’s statue covered today by a January dusting of snow, flickering in the light of all those candles, the heated hopes of every Irish fan:

But just now…and just so many times, how I long for the Grotto. Away from the Grotto, Dooley just prays. But at the Grotto, especially now when there must be snow everywhere and the lake is ice glass and that triangular fountain on the left is frozen solid, and all the priests are bundled in their too-large, too-long black coats and the students wear snow boots…if I could go to the Grotto now, then I think I could sing inside. I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness and know more beauty, tenderness and compassion.

Thanks to Notre Dame, my life – and, I hope, my writing – knows more faith and poetry and compassion than I would have ever imagined as a nervous 18 year-old, pulling up to Walsh Hall for the first time.

So in gratitude, today and always, I say GO IRISH.