I don’t remember exactly when I first had the idea to do my Ph.D. in Ireland. Sometime after I had decided to write my thesis on Irish writers and before my cousin Kristin and I began to plan our trip there, which leaves a few months’ window. But the idea took root very quickly, and before I knew it, I was sneaking moments away from my studying to look at websites for schools like University College and Trinity, reading the faculty specializations and wondering who might be my dissertation director. One of my favorite minibreaks from my thesis was looking for apartments in the cities I thought I might end up in, imagining what my flat would look like and wondering how difficult it would be to find a place that allows dogs.
Before my first trip to Ireland, I was all aflutter. It was as if I was going to meet my soul mate; deep down, I knew that I would love Ireland, that it would exceed my expectations. I thought that I would know immediately that I wanted to go to school there and would spend the next two years planning for my big move. I had visions in my head of myself, an adventurous, brave woman boldly going forth to live my life without borders, and I liked what I saw.
But that’s not what happened. Yes, I loved Ireland immediately, and deeply. I think that my heart had to enlarge in order to fit Ireland in alongside Texas. I loved it because of the history and literature, which had become a part of me. I loved it because of the wet weather and the smiling people whose accents, I imagine, are not so different from those of my unknown ancestors who sailed from Dublin, or maybe Cork, or some other port, whose stories have been lost somewhere in America, perhaps buried here on the Texas plains under the scorching sun and rainless sky, so different from their home. And I loved the intensity of the natural beauty that is inescapable, even in grey Dublin. I felt at once a sense of self and comfort that eludes me in most unfamiliar places. And when we flew away, a few tears gathered in the corners of my mind, and I grieved the absence of a newly beloved land for many weeks. But I never felt certain that I was going to go live there. I felt unrest and questions in place of the quiet peace I am accustomed to when I make right decisions.
So, I knew this year that my journey there would yield some answer, that some decision would be made because it had to be. I thought I knew what the decision would be, and as I walked the streets of a city that I love so dearly, I began to force the decision to go there. I certainly wanted to–imagine, me moving to Ireland! Writing blogs about living in another country. Sending photos of myself in exotic places to friends with whom I kept in touch through the miracle of high-speed internet. I imagined how my friends at home would talk about me: “Did you read Shanna’s blog the other day? She hiked the trail along the Cliffs of Moher with Spur!” “I know! And last week she took a trip to Scotland!” You know, the kinds of things you say about people who live abroad. That brave, adventurous woman resurfaced in my mind. She’s the kind of person that others admire, you know. And then, when I visited Trinity College and saw the Far Side cartoons and funny posters on professors’ office doors, reminding me of an English Department I know well, I felt at home and knew at once that I could fit in there.
Everything seemed to point toward going–my ease getting around Dublin, using the buses, meeting people, and most of all, the way I felt about the city. But even as I decided to make a decision, I felt uncertainty tugging at my sleeves. And then, something very small happened. I was primed for it, I should tell you; some of my new friends from Joyce Camp are Ph.D. students here in America, and they mentioned classes that they had taken or would be taking, and my geek streak made me wish I could take classes like that too (Ph.D. candidates in the British Isles don’t take classes). So that Thursday night as I sat in a very noisy, touristy pub eating bangers and mash with Elaine and her friend Dave, a Galway man who did his Ph.D. in England, Dave said, “American Ph.D. programs produce more well-rounded scholars.” It was a simple comment from a conversation of which I can’t even remember the topic, but it might as well have been the voice of God for the impact it had on me. It happened quietly, without me realizing it, but before we left the pub, I had made my decision. And I was surprised to find that it was the opposite of the one I had expected and felt sure I was heading toward.
I have always known that I want to be a well-rounded scholar. I have a hard time deciding what I want to specialize in because I want to study so much and so broadly. Though I had known before that going to Ireland would mean immediate specialization, the implications of that had just never sunk in. I thought it would be no big deal. But that one little comment made me realize with shocking clarity that my academic goals would not be met abroad. And in that lightning-strike moment when the decision was made, all of the unrest, all of the questions were silenced and I felt a peace that passes understanding, that feeling that tells me I have made a right decision. As if I needed any more confirmation, the next night, a conversation with Milla, another Joyce Camp friend, came to much the same point.
The decision was made, and it was easy. But I grieved the loss anyway. I felt like I was telling Ireland, “Let’s just be friends.” It wasn’t a heavy grief–thanks to my assurance in my decision–and most of the time, I felt like I wouldn’t miss living there. Anyway, there would be other opportunities, post-doc work perhaps, if I decide to go. And when I first got home, I was distracted by the loss if Limerick, and then with my illness, and then everything was kept at bay with Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl (two very pleasant distractions). But now the semester has begun and I am finding myself frequently in conversation with people who ask about my trip, and I find my heart turning eastward more and more, and wishing for some rain and the color green and the feeling of cobbled streets beneath my feet, worn and polished by a century or two of soled traffic. I could do with a bowl of potato and leek soup and a slice of fresh brown bread from The Quays, the sound of sea gulls crying out above the millions of pedestrians bustling along, the murky smell of the quiet Liffey which flows through the middle of the city like an artery. I don’t doubt my decision in even the slightest degree, but I have begun to scheme about getting back there next year, and to wish I could go tomorrow. Just for a week or two. Or three.