When I was growing up, I occasionally skimmed through science books and would come across illustrations in layers. There might be a dark blue or black page and then any number of individual clear, plastic sheets with bits of the solar system on them that a reader would flip down for a more comprehensive view. First went the stars, then the sun, then Earth and other planets, and maybe moons and other pieces of the galaxy.
Depending on how the book was put together, I could try to make the universe into something different; maybe just stars and moons, or planets without marked orbits. But limitations existed, because the order of the sheets determined what could be put in or left out of your new creation — it was really hard to use the last pieces without the first ones.
This image came back to me as I prepared to leave Notre Dame for the second time, not as a student but as an employee. It has been impossible to layer these last two years without keeping my first four as the foundation.
This is partly because my mind always captures where I live in a specific moment. My hometown is always the fall of 1998, when my brother and sister had gone on to college and I began contending with high school on my own. Notre Dame is the fall of 2002, when I decided to make a go as a writer (and the football team’s 8-0 start was pretty memorable, too). New York City is the hot summer of 2004, when I made my first erstwhile forays as a reporter. And Annapolis is always the gorgeous spring day in 2011 when I married my even more gorgeous wife.
Everything else that happens in those places will always be another sheet on top of what came before. Notre Dame is where I first felt that slippery notion of “possibility” — good friends, good parties, good professors — an intersection of classroom and social life that seemed to confirm it was possible to make more than one home in this world. Although tethered to a time and place, what I had found was the University’s core spirit, the open arms of intellectual inquiry, brotherly bonds and belief in a better future. Once found, it made me freer than I had been.
Returning to Notre Dame as an employee rather than a student is surreal. It looks like where we went to school, and the students look like our own friends and classmates, but none of them are. Classes are traded for meetings, the politics of the dorms relinquished for the politics of the workplace, and you feel more “of” the institution than “in” it.
Eventually, you can begin to feel that Notre Dame really isn’t yours anymore — or at least it is not your Notre Dame.
This realization, however, is not all elegiac. Notre Dame is forever being discovered, forever being renewed and forever being preserved in new amber for new people. Every person who comes to South Bend gets an opportunity to make this place their own, for four years or for four minutes, and carry it with them. I’m not sad the school has moved on from the years 2000-04, because I had my time and now others are getting their own. In the years ahead, there will be people whose Notre Dame is the fall of 2013, the Christmas of 2014 or the spring of 2015. They will find the University’s soul in their own way, not in mine.
And they, too, will discover what I did. Someday you will be back on campus when the sun is setting and students are heading home for the night, and the new buildings will fade and the current fashions will disappear, and you will find yourself in the timeless places where it’s all the years all at once, looking up at a frosted Golden Dome or the flickering flames of the Grotto, and you will feel all the layers lifted until you are once again left with its simple weightless beauty.
Liam Farrell, the former alumni editor of this magazine, is a writer for the University of Maryland and is likely eating crab cakes.