The Little Things that Are Not Little

Author: Brian Doyle ’78

I know what you think of when I say the words University of Notre Dame du Lac. You think of the Dome, first and foremost, gleaming in the distance like the glowing business end of a stupendous baby bottle, and then you think of your shaggy and peculiar roommates, which makes you snicker, and then you think of vast and epic snowfalls, and of football Saturdays, and of certain people you kissed that we need not talk about here, and about that one almost-romance that you still think about sometimes but don’t tell anyone about, there being no need, but you will always wonder a little what if? Then maybe you think about the echoing tumult of voices in the dining hall at lunchtime, or sprawling on the quad, or that unbelievable road trip o my gawd what were we thinking, and then maybe you think about a teacher who really made you snap awake and think about the subject at hand as more than means to a grade; and then maybe you think about how great and awful graduation was, and how incredibly boring the speaker was, and how one of your friends wore nothing but his Spiderman underpants under his gown, and isn’t it amazing that such a doofus could be a partner in a law firm today? Wouldn’t it be funny to mail Spiderman underpants to all the partners in his firm, anonymously, just for kicks?

But it’s the next layers of things to think about that interest me this morning. The ranks of tall grasses by the lake, arranged in height order by mysterious natural command. The hollow rattle of basketballs in the Rock, like a staccato code that no one has ever cracked. The seethe of wind in the trees near Walsh and Sorin, an oratorio never sung the same way twice. The ancient musty scholarly smell of old hall attics where many a frightened freshman has huddled, and stared out the tiny windows, and wondered why why why did I come here so far from home, so competitive, so lonely, why? The wriggles of smoke twisting and swirling from a hundred grills on Saturday mornings, like the ephemeral rigging of invisible airships. The creak of transoms over doors in the oldest halls, and the smooth silent metallic rush of elevators in the new; the motley platoons of bicycles, free and easy when loose but camped together in dense packs when buckled in for the night, all shouldered together as if each needed to touch the others to be sure they are near; the day when everyone wears shorts and sandals suddenly as if a memorandum was circulated secretly at dawn that Today We Retire Pants and Shoes; the prevalence of cassocks on certain days, and even occasionally, rarest of birds, a bishop in full ornamental magenta, burnished and bright against bricks and maples.

The little things that are not little. The exuberance of sparrows near LaFortune, the boldest of which have organized gangs of their fellows to extort cookies from shyer students. The tiny alleys and walkways and corners and corridors all over campus that take you a year at least to find and milk for solitude and sunlight. The thump of bees against chapel windows. The skreeeek of chairs in a classroom, the confident hum of descending screens, the clatter of keyboards, the muffled ringing of a phone in a purse in the pocket of a jacket in the back of the room and the next instant in which everyone in the room thinks it is his phone or her phone and the next instant when almost everyone realizes wait a minute that’s not my phone and the next instant when you grin at the slight discomfiture of the owner of the phone. The subtle architectural and artistic details on campus that take three years to even notice let alone savor, and just when you realize there are a hundred more you have not seen, it is time to graduate and move away and begin your wild and lovely life, during which you occasionally pause, struck by an angle of light, or the brush of cedar against stone, or the sheen of a lake, or the thrill of bells, or the flicker of a cassock across a sprawl of grass, and remember when you were young, long ago and far away, at the University of Notre Dame du Lac; and you are still there, somehow, sometimes; like now.

Brian Doyle ’78 is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland and the author most recently of A Book of Uncommon Prayer and the essay collection Children & Other Wild Animals.