Campus life

Alumni messing around in the art museum. Photo by Nick Platt ’87.

Going to your college reunion is like visiting a country you have dreamed about many times. It will all feel very familiar, but people and topography will have changed in subtle ways. And the climate is different. You have never been there in summer. This was when they cleared you out and the town had some relief from your noisy indifference.

The plane is completely full and there are to be no seat changes. “Please let me know,” says the flight attendant, “if there’s anything I can do to make this flight any more enjoyable than it already will be.”

My mailbox was not where I remembered it.

On our way there, we drop off the girls with their cousins and spend the night with my husband’s aunt and uncle in their new place, a house in a retirement community. It is located in a wooded setting around a large stone building that was the home of a railroad tycoon. The grounds are referred to as a campus, the banks of houses form a quad. There are activities on message boards, a gym, a pool, a greenhouse, a painting of a golf course in the manner of Fairfield Porter, photographs of residents posing comically with croquet mallets, antique-filled parlors, an art show with large format digital photography that challenges your view of subject matter and someone’s turtle collection in a glass case. There is a wall of mailboxes, each with a community paper inside. A wine tasting is in session. Dogs are allowed but not children. We are ready to move in except for that last fact. We could only call them our staff for so long.

Down one wing or up a flight are people who need care and medical attention. You do not see them in the parlor, in coats, dressed for dinner. It is like the college health center, tucked away, there when you need it.

Stopped by, but you were not in your room. Going to dinner. Find us.

We drive up to Poughkeepsie the next day and on arrival bump into a friend. How quickly you fall back into step with that flow of activity. We are meeting a professor for coffee. When we are talking about literature, his subject, I feel like my head is an abandoned house and each book, author, insight mentioned opens a door to a musty room. Motes of intellectual dust are kicked up as the room is aired out. I could explore this house on my own, I know, but who has the time?

These are the explosions of insight and clarity and ideas that illuminated my life then and, like an aging heir who cannot afford the upkeep on one’s own, I have closed one wing and then another and settled myself in a parlor with all that I need within arm’s reach.

At our next reunion we will have passed 50. Already, we are survivors of one thing or another. The bright future we walked out into 25 years ago was, we knew even then, something of an illusion. People’s lives meander and get complicated. We have our own issues, our children’s, our parents’ lives to reckon with.

Walking back to the dorm after our class dinner we are in front of the library. A group of women a few reunions ahead of us remark on its beauty and echo what we have been saying amongst our friends all day. Look what we had here that we didn’t nearly fully appreciate.

“If only we had known!” exclaims the older woman.

“You all knew,” her friend replies. “I was the only one who didn’t.”

There is a sense of safety in a group of friends your own age. We have been out there and had our experiences but now we are back together. This is what we had. We will always have had this. The college serves us tea in the Rose Parlor, beer on the lawn in front of our dorm, steak in a tent.

Like it said in the song we sang when there, Gaudeamus igitur, this is youth’s delightful frolic before the earth will have us. Let sadness perish.

Main photo by Nick Platt ’87, used with permission. See more of his work here.

Radio reading of this post.

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7 Replies to “Campus life”

  1. A very lovely piece. Your musings on the mind ring true as possibility, but I’d counter that you, as someone who still creates, have a more occupied mansion than you would suspect. You state it so poetically that I’ll see you in the parlor–just for now. I hear parenthood can be stultifying, but maybe it’s more like time in the fields? We sang “Gaudeamus igitur” on the golf cart back to Main, bringing Lee to the bus to Bryant Park and onto Kansas City. We couldn’t recall the words–but all were surprised with my factoid that you hear it in the music track as the Scarecrow gets his diploma. I wish I could have spent more time with you and Jim–it was a whirlwind, and alas, I arrived exhausted. I look forward to reading more!

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  2. beautiful post about the complicated feelings that often come with the class reunion.. I am starting to find something civilized about a circle of friends who by chance experience a remarkable time and place together and , as life and less “beautiful” things happen (innocence fades), continue on together in some fashion bound by that time and history… ie The Murphys/lost generation circle…..Your quote hits it head on “it feels familiar, but people and topography have changed in subtle ways..and the climate is different ” a class reunion or, for me, reconnecting with a circle of friends from a time abroad.

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    1. I had that same feeling this weekend, looking at pictures from my friend’s wedding. There were people there I haven’t seen, even in photos, since we left. Three years have passed. That gets to be a long time.

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