Why we go back and look


I've always been a wee bit suspicious of people who got excited about reunions.

Oh, I've gone: once, to my 10th year high school reunion. And it was fine, in its way. Most of us had matured, but not so much that it wasn't still a little bit fun to see who'd done what (or hadn't). Then it was over, and I thought no more about reunions.

I especially did not give much thought to college reunions. It makes sense in one way: I knew so many people from graduating classes before and after mine, and there were plenty of people I didn't know from my own, so it seemed silly to show up somewhere there might or might not be a quorum of people I'd actually known during my four years at school.

In another way, though, it makes no sense at all. I'd always thought of college as, if not the best years of my life (I've always thought those were both "right now" and "yet to come"), then some really, really good ones. From the moment I showed up on campus, I felt like I was home, not home in the homey sense (I did get very homesick at times), but home as in coming into my own. I felt like I could be myself there, although I wasn't sure who the hell that was, exactly; having such freedom all of a sudden was like having an extra lung added, or just significant extra capacity for breathing, like I'd had new and more flexible diaphragm installed while I was sleeping.

Having the freedom was also terrifying. College marked my first experience of feeling well and truly unmoored, and that was not all sunshine and roses. I'd always had a streak of blue in me, but at school, it seemed to widen and deepen until it was a steep and jagged crevasse with god-knows-what at the bottom and no immediately obvious solutions for getting myself out. The randomness of my life pre-Cornell was dictated by other people: I had little control, but at least I could point to the people who did; now I seemed to be pulled this way and that with no warning and by utterly invisible forces. Small wonder that I was able to resist the siren call of Ithaca all these years.

When I was invited back to speak on a panel about social networking for the school's annual entrepreneurship event, though, it was harder to say "no." In fact, not only did I not say "no" or even "maybe", I said "YES!" immediately. This surprised and pleased me in equal parts. Great, thought I: I'm over it! I'm fine with the past. I have no demons. This will be, in the parlance of the modern day, awesome. And it will be spring (maybe): one of the two finest times in which to visit. (For the record the other is "anytime but February.")

As the day grew nearer, I started to get nervous. The nerves centered around silly things, like whether it would be too cold (it's been known to snow in April here) or what I'd do if my Crohn's suddenly flared up or whether I'd be able to fit into any of my nice clothes. By the time the day rolled around, I was talking excitement but feeling nausea, and I was finally starting to admit the seat of it.

Things would have changed, and substantially. I'd read about the changes, and seen pictures of some: new buildings, old buildings razed to build new buildings, wild expansion of the campus. I'd changed, too, and seeing a bunch of fresh-faced children going about the daily business of edumacating themselves was going to be irrefutable evidence of exactly how much closer I am to death. At one point on the 9+ hour trip here, there's more than one reason it's been 25 years, I did some quick math in my head and realized it had been more years since I'd been back than I'd had years when I was here. Handily.

Like most things, dread gave way to a mixture of excitement, curiosity and anticipation in the dwindling minutes before my arrival. And when I got off the plane and saw my friend, Joshua, there outside the security gates (yes, even at little Tompkins County airport), looking much as he had some 25 years ago, most of the last of the dread fell away. I peered out of the car window at darkened, changed Ithaca on the way back to his house, then at the university across the water, on the other hill, until just before I fell asleep. The next day, I had the cab take me to campus a bit early for the banquet dinner so I could walk around and drink it in a bit before I ducked into the brand new (to me) Statler to mix and mingle like the grownup I now am. (Or at least, the one most people take me to be: me, I still feel like I'm 12 years old most of the time.)

I sat on a low wall atop the slope that overlooks the town and Cayuga Lake, gazing out over the old stone buildings that were there long before me and the new brick ones that had replaced my old dorm. Everything was different; everything was the same. And I finally realized that the sadness I'd felt then was really longing, and that what I was longing for then, I'd actually managed to become: not famous or accomplished or wealthy or powerful, but myself, completely. I was unhappy, and now I wasn't.

And then I cried a little.

And then I went to dinner...


Image by p0psicle via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.