Friday, June 09, 2006
Reflections on a Week Away
"I wish I could go back to college.
Life was so simple back then."
from "Avenue Q"
Last week, I visited my alma mater - Indiana University - and a more beautiful college campus I will challenge you to find anywhere.
Being June, it was quiet there. Not many students in evidence - although summer school was underway. (You could actually walk through Dunn Meadow with no danger of being hit in the stomach by a low-flying Frisbee. Do not laugh. This happened to me in my undergrad days. It hurt, too.) In fact, I saw as many middle-aged people there as students, apparently attending meetings or conferences.
Some of the middle-aged people I saw there were old, dear friends of mine - fellow IU grads who I had not seen in years. And I can't even put in words how wonderful it was to see them. We took an extensive tour of the campus: popped in at our old dormitory, walked through the School of Journalism and the School of Business, got some Special K Chewies at the Sugar and Spice shop in the Union building (half the size and twice the price of the 1981 versions), bowled a game at the IMU Lanes (site of much shared hilarity during our comic turn as an intramural bowling team senior year), posed for photos with the new statue of Herman B. Wells, and even toured Nick's English Hut (bigger and with more rooms than we remembered - but perhaps we were too inebriated on our trips there to make it all the way to the back!)
I may be romanticizing a bit (time and distance help to soften our bad memories and sharpen our good ones), but I remember being really happy during my college years. (And not just because I had great, crazy friends, although that was an important part of it.) Coming from a little town in the sticks (pop. 2000 - a figure which undoubtedly includes most of the livestock) to a big, liberal university town was, for me, as though the gates of paradise had swung wide open. I was hungry for books, for films, for experiences, for all the culture and education I could get my hands on, and then some.
In fact, here is a story - one which I've never told anyone before - which illustrates how geeky I was in those days. As a high school junior, I sent away to Indiana University for information and received a catalog of courses for the College of Arts and Sciences. I spent hours - nay, days - WEEKS even! - poring over this wondrous work, making little stars beside all the classes I wanted to take: Art Appreciation! European History! Genre Study of Film! English Literature! Political Science! Languages - French, German, Italian! I wanted it all. I wanted at least 5 majors. I could not WAIT to get to college in order to delve into all these fascinating classes and learn all this amazing stuff! College was going to be GREAT!!!!
In the end, I settled for a degree in Journalism with a minor in Business Administration. Challenging, but practical. I didn't quite manage to take all the classes I had starred in the COAS catalog, though I did fit in some interesting electives. I remember quite fondly a class in the History of the Enlightenment which I took during my last semester; I wrote a 25-page term paper on Voltaire's exile in England, and I was in hog heaven. Honestly.
Hey, I told you I was a geek.
Anyway, it's 25 years later, and I've faced the reality of mortgage payments and heating bills and holding down the kind of corporate job I never thought I'd have. Young idealistic dreams drift away just as surely as our waistlines thicken and our breasts sag. Oh sure, I get all fired up occasionally by, say, a History Channel marathon on the Tsars of Russia, a great movie, or a vacation trip to some castle or museum. But the inspiration passes. Sometimes it feels like my major accomplishments in life are the checkmarks I put beside completed tasks on my daily "To do" lists. It's not the catalog of the College of Arts and Sciences, but rather my overstuffed Day Planner that sets the agenda for the rest of my life.
But being back at IU reminded me of my younger self - the one who actually didn't watch much TV, who read voraciously, was anxious to travel and see the world. The girl who saw the life ahead of her as full of endless promise and possibility. I'd love to go back and be a student again, but I'm 46, not 18. I can't chuck it all, move into the dorm, and start over on a new degree.
But who says I can't be a student? If the trip to Bloomington did anything for me, it led me to make a couple of resolutions about my life:
1) I will NOT let so many years go by again without seeing my old friends. Life is too short not to spend time with people you care about, and we had way too much fun not to do this again soon.
2) I can live the rest of my life as if I am a student. This doesn't mean I have to quit my job (though someday, I might), but it does mean I can turn off the TV and spend more time doing the things I used to love to do. I can take more time to savor how truly wonderful films, books, works of art and nature can be. I can be joyful and I can stop setting limits for myself. I can kick myself right out of my middle-aged comfort zone and go look for some fun and adventure.
As if to affirm these resolutions, my pastor preached this Sunday about the ways that we let our lives get small, when we ought to envision lives that are big and full. We shop the same grocery store, drive the same streets, put in the same 30 minutes every day on the same treadmill. What would happen if we got off our treadmill or drove down a new street or shopped a whole different set of stores? Would we meet some new people? Get some new ideas? Getting out of our well-worn ruts, said the pastor, might give us a whole new notion of what it means to be "born again." I've rarely taken a sermon so much to heart as I did that one. It was as if God was saying to me "See, you've finally got the right idea!"
I went back to work today. I can't say that hearing the alarm clock go off at 5:30 this morning was a treat, exactly, but I went to my job with a smile on my face.
Sometimes a vacation - even a little one - really can give you a new lease on life.