November 25, 2012: A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the small midwestern university where I spent 4 years of my life and where I earned my bachelor’s degree 21 years ago. I visited not as a former student, but as a salesperson, and my prospective customer’s office was located in the same building that was my dormitory (good god) from the fall of 1987 through the spring of 1989.
The morning of my meeting (in 2012), I suited up, applied my makeup a bit more carefully than usual, put on my most uncomfortable (their lack of comfort is worthy of bold print) but most professional-looking pair of dress shoes, and drove 100 miles to my old alma mater. Shortly into my 2-hour trip, I turned off NPR (the presidential election was only a few days away; there’s only so much you can take of election coverage, anyway), reminisced about my undergraduate years, and emotionally prepared for my visit to my old home.
During my drive, I prepared myself for strong pangs of wistfulness at best, and heavy strains of a broken heart at worst. While in college, I had often pinched myself to make sure it was all real. I LOVED college. I made close friends, I loved my new independence from my parents. If not always a dedicated student, I was interested in nearly every class I took in 4 years. A few professors took an interest in me and gave me books and invitations to dinner with other students. Although I was “independent,” my parents helped pay for my expenses and I also had a work study that kept a little money (usually about $2, literally) in my pocket. My college was located in a beautiful Mississippi river town amidst nature and long, steep, meandering walking trails that I took advantage of. I fell in love for the first time, and the boy loved me back and even proposed to me. (That’s another blog entry sometime.) In short, I told myself that I needed to soak in every moment because life would never be this good again.
After 4 years, I had earned my credits and unwittingly graduated. I ripped myself away from my friends and began my adult life—work, graduate school (no more parent contributions to the cause), paying the gas bill, paying back student loans, trying to figure out what to do with my life, at times struggling to make friends, often living far away from my family, suffering a couple of solidly broken hearts, occasionally being badly misunderstood and judged by people who didn’t know me at all—a distinct and memorable frustration—and even figuriing out that the foggy, unengaged, tired feeling that had come and gone throughout my life was actually clinical depression.
Adulthood seemed to really stink.
Now in 2012, I was 43 years old, visiting my alma mater on business and mourning my lost blissfulness during the 100 mile drive. Whenn I got there, I walked past my old dorm room (feel heart-tug here) to get to my meeting, then had the meeting. Afterwards I decided to take a walk around campus and see what they knew. I walked through the old dorm, visited the building where I had most of my classees, stopped in on a couple of old professors who weren’t in their offices, walked through the student center (which now has a Starbucks—I ask you, how does a college student afford a $5 coffee?), and peered into my old mailbox. I visited the bookstore, but the books were cordoned off so I couldn’t look around much. (Do they still have to read Hard Times and The World as Will and Representation?) To settle a score with my psyche, I strolled through an old building that I have had many dreams about during the last 20 years, getting lost in a maze of stairs and hallways, wondering where my friend’s dorm room is or how I get out of the building. (In waking life, I figured it out.)
Everyone on campus was friendly. Several people asked me if I needed directions. I noted with amusement that there were lots of “young” people walking around. The quad is no longer really a quad, as its real estate was apparently too precious and a couple of buildings have encroached on the lawn where you often had to dodge frisbees and footballs. Students now have an enormous fitness center to use, whereas I would take long walks in the hills for my exercise. In posters and other advertisements, the college seemed notably more Catholic than it did when I was there (maybe because it was election season, or maybe because I was paying attention for once, I’m not sure). And everything seemed significantly smaller than it did when I arrived in 1987. And to my great surprise, the place was clearly not the center of the universe, either.
To sum up, nothing really happened on my visit. I went to a meeting, then walked around a college campus that has changed with the times. I didn’t feel any pangs of regret or longing. I got into my car and quietly drove home. I waited for whatever I was going to suddenly remember or wish I would have done while I was there, but fairly quickly, I decided to drive some back roads home so that I wouldn’t get back to work so soon, and I stopped the car a couple times to enjoy the scenery and eat a granola bar I’d brought along. When I got back to work, it was about time to go home, so I went to the gym and then drove home.
When I say that nothing really happened, I guess I mean that I had a bit of a revelation: college was not the best time of my life. It was a unique, relatively carefree, memorable time of my life in which I thrived, and it constituted a safe transition into adulthood, but I don’t miss it anymore. More important, I have stopped thinking of happiness as a way to characterize a particular phase of life. Happiness is now a small and momentary place, yet wide and deep too. I’m not sure how you get there, but it’s not about beer parties or Starbucks coffee or understanding Schopenhauer. I think part of it, for me, is having access to nature and those I love (family, hubby, cats, a couple of long distance girlfriends), having enough time to read, and being able to do things I like to do while doing things I don’t really love but can tolerate and that are somewhat good for me (work, exercise, volunteering for the local Humane Society).
Newsflash to Myself: College wasn’t my only chance for happiness. It wasn’t even the best time of my life. Gosh! Life is now and everything is going to be OK. Don’t hold onto the past; the present is rich, and so might the future be.
Reader, it might not seem like much to you. Plus I’m having a hard time articulating what “happened,” because nothing really happened, except for a small glint of illumination finding its way into my slow brain: I learned that it’s alright, right now.