The following is written as a birthday gift to my dear friend, Sara (Juni) Vacek. She hates this picture, but it’s one of my favorites.
Sara, future biologist for the DNR, honing her craft summer of 1997
Earlier this month I was, happily, forced to examine the question: Can you go back? It all began when my college friend, Sara, arrived on the train from St. Paul. As I pulled up to the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, my palms were quite sweaty.
Milwaukee Intermodal Station looking far more photogenic than I’ve ever seen in real life.
Sara and I had been thoroughly and completely besotted with each other those last few years at Lawrence University, and while we’ve stayed in touch, neither of us could claim that our friendship is a day-to-day reality anymore. While we have spent time together in the 20 years since graduation, it has not been nearly enough. Further and perhaps more importantly, we haven’t actually been alone together for any length of time in that past 20 years!
I know in my heart of hearts that my best girlfriends are those for which time and separation aren’t an impediment. Still–a whole week just the two of us? What if our ease of rapport had vanished? This could have the potential for disaster writ in the form of awkward silences.
Ang & Sara joined at the hip, c. 1998
Question #1: Can you really go back to an intense friendship, set down for a time?
The first five minutes were, at least for me, a little bit awkward. Fortunately, however, I guess that enough of each of us is still the same that the skills, attitudes, and knack of the friendship resurfaced in no time. Fortunately for us, in the case of a true friendship, not based on selfish need, you can go back. The silences were the comfortable kind, not awkward at all. I was in charge of guest relations, Sara was in charge of explaining the world to me. We did a jigsaw puzzle. We listened to the sound of each other’s breathing at night–and then put in earplugs. It was all good.
I’m trying to find some tangible reasons for why this was so–why we were so quickly able to revert to old comforts and patterns? I think that partly it was due to the fact that our friendship was forged during a time of deep intensity, the fires of young adult optimism and exuberance. My clan of this type of friends almost all share that in common–solidifying under the stress of a time of high emotion. New motherhood, residency, education, death. And the other bit? It’s the mysterious question of how two people are cut to fit eachother, despite coming from a different bolt of cloth. I don’t know. If you figure out the magic formula, please let me know, because making friends as an adult is tough!
Perfect platitude for the occasion
Answer #1: If it’s the right friendship, you can go back and just pick up where you left off.
Sara came to town so that we could spend time taking a seminar at Bjorklunden, a halcyon place in Door County (more on this later). On the three hour drive up north,we made a detour through our college town, Appleton, Wisconsin and wandered a bit around campus. It was a Sunday, relatively early, so the student community was just starting to come to life. We made a loop, littered it with remembrances and recognitions, grabbed a bite to eat and were on our way.
Oh, you need a map you say????
Question #2: Can you ever go back to a an important place in your past, like college?
My version of Lawrence University, fall 1994.
We pulled up to campus and parked in a visitor’s space. As we walked around, actual memories mingled with anxiety dreams that featured Lawrence. (My favorite is that I’m walking into my dorm and realize that I haven’t checked my mail for the entire term and don’t know my mailbox code. These are the things that really eat at my subconscious, apparently. Also the dream where I forgot to put on a top.) The buildings were the same for the most part, as was the landscaping and, believe it or not, the smell of the place–some combination of fall mulch and youthful vigor. But the actual life of the place? The young adults wandering the campus? Cut from a different cloth entirely. Here’s a brief highlighting of some of the key differences we observed:
Answer #2: So, in the case of college, nope you can’t go back.
Lawrence the Place is still the same, but it’s just not ours anymore. What an interesting characteristic of colleges and universities. The students who pass through them fiercely lay claim to the institution, but really they are laying claim to the memory of their brief four years of the place.
Reflecting on this made it so apparent to me how difficult it must be for alumni directors of any short-term type place to create a sense of unity across decades of alumni. Maybe that’s why there’s so much clinging to landmarks and mascots and, at some larger places, teams. They are truly the few constants across time. And almost everyone’s four years are completely separated in time, with very little overlap. It’s almost like the question of how your body can really still be your body despite the fact that the individual cells that constitute it are continually dying and being replaced, (except for the central nervous system and, interestingly, lens of the eye). So, the place was still our Lawrence University, but completely different; it is a the same body, but made up of almost completely new parts.
So, for these two examples, the answer to “Can you go back?” is different. But what of Bjorklunden and other such places?
If this entry left you reminiscent for those years at Lawrence, or Lawrence in general, check out a recent podcast put together by 2 students in 2016 on the mysterious disappearance of The Rock. In it, people of my vintage are referred to as “somewhat old alums.”