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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Question #2: Can you ever go back to a an important place in your past, like college?
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:
- I didn’t notice any piles of forlorn Ice House cans outside of any of the buildings on the quad. This is due, likely, to the fact that at this moment, only one of the houses around the quadrangle is occupied by a fraternity. Other occupants include a house dedicated to the theme of swing dancing and another, Gaming. This fact is thus far the only piece of Lawrence that has struck any sort of a chord of familiarity with my Big 10 -worshiping spouse.
- The student union is a new glassy building dedicated to the memory of Rik Warch. He was President during Sara and my tenure and, in fact, 25 years of Lawrence’s 200+ year history. His figure looms large in our and many’s memory. He had a way of making my awkward, 22-year-old self feel important and worthwhile. And he was so. damn. smart.
I imagine that for most current students, it’s mostly the oversized oil painting of the man in ceremonial garb that looms large. Hey kids! Why aren’t you talking about Rik?
- Inside said Union, we stopped at the cafe for a quick bite. While Mozzie Sticks are, in fact, still on the menu, there is no aggressive middle aged townie screaming out their readiness to waiting customers. Instead, a sedate backlit sign displays orders that are ready.
- Menu items included a variety of associated icons, and the tables displayed their key. Among the 20 or so icons were the usual vegan, lactose free, gluten free. They also, if memory serves, included commentary on the grazing experience of sourced pigs, type of music played for the dairy producing cows, and whether or not fisherpeople sang shanties during their voyages. But as Sara so patiently explained, it’s so that these mysterious millennials can curate every decision and action in their lives. Not a bad thing, probably a good thing, just different.
- Finally, one difference that’s almost a similarity. We were confused to find that a former small cafeteria space in Colman Hall had been converted into large apartment-style places for 18 students to live, with the unifying factor being that they prepare their own three squares a day. Two of Sara’s collegiate causes were represented therein: The environmental group Greenfire maintained the space and students who transferred their board their to dine with the group were members of the McCarthy House Co-op. We begged a peek inside. They were her people, but man alive was that space a lot neater than I remember the former Co-Op House, sprawled unceremoniously behind the Chapel.
- The heartbrakingly gorgeous maple between the library and the art center is gone, gone, gone. Sigh.
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.”