Last week I took a short purposeful visit to my Alma mater to attend the retirement ceremony of my favorite professor and mentor, Olga Broumas.
I had not been on the Brandeis campus since almost exactly a year earlier to attend the annual free spring concert—Jesse J had been headlining and I could not pass that up! There was something strange in revisiting the school this time. A tangible distance had been created between my reality back at “home” home, in New York, and the years spent calling the university my home.
First off I knew nobody…
This fact itself is astonishing as I had been hyper-active in campus involvement and had welcomed, during Orientation, each year that proceeded mine until I graduated in 2014.
I’m exaggerating only slightly. There peppered within the library and campus center were the more grown-up faces of those Juniors who were mere First-Years when I left. And I did have the pleasure of staying the night in a close friend’s Senior dorm which, ironically had been the party dojo of one of my other close friends when we were seniors. I tell ya, there’s nothing like sleeping peacefully in a dorm in which you had once danced rapturously on couches and tables.
In fact, the whole experience felt like a reminiscent yet detached visit to a childhood playground. Gone were the heart-stinging pains of nostalgia from my last visit, which had been merely 10 months after graduating. This time around there was the distinct weight of a life lived elsewhere, of problems that had not touched the sanctity of anything to do with college. It was the immensely foreign yet honorable understanding of adulthood.
I’m a “Grown-Up”
Though only 2 years my junior, everyone there seemed like children to me. Safe in the harbor of their schooling, anchored to familiar spaces, occupying a comfortably monotonous environment for growth wherein the bulk of your problems existed in the form of 25 page papers and dealing with finals. This is, of course, not to say that there aren’t very REAL problems that touch the lives of students both on or off campus. But the shiny image of prosperity and a promising future no longer clouded my eyes in this same place where I’d once held it…
That sentence sounded entirely morose and downright depressing but I mean it to be more “realistic”.
Since graduating, I have struggled with finding jobs, finding direction, losing love, and losing self. I have warred against parts of me that need improvement and have had to take silent knives to certain physical and emotional attachments that I had not even foreseen. I’d aged over the year. In more ways than could be explained. I’ve had to learn uncomfortable truths about those who I held closest and about my own self-sabotage. There is a part of me that existed in college that has since gone unconscious, or perhaps died…and I think, though I’m not sure, that it is to my benefit.
Though, with all this talk of change and detachment, the visit was incredibly grounding.
Yes. Grounding. That’s the word.
In Ode to Olga
The Greek poetress Olga Broumas had been the head of Brandeis Univeristy’s small Creative Writing department for around 25 years. At her retirement party there were so many faculty, students, and alumni who wanted to say something about her that there was a strict time limit of 3 minutes per person, even for the senior faculty (ESPECIALLY the senior faculty. Boy is it hard to tell English & Writing folks to keep it brief!). There were readings of poetry and emotional speeches laden with trembling voices.
I myself did not go up to speak.
I had decided to bus up to Massachusetts for the day a bit spontaneously and had not prepared anything. Even when I tried to pull together something from the heart, I found that I could not possibly speak it without bursting into tears. In fact, even just sitting there listening to my thesis fellows I because so overcome that I wound up crying on the shoulder of a woman I didn’t even know who sought to comfort me with reassuring pats.
Oh Olga. That woman means so much to me. Afterward, I had the chance to speak with her, to update her on my life. And I remembered how important she was to many challenging and vulnerable parts of the past 5 years. Writing a thesis in poetry exposed me in more ways than I’d imagined. It was essentially like reading diary entries to a small support group, who would then-after critique and nit-pick all your little words. It was wonderful.
I had forgotten how close I’d become with the 5 people who used to meet with me in one little hidden room at the top of campus. And until this recent visit I may have forgotten entirely. But oh, how amazing it was to reconnect with these people. Poets, I’ve learned, are a somewhat awkward bunch, but the only ones bold enough to strip their true selves naked in front of each other; to offer themselves up like delicate flowers to a potential boot.
I say my visit was grounding because I spent hours—HOURS!—catching up with my thesis fellows. We eagerly shed our masks and cloaks and talked openly about our difficulties with underemployment, dating dissatisfaction, issues in home life, understanding ourselves, and our relationships to the experiences which had helped shape us since we last interacted 2 years ago. I don’t know when the last time I was able to do that was. Sit, and talk, and touch, and embrace, and cry, and laugh with someone who, though not a main steeple in my life allowed me to just be.
But if I had to guess it would probably have been right there on that campus.
So I had found the part of me that had laid dormant in this “real-world”. The syde that had been sleeping under my skin waiting for my armor to fall away.
Though my connection to my college campus may morph and change continuously I was able to come home…