It’s always a dangerous proposition to tell someone a dream you’ve had. They always turn out to be more interesting to the dreamer.
But bear with me. For years, I’ve had a dream that I was back at my alma mater, a college on a hill, walking where the farthest practice fields yield to woods.
From this spot at night, the scarred city would glimmer with a thousand lights, more beautiful than you could have imagined during the day.
In this dream, I came upon new buildings that I’d never seen before. It was so strange, I thought, since the campus had been my home for four years and I had never noticed them before.
It was a wonder to think all around me there were places I’d never noticed and that suddenly, I could see them.
It reminded me of the line by Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
What a prescient dream it seemed when I returned for my 25th reunion as new buildings and paths had quite literally grown around the college.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think my dream was a prophecy.
It was a metaphor for our living memory. Each time we go back to the past in our minds, we scrabble about searching for something, trying to find some new way of understanding our life, some new path amid the familiar geography of what’s happened to us.
Coming back to campus meant revisiting not only the past, but also who I’d been then — a serious, socially awkward young man trying to figure out what I was meant to do with my life.
When I walked into a building, I smelled that familiar scent of wood and closeness. I almost shivered with delight.
I was 20 years old again, preparing myself for another daunting meeting with Professor Bob Cording, whose standards for a poem were far higher than my pen could propel me.
Every time we go back to the past, and the places that inhabit it, we have the chance to find something new. At the reunion, I talked to people I hadn’t seen in 25 years.
I was grateful for the nametags. While the faces were familiar, most of the names had disappeared.
The chaw-cheeked freshman who lit farts outside my dorm door had become an accountant and devoted father, graying nobly at the temples.
The knockout classmate, who confessed aloud to everyone that life had kicked her ass, wondered if she was alone in this. The doctor, who’d burned through two marriages and was still looking for love, pulled her aside.
They compared notes on what can go wrong in life.
I connected with classmates who I doubt I ever really talked to at all. I could be mistaken, however, since memory, it turns out, has an overactive delete key.
As the years wear on, whatever divided us back then seems to thin. We become most ourselves.
What we shared — those four years, our college on the hill — grows more bright.
Once, we saw the scarred world beneath us. Now we live there, looking up at our youth shining above us, impossible to reach again.
Yet at that reunion, we suddenly found our younger selves again, remembering where we’d come from.
Even if we’re lucky, our time is brief. Going to my 25th reunion, I was aware that even if I’m lucky, half my life is over.
Life, for many of my classmates and me, has not always been kind. We wear new wrinkles around our eyes. Our hair is graying. Our bodies are wider and ache in places we didn’t know existed back in college.
During a Fun Run on the hills of campus, I decided to take a second lap and nearly passed out from dizziness and exhaustion. Inside every old person, as they say, is a young person wondering what the hell happened.
Right before the reunion, I had lunch with Professor Bob Cording, whose mentorship typifies what college meant for me.
Cording was notoriously hard to please. He had exacting standards and gave few A’s. Some students, understandably, avoided him or wound up crying in his office.
But every week during my senior year, I’d come into his office and bring him a terrible poem. He’d patiently walk me through how it could be better.
His secret, and perhaps the great secret of the education that I received, was that he loved not only his subject, but also his students. Love was at the center of what he did.
I felt that acceptance strongly, at a time when I felt very little self-acceptance, and almost no inner peace.
Seeing Cording again was like seeing a father that I’d forgotten I had. Talking with him was like remembering who I was then and measuring the distance to where I am now.
When we parted, I hugged him. I told him that he was a blessing to me.
He said he felt the same.