so before you start talkin’ ’bout the wonders of the world again
the taj mahal, the great wall, the places that i’ve never been
take a little drive, take a little trip to heaven
and wonder for a while if it’s paradise or [oberlin]
– josh ritter, cumberland
i struggle to take pictures when i’m in the company of other people. i think it stems from a deep-seated worry that my eagerness to capture a moment will stand out awkwardly against the chill atmosphere of a group hang, that the people i’m with will somehow take offense in my desire to preserve the candidness of the soft light of evening on their cheeks… in the end, i either wimp out completely, or snap a photo so quickly the result is a blurry mess.
i guess what i’m trying to say is that if i’m going to remember anything about my five year college reunion, i’m going to have to step up my descriptive writing skills. as such, i apologize in advance for the length of this post, and for the poor quality of the few images that will accompany it. i will do my best to limit myself, but make no promises. my senior thesis, after all, was pushing 100 pages…
i combined all of the giant, dark-haired, smartphone power goddesses into one woman called “hot rebecca.”
– leslie knope
the weeks leading up to the reunion were fraught with restless anxiety. it began, on a very basic level, with a fear of seeing a handful of individuals, all of them, embarrassingly, male. i didn’t want to see the wives i’d imagined for them, or be reminded of their happy lives without me. i wasn’t convinced i’d have the energy to look perfect, speak graciously, and not fart in their presence. i was deeply afraid of the possibility that they had moved on easily, without the tears and heartache that would make our dalliance memorable. i was terrified of being forgotten.
ironically, those feelings soon evolved into a desperate hope that i could forget. oberlin college was a place of astounding intellectual discovery for me, but it was also the center of life-altering pain. a close friend of mine died in the middle of my freshman year, and the depression that followed made me mean. i was slow to make friends, and i was difficult and demanding towards those few i had. i often felt isolated and abandoned. by the end of my senior year, the control i exercised over my body (a control i could not exercise in my personal relationships) had turned into the beginnings of body dysmorphia. the two people i kissed that year both left me heartbroken, and shortly after graduation, i had my first non-consensual experience.
i hate this picture. i posted it before reunion weekend because it so perfectly illustrated my feelings towards going back to oberlin and remembering college. it was taken during senior year finals on the porch of keep co-op. i look happy because i had slept in a boy’s room the night before and had just slayed a five mile run in ninety degree weather. both of those memories have since turned sour and can derail any positive developments if they catch me off guard. i have moved on…but only just.
i love oberlin. i go back all the time, and i talk about it nonstop. but i love it as a place i lived, not as a place i went to college. i’ve left behind a lot of the hurt i felt (and caused) as a student, and i have reclaimed the spaces i love in my consciousness through hard work and with the help of supportive friends. my biggest fear about the reunion, it turns out, was not running into old flames and their imaginary new lovers. my biggest fear was exactly what everyone was returning to do. my biggest fear was to remember.
i arrived in oberlin on friday around 11am full of trepidation. i was already in a bad mood, because some aggressive jersey driver had cut me off on rt. 20 for no reason. i was going 80 mph. there was no one else on the road. i followed that car, seething, all the way to alumni registration.
i hadn’t even opened my event folder when my friend dashed out of slow train and pulled me inside. he had been living in oberlin the entire year, and sitting with him, chatting about our day-to-day lives was comfortingly normal. the only difference i noticed from the countless other times i’d visited the town were the amount of people in line and the number of vaguely familiar faces, glancing furtively around the room in search of old friends to hug.
i, too, was looking around but chose not to greet the acquaintances i noticed. i saw no need to catch their eyes, and, oddly, i felt no guilt about this. the energy wasn’t right. i saw no benefit to forcing what little conversation could come from friendships long since passed into the mist. i was comfortable where i was. why change that? i wondered briefly if this meant i was getting wiser or lazier and came to no conclusion.
“i’m trying my best to step back and let people feel nostalgic without being a total dick.”
– me, at the feve
i’ll preface my next statement with the fact that i visit the feve a lot, and for good reason. it is a special place. i’ve shared a lot of happy memories there since graduation, and anticipation of a good night does make me smile like a nerd when i walk up the stairs.
still, i could not achieve the same starry-eyed wonder at being there that my friends were feeling. there’s a real difference between the magic of knowing a place so well the bartenders recognize you on the street and the magic of passing through the door into a place you haven’t seen for five years. i couldn’t help but feel my experience at that moment was somehow missing everyone else’s mark. there was some happiness there i just couldn’t access, and old anxieties tickled at the edge of my brain. i took a few deep breaths and reminded myself that difference does not signify inferiority.
it was a reminder i needed the remainder of the night, as dinner at the feve dissolved into drinks at the sco, oberlin’s student union dance hall. as a student, sweatily grinding against total strangers late at night was, frankly, the last thing i wanted. i was consistently in bed by 11pm, and awake by 7am. there was no room for sticky floors covered in beer and bass lines resonating in my rib cage. i barely spent fifteen minutes there as an undergrad, but there i was…five years later…nervously biting my lip at the fringe of a crowd way more enthusiastic than me.
quite unexpectedly, i was not left alone to meekly bob my head on the periphery. countless people found me isolating myself and pulled me into the fray. it didn’t matter that i dance to pop music like a peacock spider entrancing a mate. it didn’t matter that all the words i was shout-singing were wrong. i had no idea people would be as eager to see me as i was nervous to see them. i felt included in ways that i rarely did in school.
“what’s that in your bag?” one of my friends asked as i tried to keep my heavy purse from bouncing too much.
“oh, i don’t actually know,” i said, peeking inside. “i thought i took everything out.”
laughing, i reached inside and pulled out betty friedan’s the feminine mystique.
only in oberlin…
i learned a lot about being tolerant of other peoples’ feelings over the course of the weekend. the nostalgic excitement my friends were feeling had somehow transformed into nostalgic exhaustion overnight, while i was curled up next to my cat in cleveland. i drove into oberlin prepared for more of the day before, but was met with lots of overwhelmed people who texted that they needed space, or who weren’t ready for a one-on-one conversation with someone they hadn’t seen in five years.
i took a beat and tried not to be offended. these were more feelings i couldn’t quite access. oberlin was like a second home to me. i even wrote a blog post about how the town was the closest thing i’d had to a serious relationship. i’d had five years to come to terms with the emotions certain corners had the power to conjure. most of the friends i longed to see only had this one weekend. that’s no easy feat.
instead of forcing people to come out and play with me, i found meet-ups that sprung up organically. running into old friends in line at the co-op picnic, sunny walks in the arb, joint trips to the free store, bowling at the best lanes in the whole wide world…these things happened as i was just wandering aimlessly, which i am wont to do in oberlin. i was never alone for long.
one regret i felt deep in my bones was my inability to share what i consider my singular accomplishment with everyone i loved. our class sponsored an ignite session, where we could share short presentations about what we’ve been up to since graduation, but i thought it was lame. for a brief moment, i considered trolling the session with a five minute performance art piece of me sobbing violently into a pizza while i projected images of old flings stolen from their facebook pages. but that was a joke that never grew wings.
i was so focused on how i could thumb my nose at people who cared about things that i overlooked all the things i cared about and actually wanted to share. thankfully, the project i loved the most was already in the program. the oberlin heritage center was gracious enough to run the women’s history tour i had written during my americorps service. they had even credited me in the schedule booklet as the author of the tour, which made my heart swell with pride.
that said, for various reasons, only one friend was able to attend one of my tours during the weekend. it was early in the morning. it was raining. it was too overwhelming. grad students want to have fun, they don’t want to be lectured. it all made sense, but i still felt anonymous, invisible, and sad. as i sat alone on a bench later, i tried to hold on to the positives. the oberlin heritage center, an organization that had taught me so much about local history, respects my work as a historian. that one friend that showed up unexpectedly made me feel special. i got to meet a woman who had inaugurated the women’s studies program at oberlin, and she said my tour was wonderful.
all good things.
but, if i could do it over again, i would have done an ignite presentation or an open mic night. if there’s anything i love, it’s being recognized.
despite being the grinch when it came to nostalgia, there were a few moments that i, too, got swept up in the memories. the first wave of bittersweet emotion came when i experienced the stellar customer service of the current student union information desk attendants. i was cutting through wilder to get somewhere else, when one of the deskers looked up and smiled warmly at me.
i don’t know what it was about that particular moment, but what i did next defies my misanthropic nature. i walked over to the desk and struck up a conversation. before i knew it, i was regaling them with stories from my time as a wilder employee. i showed them pictures of us playing connect four, ravishing leftover pizzas, and hosting tea parties with little finger sandwiches. after a while, they invited me behind the desk, and we clicked through pictures on the computer (still the same old mac desktop from 2012) until we got to my senior year.
everything was still there.
as we flipped back from the most recent pics, i was struck by how constant the wilder family has been. the close friendships i formed there aren’t unique. students now are forming those same tight bonds with their co-workers. i realized as they took my picture for their @wilderdesk instragram account that wilder is such a magical place, not because of the physical building, but because of the people our boss, tom reid, welcomes into the family.
(and, speaking of tom reid, he let me peek into the bookkeeping room, that beloved, claustrophobic closet full of metal safes where i spent a majority of mornings in college pretending i was a pirate as i organized bank deposits. i’m not ashamed to admit that i teared up.)
the second wave of nostalgia came in mudd library, in my special little corner where i would often retire for a study break or a peaceful moment alone. tucked away, against a nondescript wall in the library commons, is a file cabinet full of boxes of microflim, which contain entire editions of the oberlin review and the oberlin news tribune, beginning in the 1890s.
i learned how to work the machines early on in my college career, as the study of oberlin’s local history became my main motivation for not transferring to a different school. the familiar, warm glow of the screen and the hum of the motor were often my companions on friday nights before walking to my shift at the college observatory. mostly, it was an aesthetics thing. if i saw an advertisement or a front page that i liked, i would print it off and hang it in my dorm. occasionally, i impressed a professor by using articles in my research projects.
i still maintain those machines are some of the best kept secrets at oberlin.
i hadn’t visited the library for over three years when i sat down at the machine on saturday, but i found that loading the roll was part of my muscle memory as much as the dance steps i learned in elementary school. i was alone at that moment, but i was so inexplicably happy as the scans appeared on the screen. i showed my print-out to almost every familiar face i passed as i walked to my next destination, but no one seemed particularly impressed by my mastery of an outdated technology.
kids these days, i suppose…
the third nostalgic moment occurred in the bowling alley, but i have already waxed poetic over the importance of the lanes on my mental health and how much i love bowling at oberlin, so i will spare you (get it?) more of the same. however, i should say this: i am never more confident and at home than i am at college lanes. there’s no room for anger or sadness there. it’s just you, the pins, and some excellent student-selected tunes. i am so grateful i had friends who were willing to relive the lanes with me twice over the weekend.
i once got drunk on wine with a guy in this old, rarely-used women’s locker room while waiting for a bowling lane to open up, and this remains one of my favorite memories
it has now been almost a week since the first day of the reunion weekend, and i’ve only just now found the time and energy to think extensively about the experience. if you would have asked me last thursday if i was excited to go back to oberlin, i would have given you a really long, round-about answer about anxiety and introvertedness. today, i’ll tell you simply that i’m glad i went.
there were moments of loneliness and places of discomfort. there were periods of disappointment and feelings of inadequacy. but…overall, i felt good. my friendship was reciprocated in surprising ways. i was not only seeking; i was also sought after. i did not see everyone, and i made out with no one, but i realized how much i’ve grown since i was a student.
so, thank you to all the people who came and hung out with me (but especially to all those old hook-ups who didn’t). thank you to the staff of the college and the student workers who spent the weekend helping us old losers reminisce. thank you to the employees of the bars and restaurants who kept us fed and watered.
in spite of myself, i had a good time.