“There is something inherent in us as human beings that naturally draws us to the past. Something that for some reason makes us recall the events that occurred in times we’ve left behind. Be it to fill the hole that somehow emerged in our lives, to reacquaint ourselves with something we were separated from, or simply to savor happiness once felt.”
I didn’t write these words; they were written by a college classmate as a Director’s Note. They would have been printed in the program for a show he directed in the late 1980′s when he was nineteen or twenty years old. I don’t remember reading them. I was a college student myself and the past didn’t have the same meaning for me then as it does now. But they were particularly poignant when I read them again just recently during my college’s Homecoming weekend.
For many years now I have attended Homecoming. I started going not long after I graduated, and with a few exceptions, I’ve been back every year. I am not unaware that this devotion to my alma mater is probably perceived by some as kinda pathetic; I get that. It’s not good to worship the past, and my loyalty could be seen as an indication of an unfulfilling present. Some of that is true – I do tend to romanticize the past, which makes the present seem sorta dull by comparison – so some of the reasons I am drawn to Homecoming are those that were so beautifully articulated by my classmate twenty-five years ago. But it’s not the whole story.
There’s something about my college that inspires former students to return year after year; I’m not the only alum to make the trip over and over again, not by a long shot. At a reception on the Friday evening I stood with a dear friend and a former professor, and we talked about the mystery of our enduring commitment. We talked about the bonds that are created through the mutual trust that grows out of shared experiences, but that didn’t seem to do it justice. I confided to my friend that one of the reasons I come back is to see our former professors, some of whom are aging rapidly and most likely won’t be able to attend the Homecoming events much longer. I come to honor them, to pay my respects for the impact they had on me and my life. But that’s not the whole story, either.
This year I arrived quite early on Friday to attend an 8:00 am class that was advertised as being open to alumni. The class was taught by one of my favorite professors, and the look on his face when I walked into his classroom was worth getting up at 3:00 am for the drive. Afterwards I walked around campus taking pictures; most of the buildings that were there during my time are still there. It’s a beautiful place, and I strolled around in the sunshine reacquainting myself with the architecture. Eventually I wound up in the theatre where I had spent so many wonderful hours of my college years, as a performer and a technician. I sat down in the semi-darkness and let my thoughts drift as I listened to the building breathe. This is where I feel the most at peace, in the silence of that house. I was completely alone, but I am never lonely there. But that is still only a part of the story.
After a while I got up and made my way to the stage. Tables with memorabilia from the theatre department’s past had been set up in preparation for the reception to be held later that evening, so I spent some time looking at it. This is where I discovered the Director’s Note I’ve quoted from above, and its immediacy took my breath away. Reading those words was like holding up a mirror; I could see myself in it so clearly. But, as pointed as they were, those words still didn’t answer the question of my annual pilgrimage.
At least part of the answer began to come to me as I continued to look through the programs and cast lists and photos on those tables, because I found myself there. My name, recorded in the history of the theatre department on display. And not just once; multiple times my name appeared in cast and crew lists, and I recognized a new motivation for why I come back every year.
I come back because I WAS HERE. I was part of the story of this place, and I will have always been here. As time goes by, the idea that I’ve left traces of myself that can still be seen becomes more and more important to me, that I have left some sort of impression on a place, like a stamp pressed into soft wax that slowly hardens over time.
I’ve spent chunks of my life in different places – high school, jobs, grad school – but I just sort of passed through. Sometimes I’ve worked hard to leave traces of myself, but inevitably, they have become obliterated with the passing of time, and any echoes of me have faded. This is normal, and I don’t worry about it. So the fact that there is a place in this world where evidence of my presence is permanently preserved is, to me, worth the effort I make to keep the connection alive.
And of course there are the people. It is a singular joy to look into the eyes of someone with whom you have shared part of your history and see yourself staring back at you. I experience mutual understanding with other alums that exists at a level usually only found between siblings. We get each other. We can talk in the shorthand that comes from taking the knowledge of each other’s past for granted. This is true even if we weren’t that close while we were in school; even if we didn’t actually know each other then. It doesn’t matter. Our common love binds us to each other and to this place. And it is this love that takes us from the past into the present – the love we feel isn’t then, it’s NOW. It isn’t nostalgia, it is a living thing. The most compelling reason I go back is so that I can step into that flow of love and let it surround me. The love I feel in that place reminds me not of who I was, but who I am. Apparently I need that reminder once a year.
Photo by Amanda Taylor Brooks