I’ve been back on campus for a month and a half now, and as campus life has a knack for being unexpectedly sublime, I’m already experiencing some Inexplicably Momentous Moments.
It’s beautiful and uncomfortable when two bits of your life separated by over 10 years are suddenly joined with an unexpected bridge.
In 2002, back before iPods became mainstream, my parents bought me a powder blue CD player with the word “angel” emblazoned on the top in cursive, and I began taking it everywhere with me. I had two favorite CDs at the time, one of which was Charlotte Church’s debut album Voice of an Angel, and I liked to play her rendition of “I Vow to Thee My Country” on endless repeat. I was never fully sure why. I guess it was stately and elegant and made me feel a rush of purpose — or whatever “purpose” even means to a ten year-old. It lifted me up, calmed me, and made me feel capable and mature.
Tonight the Princeton University Orchestra played Holst’s 7-part suite The Planets, and God, I was not prepared for the Jupiter movement. Embedded smack in the middle of that section is the original source material from which the hymn “I Vow to Thee My Country” was derived — also stately, also elegant, and full of purpose — and I lost it. My boyfriend was the principal cellist, seated in front of the conductor, and as I looked from him to the other orchestra members I knew, I became dimly aware that I was gazing at their faces and darting fingers on strings through tears.
Holst’s most famous and moving tune doesn’t mean the same thing to me than it did when I was ten and skipping through Charlotte Church’s early tracks on a Target CD player. It has been sorrowfully modulated by the years somehow. Where it once made me think of a constellation of strong traits like independence and power and energy and made me look to the future, I now find something elegiac in it — a layering of a multitude of unwelcome reminders (linked: the best example of the tune’s elegiac quality). Maybe there’s a reminder that I’ve fallen behind in many ways, that what I thought I recognized as potential in myself wasn’t potential after all. Maybe there’s a reminder that my earlier days were better than I thought, and that they’re now over and I’m sadder in the present. Maybe there’s a reminder that the hardest part is yet to come. Maybe there’s a comment in there somewhere on my profound and growning loneliness, one that’s threatening to deepen soon after graduation. Maybe there’s a memento mori. Maybe all of these, maybe none of these. (By staggering coincidence, the hymnal version of the Holst tune was played both at Princess Diana’s wedding and her funeral — at a happy beginning and at an end.)
Two versions of me sat side by side today, separated by a period of over ten years: a little girl with her favorite album in her blue CD player and a twenty-one year old in a dim 19th century concert hall watching a full orchestra pull bows over instruments in perfect, solemn unison. I felt the weight of those ten years bridging the two versions of myself tonight. And I guess this is what it feels like to grow up.