Coping, OR The Problem With Going Back

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Nassau Hall, Sept. 11, 2014

Princeton University’s annual Reunions festivities have become so notoriously wild and well-attended in recent years that I actually heard about them from a non-Princetonian even before I matriculated. “Make sure you go to Reunions every. single. year,” said the parent of a friend. “They’re huge.”

I don’t know what I expected as a pre-frosh. I think I pictured what a high school reunion might look like, only scaled up to accommodate more people: a 10,000-person barbecue, maybe, complete with 40,000 stale dinner rolls and no other vegetarian options, 1,500 horseshoe toss games, 1,000 piñatas, a cake walk or 200, lots of deflated egos, and an impressive host of balloons in the university’s colors, orange and black.

The only part I got right was the balloons. I severely underestimated Princeton’s ability to draw in and entertain over 25,000 guests in a single weekend with multiple live concerts, drama and comedy shows, award ceremonies, outdoor banquets, fireworks, dance floors, and an aggressively and unabashedly overenthusiastic procession of alumni through the ages referred to as the “P-rade.”

Reunions, experienced in person, are the embodiment of Too Much, Okay, Please Calm Down. I attended Reunions this past spring as a senior between final exams and commencement, and some alumni stopped to give me orange beaded necklaces. Others spilled their beer on me. (In both cases I felt appropriately initiated as one of them.) But my iPhone album of the event provides the best overall picture of the experience. At a glance, the album boasts such wonders of school pride as an unfortunate soul made to wear a fuzzy tiger costume in 90 degree heat, a marching band in orange checked jackets (and sometimes harlequin hammer pants), tiger parade floats, an orange Mini Cooper, many pairs of customized tiger-print trainers, a series of vintage cars emblazoned with the University shield, minivan-sized banners, drunken howls of the inexplicably weird Princeton locomotive cheer (HIP…HIP…RAH RAH RAH and and all that jazz), an elderly alumnus unicycle artist, an orange-canopied Star Wars float (why not I guess), a tiger-print Beetle, and a series of class blazers so obnoxiously preppy that I was never able to figure out if they were earnest or ironic. Possibly they were both.

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That poor, poor overheated soul.

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Admittedly this theme was questionable. I am so not here for the blatant Orientalism.

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I am 22 years old and I was this coordinated and sprightly NEVER ago.

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I just don’t know.

If it sounds excessive, that’s because it is. It absolutely is excessive. The thing about Princeton is that it for whatever reason tends to generate in its former students this pride, this obsession, and this need to return and congregate. As a newly minted alumna of the Class of 2014, I get it now, why alumni just can’t seem to stay away. We’re always trying to relive the sense of community and worth we felt on campus, and that desire can manifest itself in over-the-top or weird and not always entirely rational ways.

Late last week I was given a chance to return for two days to the source of all that orange-and-black Reunions madness. Three months after commencement I made my usual Houston to Princeton trip thinking that one of two things would happen: I would either find myself feeling as though senior year were yesterday and I had never left, or find myself completely alienated from campus and the community.

Neither prediction came true, or rather both of them did at the same time, resulting in a rather uncomfortable sense of part-belonging and part-rejection. It was a feeling I’d never encountered in quite this magnitude before, though I recognized it as a type of discomfort to which I’d briefly been introduced in the tenth grade via the John Knowles novel A Separate Peace:

I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before… I didn’t entirely like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that’s…what I did not want it to be. In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left. Now here it was after all, preserved by some considerate hand with varnish and wax…

The speaker, a former New England boarding pupil, revisits the school where he spent his fraught and difficult teenage years and discovers that as an adult, he is dissatisfied with the way memory fails to mesh with present reality, and the result is an uncanny alienation from the spaces he once found meaningful and familiar. Like Knowles’ Gene Forrester, the Princeton alum — or any alum of any institution, for that matter — is put off by such a failure. When you know a place, it is so easy to convince yourself that no one else has known it like you, and that no one else will know it like you or experience it as “vibrantly real” as you have, but that fiercely personal belief is patently untrue.

And like Gene Forrester, we go on to find that campus has been “preserved” after all, for the benefit of unknown others, and though the spaces look objectively the same, something is amiss, and the new product feels less three-dimensional, less natural, less real. That’s what I felt when I returned to campus on September 10th for the first time after commencement and thought my surroundings felt a little sanitized, flattened, and shrunken. Furthermore, I was saddened and alienated by the knowledge that for the students buzzing around me en route to dorms or dining halls in the early evening, campus was still a place of life and realness. But it had ceased to be so for me.

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The reason: same spaces, different faces. On campus last week, I retraced steps I had taken only months before, visited newer friends in the same buildings in which I’d once visited older friends, and enjoyed a small snack in the same student center in which I’d once killed countless between-class hours and participated in the Dining Services miracle known as “late meal” (as recently as mid-May). The spaces were the same, but the crowds were alien, making me feel very much like an outsider looking in, and for the first time in four years I questioned the worth of returning to campus as an alum.

As a returning alum, you can’t really find the connections you’re yearning for. Not only are certain literal doors closed after graduation (libraries, residential colleges, classrooms, eating clubs), the doors of interaction are closed as well by virtue of the mutual lack of recognition between ourselves and the classes that come after us. What’s more, even our most trying past moments are flattened by an encounter with a hollowed out campus post-graduation. Revisiting sites of former pain on campus is jarring in that it forces one to see the cosmic insignificance of a moment that once seemed destined to stay with us with a character-building permanence.

When it comes to the alma mater, a recollected space has several dimensions, the physical, the temporal, and the social, and they are wedded in such a way that a complete return — a true Reunion — is impossible. Not even speaking to college friends is enough to achieve Reunion: rippling beneath many of my interactions with other members of ’14 is the feeling that even we have hollowed out somehow. Princeton was not merely the backdrop to our daily lives; it too had a starring role.

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Lawnparties, spring 2014.

So when we return to campus or reunite with college friends, we reach out hoping to touch something that we stubbornly remember but has long since dissolved. Then we feel profound loss and regret commingled with the joy of recognition and recollection. It’s textbook nostalgia. We want the thing we can’t have anymore. We want the thing that can’t exist. But you can’t really desire an empty quantity, and so the desire cycles back upon itself: we wind up desiring a particular desire itself (paraphrasing a portion of Susan Stewart’s On Longing), and that’s just an unsustainable exercise in melancholy. This is the first problem of going back as an alum. And it might be why we try so hard when Reunions roll around. All that strain and distance requires some compensation!

But here’s the funny thing –

So much of the Princeton experience — so much of that fanfare and tenderness and investment — is centered on the idea of the impossible Return even before graduation.

During all four of my undergraduate years, planning for Reunions was a month-of-April conversational staple. It was something students asked each other about over Saturday brunch: “Are you staying for Reunions?” “Probably. I’ll regret it if I don’t.” One friend of mine went to Reunions every year following freshman year, and when we Skyped over the summer afterwards, she would regale me with detailed recollections of that weekend of sublime, you-had-to-be-there kind of fun. What struck me during all of these conversations was the manner in which she spoke of Princeton as something already out of reach, and of Reunions as a distant, romantic memory.

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Not difficult to see why we’d romanticize this place.

But you know — this was how we all spoke of Princeton while we were there. It was this beautiful, shapeless Something (a place? a lifestyle? a group of people?)  we were barely able to acknowledge existed in full force while we were there. It was, for instance, a habit of ours to leave the dining hall with ice cream cones in hand and wander from Campbell to Blair to Little, saying things like, “It doesn’t feel real.” “Do you ever pinch yourself to make sure you’re awake?” Or, most tellingly: “I miss this place already.” On clear and peaceful nights we would become prematurely nostalgic, the flow of conversation would pause, and we would sit and look all around us as if we were trying to memorize the scene. The Princeton experience, for myself and many of my friends, was one that refused to solidify and assert itself as real even while we lived it.

Rather fittingly, we learned to sing the Reunion anthem “Going Back to Nassau Hall” before any of us, as undergrads, even needed to go “back” anywhere. We were already there. We were already there and yet we felt nostalgic for that which we had not yet lost. And this is the other, far more baffling problem of “going back” as an alum. How do you return to reclaim lost time when that time was never yours, and you spent eight semesters feeling as though it were slipping through your fingers like sand? How do you return to a place when you never felt you were fully there?

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And by Nassau Hall I mean this.

As late as early junior year I would swear up and down that I felt no attachment to the University and that I likely never would. But as it happens — as these things always seem to happen — I was at one point slapped upside the head with the realization that this was a space worth missing, so much that I began to miss it even while I was still there. I think it was because of fear. I began to fear my eventual loss so much that I effectively began to live that loss in anticipation of the real thing.

Is it a bit strange to miss something before it’s gone? Absolutely. That’s the thing about nostalgia: it doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t need to make sense, because the business of emotion and attachment was never a wholly rational one to begin with. The question I want to ask isn’t so much should I feel this way as it is why do I feel this way and what do I do with this? As we may gather from the overwhelming bulk of early twentieth century and postwar British literature, nostalgia is often profoundly disabling. Characters self-destruct left and right under the weight of the memories and expectations that they are unable to reconcile with the changing, modern world. That’s a possibility. I can’t know yet what this nostalgia will do to me or to my chosen cohort but I imagine I will soon be forced to find out.

I do, however, have a sneaking suspicion that the answer is in Reunions, because there, people learn how to cope: how to over-insist upon community until it indeed re-coheres, and how to navigate an emotional space both familiar and unfamiliar by taking familiarization and de-familiarization into their own hands, with uniforms and anthems but also chaos and rearrangement at once. We can learn, I think, to thrive in that funny, uncomfortable middle ground between memory, expectations, and dynamic reality.

– AEW

all photos in the post are mine.
please don’t “borrow” without permission!

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2 thoughts on “Coping, OR The Problem With Going Back

  1. OMG I feel soooo much of this and you articulated a lot of the strange feelings I have been having about Princeton. Feelings that have been building for a while, but have gotten worse (and much more confusing) now that the new school year has begun and yet I am not where I was every year for the last four years. So . . . yeah. .a.sncojedbwcvous

    • good to know I’m not the only one who was like “MEHH it’s okay I guess” while I was there and immediately had an attack of the feels once I realized how little time I had left. I used to hate the idea of Reunions, but uhhh. planning on Reunions 2015. gonna happen

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