Why was I so nervous? I hadn’t been a terrible person or horrible student in college. But I couldn’t shake the worry about returning to my small college in New England for our twenty-fifth-year reunion.
Maybe the doubt came from shouldering all the insecurities of my twenty-year old self PLUS the new ones of my middle-aged self. Did I belong? Had I achieved enough? Will I look wrinkly and tired?
Maybe it was because twenty-five years ago, I was convinced that the admissions office had made a mistake. I am not smart enough or talented enough to be among these prep school geniuses and athletic giants. This time, I arrived on campus with a wheelie suitcase instead of a duffel bag, but the feeling was the same as when I was eighteen. Except now I was sure I was the one who had made the mistake. Why did I come back?
It didn’t help that within hours of graduating so long ago, I was in a car headed north to Canada, where I was born. The border itself confirmed the feeling I had of a solid line between my experiences in college and those after. I was foreign, an alien. My visa expired. I was not really welcome back.
But within minutes of returning to campus, I was swept up in hugs given by people I had not seen since “Jump Around” was the new hit single. No one measured successes or counted failures. No one took score on careers, kids, or real estate. No one scolded me for not keeping in touch.
Our conversations went straight to the heart. A woman I thought was perfect shared stories of raw pain, another of the grief around the death of her Dad, another of the loss of his job and identity. We were unguarded and vulnerable. And that opened the door for a ton of simple, fun moments.
We rode around in the back of a pick-up truck and the years between when I was twenty and forty flew through my hair and vanished. We bushwhacked through the forest to find waterfalls and jumped into swimming holes off granite ledges. We laughed easily and often over creemees from the local ice cream shop. We gathered around a ping pong table in an empty parking lot until two in the morning because no one wanted to leave one another’s side. We didn’t want to miss a moment of being together, no matter how cold the night air, or how often the campus security wondered, “Surely you have somewhere else you can go?”
The nervousness I felt so strongly before the reunion fell away as we looked up at the stars. We remembered and named the constellations. Then we remembered and named those who didn’t make it back and those who couldn’t because they had died too young. And when we gathered in the college chapel with our professors and those who were returning after five, fifty, even seventy-five years, we found common ground among a mix of generations and backgrounds. We shared a love of wildness and wilderness, intellectual debate, and swinging for the bleachers in life.
There are many times over the years when I have felt lost. But during this reunion, I felt found. I stopped trying to fit in and I let myself belong.
It turns out, others were feeling anxious before coming, too. What did it take to get us to the reunion? Only one person reaching out and saying, I really want to see you again. I wonder how many other things I’ve been nervous about or avoided because I was sure I didn’t fit in? I just have to remember that this is how it goes. Those fears I felt in the beginning are just telling me I’m doing something, and not that I’m doing something wrong.