This weekend I attended my 25th college reunion at the College of the Holy Cross. Reunions of all kinds are fun enough for reasons of the present (hanging out with old friends, making new memories) and the past (reminiscing about past adventures). But a campus reunion that’s reasonably well-attended, especially in a small college, evokes a powerful kind of nostalgia that goes beyond reason, and speaks to our deeper longings.
As an adult far removed from the rite-of-passage years of college, rolling out of your dorm room or onto the campus and seeing familiar faces everywhere in familiar places re-creates the most powerful kind of nostalgia: the illusion that this place, full of these people, was just waiting for you to return to it. Every reasoning part of your brain knows this isn’t so: Aside from remaining faculty (and many of the Jesuit faculty we once knew now rest in the campus graveyard), the people we went to college with have left the campus just as we did, and gone on to lives of their own, which we all spent much of the weekend discussing. If you’ve remained actively in touch with old friends, you’ve likely seen many of them regularly for years away from the old place. And yet, the illusion remains: the feeling that the place and time and community that we left is still there, eager to take us back; glad to welcome us home.
That desire — not so much to go back, as to know we could go back, that it always remains an option — is one of the oldest of our human stories, and the bereavement of losing it recurs in everything from the Biblical story of the Fall (which bars the return to Eden) to the newborn child’s desire to re-create the confinement of the womb. And it need not be Eden we want to return to; many of us share that drive to return to high school, graduate school, the Army, or other places that were terribly hard on us. Hometowns, of course, never lose that pull. Because college is such a formative time in the modern passage from adolescence to adulthood for so many people, it assumes an outsized role in our imaginations (especially if, like me and like many of my classmates, you met your spouse there). But no matter the place and time that calls to you, the most powerful thing is neither the place nor the time but the sense of community and belonging that beckons, always over our shoulders, almost always just out of reach. The ability to wrap your hands around that again even for a few days is a precious thing.