Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Remembering the purple shadows of the lawn, the majesty of the colonnades...

What struck me about my UVA reunion this past weekend was what an intensely physical experience it was.  And it's not just the insane amounts of walking, from one get-together to the next, around Charlottesville or around the University grounds, that leaves your feet throbbing by the time you get into bed at the end of the night. Or that fact that by the time you're getting into bed, it's 2 in the morning and you've been up running around for hours and hours.  Or the alcohol that starts flowing in the middle of the afternoon and doesn't stop until 10 or 11 hours later.

It's also the ache in my head and face from talking and smiling and laughing nonstop.  It's the shower of hugs and kisses, one after the other, from sorority sisters who I don't get to see or experience often enough, and who suddenly felt like the most important people in the world, so I tried to soak up their presence with every part of myself.  The joyful whoop that escaped me upon greeting my friend Mark, who when he first saw me on Friday night, threw his arms around me and lifted me up, twirling me in a circle. The grass between my toes as my friend Laura and I cavorted in front of the Rotunda at 1 in the morning, throwing our hands in the air for a picture, as if we could take in the entire place in a huge embrace. The warmth of sitting and talking and just being with my dear friend (and former roommate) Jane, who remains one of the loveliest, sweetest people I have ever known.

The experiences of American college life have a universal quality to them.  Like college kids everywhere, my friends and I arrived at UVA not fully formed, so much younger and stupider than we realized - I was only 17 when I started, and didn't turn 18 until halfway through second semester of my first year.

We dipped our toes into the experimental waters of learning how to be adults, out on our own to decide which classes to take and which clubs to join and which interests to pursue.  Experiencing the self-consciousness of figuring out which friendships to seek out. Developing the self esteem to know whether and how peer pressure would shape our actions.  Having the discipline to drag our asses to an early class when the professor didn't take attendance, and there wasn't a parent to make sure you were up and out the door in time.  Navigating the world of living quasi-independently, dealing with roommates both of the amazing and the shitty variety. Deciding on our own how late we would stay out, whether and how much we would drink, whose beds we would slip into and what we would do when we were there. What kind of people we wanted to be.

We formed close connections and learned life lessons and received a great education.  And as an added bonus, we were able to do it in this extraordinary place that is infused with history and tradition, and which has a distinctive, stunning physical presence. Plenty of kids stumble to an 8 a.m. class, bleary eyed from a late night of studying or beer drinking or both. But we got to do it while walking past the Rotunda, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome and designed by Thomas Jefferson to represent the authority of nature and power of reason.  Meandering down the brick-paved colonnades along the Lawn, where every year a select group of fourth year students are awarded the enormous honor of living in the tiny rooms along Jefferson's original "academical village," with their lack of air-conditioning or attached bathrooms, so you would see them trudging out in their bathrobes and carrying their buckets of soap and shampoo down to the showers.

I tried to never take it for granted - I walked down the Lawn and past the Rotunda thousands of times in my four years there, and every time I tried to really look at it and appreciate it.  The physical environment, both because of its beauty and its historical and architectural grandeur, was as much of a character in the drama of those four years as any other.

For the reunion, Jane won a lottery that gave her access to a Lawn room for the weekend, and it became our home base.*  It was the pre-party location before our class dinners, and the after-hours happening spot until late in the night.  It was where we hung out during the day, catching up with each other and greeting everyone who walked by, enjoying the respite from the sun on a hot Virginia day, with its soft, heavy, wet air. The entire experience was an assault on the senses - the beauty of the architecture and landscape, the heat, the physical contact with old friends, the music and laughter, the food and drink, the walking and the dancing, and the exhaustion when it was finally all over.

After 25 years, those four years feel far away.  We are more than twice as old as we were when we graduated, and memories fade. People change as they age and aren't as recognizable at first.

But then you drive down Route 29, or walk from the Corner past Brooks Hall up to the Lawn, down the colonnades, past the amphitheater, seeing the lush trees and grass, feeling the sultriness of the summer air; the environment becomes a time machine that delivers you psychologically back to that point when every emotion and interaction felt more intense, more vivid, because it was so ephemeral.

*In an amazing coincidence, it turned out to be the same room that one of our sorority sisters lived in during her fourth year, 25 years ago.


  1. Glenn B.2:51 PM

    With any luck, my son will be going there in 2017!

    1. Shut the front door. How is it possible that you have a college-aged son???