Unplug, drink more water and open your mind
The day I returned to college was an achingly beautiful autumn morning under a heart-pounding blue sky. The campus couldn't have made for a better college catalogue photograph, with sun reflecting off the Gothic buildings, the lawn strewn with fiery leaves and the students making their way across the quad in cheerful groups. If I closed my eyes halfway, I could pretend it was 1980.
I had come for Family & Friends Weekend, and looked forward to sharing in my daughter's world, but also could not wait to attend a day of classes at Knox College myself. Arriving early, I slipped into the historic building where American Literature would be held and settled into one of the walnut-paneled common rooms, gingerly opening my laptop on one of the inlaid antique tables. I breathed in the scent of wood and wonder and considered what it would be like to be 20 today.
Second period, a professor and his class of rapt students sat around a rectangle of oak tables and parsed the nuances of Emily Dickinson. It was 70 minutes of unadulterated intelligence, insight and humor. As light streamed in through the leaded glass windows, I was suffused with a sense of joy. My daughter was bemused. How could I explain that my soul was parched for this kind of an experience, an experience I hadn't had since 1982?
I looked at her and said: Imagine what it would be like to have sex for the first time in 30 years. That's what this feels like for me.
I could not remember the last time I sat in a room with this many people who were so utterly engaged, or had had a conversation just for the exercise, for the stimulation of it, rather than to accomplish a task. Two dozen people sat together for more than an hour, having an intense, intellectual discussion, and they were all unplugged; not one of the 24 students had been using their phones or computers.
It made me realize how much I now focus on goals in my daily conversations (What's the bottom line? What's the message? What do I need to write today?), and how much I have given myself over to multi-tasking, fooling myself that I was merely keeping up with technology.
How often do I sit in a meeting, all the while tapping away on my blackberry? How many times do I half-listen to a phone call while I simultaneously check my email, or stop writing to check the day's headlines with a click of my mouse? How often to I discuss ideas with my husband, instead of what to make for dinner? How often am I truly present, as I was in college?
I sat in on three more classes, seeking to erase the decades from my mind.
Between classes, I panted up the well-worn flights of stone stairs until I saw stars. (Why was everything on the third floor?) I had to keep whipping my reading glasses off and on. And I could not help but notice that I was always the only one in the room with a can of soda pop; I may have been running on caffeine, but all the students had brought their water bottles.
Okay, maybe I couldn't be a coed again. But would I really want to be?
During the Religion course, at one point the class focused on the idea of God-as-parent; to be gender-neutral, they considered adjectives for the metaphor of God as a father carrying His child. Supportive, the students said; definitely supportive. Supportive, protective and strong. Then one young man shook his head. "Let's not kid ourselves that we are being gender neutral," he said. "Would we use the same modifiers for a mother carrying her child? Would we really have said 'protective', or would we have said 'nurturing'? Would we have been more likely to say 'loving' than 'strong'? To say 'supportive,' or 'compassionate'? We're never really gender neutral." The class agreed and revised their modifiers to: protective and nurturing, strong and loving, supportive and compassionate.
My eyes filled with tears. I was proud and grateful for this young man's progressive thinking, and for his classmates' reception of it. But I also was overwhelmed by the realization that my 20-year-old self, and my classmates, wouldn't have understood what he was talking about.
So instead of pining to go back a generation, I will revel in passing the torch to this one.