The dream is always the same: I am back at Kalamazoo College because I forgot to finish my degree. The term starts on Monday, and I've arrived on campus late Friday afternoon without knowing my class schedule or dorm assignment—and the administration office is about to close for the weekend. My hearts twists as I walk down Academy Street and turn onto the Quad; everything is both sharply familiar and utterly foreign. I am sidetracked, waylaid, and finally lost. I am too late. I awaken with my heart in my throat.
Did I mention that I just made the hotel reservation for my 30th college reunion?
I have been to college reunions at least twice before, but never at a time of such transition in my own life. Then, I knew who I was and what I was moving towards, or at least I thought I did. Now I am not so sure. Yes, I have a husband I adore, a daughter who's my heart, and a career I love. I serve on volunteer boards and have a garden and can make a fine pie crust. What I don't have is a sense of what comes next, after the empty nest and before the grandchildren.
Hence the anxiety dreams.
Sometimes, my current Self breaks into the dream and wakes me, gently scolding: "You already have a degree. Actually, you have two degrees. And a career and a family. You have a life. It's time to let this go."
I awaken wondering what it is I am supposed to let go of.
Since my college days, it seems that piece by piece I have misplaced bits of my younger self. I have forgotten virtually all the French I ever spoke, much of the symbolism of the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers, many of the intricacies of Soviet foreign policy surrounding World War II, and the more subtle nuances of John Stuart Mill's political thought. I have never again trained across Europe or been on stage or stayed up all night talking about the meaning of life with my friends.
When I think about college, I experience a sense of loss that leaves me breathless.
The funny thing is that when I talk to my classmates, they shudder when remembering our college years. And of course, I am appropriately mortified when I consider my 20-year-old self. I was insecure and anxious; my emotions were raw and my neediness was embarrassing. I was obvious and vulnerable and just plain foolish, in so many ways.
But I also had a sense of limitless possibilities. I mean, I actually believed I could be president. I felt like I could change the world. And I want that feeling back.
Maybe that's why I enjoy being around college students so much, which I had the chance to do this summer. It was a balm to spend so much time with my daughter and some of her closest friends, young people who are so bright, thoughtful, funny and achingly honest. If I close my eyes, I can picture them as the adults they will be in 10 years; I can see them as parents and professionals, can imagine the contributions of the future neuroscientist and teacher, can envision the brilliance of the art conservationist and writer they will become. However, what none of us can see clearly is the road ahead for each of them—and as much as people will tell them to relish these years and to "enjoy the journey," that looming uncertainty makes them feel painfully fragile.
When you're young, you don't realize how brave you are or how strong you can be. Until you have stared down a serious illness or a devastating job loss, until you have lost a loved one or a nest egg, until you have endured the betrayal of a dear friend or the abdication of a cherished lover—you don't grasp what tough stuff you're made of.
I guess that's the trade-off of getting older: giving up your sense of limitless potential in exchange for a sense of security in yourself. By the time you become comfortable in your own skin, it usually sags a little.
For years, I used to suffer pangs of jealousy when reading my alumni magazine. As I learned about classmates who had experiences that sounded so interesting, accomplishments that sounded so genuinely important, I felt insignificant. Now I have a newfound sense of security, which comes not from a sense of accomplishment, but simply the knowledge that I've earned my own place in the world, combined with a healthy dose of gratitude. What's that line from Follies? "I made it through all of last year, and I'm [still] here."
Plus, something inside me shifted over the last few years, the stirrings of a renewed sense of kinship with any and all of the people I have known along my life's path. I feel proud instead of competitive, and disconcertingly tender towards contemporaries I haven't seen in years. I feel crestfallen rather than smug when a Facebook friend request pops up from classmate who's hard to recognize. Interestingly, I can no longer remember what grades I got in which classes, or exactly why I had a falling out with a particular classmate. Instead, I feel a diffuse sense of affection for all the people making this journey with me, and for all the times and places in which I have loved them.
Who knows? Next time I have that anxiety dream, I might make it to the administration office before closing time.