The arc of my life bends more to Davidson College than I ever would have guessed on a broiling August day some 19 years ago. That’s when my dad and I stuffed the backseat of a rickety Oldsmobile Cutlass with the bulk of my possessions and travailed the six hours of interstates 85 and 77 that connect Auburn to that town on the northernmost edge of Mecklenburg County. I was 17 and more practical than most teenagers. My brain was certain the next few years would be a strict economic exchange: my hard work and indebtedness for a degree inked on lambskin that would launch me into a career. And that would be that.
But it became much more than that. Not only in my time there, but in the many years since.
Yes, that diploma arrived. It’s in a beautiful frame on the floor of my basement office, propped unceremoniously against a wall. It’s come in handy on my twisted path of a career, yet the benefits of the Davidson College brand have played out so much more in my personal life. My marriage traces back to the chance meeting of a soccer player who stole my study table one afternoon on the second floor of E.H. Little Library. That was 17 years ago. I proposed to Kate at that same table nine years later, and we were married in Davidson’s Lingle Chapel a brief six months after that. Standing at my side was Jason, my best man who had been my best friend through college, and in the church pews sat countless faces of loved ones whom Kate and I came to know only because we spent that brief time as students at this particular school.
This nostalgia envelops me in the hours since I’ve returned to Raleigh with Kate and our two young daughters. We spent the weekend back at Davidson reminiscing with old classmates at my 15 year reunion, and I’ve been in a contemplative mood ever since. There’s the warm glow of happy memories, but there’s also some recognition of our own aging and what it means for friendships. Something about this one was different than our gathering at the ten year mark. For one, as a member of the organizing committee commented during our Saturday night class dinner, 15-year reunions get notoriously terrible attendance. Our class got some accolade for producing an historic turnout, but it amounts to being least pathetic among the slouches. Of the 450 or so people with whom we graduated, about 50 make the trip back.
I was on the fence about coming back, and I imagine the vast majority of my classmates went through some similar mental calculus. The mid-30’s have proven to be a hectic and demanding time in life. The balance of family, career, and community obligations often seems impossible. Where’s the room for fitness, spirituality, and friendship? The former always takes precedence over the latter. Since the birth of our oldest daughter, we’ve become ruthless in cutting out extraneous commitments. Not from malice, but of sheer necessity. Double that since our second daughter arrived. Unfortunately, those cuts mean less time with a lot of people we genuinely love. But where would they fit in to a day bookmarked with kids waking at dawn, collapsing in bed after nine and that mad rush of life’s activity squeezed in between?
The cut has never been conscious or intentional. It just seems to happen. A call goes unanswered and weeks turn into months then years. Promises of getting together are pushed out further and further for this family obligation or that work conflict. And slowly – almost imperceptibly – those relationships enter a state of suspended animation. It’s rarely a matter of spats leading to a falling out or hard feelings festering. It’s just a matter of commitments being pruned back. Convenience seems to define who makes it and who doesn’t. Do you run into them in the neighborhood or at church? If so, they get the first call when a babysitter is available on a Saturday night. For us, so many of the people we socialize with now are bound to us by our children’s activities. Preschool friends have managed to crowd out space once owned by old college friends. This just makes sense and in no way suggests we don’t love our new friends as much as our old. There’s no reason for blame, though there is some sadness to it all. I have found myself wistful at times recollecting once-strong friendships that have gone quiet.
Many of those friends who have not made the cut were at the reunion this weekend. To be fair, in plenty of circumstances, I believe I was the one whose call was not returned or otherwise did not earn my way into their final circle. I was anxious about seeing some of them (the nerves that kept me on the fence about whether to attend) but stood by the commitment to attend in large part because Jason and his family would be there.
And I spoke with many of these old friends. The conversations were a bit stilted and uncomfortable, yet somehow delightful. In each case there was this uneasiness as if we didn’t really know how to talk with each other as 30-somethings. Here we were catapulted back 15 years to an environment our brains associate with being 20 years old. Are we supposed to act like the responsible adults we’ve become, or is it okay to act like idiots again? The more I took the adult approach, the more awkward I felt. So I allowed myself to revert back to that goofy kid. That’s how I knew them, and that’s how they knew me. And it felt good.
The state of suspended friendship animation wore off, even if for just a few minutes before we were obligated to move to another conversation. It was wonderful. But we’re all back home now, out of that environment we knew so well together and back in the places we know as high-minded adults. The obligations have all rushed back, and the necessity of that ruthless social cutting is just as acute today as it ever was. The suspended animation re-engages. Still, I hold out hope that it won’t always be this way; that these friendship circles we’ve made so narrow for this stage of life will once again begin to expand.
My hope takes form in a rumor swirling around during reunion weekend about the class of 1979. Those 56- and 57-year-olds, so said the chatter, stayed up all Friday night to catch up and get rowdy with drinks. They say the campus police came in to breakup the frolics at 5 a.m. This makes me smile. I hope it’s true because inside that party I can imagine many old classmates thawing the friendship freeze that came as life marched on; reconnecting in ways they haven’t in the 35 years since their graduation. Their kids are grown up, and their careers are winding down. They have time that we simply don’t right now. I hope they take these rekindled friendships home, pick up the phone a little more often, and act like dumb 20- year-olds together.
And I hope we get back there again, too.