I went back this past weekend, to Princeton, to hazy, hot, and humid, to the embrace of my dearest friends, to the magnolia-strewn space that holds some of my most vivid and most important memories.
It was a weekend crammed to the gills with joy. It was the best reunion yet, and I have been to all four of our major reunions (as has Matt!). My friends – whose greatness I’ve written about at length – are just getting better and better with age. People seem ever more comfortable in their own skin. Something was in the air this weekend at Princeton, and everyone I encountered seemed charged with happiness and positivity. Maybe it was the heat and humidity. Maybe it was the beer. I don’t know, but something special suffused these past several days.
On Labor Day Monday, 1991, my father and I drove from his parents’ house on Long Island to visit Princeton a last-minute whim. I had already written my early application to another college, but my father’s twin encouraged me to look at Princeton. So we did. And it on the steps of this arch you see here, Blair Arch, where I turned to my father and said that this was where I wanted to go to school. I recall that moment with crystalline detail, and as I told Grace, Whit, and Matt about it, my eyes filled with tears. There’s something about Princeton that makes this happen often. The place, and the people I met there, are lodged so close to my heart. My years there were certainly not without difficulty, but they remain the most sun-dappled of my life and are without question where I became who I am.
On Saturday I participated in a panel called “Books That Changed My Life” alongside several distinguished alums. I was certainly the weak link among the panelists, but I loved hearing what they all had to say. I could talk about books all day long. One person said of at a certain point in his life that when he read he “was after awe.” That phrase struck with me because I don’t think I went into Princeton – either in 1992 or this past weekend – specifically looking for awe, but that’s what I found both times.
Awe. Wonder. Joy. Grace.
Four of our daughters before the P-Rade. Grace is the tall one!
The best part of the weekend was seeing Grace and Whit with the children of my dearest friends. I am glad for Grace and Whit to see me with the women who are my most important group of friends. I love the example that friendships can endure and anchor us. I met most of these women when I was 18, and and that’s only 5 and 7 years away for Grace and Whit (Oh.My.God). It is one of my most devout hopes that they have friends like this in their lives. I remain amazed that such extraordinary women are my friends, but, also, slightly more certain that they are. For life. There was something unconditionally supportive about this weekend that I can’t put into words, and it was remarkable.
On Friday night I spent about an hour and a half dancing to 80s songs with one of my roommates and my daughter and her friend. All over the place, over and over again this weekend, memories swamped me, and time did that telescoping thing when now and then collapse into a single, swollen moment, but maybe never more profoundly than on that dance floor. C has been one of my very best friends for 24 years now, and as she and Grace danced together my chest felt tight in the best possible way.
We walked, we danced, we talked, we laughed, and I cried a couple of times. The P-Rade moved me as it always does, a boisterously joyful celebration of all things orange and black. The Old Guard made me cry (and the whole weekend made me miss my grandfather) and then I was struck, as I always am, by how the procession is nothing less than a panoramic overview of the human experience. The Old Guard, some walking slowly, some in golf carts, and then people in their 60s and 70s, then younger, and younger. We went before the masses of strollers and babies this year, but I know they followed us. And at the end of the parade are the rowdy young alums and, finally, the seniors. I’ll never forget our senior year P-Rade, when we ran onto Poe Field, sunburned and happy and drunk on the headiness of the moment much more than on the free-flowing beer.
We waited together for our turn to fall into line (into the grand stream of life itself, no longer the young ones, not yet the older ones, smack in the middle, in the thick, hot heart of life’s grand pageant) and cheered, giving a locomotive to every passing class (Hip! Hip! … Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! 62! 62! 62!). Our children sat at the curb at our feet, and in a couple of moments I felt lightheaded with the intensity of the moment. I will never forget that moment. Our class then fell into the procession, accompanied by our class float, a tribute to Ferris Bueller, with classmates singing and dancing in dirndls atop it.
This weekend was the best of life. I felt aware in a visceral way of my great good fortune in having spent four years at Princeton. The place, and the people I met there, left their mark on me in ways I’m still uncovering. To be with the friends who knew me then is a great gift, a massive exhale, a profound coming home. To watch my children with the children of those women who shared those seminal four years with me defies complete description.
Then we watched fireworks from the football stadium and, finally, spent, walked back to our dorm. On Sunday we came home and all day I was both exhausted and full to the brim of love and friendship and learning and 20 years ago and today, of those unseen things that are referred to over the door of McCosh 50 (where I took many classes, and which I showed Grace and Whit one day). Princeton gave me many unseen gifts, and they do not die. I know that now. What an extravagant blessing that is.
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