“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,” says poet Mary Oliver, “the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting. . .” I was 18 when my parents drove me over from the Adirondacks and delivered me and my belongings to college. I remember watching them drive off in their yellow station wagon. It seemed to me that, although I hadn’t known it until just that moment, my life had broken open. As if anything was possible.
What do I remember of those years? Moments, one after another, held inside as if all time is one time, and we are all still together, there on that beautiful hill.
I remember asking my friend Tom, late one night at a party, “How can you fling yourself off that tower?” For years I, the non-skier, had admired ski jumpers, how they arced their bodies into the unseen air.
“It’s no big deal,” he said. We were sitting side by side in two large green chairs. “The air is soft. It’s like a pillow. It cushions you. You just go into your tuck and do it.”
What he didn’t tell me was that the “cushion” was there and then not there, and it could move you all over the place, depending on air pockets and wind gusts. I know that now, but what I have always gone back to is that first, long ago comment: You just go into your tuck and do it.
I remember stretching to Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver before heading out on late afternoon runs. I remember Charlie R’s sweet smile as I ran past him one day near Hillcrest. I remember smiling back. Out of all those days and years of running, why that one fall day, why Charlie alone, walking through falling maple leaves turned to flame? But there it is, a memory like a photograph.
And I remember sitting in a Social Anthropology class, listening to others discuss the assigned readings, through which I had dutifully plowed (50 pages read = one Andes mint bought at the Crest Room, prior to the night’s studying). I remember Mima N. shooting her hand up and asking a brilliant question. I remember thinking, “How did she even think up that question?” It was clear to me that my critical thinking skills were far behind. But anything was possible, wasn’t it? Maybe someday I, too, could think up, if not a great answer, at least a great question.
I remember that on Sundays, the New York Times was delivered to the door of the girls who roomed across the hall from me sophomore year. I remember thinking, I’ve never even read the New York Times. I remember thinking, Someday, when I’m a real grownup, I’m going to have the New York Times delivered to my door.
I remember visiting my friend Absalom on the third floor of our dorm and noting that it was possible to turn one’s dorm room into a shrine to John Prine, cigarettes, and thrift store army jackets. I remember redecorating Peter C’s room with a small collection of moth-eaten fox stoles and four plastic beer mugs.
I remember driving late one night, miles and miles in the darkness, Steve K. behind the wheel, Greg M. riding shotgun, me in the backseat wishing Steve would give me another square of his Cadbury Fruit ‘n Nut. The car was quiet, and Steve beat his hand against the steering wheel to a song inside him. Where were we going? Did we know?
I remember emerging from the underbelly of Sunderland Language Center one winter night when the stars above were like diamonds scattered on black velvet. My mind rang with the cadence of Chinese voices on the Chinese tapes I had spent hours listening to. Suddenly, all around me like an invisible chorus, came the sound of cheering. It rose out of the snow and the woods and the dorms and the town, and I stood there in the cold, filled with wonder. We had just won the U.S.-USSR Olympic hockey game, but I didn’t know that. It seemed only that anything was possible. That even the mountains, if they wanted to, could sing.
I remember standing in line at Security, waiting for my i.d. card on that very first day, behind a girl with honey-colored hair and hiking boots laced with red laces. Now that is cool, I thought. If only I had the imagination to lace my hiking boots with red laces.
“Can you tell me where Stewart Dorm is?” I said to this girl. I did not tell her how much I admired her red laces. That would come years later.
“I’m heading there myself,” she said. “My name’s Ellen.”
I didn’t know then that from that day on, three decades now and counting, each of us would be the voice and the laughter that the other longs to hear. That we would see each other through hardships we couldn’t have then imagined. That if not all things are, in the end, possible, they are at least bearable, if you have a best friend.
I remember graduation day, crutching across the stage with a broken leg, crying and crying and crying, because I did not want to graduate. I wanted to stay in that shining place forever.
Now here I am, all these years later, and I’m thinking about Neil Young, who wrote, “All my changes were there.” Not all of them. But that was the place where I lived all those moments. That place was the pivot for me, the place where I first turned around and glimpsed the wide horizons of the world. In some ways, I’m still there.
Like Tom said, the cushion might be there and it might not, and gusts of wind might move you all over the place. But you go into your tuck anyway, and you aim yourself into the future.