Last updated on 12th October 2012
It's the day after our "university reunion dinner". It was weird ... and actually very lovely ... and fun and warm and moving and interesting and hugely welcoming. Gosh, I really couldn't have imagined that script if I'd tried.
I came back to this reunion as an exercise in "emotional archaeology". Rereading old letters, talking with friends, writing, imagining a discussion between myself then and myself now ... so rich & helpful already. I wrote three blog posts about this last month and another two days ago on the train down to Cambridge (to stay with my dear stepdaughter & her family). Yesterday was a stunningly beautiful sun-filled September day. Just luck. The weather the day before and the day after nothing like as good. Up very early, writing, then playing with the trio of bouncing-puppy-lovely-spontaneous grandchildren. And off on a walk on my own before breakfast. A convocation of squirrels in the trees by the stream. A river of morning sunlight. Slipping into a kind of dissolving quiet joy.
Later walking into town with my wife. Revisiting old haunts ... and new ones. Branching off on my own and, in some ways, moving into the skin of the 20 year old me. Happy. Meditating in Little St Mary's graveyard in the warmth of the sun. Walking barefoot along the Backs. No doubt looking a bit odd. And happy. Loving the beauty of the place ... and the memories. Strangely, revisiting my old college (it's before the start of term), I was able to walk straight up the old staircase and right into the room I had in my first year at university back in 1968. This was where I lost my virginity, made friends, smoked dope, read philosophy, and talked deep into many nights.
And strange coincidences. The place I visited again and again in Cambridge on a series of acid trips was the stunning Trinity Fellows Garden. In those days you could just walk into it. Now it's locked, closed to anyone who isn't a senior member of the college. I so wanted to go back there. And my dear stepdaughter just happened to be taking her children to a party in Trinity with the children of one of the college Fellows ... who was only too happy to lend me their personal swipe card to wander over to the Fellows Garden. Slipping into that pool of memories. Precious and magical. And amused & touched as well by the kindness & enthusiasm of the Fellow, who introduced me to friends who seemed fascinated by the story. When I returned the swipe card to leave, the Fellow said they were disappointed that they hadn't had the chance to go round introducing me to all their party friends. Very odd, when I think of our mild paranoia about being "discovered" on our trips (!) to the Garden all those years ago.
And a little later in the afternoon, meeting up with a dear old friend from Edinburgh and his wife ... who just happened to be in Cambridge at a
conference. Then back to my old college again to change. I was in a kilt, the other eighty or so guests in dinner jackets or dark suits. In a strange way there seemed a parallel between the relative unconventionality & sheer colourfulness of the kilt in relation to the dark suits, and the blazing colours & textures of sixties hippie outfits in contrast with more standard tweed jackets & grey flannel trousers. Happily I'd got approval from my 3 year old grandchild earlier in the day. She observed me in my kilt with puzzled eyes for a few moments, then gave me a double thumbs up that she's been practising. "Cool dude" she said.
Forty plus years ago, in my "hippie" phase, I very much saw my relationship with university authorities and more conventional students in "us" and "them" terms. After all I'd been peripherally involved in the occupation of the university senate house where more establishment students demonstrated in the courtyard yelling "Get the lefties out!" or possibly other less complementary chants. I remember walking down the street in my tie-dyed trousers & Afghan shirt and being passed by a mini-bus full of other similarly outrageous students who started to cheer as they came by me. So many of the song lyrics and politics of the time were very idealistic, sometimes crankily head in the clouds, sometimes presciently accurate and still "right on".
In my first post about coming back for this reunion, I wrote: "I was a hippie at university. Shoulder length hair. Looking down my nose at the "straights". That going against the establishment was for a whole load of reasons (the "Development of distressed states" diagram applies well to the development of non-distressed states too). One of them was avoidant attachment and puffing up. "I can cope without anyone else". Sad. And one challenge I take back to the university reunion next month is knowing how easy it would be for me to slip back into comparisons and self-protection. In Shaver & Mikulincer's words, wouldn't it be great to get in touch with "alternative, more authentic, less defensive routes to self-protection and self-worth"? Wouldn't it be great to be kind? Probably all of us, in one way or another, coming back and self-questioning ... "How has my life gone?" "How do I compare?" "Have I been as successful as these other guys?". I don't know anyone else at all well who's on the list of those going back next month. It's very likely I'll have dinner with these men and then never see them again before we die. It would be good to be kind. The wounds under our jackets can allow us to connect. And let's see how it goes ... "Fine words butter no parsnips" ... let's see how I can make it go."
And as I expected, at a Cambridge reunion, the guest list had a fair sprinkling of "The Lord" this, "Rear Admiral" that, a couple of "His Honour Judge" the other, and more "Professors" than you could shake a stick at. I certainly didn't know anybody at all well, although over the pre-dinner drinks nearly everyone was so friendly. Some shy, some apparent "stuffed shirts" (probably also shy), some talking what seemed like nonsense ... but mostly a sense of a kind of brotherhood & affection. And what fun, here was someone I did know. So interesting ... a psychiatrist and film maker. And we fell into a deeper conversation. Revisiting, remembering. Great. And here's the most weird part. The "Alumni Officer" came up to me and said "We've arranged for you to sit beside the Master of the College" ... on the High Table between the Master and the oldest of the attending Fellows. What? I'd been planning to sit quietly where I was put while I tried to make kind, open-hearted conversation with strangers. Well OK the Master & senior Fellow were strangers, but not the ones I was expecting. I think what had happened was that the Master does formal dinners until they're coming out of his ears, and I suspect he'd said to the Alumni Officer something like "Please sit me down with someone a bit unusual."
Now here was the next weird thing. I just had a ball. Especially with the dear 82 year old professor on my right. What a lovely, inspiring man. What a lovely connection. And across the loud table, speaking with a gifted architect. And on my left the Master too. Fun. I had a bit of a go at "stirring things up". But mostly tenderness, real affection, good conversation, laughter. I had such a good time. Wow. What are the lessons from all that? Maybe something about "If I can be myself, but not distance myself, not protect myself unnecessarily then there's a chance of meeting ... and that can be such a joy." So much to digest ... see the sixth & final post in this series ... "Going back for a university reunion: emotional archaeology unearths a treasure trove of insights & new directions".