Thursday, July 14, 2011

Contentment for the Now

I was recently at my alma mater, Michigan State University visiting a friend who lives near by. I had some time on my own so I went to my old favorite Mexican Restaurant, El Azteco, ordering the same Topopo Salad I always used to get. I remember it tasting better back then, though I did manage to eat plenty of it anyway. After that I went for a long walk around campus. I started out near my old dorm and walked all the way to the other end, following the Red Cedar River, passing my old haunts along the way. I felt oddly disconnected though. The place did not feel like mine in any way. True, I am now old enough to be a parent to the students that were hanging out playing volleyball or headed to the library. But I don't think I felt alienated for that reason.

My college years were among the best of my life. I had a wonderful time there with friends, roommates, and even the job I had at the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts where I actually got paid to see shows and sell coffee and desserts to patrons. My academic experience was also rewarding. Although the school is huge (it was said to have 60,000 students my freshman year there), my particular college in the Language Department was small and intimate and I enjoyed what I learned. Yet, as I walked around the beautiful campus, I felt no reminiscent pull or much feeling at all. This really puzzled me and had me wondering about it for days. I even went back for another walk there a few days later, but again it didn't feel much more than a pleasant place to get some exercise.

When I was there as a college student 20 years ago, it was my whole world. My friends, my job, and my studies were everything to me and it was difficult to picture what the "real world" would be like when I left this transitional haven between childhood and adulthood. Having been in this real world for two decades now, with marriage, children, mortgages, and real world jobs, I would think this foray back into my college years would be filled with fond memories and nostalgia. Although I have plenty of fabulous memories, I didn't feel nostalgia. Maybe it's just that I am abundantly happy in this stage of my life and didn't feel the pull of the "good old days" on campus.

I realized later why this mild alienation felt so unsettling to me. It made me wonder what is so important and all-encompassing in my life right now that a few decades from now will yield hardly any emotional tug from my future self? That perspective felt discomfiting to me. It sparked an exploration of my current attachments. Although I like my neighborhood and feel great affection for my current friends, I don't feel like they define me. Not the way it used to in my college years. Obviously my children are a huge part of my life at this stage and they will grow up and move out on their own, again altering my life immensely, just as they did with their arrival. It is stunning to me that Ronan is already half way there. I am certain, though, that I will look back on my time with them with intense nostalgia and no alienation (well, depending on how the teen years go, perhaps!).

It's possible that the perspective-broadening experience of adulthood makes me less prone to view my world with such intensity as the young are apt to do. It does take a certain amount of maturity to see yourself in the phases of life and be a witness to it, rather than be so fully consumed by it that there is little recognition of the phases at all, let alone a healthy sense of unattachment to them. The relationships and challenges at this point of my life don't have the same sense of drama that they used to and the high points feel less manic. Life is not boring though. There is a different kind of richness in life now that comes from being both the experiencer and the observer. It could be called contentment or equanimity. Maybe it's just a phase I am going through (and witnessing), but it certainly beats pining for the old days that are long gone.