“Let life happen to you. Life is in the right, always.” — Rainer Maria Rilke
I’ve been on the road. The impetus for this five-week trip was my three-day 25th college reunion. The 25th is the big one. The one to attend if one were to attend reunions at all.
When we graduated in 1994, the folks on their 25th year reunion were milling around us, and they were all patrician white men, because that’s all Harvard admitted in 1969. Among them were Al Gore, then the US Vice President and our commencement speaker. Gore used to live in my dorm, Dunster House, with his roommate Tommy Lee Jones who in 1994 won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Fugitive.
We were told jokingly/seriously by various people standing at podiums on our graduation day that we too would return with our awards and accolades for our 25th reunion in 2019. 2019? That’s eons away!
And yet, here we are.
I almost don’t go. The three people I would want to see are ones I’m already in touch with. But my friend Dylan, who graduated from Dartmouth three years before me, tells me he wishes he’d attended his 25th but he was away filming. Just go, he says, you won’t regret it.
There’s a whirlwind of activity once I make the decision to attend. My reunion would luckily coincide with my niece’s high school graduation some four miles down Mass Ave from Harvard Square. I haven’t seen my nieces or brother-in-law for four years, which feels inexplicable – where does time go?
My roommate and I plot and plan. Both of us had transferred from Wellesley College our third year into the same department at Harvard; a coincidence we each resented in the abstract until we met for the first time during the orientation for transfer students and soon became best friends.
I arrive in the US a week before the reunion, then she and I travel over from New York together, making our way to the Harvard Square T. When we emerge from the subway station, we are right back to where we used to be 25 years ago. It feels a little surreal.
The Harvard Yard is packed – it’s the day before the undergrad graduation but perhaps this is commencement for the graduate schools? The students in their caps and gowns still look very young. My roommate and I are moved seeing proud parents taking photos of their offspring, making this public event feel touchingly personal.
We collect our registration passes and our keys. As transfer students entering Harvard 27 years earlier, we had been placed directly in Houses. Only first year students get to live in the Harvard Yard, that central block of the campus where most of the undergraduate academic buildings and libraries are situated, where grand ceremonies are held, and where tour groups traipse through at all hours and seasons, taking photos in front of the John Harvard statue. We never had a chance to reside in the Yard ourselves – until now, as that’s where the 25th reunion class is offered rooms.
It feels special to live right in the centre of the Harvard universe. Our student suite is basic but delightful. Like our final year suite in Dunster House 25 years earlier, we have to walk up three flights of narrow stairs to reach it. “Honey, we’re home!” we sing song.
But when I lived on campus as a student, Harvard didn’t feel like home. This was where I experienced the peak of my depression, where I was hospitalised three times, on anti-depressants, with a therapist on call. Getting up in the morning was so traumatic I literally never did it.
I was devoted to a few classes – spending night after night in the darkroom, developing rolls of black and white film, then printing the images under the hush of the red light. The smell of photo chemicals was the most consistent component of my two years there.
If I bothered with any other class (except creative writing, which was my favourite) it was by doing whatever I felt best. Instead of turning in a normal term paper, I’d submit one in verse, or replace it altogether with an oil painting, and be defiant as to why that exactly fulfilled the assignment’s criteria.
Most of all, though, I was obsessed with death. So much so that for a photography seminar, I did a series I called “self-portraits of death” – photographs of me dead in six different ways. Seeing myself without life gave a morbid face to the torment I felt inside.
Harvard was not a safe harbour for me. And I perversely embraced feeling unmoored and anguished by justifying to myself that artists had to suffer to have soul.
I look back at that time on my life and remember the isolation, the fear manifesting as anger and hostility, and the desperate sadness of never quite belonging.
For decades, when people asked me where I’d studied, I’d mumble, “Boston.” (It turns out this is extremely common.)
A part of me would offer this in faux modesty, so as not to appear to be showing off. A bigger part of me felt I was an imposter who had somehow hoodwinked the college into admitting me, so I couldn’t quite fully “own” it.
The other reason I distanced myself was because, well, it’s Harvard, you know?
Harvard is an institution. Depending on who you ask, it’s also the establishment. It’s a brand. It’s an impossible-to-ignore behemoth. It’s probably the most famous university in the world (though Cambridge and Oxford in England are arguably more lauded). Its 37-billion-dollar endowment is worth more than half the world’s economies. Its prestigious reputation precedes itself, even if the reality is much less dazzling. To declare I was part of Harvard would be like doffing my cap to The Man.
No, Harvard was better served as a punching bag, just as anything of that bloated and powerful a stature is, like the United States, or patriarchy itself. Surely its dominance and influence was a standing invitation to disparage it.
Yet, over the years, I couldn’t deny that it served – and continues to serve – me. Even though a Harvard degree did not in any practical way facilitate my work in film production, it was a shorthand, I realised. It was some weird stamp of approval even to non-conformists that I was somehow legit. I was treated as if I’d won a trophy. Even if I never felt like a winner, apparently I’d done one thing right.
In the weeks leading up to my reunion, I felt I was entering a new phase of my life. I was still a ping-pong ball bouncing around, totally unsure of the ground beneath my feet. But I was feeling my way to a new place of inner acceptance. It’s a little difficult to explain it except to say it was as if I stopped clutching. Instead of viewing my life from the outside, I was practising embodying myself and being present (ho’oponopono rocks).
At the reunion, instead of scoffing or rolling my eyes at the fanfare surrounding us – I used to find it all so self-congratulatory – I embrace it. I’m kicked to be part of the 25th reunion class that gets to follow the dude with the bagpipe who leads us to our seats on the stage next to where Angela Merkel gives a powerful commencement speech. In it she says: “Keep asking yourselves: Am I doing something because it is right or simply because it’s possible?” (I wish I could have used that in my defence when I submitted a handmade pin-hole camera instead of a mid-term paper for my detested Physics of Light class…)
I revel in the relaxed, cosy chats I get to have with my bestie as we wander around the Fogg Museum, the Harvard Book Store and our old haunt, the Carpenter Centre. I love how four of us classmates find each other and spend these days together, dining side by side in a magnificent wood-panelled hall with chandeliers, revisiting our old Houses and the basement of Sever Hall.
There are daily social events. Every time I look around the room, I think, gosh, who are these middle-aged people? Before realising, of course, that I am one of them. Despite the general bonhomie and endless excited chatter around me, I am amused by how few people I had known in college. (I learn more about my classmates from the class survey results, such as the intriguing fact that 25% of us earn more than $750,000 a year. Wowza.)
Despite not knowing a lot of people, and not even attending all that many events, I can sense a powerful internal stirring, and it feels an awful lot like an awakening.
In her book, Karen Kingston describes how in Bali, it’s believed that parts of people fracture and split off from themselves as they go through life, especially if there’s a traumatic event. And part of the healing process is a ceremony where they return to the place where it happened with a priest to “call the part of their Spirit they left there back to themselves”.
Maybe I was back at Harvard now to heal myself by reclaiming that part of me I had been so eager to leave behind all those years ago. Maybe the way to overcome trauma is not to bury it but to make peace with it in order to let it go. After all, how do you release something you’re too afraid to even hold in the first place?
JK Rowling, in her commencement speech at Harvard, said: “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”
While I perhaps had not “blamed” Harvard for my misery, the two for me were intertwined. I’m ready now to let go of the old resentments and hurt. I don’t know if I am a part of Harvard, but Harvard is definitely a part of me.
A word that keeps ricocheting in my head is privilege. What a privilege it is to be here. What a privilege it actually was to study and live here (even if I hadn’t recognised it at the time). What a privilege it is to know these people, to have had so many selves, to have this tremendous life.
To my 22-year-old self:
◊ Your despair and isolation will shift over the years as you build your community that will become a force field of love and support.
◊ Most of your current close friends will not remain in your life and you won’t mind; you accept people evolve and drift from one another. But your roommate – despite her having lived with the most destructive version of you – is a keeper; treasure her always.
◊ Your love of black will continue to feature strongly for many years yet, though you will eventually invite (wait for it) warm, cheerful colours of the sun into your wardrobe.
◊ Right now you act as if you don’t care what anyone thinks of you even though you secretly do. Good news: you’ll feel liberated as you get older because you genuinely won’t care what others think; you’ll be too busy deciding if you like them.
◊ Your refusal to ever get married will change. Though the marriage that starts in your 20s won’t last, you will be grateful for the endless lessons it gives you. You will also love again because, unlike now, you will learn to open your heart.
◊ I know your parents seem totally unrelatable right now but there will be a time when you will speak to your mother daily. And when you don’t, you’re the one who’ll be upset.
◊ After decades of thinking you can – and must – control everything, you’ll learn the relief of surrender.
◊ Your depression will be something to manage rather than overcome, but you’ll handle it with honesty, love and compassion.
◊ Your sister will be the biggest anchor in your life, and you’ll cherish your closeness, and the comfort of having someone who truly knows you, never judges you and is always there for you. She’s also your ideal travel partner.
◊ Your life will not be a straight trajectory. You will lose and gain and lose and gain – weight and wealth, and also love and hope. I can’t say yet where you’ll land with any of these but don’t berate yourself at any step; just trust that everything happens just as it is meant to.
◊ You will spend an awful lot of time searching for a sense of identity, home and belonging. You will roam the world, restless, looking, longing. You will change names, passports, countries and continents multiple times. You will keep looking “out there” until you learn at last, some 25 years later, that that grounding you seek is inside you. When you feel at home in your heart, you will create your own sanctuary. This hard won lesson will feel the sweetest because this journey is the toughest. But don’t give up hope – I know you’ll get there. Trust me.
◊ And, finally, I just wanted to say that even though it doesn’t feel like it right now: you did good, girl.
“Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?”— Rumi
Some Harvard Trivia:
♦ Since its inception in 1636, Harvard admitted only men until their admissions merged with Radcliffe’s in 1975 (though Radcliffe students started receiving Harvard degrees from 1963). Indeed, my 1994 degree is from both Harvard and Radcliffe. The two colleges completely merged in 1999.
♦ Harvard is part of the Ivy League, which had athletic origins but rapidly came to represent the most elite educational institutions in the US. The eight Ivy League schools are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Dartmouth and U Penn, with all but one being founded before the American Revolution. And yes, there is a conspicuous amount of ivy around.
♦ Harvard is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Boston. Down the road, so to speak, is MIT, which prides itself on its ingenious pranks, such as the time in 1982 when they inflated a giant balloon (with “MIT” written all over it…) from under the playing field during a Harvard-Yale football game.
♦ I learnt only recently how the colours were chosen for the Boston subway, known as the T. The line that runs under the Boston Common is green. The line running under the Boston Harbour is blue. And the line that runs through Harvard is red, in honour of Harvard’s official colour, crimson.
♦ The Kennedy family has famously been linked to Harvard for generations. Urban legend has it that a professor spotted undergrad Ted Kennedy eating a burger at Tasty’s on Harvard Square when he should have been at his exam. Kennedy was expelled for cheating (he’d sent someone else to sit the test for him). He was re-admitted some years later after proving “good behaviour” by joining the army in between. His brother John was then a Senator, and soon to be President. Harvard’s public policy and administration graduate school is named The John F Kennedy School of Government.
♦ Harvard lists among its graduates 59 heads of state and 49 Nobel laureates (the number jumps to 158 when including all affiliates, such as professors). For decades, top American television shows such as The Simpsons and Friends have been written and helmed by Harvard graduates. Recent Oscar winners who graduated from there include La La Land writer and director Damien Chazelle, as well as actors Mira Sorvino and Natalie Portman. Famous dropouts include Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, each of whom of course did so in order to start a world-dominating tech empire.
♦ Another Harvard dropout and Oscar winner is Matt Damon, whom I worked with on The Bourne Supremacy some ten years after I graduated and – as he wryly pointed out – he did not. I noted (to self) that this hadn’t prevented him from earning $17.5M on the film whereas I, with the degree, was getting crumbs in comparison.
♦ My favourite Harvard-set film is The Social Network, directed by David Fincher and about the formation of Facebook. In it there’s a scene where Harvard President Larry Summers tells the Winklevoss twins: “Harvard undergraduates believe that inventing a job is better than getting one.” Hearing that really fortified me as I’d spent years wondering why the hell I couldn’t be happy doing a job like other people, instead of needing to carve out something on my own.
♦ Of the graduate schools, Harvard Law School seems to hold particular cinematic appeal, with Legally Blonde and the very silly Soul Man (if your memory stretches back to 1986) both set there. The 1980s TV show Paperchase was also based on it, though Harvard was not named.
♦ The most famous Harvard-set film is also one of the most globally successful ever – Love Story. It’s a tender mix of wit and weepie, telling the story of two undergrads, one from Harvard and one from Radcliffe, Oliver and Jennifer.
Oliver: Hey, what makes you so sure I went to prep school?
Jennifer: You look stupid and rich.
Oliver: Actually I’m smart and poor.
Jennifer: Uh-uh, I’m smart and poor.
Oliver: What makes you so smart?
Jennifer: I wouldn’t go for coffee with you.
Oliver: Yeah? Well, I wouldn’t ask you.
Jennifer: That’s what makes you stupid.
Although I am no longer active on social media, I’m more than thrilled if you choose to share this post on your end, thanks!
Fly with me!