Beyond youthful illusions
When this Queen's Engineering grad returned to campus for his 50th reunion he did so hoping to tie up some loose ends in his life. To his suprise, he learned that "the Queen's student experience" and his memories of those days have become an an integral and enduring part of his life
I returned to Queen’s after 50 years seeking closure. As it turned out, my reunion was not so much about past colleagues as it was about accommodating youthful memories with current perspectives. What was life all about anyway – my youth, career, retirement and old age? The Queen’s reunion offered the fleeting opportunity to examine the two bookends of my adult existence.
Then and now are two perspectives each containing their own reality, different but somehow mysteriously the same. They emphasize the importance of chronology in our lives, the thin thread that connects past and present, how we mature and change with events and yet remain connected to them. They underline an often overlooked perception of our lives: our experience, our memories and our current activities are primarily inner awareness. Everything is experienced cerebrally, processed, blended and integrated into an ever-changing sense of reality. Reality is not external as it seems. It is images, impressions and linear thought that we transiently ponder in the moment. It contains everything we have previously encountered, everything retained consciously or otherwise. It is psychic; it does not reside in the material world; perceived reality is primarily irrational and intuitive rather than analytical and objective.
To some extent, my encounter with then and now is visually addressed with two photographs below of Ed Dewar (a friend, a classmate, the taller of the two of us) and me on a May morning at our graduation in 1962 and at our reunion in 2012. In both instances, we had met casually at Grant Hall without prior arrangement. We happened to be doing the same thing at the same time and in the place. At age 22, we appeared as mature, responsible adults. Despite our white hair, at age 72 our facial expression and body language had not changed significantly.
In the midst of the formal morning re-convocation activities, I reflected on the long term stability and conservative reassuring continuity the old limestone buildings on Queen's campus represented. Like the day of our graduation ceremonies decades ago, it was a warm sunny late spring morning. The refurbished, recently sand-blasted exteriors of century old edifices were stunning in their stark nakedness amongst sprawling manicured lawns and broad asphalt avenues. I could not help but feel that Queen's, in some aspects, resembled Westminster Abbey. It too may last 10 centuries.
There was a sense of permanence far beyond a simple human life that inspired a nurturing security, a sense of well-being. You cannot disconnect the drama, the ambiance of the old Oxford learning syndrome from the actual educational process. For me, the timelessness of Queen's old core campus has restored my faith in a liberal education, the wisdom of centuries, designed to inform and enhance a life in addition to preparing for income-oriented careers.
The intense emotional content of those long ago undergraduate years seems to have receded. The present focus has shifted to other matters. But thinking back, remembering, invites a tinge of melancholy into current life. It is part of nostalgic reflection, the longing to return to the garden where everything seems idyllic and our youthful energy was a force celebrating the essence of life, its adventure, its trek into the unknown in search of the Holy Grail.
No doubt. Remembering past events from youth does bring with it notes of sadness. It’s an encounter with a younger self, a self as we remember and imagine it. We were inexperienced, sometimes misbehaved but willing to venture into other spaces. We looked up from our daily tasks into an eternal vista of pleasure, intrigue and challenge. Now, as twilight fades it seems we look down into a well, ‘a well full of leaves, a well full of years’. We have moved beyond illusions. We have lived. The bell has rung and cannot be unrung. We wait.
But, could we not hear the Queen’s Band strike up a lively Oil Thigh once again; just one more time. Please. I ask for nothing more.