Currently I am taking UCC Polity and Congregational Leadership at Yale Divinity School. It’s a strange thing to be back in the classroom, this time on the other side of the dais. But what surprised me was my very emotional return to the YDS campus after 23 years away. At first I was excited, impressed by some of the new design, disappointed by other aspects of the same. I was confused trying to find my way around. Half of a hallway would be old and familiar, the other half unrecognizable. I had little time to get to class, and so afterward I did some more exploring. I visited the library and was graciously given a copy of the review of my book (see previous post on that). The library entrance had been moved to a different floor–regrettable, in my opinion. But as I walked up to the Missions Reading Room, the path looked more familiar. Indeed, virtually nothing had changed. Suddenly I recalled all the long evening there in that stately room, nodding to Alan or Jose at their usual spots, chatting with other acquaintances. Emotion began to well up within me.
I headed toward the back, coming out an exit-only door toward my old living space. Porter Hall, as I had long ago heard, had been demolished. But seeing its fine site, perched on a hill with a view to the Point, but now just an unnaturally flat patch of grass, made me so incredibly sad. I walked back toward the old refectory, the hub of all our socializing, three meals a day. It was dark and shuttered. The weather was horrible; the sky was spitting sleet.
I began to weep as I hadn’t in some time. But I wasn’t sure why. I had a good 100 minutes on the ride back home to figure it out. Being back there made me realize that a dear part of my life was simply gone. The buildings were still there in part, but were so disorienting. I’ve lost contact with all those friends I had there. And those were still wonderfully naive days, when I had not yet found my way intellectually; days of wonderful and fearsome wandering. All of it came back to me, but as something dead, something irrevocably past. I realized how fractured my life is. It was perhaps the first time I really felt that my own past is something cut off.
Indeed, on the ride home I had a thought. We think of death as something ahead of us, something we must reckon with in our ominous future. But death is in our past too. We can never hold together everything in our life the way we would like to. Death is also what recedes from us. I am sure that if I had returned to Yale regularly, this alienating past would have been comfortably integrated into my life narrative. But 23 years is a span with a knack for intimating the closure of mortality.