Sunday, October 12, 2008

Full Circling Kalamazoo

By Zinta Aistars

No matter the many years, over a decade, that I walked this walk each working day – it never grows old on me. To be back on the campus of Kalamazoo College never fails to send a hum of electricity through me. As if here all things were possible. Out of this place, as if it were a hub of an ever-turning wheel, indeed, all things are. I have been witness to it.

I sit on the stone bench at the top of the hill, overlooking the Quad. That is, the quadrangle of green, sloping down toward the residence halls, the Hicks Center student union to my right, and Mandelle Hall, where my office used to be on the third floor, to my left. Just behind me is Stetson Chapel, its doors thrown open to the warmth of an October day, warmer than usual, and the frenzied bustling there as a wedding is about to take place. As so many weddings have. Few spots in Kalamazoo, if any, are more beautiful than this. Flowers surround me, reds and whites and golden yellows, and the great oak trees rise like wise old men, overseeing all. The legendary squirrels of K College race and scatter all about, cheeks busting out with acorns, sleek and fat with the good life. (Officially, the hornet is the college mascot. Unofficially, it is the squirrel.) The Georgian architecture of the buildings, some dating back to the late 1800s, adds a solemn grace to the scene.

I am waiting for Ross. He is part of my freelance story-in-progress on international programs that I am writing for the alumni magazine, LuxEsto. Once, that magazine was my daily bread. Now, it is my sweet dessert. I could not but keep my ties to this place. You can take the woman out of K, but not K out of the woman? It just may be. Because the message of the college embodies much of who I am: multiculturalism, study abroad, intellectual curiosity and the life-long pursuit of enlightenment. And a hunger for adventure that never quits.

Although, for this moment, I wish only to sit in silence. Take it all in. Rest. The week has been long and testing. Another long night spent in the emergency room at the hospital, watching over my father, picking out the clues from what doctors would tell me and not tell me. After a battery of tests, another reprieve. He will be fine. But as his years collect, now in his 80s, I know I must count every year, every day, a particular blessing. I sit now on the stone bench overlooking a place of beauty, internal and external, and whisper a prayer of gratitude. I am in humble receipt of this gift.

And then, Ross is here.

We sit for a moment together, remarking on the beauty of this place, and then rise to walk its perimeter and find a spot at the bottom of the Quad. Here, we have a table under the oak trees so that I might take notes. For the next couple of hours, I am transported. Let no one talk to me of modern day youth who know nothing. Who care about nothing. Who wander shopping malls, don’t bother to vote, pursue empty pleasures, cause trouble for the sheer fun of it, and give no thought to tomorrow. There may be such. But then, there is also Ross. And the countless students I have met on this campus, no doubt mirroring similar students elsewhere, who care and care deeply. These young people give me hope when I lose it among those of my own, more cynical age. These youth are bright with it. They emanate an almost tangible light. Ross tells me of his two trips to Botswana, one for a few months, the other for the better part of a year, and yet another to Germany that tamed the young rebel in him and transformed him instead to a rebel with purpose. He understands hopelessness, too, does not have his head in the clouds. Sure, he speaks of walls that cannot be scaled, at least not easily. But he leans against them, these walls. He leans into them. He tosses a dream or two over to the other side, and now and then, someone tosses one back.

My notebook is filling fast with my scribbles of notes, the skeleton of what will be my story. But I am loathe to pay attention only to these scribblings. There are moments that I forget to write, and am caught in the blue gaze of those young eyes as I see them turn inward to an image only he can see, but is trying to share. Through him, I travel parts of the world, some where I, too, have been, some where I may never be. When our conversation wanders off topic a bit, we find shared tangents. He speaks of the beauty of old Europe, and mentions a short jaunt three years ago to a city called Riga, in the tiny country of Latvia. My home, I say, my other home … and we compare memories. Who would have thought, Ross says, tipping his head to one side and looking more closely at me. Such a fascinating thing, he says, to talk to a person, peel away the layers, and discover all that they are and what you may never have suspected from first glance …

I think that is why I so thrived on this campus. It is a place that contains all places. In every student, in every faculty member, staff member, there are a thousand and one stories, and even in a decade, I had only begun to scrape the surface … and if I ever did, there was an influx of freshmen, and a new wave of stories to discover. A small campus, but it was Rome, all roads leading to and from, to all corners of the earth. Meeting Ross, I discover he is the other half of a story I had written a few years back, when a new exchange program had opened doors to Botswana. Back then, I met a young woman, the first of two students sent here from the University of Botswana, in exchange for two Kalamazoo students sent there … and Ross was one of the latter. Her name was Pretty, and she was. Girlish giggles, but strong hearted, with a spirit of steely determination to succeed and the will and smarts to overcome all obstacles. Even after my story about Pretty was written and in print, I remained friends with this remarkable young woman, and still on occasion keep in touch, even as she has returned to her faraway home.

All roads lead to Rome, to K, and all roads, given time, pass by again. I sense the full circle nearing connection again. Ross is the mirror story of Pretty. The young American gone abroad to learn and discover how he is different, how he is the same. And the young woman from Botswana, going home having learned that lesson, too. Here I am, too, traveling my own spokes outward, yet regularly returning to the hub to find my own center—this necessary heart where all big dreams begin and take shape. There are decades between this young man and myself. He is at the brink, the first horizon. I am somewhere middling, pondering the final horizon of an aging father, pondering my own horizons and how to use the hard-won wisdom of the years to align my further travels. We blink in amazement at how many paths we have shared. Botswana friends and ancient Baltic cities. Discoveries that are new to him, rediscovered to me. When I point out to him the window in Mandelle that used to be mine, near hidden in the treetops of the great oaks, he smiles and says, oh, you can’t ever leave this place … not really. It gets into you, doesn’t it?

It does.

Life is a series of circles, I decide. Some edge always overlapping another. You can go home again—if perhaps only through the eyes of another.

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