I'm back in the bosom of my alma mater, on a fellowship at the rare books libary. Being here has been weird, but pleasant. But also weird.
Aside from the city where I grew up, I've lived nowhere as long as I lived here--and although I can't imagine a set of circumstances that would return me again for any length of time, you never know: the woman I'm subletting from turns out to have been in my undergraduate class; like me, she came back for graduate school, and now teaches at a university 40 minutes away. Her landlord? Also from my graduating class. As is another of the building's tenants. Today I'm having lunch with a college friend who recently moved back as well.
I guess people are always doing that--moving back to places they've lived in before, or just not leaving in the first place--but continually returning and continually leaving is an especially estranging experience. When I returned here for graduate school, after a couple of years away, I occasionally had moments of feeling unstuck in time: walking across the main quadrangle, I'd suddenly forget where I was going, or what year it was: I was going to meet HK for dinner in her dining hall, right? No, wait: she'd graduated three years ago and now lived in D.C.
It was strange being back in a place that I'd once known so well, and where every corner had associations with my younger self. For a couple of years, I described the experience to people as what I imagined living in the same city or small town all one's life would be like: having layer upon layer of different memories attached to the same places.
But I now think that's wrong. If you live all your life in the same place, you have a sense of progress and continuity; the town changes as you do. I have all kinds of relationships with this institution and with this city, but they're not continuous: I've come and gone, as an undergraduate, an alumna, a graduate student, a city resident, a commuter, and effectively an adjunct.
Now I'm a fellow, and a temporary resident of a neighborhood I didn't previously know. But as I walk to campus I walk past the apartment I sublet for a summer when I was 20 and working a 9-5 job. I stop in at the coffee shop I discovered as a freshman, returned to in grad school, and where union representatives still tirelessly organize. I pass the health plan and remember what a long schlep it was from the train station when I was commuting. And as I approach the rare books library, I can see, in my mind's eye, the photo of me and my roommate standing there at our college graduation. I have another photo, shot in the same location, where I'm in my doctoral robes.
I like myself plenty, but running into all these previous selves is getting exhausting.