The Ones Who Kept Me Warm

I often wonder if everyone suffers from nostalgia to the same degree that I do.

I don’t know what it is about me and the past. For some reason I have a difficult time letting go of people, places, periods of my life. I don’t like to admit that certain friendships or experiences are over. “Over” just seems so final.

With every transition in my life – from my childhood in upstate New York to Trinity College in Connecticut to my post-graduate life in St. Louis, and finally to Anderson, South Carolina – I left behind people that I had at one point laughed with, confided in, leaned on. High school teammates. College roommates. Colleagues. It wasn’t necessarily anyone’s fault that we eventually lost touch, and let’s face it, who really has room in their life for EVERY person they have ever cared about? It isn’t realistic. In fact, it’s kind of insane.

The thing is, my memories, though they may be slightly rose-colored by nostalgia, are attached to people, and I hate feeling as if they lose some of their joy because the co-stars of those memories are no longer in my life. Memorizing the security code to one of the fraternity houses so we could let ourselves into their kitchen after-hours. Workshopping poems while eating apples from our professor’s orchard. Living in a communist-era dormitory in Prague and learning how to navigate the language, the city, the culture. Singing karaoke. A lot of karaoke. (Because Lord knows it’s no fun to sing “I Would Do Anything for Love” alone.) Teaching on a team in which every other member was old enough to be my parent but none too old to be my friend.

Back in 2006 I was teaching part-time at John Burroughs, an independent school in St. Louis. One of the amazing things about this school was that it included a wilderness campus in the Ozarks, used for team-building as well as for science classes. As a first-year teacher I was sent away on the 7th-grade orientation trip and assigned a small group of 7th-graders to take out on “Solo”. ¬†Students were placed at intervals along a trail in the woods, and they would wait, by themselves (hence the name), for night to fall. After four hours or so in the freezing Ozark night a teacher would collect them and march them to the lodge to be rewarded for their bravery with hot chocolate and a fire. This was a rite of passage at Burroughs, an opportunity for the initiate class to face their fears and, hopefully, find some time to reflect and meditate.

As group leader I could choose whether I wanted to return to camp, checking on my students periodically, or conceal myself in the woods nearby, just in case anyone had a major panic attack. I chose the latter, partly because I wanted to see for myself what these kids were experiencing. I couldn’t imagine being asked to do this at the age of twelve, but as an adult I could see the value in taking on such a challenge. I, too, would go solo.

The dark was bad. The cold was worse. Every so often I checked my watch, sure that it would be time to take the kids back to the lodge, but time didn’t pass the same way in the woods as it did in civilization. So, to survive my own Solo, I made up a game. I would think about people I cared about, some of whom were currently in my life, some with whom I had already lost contact, and they would keep me warm. The friend I worked with at the pizzeria who cooked me his own creations during our shift because I needed “to put some meat on my bones.” The guy in college who I thought might be a love interest but ended up just being really, really nice. I visited him in his hometown once and we ate chicken patties with his dad while watching Jeopardy, then I drove back home without him ever trying anything. I thought about friends who would talk me through my problems until the sun came up. I thought about my sisters, who both went to Boston College and made sure, when I visited, to tell every guy we encountered how old I was: “This is my sister. She’s sixteen.”

It sounds weird, I know- fuzzy memory bubbles radiating light and heat – but I swear to God it worked. I wasn’t shivering anymore; my fingers and toes weren’t going numb. These past friends and acquaintances, many of whom would probably have never guessed they made the list, kept the cold at bay.

I would name all of them if I wasn’t a coward. It’s just that I don’t want to be that weird girl (strange that I still can’t bring myself to write “woman”) who somebody knew five, ten, fifteen years ago who randomly gets in touch and says, “You know what? You mattered to me, even if it was in some tiny, mundane way.” I don’t want to be someone who tries too hard to rekindle friendships that fizzled out long ago. I don’t want to look desperate, overcome by nostalgia, caught up in a past that no longer exists.

I guess the next best thing is to start now, to let there be no question – in my work relationships, my friendships, my family, my marriage – when somebody is making a difference in my life, making it better. Maybe if I take care of that business in the present, I’ll no longer need nostalgia.

So, on that note, if you are reading this, if you have supported this little passion of mine, thank you for being supportive. Thank you for helping me stay warm. You matter. Thank you.

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