"Oooh, here's my classroom building!" I told my children. "And here's Daddy's! He spent hours and hours of his life in there! And here's the apartment building where we lived when we met! And here's the library! The bookstore! The statues!" The more I tried to recreate the enthusiasm I'd felt when I was going to college so that my little friends could understand, the more I realized that I really, really couldn't.
We were walking around the campus of our alma mater, having stopped there for a little while on the way home from back-to-back family reunions, exulting over all the little places where things had happened, the places we remembered so well. It's been fourteen years now since we left town, and campus, and we, have changed a bit since we parted. I was aware that we're no longer the backpack-wearing proto-adults we once were, striding around in our native environment, but visitors, surrounded by a crowd of statue-climbing, flowerbed-trampling hooligans with a couple of gangly half-grown humans thrown in just to prove our age. I saw the spark of excitement in the faces of the students everywhere, and I wondered whether they had something that we, outsiders now, had lost.
I was baffled by my lack of ability to hand over my college experience wholesale to the crew. We walked through empty buildings, peeked into empty classrooms with rows of desks and blackboards, and I began to see that what I was pointing out, pretty and formal as it was, was just a container. The whole huge imposing place is set up to hold something else.
I began to think, what was it that made this place, this time spent in this big container of a college campus, so magical? And, as is usually the case, I realized it was me. Well, judging from the goofy, dreamy grin on my husband's face, not just me.
I am a plant person, might as well own it. My default flowerpot for picking metaphors from is decidedly botanical. And I thought, the reason that I loved this place and time so much was that it was a meristem for me. On plants, meristems are the growing points. The bundles of undifferentiated cells at the ends of stems or roots that could become anything, a flower or leaf bud, more stem or root. What's between the meristem and the rest of the plant has already been decided, is now a twig, and must now perform the function of a twig forever. But out there at the end, where the plant is pushing outward into unknown space, anything could happen.
Those years at college were just such a time for me. And maybe that's why college itself becomes a magical place, because so many people are having those meristem experiences in the same place at the same time. All the questions are being asked. What will I study? What friends and more-than-friends will I make? Where will I live when this is over? Who am I? Where do I fit? And so on, endlessly. We're each a ball of green and growing cells, waiting to burst out into whatever directions we can find. And this, unfortunately, is something that has to be experienced to be understood. It's at this point that adults have to retreat behind phrases like, "You won't understand until you do it yourself," and children are frustrated, thinking they're deliberately hiding something. Not so, I find now. It just can't really be described adequately, and this is the surrender of someone who realizes it's futile to try.
While musing on this, I saw a picture my sister posted on Instagram. It showed her little dog in her empty and cleaned living room, in the final moments before she said goodbye to her home to move away to California. I clicked on the heart, and tried to say something. "I'm glad for your adventure but sorry you're moving away from me," I wrote, and deleted it. No use bringing her down when she's already probably pretty tender. "Best of luck with everything!" I wrote, and deleted that too. That sounds like I don't care that she's abandoning the east coast for the west, and I really do. So I closed Instagram and thought. What do I really mean to say? What is it that would help most both to say, and to hear said?
Now I have to pause to teach you more about how amazing plants are. When you prune a plant, say, a fruit tree, or a bush next to the front steps, you've cut off all the meristems. There they are, lying in a pile next to your feet, slowly dying while they wait for you to haul them off to the burn pile. For a while the plant is shocked. Oh my, it thinks, (in the way that plants do, which is not like you and I do, don't forget that or you'll never prune anything again) all my growth points are gone. I can no longer grow. For a few days it seems to be sulking, but things are going on that you can't see. In no time at all, every tip where you cut off a branch becomes a meristem. Now the plant can get on with its life. The twigs will almost certainly grow in a different direction than they did before, but they'll grow, and chances are, if you're a good gardener, and have chosen carefully what to prune off, the plant will be stronger and more useful (beautiful, productive, shading, or whatever you need it to be) than it was before.
Finally I realized that all of that was what I was thinking as I looked at the picture of the little dog in the empty living room. Leaving a home, and a community, feels in a way like dying. It certainly feels like someone has taking the pruning shears, sharpened them up (or not), and lopped off a good deal of your already-completed growth. But, shocked though you may be, remember that the meristem is coming. After the pruning comes the ability to grow in all kinds of directions you hadn't before. Maybe in directions you couldn't before. It is very tough to type all of that on the frustratingly tiny keys of my phone.
Meristems, I wanted to say to her. The growth happens at the meristems.
Maybe this is why we find children so fascinating, and feel instinctively that they're so precious. Every day is a day that could determine a new direction of growth for them. They're all meristem, no woody growth behind them at all. Maybe we watch with a hint of jealousy, or regret about some of our own old growth. Maybe we watch them to learn, because really, our growth points never die, no matter how brushy we get with age. Even venerable old trees, having reached their ultimate height, will send out new shoots if a branch is torn off in a storm.
And where are we in all of this? Seeing others growing lushly around us or having just been pruned, where (it always comes back to this) do I fit? Having been fairly recently pruned back rather hard myself, along with my family, I am pleased to see new and healthy growth in all kinds of directions, some of which I could never have predicted. Plants, and people, will thrive if given half a chance. So I suppose that those fresh-faced college students don't have something we've lost. Although it may look different now, and certainly not like we expected, we've all still got it.