Across the Universe—a musical set in the ‘60s but made in 2007, whose plot is inspired by a somewhat random assortment of Beatles songs—is an objectively terrible film, but it wormed its way into my heart the first time I saw it. Perhaps because it hijacked my preexisting love for the Liverpool lads’ simple, truthful songwriting; or perhaps because I was introduced to it by a guy who’d recently charmed me with his dark sideburns, quick tongue, and endless John Lennon trivia.
It may also have amused me because of one scene, when the scruffy main character Jude arrives off the boat from England and heads to Princeton University to try to find his father. There, Jude strikes up a friendship with a tousle-haired, preppy Princetonian, and they frolic around the campus to the tune of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” It’s the Hollywood ideal of college bacchanalia: They hit golf balls on the roofs of castle-like dorms and drunkenly slide down bannisters, before collapsing onto a couch in a wood-paneled dorm room. (For what it’s worth, some of the rooms I lived in had defunct, grand-looking fireplaces, but I mostly remember roaches.)
In some ways I hate the way Princeton is depicted in that film, and in pop culture generally—so perfect, so glorious, so carefree—when I know the reality to be so much more complicated. F. Scott Fitzgerald hasn’t helped matters by enshrining the place in his glittering prose, lending validity to the promotional brochures, full of smiles and promises of safety, that first enticed me in high school. It’s only been a year since I left, and Princeton still exists for me as contradictions: stressed despair and intellectual excitement, restlessness and pockets of contentment, aching loneliness and intimate conversation.
Princeton preserves its idealized image, and adds to its financial hoard, by hosting a reunions weekend every year in late May: a stationary booze cruise for which thousands of alumni return when the campus is at its most Disneyland-ish. Huge, old oaks with upstretched arms wave in the hot breeze over the turreted dorms, many modeled after buildings in Oxford and Cambridge, whose bricks are just a little too clean, grout a little too bright, roof shingles not quite moss-eaten enough.
I decided to go back for “reunions” last weekend primarily to see friends, some just about to graduate, some who had graduated before me, some who got their diplomas alongside me. As much as I like to jeer at the earnestness with which many alumni embrace their school pride—something I’ve always instinctively shrank from—I’m grateful for the institutional glue that brings so many of my favorite people back together.
The moment I stepped off the train my feet snapped effortlessly into the routes I’d walked so many times. It was strange, and at times overwhelming, to return to a place I’d spent four-and-a-bit years; a place where parts of me flourished and others withered; a place I’d been ready to leave behind. I often had to walk slowly and breathe, confronted with faces and emotional knots I’d forgotten about.
The Across the Universe scene came to mind as I looked up at the great, looming Blair Arch, with its noble clock face and imposing staircase overlooking a cove of green lawns and criss-crossing paths. The building features briefly in the onscreen revelry, but was the backdrop to many more banal scenes from my own time at Princeton—a seminar I had in the classroom above the archway; Saturday nights stumbling back to the entryway after my first sips of alcohol; tripping up the stairs and spilling coffee when late to a morning lecture.
It’s oddly fitting that, in film primarily about romantic love, the theme of the scene set at Princeton was friendship.
During my junior year, I first read Aristotle’s writing about philia—the ancient Greek word loosely translated as friendship—which so satisfyingly expressed things I’d sensed but never been able to articulate. Aristotle believed close friendship to be one the greatest goods we can possess, “a virtue … most necessary for our life. For no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.”
The whole reunions weekend flashed by in portraits of the different types of philia Aristotle identified, and that swirled in my brain throughout the year I wrote my senior thesis—whether friendships based on mutual pleasure or utility, whose basis is more fleeting; or deeper friendships based on character, the people who come to be our “second selves.” While the latter are the top of Aristotle’s hierarchy, all have their place.
I’m still processing the strangeness of seeing my close friends in brief bursts; the push-pull of slipping back into old rapport, while rushed by the desire to catch up fully, feelings struggling to unfold at their natural pace. I wished for more time with them, missing them and scared by the uncertainty of when I’ll see them again. But the knowledge that our friend-love exists gives me faith that our paths will drift back together.
I now see that at Princeton I spent too much time agonizing over the categories of friendship; I was preoccupied with achieving Aristotle’s vision of close friendship and pinning it down permanently. I’m now learning to allow my friendships to breathe and evolve as a complex web that takes strain differential at different times; not being overly controlling about which particular strand you think will serve you best. Perhaps my previous intellectual obsession with friendship was just a manifestation of feeling emotionally insecure, seeking new stability in others. I wonder whether the psychologist John Bowlby’s attachment theory explains the urge we all feel as 20-somethings to find a new secure emotional base in a turbulent phase of life, when family is starting to be left behind.
My friends are parts of myself—I see reflected in each of them facets of my own nature that I value and want to nurture. Restlessness of mind and the desire to create. The philosophical spirit to both think deeply and to put that thought into action, to self-reflect and self-improve. Warmth, earnestness, kindness, and generosity. An attitude of sarcasm and goofiness to lighten the heaviness when you have an intense mind that sometimes takes life too seriously.
On my last afternoon, as I walked towards the train with one pair of friends, our path was blocked by a long line of black-robed seniors, all looking identical in their flat caps. I heard a call and squinted to see a friend I first made a couple of summers ago—her round sunglasses on, her beaming tanned face—alongside her best friend, who has now also become one of mine. Out of all the hundreds of kids lining up, there they were, right in front of me. With beaming smiles, strong hugs, and I-love-yous, I felt a twinge of pride and sadness, heard them laughing as I walk away.
I can tell I still haven’t fully befriended Princeton itself, because when people ask me about it, I’m often reticent to give them the glowing answer that I feel I should give, out of duty, out of acceptance of the privilege I had in being able to go there. My mother told me I need to wait longer, that I shouldn’t force myself to figure it out—and I’m sure she’s right. Separating the institution from the experience; the education from the social life; the individuals from the groups; I imagine all of these threads will grow less tangled with the distance afforded by time.
Earlier this week, after returning to my life in DC, I went for a run but grew too tired to make it all the way home. So I walked most of the way along the path that runs along the edge of the Potomac, the top of the Capitol and pointy Washington monument peeking over the tops of the opposite bank. As I passed tufts of wild grasses, butterflies, and bees, in the air were little seeds adrift on their parachutes of cottony white: some caught on a puff of breeze and carried far from the others, some drifting together on parallel paths close enough to whisper to each other, but all moving in the same vague direction.
I’ve struggled to think of Princeton as a home. But the friends I made there—all of us floating on the breeze, dispersing and coming together again, sharing tales from our adventures when our paths overlap—are family.
(I took all these photos almost exactly a year ago, when I was graduating.)