It felt like homecoming as soon as I landed at RDU, as I had so many times a year, so many years ago. The airport had changed in many ways without really changing at all. Perhaps that was true of me as well.
I had never been back for a reunion, had only attended one Duke event in DC over the eight years since graduation. I had given away most of my Duke clothes, content to part ways with the past, eager for a future, though I tell myself that it is the in-between that really matters.
The first impression Durham gives is that of friendliness. The cabby, originally of Nigeria, spoke to me of the importance of kindness, of his duty as a driver to provide a good experience for his passengers. My airbnb hostess was texting me: her house is fifth on the left of the street, behind the garden trellis; she had turned on the porch lights, would meet me outside. I was accustomed to the apathy of city folk, had forgotten the country air of North Carolina. I felt pampered.
Millie led me through the garden, down stone steps into the backyard, up onto a porch outfitted with two wooden rocking chairs, and into my very own apartment-for-a-week. It is the entire first floor of the house, which was built, in 1940, when the whole neighborhood still belonged to one family with cows to pasture. Today, the house has old blonde wooden floors and smells of incense, just like my city home, and is decorated in a delicate balance of paisley, ikat, and ornate candle stands. I leaned my guitar against the wall, put my bag down, and walked myself to Whole Foods.
This was the first time I had ever walked through central campus. I pulled a printed map out of my backpack twice, just to be sure I was walking through the present instead of the past.
Though Central was dark and mostly unfamiliar-feeling, I knew well the palpable embrace of Duke University. The air is full of the gentle promise that you are a well-cared-for child. I was grinning ear to ear, remembering how undergraduate-megna couldn’t believe how grown up the apartments felt, but still never wanted to go to central, and certainly never walked all the way over there. 30-year-old megna likes to take two hour long walks into the woods every day, has a sense of direction, and finally figured out that central campus lies geographically between east and west campus. (Yes, really.)
I walked along Erwin and passed two people who were so quintessentially Duke Undergrads that I had to make a serious effort to smile less and assume some semblance of normality.
Just beyond East campus is a little neighborhood that gives an ambiance of “town.” New restaurants had come into being, and I was so happy to see the cuteness of it all. I walked into a new place called Hippie Hale, an apparent haven for acai bowls, made-to-order salads, and vats of interesting iced teas (to remind you that this is the South). I was informed, kindly, that Hippie Hale closes at 8pm. I was in a daze of travel through both space and time. So I asked: What time is it? 8:15pm, I was informed. Ok, and I turned, walked the long way to Whole Foods, admiring the newness/sameness of 9th Street, until I was taking in the newness/sameness of the Whole Foods, which was my first ever Whole Foods, where freshman-megna made the monumental discovery of Pink Lady apples and fresh ground peanut butter. I went to get a little dinner from the prepared food section, which at 8:30pm on Sunday is populated by absent minded professor-types.
There was also one singularly beautiful man, who was standing with the roasted sweet potatoes, which somehow made him a little more beautiful to me. He was just ahead of me on the checkout line, looking like maybe an undergraduate athlete, definitely a foot taller than me, moving his arm and wrist in a way that told me he was bizarrely stiff in his pecs. I was intrigued. He went to sit for dinner, in the new/same seating area inside Whole Foods. I went to join him. (Hi! Can I sit with you?) He told me of his life as a musician, traveling the world, turning 21 in Japan, playing with musicians who had played for Prince. After dinner he carried my shopping basket as I picked up Pink Lady apples, fresh ground peanut butter, and six bars of dark chocolate. I felt compelled to explain that some of them were going to be gifts, and I can only presume that he felt compelled to believe me.
I woke the next morning just as I do in DC: without any real idea of what the day would bring, much less the week. I began with unpacking my little weekender bag: one foam roller, one yoga mat, two pairs black leggings, one tee shirt, three long-sleeve shirts, shorts, and not much else. I foam rolled. I meditated. I gently reminded the universal spirit that I like her attention. Then I looked up the Evolutionary-Anthropology course schedule for Spring 2018. I realized my favorite teacher was teaching my favorite class in 75 minutes and I had no idea how to get to West Campus but kind-of-sort-of remembered how to get from the Chapel to Science Drive and please-please let me have time to pick up a cup of tea because I had never taken that class without a large latte in my hand.
I did my best to look my best in under ten minutes (no one had seen me in a decade, my god) and was out the door with my backpack stocked with: a notebook, HB and 4B pencils, dark chocolate, house key. I stopped for a cup of tea, and was momentarily stunned when the girl at the register asked me for Food Points*. And though I ended up early to class (after asking only one very busy undergrad for directions), I didn’t sit down and sketch. I was just staring at it all. The kids looking like kids, walking around in sweats, eating snacks, busy with MacBooks and midterms. The athletes still sit together, still favor the fringe of the classroom. And though I felt inclined to sit surreptitiously in the back of the room, I sat front row, center, out of deference to undergraduate-megna and her latte.
Brian walked in to lecture and gave the perfect look of joyful surprise to see me in class. I, like an adult, stood, asked about his family, and did my best not to ask questions during the completely inspiring lecture.
I hadn’t been in an academic classroom in years, though I teach, and have teachers. The classes I’ve become accustomed to conduct learning without chairs or chalkboards or peer reviewed citations. I teach with my body as much as I teach with my words, and so I sat in the lecture room feeling my spine and gaze and breath as I learned of the phylogenetic differences in the nerve cells and cognition of primates. I was enthralled, recalling the academic discourse that was once my primary language, and feeling grateful that $200,000 ten years ago covered the occasional class today.
We went down to the lab after class, where Brian introduced me to his lab manager (class of 2016). I was introduced as having worked in the lab my senior year, which I didn’t think I had, and said something to that effect, confusing everyone until Congo the dog came and overwhelmed us with his cuteness. Part of the lab was under construction: a new home for new puppies was underway, and outside, a new play yard was being designed for them, so that undergraduates could come play with puppies and the lab could study the cognition of canines. It all felt very normal, very Duke. Of course, the cute puppies. Of course, for cognitive science.
I had dark chocolate (Theo; sea salt and almond) for breakfast at 2pm, walking past the Chapel and Nasher back to my little rented home for a shower, yoga practice, and an apple before meeting a friend. We hadn’t kept in touch over the past decade, but he was finishing Duke medical school soon, and came to pick me up for dinner. Colin parked his car, stepped out to greet me at my door, and walked me to his car, reminding me again that this is the South, where men can be gentlemen. Colin took me on a lovely tour of “downtown”, telling me about all that was changing over his decade in Durham, and let me pick a place to eat. He had a margarita for dinner; I had lemon water. We talked for hours, left happy and walked past a shop of beaded jewelry, tie die dresses, and little figurines of Eastern deities, which told me that good things were happening in Durham. We visited the new ice cream shop, where Colin had a double-scoop and I had oat-milk hot chocolate and we laughed about the nutritional choices of a doctor and a yogi.
I continued eating like an undergraduate for the rest of the week, meaning bananas here and there, occasional meals from the (brand new, eco-lux, award-winning-gourmet) dining hall, plus prodigious quantities of peanut butter. On campus, I could feel the intensity of Midterm Week, as well as the beauty of spring, which comes so early here. The daffodils were pushing up buds when I arrived; were blooming several inches tall by the time I left. Ducks guarded their nests in the gardens; frogs sang their wet songs nearby. When I woke on Wednesday, it was nearly 70 degrees and I was nearly besides myself. I couldn’t get outside quickly enough.
One of the most beautiful parts of Duke’s campus, besides the epic Chapel and Gothic stone work and new glass-and-wood buildings, is the Gardens. Sculptured fountains rest among landscaped terraces, winding gravel pathways lead to tucked-away Japanese meditation houses, tiny bridges arc over creeks and little waterfalls. I took my yoga mat to one of these little bridges and practiced for hours, listening to the music of the waterfall beside me, becoming closer and closer the trees that stretched all the way into the sky, feeling truly at home on earth, with her pine needles and grassy hills and soft support.
After a shower and a two minute banana-almond-butter breakfast, I was back in the gardens. I had no obligations other than to enjoy wearing shorts in February. I watched a photographer taking pictures of a man whose dreadlocks were about as long as I was tall. I tried not to watch them but you know, I love photoshoots, and somehow I ended up within their shoot. We walked the garden for an hour or two, the three of us. I did most of the modeling; the Jamaican rasta acted sometimes as director and sometimes as photographer, his girlfriend was all sweetness. They were beautiful, that couple. We gave many hugs before I went back onto campus to sit on the plaza, in the sunshine, waiting for a new friend (class of 2016) to come meet me.
The plaza was new when I was an undergraduate and busy shuttling myself from class to the libraries to the gym and back again. And because I didn’t have homework or exams or even any desire to workout anymore, I felt inspired to live: I sat on the plaza steps, let the sun tan my bare legs, listening to the Chapel bells sing for 5pm. When Kyle came, wearing one of those quarter-zip pullovers that Duke boys love, we sat a while in the sunshine and nostalgia before setting off to walk through the gardens and central campus to 9th street, where I wanted Hippie Hale and another apple from Whole Foods.
Talking and walking with Kyle reminded me of everything I loved about living in Duke. Each person is some unique kind of intelligent, passionate about something big, and casually carrying around the kind of talents that would define the life of an ordinary person. Kyle loves studying animals and traveling to places like Madagascar, plays multiple instruments and, like today-me, has a penchant for rewriting lyrics to well known songs. We sat outside in shorts and tee shirts for hours, talking of electricity and evolution, friendships and travels, Orion’s belt and the moon’s pull on the tides. As we spoke, I felt how my years in DC softened the scientist in me, but also taught me how to relax into the unexpected, and recognize the people I would want to know forever.
It was dark when we walked the two blocks from 9th to Whole Foods, and then the few steps onto the athletic fields of East Campus. East is exclusively for freshman: each new Duke student is randomly sorted into houses, each of which has a personality. This was my first time on East campus in perhaps a decade, or more, because I lived on West Campus from sophomore to senior year, in one of those Gothic stonework towers overlooking a courtyard. I lived in southern-brick Giles as a freshman and very excitedly tried to figure out how to first of all, find the building, and second of all, visit my old room, 111. Kyle was game. I asked a (very busy) freshman which dorm was Giles, and she gave us directions so wildly incorrect that even I knew not to follow them. When we found Giles, we stood casually/awkwardly outside the door, which could only be opened by a freshman or an RA.
Nearly everybody over the age of 18 looks awkward when standing in a freshman dorm. Imagine Kyle and I, 24 and 30 years old respectively, standing open mouthed at the state-of-the-art glass structure that was the Giles first floor common room. What is this? we wondered, watching the freshman for a few moments too long, before walking down the hallway, past the professional-grade kitchen(which looked just as unused as it was in 2006), to the hallway that was my home once upon a freshman time. We used to have keys back then: thick, brass keys that were engraved with the university name. Today, each room has card swipe and pin code access; black boxes of technology are surreally installed above the old locks. Nobody had white boards on their doors anymore, perhaps because Snapchat exists. And no one was in room 111.
We left Giles and walked along Erwin back towards West campus, talking of thievery and tunneling. When I came home, it was after 9pm, and I felt both inspired and grounded, which almost never happens. I got on my yoga mat, went upside down for an hour, had a banana, and went to bed.
I didn’t have a daily yoga practice when I was an undergraduate. I knew how to dance, and work out, and diet, but I didn’t really know how to hear my body, or nauli kriya my belly, or ask myself what I needed in order to feel my best. I didn’t spend much time playing in the gardens, or taking absurdly long walks, or asking beautiful strangers if I could join them for dinner. But damn was I a good thinker.
Thursday morning came; I spent hours on my mat in the gardens, moving through standing postures, seated folds and twists, big backbends, until I was, again, a child of nature. Another banana and a few dates with almond butter was breakfast at 1pm; I put a box of blueberries and a coconut water in my backpack and walked over to West for class.
It was somehow thrilling to walk into SocPsych, where I had spent so many hours every week so many years ago, back when there was no such class as Psychology of Mindfulness. It was 75 degrees and sunny as we sat inside, looking out the third floor windows onto the rooftops of other Gothic buildings framed by blue skies, bare winter branches. As a class, we practiced loving kindness meditation, then learned of positive and negative emotional affect from both experimental and evolutionary psychology perspectives, and then practiced compassion meditation and learned of the differences between self-esteem and self-compassion. It was two and a half hours of theory that supported everything that I felt and taught back in DC, where I experiment with my own practice and live my own results.
The twin inspirations of class and sunshine had me beaming. I went to the dining hall to refill my glass bottle with orange-and-ginger infused water (yet another Alumni perk), then found myself again on the plaza, sunshine on bare legs, eating blueberries one at a time, watching the undergrads go by until I saw someone who was also 20 minutes early for our coffee plans.
Simon was a graduate student, TA for one of my classes, and my research mentor when I was an undergraduate. We had spent some evenings pouring over DTI drawings in the lab and some Saturdays handling excel files, which is how I learned to love the life of an academic. Simon was one of the first people I looked up after booking my flight to RDU, and I felt immediately and ridiculously proud to see him listed as a Professor with Duke Neurology. We took his cappachino and my matcha to the gardens, sat on the terrace, and talked in the sunshine. He affirmed that I did, in fact, work for Brian my senior year.
Every Duke professor that I reconnected with spoke to me in much the same way: so happy to see you, where are you living, and how can I help you in your life. It was incredible to me, especially the last part. These busy, brilliant people are immensely generous, caring, and nurturing. I hadn’t come to campus with any particular needs in mind, but with every renewed connection, I found more and more inspiration to integrate my prior life as a scientist with my current life as a yogi-artist.
Simon and I parted ways at the new glass-and-wood home of the Duke Institute of Brain Sciences, where hangs a photo of Simon’s brain right next to a photo of his wife’s brain. It was romantic, in a very Duke Neuroscience way. I spent that evening with the undergrads in Perkins, pulling peer reviewed papers, exploring the Stacks, and generally enjoying the immensity of Duke’s library resources.
Friday morning was cold, and I went to practice under the trees anyway, inspired to become one with nature no matter her temperament. I came back to my week’s home for a blissfully hot shower, sunlit time on the guitar, and walked over to the gym to meet Lisa for lunch.
Lisa has inspired me in so many directions that just her name sits me back with a smile. She has been Duke’s director of athletics for as long as I have been doing anything at all, and is positively ageless. I took her Pilates class for course credit twice when I was an undergrad and remember thinking: I would switch legs with Lisa any day. She took me to a basketball game once, where we sat with the adults, overlooking my classmates as Cameron Crazies, and talked of the search for love and spirituality. In my senior year, she hired me to teach cycling classes, which was my entrance into group fitness and the avenue I followed upon leaving academia in 2013.
Each time I saw Lisa this week felt like reuniting with a long lost sister, partially because we have managed to become the same age but also because we are engaged in more or less the same occupation of teaching yoga, encouraging fitness, and avoiding drama.
On Friday, we took our poke bowls (yes, from the dining hall: today, Duke students can sit at a sushi bar on their parent’s dime) to the Chapel steps, where the sun was so glorious that I was glad to have brought a tee shirt and hoped none of the old white men milling about in black suits took any notice of me changing clothes in the most photographed spot of Duke’s campus. I succeeded, in what I can only presume was covert manner, when Lisa helpfully pointed out that my tee shirt was on backwards but don’t worry, just a quick tuck of arms in, twist of top, and yes, good to continue talking of finding love and practicing yoga and responsibly applying instagram filters to selfies.
I walked Lisa back to her car, listening to her speak and laughing so hard that the West Campus undergraduates were disturbed from their reverie and frankly, a small part of me was also wondering if it was normal to feel laughter-sensations up inside my ribcage. But it didn’t matter. We were busy looking forward to the day when we are old enough to chide the Duke girls (young lady! young LADY!!) for showing too much ass cheek under their shorts because, good gracious, this is NOT the beach.
I write this on Saturday, sitting on a beautiful boulder in the Duke Gardens, where it is so hot that my shirt and shoes are next to me, and my shorts are brief enough to allow the coolness of the stone to temper the heat of the sun. There are no longer any divisions between the past scientist and the present yogi, no regrets for the life I lived then nor longing for the life I could be living if-only. I feel this sense of belonging, of being at home, of being here, now. Gone is the feeling of nostalgia that accompanied me yesterday evening while walking home from campus, not sure when I would return, and who would I be when I did.
*Food Points are integral to Duke culture. They are money, but not money. You can decide if you are the kind of person who wants a Large amount of Food Points, or maybe Medium, or even Small. They roll over from fall to spring but not from spring to fall. There is a weird pressure to use all the food points by LDOC**, and the tantalizing ability to use Food Points at very classy Duke venues like the Nasher and the WaDuke. In this way, undergraduates impress their visiting parents by lavishly paying for their parents’ meals with their parents’ money. This mitigates the insult of living for four years with single ply toilet paper.
**University funded mayhem.