Monday, April 18, 2011

Celebration Weekend, or why I love my college town

Having made the wise financial decision to skip Homecoming at EIU last fall, I made plans instead to make the trip down for my favorite on-campus shindig - Celebration, a Festival of the Arts. I always enjoyed it when I was a student, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to head to Charleston, see friends and immerse myself in all I love about my little college town.

The drive down sucked. I chose a rainy, windy Friday night. Anyone who has ever driven 57 south knows it's no fun in the wind. It's less fun when it's dark and rainy and you're driving a kite. But no matter, I made it ... even though it took me five hours. (To be fair, I stopped to pee, fill the gas tank and get food.)

Taking exit 190B onto 16 to head in to Charleston always gives me a little rush of excitement. Yeah, I know it sounds stupid ... but I don't care. The flood of memories just can't be held back, as I anxiously await my first glimpse of "the castle" - Old Main, off in the distance. Lit up against the night sky, there it was, the iconic structure that welcomes you to EIU. Thank you, old friend. It's good to see you, too.

Turning toward downtown, I headed for "the square", and the home of Erin Potter and Chunk Rice, my hosts for the weekend. Their house is, in some ways, a typical college house, complete with uneven floors, doors that don't latch and drafty windows. But it's also the perfect little haven for studying or visiting. Erin has a little studio for just herself and painting. There's a guest room just for me at the top of the stairs. And they have furnished it in a way that's both casual and comfortable; it reminds me of my own place when I was a student.

Erin and Chunk ... aren't they cute?

So we settled in and the conversation flowed. Erin poured us each a glass of wine and we chatted about everything and nothing; a true college experience, I hadn't realized it when the clock turned 1 a.m., well past my bed time.

The next morning we stumbled, bleary-eyed, to the kitchen for coffee and a slow wake-up call. By 10 we were making our way to What's Cookin' for breakfast (plus strawberry bread to go.) I'm not sure if the food there was always that greasy and I just didn't care, or if it's gotten that way over the years, but let's just say I'm not in a big hurry to rush back there again. A little disappointing.

Not as disappointing, however, as realizing the Will Rogers Theater is closed. But ... that's where I saw "Babe 2: Pig in the City"! How could they close it down? From what Chunk said, AMC bought all the theaters in town, and that one wasn't paying its rent. G'bye, sweet old place. Oh, and AMC? You suck.
The Will ... and me, holding my loaf of Strawberry Bread.

Back home we headed; I was in desperate need of a shower. We hung out at home for awhile, watching hockey, reading and relaxing. There was a definite chill in the air, so we weren't in a big hurry to get to campus for carnival food. Eventually, the Redwings won and we were ready to head to the quad.

IT WAS COLD. Seriously. Our fingers were frozen, so we didn't linger any longer than it took to eat a funnel cake, barbecued chicken, crab Rangoon and a shish-ke-bob. Instead, we walked through the rehabbed Booth Library; wow, is it gorgeous! Then we made our way over to the Botany department's prairie plant sale, where I bought goodies for Dad and Jenn. Seemed like the right thing to do, seeing as it was April 16 - seven years after the day Mom died. She would have loved the plant sale. She probably would have bought them all.

The clock tower.

We made our way to the Doudna Fine Arts Center, an incredible work of art in its own right. Erin does most of her schoolwork here, and I was able to see several of her projects - complete, or in the process. Beautiful stuff; she's quite a talented young lady. So we hung out in that gorgeous building for a little while longer, and then headed back home to warm up before heading back to campus.

Dr. Patricia Poulter, Interim Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities - and more importantly, my friend - was incredibly kind, securing tickets for Chunk, Erin and I with her group for the showcase concert of Celebration. The Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars were nothing short of breathtaking. From their moving, percussive entrance through the final note of the last song, it was an evening I'll not soon forget.

In the middle of their second song, I thought to myself, "Are we really gonna sit here like polite white people while these incredible musicians have all the fun?" And then, it happened. The hippies decided it was time to dance. In a patchouli-scented crowd, they moved toward the stage, jumping, dancing ... joyful. It took only moments before Lumi, a friend of Patty and therefore a friend of mine, got up to dance. When Patty requested I go along, who was I to question it? I got up. I danced. And if you'll pardon me while I sound a little "out there," but ... there was a definite feeling of unity.

I looked around, and there were just people, dancing. Old, middle-aged, young, stoned, stone-cold sober, good dancer, good smiler, it didn't matter. We were all up there for just one reason: to experience the music. And it was certainly something to behold. I didn't dance through the entire show, however. Through most of it, I sat next to my friend (and Patty's husband) Brian, who is one of the funniest people I have ever met. Simply put, I love these people

Following the concert, "the kids" and I headed to Roc's for a pint. We chatted, I thoroughly enjoyed my Harp, and we wound down. My mini-vacation was almost over. My last night on the air mattress was a rough one, because the nip in the air seemed to get right into my bones. But I finally slept and was up early, enjoying a cup of coffee in the quiet of early morning.

The kids got up to say goodbye, and I headed out to church. Patty is the choir director at Wesley Methodist in Charleston; it was the perfect place to be on Palm Sunday. I got to meet her pastor, see her friend Harry again (he came to the Saturday concert with us, and is also the church organist) and meet her grandson and son-in-law. It is so clear how much Calvin loves his grandma Patty; I think he'd still be hugging her if he could've gotten away with it!

And then, it was time to say yet another goodbye. Patty and I agreed that I should come down for a visit this summer, when Brian is away on what seems to be the annual bike trip. I miss her spirit; she's awesome, and I'm looking forward to going back to see her and the dogs, and meet the cats.

Heading home, I decided to take the long way. See, when you take interstate 57, it's all about getting to your destination. But when you take 47, it's the journey that's important, and not finally getting to the end. I drove through Gibson City, where they've torn down the Rock-n-Roll McDonald's in favor of a fancier building. I looked in awe at the Cayuga Ridge South Wind Farm, just south of Dwight, as I passed acres and acres of huge wind turbines, their arms spinning in a natural-power ballet. And yes, I stopped in Dwight at the gas station where Dad once had to pick me up, after the struts on the old Ford Probe gave me the finger.

Wind farm ... so majestic.

Soon, I was pulling into Dad's driveway, having made the journey I'd made so many times before. There is something about going "home" after spending some time in college, even years after you graduated. It never gets old. We visited, and I took home a care package of homemade cookies and granola. We talked about Mom and Alex tried to make me feel guilty for not staying to dinner and there was laughter all around. It was the perfect way to end my trip, but the trip wasn't quite over yet

No, I still had an hour to drive until I got home, and then a few loads of laundry before I could truly relax. The chores were done by 7 and it was time to breathe slowly and get ready for a new week, leaving the weekend behind me. And yet, while it's back there, a part of the recent past, some things will stick with me.

Things like strawberry bread (which I think it's stuck to my hips) and African rhythms, laughter and coffee, hugs and eating crab Rangoon in the cold. It was one of those weekends that makes you realize that, sometimes, it is totally worth the effort it takes to completely shake up your routine.


Michelle said...

I feel like such a dork for only now realizing you had a of too! Color me self a sorbed! And a great blog at that. I really, really enjoyed reading about your weekend. Had I been there, I'd have danced too. I now have an over powering urge to find some patchouli to wear and to discover for myself this magic sounding thing called strawberry bread!

Michelle said...

Oh gosh. I'm posting using my iPhone while at work. Please forgive all the crazy typos!!

Maggie Bieritz said...

Ha ha, Michelle ... we're all dorks from time to time. Welcome to my blog!