Forty-five years ago, a small band of 20-something’s were empowered by Cornell University to guide and grow a “Residential College for the Creative and Performing Arts.” It was an interesting choice. The 5 of us — 4 Resident Advisers and a Head Resident — took it very seriously, and, well, it was 1975.

Our dorm was reinvented by the university to have arts festivals, concerts, and lectures; all were woven with self-governance, a budget, and the 256 students (1/2 male and 1/2 female), largely gender-separated by room and (gasp!) using coed bathrooms. We even built a theater — the only student run venue at Cornell, even to this today.

It was a time of sex, drugs, and living a life common to many at the end of high school: rejection by colleges — for me, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale (I was dumped by the first two). Being trapped in upstate New York amid life telling you to “brace yourself” made for psychodrama. I interceded in two suicide attempts. In these two years of wildly great times, Jim was a ring leader, our Resident Director who seemed fully grown at 25. He had all of our hopes, talent, and flaws. He was mercurial, often drunken, and very much in love with several different women in any given week. Jim wasn’t exactly the poster child of Residence Life Protocol. We were in a delirious bubble where we accommodated rules, but largely wrote our own.
There were risky behaviors everywhere, and that was part of the decade, but also due to our personalities. In making so many events and expressions in the arts, academic careers and emotional stability were compromises. But there was great joy that now feels like divine providence. I think now of errors and outcomes, and it is a miracle that we avoided any number of practical tragedies that our sons’ collegiate dormitories were fully devoted to avoiding. But we did somehow. Our reckless yearnings and half-baked ideas of fun were themselves expressions of that capacity for a joy and grace that is given, not earned.

Looking back now, it’s odd that, when we lived together 45 years ago, most of our lives trailed down to a common Truth. In the chaos, we came to realize that God was always with us throughout our clueless escapades. Extremity in creation, empowerment, humor and risk, amid chemical and emotional intoxication, were a touch of what that world, that moment, offered. The bliss of controlling a moment, falling into pleasure head first, endangering everything to simply express living is but a glorious shadow of our eternal fate.

We eventually came to find His Love rather than the explosive love of the 1970s. After our shared window of Complete Joy that He gave us for a couple of years, God ended up being part of our lives. While moralists might have judged, God remained without accusation. God always plays the long game, patiently waiting for prodigals whose youthful enthusiasm for life eventually turns to the Source of life itself.
In the silent dark of the Covid Insomnia many of us are now experiencing, a text popped up on my phone at 4 am: “Jim had a stroke last week.” He had been sober for almost forty years, had an exquisite and devoted wife, and gloriously beautiful daughters. Now a grandchild. And a stroke. The internet brought us together, nearly twenty years after we graduated, and the sense of our extraordinary efforts being worth the risks is our common memory. We all came to see the wildness of our pasts as a gift, because we found that God is unrelenting. Each of us found love, each of us had children, and each of us will die. In the path to death, the joy never ends either.

In a weird time of imposed self-indulgence in Covid Behavior Modification, it might be good to pause and remember when our lives were so vividly animated by our joy, our work, and the miracles we make. Those times eventually end, because life, here, now, ends — no matter how well we sequester, get sober, or devote ourselves to those we love. The assortments of our memories may be sacred or profane, blissful or tragic, mundane or sublime, but to God they are mere steps on our journey home.

My friend returned from the hospital today, with nothing connected between his brain and his right side. But we are connected, his family is fully with him. But I am guessing that he is fully aware that God is holding him.

Because He never stopped.