By Bradley Naranch, Class of 1996
I left Williams College in the late summer of 1996, several months after graduating summa cum laude with highest honors in History and German. I have not returned since. When I departed, I did not think about looking back. I was far too interested in getting out instead. Aiming high. Climbing far. Skyward goals. Starry aims and ambitions. Celestial dreams of a bigger and better life ahead in an as yet unseen future that surely would be destined to come to pass, because I had worked so hard for four years of my young adult life in its relentless pursuit. Because I felt that, after all the struggle and heartbreak and bad luck of the draw that was behind me, I felt that I finally – finally! – deserved it.
Even now, with a quarter century of temporal distance between us, I do not think that the twenty-two year old me made a rash or ill considered judgement. I do not fault him for his decision. He was only doing what Williams taught him to do. How Williams instructed him to think. How Williams hammered him like raw metal into the polished and shining human being he so desperately wished to become. Walking through Hopkins Gate whenever he was in the vicinity – and sometimes even when he was not – simply to absorb more fully the content of those incantatory words:
Your goal the sky
Your aim the star
Did the Hopkins Gate send him off in the wrong direction, this Appalachian born boy of modest means? Should he have packed his things and returned home instead to take up an upwardly mobile career as a local banker, lawyer, or businessman? Would he have been better served if he had been taught to value family, roots, and local traditions instead of the cosmopolitan visions and world-altering ambitions of the elite New England institution of higher learning that had invited him in to be a part of its small but growing ranks? Why not dream big and travel far with the power of Williams by his side? Why not fantasize about an academic career filled with the sorts of intellectual achievement that would match those of his liberal arts mentors who instructed him on the arcane ways and simple but satisfying life of the dedicated scholar? Why head home now when the doors of a wider and far more exciting world were open now instead? Isn’t that why he and his parents had chosen Williams in the first place?
For the first twenty years of my life post-Williams, this is more or less exactly what I did. I attended graduate school in Baltimore and took extended study and research trips abroad to continental Europe. I received a Master’s and doctorate in German history and set off on series of postdoctoral fellowships, assistant professorships, and short term academic postings that eventually landed me in western Montana, where I spent four rewarding and at times exhilarating years as a university level teacher, lecturer, and scholar. I interviewed as a finalist for tenure-track positions at Harvard, Stanford, Toronto, Sydney, Warwick, and Wellesley, among a host of others. I presented dozens of conference papers and published several significant articles and essays based on research about the cultural and economic roots of German colonialism that I had originally begun while a student at Williams. While my plans to publish a book of my own on the topic did not come to fruition, I was able to co-edit a major collection of essays on the subject that garnered widespread critical acclaim and generated a great deal of positive reaction among my peers in the historical profession. This is hardly the stuff of legend, I know. But it meant a great deal to me at the time.
Five years ago, I left my academic career behind and moved back to northern California, where I reside in a small cottage in the redwoods overlooking the Pacific Ocean south of San Francisco. Despite an endless stream of online applications to everyone in Silicon Valley I can think of, I have not found gainful employment since. The decision to head home to the Santa Cruz Mountains rather than seek out yet another semi-permanent academic position elsewhere was a muddled one, as many middle-aged moments tend to be. It began with initial regret and consternation that was tinged with long-deferred feelings of liberation, exhaustion, and relief. Then there was the self-laceration and second guessing that gave way to repeated acknowledgements of personal defiance followed by deepening stages of defeat. After several particularly challenging months of joblessness, I began to experience a cascading series of multiple mental breakdowns, the most severe of which required more than a month of intensive medical treatment and regime of extended care that continues into the present. In February 2020, at age 45, I was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder and am prone to mild schizophrenic episodes if placed under very intense stress or deprived of regular sleep. At first, I regarded it as a career death sentence: a mark of shame that I would carry for the rest of my active working life. Now, I think and act differently. It is a gift, a sign of an exceptional mind. Not a brilliant one. But arguably exceptional. And we need maverick minds in this world if we are ever to evolve beyond the present day status quo, which growing numbers of us now regard as untenable.
I wonder now what all those Williams years of skyward gazing and starry-eyed ambition did to rewire the pathways of my brain. I suspect that repeated passages beneath the Hopkins Gate permanently altered my mental functions, like some sort of ingeniously constructed X-ray machine capable of creating chronic overachievers for whom no goal is too distant and no strategy for success too fraught with risk to press into service. My world now is as wide as it has ever been, but at times its very capaciousness and lack of discernible borders scares me. What really happens after the rockets of the mind crash and burn too many times while aimed beyond the familiar faces and phases of the moon? How many times can we launch ourselves skyward to face the rising sun before the frame of feathers we have affixed to our earth-bound bodies start to warp, weather, and catastrophically fail? What is the fate of a human being who has been conditioned to respond positively to repeated infusions of accomplishment and hyper-stoked ambition when those sources of energy and drive dry up and no comparable replacements are easily found?
I spend my days now writing, dreaming, and assisting my life partner meet our daily needs. I gaze out at a blue horizon through an emerald crown of mature, second-growth redwoods. I watch the interplay of darkness and light as morning mist and evening fog envelop the surrounding forest in thick blankets of white. Instead of reviewing a newly published monograph on German history for an academic journal, I may be reading a public library e-book on dream travel, stoicism, or the cultural significance in Danish society of the concept of hygge. Rather than spending my weekends grading papers or preparing for the next round of modern European history lectures, I am reviewing shopping lists for the Saturday farmers’ market and plotting out our rotating array of menus and meals for the coming week.
When I do find the time and composure to do substantive work on the series of writing projects, some more fanciful than others, that I hope to dedicate the next twenty years of my post-Williams life to completing, there is a freedom and flowing of words, ideas, and inspirations that reminds me of when I was a child putting pencil to paper for the first time: blank sheets of fresh, unwrinkled possibility, patiently awaiting the caress of human creativity that will cause them to spring to life, dancing about in wild circles of fantasy and imaginative ecstasy as if nothing in the world was heavy or hard enough to weigh them down. I missed those moments when they went away from my life. I welcome them back now.
Today’s Williams looks nothing like that fantastical vision, one frozen in forgotten time like an extinct species stuck in stasis in a smooth, solid surface of amber. The Williams of the present is a dynamic, ever changing place with new buildings being built, new students being educated, and new faculty and staff joining its respected ranks on a regular basis. It has witnessed many cycles of growth, expansion, and renewal since I left and never turned back. It hasn’t missed me all that much, I suspect. There is far too much going on each and every day for that! As a temporary summer guest, content to spend a few days of reminiscence before moving on, I might even enjoy the experience. But I fear that the inner vandal in me would object. He would want to upgrade the wording on the Hopkins Gate to reflect the changes that a quarter century of lived personal history have wrought. He would encourage me to slip out in the night and paper over its iconic words with an “improvement” of my own making:
Leave behind their charts
The goal the world
Your aim their hearts
In retrospect, I suppose that the best and most enduring gift Williams ever gave to me was a reliable technique for resetting my mental clock at opportune moments in life when a clean break or new launching point is needed. From the moment of my graduation, I was able leave the past behind me and venture dauntlessly into the future, like a modern day James Cook in search of new coastlines to map and oceans through which to navigate. For more than twenty years, the sheer momentum of that initial Williams push kept me going, impelling me onward with levels of grit and determination that were fearsomely high and more often than not unhealthily sustained. Like Cook, I later realized, I was risking my life and sanity each and every time I set off on a new academic adventure. Cook never returned home and came to a violent and gruesome end, his body dismembered on a then remote Pacific island and his historical legacy contentious to this day. At some point, I chose not to let this happen to me, even if it meant giving up a dream that had driven me so fast and so far that I scarcely remembered to places and people from which I had come. I stopped setting out to sea, and I returned home as quietly as modestly as I could.
For the past five years, I have done little in the way that would warrant mentioning in an Eph Notes alumni update. I haven’t started an exciting, high-paying job or set the world on fire with any game-changing new ideas. I haven’t had children or grandchildren or taken my family on an epic educational travel adventure through East Africa or Central Asia. There are no new published books bearing my name on the shelves of academic libraries or rising through the online sales ranks on Amazon. When I seek solace from history, it is to the sedentary scientific life of the middle-aged Charles Darwin that I now look, and not to the worldly ambitions of James Cook or the faded glories of overseas empire. Darwin traveled the world, once, when he was in his twenties. When he returned home, he and his wife grew tired of life in London and retreated to the countryside, where they lived simple yet significant lives as parents, neighbors, community patrons, and members of far-flung corresponding networks of like-minded women and men around the world. Eventually, Darwin even managed to complete work on a long awaited book containing his theories on the origin of species, following years of uncertainty, postponement, and self-doubt induced delay. Other publications followed that were at times sweeping and grand and at others simple and down-to-earth. Even about earthworms. Nothing, it seemed, was unworthy of his attention. No creature, however small, was without value in the world. And none needed a degree from Williams or prestigious Alpha male job on Wall Street or Sand Hill Road to prove it.
I am more fixed in place now than I have ever been in my adult life since leaving Williams. I rarely travel more than a few hundred miles from my home and often go no further each week than to a nearby beach, forest trail, or farmers’ market. The thought of boarding a plane in California and flying across the continent to attend college reunion ceremonies in the bucolic Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, despite having suffered major professional setbacks and a serious mental health illness, seems like the start of feel-good Hollywood movie of the sort that features Keanu Reeves, Lisa Kudrow, Joan Kusak, or Matt Damon. Residual feelings of failure, personal humiliation, and protracted suffering fade away into an uplifting display of group compassion and collegiate loyalty, all tinged with the unavoidable melancholy and nostalgia of forty-somethings gracefully and elegantly aging into their yoga-toned, well nourished, and tastefully casual dressed bodies. Purple and gold banners weighed down by heavily falling summer rain while lighting flashes illuminate ivy-covered walls and reunion attendees dance barefoot on the grass and clink glasses of trendy craft beer while sitting on the stone stairway that leads up and through the Hopkins Gate. I would write the screenplay if I had the talent, but I would never be able to play the part. It’s just not in my nature, and it probably never will.
Early June of 2021 is far more likely to unfold differently for me – and for Williams. If it is Friday evening, I will probably be sitting on the couch next to my wife reading aloud a book she checked out from our local library while we stay warm together beneath and soft Portuguese flannel blanket and sip glasses of Cotes du Rhône red wine. A dense fog will be blowing in from the ocean, and the tall redwoods that surround our cottage will be so saturated with thick droplets of moisture that they will fall like gentle rain on the moss-covered roof directly above us. Maybe the book will be about the wolves of Yellowstone, or the restoration of wild salmon runs along the rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest. Maybe we will be reading about bee-keeping or professional mushroom foragers who track the seasonal cycles of sprouting fungi in search of exotic offerings with which to grace the farm-to-table tasting menus of many a Michelin-starred restaurant on the West Coast and beyond. The television will be turned off, but soft jazz music might still be playing in the background from ceiling mounted Bose speakers that I bought when I was a sophomore student at Williams, using money I had earned while working hard and improving my spoken German language skills in Berlin earlier that summer. When the sun sets, I will retire to sleep and lose myself in my dreams until time comes again to wake.
If is a Saturday morning, I will be walking on a coastal trail to a rocky viewpoint overlooking the ocean, as brown pelicans, jet black cormorants, tiny flocks of plovers, and orange-beaked oyster-catchers pass by overhead or relax from the safety of rocky outcroppings protected from the incoming waves. I will be strolling through an outdoor market inspecting fresh organic produce with mindful intent, chatting with the vendors about heirloom varietals as I quickly take stock of the fresh eggs, seafood, and locally ranched meats for sale. Rather than I sitting for hours over coffee to debate the nineteenth century roots of poststructuralism with my academic colleagues, I will stop only long enough to buy a newly roasted bag of single origin coffee beans, which I will grind by hand at home for making into a French Press for two – to share with my wife – or pourover for one, if I feel the need.
After coffee, we will work together on our meal and choose an appropriate wine from the cellar to accompany it, and afterwards we will stream a film on my laptop or select a library DVD from the ones we picked up on our last library visit. My wife, who is from Cluj-Napoca, Romania, grew up in a place and at a time where liberal arts colleges like Williams did not exist. When I tell her stories about my time there, as I sometimes do after a well executed weekend meal, it sounds like something from Brigadoon, as if it all took place on a planet from the Star Wars franchise in a distant galaxy far, far away. She will listen sympathetically and share a story from her family’s past as well, which inevitably will seem so much deeper and more meaningful than my own. Wars and internments and collectivized farms and revolutions. Winters in urban apartments with limited heat and long lines at the bakery paired with tender tales of summer vacations with grandparents living in the countryside whose tables overflowed with homemade bounty and farm-grown fertility. The college adventure stories I still can recall seem like an unfair trade for such human-scale sagas of daily living. The majority of these conversations end with my wishing that I had much more compelling narrative content from my earlier life to give in exchange.
By Sunday morning, at the latest, I will have set such lingering regrets behind and focused on the demands of the day. I will wake up early and let the present happen all around me without my need for accomplishments or unfulfilled ambitions getting in the way. I take a portion of sourdough bread starter and mix it with a pastured farm egg, a tablespoon or so of organic sugar, and a varying blend of aromatic spices. I make a fresh batch of pancakes for two and brew a pot of loose leaf tea while my wife attends to household duties for an hour or so, and then we sit down for a mid morning candlelight breakfast.
If it is cold and we are fogged in, I may start a fire in the stone hearth and let an armful split, dry oak illuminate the living and dining area with its flickering orange and golden hues. Hopefully, the fog will lift before I set off on a solo hike into the distant creek canyon below, where I will count coveys of quail and new batches of bunnies along the chaparral ridges and parading newts and salamanders in the wetter, darker sections shadowed by tall redwoods below. By the time I return, it is late afternoon and high time to start dinner, followed by a quiet evening of rest, wine, and firelight in preparation for the rigors of the coming week.
No, I haven’t reached the stars yet. Honestly speaking, I don’t even feel the need most days to aim in their general direction, anymore. But I still love to gaze at the them, and I am content to let them remain where they have been for so many eons of lost time before I learned at Williams that at least a few of them were going to be within my reach. Maybe they were, once upon a time. But not right now. And that is a story that I suddenly realized that is worth telling, because it is my own and because it comes from the heart.
Happy twenty-fifth reunion, Class of 1996! I hope you enjoy the events they’ve got planned for you all. I am sorry to so that – once again – I likely will not be joining you. Don’t let that stop you from having a great time. After all we’ve been through these past few years, it is fair to say that we all could use more celebratory moments in our lives to recharge dangerously drained batteries and help restore some much needed equilibrium to the world. Some of you may still recall that West Virginian guy from Williams E who took long walks alone to the top of Pine Cobble and liked to hang out a lot in the science library. The one who missed out on a great Dave Matthews Band performance in the Mission cafeteria his sophomore year because he was working late on an international law essay. That guy who spent his entire junior year abroad studying in Germany and who returned to Williams only to spend most of his free time socializing with the foreign language teaching assistants when he wasn’t out jogging, hiking, or cross-country skiing by himself or working in Sawyer Library on his history honor’s thesis.
Even if Google indicates otherwise, that guy has come pretty far since then, but lately he’s been circling back a lot around a more fixed concept of home, much like Darwin decided to do after traveling widely around the world as younger and more adventurous man. When he wears his ragged Williams sweatshirt these days, it’s to chop and carry firewood rather than sit down to Sunday brunch and talk all about history, philosophy, or the finer points of German literature. But other than that, not much has changed, really. He still stares at stars and aims skyward when he is feeling particularly ambitious or when the moment is right (listening to his latest playlists on Amazon Music Unlimited definitely helps). He still is proud to have been one of your forgotten classmates from Williams. And he’s still never thought seriously about returning to campus to walk again through mighty Hopkins Gate.
Should you be so inclined, however, please feel free to text or email me a picture of your own standing or sitting on those famous stone steps. Alone or with friends or family. It doesn’t matter. I’ll appreciate the gesture, either way. And maybe – just maybe – the next time you all decide to hold one these great big milestone marking shindigs that the alumni magazine folks organizing committees just rave about, I will finally – finally! – decide that the time has come to show up and play a part himself. And when I do land a new job, I promise – promise! – to make a generous donation to the Williams College Alumni Fund. Until that day arrives, here’s to each and every one of you, my long forgotten classmates and friends. Cheers! Congratulations. Hope ya’ll are enjoying the ride.