Sunday, December 22, 2019


A month or two ago, I read an article called The Glossary of Happiness, about a project collecting words from other languages that don't have a precise equivalent in English. Throughout this month, I'd like to explore some of those words (yet another plan that didn't come through--yet).

Heimat (German, “deep-rooted fondness towards a place to which one has a strong feeling of belonging”)

The place that came immediately to mind for heimat was my alma mater, Kenyon College.


All four years of college, I sang in the Chamber Singers, a choir that rehearsed daily and spent 11 days each spring break touring a region of the country. At every stop on tour, at every concert, our encore piece was "Kokosing Farewell," the "unofficial alma mater," and it was deeply ingrained through that singing (to be fair, lots of alumni who didn't sing in the choir also feel connected to the school songs--my wife and I bonded over school songs on one of our early dates). With all the time we spent singing together, Chamber Singers was a special kind of family, with connections made even deeper by the conscious efforts of our director. Every year in the fall, he and his wife would invite the choir in groups of six to his house for a lasagna dinner (he wasn't the only professor to invite students in, but that lasagna dinner was part of every single year of college for me). The food, the conversation, the camaraderie: I loved it. That, right there, went a long way toward imbuing my Kenyon experience with heimat, helping me feel like I belonged, like the college was home and my professors and fellow students were family. So much so that I'm drawn back every four years for the choir reunion, where not only do I see many of my favorite people from college, but where that family grows as I meet new people with that same connection to the choir, younger and older than myself. Even as the group expands, it's anchored to a place and an experience that is shared.

Little-known fact: to each of my daughters, within the first hour or so that they were out of the womb, I sang to them "Kokosing Farewell," the unofficial alma mater of Kenyon. Perhaps you'd call it early indoctrination, but that's not really it. The song does have something of the feel of a lullaby, but I think also that when I thought about comforting my newborn children (well, especially the first one, before it became a thing I did with all of them), Kenyon was a place that felt comforting to me, in no small part because of my experience in the Chamber Singers, of which this song became a representation.

Of course, college is not just singing and lasagna dinners. It was also a place where I found a brotherhood that deepened the sense of heimat I have for that campus.

Like most only children, I didn't grow up with siblings. And so--like many onlies--I sought out surrogate brothers (and sisters) as I moved through the world. Although I didn't join a fraternity in college, I guess you could say I forged fraternal bonds anyway. Long story short[er], in my sophomore year I met the guy who would become my best friend, and he was enmeshed with a group of guys he lived with (6 of them). And over the next few years, another group of guys would merge with that group, tied together by a few of us who crossed over. We had a core of +/- 12 guys, a group that's shown itself to have permeable boundaries over the past 20 years since we graduated, easily absorbing new "dudes" just like they were always there. Some number of us have managed to get together most of the last 20 years, and when we do we find the bonds of friendship have only strengthened.

As I get older, I find that there really is something remarkable about those relationships that formed early, whether in high school, college, or my early 20s. Those relationships, too, have heimat baked into them. Maybe it's harder to form these kinds of relationships in adulthood because we're pulled in different directions by our family connections--spouse, children, parent(s), extended family--and so don't have the time and energy to nurture those new friendships. Or maybe it's harder because adulthood encourages us to raise more shells between ourselves and others, while in our younger days we were more open and uninhibited. We can still find some measure of that openness with these old friends because they've already seen us at our uninhibited worst (and best) and love us anyway, and that history of trust keeps the door open between us.

Earlier this fall, my best friend let me know that he was going to be heading to Kenyon for work and wondered if I wanted to get together. I live about 2 hours from campus now, so I took a day off work so we could get together and hang out, spending a solid 24 deepening our own connection to each other and to that place that was literally home for four years and has been a figurative home in the 20 years since.

Enjoying the crisp fall air, coffees, and heimat at the gates.

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