Of Books and Empowered Women

It is hard to capture fully in words the sense of elation at returning to one’s alma mater and recognizing how much the place shaped the way you think about the world. Stepping onto the Mount Holyoke campus was like going back in time to a place with roots deeply grounded in almost two centuries of empowering learning, welcoming tradition, and liberating fun. I was amazed by how excited I was to be back here, squirming in my car seat like a little child with the promise of ice cream and swimming in her future.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Matt and I left Bennington in the late morning and took a lovely winding route through the Green Mountain State, definitely feeling the new weight in the car of all my possessions. The trees were so numerous there seemed to be more green to the state than mountains, although plenty of plunging cliffs and rocky streams paralleled our road offering the most varied topography of the trip so far. The road wove between little coffee roasteries, garden shops, and other businesses with such quaint names as Amaranth Gardens, Bodhi Books, Strawberry Fields, and we even saw a Vipassana Meditation Center. Between the apple orchards and horse farms the occasional ancient graveyard stood with faded, moss-enshrouded stones, a clear indication that this is the longest settled portion of the country by European settlers.

The roads began to look more and more familiar until I was able to take over from the map directions and point out the way to Matt myself. Near Northampton we crossed the Connecticut River, and cut diagonally toward South Hadley while passing old haunts I once knew: Food Bank Farm, the road to Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke itself––the mountain for which the school is named, that we would climb once a year on Mountain Day. At last we turned left onto College Street and drove under the black iron and brick gates, that were bad luck to pass under until one had graduated, and onto the college campus.

I showed Matt all my favorite buildings, inside the chapel and magnificent library (which was the primary reason I came to the school really, since it had immediately made me think of Hogwarts Castle). Even the four class symbols of a red Pegasus (my own class symbol), a yellow Sphinx, a blue Lyon (spelled like the founder Mary Lyon’s name), and a green Griffin, resonated with the well-known wizarding novels. We toured Clapp, the science building that housed the Environmental Studies Department that I majored in, and I left a little note for Lauret Savoy, the chair of the department and my mentor in my last semester as I wrote my children’s book Autumn, and my two-act play Live Power.

From there Matt and I continued our tour, passing through the greenhouse, to Upper Lake, into the Art Museum, past the amphitheater, Lower Lake, and Pratt Music Hall, to Rooke Theatre, where I once spent so much time I joked that they should set up a cot for me in one of the back rooms to rest between activities. We glimpsed the white house across the street that was my apartment senior year, and Mead and Buckland Halls in which I lived in the first and second semesters of my first year. From there we circled Skinner Green and stopped briefly in Blanchard Campus Center, before passing by Safford Hall, in which I lived the second semester of my junior year once I had returned from my study abroad semester in New Zealand. The only residence hall we didn’t visit was Dickinson, set further off the campus, where I lived for my sophomore year.

Whether in the MHC library, the Odyssey Bookstore across the street, or the Amherst Bookstore near where we had lunch, it was difficult to pull Matt away from the poetry and philosophy books. We did depart with a few new titles in hand, including Eaarth by Bill McKibbon, The Cosmic Blueprint by Paul Davies, and Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanitiesby Martha Nussbaum. We’ll likely read the latter out loud during parts of our return journey.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

As we drove away from Mount Holyoke I didn’t feel too much sadness because I felt for certain I would return here for other visits, and definitely for reunions once more time has passed since my graduation date. What I did feel though was intense gratitude. Two years after graduation, and now currently in a graduate program which I truly love, I can see more clearly what it is this particular school gave to me. This institution is in the business of empowering women, something few women even now in 2012 are given. In a setting where every student position––from teacher’s assistants, to theater directors, radio hosts, technical directors, and class presidents––is held by a woman, students can graduate with an accurate sense of a woman’s true potential. Like men, we are qualified to hold any position of power in the world, including United States president some day, but it sometimes requires a place such as this to open our eyes to that fact.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

In such a state of thought I departed Mount Holyoke, and Matt and I drove to Amherst to have some lunch at one of my former favorite eateries, Fresh Side. The warm day called for an outdoor lunch on the sidewalk in the shade of some ginkgo trees, a lunch of ginger honey ice tea, an assortment of Thai and Vietnamese tea rolls, and a little bean paste mochi for dessert. After a quick stop in another bookstore we recrossed the Connecticut River and entered my favorite town in the Pioneer Valley, Northampton. We settled in to the downstairs of one of the best study cafés in the area, The Haymarket, to do a little reading and writing before meeting up with our hosts for dinner. I relaxed into the chair that I had most likely written at least a couple papers in over the years, and once again gazed around the olive oil colored room with its assortment of tables and tiny votive candle holders. I could almost convince myself I was still in college, on one of those school days in early fall when everything feels fresh and exciting and the desire to learn whispers in one’s ear on the crisp autumn winds.

Come early evening we drove a few miles north to Whately to meet my dear family friends who had gathered together to see us for this one night we could spend in the area. Over stories of how Matt and I met we enjoyed a delicious roast chicken dinner with an abundant salad, Massachusetts’ best sweet corn (we heard that assessment from a well-travelled, corn-tasting expert), and summer fruit salad. The accompanying beverage was kombucha brewed by a man I once knew when I spent a summer at the nearby Sirius ecovillage in Shutesbury.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

We chattered away the evening looking at birth charts and transits, photos from our trip, and sharing stories about our families. I wish we could have one more day here at least, but our travel schedule keeps us moving. Tomorrow we drive to our last stop on the East Coast, a visit to New Jersey to see Matt’s brother, and then we point our noses westward once more, and begin the long journey home.

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