~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Why I'm Not Coming Back

January 8, 2010
Thanks, but I won't be coming back to Harvard for our tenth reunion. I'd like to tell you it's because none of my closest friends are coming, and the cost seems excessive for a couple of cocktail parties and a Brazilian barbecue. A slightly more honest answer would be that I dread running into my first love (the one I was going to marry and move with to Vermont), who is coming, along with his blond and lawyerly wife.

But really, I'm not coming because I'm not sure I'm living an Ivy-colored life anymore. Despite the fact that I'm far happier than I ever was at Harvard, I secretly feel I haven't lived up to my crimson-coated potential.

I wonder what the world would think if I offered my honest submission to the alumni magazine: Claudia Cummins recently left Washington, D.C., where she worked in the White House and then served as a journalist, to return to her family in Mansfield, Ohio. She works part-time at her family's hinge factory, teaches yoga in area banquet halls, and babysits her brother's children on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She'd love to hear from anyone passing through north-central Ohio. Contact her at her parents' home, where she still lives.

The truth is, I wake up most mornings with a happy heart. I've crafted a life full of the people and places and creative explorations that I love. I write endlessly, and practice my happy yoga, and many mornings walk through the sky-filled meadows behind our house.

My part-time job, in an office I share with my two brothers at our (utterly unglamorous) business, offers me ample time for around-the-world travels. My siblings, my parents, my cousins are also my best friends. I've found in them that safety net of unconditional love and laughter that I so desperately missed in my years away from home.

And I'm beginning to feel I'm an important strand in this web of helping hands as well. I have a growing circle of yoga students who say I help them live fuller, happier, wiser lives. All this means more to me than any of my Harvard honors.

Why, then, am I still not coming? A Harvard diploma is a heavy load, I'm learning. It's quite a responsibility, being told endlessly that you are among the best and the brightest, and even being offered medals and honors and diplomas as proof. Of those to whom much is given, as the Bible says, much is expected.

I spent my twenties striving to live up to that promise, filling the shoes I'd been trained for. The White House sounds good, never mind that you could have, at best, called me a low-level aide. Still, I have enough pictures of me standing next to the president to know that working there is really no big deal in the grand scheme of things. It may end up sounding like my career highlight - Executive Assistant to the Deputy Assistant to the President for Policy Planning - but honestly, my being there didn't change the world a whit.

I spent a year earning my master's in journalism and returned to Washington as a business reporter, first at a banking newspaper and then at Bloomberg News, an up-and-coming media empire run by an ambitious Harvard Business School grad. I had my share of scoops and stories in the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Once I was named one of the top young business journalists in the country.

But, you know, I wasn't really happy. I knew I was climbing the career ladder I'd been primed for, yet still an ache grew deep inside. Perhaps I'd been faithful to my training, my ambition, my pedigree, but somewhere along the way I'd lost my self.

When I'm 80, I said to myself, I'm not going to regret not writing another telecommunications story, but I am going to regret never climbing the Rocky Mountains.

I made a New Year's resolution. And then I left. I moved back home to Ohio, where my roots are deep, but where I once swore I'd said my last good-bye. Now here I am, feeling full and free, well-traveled and inspired.

I've spent a summer on a Greek isle in the Aegean and helicoptered over lava-spuming volcanoes in Hawaii. I've run a marathon, with friends cheering me through Washington's endless, monument-lined streets. I've lived a month under a thin blue tarp while climbing mountains in Colorado, and I've swum with dolphins in the turquoise Caribbean.

And still I'm afraid to come back. Maybe I'm courageous enough to chart my own course, but not yet liberated enough to give up caring what you think of me. Somewhere along the way, I got stuck on this idea that success Harvard-style means following the well-worn yellow-brick road to Wall Street or Random House or Carnegie Hall.

What I really want to believe, though, is that the true value of a Harvard education is that it liberates us to take that risky leap into more creative and uncharted paths that we can call our own. Into lives lived truly, directly and wholeheartedly, where small acts of service and care matter far more than society's accolades.

As a comfort, I repeat my favorite quotation from Mother Teresa: "We do, not great things. We do only small things with great love." That's the kind of potential I would like to live up to.

And so here I am, living either a really small life in a little town in Ohio, or, as I would like to believe, living a far bigger life than I could have ever fathomed. As I recently wrote another Ivy Leaguer, I am in paradise as long as I don't think about the future.

Maybe by the time we reach our fifteenth or twenty-fifth reunion, I'll feel okay enough about all this to come back. Perhaps by then I'll be old enough not to care so much about how my life reads on paper. Maybe I'll be wise enough to remember that words and titles and addresses can never capture a life well lived. And I hope by then I'll know in my head what my heart already knows: This world is so much more vast and brilliant than any Ivy-covered promise could ever foretell.

This article was originally published in Harvard Magazine (Summer 1998)