Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
September 2009 - Volume 09, No. 9
I’m not talking about nostalgia here. That’s not what it was. But for some reason this time it was more important than usual. How was it even my best expectations were superseded? Something that filled me during every one of those 550 miles driving back home from my 50th High School Class Reunion.
Iowa - my wonderful home state from 1st Grade through my first university graduation. And that otherwise nondescript place among the cornfields that was my Junior and Senior High School home town. Even though I have no more family there, and actually very few specific local friends, I’ve made the trip almost every five years that we re-gather. (It took us at least 20 years, till we no longer needed to compete or justify ourselves, but could just relax and enjoy each other.)
There were 54 of us originally, plus some who didn’t actually graduate, but remained always a part of us. Fourteen names and pictures now fill the “Remembering” pages. That number, which didn’t even pass two till our 30th, finally begins to haunt us. The Class Photo just arrived yesterday - 31 of us, not looking nearly as old as our years should betray.
What surprised me was how much we valued each other - actually much more than we did 50 years ago. There was an openness that cannot be explained by simple generous Iowa personality.
Somehow reunions represent the completion of a circle, a fulfillment that increases the value and meaning of something. Something builds here, becomes more than before. I was surprised how much I wanted to be with these people, and even more how much that wanting was new.
One of the tasks of adulthood, and especially elder adulthood, is the systematic revisitation of our early life - especially childhood and adolescence. Perhaps my profession encourages and may specifically structure it, but it also seems a larger pattern among conscious people. We revisit our past in order to see, almost for the first time, the seeds and roots there that have influenced what and who we have become. In therapy it’s often called forgiving our past (in the same sense as it is frequently said that the end of therapy involves the ‘forgiving’ of our parents).
Forgiveness here doesn’t carry the usual meaning of just excusing or releasing from some inflicted damage. Rather it involves a releasing of the events or circumstances of our earlier life in order to allow them to, what I’ll call, redeem forward (i.e. to “give forward”). In this retrospect, so much of who I have become, was even then, hidden in the events and circumstances that I may even have wished to avoid or leave behind. Now I can see and experience them quite differently. Who I was, what I was, become more than they ever were, in order to celebrate the person I have become. This is the true essence of “reunion.” The circle is completed in order that it may become more than itself.
One classmate, a woman of whom I was quite fond, specifically refused my request to consider returning for this event, reciting a litany of woes and offenses still tightly held from those years. This “forgiveness” was conspicuously absent, to the point she had to refuse the fellowship of our company. Sadly I couldn’t convince her otherwise.
Another friend of mine has for awhile now been undertaking an excruciating review of her early years from childhood through early adulthood. Her past includes a terrible composite of difficulty and abuse. But remarkably she finds an ability to “forgive” or “redeem forward” much of that life to become the foundation of a remarkably grateful and wise elderhood. The center of this re-visiting is not, as one might assume around me, the experience of psychotherapy, but rather the physically and psychologically tumultuous task of quitting smoking, cold turkey! after more than a half century. The two tasks are parallel - the wrestling of herself out of a lifetime of poisoning. And, by God, she’s succeeding at both tasks.
As I stated at the beginning, this is not about nostalgia. Nor is it just about “returning home.” In my case, that town is no longer my home - my family left there a year after I graduated. Home itself may actually be a place empty and abandoned - like “A Trip to Bountiful” (1953, 1985).
Reunion completes the circle, reconnecting with our past, but also transforming it to become the foundation of a new and vital present. It’s a reconnecting for the purpose of a larger transformation.
Look at our world today. There is much change - but then there is always change. However, the change I find happening today is something different.
Now when we look backwards to see where we’ve come from, new ways forward begin to emerge. Even the sense of our economic and political past is now shifting. The poison of Wall Street is being replaced by an economy of local caring. Our goal is no longer to get rich, but to get real. The greed of power (even within ourselves) is being replaced by a new vision of public welfare.
In the last stanza of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943), we find these memorable lines:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
My 50th High School class reunion became an icon, so to speak, of a much larger redeeming forward. Something far-reaching is happening. Go back, take a look at where you come from - and follow its new path forward. We are finally growing up - and valuing each other more than ever before.
So let’s hear it for the Class of 1959! Go Mustangs! (though we lost the Homecoming game).
Obviously I had a great time. But, as always, it’s also becomes a reminder to
Leigh Ann Wood,
I too am a 1959 graduate
1959 - the Year Itself is special
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