Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Back to School (Reunion Version)

I drive onto the university grounds, following the signs for the parking lots on the grassy fields. The first lot, the closest one, says “50+.” Oh, whoa, I think, I can’t park there. That’s for the old people.

Wait a second: I’m here for my 45th reunion. Next time, I’ll be in the 50+!

Nothing like a reunion weekend to bring up the issues of time, aging, memory, way back when, and what next. The place you lived for four years and whizzed around on your bicycle in your sleep is now so full of new buildings – and even a whole new quad – that you are hopelessly lost and disoriented enough to feel disconnected from your own history.

And the class book is filled with so many people you never met that you wonder, Did I really go here? Or did I just inhabit some little insignificant corner?

Nothing like a college campus to generate an identity crisis.

Cindy says, “I worked for Congresswoman Bella Abzug the summer after you.”

“You did? That’s amazing! Why didn’t I know that?”

“Barbara, we know that. We’ve known that. We’ve talked about that.”

Candy is in the photo the night Bella came to dinner. “Candy, I didn’t remember you lived in that house.” “Barbara, you were there???”

The question of identity is time-sensitive. We were who we were once, and some part of us lingers and endures, but what if it’s a part we can’t remember?

Well, then, you still have a great time meeting new people. They have all come back because something interesting beckons, some learning, some exploration, some mystique. I meet Jan (whom I never knew) walking from the parking lot, Ann in a long conversation over lunch, the two aerospace engineers as we discussed the 737 MAX.

And then, there are The Friends. We met freshman year, and we endure. Dennis in from London, Debbie from D.C., Bob from Mill Valley, May and Bet from Oakland. Gayle from Las Vegas, Joy and Jeff from southern California. Neil hurt his hip, so he and Lee Ann can’t make it. Even Jon makes his appearance! We are like Shangri-La: we reopen every five years and we know we’ll always be there. Until, we don’t, and then we’ll miss them each year, like we miss Sally for the first time for always.

There is a class on climate change, a class taught by an ambassador to Russia, a computer musician who built a laptop orchestra, a class on poverty-stricken cities that can no longer even provide 9-1-1. I love all this learning, engaging, access to great thinkers!

But in a class participation session on post-retirement, everyone else seems to have found their rhythm while I’m still … experimenting. I tell them how, in search of something I could repair that wasn’t getting fixed, I couldn’t even get the goose poop cleaned up from a park! I’m looking for my legacy, and it’s elusive. “I’m Barbara, and I waste time.” Everyone laughs.

Afterwards, I hear from LOTS of people: they relate! What a surprise! We are all – always – feeling our way. That’s it. We are all – always – just feeling our way.

Meanwhile, I’m reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake. He writes:
Still and all, why bother [writing]? Here’s my answer: Many people need desperately to receive this message: “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone.”
We are all – always – just feeling our way! We are not alone.

One of the classes is “Cultivating Calm: Spiritual Practices for a Healthy, Whole Life.” How could I resist? She talks to us about The Tree of Contemplative Practices, and I didn’t know storytelling counted! And volunteering! And marches! So instead of focusing on how I don’t have the patience to meditate, I can see the benefits of what I am doing.

But this is what she says. She says the best thing she can help a student do is to get that student to wrestle with this question: “Who am I and who do I seek to become for the sake of the world?”

That question never ends! That is my question forever. It was my first identity crisis, and it will be my last, and wrestling with it is the point.

I have gone back to college, and I have learned something.



  1. “Who am I and who do I seek to become for the sake of the world?” Excellent!
    Thank you.

  2. Wonderful blog! Thank you for sharing. How did I miss “Cultivating Calm: Spiritual Practices for a Healthy, Whole Life" ?

    1. After I wrote to her, she said I made her day with this post. She was awed that she helped me see my "own unfolding story." I liked that: an "unfolding story."

  3. Barbara, there is another way to take this entire 'comparing my life to others' thing you've done here. Maybe life isn't about happiness or pain or what we do or don't -- maybe it's just about being alive.

    Pretty simple, really. Breath in, breath out. Take a walk. There, that'll turn away meaninglessness at least 10 minutes!

    (a little smile)

    1. I'm too far gone: "about being alive" just seems so ... limited, so blank. Which probably says a lot....

  4. Inevitably, meaning is just a 7-letter word. How we possess it shapes so much of how live. I've never been particularly good at living with it or without it.

    Funny that, and perhaps that's meaning's eternal, dull sparkle.

  5. I love reunions, too. This is a wonderful description of why we go. I wish I could take the class on the Tree of Contemplative Practices.


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