Wednesday, May 26, 2010

College Reunion

What we didn’t talk about at my 40th college reunion last week was the hard times we have been through. We didn’t dwell on illness, divorce, loss of loved ones, children in trouble, disappointments with our own achievements, those nights when you wake up wondering. We didn’t need to talk about that because by now we have all been through some of those difficulties, and it was understood that we were on equal footing.

We didn’t start college that way. We were all smart and knew how to work at a task, having been admitted to a competitive college. But we came from vastly different life experiences. Socially and economically we were all over the map, from on the edge economic survival in small town Ohio (me) to the wealthy New York Jewish world. From upper class Irish families to working class and brilliant. We had socially prominent classmates in both the white and black communities. Some had “ideal” families where there was plenty of love and security (emotional and financial) or so it seemed at the time. Others were not so fortunate, and the public fa├žade of “everything’s fine” covered up a boatload of suffering. We know that now, because we now know life has its unavoidable struggles. This is what Buddha meant when he said in the First Noble Truth “Life is suffering.” (But not all the time. We’ve learned that, too.)

We may have come to college with expectations of where we would fit in the world, and certainly I thought there would be “happily ever after” both with the guy I would eventually marry and with my life now that I had left Ohio. But between the years of 1966 and 1970 the world changed. And we were in the wave of that change. By now everyone is sick of the sixties generation talking about what we went through, but we aren’t sick of talking to each other about it. Here are some of the significant changes we saw during our four years of college:

• The Viet Nam War raged on, the draft took any of the guys who flunked out of or never attended college. The anti-draft movement was born, as well as the Anti-War movement.
• The time of “parietal hours” ended and we didn’t need to be back in the dorm by 11 on week nights and 1 am on weekends. We were allowed to have boys in our rooms more than 2 hours on Sunday with the door open. We didn’t have to wear skirts to dinner.
• Birth control became legal in our state for people who were not married, and we had easy access to the pill, though not through our college infirmary.
• There was access to safe but not legal abortions through a secret network of clergymen who had seen too many women die from back alley procedures.
• People began coming out as gay and lesbian, if only to a few close friends.
• The rise of Black Power, and the creation of the academic study of Afro-American Studies. (Women’s Studies came later.) We read Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver.
• The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.
• The moon landing. Now we could see that the earth is one, without lines defining countries.
• The Summer of Love, Woodstock, Altamont.
• The many demonstrations against the war, in our town and Washington.
• The invasion of Cambodia and the killing of 4 students at Kent State University in 1970, weeks before our graduation. We were part of the nationwide student strike as a result.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve seen that list or something like it before. But we felt it and lived it, and the changes in the world made changes in ourselves, or vice versa. You can argue that the change was bad, that it never should have happened (some do) but we were there and the change not only happened, but it is in us. We couldn’t avoid it. We are different from those who came before us as a result.

So we gathered 40 years later to celebrate our lives up to now. My freshman year six of us were on the 5th floor (walk up!) of a dorm in what had been maid’s rooms. We had no phone service (we had to go downstairs if the phone was for us) and a bathroom with a tub, no shower. We bonded really well, and two thirds of us came to this reunion. We have had amazing lives. We have been a college professor, a corporate attorney, a forensic analyst, and a world traveler. Our experiences in life of love and loss are oddly parallel, whatever we were doing.

Women are good at that. We find our commonality and stay with it whenever possible. We know the value of the group not only as a key to survival but as a key to thriving. At the reunion, we put aside our differences (political, social class, economic, health, appearance, success) and opened our hearts. We sang together a lot, from “Imagine” to “You’ve Got a Friend” to “You’re So Vain” to “Give Peace a Chance.” We danced and passed around the Advil. At the end of it we could imagine living together in a big building, and sharing our lives from here on in. Kind of college at the end of life, where the curriculum is self designed.

In my life I am often the oldest person at a gathering, and it was great to be with so many dynamite women my own age. I love younger people, but there’s something about your own age mates. And I am used to holding back part of myself so as not to seem to be “too much.” Not with my classmates – I could let it all go and not have to make myself small to be part of the group. This group loves big! And we have realized there’s room for all of us to shine.

Did I mention that this was Smith College, all women since 1875? When I got there, I was coming out of some difficult years. Smith nurtured me (literally, when they gave me a scholarship) and gave me a place to become myself. In those turbulent years, I needed that grounding.

At the beginning of this post is a picture of Paradise Pond that I took last week.
I love this one especially because you have me, the photographer, in darkness, moving into the light where all is possible. That was my experience of college. And I am exceedingly grateful to the universe for the opportunity to share it with the amazing women I spent time with last weekend. I cannot imagine who I would be without them.