It's hard to lie about your age once you've told someone you've just been to your 50th high school reunion.
Well, technically, it was the 49th -- this was the class of '64. The organizers made the decision to hold it a year early because, uh, more of us would be alive (if I understand the reasoning correctly). In any case, close enough. I went. This is the first class reunion I'd been to in all this time and I hadn't seen most of the attendees since we seized our diplomas and scattered off in search of our lives.
Oh youth, oh time warp. It was as though I'd walked out of the gym that June night nearly half a century ago, as I left the graduating seniors' party the school had hosted, and stepped into a line of shuffling senior citizens touring their old high school on a hot August morning in 2013, staring incredulously into random classrooms and reading posters on the walls aimed at kids two generations removed from them.
Shuffling? Come on. Everyone, pretty much, was walking normally. Some were even recognizable. Others became recognizable as we talked and old memories loosened and we grew younger.
This was an amazing event, spread across a recent weekend in Dearborn, Mich., the Detroit suburb and hometown of Henry Ford, where I grew up. The high school was Edsel Ford, named, good God, after his estranged son. We were the Thunderbirds. I had tucked all this into my past. After my mother died, almost 30 years ago, my connection with the city and my growing-up years faded. I had almost no reason to go back. But Regina and the other reunion organizers began pulling people in more than two years ago by email contact and my interest in the past began to blossom.
I can't believe how much I enjoyed seeing these folks, for unexpected and stereotype-disrupting reasons. "Nostalgia" and "the good old days" and other such words and phrases simply don't capture it. My friend Malcolm, who went to his big five-oh a year ago, said to me afterward, "There's something very spiritual about a high school reunion. It's about life and death."
Yeah, that's it. Who would have thought? That's not why I went, but when I got there and started to relax with myself, let go of my need to be impressive and just talk to people, look into their eyes and hear tangled and wondrous pieces of their lives unfold -- and remember knowing them and being young -- I felt a joyousness come over me I didn't quite understand.
Perhaps what I realized is that aging isn't simply a one-way process -- that I wasn't simply surrounded by "used up old people," the common, dismissive (often self-dismissive) stereotype of senior citizens, but by people's entire life spans. One's youth and raw potential don't disappear; they remain forever part of who we are, even though they may be hidden behind an exterior of wrinkles, aches and ebbing physical vigor.
Because I knew these folks way back when, I saw the distant, teenage past in their eyes and in their words as well as the surface of the present moment so evident in their faces, in their hands. I saw lives lived. I saw entire lifetimes.
The Danish artist Per Kirkeby talks about the layers in his paintings. "Analysis is about the final layer of the painting, but all the layers are still present," he said. That's how it was at the reunion. All the layers were still present, thanks to my having known these folks and been part of their lives at one of the earliest layers -- in the early '60s, when Vietnam was just a whisper, when freedom riders were changing the world, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
"There's some wreckage in each of my paintings," Kirkeby also said.
Ah, yes. That's what made this a spiritual event. At least 10 percent of my classmates had died. I'd been aware of some of these deaths over the years, but only a few. Karen, a vibrant young woman, was killed in an auto accident a year after she graduated. My old buddy Dave -- we were best friends in seventh grade -- may have committed suicide. That's what people were saying. Sandy, who once said, "You're a great dancer, Bob," was killed in a plane crash.
Among the living, myself included, the wreckage was also evident. Children had died. Health was broken. Life wasn't simple. But once I started connecting with people, and with the class as a whole, I felt how the wreckage was part of the beauty. This is life's journey, from goals and potential to realization. We don't make that journey without giving something up along the way.
Youth equals promise. Age equals promise fulfilled. How remarkable to experience both at once -- the "go T-birds!" past, the retirement and grandchildren present. The point of life isn't to emerge unscathed. It isn't even "success," necessarily. The point is simply to live it fully. The young people I connected with this past weekend were very much in the middle of doing so.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.
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