Julie and I spent the weekend at the farm for my 30th class reunion. I have to admit, I was a little tense going into it. I don’t normally get tied up in knots; it just isn’t my style. But for some reason this reunion weighed heavy on my mind. I planned to go for months, but couldn’t bring myself to RSVP until just a couple weeks ago. A week ago I spent a few hours on the lawn mower, and all the while I was remembering classmates, pondering what it would be like to see them again, and more than anything trying to remember what life was really like back when.
The remembering part is a little counterproductive, of course. Memory is not an accurate representation of the facts at the best of times, and thirty years later it’s so distorted and filtered and re-cast that it bears little resemblance to anything that might actually have happened. But you have to do it, all the same. So I mowed around and around the lawn, thinking about individuals and personalities and pondering who I was then and who I am now. That’s the scary part. I see how much I have changed and (hopefully) matured in the last thirty years and I realize that this will be a gathering of people who with a couple exceptions are strangers to me.
I have not kept up, you see. There were not quite sixty of us in my graduating class and nearly all of us had been together since elementary school. Whether I talked directly to any of these people during school or not, I had been in the same classroom with them, listened to their conversations, watched their interactions, graded their papers, seen their struggles. Some were close friends. Others were acquaintances, neighbors. They were classmates, but long-term classmates. I had watched them grow from early childhood through almost-adulthood back in school. I knew these people.
Then I bolted. Like so many teenagers I had a terrible fear of being pigeonholed. The idea that I would stay in my hometown for life, never allowed to grow, never allowed to change, terrified me. So that fall of 1983 I boarded the Greyhound bus for Seattle. I spent the next two years in a little Bible college in Seattle, then moved back as close as Fargo, seventy miles from home. But I rarely went back to that little community. The summers of 1984 and 1987 I lived back there. My attitude was horrible. I was not ready to be home.
There’s a phase that healthy adolescents need to go through when they run away from home. Not literally hitchhiking to Los Angeles, hopefully, but escaping in some way. They need to get away. I think this is one of the many reasons why Jesus’ story about the prodigal son is so enduringly popular. We identify with the son’s need to run away, to risk being foolish, to spend himself in a far country. Until we grow up a bit it is perilous for us to return home because we might well be trapped.
In the 1980’s I was in danger of being trapped, but I misunderstood the danger. I thought the opinions of other people might keep me from changing, might keep me from growing and developing and stretching my wings and my imaginations. In reality the danger was my own fear. In fact it was very possible that if I moved back in those days I would have given in to my own fears and never grown past myself, never confronted my ignorance or my arrogance, never been broken, never learned to hope for things far beyond my reach, never learned to take real risks. I had to be away.
For some people, this time away is relatively short. For me it has been three decades. After college in Fargo I moved to Seattle and spent seven years there. Then Saint Paul, then western North Dakota, then back to the Twin Cities. During the early years I felt absolutely torn in two when I went home. I missed the people, the smells, the sameness, the very landscape in a physically painful way. Yet the thought of staying there was still too much for me to bear, and I went home only rarely. Only in the last few years I have begun to spend a little more time there, to venture not only to the farm where I grew up but back into the community just a little bit.
So I have not kept in touch. I have seen my classmates so, so rarely. Some I have never seen since graduation, because they have run like me to various corners of the world.
There was another fear at work for me. Ten years after graduation, most of us had hit our stride. We were establishing homes and jobs, gaining competence and confidence. I shunned my ten-year reunion for fear of watching people try to prove themselves to each other, for fear that I would get caught up in the game of saying “I can handle life.” At twenty years, some of us were building empires, and others were trying to pick up the pieces of dreadful misfortunes and miscalculations. Some of us were struggling against a world that seemed mercilessly determined to prevent anything good in our lives. I toyed with the idea of attending my 20th, but ended up having supper with a good friend and skipping the reunion.
Thirty years out I decided it was worth the risk. In our forties, I reasoned, most of us will have gotten past the need to prove ourselves worthy. We won’t need to talk so much about the empires we’re building. Maybe we can have some honest conversation about who we were, who we are, and who we are becoming. We are now the people of gray hair and bifocals. We are people who have grieved. We have experienced darkness and clawed our way back to the light. We have found faith, and lost it, and maybe found it again.
So this weekend I went to my 30-year class reunion, and it was delightful. Twenty-two of us gathered, some with spouses in tow, many texting throughout the evening to keep tabs on our kids. We sat outside swatting a few mosquitoes on a gorgeous Minnesota summer evening and caught up. I talked in depth with people I have always known, but with whom I’ve never had a real conversation.
Of course, someone brought out old pictures. I could proudly point to my shining face and slicked back hair in the front row of Mrs. Webster’s 3rd grade class picture, sporting the fancy stitching on my cowboy shirt and the purple and red striped pants that I’m sure I thought were all the rage. Oh, yes, that’s me. And of course, all my classmates already knew it was me, because they were there when I was that kid.
We shared stories of moves and marriages, deaths and jobs and transitions. Here and there in the corners, quiet apologies took place and daring souls asked probing questions about “how are you doing, really?” We talked about medical tests and hard lessons learned. And without a doubt, we laughed more than we have laughed in a very long time.
Suddenly it was midnight. Like Cinderella at the ball, we turned for the door. There was indeed something magical about it, something absolutely life-giving in seeing those people again, finding friends I’d forgotten I had, experiencing connections and common bonds that were nothing less than a gift. I had returned home and found that things and people had changed, changed dramatically, but that things are very, very good.
But I don’t live there. Even if I moved back to that town, to those people, I am not the same seventeen year old kid I was in those days. I’ve changed, too. Thank God. I have scars and insights I never dreamed of then, and today I know joy and satisfaction that are deeper than anything I ever thought possible. So maybe I could live in that community, but the heady wine of reconnecting with old classmates is best drunk only occasionally.
By the way, Julie deserves great praise for this weekend. She was absolutely amazing in going where I wanted to go, being flexible and willing to stay as long as I needed to stay in order to make connections and have conversations and reconnect in whatever ways I needed to. She made conversation and went out of her way to be gracious and talkative when I know many times she just needed to have what Teya calls “introvert time.” But she was amazing.
I’m glad we went.