Return, Renew, Reunion

“I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason…” –lyrics from “For Good” by Stephen Schwartz

Yes, I’m back home–back where the mail has piled up on the countertop, the lawn awaits mowing, work demands to be done and the refrigerator needs restocking.

These kinds of everyday tasks are what we set aside and strive to forget when we vacation, knowing the nitty gritty bits of life will be right where we left them upon our return.

Last weekend I attended my 30th Carleton College reunion and found it, somehow, more refreshing and relevant than the milestone 25th or any others that preceded it. Maybe that’s because expectations were low and plans for my immediate class were fairly informal.

Our theme, for instance, was the understated “We show up,” and one of the more structured 90-minute periods involved a series of informative but non-intimidating TED talks by classmates who ranged from an Alaska-based surgeon to a Google executive to a U.S. state department official to a woman who described how she’d coped after her mother committed suicide in the midst of her sophomore year. The latter prompted ongoing and empathetic discussions about mental health struggles that few had previously shared with other alumni for fear of shame or judgment.

People were less guarded, more willing to open up and lower the defenses they might have maintained as college students or even as young adults. Cliques were fewer or non-existent, pretenses were largely absent and attendees delighted in the sheer joy of being on a beautiful college campus among friends.

That was the key, after all; being among friends. In the lead-up to the reunion, the weight of realizing it had been a full 30 years since we walked away from our mutual college existence as 21- or 22-year-olds was heavy. When we graduated, we could barely imagine being 30–yet here we we were, more than two decades beyond that once-impossible age.

But once we quit noticing the balding pates, the  glasses, the graying hair and the smattering of wrinkles, the people who surrounded us were those we knew as 18- to 22-year-olds, and indeed, that’s how old we felt, at least for the weekend. Occupying the same buildings and green spaces we frequented as eager young collegians, standing in meal lines together, chatting and sipping adult beverages until after midnight and dancing to bands (the Gear Daddies and our very own “Josh and the Ex-Senators”) from our youth made it feel as if we’d slipped back in time.

From that perspective, it’s easier to remember your hopes, ambitions and potential, and to recall what once inspired you before the daily grind and (for many of us) parenting clouded your vision. When someone looks at you and still sees your 21-year-old self rather than the AARP member you’ve become, how can you not feel refreshed?

And yet most of my classmates were glad to reflect on what they’ve accomplished in 30 years, including the hurdles they’ve overcome. While some have incredible careers and contributions to their credit, others have raised children, traveled the world or made strides as dance instructors, teachers, environmentalists, epidemiologists and community volunteers. All were accepted in the spirit of this phrase from Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man:” “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Because that’s what we discovered: Our college and classmates are like “home” to us. The wonders of social media saw numerous attendees posting in the days following the reunion weekend, offering comments about rocky return trips via air or freeway and acknowledging that, plastic mattresses and sand-blast dorm showers aside, they’d been more comfortable over the long weekend than ever.

A cabaret night displayed the musical gifts of several, and one dynamic duo’s (the inimitable Joe Andrews and Patty Nieman ’86) closing number–Stephen Schwartz’s “For Good” from the hit musical “Wicked”–perfectly encapsulated the entire event.

“Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But–because I knew you–I have been changed for good.”