Check Your Bags. And I Love You.

I’m starting to realize I actually am not opposed to this “getting older” thing.  This past weekend was my 25th high school reunion, and it was simply marvelous.

I remember being 18 years old and looking at people in their 40s and feeling so sad for them.  Their lives were over.  They had to work, most of them had children who were wearing them out, they had no idea how to dress properly and they were getting kind of grey and wrinkly.  Not me!  I was the opposite of all of that, and I could see them looking at me with some envy.  I believed I was in the best place in the world, and they were on the down slope to nowhere.

The thing is, when you are young, you can only look at things you’ve never been and guess what they are.  You take your experience, which is profoundly limited, and you make your best guess.  You don’t know what it’s like to get older.  But when you are older, ahh…….now I can see.  You can look back at your early years with knowledge.  That look of envy?  Not exactly.  It’s the look of the bittersweet happiness you feel when you think of who you were back then, and the irreplaceable warmth of gratitude for who you are now because of it.

In essence, it’s all good.

This reunion was unlike any previous event for the Class of 1986.  It was the great equalizer.  For the first time, some of our real heroes are dead.  We’ve lost classmates, too.  Some of us are taking our children to tour college campuses, while others are experiencing the late-blooming joy of new love and a baby.  We’re all over the map in some senses, and yet very connected in others.

A couple of nights before the reunion, I kept hearing dialogue from The Big Chill.  William Hurt’s character Nick is stoned and fighting with his old friends.  The primary source of the fight is repressed emotions about a mutual friend’s suicide.   At one point Nick snaps to Tom Berenger’s character Sam, “You’re wrong.  You don’t know me.  A long time ago we knew each other for a very short period.  It was easy back then.  You don’t know anything about me.  It’s only out here in the real world where things get tough.”

Sam is angry but he tells his friend, “You’re wrong.  I know I loved you and everyone here, and I’m not going to p*** that away because you’re higher than a kite.  I’ll go on believing that until I die.”

This scene has been lodged in my memory since I first saw the film.  It’s the ageless question of how “real” the friendships of very young classmates can actually be, especially when they remain under the glass of a nostalgic past.  I knew how I felt about my old friends, but I was anxious about what our time together would really show.

It didn’t take long to find out.

I noticed a new vibe at this reunion, one that said all bags had been checked before boarding the weekend.  One lovely consequence of getting older is that we are just  too weary to lug around all of the issues we dragged along to the previous reunions.  Half of us have experienced at least one divorce.  Some of us have lost siblings or children to illness or accident.  Many of us have deceased parents.  We’ve had career crashes, sickness, parenting fails, pounds on and pounds off, and severed relationships with people we once loved.  We all know it now.  No one has missed these experiences entirely, and if they claim they have, well, they are not telling the truth.

This time, we all came to the reunion to tell the truth.

I’m gay.  I’m a single parent.  I’m really sick.  I’m unemployed.  I’ve killed people.  I’ve delivered babies.  I’m afraid everyone will realize I was never a very good friend.  I married someone I didn’t love.  I’ve never been happier or more sure of myself.  I’m worried about my parents.  I’ve turned to God.  I’ve left the church.  I’m an alcoholic.  I fight terrorists.  I fight with my kids.  I finally know what I’m doing.  I have no idea what I’m doing.

My friend posted this on his Facebook page today:  “With the passage of twenty-five years, most of the people with whom I went to high school had turned into vague mythical shadows in the depths of my mind. What a pleasant surprise to find that the people with whom I was friends are still wonderful, and the people I didn’t know well are kind and thoughtful adults. The class of ’86 rules!!!”

Rules indeed.  Now, pass the aspirin and my cane.  I need to rest up for the 30th……you people wore me out.  And I still really love you.

Rivers, Memories, and The Boss

I took this photograph yesterday at Coonskin Park in Kanawha County West Virginia.  Like the narrator in “A River Runs Through It,” I am haunted by waters, especially rivers.

This moment in the final image reminded me of someone with whom I was close friends as a teenager whose life — and those lives of everyone who was close to him — was irrevocably altered by an unintended pregnancy.

Without judgment, I reflect on that summer and wonder where he is now.  I hope his dreams are coming true.

But I remember us riding in my brother’s car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
that sends me down to the river
though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight

Image credit:  E. Gaucher; Lyrics: Bruce Springsteen

Lion of the Morning

Some mornings I wake up with a persistent image in my mind.  Sometimes I know why, but more often than not I really do not have a clear understanding of what brings a picture to the forefront of consciousness so soon after sleep.

Today before the sun rose I was rubbing my eyes and trying to see the coffee pot, but all I could see was the face of a lion.

It was a male lion with a scarred face.  It was not at all frightening but it was awe-inspiring.  The photo posted here is the closest thing I could find to what I saw.  My lion’s eyes were less distant and his face was wider.

I spent some time talking with a good friend yesterday about our personal spiritual beliefs, but mostly we talked about how challenging it is to have constructive conversation with our friends and associates about issues of faith and science.  My friend and I have what seem to be very different beliefs about some things, but honestly at the end of the day I still don’t think we are that far apart in what matters.

Case in point from our conversation:

Me:  I feel kind of bad about this, but I stand up all the time and say I believe in the virgin birth and I don’t really.

Friend: You don’t believe in miracles?

Me: I do.  Just not that one.

Friend:  Really.  Why not?

Me: I guess because everyone is so hung up on sex and it would get in the way of the story if there were a guy.  Who’s the guy?  Do we like that guy?  Was he her husband?  As a woman, I see and live a lot of social judgments that get in the way of what is really important.  I think the story of who Jesus was is told with a lot of myth, but that doesn’t make it untrue.  Myth for me actually tells more truth than science sometimes.

Friend:  I believe in Adam and Eve.

Me: You do?  Why?

Friend:  I just do.  I think there is a line of demarcation when God put his spirit into human beings and we became different creatures because of it.

I avoided any talk of apples and snakes.  But I’m kind of down with his point even though I would never say it the way he did exactly.  We are going to keep talking.

And I’m going to keep thinking about my lion.

Image credit: ODP

Real Friends: Manning Up to Curve Balls, Together

A very good friend of mine from college shared with me this (edited) email that her own father recently wrote to a group of his fraternity brothers.  My hands-down favorite has to be the “we all manned up” comment at the end.  The timelessness of the friendships moved me, and got me thinking about my own feelings about old friends.

Despite our ever more technologically connected world, I generally feel more disconnected from my friends.  I love Facebook for its capacity to keep me from not losing touch all together with far-flung relationships; and yet there is the danger of buying into the dynamic that people are products.  We set up our own profiles, we decide what photos go up, what stories are shared, what image or slice of our realities we want to present.  I only know what you want me to know, and vice versa.

I miss that greater sense of entirety about my friends’ lives.  When we all were in the same physical space more often, I knew that you said that dumb thing in front of an important person.  I knew your mom was mad at you, that your dog was really sick, that you wondered why I hadn’t called.  I knew you liked peanut butter in your milkshakes and had to take a nap every day or you became an unbearable pill to be around. 

We could talk about politics and sex and religion because we weren’t afraid the other one would walk if we said the “wrong thing.”  I knew you were a cheap date, that you were not sure you liked girls “that way,” and that you cried when you woke up from a bad dream.  I knew you were under too much pressure, that you had almost cheated on your taxes but didn’t at the last-minute.  I knew you were afraid, really afraid, that you had picked the wrong career, or the wrong life partner, or the wrong dress.  I knew you were an unrepentent dork about Star Trek, and that you were not even joking when you said, “Worf’s hair looks really good like that.”

Knowing these kinds of things is what makes for real friendship, and we can only know them from time spent together.

Here’s to real friends…………

Dear brothers, I certainly enjoyed seeing all of you this past weekend.  Sarah and Tim overdid the hospitality and I know everyone appreciated their generosity and hard work as much I did.

Many thoughts hit me on the rainy ride home.  I did not take notes, but I should have because the details were as interesting as the big picture was chronological — our “here’s what happened to me” stories.  Following are my general impressions of our collective “my life so far”stories:

  • Small decisions can have big long-term implications and impact.  Many of those “small decisions” start with a whim and develop into life changes.
  • Big decisions that turned out to be questionable can in fact be course-corrected for the better.
  • We are a funny bunch.   Our collective sense of humor has only gotten better over the years and  probably has served us well in life.
  • In spite of the very different paths we each have taken over the years we are a relatively homogenous group, sharing the same values, stories and friendship.
  • Fifty three years is a long time not to see someone you like to be with.
  • We have accomplished much, yet retain modest egos.
  • We received a damn good education at our school. The Liberal Arts degree (that some of us initially did not know how to turn into jobs) gave us a wonderful foundation for a wide variety of challenges.
  • It seems like we are all happy with the way things turned out and are content. Those of us who have retired seem to enjoy being irrelevant compared with the stress of running businesses, practices and careers.   Those of us still working have figured out both what we like to do and a way to get paid to do it.
  • We have all “manned up” and dealt with the curve balls life sends us all.

Image credit: The Complete Pitcher

Growing Up Blind – John Warren (part 5, After College)

This is the conclusion of a 5 part essay for the Essays on a WV Childhood project.  To go to the beginning of the essay and start with part 1, click here.

Growing Up Blind (part 5, After College) 

 

30 years of John's journals, 1980-2010

 

 Ironically, so many Christians befriending me in spite of my struggles had an effect they didn’t anticipate.  I felt intense guilt for being attracted to other men, but I was greatly encouraged that there were people who knew the ugly truth about me and still chose to be my friend.  There was a part of me that began to think, “Hey, if these people will still be my friend, then maybe this is not such a horrible thing after all.”  

In the years after I graduated from college there were many times I felt that I had to choose between my faith and my sexuality, and for many years I chose Christianity. The prolonged conflict between these aspects of my personality, however, took its toll.  At the age of 32 I took a job in a new city and took the next seven years off from church.  

Today, I describe myself as an agnostic.  My beliefs have changed, and I am no longer convinced that it is a sin to act on my sexual desires.  I am now 42 years old and for the first time in my life I am ready to date someone of the same gender.  

Whatever happens, you can be sure I’ll record every major development in my journal.

Image credits: John Warren

Growing Up Blind – John Warren (part 3, High School)

This is part 3 of a 5 part essay for the Essays on a WV Childhood project.  To go to the beginning of the essay and start with part 1, click here.

Growing Up Blind (part 3, High School)

In the fall of 1983, I became a sophomore in high school, and from my journal it is clear that I was obsessed with interpersonal relationships.  I made endless lists of people who I considered friends.  I made a list of all my classes and the people I liked in them.  I wrote short profiles of classmates.  After any kind of social event I made a list of the people I saw there and noted which relationships were improving.

Junior year I increasingly pursued friendships with guys that I found physically attractive, all the while meticulously charting the progress of my personal relationships.  My primary sources of social interaction were school and the church youth group.  I also did a brief stint in 4-H and had a couple of neighborhood friends I with whom I played Dungeons and Dragons.  It was a good year.  My brother was off at West Virginia Wesleyan College and my sister was still at John Adams Junior High.  I had the whole high school to myself; I was free to be the person I wanted to be without worrying about doing something that would embarrass or annoy my siblings.  I was never popular, but I felt like I got along well with most people (which was a big thrill for an introvert) and I had a couple of good friends.

In my junior year, I continued to use codes to record things that I was afraid to state explicitly.  After taking a Psychology class I decided to keep a Dream Log and to analyze my dreams.  One of the things we learned in the class was that some dreams are “compensative”–they allow you to experience something missing from your waking life. Some of my dreams were just nonsense, but some were more revealing, as this log entry shows:

“I remember something confusing going on that centered around Kroger’s….  Then the scene switched and I was in room 213 with Stan(*).  I don’t know if we were the only ones there or not.  It didn’t seem to matter.  There was a strange closeness between us… (SC).”  [*Name has been changed.]  

Nowhere in the Log did I provide a key to explain to the reader that “SC” meant the dream included sexual content.  In the analysis of this dream I wrote, “Second part seemed to be compensative (enjoyed [it]).”

At the same time I was having sexual dreams about guys, I was extolling the virtues of my friend Sheri.  Sheri was the coolest person I knew–she was brilliant.  She played the piano, she liked to read, she introduced me to the music of Laurie Anderson and the writing of Ursula Le Guin and Isaac Asimov.  Most significantly, she was an encouraging friend.  For Christmas of 1984, she gave me Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and wrote kind notes inside the books encouraging me to continue writing my own stories.  She had a profound effect on me, and in January of 1985, I wrote, “I never get tired of being with her….  She’s the only person I would even consider marrying….”

Tomorrow, part 4 of Growing Up Blind – Born Again.

Image credits: John Warren; Fantastic Fiction

Where We Are, revisited

Mid Life. Crisis?

Written originally a year ago, this post seemed worth revisiting after a weekend away with old friends……..

Lots of my peers are wrestling with relocating their lives. There is frequent talk of “making a change,” and often this manifests itself in a laundry list of other places they and their families could live.

Looking for better schools for children; more variety in dining; more diversity in neighborhood; a change in commute; a change in climate; a new house; a more challenging job. The list is familiar and endless.

Pawing the ground at middle age is hardly new territory. The stereotype of the midlife crisis is not positive to say the least; but there is a strange degree of beauty in the moment. I like to believe that change is always available, that what we lose little by little is the will to make it. Midlife wrestling with where we are and where we want to go has an air of Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Where it can go wrong is usually two-fold. One, we repress our real feelings and needs for so long that when our conscience can’t manage anymore the backlash is a destructive taking of all our unmet needs we’ve left untended for years. Two, there is a lack of clarity about what it is that is really unsatisfactory.

Is it REALLY that we don’t have enough of this, that, or the other thing in the place where we are, physically? Or is it that we don’t have enough in other places where we are, like our relationships or our careers?  Here’s wishing all of us a good place to be today.