To my classmates on the occasion of our 30th Reunion
For me, it wasn’t so much about the memories. It was about the present.
First of all, I’m convinced that I have the worst memory in our class, and I apologize to all those I stared in the face and called the wrong name (sorry Abby Arevelo!) or couldn’t come up with a name at all. (Wear your name tag, Matt McKern!) But then, I had plenty of people give me a pretty good double take, especially the first night when I didn’t wear a hat. I guess you weren’t picturing me as a 48-year-old bald guy when I gave my unforgettable speech at commencement. You know, the one where I talked about something or other, made a lame joke, and inspired us all.
But even though our organizing committee did everything they could to bring back our best memories (the Blue Devil rug was a great touch), my favorite moments were firmly rooted in the present.
I know that even those of you who have personally watched Walla Walla change over the years share the shock of someone like me who comes back to stand around sipping $80 wines with tourists from Japan, or listening to Broadway piano bars in funky clubs, eating artisanal organic vegan pizza. It doesn’t feel like the Walla Walla we grew up in.
And, yet, it is. We were part of this place, and we still know its streets and mountains and trees, rhythms and culture. Sure, it’s shifted, but it’s a real place with continuity that we know. I feel like that’s a pretty good metaphor for all of us.
The past we shared isn’t so much about the memories, good or bad, but about the roots we have together, a familiarity that is sometimes vague, but undeniably real, whether we like it or not. We’ve all arrived, in whatever our present moment, from some common stuff. Personally, I loved this sense of how we came through this place together, into our current lives, where we could meet each other, as new-old people, all over again.
The build-up to the reunion happening on Facebook – that page deserves its own sociological analysis – has been fascinating, and so much fun. I’ve loved hearing from those who couldn’t make it, and the ways you contributed to our collective experience. Digging out the photos, and thinking about our young, dewy-skinned, teenaged selves, I expected the sort of introspection and home-town nostalgia brought on by these occasions. [And though I said this in deep sincerity to some of you in person, I only half-facetiously apologize to all of you for 18-year-old Brian Howell. Probably less than half. He was a piece of work.]
But what I did not expect was the ways in which our time in Walla Walla would seem less like a familiar childhood space, and more like a coming together of new friends. Whether drinking wine in completely unfamiliar space of The Foundry Winery, or bowling together in what used to be the fertilizer section of Long’s Lawn and Garden Supply, this new present always had a sense of this place and past, but with much more than just reminiscence and memory. It felt like I was getting to know these new, interesting, people who shared a common vocabulary with me. Even as we dug through our memories, we were not 17 year olds. We are all these 40-somethings, with our unique stories, coming together to share not the past, but the present.
A couple weeks before the reunion, I saw a pithy little piece on line entitled “Why You Should Go to Your High School Reunion, Dammit.” The author drew on Buddhist philosophy to encourage us to embrace that which connects us – aging, suffering, heartbreak, loss – to celebrate what is most important: we are not alone. It got some likes on our Facebook page, but disappeared pretty quickly behind the (awesome!) photos of us with beautiful hair and an amazing collective sense of fashion.
I went back to that post, though, after being with you all this weekend, because I think it did hit some of the things I liked best about being at our reunion. I was reminded that, whatever we’ve been through – our marriages, divorces, job changes, children, grandchildren (!), coming out, moving on – we share a lot more than just a mascot and three years of high school. We share a humanity that was, in part, forged in a specific place, at a specific time, (with a kick-ass soundtrack), together.
I was also reminded that whatever our past, and whatever our present, this is not the end of our story. This was our 30th high school reunion, but not our last. In five or ten years, we will gather, and we will be new people, with new heartbreaks, new losses, new joys, a different present in which to live and get to know one another, still sharing this charming, funny, unique town as a formative part of ourselves. I hope some of those who stayed away – dreading, perhaps, an evening of sometimes-awkward talk about ordinary life in ordinary places, or wanting to create distance with these shared past-selves – will decide that there’s something valuable for all of us in showing up, unafraid to simply acknowledge that our lives, in every possible form, have all done essentially the same thing, and shared in a meaningful, important, and very particular, place.
We all grew up in Walla Walla. No matter how many years we had there; whether we stayed in town, left temporarily, or even dusted off our feet, this place is a part of us, and we are part of each other. Now, in years that only share the multiple of 5, we can take some time, even just a few hours or a stilted 20 minute conversation, to just get to know this place, and each other, again.
Peace and grace to you, class of 1987.