A graceful bridge connected the Art Institute and the Children’s Theatre to the parking lot where our parents would wait for us, car engines running to keep either cool or warm, depending on the season. The bridge was artfully shaped, its high arch over the stream below reminiscent of something you’d find in a Japanese garden. It was lovely, but in cold weather during the space between drop off and pick up, that bridge would ice over to a black glossy finish that promised broken limbs if not navigated with care.
Those of us getting out of classes or rehearsals would gather our courage, grasp the wooden rails on the side of the bridge and haul ourselves up one side, slipping every step of the way, hoping that our little grade-school arms would hold up to the task. At the apex, we’d turn backwards and lower ourselves down the other side, sliding from rail-grasp to rail-grasp. There was always that show-off kid who’d Kamikaze it, running up the middle and if they made it intact to the top, shoot down the other side like a snowboarder before that sport was invented. The sides of the bridge were open so the opportunity to fall into the stream below was always present. No one got injured beyond a bruised hip or rear-end as a result of that passage, but it always took a burst of courage to make the crossing.
I was reminded of that process a few weeks ago when I attended my reunion at Northwestern University outside of Chicago. It’s the second college reunion I’ve been to. I haven’t been to any of my high school ones yet, but am contemplating going to the big one coming up next year. It doesn’t seem like forty years since I graduated from high school but hey, time flies when you’re having fun. Or when you’re living life. I’ve moved through the weird time when teen anthems graduate to “oldies” stations, become nostalgic movies, or get remastered into elevator music. If you haven’t had that particular jarring experience, just wait. Winter is coming.
What I loved about this particular reunion was that everyone I reconnected with could not have been nicer. It was such a good time. Part of it was good housing planning. Two of my best gal pals and I stayed at a VRBO down in Andersonville instead of jamming into an overpriced hotel. The Andersonville area was dicey when I lived in Chicago in the early eighties, but it’s great now. We each had our own room and bathroom, which is important as you age up. We ordered in deep dish spinach pizza from Giordano’s like you’re supposed to when in Chicago. I didn’t care that my one-time best friend cheese has declared war on my innards now that I am of an age to attend reunions in the double digits; that was some damn fine pizza. We invited local friends over to join us, and later met other friends for brunch at a funky little breakfast place. We laughed a lot, and if you were observing us you’d want to be at our table.
I’d been nervous about seeing people again at the soiree for just our class. You know, comparing myself and finding myself lacking in some arena. It was unfounded fear. No one had anything to prove. Life had sanded off our edges. We were who we were. It’s relaxing about being around people who’ve become comfortable in their own skin. We traded stories about life and kids, ex-spouses, and favorite vacation spots. We relived moments from our college years. All of us were glad there was no social media back then recording the crazy things we thought were good ideas at the time.
A couple of universal truths emerged in those chats. The first was that without exception, terrible loss, a shock to our world view, or a bad health scare had taken our lives sideways at some point. We’d muddled through with varying degrees of grace, and now shared a wow-you-too? bonhomie. The second was that everyone had experienced at least one major career change. Very few saw it coming. A surprise ‘third act’, one substantively different from the vision we had traipsing the hallowed halls of NU all those years ago. For me, it’s writing books. Another friend became a hypnotherapist. One was voted president of a huge condo association in NYC. A poly-sci major turned into an urban engineer. A journalist turned psychologist. Story after story told without rancor or bitterness, of forging new paths and learning new skills, embracing the idea that there’s MORE to be explored even if we are past the half-way point in life.
I came away so impressed with my college friends — who they are willing to transform themselves to be. I don’t think this is limited to our particular university. It occurs to me that ours was the last generation who had music and art and gym hard-wired into our school schedules from kindergarten through high school. We had lots of recess and plenty of free time to play outside, mostly unsupervised. We pulled ourselves over icy bridges with nary a parent jumping from their warm cars to help out. I wonder if our third-act resilience, the ability to get up after a serious upper cut to the chin and head in a new direction was made possible as a result of those non-STEM classes building an out-of-the-box thinking ability. That the courage we found at ten to get over the icy bridge led to having the fortitude to embrace a third act with tenacity and confidence. Something to think about.