Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
September 2009 - Volume 09, No. 9
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I’m not talking about nostalgia here.  That’s not what it was.  But for some reason this time it was more important than usual.  How was it even my best expectations were superseded?  Something that filled me during every one of those 550 miles driving back home from my 50th High School Class Reunion.

Iowa - my wonderful home state from 1st Grade through my first university graduation.  And that otherwise nondescript place among the cornfields that was my Junior and Senior High School home town.  Even though I have no more family there, and actually very few specific local friends, I’ve made the trip almost every five years that we re-gather.  (It took us at least 20 years, till we no longer needed to compete or justify ourselves, but could just relax and enjoy each other.)

There were 54 of us originally, plus some who didn’t actually graduate, but remained always a part of us.  Fourteen names and pictures now fill the “Remembering” pages.  That number, which didn’t even pass two till our 30th, finally begins to haunt us.  The Class Photo just arrived yesterday - 31 of us, not looking nearly as old as our years should betray.

What surprised me was how much we valued each other - actually much more than we did 50 years ago.  There was an openness that cannot be explained by simple generous Iowa personality.

Somehow reunions represent the completion of a circle, a fulfillment that increases the value and meaning of something.  Something builds here, becomes more than before.  I was surprised how much I wanted to be with these people, and even more how much that wanting was new.

One of the tasks of adulthood, and especially elder adulthood, is the systematic revisitation of our early life - especially childhood and adolescence.  Perhaps my profession encourages and may specifically structure it, but it also seems a larger pattern among conscious people.  We revisit our past in order to see, almost for the first time, the seeds and roots there that have influenced what and who we have become.  In therapy it’s often called forgiving our past (in the same sense as it is frequently said that the end of therapy involves the ‘forgiving’ of our parents).

Forgiveness here doesn’t carry the usual meaning of just excusing or releasing from some inflicted damage.  Rather it involves a releasing of the events or circumstances of our earlier life in order to allow them to, what I’ll call, redeem forward (i.e. to “give forward”).  In this retrospect, so much of who I have become, was even then, hidden in the events and circumstances that I may even have wished to avoid or leave behind.  Now I can see and experience them quite differently.  Who I was, what I was, become more than they ever were, in order to celebrate the person I have become.  This is the true essence of “reunion.”   The circle is completed in order that it may become more than itself.

One classmate, a woman of whom I was quite fond, specifically refused my request to consider returning for this event, reciting a litany of woes and offenses still tightly held from those years.  This “forgiveness” was conspicuously absent, to the point she had to refuse the fellowship of our company.  Sadly I couldn’t convince her otherwise.

Another friend of mine has for awhile now been undertaking an excruciating review of her early years from childhood through early adulthood.  Her past includes a terrible composite of difficulty and abuse.  But remarkably she finds an ability to “forgive” or “redeem forward” much of that life to become the foundation of a remarkably grateful and wise elderhood.  The center of this re-visiting is not, as one might assume around me, the experience of psychotherapy, but rather the physically and psychologically tumultuous task of quitting smoking, cold turkey! after more than a half century.  The two tasks are parallel - the wrestling of herself out of a lifetime of poisoning.  And, by God, she’s succeeding at both tasks.

As I stated at the beginning, this is not about nostalgia.  Nor is it just about “returning home.”  In my case, that town is no longer my home - my family left there a year after I graduated.  Home itself may actually be a place empty and abandoned - like “A Trip to Bountiful” (1953, 1985).  

Reunion completes the circle, reconnecting with our past, but also transforming it to become the foundation of a new and vital present.  It’s a reconnecting for the purpose of a larger transformation.  

Look at our world today.  There is much change - but then there is always change.  However, the change I find happening today is something different.

Now when we look backwards to see where we’ve come from, new ways forward begin to emerge.  Even the sense of our economic and political past is now shifting.  The poison of Wall Street is being replaced by an economy of local caring.  Our goal is no longer to get rich, but to get real.  The greed of power (even within ourselves) is being replaced by a new vision of public welfare.  

In the last stanza of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943), we find these memorable lines:

  “We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

My 50th High School class reunion became an icon, so to speak, of a much larger redeeming forward .  Something far-reaching is happening.  Go back, take a look at where you come from - and follow its new path forward.  We are finally growing up - and valuing each other more than ever before.

So let’s hear it for the Class of 1959!  Go Mustangs! (though we lost the Homecoming game).

Obviously I had a great time.  But, as always, it’s also becomes a reminder to

Pay attention!

Comments (5)

  • going home

    What a wonderful essay this was, Bill! It was very meaningful to me in particular because I have just reconnected with my old college boyfriend. (That’s who LeighAnn was alluding to last night). University of Northern Iowa,class of '69. I will be forwarding this to him, as well as to my brother and sister. Thanks for you continuing insight.

    — Glenda Swirtz, 9/29/2009
  • Going home...

    I loved the intro Bill! In spite of some of the stress of hosting a classmate and her mom here awhile, the joy of reconnecting with my classmate of 30 years was worth any inconvenience I may have experienced! I sensed your excitement last night when I asked you about your reunion and was so happy to find out that your 50th was a blessed event. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    — Leigh Ann Wood, 9/29/2009
  • Recommended reading

    This article coincides with a book that one of the groups at church is reading, which I recommend for further reflection about all this “reunion stuff.” Dan Mosely authored “Living With Loss” about his own stuggle with a series of significant losses in his life and about the powerful need to forgive but not forget.

    — Walter Sherman, 9/30/2009
  • I too am a 1959 graduate

    Bill I too just returned from our 50th. Southwestern High School, located in Detroit, was a unique school in 1959 in as much as it was intergrated by choice. At that time the downriver suburbs were Allen Park, Melvindale, Lincoln Park and the surrounding community of Delray. They had to bus students to Detroit because they had not built any high schools. Our graduating class of 200 was approximately 1/3 minorities. The school was a melting pot of Italians, Germans, Hungerians, Polish and African Americans. Much of what you expressed regarding the joy of returning and reconnecting was felt by all of us that attened the reunion. We had 110 beautiful classmates attend the weekend festivities at the Marriott Hotel in Romulus, Michigan. We visited the school and was given an opportunty to share our experiences with the current classes. They welcomed use and could not believe that we had such warm and caring feelings for “our” school. Southwestern is a jewel in the crown of the Detroit Public School system.

    — rita combs-sterrett, 10/9/2009
  • 1959 - the Year Itself is special

    Rita Combs-Sterett (see the previous comment) alerted me (in an email conversation) to the book, “1959-The Year Everything Changed” by Fred Kaplan. Check out a brief video at
    Wow! I had not considered the year itself as that significant – and there we were quietly launching ourselves into the world on what we thought was just on our own terms. Well, things are never just what they seem.

    — Bill McDonald, 10/9/2009

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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