Taking Root

By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder

rabbiruth@gmail.com 

I recently attended my 25th college reunion. In popular culture, reunions are fraught affairs. Regrets abound. Attempts to recapture youth play out for the better and usually the worse.

And if in real life the exaggerations of sitcoms and murder mysteries are avoided, it is hard to escape the taking stock that comes from returning to a place that launched you forth in youthful promise.

When we marched across the stage 25 years ago, I blissfully believed all was possible. My short life had been blessed with every advantage, and the opportunities ahead seemed infinite.

At my fifth reunion, the last time I returned, the optimism seemed well placed. I was married nearly a year and pursuing my professional dreams. So much lay ahead. Now, I wondered, how would life stack up at this juncture?

Arriving on campus, people were happy and eager to connect. They shared joyfully.

We are married to college sweethearts, happily divorced, single, straight and gay. Some have lived around the world; others never left the neighborhood. Our children, for those who have them, range from 21 years to less than 21 months. As doctors, lawyers, reporters, teachers, writers, full-time moms, in the nonprofit and profitable worlds — there is no simple accounting for our time.

To be fair, those in attendance were a self-selecting crowd: those with strong and enduring ties to our alma matter, those confident enough in their accomplishments, those whose health and finances allowed for the indulgence of a long weekend.

But at that first night together, I was struck by the array of ways we had composed our lives since graduation. There was no singular story or metric of success.

Over breakfast the second day, as I followed up on the happy family tale begun the night before, an old friend admitted she had only told me half the story. In addition to the joys, there were troubles too. Not hers alone.

Revealed, as we got more comfortable with one another, were sick spouses, jobs lost, parents gone too early. Not all the divorces were voluntary or easy. Not all the choices more generally were of our own choosing.

In the two decades that have passed since I last walked on campus, much of what I had hoped for has indeed come to be, but there have also been twists and turns and unanticipated challenges. Life has been good but not always easy — certainly not as easy as I hoped or naively expected.

At midlife the unabashed, limitless optimism has been replaced with more realistic expectations. Adulthood means we make our opportunities, but we also take out the trash, navigate failures and increasingly come up against the limitations of our own bodies.

At our class dinner there was a placard with painfully youthful photos of four of our classmates, all deceased. They were not with us to tell their stories.

The majority of those who were murdered in Orlando were not much older than we were at graduation. They will never get to try and fail or succeed. At midlife, all is not perfect, but it is.

At the reunion, others on campus were celebrating just five or 10 years or 35, 40 or more. Some of the younger women (for it was a women’s college) had sought out my classmates for wisdom and perspective, while I was pronounced a baby by some of my elders. Neither an infant nor crone, at midlife I celebrate that I am here to tell the stories.

On Saturday night, a particularly close friend from back in the day and I stepped away from the group and had dinner alone. The years had slipped by. Reconnecting, we began to share our stories. There was so much good. She’s professionally successful; her children are delightful.

But it did not take long before we were shooting straight, sharing the details of the difficulties and disappointments. It was not easy stuff. But as she reflected the next day, “It was very fortifying.” She is stronger than I ever remember her, and, like all of us, she has the next chapters to write.

Blessed are You, the source of life, who has brought us to this moment.