Friday, May 14, 2010

Reunions, Life, and the Authenticity of Friendship

Every once in a while you have a conversation with someone and end up extremely grateful they're in your life. That happened to me the other night when I talked with my cousin Mara for about an hour and a half. It's not something we do a lot, but every few years it happens. This time it seemed to catch both of us at a time in our lives where we had a lot to say. And like all good conversations, it continues to reverberate over a period of days.

The telephone call started over a High School reunion. We had very different experiences at the same school. For her the idea of not going to her reunion was unthinkable. She still lives in the same town and the friendships she formed are still solid. She also had a lot of friends, hung out with large crowds of people. She has good memories, just as my brother has good memories and my sister has good memories. I can understand them wanting to go.

For me it was something I just couldn't imagine myself going to as I had a total of three friends if you didn't count the carload of drama geeks who filled out the car at the drive-in once a week. I didn't fit in at school or with just about anyone else. I was different. I didn't have the pretty home life every one else at least pretended on the outside to have. My mother and all of us kids suffered horrible abuse at the hands of the man she married. The police had our house on their daily circuit. People spoke with accents. We were poor.

My brother and sister found their own ways to cope and compensate. I found my salvation in friendship. I cultivated friendships with people who were odd like me. They were from poor, broken homes. They were shunned by the other kids for their differences, for their old and used clothes, their  lack of possessions that are now long gone and were such a worthless thing to judge anyone on, even if it was High School.

This was the time in my life where things and I parted company. I preferred to be rich in friendships and because of this I found people like me. We didn't fit in anywhere else but with each other. We were serious, not necessarily about school but about life. We were ripe to develop lifelong friendships with each other based on our mutual place in the universe.

It was the late 60's and people were dying in Vietnam. Our heroes were getting assassinated. We grew our hair, quit wearing make-up and shaving our faces, armpits, legs,  and spent a lot of time out on the streets trying to save the world and making it a better place for women and minorities. I became heavily involved in  an anti-war group that helped write Conscientious Objector letters and provided assistance to escape to Canada if that was the only option left. This was High School for me, not proms or parties or silly gossip.

As a result I became even more alienated from my classmates who were focused on getting married and having babies if they didn't plan on going to college. As an Atheist from about age 13 or so, I didn't have anything in common with the Mormons or Catholics which dominated our school. As I said, I had three people I considered friends.

This was also the period of time I almost moved to Paris. I applied and was accepted to the Sorbonne. The tuition was manageable and I had enough working skills from growing up in restaurants and other businesses that I knew I could find some kind of work to make up for the rest of the money I needed to make the move. I was going on this great adventure with my two best friends from the antiwar group.

But life has a way of intruding and it intruded in the rudest most possible way. My friend's draft number came up and instead of Paris he was going to Vietnam. After all the work we did together to help people get out of war, he did something that completely astonished me and his girlfriend. He chose to go to war. He was dead in six months and neither I nor his girlfriend had the heart to go to Paris without him. I left school, finished up my degree at a school for dropouts. I was an honor student when I dropped out, just 1/8th of a credit from graduation,  so the school "found" something for me to enable me to get my diploma without having to go back to High School. I got a job in a casino and stayed there until I started college. It was one of the saddest times in my life. I broke ties with everyone so I could heal from my broken heart. And in my spare time I fought against the war with every spare moment I had.

And it was there, in Las Vegas where I started college,  that I met many of the people who would become my life long friends. We spent every weekend camping in Utah, Arizona, Death Valley. We lived outside together for most of our college years. It was from them that I learned if you share a campfire with someone, there's a good chance your souls will be forever joined from staring at the flames together. I scaled back my attempts to save the world and tried to live a less complex life, to fall in love, to wake up without having a list of serious things to accomplish. I'd been an adult my entire life and this was my first time actually being young.

When we graduated, we went our separate ways but stayed in touch and took the lessons we learned about friendship forward to the next world. I came north for graduate school and once again my friends were not the ordinary group of people, but those outside the group. Jeff, as the spouse of a graduate student, could take classes for next to nothing and since he already had a degree, he took classes for fun at the liberal arts college where he introduced me to people he met.

For me right from the beginning it was the same nightmare of over-privileged selfish  children who lived by the power of their respective tantrums to get what they wanted, which was everything. Going without, having nothing was unimaginable to them. My first few months living with them, they stuck me with their unpaid utility bills I had foolishly put in my name. They helped themselves to the deposit of the houses only I spent hours cleaning in order to get it back. They ate the food I had scrounged to buy and never thought to replace it. They gossiped maliciously about everyone and made up lies and stupid shit about those who dared to break off relationships with them. They were shallow and self-centered, ignorant about politics and the world they lived in. They bought clothes and 100 dollar haircuts instead of contributing to the rent and felt no guilt over my working extra hours to support them. They were some of the meanest, nastiest, most self-centered people I ever met in my life. They're the kind of people you don't go around without having a bullet and knife-proof vest on your back.

I couldn't relate to them and they would never understand a great deal of my life. I was ten years older than most of them and far more serious about everything. But fortunately they weren't the only students even if they liked to tell themselves they were the only ones on the planet. If it wasn't for the household of poor kids of working class parents that I eventually ended up living with, I think I would have given up on the human race.

For the rest of my friendships, as always, I gravitated toward the working class, those without trust funds, without any hope for help with our educations other than the financial aid office and part time work. I wanted to be around people who knew what it was like to work for a living, to have to struggle for everything they had because those that didn't would never understand me and I would never understand them. The friends I made were the people who were the equivalent of the anti-war group in my early teens. They devoted their time to helping others and took jobs that were good work as opposed to profitable work.

While the wealthier and upper middle class of our classmates were off on parent funded ventures to Europe and other exotic and expensive locales, the rest of us took to the forests, the beaches, the deserts, the lakes and shared our souls over campfires on our days off from the jobs we held to survive the expense of getting educated. We became a solid group of friends who were often older and far more mature than our classmates. And like my other college friends, these became lifelong friendships that were formed in nature. These are the people who are still in my life, who are equals, who are serious, responsible, unselfish, kind, and don't spend their time making up evil shit about people who aren't there. When they fuck up, they take full responsibility and don't shift the blame onto others. They don't have scapegoats. They have friends. In other words, they are decent and mature human beings.

If High School and College reunions meant seeing these kind of people, then yes I would be there in a minute. But let's face it, a whole lot of people go to reunions for revenge, to rekindle some lost fling, to show off their possessions, their children, their lives. They're there to share gossip, to talk bad about those who aren't there, to rehash and open old wounds, to make themselves seem better than everyone else. They're not there because they care about and love each other. They only tell themselves that lie and so many more.

Yes, I have friends in town because it's reunion time. I always have friends in town because I have friends all over the world who like to travel and they come and visit me and when I can afford it I go visit them. But at almost 60 years of age, I've learned a valuable lesson in life: choose your friends wisely because if you don't, you're going to spend a large part of your life being disappointed. I may be a lot of things, but disappointed is definitely not one of them. And those I value in my life also value me. That is my reward for not compromising my ethics, my honor, my integrity and my responsibility to the planet. We do find each other if we stick to who we are and for that I am eternally grateful and blessed.

So no, I will not be at "the reunion." But I will be here and I'm sure there's a small, lovely handful of us ready to add to some already wonderful memories. Or not. Life is like that. We know there is always a next time when the friendships are true and solid.


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