My 40th high school reunion is approaching, and last week I decided not to go. After digging up this old essay, however, I’m reconsidering. Maybe I will, just to check in with the elephants…
The sparsely furnished convention center room, brown, dull and big enough to hold 300 dancing elephants, is empty in the west forty save for a young blonde DJ punching his board. Loosely knotted groups of electrified adults stand near the bar and exude the kind of confidence only those over fifty can lay claim to.
“I was an unruly teenager,” a friend reminds me, after receiving a compliment on his work as a psychiatrist who connects with troubled youth. “I know the behavior.” Our brief conversation is a pivotal moment during my reluctantly attended 35th high school reunion.
All grown up, we are. My unruly childhood friends have turned shrink, politician, ad executive, high school teacher and attorney. I hobnob with classmates, some who managed to escape the scars of a tumultuous and disorderly upbringing, and some who still channel Janis Joplin, Andy Kaufmann, Jim Morrison, The Devil, and other miscreant and spectacular spirits.
I used to believe the cooperative, obedient class members of ’74 missed out on spectacular things—a drug-induced near-death experience, perhaps, or an up close and personal audience with The Law. I don’t believe that anymore. Life is less about the spectacular (although I love it, love it!) and more about learning to live. It is more about the Nature of Grace, and how little I know about it.
See, tragic events happen. Our tears form a headwater that marks a high lonesome landscape, a private place rife with sharp edges that’ll rip a heart to pieces. People die, love goes wrong, marriages fail. None of these events respects our best shoes, a tanned and thin frame, or a thick wallet, or cares one whit about our innocence or happiness.
The longing for a stable kind of magic teases us, and because we long for it so deeply, we get fooled again and again. “Shame on me,” we say – squared, to the tenth even. But we keep on believing in it. We have to, you see, because while the other choice may be more spectacular, we awkwardly carry on with the business of learning to live, of transforming ourselves into openhearted grace-bestowers. And therein lies the magic.
Differences fill the cavernous corners of the reunion room like piles of cast-off clothing. Those dancing elephants I mentioned earlier? They sift through our dregs, weave them together and create a safety net laid thick with grace. Suddenly, the entire room fills with brave elephants rumbling toward each other.
A cantankerous former beauty queen’s first words are bitter and jealous. But as an elephant tunes the safety net behind her, she relaxes. The elephant says silently through the woman’s softened eyes, “I’m sorry I hurt you. I forgive you for hurting me.” Good vibrations move through a roomful of elephants whose collective purpose is to tune our frequency to a higher plane, and we rise with them.
She smiles and says, “I used to think your mother was the most beautiful woman on earth.” I meet her soft eye, smile back and say, “Thank you. I will tell her you said so.” And there it is, a moment of pure grace.
Nobody complains seriously about the soulless venue, or the tasteless industrial foodstuff smoldering on the steam table. “Thankless job, planning a reunion,” we mutter. “We should be grateful.” The $45 entrance fee guarantees a live audience for a few hours, nothing more. We get our money’s worth.
No extra charge for the dancing elephants.