The Middle Isn’t Easy (Thoughts after my 20th Harvard reunion)

The ‘middle’ isn’t easy. Still, we’ve become pretty adept not just at making it through, but at trusting that we will. But then we get around a bunch of people who’s opinions we really trust…and realize we’re still just aching to be reassured. To be seen. Welcome to the Harvard 20th reunion. The five years since we last descended on the yard have been heavier than the half-decades before. And of course it’s still like old times, sort of. There’s a muscle memory that never leaves us, as roommates who became siblings decades ago reconnect at Pinochios, and it seems perfectly normal for a partner at a law firm to get a noogie from a guy who used to steal his Scorpion bowls. He might even appreciate it a little bit. To be claimed means that much.

Of course we were a class of 1600 humans, so we weren’t all noogie-level-close. But there’s the group memory that sparks an instant closeness with someone you barely knew in school, by way of their love for others who are your people. It’s an association implying trust, even making it seem perfectly natural to sleep side-by-side even if you’ve just met because it’s too late and there’s a panel in a few hours and we’re out way past our regular bedtimes. Of course she should borrow your eyeliner. Tribe is tribe. And since so many of us are now in the thick of leading/forming/protecting/managing our own (spouses and children), it is blissful to be swept by the crowd, making no decisions, issuing no directives…and perhaps winding up at the Spee at 3am…because there is a bear there. And also Sohani.

And there’s also the tribal memory. You’ll recall a classmate’s confusion as a mixed-race Harvard man in the 90s…and ache with questions about whether it will be any better for your own son, as you hug that classmate closer. You’ll walk through the parties, launching so many conversations cut short for a drive-by hug …and feel viscerally that we’re going through the same thing. We all had ideas about how it was supposed to go. And we all rolled with the punches. But this is the middle, and it’s hard. Like salmon swimming upstream who’ve been given a moment to pause and look around, before flipping back into the water. Maybe the stream is all there is? Or maybe it gets better? Maybe at the 25th reunion they’ll give us more than one choice of white wine?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve known I will live to only 84. I have no reason for this, and I have no fear. But it’s been an accepted sense of knowing for me since I could remember knowing anything at all.

This week, I will turn 42. Reunions have always been important to me, because while I’ve felt welcome in a lot of worlds…I had a true sense of belonging in precious few. And when you launch into life alongside a small group that was as self-selected for our eccentricities of the mind as we were, it’s validating. It’s grounding.

The thing about Harvard is that it was just college. We were kids. And we were competitors. And we had more in common than we knew at the time. At the 5th, we were just beginning to taste the world, a few short years into the part of life where the ‘right’ choice is suddenly subjective. We were flirting with each other, and we were thinking about moving to London, or seeing about grad school, because the world was still wide open. At the 10th, there was some success, some lingering competition, some social late-bloomers who wanted everyone to see it, and others puffing their chests to ensure everyone saw how much further they’d continued to rise. By the 15th, on the tip of everyone’s tongue was some version of ‘Will it ever happen for me?’ Whether ‘it’ was the promotion, the senate seat, the wedding day, the love part, or even just the contentment of settling on a path. But now it’s the 20th. And the wind has palpably shifted.

It’s now or never. Pick a fork in the road. And run for your very fortunate life.

Perhaps that’s why there’s a warmth in the air. We are looking right past the faces to each other’s struggles and decision points and forks in the road. There’s only so much time in a drive-by-hug to get to the heart of it. We want to tell you that it will be alright, and we want somebody, somebody like us, to tell us. No turning back. No time to waste. Time to close some doors. Or at least it feels that way. I can’t think of a better set of emotionally and intellectually and self-critically and rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light-ly and I-haven’t-been-up-this-late-in-years-ly misfits to muddle through it with.

It’s true that whichever fork we all choose at this beginning of my second half, it will all be okay. Have the baby on your own or don’t. Leave the marriage or don’t. Leap from corporate life leaving crazy money on the table because you need to feel alive again and the house is paid for so its alright….or don’t. Sell it all and move abroad to open that B&B or don’t. Leave medicine to get the MFA now so you can write like you always wanted because you’ve finally given yourself the permission your parents wouldn’t. Or don’t.

We hear you. And maybe that’s why we’re here. To lend each other the impartial and supportive ears we so deeply crave, since we’ve all been trained in the same ways to listen.

Whatever happens we’ll see you in the yard in another five years, and we’ll squeeze you, and we’ll adore your kids and welcome your partners and sense your hurts and savor your wins and drink mediocre wine with you and take your hand….and then we will dance.

See you at the 25th, weirdos.

Reprinted from my personal blog: https://poonam.info/blog/f/the-middle-isn%E2%80%99t-easy-thoughts-after-the-20th-harvard-reunion

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