Out Divine Corners Way
by Jonathan Shimkin
The invitation took me by surprise – a 50th High School Reunion! I’d been out of touch with my classmates for most of those 50 years and wondered how they even found me. (Google, of course.)
A photograph was attached to the invitation: the class of 1971 in its sophomore or junior year, formally posed, in rows, against the background of a chilly Central Park – snow on the ground; bare branches framing us overhead.
The 41 faces gazed into a future from which I looked back at them with a bittersweet blend of reminiscence and rue. There I was, in the back row, hair down to my shoulders, next to my best friend, Andy. “We contain all the ages we have ever been,” Ann Lamott wrote, and I imagine those past selves nested within one another, like the layers of a babushka doll, dwindling back to infancy.
My sense of connection, present to past self, was intermittent. I’d catch a glimpse of it, only to have the elusive filament of identity disappear when I tried to fix it with a steady gaze. Some say there’s an essential self that lodges in the deep heart’s core and never changes, whatever the vicissitudes of our life and circumstances; others say the self is all contingency and change, arising in relation to changing and contingent conditions, and that the sense of continuity is little more than a cognitive delusion.
Metaphysics aside, I felt a tender regard for the young self in the photo, alongside the paradoxical sense of being and not-being that person: after all, who else could I be? and how could I not, after all, be someone else?
I would have liked to attend a reunion with all of us as we were in that photo – to hear how we spoke, see how we moved, and glean what we anticipated from the years ahead. Maybe I could let them (that is, us) know that things are looking pretty dire in 2021, that the planet is in peril to a degree unimaginable back then, so it might behoove them (that is, us) to look into this in their years ahead. Alas, our condition remains as Kierkegaard found it: life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.
The actual reunion took place on Zoom, and was lovely. Half the class came. Others were disinclined, or off the Google grid; some had died; Andy, I was relieved to hear, was in the former, not the latter, category. We each shared a brief précis of what we’d done over 50 years, a nutshell-in-a-nutshell account. I wish I had a graph that could plot out our collective life trajectories and make up a portrait complementary to the Central Park photo. What would constitute the x and y axes of such a graph: choice and chance? good moves and bad? lessons learned and oops, I did it again?
The reunion started with a slideshow contrasting then and now – our individual Yearbook photos fading into contemporary portraits. There was a brief moment in the fade between pictures when the images, past and present, appeared superimposed over one another – different ends of the temporal spectrum converging, illustrating how we are indeed all the ages we’ve ever been.
At the end of the slideshow came an “in memoriam” section, acknowledging those who hadn’t made it through the 50 intervening years. It stunned, like the moment in “Our Town” when one realizes it’s Emily’s burial one is witnessing, and it was stunning for much the same reason: the photos and the names induced particular pangs for each of the decedents, as well as a global pang for all of us, for the fate we’re all heir to, the grand ebb and flow of the generational tides. At the next reunion – the 60th? the 75th? – our cohort will be smaller yet.
It brought me back to the Central Park class portrait. I’m unable to recall the particular day we all went outside for the shoot, though it must have been a bit of an occasion; it was winter; some of us were bundled up, some were lightly clad, in sweaters or with coats wide open, rebuffing the cold with the fervor of youth. As I look at the picture, I think of Rilke’s poem, the one where he scrutinizes a photograph of his father as a young man, the one that concludes: “O you swiftly fading photograph / in my more slowly fading hand.”
Jonathan Shimkin, writer and editor, may be contacted at email@example.com, or via his website: jonathanshimkin.weebly.com