Once in a lifetime

I recently attended my 25th college reunion. The journey involved a seemingly endless car trip, during which the rocky ridges of Massachusetts gave way to the green meadows of New York and, finally, the wide, open fields of Ohio. I’ve travelled this route many times, when visiting my parents in my Ohio hometown. It always feels like the car is suspended in air, between different lifetimes, different realities, on a journey that starts in one timeline and ends in another, two days later.

25th reunions strike at an interesting time of life. We have so many options now; our path is no longer predictable or straight. I was amazed at the different life stages represented by my former classmates. Some of us are on our second or third careers. Some have risen to the top of something or other, but most have stopped and started and lateralled and gone into reverse a few times. Many are preparing for their children to leave the nest, but if the toddlers waddling across the quad are any indication, a few only recently started parenting.

My style blog persona didn’t disappear for the reunion, but she went deep underground. The college in question is a small, progressive, liberal arts institution. We were, and probably still are, an idealistic bunch. If I had to listen to the self-righteous proclamations made by my 18-year old self, I would probably never stop rolling my eyes. But there’s a beauty to that, isn’t there? Because if you sell out right at the start, where do you go from there?

I still remember the moment when I decided the only ethical choice was to not buy material things. There was too much exploitation, too much poverty in the world. For at least a couple of weeks, I considered never buying any new clothes.  I didn’t want to eat meat, either, because valuable resources were wasted in its production. This phase ended as soon as I realized I didn’t like tofu and needed something to wear.

I probably spent the better part of four years trying on different selves and  different clothes. When I arrived on campus in the fall of 1983, I had a closet full of chino-style slacks, jeans, and conservative, button-down blouses with frilly little collars. Within the first week, I looked around and realized I had a problem. Although a few of the freshmen looked like me, much of the student body represented one of 3 styles:

  1.  60s throwback (tie-dyed shirts, ethnic-print skirts and tunics);
  2. post-punk hipster (black, black, metallic studs,  and more black); or
  3. anything goes, as long as it’s not considered “normal” (the guy in a skirt; the guy with the dandelion hat, etc.)

I now realize that many of the people there had style. But I didn’t understand the rules of this minimalist, I’m-not-really-trying style. So I spent a large part of my college career in sweat pants and oversized men’s flannel shirts. No, really. When I see photos of myself from that time, I think two things: 1) I was a hopeless mess, and 2) I looked beautiful. And I so didn’t know it. And it’s so unfair. But there it is.

My freshman year roommate helped me out of my style rut, now and then, because she had a few funky items that I could borrow. I recall a blue and silver sweatshirt with bat-wing sleeves – very 80s chic. She also had “the shirt from France.” She now calls it “the ugly shirt” because one of her teenaged daughters won an ugly shirt contest in it many years later. Here it is:

Thanks to my “roomie” and her family for providing the photo!

Yes, with the wisdom of post-80s hindsight, we can all see why it won the contest. But I thought it was amazing.

In fact, at the reunion, I told everyone that this shirt had magical powers because I wore it to a dorm party and, for the first time in my life, actually cut loose and danced in plain sight of other people! (Of course, the faux leather mini skirt may have helped. Not to mention the beer).

I eventually discovered thrift stores, so I played with “style” by combining thrifted items with hand-me-downs from friends and the rare retail purchase. But I always came back to my flannel shirts. And that’s the version of me that my former roommate remembers. Ironically, now she’s the one who jokes that she’ll end up on What Not to Wear someday. She has nothing to worry about; she looks fantastic and always did.  But she’ll be the first to say that fashion with a capital F is not her thing. She mentioned my blog during our visit and said, “I just can’t wrap my head around the fashionista thing.” I would never call myself that, not by a longshot, but compared to sweatpants and flannel shirts — well, OK. Point taken.

The next day, as I was putting on makeup in the dormitory bathroom, I thought to myself, “If somebody told me, 25 years ago, that I would be here, doing this, I would have said they were crazy.” I mean, come on. Makeup? Really? Often throughout the weekend, I wondered how many of us were doing things that would make us unrecognizable to our past selves.

As I mingled at various reunion gatherings, I overheard snippets of conversation that revealed, so vividly, all of the different life stages and struggles that we are navigating. Some speakers were clearly interested in discussing, and I think promoting, their professional selves. Some passed cellphones with photos of their children. Others focused more on our shared past. At times, I heard that tone you pick up any time people are “performing” for others through conversation – a mixture of pride, uncertainty, and an eagerness to please. To prove oneself. Yes, I turned out OK. Yes, this is the life I wanted.

But I also heard quieter voices, speaking in more measured tones of more difficult subjects. Illness. Loss. Job setbacks. Ended relationships. From more than one person, I heard some variation of: “It’s been a very difficult year. I am so happy to be here.” These were the most interesting voices to me.

I fell in with a group of close friends who seemed exactly the same to me – except for all the ways they are now different. We picked up right where we left off, as they say. As we were visiting in the dorm lobby one evening, at an hour when many of us would ordinarily be winding down, several people passed us on their way to “80’s night” at the college disco. (“I took a nap,” one of them assured us. “I set an alarm!”) Only one of us joined them. The rest stayed rooted to our comfy chairs, talking and laughing at our laziness and inertia. Somebody described a human interest story he’d read in a newspaper, about an AARP ball at which the seniors had reportedly outlasted members of the band. They just kept dancing, wanting more music, willing the party to go on and on. We decided this burst of energy must come later in life, if we’re lucky.  “We’re not quite old enough to be young at heart,” we concluded.

After the reunion, I felt a bit wistful for a couple of days. It’s weird to remember a time when I had no major responsibilities but so much freedom, with endless possibilities stretching out before me. It was just so easy to try on different clothes and pretend to be somebody else, over and over again, whenever I wanted. I truly believed I could become anybody.

Many say that we reinvent ourselves at midlife, or at retirement, or any number of other times in our lives. Wouldn’t it be great if, as adults, we could all go off to a college-style camp to live with interesting new people, learn new things, and try on new selves? Without required reading, exams, or soul-crushing student loans? Is that what Elderhostel is for? Can we create this for ourselves before we need assisted living?

Young-at-Heart University, here we come. Who wants to join me? I’ll bring the beer.

About Anne @ The Frump Factor

Reflections on beauty and style, for women who weren't born yesterday. Bring your sense of humor and "Fight the Frump" with me!
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31 Responses to Once in a lifetime

  1. notquiteold says:

    I would SO like to go back to college. I would breathe that oxygen again. I loved the mix of academic thought and unfettered hormones and naive optimism.

  2. Stepping My Way to Bliss says:

    I am on my way and I loved this post.

  3. winsomebella says:

    I am a few classes ahead but count me in 🙂

  4. I would go to that college…trying new things and meeting new people…especially if there were no exams! It would have been great to find my style sooner. I know I had some even back in high school but I didn’t gain the confidence to go with it until I was in my 40s.

  5. midlifemeg says:

    I love your voice and I love your idea. I would go. I always wish I knew then what I know now.

  6. Melanie says:

    I read your post and then went out for my inspiration walk. I had to think it over – your writing triggered all kinds of responses. In my journal entry my outfit drawing included me playing an electric guitar with the caption “You’re never to old to be a rock star.” I like how things roll over on themselves, folding and unfolding. I’ve never been to a university reunion – I don’t even know if mine has such a thing – only my high school ten-year do, but I don’t think I’d go if there was one. I FEEL so different than then. You captured well the atmosphere of what it would be like. I love that you do this blog and I don’t regard it as a fashionista thing but an exercise in empowerment. It’s hard to explain. I NEVER thought I’d be doing this either. Aren’t we glad that we always surprise ourselves?! Again, great post.

  7. No reunions for me, but I did go back to school for another degree at age 46. Quite likely the very best time of my entire life. My mom always joked that education is wasted on the young, and now I see why. You can’t really pay attention to learning when you have emotions and hormones driving you insane, but when you’re grown and want to learn for the sheer joy of it, that’s when you really get something out of it. I initially was terrified of being shunned by the “regular” students (flashbacks to my youthful school days) but they welcomed me and soon I was involved in their study groups and gossiping over coffee. I can not believe how much sheer genius and utter silliness can coexist in the 19-year-old brain. It is a miracle.
    Anyway, I recommend that anyone interested in an amazing experience should get back to the university environment, whether it’s for a class, a new degree, or to teach. You will love it.

  8. I’m actually happier now than when I was in college…but if I could go back and do it again, knowing what I know now, then I would. Cute post…brought back lots of memories! Thanks for your sweet comments on my blog!

  9. Wonderful post, Anne. I have similar reactions to old pictures of myself: “why didn’t I realize how cute I was?”
    I love your idea of college for later-in-lifers. The camaraderie, shared experiences, shared bathrooms — it was/would be priceless.

  10. I’d go to your young-at-heart university. My 40th high school reunion is this year…and I just don’t want to go because of all the posturing I remember from 10 years ago. The colleges I attended were so big that I can’t even imagine going to a reunion. Yes, I can remember trying on different selves in college…although I want to believe I’ve become the person I set out to be.

    • I’m sure you have, Terri! Me too, I think, in that I’ve really just become more of myself. Interesting comments about the high-school reunion. I am much more conflicted about those years — lots of baggage — but I’ve never had the opportunity to attend a reunion.

    • tamerakitten says:

      My 35th high school reunion is this year. I’m not going. I’ve kept in touch with the people I wanted to keep in touch with. The last one I went to was my 10th and Terri is so right about the posturing and such.
      College reunion?? funny thing is I never lived on campus so I kept the friends i had always had on the outside of school.

      • Yeah, good point. I think the college reunion phenomenon may be limited to small colleges where most students live on campus. It does create unique opportunities to form community. Too bad such colleges have become so prohibitively expensive! Now that I teach community college, I’ve found myself questioning the cost/benefit ratio of the 4-year residential experience that I had. It was so valuable for me, but it’s becoming increasingly out of reach for most, I fear.

  11. Ginny says:

    Wow, what a great post. Your experience sounds exactly like what you’d want from a reunion–a chance to reconnect and reflect with your cohorts and your former self (selves). Wonderful!

    I’ve never gone to a reunion, high school or college, because I still feel about those painfully formative years as you do about high school reunions–conflicted, too much baggage. Facebook is about as close as I’ve come to reconnecting with people from my past who I am not already in regular contact with!

    That said, upon visiting my husband’s 98-year-old grandfather in his assisted living apartment, it made me almost nostalgic for dorm life–he visits with friends and a lover (!) who live down the hall, they eat in the common dining room, attend productions and presentations together, hang out and socialize in one another’s rooms, and everybody seems to know everyone. Seemed like fun!

    So yeah, I’m on board for Young-at-Heart University! Where do I sign up?

  12. gracefully50 says:

    Hey Anne, if you organize this camp, I’ll be there!! 🙂
    Have a great weekend!

  13. I like the idea. I only attended one high school reunion- I don’t recall liking the lot of my graduating class too much, the ones I did like I had already stayed in touch with. My I like this idea of the YAH University. Learning a second round and having a venue to re-invent oneself or perhaps just tweak a few knobs. And drink beer. Cheers.

  14. Gail says:

    I loved reading your piece. Reunions are so bitter sweet. Next year is the 30th anniversary of the launch of the little radio station where I used to work. Time passes so quickly! It’s frightening.

  15. gingerR says:

    I wouldn’t go back to college again for anything.
    “Camp” has too many pickly little rules and people that love to enforce them. I’ll do the hard work of becoming someone new at home just to avoid th agony of being at the mercy of all those little slings and arrows again.

  16. Serene says:

    Oh Anne! The quotes that can be gleaned from your post!!!! I just love it! I never finished college, too much of an emotionally driven young girl who grew into an emotionally driven woman…the HORROR!!! But wow! To mentally return to who we were, when we were young, idealistic and full of dreams…except wait….I’m more idealistic and full of dreams NOW. What was I thinking back then…I was too riddled with insecurities and an almost pathological neediness. When it comes to fashion, however, I’ve ALWAYS been enamored with style and clothes. Except I think that back then it was more to fit in….to look like something I didn’t feel. Anne, this is a favorite and I LOVE that your writing always stirs me! Big hugs to you my sweet sweet friend! ~Serene

  17. Rachel says:

    Hi Anne,

    I found your blog through the Oberlin LinkedIn page, and couldn’t help but comment. I loved this article! I’m currently a student at Oberlin (rising senior this fall) and found it almost scary how many of the things you went through in college rang true for me! Especially the part about all of the fashion being very hippie/hipster/experimental — that still holds true today, and it definitely gave me a shock when I first arrived on campus three years ago as a wide-eyed freshman. I too had to do a lot of thrifting and changed my style around numerous times in order to feel like I was fitting in without selling out.

    I also really liked this article because I stayed on campus for commencement this year for the first time, and my friends and I found it fascinating to see all the alumni come back and realize, “hey, that’ll be us in 15, 25, 35, 50 years. Where are we going to be in that time?” It was also refreshing to see how many people do come back and seem genuinely excited to reconnect with old friends and re-visit dorms. It made me think a lot about wanting to make the most of my remaining time in Oberlin, because it is definitely a unique place with a lot of special qualities.

    Thanks again!

  18. Dale Grove says:

    I think I love about this stage of my life is that is is so much easier to re-invent my self. My kids are grown and i now live alone. i am free to do, be and think what i want at any time. The recent passing of my ex-husband made me realize there really are no guarantees for the length of time we have here. So if not now… when? I`ve made some great plans for the next year and think it will be one of my most exciting yet! …and college, I am always interested in learning more but i`ll bring the red wine! 🙂

  19. I think this was so so great! I didn’t go to college but I do remember hanging around with single work girlfriends, staying out all night, painting, running around downtown Chicago…why does it seem we were freer then? We really weren’t — our responsibilities were just … different. Thanks for taking me back through the mist. You bring the beer and I’ll bring the chips…

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