The Heartland of My History

Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

Published by TANGO DIVA :
Written by JoAnneh Nagler


A Reunion with my Own Sense of Promise

High school reunions are always iffy propositions. The memory we have of our classmates—and ourselves—is fraught with the adolescent angst of our world view at age 15 or 17. Then, slip that world view through the lens of who we are now, who we thought we’d become, and our satisfaction (or not) with our adult self now, and it’s a head-spinning emotional cocktail.

Once multiple decades have past—in other words, once we’re past our 20th reunion—one wonders whether the threads between who we were then and who we are now are even connected at all.

And rightly so. At 17 our sense of ourselves is largely untested by the outside world. It is a function of whatever challenges, trials and graces we’ve experienced at the hands of our family, our biology, our yet-to-mature intellect, our developing physiques and our growing and quirky sensuality.

On the surface reunions are all about news. Who’s where, who did what, and all the semi-gossipy updates like, “Did you hear about Barb’s daughter?” and “It was a shame about John’s motorcycle accident…terrible…” But in getting past the stories of who died from awful diseases, who fell apart, and who still lives in the same house they did when they were kids, I noticed something very profound. What these people hold for me is a vision into who I wanted to be. It’s my sense of myself—my promise—at its root, before I ever took myself out in the world, that these people hold in their hands.

They remember me as the artistic kid working in charcoal and clay, and drumming my heart out in drum corps. They remember that I wrote poems in the school newspaper, that I loved being a cheerleader and a track runner, that I sang, loved clothes, and did well in school. They know I could write anything, that I was opinionated, and that I would stand up to any teacher if something got passed off that was unfair.

They also know I fell apart and gained weight and couldn’t concentrate when my parents split up, and that I finally graduated early and got the hell out of town.

Sereninty 101 -Lakeside in mid-WisconsinAnd for all the years I blamed the smallness of that town for much of the pain I went through, feeling that everybody knew my business, it was a past reunion—my twentieth, my first visit back—that set me straight. I now see that because they knew, they could help. It wasn’t hidden. My track coach played handball with me after school. My art teacher gave me the keys to the art room. My friends went bike riding with me, walked me to the pizza joint when my Dad didn’t show to pick me up, talked on the phone with me when I was upset. They were a community of mine, a birthing place for my spirit, and a backboard for what I came to believe, both about myself and the world.

So, at my recent 35th, I was pleased to see everyone who showed. The men—now very well matured—were the most astonishing. As my good friend Jody pointed out, “We really didn’t know them as well as we knew girls in High School. We were on our own side of the fence.” To take part in the happiness, now, of the successful farmers—married to each other just after high school, the couple in love with each other since 5th grade who now have three grown kids, and the successful bank professional who was always terrific in math, speaks to my sense of self, too. It speaks to my sense of hope from when I was 16, to the feeling that there was something coming for me and it was going to be good.

After 40, I came to believe that it’s not which rung of the ladder I ascend to that matters; now, it’s about the quality of my days. I want peace. I want joy. I want ease and less stress. I want kindness, grace, and happiness and the knowledge that I’m alive and well and have gifts to give.

Certainly by 50 we all know that life throws fireballs and knocks us out at the knees when we don’t see the two-by-four swinging across the trail. That’s the weird nature of adulthood: no matter what it looks like from the outside, success is never a straight line. It’s an inside job—a complete gestalt of satisfaction that harkens back to who we were once upon a time and what we’ve done with those gifts.

And I as I looked into the eyes of my High School classmates, I realized that good things did come to me and had found me. They just didn’t come in the order and the packages I expected them to when I was 17.

In our senior yearbook I was voted “Most Artistic.” Friends wrote things on the pages of my book about my ability to write and express myself, my sense of social justice, my sense of adventure. Yet I missed that altogether for many years—these things that my classmates knew about me—and it would take me years to rewind my way back to find my talents again, to stop doing jobs I was mismatched for, and to trust the creative fibers that I’m constructed out of. Yet these people saw it first, when I was in High School.

What is most astounding to me now is the friends I still have, or have reconnected with in the past decade. They are the people I would choose to be friends with today: open-hearted, progressive, thoughtful, kind, and willing to right the wrongs and oversights from their own childhoods with their own kids. Brave, in other words. Courageous. The exact friends I would choose to stand next to now, three decades later. What that speaks to for me is this: they knew me, and I knew me, better than I thought.

All things simple - The Friday Fish Fry RulesAfter the big weekend of reunion socializing, boating, and requisite Wisconsin beer-drinking, I took a walk around my old High School. I remembered snowballs pelting the line of buses in the turn-around in January. I remembered 6:00 am band practices in May, dragging my marching drum onto the practice field. I remembered sitting outside with a bag lunch, with an orange that really tasted like an orange, and the scent lasting on my hands all afternoon. I remembered myself: painting my fingernails at the senior table before school began, pontificating on women’s rights, counseling a girlfriend on not taking crap from her beau, and I felt, again, that sense of confidence I had, that things were bound to go well. But what I most recall about that 17 year old girl was how I felt about life. I wanted it. I wanted to live it.

I wasn’t afraid of the falls that I suspected were coming. I wasn’t afraid about money. I didn’t care about other peoples’ opinions, and I was unconcerned with what was expected. I was connected to who I was—who I am, still—a woman with creativity to spare, and the desire to share it. I felt full of promise—the stuff of talents not yet expressed, not yet offered to the world.

I often say to my best friends, “We’ll likely all live to be 100, so there’s a lot of living left to do.” But what I want for these next years is what I had at 17 and what I found again at my reunion: my own sense of promise in the world, the daily feeling that I’m excited to give what I have to give, and a trust that the world will meet me.

In the “Future plans” column of my senior yearbook, I wrote “Have adventures, see different things, and experience the world.” And so I have. But now, at this mid-life cusp of my life I have seen what only my High School self, reunited with its compatriots could show me: that it is my promise I must bring to each experience, now and throughout my coming years, connected forever to that time when me and my friends were ready. Ready to give, ready to offer and ready to live.


JoAnneh Nagler is the author of the new book,
How to Be An Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt, or Your Creative Compass
(Spring 2016), and the Amazon Top-100 Book  The Debt-Free Spending Plan. Find her at: