Forty Years: There and Back


I’m traveling back forty years to a time caught between fours years of some happiness, some doubt, some trauma, some fear, some deep joy in all that had been lived in this small college in Maine, to plans for a future defined, at least for a while, by the intermission of more school, across the ocean, before the uncertainty of what comes next becomes real.  I didn’t, and couldn’t, know what these next forty years would bestow.


Forty years.  They’re unimaginable.  Not yet a lifetime.  But there won’t be forty more.  I wouldn’t want them again. I have everything I need in my life, now; I have things I want, too.  There’s no desperation anymore, no despair, no need to prove, to regret a past that’s gone. It’s just a story I created, lived like chapters in an old book long since closed. What these forty years have given me is the certainty that the future that doesn’t exist yet need not be feared, only anticipated with intention and curiosity.

How could I have known on graduation day in 1973 that everything that unfolded over forty years was contained in that day, in me, as on a map tucked in my suit jacket, never consulted yet always with me.  As hard as I try to think of that day—it must have been warm, maybe hot, outside on the lawn spread in front of the art museum—I can’t remember many details.  I know my mother was there, my father wasn’t. He never explained the unspoken decision he made not to face my mother, whom he had recently divorced.  She wouldn’t have had him there, regardless of what I wanted. It was my graduation but her arrangement. I think my aunt and uncle Dolores and Albert were there, too.  After the ceremony we had an awkward lunch with Evelyn, her sister and parents.  Nothing could be expressed.  It was the end of the only happiness we ever would have.


But in sex, we were superbly ill suited.  Our parents objected, which was in part the point of the union.  A merger of conflict.  Each of us wanted to reject a past defined by parents and culture, one that had sown seeds of misery, misunderstanding, and abandonment, each in its own unhappy way.  Each of us had something the other wanted, or thought we wanted, to replace what we had and sought to leave behind. The tragedy of this longing was that our desire wasn’t for each other, but what we stood for.  Oh, we craved inescapable desire, but not in love.

Our relationship was difficult over the next few years.  I went to Ireland, Evelyn to New York.  We didn’t speak or write.  I returned and our passion again blinded the reality of an unsustainable future.

Forty years have passed since that day in June to which I’m traveling today.  My plane from San Francisco is 37,500 feet somewhere over Iowa; we have 1107 miles to go. I’ll land in Boston and go on to Maine tomorrow.  It’s a long trip, going back forty years.  There are very few registered from my class I’ m curious to see.   Evelyn will be there, another reason I should have stayed home.  At Sam’s wedding in December she neither spoke to me nor acknowledged my presence.  Another divorce playing it’s sorry song in a place I love against a backdrop of events that occurred forty years ago.

The intervening years exist as moments, possibilities for something good and true to emerge from the wrongness we lived: three sons, each brilliantly lit in immeasurable joy –something we achieved together, not to be discounted.  My life was lived in three places at once.  There was the beautiful life with my boys; my life in marriage, the best choice off a bad menu; and the quiet life I created within myself.  Two plus one never equaled three.

Wounds do heal; scars fade. It has taken a long time to understand that what happened over forty years were things that just happened, that’s all.  They hold no more meaning than that.

More years passed.  More stories written out of needs defined by loss.  Hopes found, only to disappear.  That’s the problem with hope.  It creates an expectation for a future that can’t ever be achieved because it wasn’t real in the first place.  When we so badly need something born of hope, the inevitable crash is devastating.

All of this lifted on the Arctic ice of Lapland.  I have everything I need—my sons, and our love, are all I need to live a fulfilled life.  I found freedom that Christmas Day 2012.  Freedom from hope.  Freedom to want things for myself born from desire, not from loss.  What I saw so clearly in that vast expanse of white was that it’s not a matter of a glass half full, half empty; there’s no glass at all.  There’s only now.


Maybe this trip to my 40th Bowdoin reunion is another kind of freedom, yet to be discovered.  I can’t predict what the next few days will hold.  I’m staying with a friend from that time forty years ago, a friend born from a faculty friendship, maintained and grown over all these years. I’m lucky to have made such friends.  I’m lucky we’re both still around to enjoy our friendship.  Unattended by our former mates and families, our friendship has deepened.  It’s easier to share now. The losses we have experienced create a backdrop to our sharing. We’re calmer, more at peace with ourselves.  I’m looking forward to the days ahead.

Thomas Wolfe wrote we never can go home again.  Of course we can’t, but there are things that never change. Hawthorne and Longfellow still graduated in the famous class of 1825. I graduated in the class of 1973. Maine Hall stands as it did when I was a freshman.  I watched David and Adam graduate on the same lawn, on similar sunny days.  It’s a choice to love what I had then, still carried within me, not as a millstone but as a beacon of light.  When I told Brenda that I had always wanted to live in a lighthouse, she said let’s do it!  So we’re staying in the Point Arena lighthouse on the Mendocino coast over the 4th of July.  Another beacon of light, shining on the possibility of a future that doesn’t yet exist, but free, totally free, of these past forty years.


I’m again on a plane 36,000 feet above the ground, nosing into Nebraska, this time returning to San Francisco from the long weekend in Maine.  The reunion’s over: forty years becoming forty-one. The guys I had little interest seeing are now long lost buddies.  We had a terrific time.  Maybe it was the glorious summer weather, the blue sky over the green campus, the warm evenings.  Few college campuses can match Bowdoin’s New England perfection.  As sentimental as it sounds, I can barely look down the long pathway leading to Massachusetts Hall without tears welling up.  There are too many memories of those irreplaceable four years.


For his 50th reunion, Longfellow composed Morituri Salutamus: Poem for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Class of 1825 in Bowdoin College. We who are about to die, salute you.  It was the cry of Roman gladiators in the arena to their emperor; it was Longfellow’s farewell to his beloved college.

O ye familiar scenes,—ye groves of pine,

That once were mine and are no longer mine,—

Thou river, widening through the meadows green

To the vast sea, so near and yet unseen,—

Ye halls, in whose seclusion and repose


Phantoms of fame, like exhalations, rose

And vanished,—we who are about to die,

Salute you; earth and air and sea and sky,

And the Imperial Sun that scatters down

His sovereign splendors upon grove and town.

Nothing marred the delight of the past four days. Not even Evelyn, who managed an unavoidable “Hello, Niland.”  Many times I wished I had remained more in touch with these classmates from forty years ago. The bond with Bowdoin we shared is the one that has most endured. Sixty from our class of two hundred twenty came back to Brunswick for the reunion.  Most I recognized immediately; a few I needed to read their nametags before greeting by name.  Some showed the passage of forty years more than others.  All of us have mellowed. We all enjoyed seeing one another.  Still, my best friends were missing: Stuart and Bill.

Staying with Cynthia possessed its own special place in the weekend.  I met Cynthia and John Howland my first semester freshman year when I took Chuck Huntington’s ornithology course.  John, a biochemistry professor at the college, would accompany the class on our weekly field trips up and down the Maine coast.  His department friend Sam Butcher would also come along, beginning yet another special friendship. On Sunday night, Cynthia, Sally and Sam Butcher and I had dinner together, forty-four years later.  I know we felt the loss of John, who passed three years ago. The most erudite of any of us, John had always entertained us with his wit, his broad knowledge of everything, his warmth, his often funny views on Bowdoin.  I miss John.  It remained unspoken at dinner that we all miss John.

Cynthia’s new house on Water Street in Brunswick sits on the bank of the Androscoggin River, just downstream from the hydroelectric falls and resulting churning water and across from the Bowdoin Mill in Topsham.  Eagles nest nearby, fishing up and down the river.  Gulls and cormorants sun themselves on the rocks.  In the mornings, a few fishermen were out casting for what we assumed to be striped bass.  Cynthia reported that on occasion a sturgeon could be seen jumping in the river.

The Bowdoin Mill on the Androscoggin River

Listening to the waterfall at night, the house dark and silent but for a ticking clock, was magical.  Given history, how lucky I am to be alive and able to return to these friends, to this place I love.

Another special faculty friend from my time is also gone: Doug McGee.  Another loss.  Doug and his second wife Phoebe were close to me when I could be close with no one. They were the first, and only, people I told about the awful events that occurred at home on Christmas my freshman year.  It took four years, not until I attended Doug’s great Literature as Philosophy class.  I told my story in the final paper I wrote, using lines from Little Giddings as my metaphor:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

That year, Doug, too, was experiencing his own rebirth.  We formed a bond that lasted until both Doug and Phoebe were gone.  It’s hard walking past their house on Maine Street, across from the campus, without feeling sad.

I’m glad I returned for the reunion.  I plan to stay closer in touch with my classmates.  I’ll never have friends like these again.  I never have, but have often failed to remember.  No more.

For age is opportunity no less

Than youth itself, though in another dress,

And as the evening twilight fades away

The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.


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  1. Cynthia Howland

     /  June 10, 2013

    Oh, had I known…. Just as you are starting anew, leaving hopes and expectations behind, going on with calm openness to the now of is (sounds sort of e.e.cummingsish), so we learn what life is about and can only wish to love it, and all, more. It was delightful to have you here for the weekend; who else would have walked the dog at 5:20 in the morning? And who else would have had such delightful things to say? See you soon.

  2. Bowdoin and the friends I made there remain one of the special times in my life. Thank you for your kind words. And kindness overall.


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