How many of our lives follow the trajectory that we imagine that it will take when we are walking forward as young adults? I know that mine didn't.
Back in 1983, while going to grad-school in Austin, TX, I went to see the newly released film, The Big Chill, with two grad-school chums. The setting of the story was the reunion of long ago college friends for the funeral of one of their own. Over the weekend span of the film, the characters revisit their paths with one another and the paths that their lives have taken since their decades ago graduation. I loved the movie - the story, the music, its characters. In my early 20's however, I'm sure that I did not appreciate the reflective nature of the tale - I just wasn't there yet.
What a wonderful scene!
Fast forward nearly 30 years ~ I recently completed reading The Red Book, by Deborah Copaken Kogan. To read any reviews of this book, you will inevitably (and correctly) find comparisons to The Big Chill. This fictional tale is actually based upon the non-fictional Red Book, which is a book distributed every five years to Harvard alums. It is a collection of statistics (where you live; your occupation) and summations of the last five years of the lives of Harvard grads. The alumni actually write and submit their information to be included in the book. The New York Times describes it thusly:
"The first thing you need to know about the Red Book is that when Harvard graduates talk about it (which they do a lot), they (are talking) about the one that lands at five-year intervals with the thud of a Manhattan phone directory on the doorstep of everyone who has ever graduated from the college, and keeps on arriving for as long as they live, whether they want it or not, a gift from the tireless alumni association. . .
It’s all there. The deaths of parents, spouses, classmates; the births of children; prostate cancer, depression, money made and money lost, triumphs and tailspins; oceans crossed (or swum) and mountains hiked; dodging mortar in Afghanistan; and, in a few terrible instances, the kind of family tragedies we screen from our conscious minds to get through the day.
The readers are also the writers; they can open these books and read about themselves and their roommates, their friends and rivals, old flames . . . who’s happy, who’s depressed? Whose children turned out great, whose are still “finding themselves”? Who’s rich, who’s not? One contributor put it in simple binary terms: “Things I’ve done well/Things I’ve done poorly.”
Deborah Copaken Kogan was intrigued by the real-life idea of people updating their lives every five years in print for all (or at least Harvard alums) to read. She speculated at the honesty. Do they write about what is really going on in their lives (for the most part, probably not)? Do they sugar-coat, exaggerate, or pour their hearts out knowing that someone will read their words? It is with these questions in mind that she begins her fictionalized account Harvard's Red Book.
The four main characters - Clover, Addison, Mia and Jane have just gathered, with their families, for their 20th Harvard reunion. We are introduced to them by their Red Book entries - so we know the stories that they have written about their lives for all of the others to read. Through the course of the weekend, we discover the truth behind those words, and how the trajectories that they assumed their lives would take upon graduation, have landed them in places very different from where they thought. The weekend proves to be a wake up call - in varying degrees - for all four women ~ it is the catalyst they need to change course. By the end of the book, when we are reading the Red Book entries for their 25th reunion, we see women who have begun the work of living lives that bring them joy.
A bit predictable? Perhaps. And I would never have as calmly accepted some the antics of their children over the reunion weekend - but I really, really enjoyed this story. And - I am now, nearly 30 years after The Big Chill, in a place where I can look back and reflect on how the anticipated trajectory of my own life is so very different from the path it actually took - and how I am exactly where I think I was meant to be ~ though closer to the ocean would be great!