Sarah Avery (dr_pretentious) wrote,
Sarah Avery

Right-Mindedness and Red Dresses

When I first told my sister I intended to go to my high school reunion, she was silent so long I thought her cell phone had cut off. "Well, there's a sentence I thought I'd never hear from you," she said.

My old friend Jay Young tracked me down on Facebook and urged me to go to the reunion. I hadn't even known it was in the works. At first, I thought I might go just to promote my book, on the theory that even people I hadn't always got on well with might buy it out of morbid curiosity. Then, I started making a mental list of all the people I'd be glad to see again, and the process was a constant revelation to me. Every time I considered it, I thought kind thoughts about more people who hadn't crossed my mind in over a decade.

Last week, my mood started oscillating wildly between excitement about meeting the people my classmates had grown up to be, and blinding animal terror at the possibility of interacting with the few people I feared might not have had it in them to grow up.

I spent a lot of energy on mentally rehearsing graceful ways to avoid shaking hands with the harasser who used to corner me in hallways and grope me over my loud and repeated objections (fortunately, he stayed away). Despite the fear that he and his fellow piranhas might show up, I acquired a Stunning Red Dress.

My fabulous sister organized a Gareth-Watching Party, so that my son would be so comprehensively doted on by his Maryland relatives, he wouldn't notice both Dan and I were away from him for the longest period of time yet. While Gareth settled into playing with his cousins, I frantically gussied myself up, make-up first.

I'd managed to learn, some years back, basic competence at a make-up look for scholarly conferences, but evening make-up was a completely alien genre. On Stunning Red Dress Acquisition Day, I'd gone to Sephora for instruction in evening make-up. In my sister's bathroom mirror, it just looked wrong. I staggered out into the living room to poll my family about whether I could get away with it. "I'm intimidated by my own lipstick," I said. "Put on the dress and see," said my mother.

And the Stunning Red Dress made everything all right.

Maybe I should wear the Stunning Red Dress in larger crisis zones to see if it works on other forms of panic. If the stock market recovers, you'll know I wore it to Wall Street.

Anyhow, the reunion itself was a roller coaster. I got to catch up with some people I was unambivalently delighted to see. I got to thank some people I hadn't known well for acts of kindness they didn't remember having committed. For most of us, there were as many Thank goodness you don't remember me, because I don't remember you, either, interactions as any other kind, I think. In fact, those were so common, I got sanguine about admitting it to people when I didn't remember them, and actually upset somebody--but since I still can't reconstruct any memory of interacting with him back in the day, I don't know why.

The human brain keeps its world manageable by culling neural connections it doesn't use. It doesn't ask the mind permission first. Maybe that's a good thing, since we'd all want to be neural pack rats forever. Still, I would really like to be able to remember that guy.

Ah, well. If that's the worst thing that happened at my 20-year high school reunion, then our entire graduating class is probably doing pretty well.

The oddest thing was that it still mattered, decades later, who had gone to which of our high school's feeder elementary schools. The Rock Creek Valley kids and the Lucy Barnsley kids had completely different sets of earliest communal memories. The second oddest thing was that the archetypal high school predicament--who do I sit with to eat?--was alive and well, albeit much changed.

What I wanted was to see them all, without exception, as human beings. Not mythical beauties or monsters or allies, just as people. I wanted to get over myself, particularly the vestigial traces of adolescent self-pity I'd been lugging around all these years. Back then, I was so busy being stuck in my own head, I didn't realize we were all suffering, just not all in the same ways or at the same times. The people I remember as my particular tormentors probably had dozens of targets who felt just as isolated as I did. And the sadists probably learned their sadism the hard way.

I went to search for a little of what the Buddhist monks find when they meditate on Right-Mindedness, on the Eightfold Path. I wanted to study forgiveness. It's a weird world, where the study of forgiveness is catered and requires wearing cocktail attire--I'm still not sure I understand what cocktail attire is--but since the weird world granted me my wish, I'm content.
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