Your moment of Zen.

I spent this past weekend in Columbus, Ohio visiting family and attending my thirty-year high school reunion. I still can’t believe it’s been three decades since I graduated from Eastmoor High School, went to college in Toledo, and never looked back. In my mind, moving back to Columbus was never an option: moving home after college would have been an admission of failure, a white flag of surrender indicating I’d botched my one big chance to leave home and make it in the real world.

I'm here.

My ex-husband used to deride my lack of corporate experience, given I’ve only worked in academia, with brief, part-time stints in retail sales and secretarial work when I was in grad school. My ex-husband believed that because I’ve never worked in the corporate sector like he did, I didn’t have “real world” experience. But from my perspective, I’ve always been in the real world, and I never worked for a corporation because I never needed to. Even though my ex-husband dismissed academia as being too “Ivory Tower” to count as “real,” it’s taken me an inordinate amount of scrappiness to survive on a patchwork of part-time teaching jobs I’ve juggled not for fun, but to pay the bills.

And for the past thirty years, I have paid the bills, persevering with an exhausting assortment of adjunct jobs because teaching is what I do. There have been many times over the past thirty years when I’ve sweated the small stuff, wondering whether there would be enough paycheck to cover the month. But I always found ways to make ends meet–I always managed to scrimp, save, and budget my way–and it doesn’t get much more “real” than that.

Goodbye, Columbus.

The story of the past thirty years has been almost entirely self-motivated. My parents were proud when I earned a college scholarship, but they never pressured me to finish; even if I quit after just one semester of college, I would have achieved more education than they had. But even in the absence of pushy parents, quitting college was something I never would have allowed myself to do: the drive to finish what I started was mine. Although I’ve had friends, teachers, and mentors who have encouraged me along the way, I went to and finished both college and grad school because I wanted to.

What I lack in ambition, I make up for in stubbornness. My path through college, grad school, and a meandering career as an overworked adjunct instructor was a difficult, clueless road: I didn’t know where I was going, but I kept climbing. Because I enjoyed the work I was doing–because I enjoyed reading and discussing literature, researching and writing papers, and ultimately teaching and encouraging students–I kept doing it, persevering primarily because I didn’t know what to do other than take the next step, then the next, then the next.

Logan Airport

The fact I’ve managed to support myself as an English major these past thirty years is, in my opinion, my greatest accomplishment: not even getting a PhD can top it. Simply surviving and supporting myself in New England, some 700 miles from where I was born and raised, is the thing I’m the most proud of. Not only did I go to college and get a degree, I’ve figured out how to support myself while doing the things I love. It’s natural at a high school reunion to compare your lot in life with that of your classmates, and I arrived back in Boston on Monday feeling pretty good about myself. I might not be the thinnest, least-wrinkled, or best-looking of my high school classmates, but after thirty years of making it in the real world, I feel like a success.

High school graduation

Several weeks ago, I got a Facebook message from a high school friend saying she is going to our thirty-year high school reunion in Ohio later this month. I had initially decided not to go–I had gone to our twenty-year reunion in 2007 and figured not much has changed since then–but since H is coming all the way from California, it would be a shame not to meet her halfway.

Senior pictures

It’s an understatement to say H and I lost touch after high school: we lost touch in the way that people on entirely different planets lose touch. After high school, H and I went to colleges in different states, and we moved in different directions after that. Today, my college students keep in touch via social media with every friend they’ve ever known, but thirty years ago, moving away from your hometown meant you lost contact with people. Thirty years ago, you went to college, made new friends, traveled in new circles, and became someone new, all without the safety net of your old friends.

Senior pictures

So it’s been thirty years–three decades!–since I’ve seen H: how is that even possible? One mystery of middle age is the realization that your body and mind don’t age at the same pace. When I look in the mirror, I see a pudgy, “well-settled” middle-aged woman, but in my mind, I’m still a broke and skinny graduate student playing life entirely by ear.

Thirty years ago, my high school classmates voted me “most likely to succeed,” so the occasion of my thirty-year reunion is leading me to ask the inevitable question: have I succeeded? I suppose it depends on how you define success. In her Facebook photos, H looks beautiful and youthful: a radiant, grown-up version of who she was in high school. To my eye, I look older, heavier, and grayer now than I did then: washed up, or maybe just worn-out?

Senior pictures

But this is judging mere appearances, and success is more complicated than that. Looking back to high school, who was it I wanted to be, and what is it I wanted to become? Thirty years ago, I wasn’t planning on being an English professor; back then, I wanted to be an interpretive naturalist working in a metro park somewhere, taking people on nature walks and teaching them about birds and flowers. I teach inside these days, and I don’t spend nearly as much time as I’d like among birds and flowers. But I am still “interpreting” information: I’m still teaching.

Senior pictures

And I’m still writing: that is one thing that remains constant. As a high school student, I loved to write, and I still do. I’m not sure I knew thirty years ago exactly what I wanted to write; I guess you could say I was a writer in search of a topic, motivation, and voice. But I knew I wanted to write even though I wasn’t sure what exactly to do with that desire.

What I have managed to do over the last thirty years is figure out how to keep writing, regardless of whatever other things in my life are changing. In college, I discovered Annie Dillard and other American writers I’d never encountered in high school, and in graduate school, I learned there is a thing called “nature writing” that people other than Thoreau do.

Senior picture

Since high school, I also discovered Natalie Goldberg and her admonition to keep my hand moving, and in large part I have managed to do just that. I also discovered May Sarton, who assured me that simply keeping a journal of one’s inner and outer life could be art, and I discovered blogging as a way to share my thoughts immediately, without the intervention of an agent, editor, or publishing house.

When I was in high school, I wasn’t sure how I’d support myself; I just followed my curiosity wherever it led me, and I continue to do that. Does that make me a “success,” or does it make me a dabbler?

High school graduation party

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the label “most likely to succeed.” I graduated in the 1980s, when success was defined by the excesses of Dallas, Dynasty, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. One of my favorite TV shows when I was a teenager was Family Ties, but instead of admiring the clean-cut ambition of Alex P. Keaton, I admired the warm-fuzzy liberalism of his earthy-crunchy parents. To me, “success” always sounded cut-throat, and I’ve never felt I have the ambition–the kill-instinct–to become a lawyer, politician, or high rolling businesswoman.

Despite all this, thirty years later I’ve done fairly well for myself. I made it out of Columbus, out of college, and out of the Midwest, and like H in California, I’m living in the heart of the “coastal elite” here in Massachusetts. The fact that my life today looks so radically different from what I ever envisioned in high school suggests just how far I’ve come. Maybe “most likely to succeed” is just another way of saying “going places she never even imagined.”