I suspect we all wanted to be Jill Ker Conway. Or at least to grow up to be just like her, our much adored and admired college president. Surely we listened, rapt, as she greeted the Smith College freshman class of 1980. Perhaps we wondered if perhaps just by being there, in her bright orbit for four years, we might somehow come to possess something of her grace and intellect, her clear sense of purpose, her quiet charisma. It was not lost on anyone that she happened to look really great in her clothes, too. Slender, tidy, a mite Katherine Hepburn-ish–though Jill seemed kinder and more cheerful, elegant without the slightest bit of an edge.
Arriving on campus in the fall of 1976, a slightly pudgy, shy, utterly intimidated freshman from small-town New Hampshire, I had not a clue as to what to wear, let alone what I was meant to do or who I wanted to be. I had never seen a Lanz nightgown, read the New York Times, or heard of Virginia Woolf or Dana Hall. I didn’t own a pair of sneakers, had never listened to jazz, or heard poetry read aloud. I had never eaten with chopsticks or had a pizza delivered to the door. There was a lot to learn. The very first night, over dinner in Martha Wilson house, someone declared that we should all go around the table and say whether we were virgins or not; I remember being enormously grateful that I had at least relieved myself of that burden over the course of the summer. “I slept with an actor,” I said, feigning nonchalance. My Smith education had begun.
Saturday night, there were quite a few of us members of the class of 1980 hanging around in the living room of Northrup House, doing what women have done at their college reunions for decades–paging through exhumed yearbooks, drinking wine out of plastic cups, dancing (to “Brick House,” of course, party anthem of my era) chatting with old friends, finding ourselves deep in conversation with strangers who should have been our friends thirty years ago, but who we somehow missed during our four years on campus.
The black and white yearbook pages were a jolt, a layer of the distant past suddenly superimposed upon the present. Clearly, quite a few of us had resolved our seventies fashion dilemmas easily, if not elegantly, as revealed by the photographic record: we were either Annie Hall or Dorothy Hamill; we favored long straight hair, mens’ shirts and vests, and baggy pants, or, alternatively, wedge haircuts, turtlenecks, and Fair Isle sweaters.
But answers to the real questions–of identity and ambition and experience–could not be found in the yellowing pages of the Madeleine, any more than they could be revealed as I walked around the idyllic campus, stealing looks at name tags, trying to match fifty-one year old faces with thirty-year old memories. Who are these women now? I kept wondering, wanting to know every single life story. What are my classmates feeling and thinking, as they walk these paths, poke their heads into our former classrooms, brush their teeth at the communal sinks, and turn down the narrow single beds in our old dorm rooms, with their high ceilings and well-worn wooden floors?
“I feel as if I’m finally becoming the person that I used to imagine myself being when I was here,” my friend Wendy said the first afternoon, as we wandered down the hill toward town. I knew what she meant. Surely every one of us must have had visions of ourselves back then, of who we aspired to be and what we wanted to do with our lives. Role models abounded. In my years at Smith, a parade of remarkable women–poets and politicians, businesswomen and activists, professionals and philanthropists–visited campus to tell us their stories and to inspire us to think big as we wrote our own. Maya Angelou, Jane Pauley, and Chris Williamson all came, spoke, and made lasting impressions; we walked in the long shadows of our most admired alumnae: Julia Child, Sylvia Plath, Betty Friedan, Madeleine L’Engle, Gloria Steinem. Anything seemed possible. “Anything is,” each of these women assured us, whether in person or by example.
Now we were back, a hundred and fifty of us or so, exactly the same age this year that Jill Ker Conway was when she “retired” from the Smith presidency in order to go make the world a better place for underprivileged women. “I was always aware,” she said in an address to our class on Saturday afternoon, “that while I was busy raising money for this entitled institution, there were women who could not afford to feed their children, who had no access to health care, who were abused by the their employers. The longer I stayed, the bigger my debt to those women became. And so, at fifty, I knew it was time for me to figure out how I could make a difference for them.”
Jill–we always called her Jill–is seventy-six now, and she is still working full time to make the world a better place for women. She stood before us without so much as a note, smiling warmly, as trim and articulate and lovely as ever, and told us of her work on the Nike board, her years of travel throughout the third world, reforming factories, bringing nutrition and fair wages and improved working conditions to underprivileged women from Cambodia to China. Currently, she is writing a book about aging, working on various environmental initiatives, and still active on the corporate boards of Nike and Colgate Palmolive, aware that changing corporate culture from the inside is a powerful way to make everyday life better for women everywhere. At the end of her talk, the standing ovation was immediate and heartfelt, as it always was and is for our cherished mentor.
Next on the agenda was a book group discussion about The Gift of an Ordinary Day. I left the Campus Center wondering if anyone would come. After all, we had already been so well inspired and filled up. And there was nothing I could offer that could even begin to compare to the experience we had just had. It had been a long day, and now it was the end of a beautiful afternoon, far too nice to be inside.
But my classmates showed up, almost all of them it seemed, and crowded into the room. I was not about to pull out my little stack of carefully written file cards, after Jill’s flawlessly spontaneous performance. And so I took a deep breath and just began to talk — about how it feels to be halfway through life, and still figuring things out. How hard it is sometimes, given the culture that we live in, to remember that real happiness doesn’t have much to do with how impressive we appear to everyone else, or how much money we make or how much stuff we have, or even how much we’ve accomplished during our years on the planet. That the one thing we do learn, as we bump up against the inevitable losses and challenges and changes of mid-life, is that what really matters is how we feel inside about the person we’ve turned out to be, and how strong our relationships are with the people we care about. How much we love and are loved in return. After years of looking ahead, into some unknown future, I admitted that what seems to matter most now is the fleeting, precious present moment, and learning how to live it fully. Embracing what is, rather than wishing for something different.
Someone asked if I would read from the last chapter of the book. And so I turned to the passage about my neighbor Debbie, and how she has taught me through her own example that my real work, day in and day out, is simply to be kind, to be present, to mend the part of the world that is within my reach. Tears were flowing by then; the room was full of emotion. It was time for everyone else to talk.
“I’m not ever going to be Jill Ker Conway,” one woman said. “But I guess it’s time to let that go anyway.” And we laughed, nodding our heads, each one of us thinking the same thing: “I’m not, either.” We are not all meant for boardrooms, and yet our lives do not matter any less for that. We need not do great things, to paraphrase Mother Teresa, but simply small things, with great love. Sometimes the path leads us to quiet searching, to helping a friend in need, preparing a meal, or celebrating a sunrise. Sometimes our job is simply to make our own peace with the way things are — an illness, a divorce, a loss.
What a relief it was at last, to exhale. To allow ourselves to be seen, and to begin, one after another, to share our real stories with one another. Stories not of achievements and bottom lines, but of mid-life reckonings and second journeys, of doubts and struggles and disappointments, lessons learned the hard way, changes in direction and hard-won self-acceptance. Of our ongoing quests to become more fully ourselves as we seek–even now, thirty years after throwing our caps in the air–to discover the lives we are meant to lead.
“I’m fifty-one years old,” one woman said, “and I’m still not sure who I am.” There was so much pain in her voice, that I’ve been haunted by her words ever since. And yet this morning, it occurred to me: perhaps not knowing is actually a good thing. Maybe this is really what it’s all about–continuing to seek, continuing to ask the hard questions, as we confront the challenging, ongoing work of bringing our lives into alignment with our deepest values. Finding within ourselves the fidelity to be true to ourselves, even as we grow and change and let go of youthful ambitions and dreams that didn’t turn out, in the end, to fit the people we really are after all.
This is what happens when women come together and speak their truths. We learn from one another and support one another. We are reminded that we aren’t alone, and that no one, not even Jill Ker Conway, has all the answers. But that we can always, always, reach out a hand and mend the part of the world that is within our reach. For, as Anne Morrow Lindberg, another famous Smith alum once wrote, “To give, without any reward, or notice, has a special quality of its own.”
(With thanks to Marianne Campolongo for the photos!)