Born at the Right Time

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When I was a younger man, I believed that the people I grew up with had a magical bond. We saw so much together and did so much together, lived life’s most tumultuous period of change together, that we would just naturally ride into the future on the same ship for as long as time lasted. We wouldn’t be together in space, but having once been together in time meant that we would always be together in time.

But what about the people I met in the college dorm, people with whom I lived in even closer proximity than my school friends from back home? We, too, went through a tumultuous period of change together. But there was less magic in it. It wasn’t a community. It wasn’t a ship built to sail through time. It was just an accident of geography.

Then I started thinking that maybe everything else was an accident of geography, too. I took Job A instead of Job B, then quit Job B in favor of Job C. I didn’t choose the people who were my colleagues at A, B, or C. They were just there, like office furniture. And even more fundamental: what if my mother had married somebody from her hometown instead of a man from the next town over? What if my grandfather had stayed where he was born, in northern Illinois, instead of buying land just over the state line? I’d still have gone on a journey with a group of people, but it would have been a completely different group of people, different people to love, and hate, and be indifferent about.

I eventually started believing that the bond was actually contingent, random, and perhaps, because of that, meaningless. Sure, I have individual friendships—close, rewarding, beautiful friendships—with people I grew up with, people I met in college, people I have worked with. But that thing about the magical bond from childhood and the ship sailing into the future, all of us together? Too romantic. Not the way the world is. Just an accident of geography.

Saturday night, I went to my 40-year high school reunion. I will admit to you that I was ambivalent about it from the first I heard of it. If there’s no bond, no ship, what’s the point? I have a circle of friends from that time, I thought to myself, and they’re all the friends I need. I see them all the time. And not only that, my classmates and I are all different people now. I am no longer the wavy-haired nerd they remember. I don’t want to be that person, don’t want to have to answer to my high-school nickname, don’t want them to think of me as someone other than the wryly wise person I imagine myself today, and I bet some of them are thinking exactly the same thing.

But because so many of my closest friends were going, I decided that I’d go too.

So we walked in the door of the ballroom, and my god, the faces. Familiar faces everywhere, some I haven’t seen in 15 or 20 or maybe 40 years, popping in memory like flashbulbs, and no need for nametags. I know these faces. And for the few I didn’t instantly recall, it took no more than a glance at a nametag to know them too.

And not just faces—people. People who saw us at our best and our worst. People who shared our victories or made them possible, and people who were responsible for our defeats. People who slept with each other and people we slept with (or wish we could have). People we need to apologize to, and who need to apologize to us. People who made us crazy and people who kept us sane. I know these people. And they know me. The bond is real. The ship sails on, for as long as time lasts.

Too many people on the bus from the airport
Too many holes in the crust of the earth
The planet groans
Every time it registers another birth
But down among the reeds and rushes
A baby girl was found
Her eyes as clear as centuries
Her silky hair was brown

Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
The whole world whispering
Born at the right time

—Paul Simon, 1990

(If you are visiting this website for the first time, where you been? I’ve been writing it for 14 years. Click “jb’s greatest hits” at the top of the page to find more stuff.)

5 thoughts on “Born at the Right Time

  1. This is excellent as always. I have traditionally been an accident-of-geography guy; this makes me wonder if my mind would change if I were actually in the same room with my former classmates.

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