Phil Gulley: Calendar Girl

Ryan Snook

I was eating lunch with guys from my Quaker meeting recently, chewing on the subject of retirement, when one of them asked me when I planned to stop pastoring. Our meeting turns 200 years old in 2026, which is coincidentally the same year I turn 65, so I said I’d like to keep pastoring until we celebrated our 200th anniversary. That’s if they don’t fire me first. I have a long history of thinking myself indispensable only to learn others feel differently.

Our conversation made me wonder who dreamed up the idea of anniversaries, the peculiar notion of regularly honoring a momentous event. My wife and I are celebrating our 35th anniversary this summer, and I have a feeling she’s expecting a bit more extravagance this year than she did on our 34th. I have that feeling because she told me, “I want to do something special for our 35th anniversary. Let’s go see the coastal redwoods in California.”

There are perfectly good trees in Indiana, so I see no need to travel 2,500 miles to look at California trees. Nevertheless, come June 2, I suspect I’ll be standing at the base of a tree in California extolling the wonders of the mighty sequoioideae. Sometime after that, I’ll likely be attending my 40th high school reunion. We meet every five years, in Danville. Each reunion is a bit nicer than the one before it, since we’re all earning more money. The first few times, we met in the town park, which was free. The next reunion, we gathered at the clubhouse of an apartment complex where one of our classmates lived. I think it was free, too. Then we met in a series of bars. They were free as well, but we had to promise to drink a lot of beer. After a while, we began meeting in the clubhouse of a golf course, wearing nice clothes, and eating a real dinner. I’m not sure where we’re gathering this summer. I know it won’t be at the Baptist church, they not liking beer and my classmates seeming inordinately fond of it.

I didn’t care for our first several reunions. My classmates and I were eager to outshine one another. Not overtly, of course, which would have been ill-mannered, but discreetly, by way of offhanded remarks such as, “It’s the hardest thing to find a good Mercedes mechanic,” or, “I’ll be glad when work slows down, but that’s the way it is when you’re in management.” I was picking up roadkill for the state when we held our first reunion. At our 10th, I was finally attending college. Then I was pastoring a megachurch of 13 souls when our 15th anniversary hit. I was doing marginally better at subsequent reunions, but the 40th is shaping up to be my best one yet because I now have a granddaughter and can work her into conversations all evening, circling the room, passing out pictures, politely pretending other people’s grandchildren are as gifted and beautiful as my own.

My only concern about this year’s reunion has to do with politics. I can tell by Facebook we don’t all see eye to eye. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t bother me, but I’ve noticed beer-fueled conversations about political issues don’t usually end well. It’s made me question the value of high school reunions. If seeing our classmates were a priority, we wouldn’t need a reunion at all. We’d phone one another, or vacation together, or stay in touch on Facebook. My best friend in high school, Tim Hadley, died two years after graduation. No reunion in the world will bring Tim back. My other close friend from that period, Bill Eddy, lives across the street from me, so I see him every day. We don’t need a reunion.

I have many friends, but only two or three were high school classmates. All the others I picked up along the way. I met my lunch friends at our Quaker meeting. I met my friend Riley when I wore my Triumph motorcycle shirt in public and he stopped me to chat. I met my buddy Dave through our sons. I met Rod when he rode past my house on a Norton motorcycle and I flagged him down. Rod introduced me to Steve, Mike, and Kim. I know Ned through church, books, and motorcycles. I met Brian when he and his wife moved in next door; the same with Nate and his wife, our other neighbors. My friend Jim and I met our first day of class at Christian Theological Seminary. I’m leaving out some people, which is a good way to find out if they’re true friends. If they get mad and never speak to me again, I’ll know we weren’t as close as I had imagined.

You might even have children, which is a tremendous blessing, because it increases your chances of having grandchildren, which is even better.

I have many acquaintances I would enjoy having as friends, if I only had more time. Friendships may not take much time to form, but they take a lot of time to maintain. Just because I happened to go to school with someone doesn’t make him or her more likely to be my friend. It means our parents lived in the same town and had kids the same year. If friendships arise from those coincidences, that’s wonderful, but accidents of fate don’t inevitably lead to friendships.

Whether we attend our reunions probably has a lot to do with whether we enjoyed high school. I don’t imagine anyone who hated high school is eager to hobnob with the people who made it miserable. But if high school was your high-water mark, if life after high school went downhill, if you aren’t as popular, powerful, or accomplished now as you were then, you might welcome the opportunity to revisit those shining moments. If only for an evening, you can be a cheerleader, or football captain, or valedictorian again. I don’t begrudge you that. Life is difficult and we all need to remember when it felt more magical.

That might be the reason my wife enjoys celebrating our anniversary. Our wedding was an exhilarating moment, both of us trembling with happiness as we joined hands at the Quaker meetinghouse in Paoli, pledging before our friends and family to stick it out no matter what. Pausing each year to commemorate that moment is a gift we give each other, the steady reminder that the passing years have been our allies, not our enemies.

If you’re in high school now and think life sucks, you need to remember things won’t always be that way. The chances are good that one day you’ll meet a lovely person and get married. Or you’ll wear a Triumph T-shirt and make a new friend. You might even have children, which is a tremendous blessing, because it increases your chances of having grandchildren, which is even better. If you’re really fortunate, like me, you might even get to travel to California and stand beneath a redwood tree on your 35th anniversary with someone whose best life happened after high school, not during it.