Who Are We?

By Dorene Osborne Johnston ’61

Editor’s note: Dorene presented these remarks to her Class of 1961 classmates during their 50th reunion during Commencement weekend on campus in May 2011.

When Nancy Mitchell (associate director for alumni relations) first asked me to say a few words today, she suggested I tell a bit about where I was going from here as well as offer some advice. Now, I have learned a thing or two over the years, and one of them is that trying to give advice to anyone, especially through a microphone, is very unproductive, if not unpopular. Nancy and I negotiated, and I promise you — no advice. I also take it as a given that most of us will continue to mentor our grandchildren, enjoy our gardens and maybe do some traveling, so I’m not going to focus on those things here. So. Who are we now?

We can’t call ourselves “middle-aged” any more, that’s for sure. We stretched middle-age about as far as it would go, didn’t we? By 70 we kinda have to call ourselves something else. But what? Old? Just doesn’t sound right, does it? Sure, around 4:00 in the afternoon, my energy takes a dive and by 9:00 I’m aging rapidly, but I don’t feel “old” all day long. Nevertheless, we seem to be relentlessly adding years, and we probably need to find ways to come to terms with it all.

I actually find myself more content in my 70s than I was in my 50s and 60s when I was losing the ability to do many of the things I took for granted. As a young adult I had fallen in love with mountains and rivers. Then, as my English legacy of arthritis began to emerge, there were aches and pains — and limitations. First, downhill skiing diminished, then backcountry skiing, then whitewater rafting. And now even hiking has been replaced with short walks. My losses forced me to look around and find pursuits to replace the outdoor adventures that had given my life so much juice.

So I began to explore the interests that had preceded those activities. I looked at certain themes that had threaded through my life and decided to go deeper in pursuit of them. At Whitman I’d accumulated even more credits in Literature than I needed for my Psychology major — that gave me clue to the high value I place on reading and writing. It’s not just recreational for me. I remembered the mosaics that had thrilled me in Turkey and Italy, and recalled the piles of pebbles I collected in my childhood summers that I would assemble into mosaics on the back porch. Another clue. Now I have shelves full of intensely colored glass tiles that I arrange in ways that delight me.

Then there was the China connection: I’d spent my first year of married life in Asia when China was still closed to foreigners, and it stimulated life-long connections and curiosities that led to my going there to teach English 10 years ago. I was moved by the respect given to age and to teachers in China and I returned three more times. So fascinating to watch China change — and now, why not write about it? As the poet said, “way leads on to way…” More and more I’ve been looking back at those ways to find things I might have dropped by the wayside. Like President Bridges wrote in the March issue of the Whitman Magazine, I am looking for signs of joy.

I don’t know about you, but I think we NEED joy in order not to become discouraged or guilt-ridden with the constant barrage of news about soaring population figures, planetary degradation and the doomed world that awaits our grandchildren. Most of my adult life I have been active in environmental causes and by late middle age I was so full of bad news that I wasn’t much fun at a dinner party. In fact, it was here at a Whitman Alumni College that I first heard about the concept of “Peak Oil.” At the time it was suggested that by 2008, we’d just barely have enough gas to take grandma to the hospital, much less go on road trips. Well, I’m Grandma now, it’s 2011 and I was able to drive myself up 395, visiting friends and hot springs along the way.

Should we just ignore the predictions? Of course not. There are enormous environmental challenges ahead for our kids and grandkids, but I’m feeling less frantic about trying to fix them. Hopefully, the contributions of our generation and the efforts of those that follow — maybe even some of these bright young Whittie grads — will be able to influence trends before the tipping point. Meanwhile, I think it’s important to find a balance between being informed, without becoming an anxious mess. I do small things: buy little and locally, recycle, support environmental efforts and watch zero TV. I seek out resources that help me understand but don’t paralyze. I look for hopeful signs. Here’s one with a Whitman connection: a Whitman alumnus visited us in San Francisco in 1967. I was pregnant with my son, Brennan, now 44. The alumnus was in a new ecology graduate program at the University of Washington. We took him to the Top of the Mark to admire the breath-taking view. He looked out at the port and the city and the lights of the East Bay and declared, with all the confidence of a young grad, “In 20 years time this will all be uninhabitable.” Whenever I see the sparkling bay and vibrant city, I think of that night.

Whitman is my academic alma mater. Getting in tune with the energy flow of rivers when I worked as a whitewater guide was whole ’nother kind of education. Free-flowing rivers are constantly renewing themselves and make the best metaphors. A river begins as a trickle from a spring or a snowfield, it races and tumbles downhill when it is small and young (just as we did), gets bigger and noisier as it gathers more speed and volume (just as we did), it gathers treasures and debris from the terrain it flows through (just as we did). Then finally the elevation decreases, rapids become riffles and the river widens out to form a deep, complex delta with the sediment it carries. Just like we are now: slowing down, yep; and widening, oh, yes; but fertile with knowledge and experience. NOW is the time, just as much as it was in 1961, when it is worthwhile to scout the currents ahead and see what you still might do with what poet Mary Oliver calls “your one wild and precious life.”

Nobody says it better than Mary. So I’ll use her words to close:

“When it’s over I want to say: All my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over I don’t want to wonder
If I had made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
Or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”