Black and white photos of people dancing positioned on a colorful background.

Reunions and the Creative Messiness of Memory

The musical Grease (not the film, but the stage production), begins at the 20-year class reunion of the Rydell High School Class of 1959. The characters on stage for the event are Miss Lynch (the English teacher), Eugene Florczyk (the nerdy valedictorian), and Patty Simcox (the bubbly former cheerleader). Absent from the reunion are the memorable characters we get to know later in the musical: Sandy, Danny, Frenchy, Rizzo, and the rest.

If Grease were about your graduating class, would you be present or absent for the reunion scene?

A photo of colorful but empty chairs in an auditorium.

While I generally cringe at binary thinking, when it comes to reunions, it does seem like people are in one of two camps: one) those who can’t wait to dig out the old photographs and convince their friends to attend what is certain to be the best reunion ever, and two) those who shred the invitation as soon as it arrives in the mail.

I am definitely in the first camp, however, many of my close friends are solidly in the second. Whichever your preference, I’m convinced that creativity can make reunion time (or any occasion of revisiting the past) more productive and enjoyable.

Memories and Motives

At the core of strong reactions to reunions (high school, family, college, etc.) is the way that we deal with our past. Some people like to keep memories pristine: whether they are good or bad recollections, they remain tucked away, tied up neatly with a bow, available to admire or despise, but only occasionally and in solitude. Others prefer to reengage with memories, reliving the good and the bad, by rehashing them as often as someone will listen. Regardless of the way that we interact with our memories, revisiting bygone days can be messy.

A photo of a classic car of the 1950s painted purple.

I’m currently experiencing an avalanche of memories. Within the space of six months, I have had or will have four reunions of different kinds. I usually relish a good stroll down memory lane, but this might be more nostalgia than even I can handle. Wanting to find constructive ways of dealing with this flood of memories, I have thought through some creative possibilities for revisiting the past.

Reimagining Reunions

The key to creativity, whether in the world of art or the realm of personal recollections, is connection. In fact, a popular definition of creativity is the ability to make new connections for a productive outcome. This is intuitive when it comes to fine art: a painting would not be considered innovative if it made the same tired connections as hundreds of previous creations. When we consider memories, however, we tend to focus on old associations. I contend that if we open ourselves to new connections with old memories, we can make reunions and other nostalgic moments more productive for our past, present, and future.

Repurposed Recollections

One of the reasons that revisiting the past can get messy, whether at a reunion or other occasion, is that people can have very different recollections of the same event. Psychologists now generally agree that personal memory is notoriously unreliable. The memory that has been delighting you, haunting you, or even just boring you might not even be accurate.

A comic book frame of a couple dancing the lindy hop.

If you have such a recollection, and there’s the possibility that it might not be fully accurate, why not attempt to replace it? At reunions, we’re bound to hear retellings of memories that are more entertaining than our own. What is to stop us from abandoning our own version of a memory in exchange for a different one, especially if that version is better?

Intentionally swapping out a memory might work for minor details, like who should have won the senior-year dance contest, but it probably won’t work for more serious issues from the past. Traumatic memories are best addressed with a professional. If you are dealing with past trauma, please reach out to a counselor, therapist, or mental health care provider in your community.

A comic book frame of girl with pink hair and a thought bubble that says “wow.”

A good way of coping with less serious but still uncomfortable memories, like the time you accidently colored your hair pink, is called recasting. With this technique one infuses an old recollection with new meaning. An awkward moment from the past, for example, could be reimagined as a turning point. A big mistake could be recast as a valuable lesson. With this technique, the memory is retained, but it is connected to a new signification, and this type of new connection for a productive outcome is what creativity is all about.

Memories Present and Future

When we think about recollections, we primarily assign their significance to the past. The present and the future, however, are just as important to memory. Often the reason that memories of our past bother us in the present is because they involve people not being the best versions of themselves. Maybe the remembered imperfections were in others, and maybe they were within us. We can’t change the past, but in the present and future, we can improve behavior and work toward forgiveness of past infractions.

It would be wishful thinking to imagine that all past offenses (by others or ourselves) could be made right in the space of a class or family reunion. There are opportunities, however, for making new connections with elements from our past. How each one of us does this will depend on our own personalities, relationships, and particular situations.

A comic book frame of an astronaut holding a carbonated beverage.

Some of my favorite experiences from reunions have been the evolution of past acquaintances into future friends. On at least two occasions, I have reconnected with people at reunions who I knew only casually in the past and with whom I became good friends.

At your next reunion, how will the creative connections of past memory and present reality be productive for your future self?

We Go Together Like…

I don’t think I’m alone in imagining future scenarios for characters from fiction. Whenever I see the musical Grease, I can’t help but consider what might happen later in the evening at that 20-year reunion of the Rydell High School Class of 1959. Maybe Rizzo, the notorious “bad girl” from the musical, shows up to the event a little late. Perhaps she finds that she and the nerdy Eugene work in the same industry. Maybe a business partnership or even a romance ensues. Stranger connections have been made at reunions, but they won’t for you unless you attend the event and test the creative potential of your memories.

Share this post.