ONCE A YEAR, like migratory birds, the five of us arrive at Point Reyes National Seashore for a three-day reunion. We take over a small inn, leave behind husbands, children and challenging careers. We take long hikes, eat leisurely meals and talk interminably about our families and work.
We discuss the agonies of the world and the mysteries of our lives. But what we really do is create a rare opportunity for introspection. It is a time for questioning what it all means, examining our transitions and imagining what we will do in the next phase of our lives.
Two of us fly in from Boston; one from Chicago; and two drive from different parts of the Bay Area. This year, each of us arrives depleted and drained from having tried, in different ways, to stop this war from starting.
Let's not discuss the war, we plead with each other. There is the silent recognition that we need a respite from lives consumed by world events. The newspapers arrive every morning and one of us discreetly covers the front page.
We are women of a certain age, raised to embrace traditional lives, but transformed by the 1960s and 1970s. One of us has been a president of a college and a major foundation. Another is a professor and an author. One is an exceptional editor; still another heads a prestigious private school. I am a historian turned journalist. What matters to us is the state of the world, not the status any of us have achieved in it.
As we grow older, we speak of the spiritual. We speak of gratitude -- for families, children and friends. We still feel guilt for never having done enough.
We hike through meadows, soaking up the sun, gaping at fields of wildflowers, grateful for our health. High on a ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the conversation turns to the war. We fight off despair as though it were an infectious disease.
At dinner, one of us asks: "What would you do, if anything were possible?" There are yearnings, alternative scenarios, but nothing all that different. Someone might have had children earlier or later or left a particular partner or institution much sooner.
But what really counts, when we get right down to it, is that we've all dedicated our lives to leaving the world a better place than we found it. We've worked here and abroad to end poverty and promote world peace. We've fought for racial equality, women's rights, environmental justice and universal health care. These are the bonds that brings us back each year. These are the core values in each of our lives, regardless of our different religious beliefs and practices.
We are all educators of one sort or another and sadness saturates this year's reunion. We don't speak of the war very much, but anguish dwells inside each of us. There is the quiet recognition that this ultraconservative administration -- by bankrupting our national wealth through war and tax cuts - - has turned our dreams into a nightmare. "Things have never been this bad in our entire lives," one of us says. Heads nod in agreement.
On the last day, we gather in the tiny town of Point Reyes Station before we part and return to our separate lives. Several hundred people march down the street to protest the war. "Join us!" they yell at us. We, who have spent the past nine months trying to prevent this war, salute and applaud them, but cling to each other for a few more precious moments.
During our last farewells, the protesters get louder, their signs bobbing above their heads. "If you're not for the war, come join us!" they call out to us.
Our reunion is over; the war has returned. Fortunately, there is next year, when we will meet again.
© 2003 San Francisco Chronicle