The Last Page


By Rosalind Barnett '65

I have never contributed to the Class Notes, and therefore I am considered among the "disaffected." That's not how I think of myself, of course. I've had a great time creating a life filled with love, self-expression, music and art, friends, and community. No disaffection here. Many of us have chosen to lead quiet lives full of good work, public and private, with no tragedies or feelings of insignificance to account for being out of touch with Vassar. I've managed to clear an unconventional path and to concentrate on my artistic nature, with the delightful side effect of freeing self-expression in many areas, most importantly in my ability to love and be loved.

That sums up "The Big Picture," but here are the details:

My first job after Vassar was working for the Bureau of Child Welfare in the Bronx. At the same time, I started taking a night class in pottery at the 92nd St. Y in Manhattan. This was out of character for me, since I had never thought of myself as particularly artistic, but something impelled me to sign up. I had been one of two Anthropology majors in our class (the fabulous Pam Johnson was the other), and I imagined I was a social scientist, sincerely interested in the role culture plays in forming our sense of self. Little did I know that my fascination with the roots of identity was tied to my own need for self-discovery. The time frame in which the Class of 1965 started and finished college was culturally still the fifties, but was about to become THE SIXTIES. True to the times, I devoted myself to defining "true self" by exploring Roz Barnett; a kind of one-woman- tribe field work.

Pottery was destined to play a big part in my life, as was t'ai chi, which I studied with William Chen in the late sixties, before I left New York City. I also entered a Ph.D. program in Social Psychology at Columbia Teachers College in 1967, mainly because I needed some conventional structure, and didn't know what else to do, and they offered me an NIH fellowship which paid for school, with an additional stipend for living expenses. (The joke was that the stipend allowed me to see a therapist because I was so unhappy in graduate school.)

I left Columbia after two years, moved to Seattle in 1971, and spent the next thirty years doing clay art and teaching pottery, with episodes of writing and editing, and several years of teaching t'ai chi. In 1976 I gave birth at home to Sophie Grace, who has been radiant and gifted from the start. She went to public alternative schools and The Evergreen State College, and turns out poetry I can only dream of writing. Sophie now lives in Berkeley, and plans on going to Mills in September, for an MAT, hoping to share her interests in reading and writing with kids. Sometimes I feel spookily that I might actually have raised the young man she's in a long-term relationship with, proving the old saw about not losing a daughter, etc. The fact that she found a solid, joyful relationship at such a young age, and that she was able to move away from home when she and I are so close and enjoy each other's company so much, makes me very happy. It validates me somehow.

My clay work is on hold, perhaps permanently, but I've started working with copper, my favorite metal, partly because clay is too damned heavy (a concession to middle age). I've played drums for years (standard rock 'n' roll kit as well as Middle Eastern hand drums) for the pure joy of it, but also as a spiritual practice and brain exercise. Focus, memory work, hand-eye coordination, the sensuality of rhythm — I love it. I'm writing haiku again after many years, and volunteer at the Library for the Blind, doing radio interviews with authors on book tours.

My partner of twenty-three years is Bill Langer, whose life experience in the forging-your-own-path department is very similar to my own. He's a carpenter specializing in Japanese gates, and a white-water river rafter (we've rafted the Colorado in Grand Canyon several times). Bill was raised in a prominent Harvard family (he's William L. Langer and Suzanne K. Langer's grandson), and was expected to be an historian or a philosopher, like them. He is one of the brightest men I've ever met. We are now working hard on expanding the little house in Seattle which I bought for $18,000 in 1978. We'll have lots of room for the grandchildren of the future ("No pressure, Sophie!"), friends, and art and music projects. We are both feeling privileged and very fortunate these days, as well as generally stressed, along with many other Americans in these "interesting" times.

As you might guess, making money and gaining status have not played a big part in my life, although their allure is powerful. I know that I'm living a great life. I've stayed true to some deep imperative, trusting my instincts, with the marvelously reinforcing corollary of deep joy and an abiding sense of gratitude. Actually, caring about money or recognition invariably inhibits my creativity and general sense of well-being. I tend to go all out with confidence and enthusiasm when heeding my heart's promptings, and success in the world has never called to me enough to go after it. Free time is important to me, and I have paid for it handsomely in terms of worldly status and wealth. Happily, I have gained enough personal power to understand that my life is truly privileged.

Back to disaffection: I've always read our class notes, but have never written in, partly because I started feeling years ago that the women who contributed were quite different from me. It seemed that many had gone to law school, worked in finance or some other aspect of business. Their children went to private schools, then graduated from Vassar or other prestigious colleges. Maybe I felt that no one would relate to my life, or wouldn't be interested. Like many people who left the East Coast for the West thirty years ago, especially those who headed for pre-boom, small-town Seattle, I wanted privacy, and what novelist Tom Robbins called "wrinkled anonymity." I wanted a low key life, one of my own design, my own choosing. What news could I relate to other alumnae/i? Okay, maybe: "I had a gallery show last month." But what about: "I've been teaching for years and have never once been impatient or unkind"? Or: "Sophie and Bill have helped me be more generous and unafraid than I ever thought possible"? Profound internal changes, spiritual realizations and connections feel like a big deal when they're happening, but they rarely, if ever, appeared in the class notes.

Then there's the part of me that was still concerned about conventional approval: Maybe I had mixed feelings toward "worldly" success and the women of the Class of 1965 who valued, strove for and achieved it. A touch of social class envy? A very little, and it never lasted long. I knew what I had to do: work hard in creative projects; exercise the discipline to drop all distractions or moodiness to teach a class or to communicate fully with loved ones; always take refuge in loving more, rather than less; find the courage to stay centered in my spiritual instincts, regardless of the "illogic" of the path or the seeming risks entailed; trust the universe and my own sense of joy. I knew I could not do the work or live the lives of the women who wrote in. I had no choice but to live my life, and do my work. I remember reading that a member of our class was the first Senior Editor at Newsweek (?), and I realized that I was both envious of that achievement and totally unwilling to devote the time required to achieve that kind of distinction. At any rate, I chose year after year not to contribute to the class notes.

As a student at Vassar, I missed the presence of "kindred spirits," and I missed boys. So I was not a happy person, and my unhappiness generalized to the entire Vassar experience. When I think about disaffection, I have to conclude that my youthful misery was compounded by attending a college which gave me a great education but few friends. I probably would have loved art school, but it was never part of the equation; it was nowhere on my radar. As a lonely high school whiz kid, I seized upon the idea of being a scholar, a professor-in-training. "Who knew!"

Also, as World War II babies we were closely followed by the huge bulge of baby boomers, who always had peer support for every inclination or interest. (Did you know that one million more babies were born in 1953 than in 1943?) In my experience, American demographics and the forces of history exacerbated a personal sense of isolation. Then the culture stretched itself to include more of us. I, for one, am very grateful to have seen these changes, regardless of the inevitable commercialization/commodification of everything! Traipsing through it, negotiating it, is the work of a lifetime.

Having learned years ago to value my eccentricity, now, at sixty, I'm usually relaxed and happy, and more like everyone else than I ever imagined. Of course, I'm still dealing with what my mothers and aunts called "The Change," and, boy, is it ever. I've experienced the identity-altering aspects of menopause as profoundly as I did the changes of puberty (I sometimes refer to it as "de-pubescing".) I'd love to get a really good discussion going of this time of life; the kind of information and guidance most of us were never privy to as younger women.

I am certain any reunion of the Class of 1965 would be wonderful to attend, with so many lovely, smart women in one place. Living in Seattle makes the logistics somewhat problematic, but the sentiment stands. It bears repeating that I believe Vassar gave me a great education. Conversations over the years with people educated in larger and/or less selective schools have reminded me that our Vassar teachers expected us to be bright people, with original ideas. In addition, we were taught by professors, not teaching assistants, in small classes. This becomes more extraordinary as time goes on.

As for contributing to class notes: Better late than never, and I sincerely wish all the other oddballs would finally write in.