Wednesday’s Nonfiction: An Anonymous Life is Still a Life

Lawrence Wilburn Guenther and Edna Kelly, 50th Anniversary, 1983

What has ever happened to living a quiet life and finding that meaningful? There is such a garish trumpeting about people and events, about what is deemed commendable or abominable and it often drags lives into the grit of the fray, the spotlight of adoration or scrutiny. Conversations are necessary when they make a meaningful impact but the loud voices that promote fame–or infamy–stop me cold. Why this being splashed all over news outlets as if meant to be so vital to us all? How did it happen that people–even youths–crave fame enough that they will go to any lengths to get it? And who said that a visibly higher socioeconomic status equals lasting happiness? All this talk and focus on being a “Somebody” in the world has me cogitating about the value of ordinary human lives. Because there are far more of us out here than the other sort.

Some history is useful as in a far more innocuous way, I once knew the heat of a spotlight’s beam. I did not grow up feeling strictly anonymous, another face in the crowd, invisible, untraceable. Instead, I was easy to spot, quick to name. I was so used to being introduced as “Lawrence Guenther’s daughter” that much of my childish and youthful identity sprang from this shorthand reference. In fact, seldom did anyone need to say that much; my last name covered it. And, I imagine, my large blue eyes–a family trait many of us shared. Not that it was a bad thing, this quick naming. My father never robbed a bank or stole a car or drunkenly crashed one or worse. He was an upstanding citizen, I have to admit. But it felt like a bit of a burden more often than I cared to say.

I knew nothing of how public a man he was until my early teens; he was often surrounded by students and adults wherever we went. He was not overtly gregarious but had a gentlemanly, winning manner. He was sincere and he was smart; there were far worse things than being the youngest child of such a person. My father’s warm smile and expressive bright eyes had magnetic properties, it seemed.

In a town where the name “Dow” defined everything, being known by any other last name was something of note. Herbert H. Dow was a chemical industrialist who founded my hometown’s Dow Chemical, an international company. His son, Alden B. Dow, was a well-known architect. My dad was not famous but he did enjoy a fine reputation across the state and perhaps beyond for his work. Lawrence Guenther was Midland’s public schools’ music administrator, and a teacher, musician and a conductor of an impressive Midland Symphony Orchestra. This may not seem newsworthy at first glance. Yet this town that was marked by pristine, manicured lawns and graceful homes, a top state school system, international scientists, and a plethora of variously gifted students–well, that meant a little something.

Our about 28,000 (when I was ten; it is now 47,000) people greatly valued arts and sciences, so music programs were high on the list for financial and community support. Classes started when students tested well for musical ability. They began in fourth grade–unless their parents had already sent them to private music lessons, which many had (we already had one built in). Dad was an innovative music programmer and teacher with indefatigable passion for his calling. He advocated for the fine arts tirelessly as well as performed and encouraged, with strict expectations, thus exacting from students their best work.

So it came to be that he was well appreciated. And the family name was synonymous with music. My mother, I might add, was a respected elementary school teacher among other things–a substitute teacher after I was born. Plus, a great hostess and supporter of his career. And she was the more innately extroverted. She was not that musically inclined though her voice was a pleasing alto. My four siblings and I were, so we studied hard, practiced our instruments. This led to endless recitals, orchestral performances, church musical events, musical theater, classical competitions, small chamber groups–and small pop groups for me (not as a cellist for once, but a vocalist–what pleasure tat gave after classical music day in and out).

This did not bode well for lasting anonymity in that city and beyond–in music camps, workshops, state competitions. The better I performed, the more it felt as if I was becoming a more public person, too, not only a reflection of our father’s presence and influence. I adored all the arts so participated with enthusiasm. I especially embraced the actual performance part and duly appreciated applause–but preferred to run off right after performances. It was embarrassing to say “thank you” when complimented; I was doing what I was supposed to do, trained to do, enjoyed doing. But I also worried that I might not achieve the best performance each time I walked onto the stage. It would remain a joy to perform but also a relief to exit stages. The problem with having attention drawn to you is that people start to have expectations, bigger ones as time goes by. The problem is then you must please others and smile on and on when you want to take off the finery and walk into a silent, fathomless, starry night.

For me, the fuss became more trying than emboldening. It never occurred to my father that I was not as accepting as was he of this side effect of doing well. He was fairly ambitious and dedicated, yet marked by a humble nature, and so seemed to take in stride being so visible (despite displaying a vastly more introspective nature at home–no doubt he needed major “down” time). And he had no doubt his children could, would and should excel. He was a faithful believer in God and hard work and so believed that a talent must be honed, and that to waste it was akin to committing a sin. I know he meant well enough, yet that alone provided a penchant for a perfectionism that has dogged me all of my life. But it did not produce a stellar career nor a craving for fame. I excelled at enough, but at some cost. I wanted to a place to create–and found it mainly at a renowned arts camps where there were many such youth as myself.

Still, the thought of being well known–of being recognized as I walked down the street or shared a coffee and occasional forbidden smoke with a friend at a cafe–became less and less appealing. I needed more emotional space. For one thing, I was a young person with secrets due to childhood sexual abuse unknown to my family, and I planned on keeping it that way.

But I was also a dreamer. That state of being requires solitary time to develop and nurture ideas, to embrace with intention each act of creating, to seek an abandonment coupled with unwavering focus. As much as I liked dating as a teen, I was often loathe to leave a new poem or song, a dance or art project–to vacate my busy mind–to meet someone at the front door. My major fantasy by age 12 was to become a well-published, well-read writer (or singer) but to remain primarily anonymous amid any success. It  seemed a more comfortable and natural fate. Did I imagine being interviewed? On the phone, perhaps, once or twice. Did I want pictures of me circulating? I didn’t expect that would be to my advantage. Then more people would recognize me and I would have to duck into bushes.

How different these times are–our personal data quickly accessible. I am at moments startled to see my own image despite having gone along with the trends. But I wonder: how much does that add to my life or anyone else’s? I think very little, even at best. My writing–I do hope that matters some, but the fact is, I will still writing. No fancy byline or authorship would lessen the muse calling and my need to create with language. Or maybe it would. Now I have freedom.

Despite an avid interest in others, enjoying meeting new folks and entertaining from time to time, I embrace solitude, still. More than mingling face-to-face with people, generally. I feel satiated in most ways while burrowing into my writing space or reading chair, engaging with an activity even with spouse nearby. We have our own routines and rhythm, like all older married couples. And I have noted before that I seldom mind when he has long business trips. I do what I do still at 68 because I am daily motivated to create, to gather new information or try out new ideas, to pray and meditate, to take care of myself and, I hope, others. There is no applause as I complete a task or challenge. There is a gentle sense of self-fulfillment. And I can guarantee you that I have labored hard for this peace of mind that anchors my living even–or most–in more arduous times.

Yet, sometimes all this almost–if not quite–makes me nostalgic for the sort of  intense in-person contact after a performance, or after poetry readings that were part of my life once. Or even the career I undertook of counseling broken people. The field of mental health and addictions treatment even in a city like Portland is small enough that others in counselling know who you are soon. One’s reputation, for good or ill, precedes one. I was as known then as I would ever be as an adult, and I was satisfied with that. It was not the yawning ego but the work that mattered so dearly to me. Just like youthful performing, itself, mattered most–the reaching and connecting to others via music. As a clinician it was listening with an open heart and being steady n the face of crises, offering solace and new skill sets.  It is not about winning accolades or making big money–heaven forbid–but simplest caring.

It all–this anonymous v. public business–comes down to what I believe about God. If there is any light within me it can be shared, and by sharing it, that persistent light is freed like ripples in a clinic, on a stage, in a neighborhood, even perhaps the world as it is passed person to person. Creative work and any useful human-focused work are spiritual conduits, each a way to enable the blossoming best in everything, everyone: to bring forth the regenerative energy of miraculous, abundant life. We are given souls to greet one another as allies and helpmates. Minds to share constructive problem solving. And bodies to celebrate genius of a cosmos mimicked in our cellular make up.

This expansive yet essential anonymity has been the formative factor of my life, after all–not being publicly known by many, at all. I did not end up living the life my father expected of his offspring.  Family members became expert in their fields (including music), some of their names quite known. It is true that I had dreams of “making good” in the music business as a singer, and also as a writer, but my life trajectory took another route after marriage in 1971. It became more isolated and a quieter life made of more mundane events than overtly extraordinary–or so those judging types out there might state. I redesigned my criteria for a life of success. And I have experienced amazing people, beheld more than a few wonders.

I was relieved at a crucial level within to be no longer only “a Guenther” but to incrementally become myself on my own terms, and with a husband here and there. Even if all that fell short at times, I began to claim my life fully as mine. I devised it, I tested it, I rebuilt it and God redeemed it many times with an effortless love. I found that, in the end, what matters is what happens during unnoticed years of countless small actions undertaken, and with the ones I get to love, and any goals I can bring to fruition, whether or not others admire them. There are those who won’t know what matters to me as I attempt to manage a few true and valiant things while I have the breath; they are, after all, busy with their own industrious lives–I could reach out to them, too. But many more may not deign to care about my talents and deficits beyond my quick actions or chatter, as I am not “important or accomplished” enough to discover at a deeper level. To them, I have failed to win the awards or money games–while I keep mining the subtler riches of what I have, will yet discover.

I have learned that the most important acclaim comes from inside. And as long as I recognize my basic (if flawed) integrity which upholds a reasonable self worth, I am alright. Just important enough to those who care. No accolades are necessary. This anonymous life is still a life. I am pleased to be working on it and relishing it, day by day. And surprisingly, I suspect that would be alright with my parents, too.

 

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