My (Very Loose) Plan for Becoming an Old Woman

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A mosey about the neighborhood with the real me; cannot keep me from daily power walking! (No, not my medium-sized mansion in background)

I was struck today by this thought: I may at times, with a sideways glance, look for a way around the inevitability of aging.

This lit up my thinking recently after trying to find a decent and authentic photo for my Facebook account. They tended to look a bit pasty, and as if some stealthy tilling was done along jaw, neck and eyes and then hadn’t tidied up well afterward. I gave up and used the one that is above. It’s authentic–I adore being outdoors! Plus I like seasonal photos. And it’s casual, my basic style these days. And not posed, really, a simple smile. I have a couple that I call my “semi-glamour shots” and they are kind of stagy/cheesy, as if I am expecting to appear on the jacket of a bestselling book shortly. I even took one of me at the computer. Well, that’s where I am much of each day, working on writing. (Pros must photograph those lovely other authors.)

But this was only the first of the triggers for my current ruminations about having once been younger (for quite a good amount of time) and getting older (I am so pleased I made it). And finally, what comes next (hold on awhile as I cram a lot more into my living). But I will get to the other reasons this matter visited me. (It’s not another essay on health issues.)

I realize this thought–that I may be avoiding the reality of aging–is not shocking in youth-centric societies. At least, US culture daily accosts us with a barrage of messages stating that appearing or even acting over the age of 30 or so (i.e., an adult)–or is it now 21?–is undesirable. Perhaps one day to seem more akin to a crime. This brings to mind the seventies film, “Soylent Green”, that disturbing sci fi story that determines various people quite expendable, primarily the aging. Charlton Heston did a bang-up job as our film hero in that year of 2022 (five years away…), a time when overpopulation, environmental crises, and food shortages are deemed of paramount importance. Sound familiar? I read there may be a new version coming out for our pessimistic pleasure.

We are, one has to agree, exhorted to be young– please fake the appearance. Until one’s dying breath, if possible. Our looks, habits, clothing, interests. People remain socially more visible until we start to age discernibly, so the goal is to fool the human eye. (Though I heard someone remark that by late thirties she felt already less visible, was called “Ma’m” as if verging on matronly so required the kid gloves of customer service reserved for older adults). But I am not needing or seeking public scrutiny so this is a relief in the end. I have shone and tarnished, have often rejuvenated and been laissez faire. It’s important how I feel about my life, not the best shot. Yet this culture insists that, as a woman, I am not expected to allow myself to age gradually, naturally and without rancor. It is admittedly a pressure I half-yield to some days. And then I consider that men have so few demands in this regard. I’m for a more level playing field. We are persons first and last, are we not? My husband isn’t forever young, either, and it doesn’t concern him much, if at all.

If it was only young people who were making these rules I might have more conversations with them about it all. I do recall once vividly thinking that “over thirty” was the end and there were moments I did not expect or desire to pass that line. Little did I know that this was the actual start of vaster and better beginnings. But I might ask today’s kids why age seems such a clear marker of human acceptability as well as desirability–and what do their ages actually mean to them in reality, and also to me? How does this impact our respective perceptions, except to bring into focus that we all are at blurred crossroads of one sort or another? But it’s not just young folks, it’s all of us. And it’s such big business, the attempt to stall one’s aging. Companies scheme and undoubtedly shout hurrah as they make their products a little more affordable to a greater population. I personally shop for bargains in face moisturizer but if Lancome (not even close to the most expensive brands) gets cheaper…well, there you go. If only we spent as much time on our insides as we do our outsides. Hopefully, we do, a vast amount more.

Growing up with parents who were older than almost anyone else’s when I was born was not a big deal.  I rarely gave their age a thought. They were busy, ambitious, thoughtful persons until they died at 83 (Dad) and 93 (Mom). I did feel there was a more “ageless” atmosphere at home than in many of my friends. It might have been also due to being last to get born; my oldest sister was thirteen at the time. The age span was fine; it was what I knew.

My parents entertained and my father taught private string lessons after his day job and Mom did alterations on the side so all ages came and went. I was as at ease with older people as I was with younger, perhaps more so. I early learned how to be conversational and courteous as I served coffee and cookies at bridge parties. But I also was included in discussions around a dinner table with astute grown-ups, many of whom were scientists, musicians and educators. Later, I could identify as well with them as with my funky or firebrand friends. It seemed a good thing. Adult interchanges were interesting, whether or not I agreed with or fully comprehended topics. I could ask probing questions; I could offer opinions and be counted.

That inter-generational style of living was repeated, though, in many friends’ homes, as well. We were not as segregated as we are now. Family dinners with as many as possible were common. The truly old were respected, beloved, looked after. They were not left to their own devices or shunted off willy-nilly. Who could afford fancy nursing homes? Who even sought them? They weren’t another part of the big business of aging yet. People took care of their own.

My parents seemed and appeared fine to me in their fifties when I became a teen and far beyond. Their hair was always grayer, then white by the time I hit 21–but there is an early grey-to-whiter hair gene. One niece had long, lovely and mostly white hair by late thirties or so. Others got a characteristic white streak in their twenties. That gene skipped me, the only one to yet have some auburn brown hair striated with silver. Siblings razz me about it. (And by the way, have others noticed young women are lately stripping their hair of natural pigment, then coloring it white-to-silver?–What is that about? A practice run? We older gals should be flattered to be so imitated.)

The parents we had did not grouse about aging. They did not tell me to beware the gnarly ills that awaited me. They were not complainers, true, but they also were lively spirits. I recall my dad sailing a small craft for the first time again in decades when in his sixties. He played tennis with me in his fifties. He took up photography when I was a teen, engaged and bored us with his indexed slide shows of travels they–and we–loved to take whether across the ocean or around the bend. They made music, designed attire, invented games, volunteered at church and elsewhere, went pop-up-camper-style camping until early seventies. I got breathless trying to keep up even though I ran close to the same pace. Their health was problematic at times. Heart disease is the family affair, but that didn’t slow them for long. And they remained lucid as they aged, luckily. How they enriched peoples’ lives, as their friends did, as well.

So what was undesirable, what was wrong with getting older? I truly didn’t see it a liability. We each had our own place, skills and talents and energy and caring to spread around. It wasn’t near what you’d term idyllic. I am not all that nostalgic; there were several trials and losses. They were people who carried burdens, too, as we all can do.

But now I am beginning to think of aging differently. For one thing, my husband has begun to speak of retirement, not yet but sometime in the not-so-distant future. Five years. Perhaps. I stopped working awhile back but he’s a tad younger than I am. It’s a shock to hear him say it, however. From the start of his then-unplanned career when only  20 and still in college he has had a passion for engineering, later landing in management with expertise in quality assurance. I’m not sure how he does the long hours he does. It can worry me. I left my career as a counselor at 63; now I am looking towards 67. It took us awhile to get here. We are supposedly going to soon just hang out together… until those sunset days and nights wind down? Seems like someone else’s story line at times–and will until it materializes in full. I am big on not borrowing from the future when we can inhabit only this moment.

I mentioned a second reason the light bulb went on about avoiding aging: one of our daughters just landed a nice chaplaincy job in management. It’s at a fine assisted living facility. It struck me that she is close to the age, early forties, when I finally left my position managing a thriving home care department in a senior services agency. Whereas she may be edging toward a pinnacle of her career. It seems funny it ended up like this.

I felt pretty young back then. My 350-plus older clients were often frail, with serious health crises and multiple life stressors. I had a calling for that work in much the same way our daughter does. But she is a chaplain while I was just a somewhat besieged mother and wife needing work, then discovered a knack for human services (but still wrote in ragged snippets of time). I fast took to the work as they were some of “my people”; i.e., familiar to me after years of enjoying many older aunts and uncles, my parents, neighbors and family friends. I found myself eagerly absorbing their colorful life stories and worrying about them after work. I wanted to help make their lives safer, more comfortable and valued so they could remain at home if they desired. It was a privilege and it altered my direction; it felt as if God had drawn me to service. My next work was with high risk, addicted, mentally ill youth and adults and it, too, was a passionate commitment. But I never forgot those older adults who gave as much or more than they required of me. I think of them, still, long after they’ve gone. Muse that I’m so close to the ages they were when I was with them.

Now here I am, smack in that part of the process forward and it is like entering some foreign portal I hadn’t mapped out.

When I got the news of her great job I checked out the place she will be working. It looks swanky to me. It is very different from the places I saw while visiting various   homes to assess my clients’ needs. The text states it is “a life plan community”–it was previously called a “continuing care retirement community”. It serves a few hundred people. I studied the attractive grounds and wondered at the money it cost, marveled at the diverse services, the recreational options. The gym was chock full of cheerful persons with pleasing wrinkles and crowned with gleaming white hair. They looked classy on stationary bikes, vigorous in the bright swimming pool. The lawns are very green, houses and apartments uniformly in good taste–it’s clear why people gravitate to such a place. I can see how it might stay a fear of fragility.

It’s a great place for our daughter to work, I’m sure. Still, the lifestyle it espouses alternately fascinates, perplexes and repels me. Plus I could not afford it, I’m sure. But would I want to live there? Set apart from a greater cross section of people? In such an organized and pristine environment? My innermost being resists it. I would rather have a refuge of unbridled countryside and the grit and creative vibrancy of a city–each close to the other as possible, as it is now. Retirement community settings appear limiting to me–at least now– whereas to others they may appear to abound in happy, healthy options at one’s back and call.

But mostly, it seems exclusive and finally lonelier. I want to be all hands and feet in the greater realm of living until I can truly no longer be so. And then, who knows? I might even live in an RV, a studio apartment downtown or in a small room at the edge of a grown child’s abode. I hope to not be an aggravating burden to myself or others; I’d hate to leave this world with a bad reputation.

Alright, the rest of it may be that I don’t yet want to think about where this aging business will take me. It appears to be a bigger jog in the journey. I do know I don’t want to fake it. Nor make it more or less than what it is, another movement through a short time on a small planet. I don’t need to be anything more than who I am, just a better version, I hope. I barely feel much older than I did a couple decades ago except for a monitored, repaired ticker. Surprisingly, I even feel a great deal  better despite those telltale lines on my face that reveal my life. An elderly woman told me once that is a marker of aging: our deepest personhood not matching up with external changes.

I will get to the end, whatever that is.  Right now I never feel as if there is enough time to explore all that captures my scanning attention. There are people to admire and love and learn from, many of whom I do not even yet know. There are scads of books to read and stories to write (I can barely keep up with either), forest trails to hike, bodies of water to get wet in, visual art to make. Places that might use my hands, some care. And, ah, music to bring into heart and mind, to hum and sing. Today I bought two new CDs and played them at a good volume as I wrote, then danced about a few times. I have a mind to put on a long swingy dress and videotape the swooping about, pretending to be an interpretive modern (or let’s say “contemporary”) dancer again. For my children and grandchildren. So they’re assured I have always managed to have fun–and they remember to do so, too.

Life is a place I’ve made a decent, often very good, home and aging seems simply one more thing to accommodate. I am not one for the prosaic as much as for invention. I may not change much of anything. And I am more apt to plan for today, not tomorrow.  I have had personal experience with life being taken in a flash and then having it returned just in time. Best to take it a step at a time, see what unfolds, what I can do. Soul, heart, mind and health the priorities. Broaden those horizons as I move right along. Being old will feel like me, likely with all white hair.

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My sort of “semi-glamour” shot–ok, I know, it doesn’t qualify. There have to be more pretentious ones…(My Gravatar looks fancier!) But subject would benefit from retouch at the least; perhaps teeth capped, a vigorous hair brushing with full-on color, Botox, jawline and neck fix-all according to “Cease Aging Now” experts. I hereby protest! Will go on as is!
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Just kidding, here it is, a dubious semi-glam shot. Not so fancy! A bit of a hair trim (shows off the white; stays unruly by itself, just a tad snazzier. Fully 66. Cheers to all from the 1960s: we protested and braved new paths, fought, dreamed, achieved and stumbled, raised families, labored long and hard, and a great many of us have survived!
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Fave but current second best choice for fb picture, perhaps move to first choice if winter’s blast goes on: having fun outdoors, authentic while incognito. No ageism accepted no matter what faces I show! Let’s all just be people together. 🙂

Whims of Fortune

Photo by Leysis Quesado Vera. Source themkphotographyblog.net
Photo by Leysis Quesado Vera. Source themkphotographyblog.net

The light is failing or it is my eyes. Treetops and meadows blur. I am staring at something I cannot quite pinpoint, far off. Maybe it is only the changing of seasons, dark months torn open by sun, a shock that threatens to blind me. I blink a few times and scenery disappears even when my eyelids stay open. But another second or two and eyes refocus; I identify all I know so well. I am tired despite being up only four hours, since six o’clock.

I sit here after I scour the third of five bathrooms as always on Monday mornings for Idina. Sometimes for her husband, Richard. The room needs airing. This house is ancient, walls have absorbed everything that has been here, which is not to say the place smells badly most of the time–I wouldn’t tolerate that–just full of markers from past and present. It has all been updated, more or less. But still, it bears history heavily. Every room is the same. Vast, crumbling more than not yet exquisite to us all. Damp, yes, marred even when I am done. It’s what you would expect after over almost two hundred-fifty years.

The weather is dry today so I will open every window I can manage unless Idina snaps her fingers at me, gesturing at the shutters. Some days she feels ill with dyspepsia and cannot bear breezes carrying varieties of earthy scents. Some days she is just irritated with life. Then all is haunted by shadows and all the old things here and her family. But usually she smiles or nods in passing, hair swaying. She knows I am excellent at housekeeping, better than she could ever be if fortune turned and she had to take up my duties. But that won’t happen. Richard keeps her secure and can still make her laugh when he isn’t travelling. I help this aging place survive.

I see the cat, Tip, sharpening his claws on a fig tree. There is a bird not far away but Tip is lazy. He watches me all day long as I scurry from one task to another, his long black tail curled about his rotund body. He yawns at me when I try to get him to move so I can sweep. He is like many men I have known, comfortable and arrogant enough to ignore his duties and often me. But Tip’s small white-edged ears turn this way and that, tuning in to my whereabouts. He follows me from room to room, often. Unless he is captivated by mice, only as he pleases.

The grazing cows in the upper pasture send out their throaty moo,moo into warming air, their very simpleness making me glad the sun is shining and that I have ten minutes to sit. I close my eyes and listen to them. Bees (or is it those mud wasps) working hard. The creek tossing and turning its silvery sounds.

We were friends once. Idina and I. My parents farmed down the road and her parents travelled. They left her and brother, Anton, with Carolina, the nanny. There was a good-sized staff that ran the house and until Idina was eight she believed (or acted as if she did) they were extended family members, there to help out. I had to tell her the truth. She looked up at me–I was and still am taller–and frowned as if I had given her a sour candy that she had believed sweet. She asked Carolina to explain it.

“Right, as usual,” she said the next day. “I don’t know how you know things, Celia.”

“It’s because I get to live with the animals and climb trees. Living in a big house keeps you from real life.” I tossed a rock. “Ma says, anyway.”

“Your ma is sort of funny and smart but don’t tell my mama.”

“Why not?”

“Because your ma milks cows. She’s a farmer’s wife.”

I didn’t like to think what she meant but she took my hand and pulled me along to a small pond where we watched salamanders appear and disappear under water. Then we had tea all our own on the side terrace. Never once did she act as if I didn’t belong there despite my ma being a farmer’s wife. Her parents tolerated it as long as they didn’t have to witness much, I thought later. I kept her occupied, whereas the older Anton, the heir, had a friend from private school he brought home during vacations.

We played together into our early youth, usually when her parents were gone. Caroline was like a big sister and let us roam, one eye on us and one on either her books or the gardener. Idina had her studies in the library and I went to village school half-days because my father liked that I could read so well and do maths. But it ended when mother bore her sixth squalling, soft-skinned infant and they needed help with him. I was fourteen and lucky I had managed classes that long.

At seventeen, I was asked if I would be interested in assisting the estate’s two older housekeepers. It was easy, so I stayed. I didn’t like farming very much and was not about to marry anyone I knew. This despite my father’s obligatory lectures on advantages of a reasonably friendly wedded life–he knew someone who had a nephew or a grandson or there was a visitor at the neighbor’s, why not be introduced? But he did like the added money I gave them. My mother said nothing, knowing as I did that, either way, I would not be free. At least at the estate I could have my own neat, tiny room overlooking the wild wooded acreage. I saw the sun spread its vivid palette along the tree line in morning. My few tattered books were stacked close by, my trusty companions. Peace at the end of the day rather than the chaos of half-raising my mother’s children. I promised to visit the farm every month or two and have managed that overall. I do love them.

Idina left a few months after I began my work. She married and spent the better part of a year in Italy with her husband, Richard, a businessman and vineyard owner. Soon, it was just like her parents, as if she couldn’t find a true spot to roost. We chatted less easily and frequently; that was natural. Our childhood days were far behind us.

I am the same, strong-bodied, curious-minded but she has become someone else. An even richer man’s wife than her own mother (who then was more often staying in Paris with her husband while he invested in a resurrected perfume business. Perfume!). Idina has lived twenty miles away at Richard’s manse sometimes, and then at the family home for reasons about which I speculated. Richard is still not as attentive as I know she needs. I watch her face when with him and it ripples with longing and disappointment. After her father passed away last year, her mother stayed in Paris. The house was to be sold. Idina refused to go along with that, arguing with an officious, portly Anton and their mother, now white-haired and distracted. After that she returned here for months at a time.

Of course I knew why but I never give away anything. They were never that well suited, Richard with his minions holding forth at their place all hours of day and night from what I’ve gathered from others; Idina with her rebelliously empty womb and passion for art, music and need for order. She seems more frail each passing year. It makes me uneasy but I can’t help her now. And would not be asked.

I know my work beckons, but Tip is playing with a grasshopper, I think, and the light has turned caramel, the air balmy. It seems as if I would rather neglect things. Idina won’t fuss, as long as I get tasks completed by the time I turn in.

Perhaps it’s because my birthday is coming up. The thirtieth. It had long ago seemed a fairy tale age, a time when one would have settled in once and for all. Children gathered as they did around my mother, soon to be replaced by grandchildren. But beyond that, a purpose that offered tangible and other rewards of some kind. A more incandescent quality to living, does that sound ridiculous? It might have unfolded like that but the possibilities shrink. I embraced the position of housekeeper at eighteen and in three months knew the work so well I could do it without thinking. So I thought of what I had read before breakfast or what I wanted to jot down later, poetry coming in quick groupings of imagery. Wondered over the insects and birds that claimed plants and trees as I hung the wash. The nature of God as I surveyed the workings of our celestial realm yet had few names for all I did not understand and needed to know intimately.

Now I feel empty-headed too often. As if no one resides there, only a shadow of who I was. It terrifies me.

The latest thoughts have been of finding a way out. But how? To what? I haven’t met one suitor in well over four years. The ones that came and went were dull-witted, irresponsible, even unattractive. The one man on staff who is single and closest to my age is turning silver-haired. He is prone to jokes that grow longer and worse with each telling. He would be overjoyed by my company if I had any small part to give. I cannot bear the idea.

I am not content, anymore. If I ever was. How do I know what I want when I have never been given the chance to seek more than what I have? Yet I dream that I am educated, perhaps a teacher and also writing and if there is love it comes with interchange that uplifts mind as well as heart. How many other women feel the pull like a sea tide must feel? I worry it will drag me away and leave me with no good fortune at all.

Tip rolls over in the grass and gazes up at me, sinuous tail dancing, then is up on all fours and gone. I hear someone calling for another, a cook’s helper perhaps, for luncheon. The breeze skims my arms. I close the shutter in time to bar an interested wasp from entry, then  move on.

The hallway is still. At the end and to the right are Idina’s rooms. I hesitate, then straighten my shoulders and set out to see if she is up yet, will tell her I am ready to clean her washroom. As I round the corner, she opens the bedroom door, hand to chest as if deep in thought, then looks up and stops in her tracks.

“I was just thinking of you.”

She held out her hand and I went to her.

“Did you need something?”

Her face is pale and her slender hand is at her throat. “Come in my room.”

The drapes are drawn as usual and her bed is a mess, twisted sheets revealing her night of sleeplessness, pillows on the floor.

“Sit down, Celia. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”

She’s always had a thin face with sallow skin that made her deep brown eyes seem larger, irises warmed with a cast of gold. But now her skin is more antique ivory, her lips pale as well and quivering. I look down at my folded hands. She is not well.

“We never talk anymore.” She leans toward me a little.

I give her a small smile.

“Well, I don’t like it. We were best friends for so long, then we were not even allowed to see each other, anymore. Foolish of our parents. The older generation always thinks it knows the best thing. When it’s all just what they are comfortable with, what is correct in their eyes.”

I don’t disagree as that would be rude but she was much less interested in being a friend, too. My mother thought it sad I had lost Idina’s friendship and vice versa. But this is a first in some years, her being personal. I sit still.

“I want us to be friends again, Celia. Can we find a way to do that in this house, these times?”

I start, sit up straight and stare at her so hard she lowers her long eyelashes.

“Maybe I’ve made a mistake.”

“You’ve made a mistake? No, not at all. It’s just. Well, it’s been twelve years since I came to work for your family. You. I’m not sure what you’re needing from me.”

Idina gets up from the chair, walks to the window, parts the sumptuous blue curtains, a swirl of dust entering a stripe of sunlight that appears. I feel a twinge of embarrassment, my cleaning not being up to standard. She doesn’t notice. She opens the curtains and her face is flooded with that rich light I love this time of year.

“I’m pregnant. And I’m afraid.”

“Oh!” I feel a surge of giddiness and then unease.

She stays at the window, but turns back to me. “I don’t know how I can do this. I’m quite alone. Richard doesn’t seem that desirous of children or of me, anymore. He doesn’t know yet. He’s travelling again.”

“Ah. I see.” Energy traverses spine and neck, turning into a shiver.

“Do you? Because I’m not sure I even can! It’s a mess, really. He’s gone all the time, he may have other….interests…I can’t bear to think how I will manage.”

Idina sits down again and reaches for my hands. I cover hers in both of mine and feel her deflate, her body crumple against the chair.

“Is he…?”

What do I want to ask?  Do you still love this man? Are you having other health issues? Are you going to be alright? Of course not, she is a wreck as well she should be. After all the years and here we are again, our childhoods so gone we can barely see them. Yet she needs me.

I try again. “What is it you want?”

Idina’s head lowers to her hands. “I just need a true friend.”

Now, you might think that after all these years I would have heard these words and felt once more welcomed, been relieved, look forward to her company. Instead, I release her hands and pull myself up tall. I am filled with sadness and anger.

“Now? You now want me close, Idina? When trouble strikes you feel I should come running as when we were ten? These are adult complications that intimate friends share… I don’t know you, really, not at all. I have been a housemaid passing, soundless, while you have come and gone, lived your rightful and separate life. I agreed to this, the money has made a difference; I have had some good times here. But it has worked because we set a boundary long ago. We have kept to our separate stations. It is too late to be such close friends as you desire, way too late.”

She begins to cry, hiding her face in her hands. How small she looks in her periwinkle dress, her finely woven grey shawl. I have to root my feet to the floor to not reach out to her. I am not the carefree child who has boundless love. I am a pinched and aching and restless woman, given to flights of fantasy, given to dreams that may never come true for me. She has had choices, not so many, but more. She has had love, not the best perhaps but years of companionship. She now has a baby coming. To nurture and cope with day and night. I know all about that after years of being my mother’s hands and feet.

All I want is out.

“I’m sorry, truly I am. I can’t be a nursemaid, caring for your surprise child. I can’t hold you up through thick and thin now. And I don’t want to clean toilets and dust libraries whose books I cannot even take the time to read even if they were available to me. I have to take my own life into my hands. I must do just that when you find my replacement. You were a good friend, once. We were there for each other, once. But now we live lives so far apart that they do not intersect in a way that has meaning for me. I’m not a friend for hire, Idina. You do need care and help. But that help is not me.”

I touch her shoulder–I want to put my arms around her and cry with her even as I want to go–but she bats my hand away. Uncertain and fearful of what I have done, I hesitate. Then Tip scratches at the door. I let him in. He trots in with a small brown mouse in mouth and carefully lays it at my feet. I am glad to see his efforts have paid off and more so that he has brought his victory to share with us. With me, in fact. I turn to Idina but she is still weeping as if she will never stop. But she will.

Tip is at attention, looking satisfied and neat as a pin. He purrs as I smooth that fine old head.

“Good job, old fellow. Quite the catch. But I have my own work to do. You’ll have to show your mistress.”

Tip picks up his mouse and walks out the door with me, then runs down the winding stairs. I pull it shut and hurry to the next room, chin up, chest opening as I catch the heady scent of spring from somewhere beautiful.

 

Assumed Identity

Country Fair 089

In this world of billions, do you know exactly who you are? Or are you defined by what others imagine to be you?

You might answer: an overseer of systems; a happy but beleaguered parent of triplets under age two; a college grad who ditched the job hunt to camp across the USA, or a gardener who battles multiple sclerosis. The first person may be seen as a “techie” or “geek”. The second may be viewed as unlucky or saintly. The third could be called bold, aimless, or impulsive. And the gardener, brave– or comprimised.

But at the end of each day, who do these folks really think they are? Do they go home and ponder what it is they honestly want/need/love/loathe, then end up feeling lost? Or do are they better attuned to what matters most, the inner intersecting the outer, continuing to confirm their actual identities?

How we define ourselves may be getting more complicated as the world’s technologies advance. We are given many opportunities to obscure or reinterpret who we are. No longer confined to front porches, to known neighborhoods or even one country’s cultural climates, we can broaden our world without end. With social media and technological advances, fancy phones and tablets and all the dazzling apps and options, people can and do create new identities online, for example. The televsion show “Catfish” exposes that curious phenonomen.

If I want to  be “Brad”, age 32–okay, easy. If I want to tell you I reside on an island off Italy’s coast, how can you determine otherwise if I do my homework (online)? I might, in fact, be a woman over fifty who lives in a row house in Detroit. Or maybe I’ll just say I’m a woman over 40 who has a career as a young adult book illustrator, loves Siamese cats, and has no kids. Meanwhile, this hypothetical “I” is, in fact, wondering how much longer things can be managed with an alcoholic husband, an autistic son and a part-time job. But who is to ever know?

I am not, of course, dismissing playing, trying on different styles and ways of expression, stepping into another role from time to time, exploring fresh avenues of becoming. I doubt we ever stop experimenting entirely with how we inhabit ourselves and manifest personality. As human beings, we evolve richly over time, using our own basic building blocks, our own boxes of colors.

But technology can obscure things for me rather than clarify. I often wonder what a person texting messages is actually thinking, feeling and doing. Where are the vocal inflections, the minute facial changes that reveal so much? Can a simple “emoticon” even mimic the correct emotion? How quick to pick a smiley face and send that on. How lazy, I suspect. How little it takes to throw one liners and truncated symbols out there. Who really cares what we feel in the daily mad dash for success or sheer survival? Still, I wonder how it is that we got so busy we can’t spare fifteen minutes to make a call or a half hour to stop by to say “hello.” To look at each other, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. Now that takes some vulnerability. Intention and determination. Trust.

But even when we have the time to visit one another, it can be hard to drop a persona that is well-known, habitual. Hard to be frank about what’s really going on in our lives–good, not good or boring. I have skimmed over more meetings with friends and family than I to admit. It may be a minor at the time, but later it can sure bother me.

I recently had lunch with a close friend whom I met twenty years ago. We’ve both worked in the mental health/addictions treatment field for decades. While I am now retired, she has been employed ten years in a prison setting. Her work is so integral to who she is that she talks about clients (no names) almost as if they were her family. There are characteristics I recognize from way back–sudden laughter, garrulousness, an easy yet tough demeanor that demonstrates she will accept everyone if possible but not without immovable boundaries. I know some of her most private stories; she knows some of mine. She is one of the most generous people I have ever known. I know she loves blues but also opera and Bonnie Raitt. And that she is ill, that her life will come to a close far sooner than either of us can admit.

I know all this because we have gotten together a long time. She does not do email, Facebook, or texting. She doesn’t even like to phone that much.

“If we’re friends, we’ll make time for each other,” she insists.”I don’t have patience for the tiny keyboard and fancy stuff. Let’s cut to the chase. If we want to hang out, let’s not pretend to just write what we feel or tell news we can finish fast. I’ll meet you at 10:30 this Saturday.”

I know her history and that who she was in her twenties still exists minus the heavy existential angst or cumbersome baggage. She has had to contend with many labels over time. But she is who she truly seems to be. She has gotten older, sure. A little heavier, fine lines on her strong face. And she has mellowed by her own accord. But her values and beliefs have been central to her character as long as I have known her. Her boldness and big heart. Her realness. My unfabricated friend. She doesn’t have an urge to cover up who she is, nor to evade harder truths. She offers up her personhood with a dash of humility and often laughs at herself: Here I am, nothing more, nothing less.

Time changes us in subtle ways, but not the intrinsic essence of who we are. Our values and habits are carried with us into stormy or sunny weather, from highs to lows. If they work well, we keep them; if not, we can exchange them for something that better fits who we are as we mature. But we are likely known by them wherever we go, even years later. Any parent can tell you this: we know our children’s strengths and quirks in babyhood and they intensify or jell as each year passes. A core personality was present from the start. Even if behaviors can be learned and unlearned, then recreated, that central personhood somehow remains faithful to infant beginnings. Of course, big events–natural and otherwise– can remake people to some degree. Cataclysmic change like something miraculous or monstrous shakes the personal core. Transformation of a profound sort may reorder the whole person, even appear unrecognizable to others. But it is just as possible that the essence that was original comes forward, even more pronounced. That kernel of personality revives and triumphs.

Many, even most, people have a work persona and a private life persona. Like my friend noted above, I have heard I don’t show such distinctions. You might not have known many personal details when at work (boundaries), but I was not effecting some other incarnation of myself–I’d share what felt right. When I demonstrated public speaking skills in my job, you can be assured I also like to talk at home, hopefully with precision, always with my hands dancing and with feeling. Conviction. If I was a persistent, hard worker at the office, you can expect I am at home. And if I was quick to stand up for others in my work, I will do the same for you and for my family. But, too, if I disliked making errors at work, that perfectionist tendency also invades the rest of my life. When I was engrossed in work I sometimes forgot the passage of time; I commit the same faux pas in my non-work life, sometimes not aware of what’s going on. My irritation can spring up no matter where I am, but I work to tame it so it might idle with a purr more than roar. If I am having issues at home, feel sad or overtired when I go to work or events, you will note it if not always mention it. My eyes will tell you the truth. It’s how and who I am. I will do my job here or there, but I’m not a good faker and don’t want to waste time pretending. Living is much better when I am just myself being present.

We take ourselves with us wherever we go, right? (See A.A. Milne’s “Us Two”, a poem both fun and wise about Pooh being wherever Pooh goes.). I’d rather take along someone–me or you– I know well.

And who wants to be simply labelled, misread, lost in translation? Do we ever benefit from presenting ourselves as individuals we are not? What will an employer think (and do) when he/she discovers that resume and interviewee are not what was expected? How will true intimacy develop when, after many hours spent together, a couple still play hide-and-seek, give confusing clues, leave out the important stuff? More interested in subterfuge? That’s a sort of entertainment, not meaningful engagement. It can be risky. Come to a bad end. Unless you are a sociopath, this is not what most people want.

The ability to pair emotion with thought, keeping them parallel at times and merging them at others, may be distinctly human. They help inform us of our experiences for our understanding but also others’. When I visit social media, I’m not sure either gets across too well. I am confused at times what people choose to share. Amused…at times horrified. And what does “liking” something mean, anyway? That one is okay with it, i.e., that it is not offensive? That it resonates or pleases or impresses? I have a sister who has conversations on Facebook and it delights me–this is typically not the place to indulge in lengthy sharing but she is not educated in the accepted ways and means. She may never care, either. So she talks to people– tells little stories, responds in some detail, as if you are sitting across from her. Is it annoying to others? Maybe, but seemingly not much. People do answer her and “like” her offerings. She makes me chuckle and I know she is being just who she is–interested in many topics and others and intelligent, fun, open.

My son, Josh, has been spending more time with me and the stepfather who raised him since his natural dad died. It is amazing. I used to leave him voice mail, text him to get back to me, wondering how he was, what was going on. He would call back at some point and be glad to see me as he could but there was a sense of a pressure, the time crunch. I was guilty at times, as well, when I had more “absolutely must do” lists. Now I feel like I am getting to know him even more and he feels the same. He’ll call me (before I get around to it now) at least once a week. We gab for an hour or two. Josh lives fifteen minutes away but, hey, we have things we want to note and wonder over, tales to tell right then.

He’s asked to do more with us. Not only bring over his adored children for a day. We all go places together again like we did when he was a youth. Museums, parks, hikes, movies, out for a fine meal. He comes to our home and invites us to his more often. He shares his art and music, experiences at work and home. And he talks from his heart and soul. I know this adult child; he care to tell me his truths. He hears me, too. Sure, we do text, but much less. He recently turned on his Facebook account again after having it off a long time. (If you want to reach me, you know where I live or have my number, he noted.) I like many of his posts and he likes mine. The bigger picture is more interesting.

It may seem easier to be semi-anonymous, to keep one’s identity separate and protected. What is there to lose in a superficial, brief update with those we don’t know well? There is a time and place, of course, for everything. I’m not advocating for greater loss of privacy, or that people fling innermost struggles and epiphanies into the social stratosphere. (You can blog like I do and take a chance with others who may empathize and have their thoughts to add.) Or you can stay on the surface. Share something invalid or extraneous. I get it. I just not what works well for some of us in the final analysis. I also want to note your expression. Take a reading on mood. I want to be a part of your happiness or consternation or wonder, in person whenever I can.

Loss can jar us and bring us back to who we truly are and alter priorities. But we can learn to slog through the morass to see dawn blossom, our sky’s vibrant palette revealed in increments. It will remind you time here is too short. We have daily chances to be who we want and need to be as well as love and be loved. Right now. If you are thinking of someone, why not call, make a date to visit, stop by spontaneously if possible? Bring them your best if you can. Make opportunity happen.

I hope you will make embrace the life you alone do own. Create it bit by bit. Turn the inside outward, see what happens. If you have forgotten what you feel deeply, what your passions are, take a moment; remember. That you love brilliant, fragrant blossoms in your rooms or that antique browsing provides stimulation and peace–that you want to sink your toes in the sand and ocean more or read for fun, not just knowledge. Rediscover; take someone else on the journey. Give yourself due respect, just as you do your dearest friends. Don’t just “like” something out there–get inside the moment as it deserves. Live as you know you are meant to and take time to celebrate others face-to-face along the way. Assume your own identity and find it good.

(Note: The photo is mine, of a daughter–she seems to know how to claim her identity with verve! We accompanied her and her husband to the Oregon Country Fair, an event that is peculiar to our state–quite a interesting, zany experience for her parents. Blessings, A.)