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.


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.)