The Selves--Apologies to Lewis Thomas
August 03, 2010
This is the avatar of the me that never was (and probably won't ever be): urbane, sophisticated, glamorous, thin. What you get right now with me is, well, not that. I remember watching a soap when I was pretty little, maybe 4 or 5, in which one of the characters said to another: "You've changed!" in a sort of shock and horror. And I remember thinking, "That's weird. People don't change. They're always themselves." Sometime later in high school, I read a great essay by Lewis Thomas called "The Selves," in which he talks about our psychological development occurring in stages or different selves, and how sometimes we're between them, just waiting for the next one.
Now that I'm 50, I'm starting to see behind me a string of selves: the kid who lived and grew up in Michigan; College Self, who lived in Pittsburgh and East Lansing, and New York Self. The places we live in define us, as much as who our friends and family are. My New York Self, though, breaks down into a number of different Selves too, as my kid self did. I've said elsewhere that I think I've grown and changed more while living in New York City than I have since I was a kid in Michigan. A lot of my College Self slopped over into my early New York self, while the city taught me some hard lessons about being an independent yet interdependent grown-up. Three years of therapy made a whole new Self too. As did turning 40. My 40s have by far been the best decade. I felt competent, adult, and most of all, happy.
My 50s are going to bring some interesting changes. The older people I've taken for granted are dying, my friends and I taking care of them as they go. One of my aunts, my Mom's sister, is developing Alzheimer's like my Dad's sister did. Mel is watching her mom struggle to communicate in a nursing home, and my friend Eva is watching her mom deteriorate in one. Roz has parents in two separate places to look after, neither of them easy to get to for someone without a car. Paul's parent still seem to be doing well. I hope that goes on for a long time. I look at everyone else and almost feel lucky that my parents went quickly and without suffering or prolonged deterioration. I feel like I got off easy.
But I'm noticing more changes in me, too. I'm one of those lucky people who still looks a lot like I did in college: just a little grayer, but not much. Sadly, however, I'm not as, er, robust, as I used to be, to use a word much in vogue in the business world. No matter how much yoga I do, my back still goes out and my nerves get pinched, and it takes a long time get them unpinched. I don't sleep as well as I used to, and when I do, it's an occasion for much rejoicing. I don't bounce back from exertions like I used to. The most annoying thing is the arthritis in my hands and hips though. It's really not funny in my hands. My typing speed has dropped precipitously and I'm much more error prone. It's going to make book-making an interesting proposition in the years to come.
But the change I find most alarming, or at least disconcerting, is that I've begun to lose interest in things I was really passionate about: books, music, beautiful things. Don't get me wrong, I still love to read, but the amassing of books for their own sake is growing old, like me. I used to be greedy for them because there might be something in them that I desperately needed to know. Perhaps it was really more a hunger for knowledge, because I used to be that way about the Web, too, surfing compulsively, bookmarking everything. It's not that I think I now know everything, but I don't feel nearly as ignorant as I did, and sometimes I surprise myself with what I do know. As the Chinese calligraphy on my wall says, "books are treasure mountains," for what's in them, but I feel less and less of a need to own them. I also used to have music on if I was conscious and it was possible (e.g., not at work); now I'm just as happy with and likely to prefer silence, or the news. I've long fallen off the bleeding edge of knowing who's cool in music, and my tastes have changed too, though they're still pretty eclectic. And the pretty things? They're just as lovely in the store or the museum, and I don't have to clean them there. I like to visit other people's beautiful things, like I like to visit other people's kids.
Mostly, I don't care passionately about much of anything, anymore. I blame it on menopause and the lack of hormones, and I'm not really that sorry, just a bit bewildered. Passion is nice, but it's exhausting. I still like a good argument, but more and more, I like a good laugh just as much. The one passion I still have is a growing sense of compassion, and the desire to express that. I want to help make other people's lives better where I can, and draw attention to it where I can't. I care passionately about the people I love, and there is a growing number of them: friends, family, family of choice, students; the circle keeps expanding.
I jokingly call this my Old Fart Self, but I don't feel particularly old, except a bit physically. True, I'm losing my nouns in conversation (and lord a do hate, passionately, having to grope for words and being so inarticulate), but in compensation, I also care a whole lot less about what people think of me than I once did. I still like new music, I'm not afraid of technology, I want to keep learning new things as long as my brain still works, and I want to travel as long as my body still works.
So here's what you really get, or the avatar of what you really get with me now: an aging boho with a lasting fondness for the funky and non-mainstream, but a weakness for pop. She likes beer and tequila and hanging out in bars and tea houses. The East Village feels like her spiritual home, but it's too damn noisy. Her hair's a little spiky and going gray. When it turns white, she'll dye it cobalt blue: a blue-haired old lady with a vengeance.
"Mostly, I don't care passionately about much of anything any more..."
What? I haven't known you long enough to compare, but you get very passionate about teaching, and when people are being very cool, or big jerks, and the actual *content* of books, and debating any number of subjects, and your idiot cat, and about a bazillion other things. Perhaps you're just, you know, not static.
Posted by: GR | August 03, 2010 at 01:56 PM
Oh, I'm passionate enough intellectually, but I used to actually pursue stuff, ravenously, obsessively: new bands, new books, new things. I had a huge record collection, and still have a big CD collection, but mostly I acquire free MP3s and buy the occasional CD in the subway now. I went to concerts fairly often. And the books--I couldn't bear to let go of any of them. It was physically painful. Now I weed them out with regularity. I guess it's things I'm really not passionate about any more. I mean, I love music and books, but I don't have to own that stuff anymore. I keep trying to weed out my possessions. Unfortunately, they breed when I'm not looking. Nasty little things.
Posted by: Lee Kottner | August 03, 2010 at 02:48 PM
I just found your blog by accident, this click and then that click. But I have totally enjoyed reading this post and other posts especially your poetry. I just want to say that I too am a middle aged gal, 55 yo and have been feeling a lot of the same things you wrote of above. I suspect it has something to do with the age we are at, really for the first time, soundly hearing the clock ticking and for me at least, everything I do is some what affected by the sound of that inner clock ticking. What matters? I ask myself if my days are getting to be numbered, not in a threatening way, but in a way that I evaluate how it is I can best live my life, best to offer to others what I do. Myself, I have been studying Buddhism and changed my career path. Both affecting things profoundly. Any way, I hope you enjoy letting some things go as I am sure other more essential things will surely rise to the surface. Best wishes and thanks so much for writing your words.
Posted by: georgia metz | November 14, 2010 at 11:16 PM