all of the selves we Have ever been
The restaurant filled up and bubbled with life much like the champagne glasses on the next table. It was the first week in which the world began waking from the long COVID winter. My friend arrived, and we greeted for the first time since it all began. We were each in a contemplative mood, a condition of both our ages and the universal outcome of a pandemic in which there was little else to do but think and worry.
Near the end of the evening, as we pondered our futures in retirement and our need for a new sense of purpose, I shared my mounting regret that I had not had the wisdom to ask my aging relatives what it was like to grow older, to ask what their own lives had been like when they were young, to study the path between youth and older age. They had always seemed old to me. Youth was never a condition I imagined in them. Now it was too late. My friend nodded in agreement and shared her own sorrow about the time she spent caring for her beloved and now deceased mother: “I wish I had spent less time managing her, and more time just being with her.” That arrow plucked from her heart pierced mine too. We sat quietly, each bleeding a little on the inside.
Both of us baby-boomers, we grew up in a mechanical age of industry and assembly lines. Efficiency experts had been elevated to the stature of gods. We reached young adulthood with business management principles overflowing the factory floor onto our personal lives. Sewn into us was a long, sturdy thread of advice on how to efficiently manage our time, money, children, aging parents, health, weight, and all of our affairs. Self-help gurus were everywhere to remind us that it was up to us; we were on our own. The message came through loud and clear: successful people are competent; competent people are good managers. Both bright gals, we studied the literature. This societal message became the inheritance of our children, too. From the time they entered pre-school, our kids were walloped with advice about how to “build a resume for college”--that ferocious mix of the right schools, academic rigor, homework, arts, sport, and community service. Aspiring to become competent parents, we tried to keep up.
Not to keep up was to become a failure and the subject of gossip and criticism. Any life troubles were assumed to reflect our botched management: a failure to manage the retirement portfolio, a failure to manage the child’s education, a failure to manage the care of aging parents, a failure to manage health care screenings, a failure to manage the social media presence, the in-boxes, the on-line images, the professional brand… We knew what the neighbors were saying: “if only they had been better managers.”
In mid-life, we entered the digital age. A host of new tools fooled us about time savings and the actual distance between people. Our tools became another distraction in the service of helping us to manage. But much got lost while we were busy managing no matter how fancy the tools or how many bytes in the memory. Time ran out. Parents died. The children grew up. Friends moved away. While the forms were getting signed, the tuition paid, the countless appointments kept, we forgot to drink up the moments and the company. Blinded by the demands of life and the counsel of experts, we believed the successful completion of tasks was the relationship. We forgot to be present.
Oh, what I would give to go back in time for one more day, to snuggle up with my children in our big comfy chair with nothing else on my mind save for their sweetness and warmth! Or a quiet Sunday gathered around my grandparents’ kitchen table to talk about their youth and their dreams. Were their dreams realized? Did it matter? The grandparents are gone now, the parents, aunts, and uncles, too. The children are grown and busy. They are managing their own lives. And this generation that grew up building their resumes for college is not giving us grandchildren. There is already too much for our kids to manage.
As I move toward the age when I will become the managed and not the manager, I am aware that the issue is not unique to my friend and me, a couple of women with a few regrets. The pandemic awakened a realization in all of us that managing our lives is not enough. We isolated, masked, sanitized, and sacrificed and still could not hold a tiny germ at bay. We learned that life can be fleeting, surprising, and sometimes tragic no matter hard we work to manage it. Perhaps the post-COVID labor contractions reflect the birthing of a new way of living in which we will care for ourselves and each other at all stages of the life cycle, not with our clocks and our calendars, but with our time and our presence.
When my own life ends and the children come to clean out the closets, I hope they will find important dates still circled on my calendar, a reminder of happiness to come, a few cherished mementoes stashed in the attic that link them to their past and to me, some presents tucked away for their future holidays, and a cup of joy upon the stove to sip and to share as they sort through all of the pieces of a long life. When the cupboards are empty and their trunks are full, I hope they find that they had plenty of love and no regrets.
I return home from work to find a bag hanging from my doorknob. I know what’s in there, and I hurry to enter the house, tossing my keys to the table and my work bag to the floor.
A fresh crop of magazines! I have always loved them, but they have become too expensive to purchase often. Some now top $12.99 per issue with not much content, a real budget buster. There have been times when I considered selling my plasma in order to acquire a beautiful, fresh edition, but, thankfully, I have a magazine-loving neighbor, and we chase down back issues and re-circulate them. We don’t care if they are a few months out of date. They don’t spoil. Now and then, I leave a bag for her, and she returns a bag to me. It’s my bag now, and I can’t wait to see what’s inside.
I spill the contents of the bag onto the coffee table and study my options. Should I consume it all at once, or dole it out a day at a time? I brew some tea and settle in for a late night.
Magazines were a much bigger deal before the internet, and I became conditioned like Pavlov’s dog. Throw a magazine on the table, and I start salivating. I grew up with magazines piling up around the house—my father’s National Geographic and Popular Mechanics, Look, and Life, and my mother’s Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, and McCall’s. Magazines were meatier back then: beautiful photographs, informative articles, great short stories, recipes, and coupons! As I got older, I added my own favorites: Tiger Beat, Seventeen, Mademoiselle, and Glamour. I could spend hours on the phone turning the pages while my friend on the other end of the line did the same as we studied the magazine together, an early preview of the now popular Zoom call.
In 2020 when Oprah announced she would no longer produce her monthly print magazine O!, I mourned the death of magazines. If Oprah couldn’t make a go of it, what hope could there be for any others? Look was long out of sight, departing in 1971, with Life expiring in 2000. Mademoiselle said au revoir in 2001 and Teen in 2009. Most shocking of all was when US News & World Report ceased publication in 2010. Was there ever a high school report or a school debate that did not rely upon the facts in US News & World Report? No wonder no one trusts the news any more.
But back to the payload at hand. I begin sorting. I have before me now a familiar title that has managed to hang around since 1937: Woman’s Day, and a few relatively newer ones: Real Simple and Health. A couple of Vogue magazines are at the bottom of the heap. Vogue is the oracle of fashion and began as a newspaper in 1892 with a cover price of 10 cents. I stare at the December 2021 edition with a newsstand price of $7.99. I always thought Vogue was as out of my league. There is nothing haute about my couture, and so I have never been a subscriber or reader. But, hey, today’s price is right! And expensive magazines can afford to pay for good writing. I dig in.
I turn back the cover and my eyes fall upon a very slender woman dressed in a pair of…well, I’m not sure what to call them…Pants? Leggings? Tights? Spanx? Whatever they are, they cover her high-heeled shoes as well. They are…? Again, I am not sure what the word is for that color—somewhere on the spectrum of very old and worn cardboard boxes with the deep green Gucci logo all over. Complementing these, for a lack of proper vocabulary, these bottoms, is a long-sleeved shirred purple top with a thick diagonal red and black stripe. At the midriff is a large jewelry-like piece holding the shirring together. The outfit is accessorized with elbow-length metallic gold gloves, a purple #10 baseball cap, and a large dangling nose ring that covers the model’s lips. It hangs down like a long, thick, and sparkling booger. If I had more class, I would say, “a piece of dried nasal mucous.”
This is called high fashion. Perhaps that is because a person must be high in order to wear it. I come from the low place where young women match their purses to their shoes and jewelry only finds its way up the noses of curious toddlers who get expensive trips to the emergency room. I shake my head. I could never carry this off. I would be picked up immediately for prostitution, a mental health assessment, or a stay in a homeless shelter. My mind drifts to the image of a coffee cup I once saw in a Spencer’s gift catalog when I was still a high schooler. It featured a drawing by a kindergartner with the words: “Your face is ugly and your mother dresses you funny.”
But that’s the first page. Maybe the editor is just trying to get my attention. A few more pages in and I see an ad for Valentino. Three strikingly slender and beautiful people lounge on a red leather sofa. The female models are wearing what appear to be oversized blouses, but they don’t appear to be wearing pants. Perhaps in high society, pants are optional.
I study a multi-page ad for a high-fashion line of purses, something I understand. The bags look sturdy and reasonable, but reasonable ends at the price tag. They run from $328 a piece to $568. Since the price is shown for each bag, I am assuming that, in the Vogue circle, these are considered a real bargain. But I cannot afford the purse or a security detail to follow me around just to protect my bag.
I continue flipping pages. I see an ad for a skin care line I’ve never heard of. It is a two-page spread. The left page features a picture of the very fit and handsome founder and CEO. How come he gets to wear pants? And not just pants, but some comfortable blue jeans and a plain old white t-shirt? He looks handsome instead of ridiculous. I check him out online. If I stick with him, I can remove my eye make-up for $30.00 which is more than my monthly water bill. This makes me think he can afford a better t-shirt.
The next article is about “fringe benefits.” The fringe is four-inch eyelashes “for everyone.” Apparently, eyelashes are “rewriting the rules of who gets to be glamorous.” Uh-oh! More bitter confirmation that I am not in that club either. Even if I wanted to be a member, I would have to trade my vision for glamour. I would not be able to fit my glasses over those lashes. Perhaps it is true at a certain level of society that “men never make passes at girls who wear glasses,” but I’ve grown partial to my eyesight. I favor it over fringe benefits.
Another article describes a new class of at-home devices that lift, smooth, de-puff, re-plump, and revive pandemic-weary complexions. This silver bullet we’ve all been waiting for costs $2,499.00, but don’t think that will save the female consumer from the need for micro-current…and you do also have to be “reasonable” in your expectations: “No device can turn back the clock.” Well, maybe not, but it can certainly set back the 401(k).
Now in a low mood, I close the book on high fashion. It is confirmed: I do not own the right bag; I am not glamorous; I cannot afford silver bullets. But I sulk only for a moment because those are not the things I wish for or dream about.
I return to my familiar magazines, to my life of soap and water--sans electric current, and I put on some pants.
I am a fool for wonder and for whimsy. Such a combination makes my class of people preschoolers.
Weary from news of war and winter winds, I am hungry for my people. I stop at a small park and sit down on a bench. It feels good to be out in the cool, fresh air taking in the sunshine and the sounds of happy children.
I soon spot a preschooler wearing a knit cap and matching puffy jacket. He looks like a small, silvery cloud with knees. I study him from afar as he studies the world up close. This tiny scientist trains his eyes on the spot where a bug disappeared into the loose black soil. He crouches down so low that his long dark eyelashes nearly brush the ground. He holds this posture like a statue. My own knees begin to ache. I wonder if the child is breathing. “Where did it go?” Before his mother can answer, the boy spots a bright red cardinal on a stone ledge and chases the bird until it fades into the sky. “Does that bird live in heaven?” And it is on to the next thing. The child starts down a gentle slope toward the slide and swings. Letting the momentum carry him, he falls to the ground and rolls. He squeals with delight further encouraging the invisible force. “The grass is tickling me!” And I laugh as the shared momentum carries me into the moment and tickles me too.
Next, the boy busies himself gathering small stones and lining them up on a bench. He talks to himself and to the stones. He gives each one a name. The budding geologist keeps at it until he hears the honk of a goose that has waddled out of a large puddle. The child honks back, and asks his mother, “What did the goose say to me?” He imitates the goosey waddle until he loses sight of the bird in the bright sunshine. I hear him ask, “Why does the sun hurt my eyes?”
The child goes from awed silence to incessant chatter, stillness to fast forward, whatever the wonder calls for, his body responds and his eager mind forms a question. He does not fear looking foolish, getting dirty, or running late. Those are the concerns of adults on a schedule who have stricken time to wonder from their personal to-do lists.
The boy does not pause to anticipate the dangers—the sting of a bee or the brush of poison ivy against his skin. His mother is there. With her eyes ten steps ahead, her body is one step behind. Like the captain of an ancient seafaring vessel headed for a new world, she is constantly scanning the horizon for dragons and the air waves for the siren’s call. A good parent, she lovingly presses on making the world safe for her child’s wonder.
The tot continues to explore and to marvel until both he and his mother are tired. He reaches up for her, and she lifts him into her arms. They go to their car. I give up my front row seat to all of this wonder and go to my car too. I am not tired. I am refreshed. It has been wonderful!