all of the selves we Have ever been
Going to the Dogs
Mick Jagger turns 78 today.
Poor guy. He just can’t get no satisfaction.
Mick does try. And he tries. And he tries. Mick may be more famous for his persistence than his rock ‘n roll. In the fifty-six years since Mick sang those words, sharing the pain of sexual frustration and American consumerism, Mick has had eight children with five different women, five grandchildren, and a great grandchild who is older than Mick’s youngest child. Jagger’s chronic dissatisfaction has resulted in a net worth estimated at $500 million. Maybe that helps to ease the pain.
I have a net worth of about $5.00, but I am more easily satisfied than Mick Jagger, and I don’t even try. Yesterday, I found a solid wood Ethan Allen side table sitting up pretty next to the dumpster. I live in a college town, and that’s what people do with good stuff when they move. Instead of taking the bulky items to Goodwill or another charity donation center, they set the items near, but slightly apart from, the regular trash as an offering to their neighbors. If passers-by spot the items before it rains or snows, they get a great deal. It troubles me that so much of this perfectly fine stuff ends up in the landfill. I try to recycle it by using it myself, passing it on, or taking it to a donation center.
When I was growing up, we were not so carefree with our belongings. Our homes were furnished with good quality hand-me-downs from the generations before us. Every item had a story, and we waited patiently to contribute our chapter. Furniture was sturdy and made of real wood and natural fabrics. Our clothes were sturdy, too. We got new clothes at the start of each school year and for the big holidays like Christmas and Easter, unless we had a growth spurt in between. Being the oldest or the only might mean new stuff--unless there were cousins. Being a younger sibling meant hand-me-downs. We had school shoes, Sunday shoes, and play shoes. Play shoes were often just our worn out old school shoes. We changed into our play clothes the MINUTE we came home from school or church, and we hung them up IMMEDIATELY.
There was no shame in patches or in mending, especially when the handiwork was skillfully done, and most moms were skillful. Girls endured life-long apprenticeships for their roles as mothers. They came to the mending game experienced. Most dads were tinkerers and fixed the other broken and weary stuff. They did not have to storm the legislature to demand right-to-repair laws. Not to repair was an insult to rugged individualism and American know-how. No one needed a special amendment to the constitution to carry a wrench. There was pride in making things last, an essential strategy in the pursuit of happiness.
When a spare part or something new was needed, we turned to the Sears catalog. While I have attributed my love of reading to Nancy Drew, I don’t think I gave Sears, Roebuck and Company enough credit for the growth of my mind. I have to acknowledge the Sears catalog for helping me to become a visual learner. The catalog was also a free course on how to write descriptions. That big catalog sold everything including houses. I dog-eared plenty of pages and starred many illustrations of the items I wanted, but I didn’t really expect to get them all. Dreaming was another American past time. It did not fill me with dissatisfaction; it fed my imagination. There was no keeping up with the Joneses. Not one of my friends would be getting that stuff either. Sure, we argued over who saw it first and who deserved to have it, but we easily tired of the competition and got back to Barbies, the sprinkler, and chasing fireflies.
The advertising industry has exploded since those days, and with ample supply, convenient access to shops, and on-line retailers with promises of two-hour delivery, we don’t give consumption the thought we once did. Back when Mick announced his dissatisfaction, there were just a couple of seasons in the fashion industry—warm and cold, and later, spring, summer, fall, and winter. I recently heard that some retailers change fashion styles weekly in order to drive up sales. Some of the prior “season’s” clothing is removed from the racks, shredded, and tossed into the landfill. There are no free lunches or leggings in America.
Someone said, “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” Well, the pandemic changed all of that for me. A year of social isolation showed me just how much I really do need. Turns out, it isn’t much. A little does go a long way toward satisfaction. And my little is so much more than many others have.
Mick Jagger, I think you may be trying too hard. Meet me at the dumpster.
A Thing About Beauty
Up ahead, a banner flutters in the stingy summer breeze.
I squint into the sun. Words bob like surfers on visible waves of hot, humid air: Estate Sale Today.
A lover of old things and needing respite from the heat, I take a detour off the walking path and into the parking lot of a large office complex. Following the crowd, I enter a cramped showroom. Excited shoppers who were chattering in the parking lot turn silent at the threshold as though entering a church.
Carefully arranged furnishings overflow onto an outdoor patio at the back of the store. The overall effect is both stunning and quaint. There are extraordinary ancient pieces mingling with items from the more recent past. I recognize a set of blue and white Currier & Ives Old Grist Mill china, and my eyes fill with tears. This place is a merger of the Louvre and my beloved grandmother’s house. Mona Lisa, are you here too?
There is little room to walk. I suck in my breath and my stomach as I squeeze between tables covered with stacks of fine china and delicate glassware. I say “excuse me” over and over again as I navigate around the many browsing customers. I pray that I will not bump into a table or chest and destroy the inventory or the mood.
A group of people gather on the east side of the room. I work my way to the perimeter of the crowd and catch a glimpse of the object of their collective admiration. Against the wall stands an exquisitely crafted old wooden cabinet. Though plain in appearance, the cabinet reigns like visiting royalty over this otherwise showy gallery.
A young couple is first to step up to the throne. The woman stretches her arm across the width of the cabinet, commenting on the smoothness of its finish. She stands there for a few moments as though locked in an embrace. The woman’s male companion is even bolder. He takes hold of the aged metal pulls and opens the drawers. We all continue to gaze in silent awe. The man and woman step away, passing reverent words between them. Others from the crowd slowly step forward to examine the cabinet. When everyone has moved on, I move in for a closer look. I slide my hand across the smooth, curved edges. I touch the drawer pulls and study their delicate yet sturdy square shape. I admire each detail of craftsmanship. I open the lower door and the aged wood whispers its story to me. Already on my knees, I pray that I can hear. The cabinet is empty, but I am filled with longing. It is hard to walk away.
I take the long path home that I might have time to savor this experience. While deep in thought, I pass a young man who has stopped in the middle of the path to take a selfie. There is nothing particularly lovely about the spot. I am irritated as I navigate around him, an irritation that I did not feel navigating about in the crowded showroom.
I take a mental inventory of the countless selfie-headlines that greet me each time I open the web browser page on my computer: Elizabeth Hurley Slips into a Revealing Bikini Ahead of Her 56th Birthday; Demi Lovato Celebrates ‘Body Confidence’ in Stripped-Down Selfie; Miley Cyrus Crawls All Over Billy Ray Cyrus’ Truck in Risky T-Shirt and Gold Gucci Heels. Why am I repulsed? Perhaps because these selfie-headlines scream to me of a cheapening of art, a corruption of beauty?
I recall an early visit with the orthodontist as my daughter prepared for braces. The orthodontist explained to me, “We know what attractive people look like,” as he shared his measurements and treatment plan. I did not know such rules existed. I suppose this is also what plastic surgeons do in their quest to make a more beautiful world. Can beauty be achieved through braces, scalpels, and implants? Do I even know what beauty is? I mentally survey my limited knowledge on the subject.
Keats wrote that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Beauty ages well: “its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.” Beauty is more than fashion or style, and without it, the world is dark. Keats reflected on the beauty in nature, the things that endure: the sun, the moon, trees, sheep, daffodils, cooling coverts, streams, and daisies.
The architect Moshie Safdie elaborates on the beauty in nature: “economy and survival are the two key words in nature. Examined out of context, the neck of a giraffe seems uneconomically long, but it is economical in view of the fact that most of the giraffe’s food is high on the tree. Beauty as we understand it, and as we admire it in nature, is never arbitrary.” No plastic surgeon pursuing a lucrative career would ever put those big eyes on such a tiny face, and yet…in nature, form and function unite in the unique and stunning beauty we call a giraffe.
I continue to ponder the question of beauty and the ways in which beauty defies measurement. How, then, can we know what beauty is?
Arriving at home, I turn to a different expert, another poet, Kahlil Gibran, and a favorite book of answers, The Prophet. The people of Orphalese pose a series of questions to the wise Almustafa. I will see if he has anything to say on the subject of beauty.
Sure enough, on page 74, Almustafa answers the question, What is Beauty? Almustafa provides a measurement I understand. Beauty, he said, is “a heart enflamed and a soul enchanted.” Yes, I do know what beauty is. It was a gift to me today from an old wooden cabinet.
Grow Up! A Prayer and a Plea
The long pandemic year left me feeling youth-deprived.
With my own children grown, no grandchildren, and social distancing, my world was bereft of children.
About the time I began to acknowledge this painful loss of youth, my friend Laura wrote about her encounters with the neighbor’s grandchildren. These kids gathered on Laura’s porch for a few consecutive days. They visited, borrowed toys, and made up stories. It was lovely to imagine the good fortune to spend a few summer hours in the company of creative, curious, energetic children. I was both awed and envious.
With that on my mind, I stopped at a fast food restaurant. Still in pandemic mode, I intended to place my order at the drive-through window, but the line was so long that I decided to live dangerously and go inside. As I stepped up to the patio that surrounded the front door, I discovered the area littered with boys on a lunch break from the neighboring high school. These youth spread out like water in that fluid way of lanky teenage boys who travel in packs. The entire bunch gathered around a single table. Some of the boys sat on the small benches, others stood, several shared the edge of the same bench—three where one was meant to sit. Their backpacks and belongings took over the remaining space.
When the boys stood, their bodies stretched up into the heights of adulthood even as they remained cloaked in the soft, tender flesh of childhood. Talk and laughter emanated from their smooth faces. They elbowed each other and snagged French fries from other trays. They conferenced and negotiated a deal in which each of them would have enough money to return inside to purchase a small frosty. The first boy in line passed his change to the guy behind him and so on until the last man standing was served his frozen dessert.
They were polite in passing and held the door for me. They seemed free and happy. Together, they were able to stand strong against that inner, invisible critic that makes teens self-conscious in the company of adults. They deftly walked the line between awkward and cool.
As though they could hear the school bell ringing, the group abruptly stood and left the patio. At the same moment, they all stepped off the curb and into the middle of the street, ignoring parental teachings to cross at the corner and wait for the light to turn green. This long gaggle of parentless goslings stretched the entire width of the road. Just as suddenly as the group departed, two of the boys raced back to remove the trays and the trash. A boy with the name Murphy printed across the shoulders of his football jersey remained until the patio was clean, and then he raced to catch up with his peers who were already out of sight.
The middle-aged woman who manages the restaurant laughed and shook her head as she gathered up the backpacks and belongings left behind. “They’ll be back,” she said. “They always leave something behind.”
With this brush of youth, my own smudged, grey outline of a life regained its color, texture, movement, and meaning. Nature was back in balance: young and old, past and future, uniting in the current moment to become the living present I needed. Accepting adults cast a gentle net of supervision and were there to pick up the pieces as these young people stepped off the curb and into the traffic of life. Murphy, who returned to complete the clean-up, was already becoming one of us.
There have been moments during this pandemic when it felt like it might be the end of the world. In such a mindset, it can be difficult to remember that life is just beginning for others eager to grow up.
Now, at the very moment we thought that we were putting the pandemic behind us, a new variant looms. The virus will do what viruses are born to do: mutate, strengthen, find new hosts, suck the life from the living, and gather speed while doing so.
The virus will now come for our youngest citizens—our children for whom there is no vaccine. Our children do not have the luxury of saying, “Give me liberty or give me death,” ill-conceived as that current use of the word liberty may be. Our children are now the most vulnerable. They trust us. They have no other choice. Trust is the foundation of all meaningful relationships, the core of our humanity. Trustworthiness characterizes the mature adult.
Toddlers are egocentric by nature. They first have to realize they have agency in order to exercise it in the future. When they throw themselves down in the cereal aisle and demand some sugary food, they do not have adult understanding, insight, and judgment. Those wee ones lack the powerful adult capacity to anticipate the future and to harness dangerous desires. Their needs and wants remain immediate and all-consuming. Under healthy circumstances, they will grow out of it.
The gift and the burden, the obligation of adulthood, is to look after the young, to ensure that there is a future for them just as previous generations did for us. Our ancestors took the smallpox vaccine and the polio vaccine. They accepted their war rations and lived within those meager means. They planted and harvested their victory gardens, and they resumed life and making a living even as they were shell shocked from war. As adults, we are not the center of the universe, but it is our job to keep the earth on its axis and to keep it turning for the sake of our children.
I understand that there may be many reasons an adult would not want to take the new, emergency-use vaccine. But that does not relieve adults of the obligation to wear a mask, social distance, and stay away from mass gatherings, to protect our children.
I do not want to live in a world deprived of youth. And so, for our children, I offer this prayer: Please, grow up. And to the minority of childish, angry, and egocentric adults, I make this plea: Please, grow up. Let’s respect the natural order and be the ones to leave something behind.
Finding My Sport
Over the years, my children and I have enjoyed watching sports-themed movies, especially the ones where the underdogs triumph in the end. There are so many titles to choose from. Some of our favorite films include: Hoosiers, The Blind Side, Miracle, A League of Their Own, Remember the Titans, We Are Marshall, and Coach Carter. Often these stories are about a ragtag collection of players down on their luck, and sometimes they are about both a team and a coach in need of redemption. It was when we were watching McFarland, USA in 2015 that I voiced a lingering question: “What could my sport be?”
Without a moment of hesitation, my son shot back, “Power of the Pen.”
We had a good laugh, but that was not what I had in mind. Each time I watch one of these films, I feel inspired but regretful. I never had a sport. There was not much to offer girls of my generation. I did try field hockey briefly but that sport did not resonate with me, and I had a lot of responsibilities at home which included after-school duties caring for my younger brother and sister.
For a time after high school graduation, I tried jogging for exercise. Later, I started walking which I continue to this day, but thus far, no one has tried to recruit me for an Olympic walking team. When Jane Fonda and others made work-out videos and exercise classes cool, I tried those, too, but I was doomed to failure. I spent a lot of time listening to the music and walking in place. While I enjoyed the company of my friends during those classes, the situation was a nightmare—all of that raise your right arm, lead with your left foot…the teacher facing the class instructing us, the large mirrors with the reversed images…a real house of horrors!
The truth is that my gross motor coordination has been off-kilter since I was six years old. The problem began in Catholic elementary school when it was discovered I was left-handed. To save me from the fires of hell, the good sisters attempted to exorcise the devil and my leftist leanings by forcing me to be right-handed. The effort scrambled my brain. Gross motor movements no longer came naturally. I had to think about which hand to use, which foot to put down. I had to think about how to skip and walk up and down stairs. I became terribly self-conscious, fearing that a mistake would bring the ruler or rubber-tipped pointer down on me at any moment. I lost confidence in my abilities. Fortunately, we moved and I was able to use my left hand again, but by then the mental wiring was in place.
My right-left disability did not make me lazy. I enjoy physical labor, especially when there is a point to it. If someone needs help raking leaves, shoveling snow, painting the house, packing and moving…I am the gal for the job. And while I am lost as a player, I do enjoy watching sporting events. Both of my children engaged in sports from preschool through high school. I rarely missed a game or event. I relish the enjoyment others get from their sports, and I enjoy spending time with my favorite fans, drinking in their company and enthusiasm as they drink in some beers. Game day snacks are not too bad either.
Another deficit inhibiting a career in sports is that I have no competitive spirit. None. While I am an ardent supporter of playing by the rules in life, I am always wondering, Can’t we all just get along? I find it difficult even to compete with myself. Topping my personal best? I’ll do what I can…
But all is not lost. It took the pandemic of 2020 for me to answer the question--What is my sport?
During the peak of the pandemic, parents and college athletes began protesting and demanding a return to competition. To me, they seemed more worried about their careers than their lives. I just didn’t get it. But then the libraries closed and stayed closed. Month after month. Sure, they began to offer pick-up services and drive-through windows, but that just wasn’t enough for me. I needed the library to open as much as those college athletes needed to return to locker rooms and stadiums. Bring back game day!
Browsing at the library brings me all the fulfillment of a sport and none of the agony. Books are shelved from left to right. The pages move from left to right. The words on a page are printed from left to right. The library is a dream world for the left-handed and right-brained. Like other sports, browsing at the library enhances memory and thinking skills, grows brain cells, and improves brain function—all without the risk of concussion or physical injury. I reach and bend and flex as I go up and down the stacks of books. Time goes by quickly and with each visit, my stamina increases and my self-esteem improves. And it is a great weight management strategy—no eating or drinking in the library.
The rules of the game are clear and well-known. There are no red cards or yellow cards, just library cards. Those cards don’t get you thrown out, they invite you in, make you a member of the team. And the game ends when the library closes. There is no official referee, but a skilled librarian can take down an out-of-bounds customer with a glance or a “Shh!” A good librarian is like a great coach, she can get you down the field with a good piece of information, and she knows her stats and Dewey decimal system. Can’t find what you are looking for? So easy to punt at the library, so many other plays, so many other choices. There are even benches at the library. But unlike field sports, there is no shame in warming the bench.
There is no official off-season when browsing is your sport. A book store makes a great second choice. Retail store browsing can offer some down-time conditioning. Whenever a salesperson approaches me with the question, “How can I help you?” I reply: “I am just shopping for ideas.” That gets the salespeople off my back and keeps me in top form for my return to the library.
Perhaps I should have realized my athletic calling much earlier in life. I’ve learned that there may be a genetic predisposition to Olympic-level browsing. When my daughter was a toddler, she asked me one day: “Mom, can you just drop me off at K-Mart?”
When I asked this smart, verbally precocious, and very independent two year old book lover what she planned to do at K-Mart all by herself, she responded, “I just want to look around.”
I was raising a future first-round draft pick.
Some might think I learned about breath work and meditation in graduate school on my way to becoming a mental health therapist, but that is not so.
I invented those calming techniques in a dentist’s chair when I was eight years old and having a tooth drilled without benefit of Novocain. I am not sure if filling teeth sans Novocain was a practice typical of the times or if our family dentist just enjoyed inflicting pain on children. To further confuse my young mind, I was growing up in the Catholic Church where pain and suffering could put a girl on the path to sainthood, and so I assumed I was to “offer it up,” though it seemed like an unnecessary dose of redemption for a girl barely past her First Communion.
But yesterday I went to the dentist to have a crown placed on a tooth that recently had a root canal, and I abandoned the fold for a new religion. I suspect my current dentist may be the Buddha.
So calm and spirit-filled is my dentist that he might as well enter the treatment room on a cloud. No matter the time between visits, he remembers the names of each of my grown children and accurately recalls that it has been nine years since he last saw my daughter who now lives in another town.
When this doctor asks how I am and what my problems might be, he is fully present and listens attentively, a better therapist than me. Throughout a procedure, he repeatedly checks on my comfort. Nowhere else in the world do I feel as seen and heard as I do in his office. My dentist works patiently and attentively sculpting my new tooth for a perfect fit. Like Michelangelo, his artistry inspires a sense of awe.
Relaxing into his quiet confidence and competence, I meditate on a silent rendition of the Broadway tune “Nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around.” Were my heart to stop beating or my head to explode, I imagine that my dentist would simply place his skilled, gentle hands upon the broken parts and magically put them all back together again with his touch. Unshaken, he would quickly get back to placing my crown.
While I may feel like the only person in the universe when I am seated in my dentist’s chair that scenario is far from the truth. He is a very busy man and somehow stays on schedule with the many other patients filling chairs in other treatment rooms. Yet, he never appears rushed and never makes me feel that I am wasting his time or that I need to hurry it up. With three office locations and a young family, my dentist still finds time to travel the world bringing smiles to children who have little to smile about—an international tooth fairy of sorts.
When I was a small child, I believed in the tooth fairy as much as I believed in God and the saints. I imagined a benevolent, magical being, an angel-like specter who, for some strange reason, loved gathering teeth. She loved it so much she paid me for mine. For me, lost teeth were the evidence that I was growing up. Perhaps the tooth fairy presented this evidence to some heavenly court. Maybe that is how God keeps track of his children.
I believe in a new tooth fairy now, a more age-appropriate one. And even if those permanent teeth I grew as a child test the definition of permanent, there is a new magical character who takes away my broken and aching teeth. He does it while I am awake, and I leave him the cash. There has been some price inflation since I was a kid, but this tooth fairy is so wonderful that I don’t mind. I hope that the exchange helps to pay for the smiles my Buddha-dentist-tooth-fairy brings to poor, hurting children in far-away places. Maybe that, in some way, makes me part of the magic, too, a form of redemption I can buy into.
Kahlil Gibran wrote that “work is love made visible.” He must have known my dentist.
I am not so poetic. All I can say is “Back at you, Doc!”