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.