Where the Ego Fears to Tread
I just finished reading an essay on Medium by Meghan Daum, “My Life at 47 is Back to What It was Like at 27“. I’ve been thinking a lot about change and the idea that who we were is always going to be who we are. For someone like me, who is always striving to be better – a better parent, a better writer, a better human, the idea that our essence will remain essentially unchanged throughout our lives bothers me. Perhaps I’ve begun to see the threads of my life that lead from the wood library floors where, at age 9, I’d sit with a pile of books, to the worn, overstuffed reading chair in my study next to a table fairly groaning with to-be-reads at age 51.
Yesterday, I stopped in the drugstore and for the first time in two decades, looked behind the counter to see how much cigarettes cost. It’s a new habit I’ve been practicing – trying to notice things that I don’t normally look at in my daily routine. There was a time when I knew exactly how much cigarettes cost. I smoked until I was 30. Even when I was broke in grad school, I’d scrape together the money (sometimes all in coin) to buy a generic pack of menthols.
What I lost in lung cancer potential, I gained in weight. But in the intervening years since my last smoke, how much has really changed? Is it just the external trappings – from an apartment to a house in the burbs, from the worst girlfriend ever to a less-than-awful wife? From a dog caregiver to a cat caregiver? From someone allergic to children to someone who feels the awful, wonderful deep love for a child. From someone who bounced to whatever job paid more to someone who will be lucky to ever be paid again.
Sometimes it scares the hell out of me – what if this is it? And that question may be the thing that has definitely never changed. It’s the same startling thought I had when I was 18, 28, 38, 48…what if this is all I am? What if I never become a published writer? What if I continue to live an obscure little life? What if the potential I believed I had was all a myth? What if this is all there is?
It’s no coincidence that the heavies are catching me this week. I finally got the last layer of hair color sheared off. I’ve got a Dame Judi Dench thing happening on my head. And I can’t pass a mirror without being a little startled. All the color is gone, replaced by a silvery white. I rarely wear makeup and suddenly I have a better understanding of my grandmother’s blue eye shadow and intensely red lipstick. I am a faded photo of myself. I thought, well, this is me until I’m dead, just picking up more wrinkles and arthritis along the way. Get used to it.
And then I laughed. There are some things that haven’t changed – my smirking, dark sense of humor. My ability to have the worst thoughts and then let them go. The likelihood that I will be trying to self-improve right up to the moment of death. Oh look, her last Google search was “How to be more productive in hospice”. That in my deepest, darkest moment of despair, I have an inkling that I’ll have a new plan tomorrow.
I’m not the most mentally healthy person. I compulsively overdo everything – food, shopping, TV binging, saying “yes” – less and less as I age, but I can still put away half the kitchen on a bad day. I run a continuous cycle of depressed-okay-depressed-okay- mostly okay. I’m not particularly accomplished at anything, but I know a little about a lot of things and I spend a lot more time doing what makes me content than I did before. My special skills involve list-making, the ability to do heavy physical labor, swearing in several languages, rationalization of just about anything, and my inclination to occasionally bake good homemade bread.
As for the writing, well, there’s a lot of good writers out there and so much of what gets published is the result of hard work, opportunity, and luck – a secret combo that no one ever really gets sorted. I’m still stuck in the hard work phase, or I should say the pre-hard work phase, because the hardest work is getting myself to do it. Once I’m there, everything is good. Getting there is worse than getting myself to the gym. In fact, I will sometimes work out to avoid writing. That’s wrong on so many levels.
It’s when the jokes get real that throw me off. Less haha-ing and more: oh, shit. Yes, this may be all that there is. Is it bad? Unendurable? Untenable? Not at all. I just feel a bit like a pissed off school teacher sometimes – she had so much potential. I suppose that most humans are guilty of not living up to their potential. I’ve been reading The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn, a very nice collection of short stories, that include not only the story, but a biographical summary of the author. I immediately notice when they’ve died. Atwood is still alive, Borges and Cather had long lives, but Camus at 47, Carver at 50, Chekhov at 44 (apparently I’ve only gotten through the Cs).
Panic mode. Oh my god, if I were them, I’d be dead. I’d have no stories to tell. I haven’t been writing my whole life. No one might ever now that I ever wrote anything besides this blog. Everyone has a blog. Who cares about that? Breathe. There’s nothing to be done now, except to keep moving along like you have the time. No amount of panic will make you write better. Now get back to that short story you’ve been putzing around with for a week.
As my teenage daughter puts it, why would it matter? You’d be dead. Yes, that little cynical apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Still, it matters to me now and regardless of the quasi-solipsistic existentialism that governs much of my personal outlook, part of me knows the power of words. What if my words are what someone needs to hear, to get them by a bad moment, to lift their spirits? It isn’t ego as much as it is paying things forward.
Sometimes I feel like my life was saved by books, that the right words at a particular time in my life, lifted me, gave me heart, taught me empathy, kept me from spiraling downward. Perhaps our essence never changes, but we complete the circle. The words that saved me rooted themselves, became part of me and grew. And now they grow beyond me. Not a bad way to head into the last inning – saying thank you, using my words.
Some Words I read This Week that I Enjoyed:
Raymond Carver’s short story, “A Small, Good Thing”
Made me blubber – not always the best selling point, but if you’re in need of a good cry, it’s a good shove in that direction.
Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
I’m not particularly interested in style guides – I use them as reference books for specific questions. However, I’ve just started reading this one and will likely read it cover-to-cover, because of the writer’s sense of humor.