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.

canstockphoto13455198.jpgWhat 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. 

canstockphoto39088457.jpgAnd 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.

canstockphoto34158490.jpgSometimes 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.

27 thoughts on “Where the Ego Fears to Tread

  1. I’ve never had a purpose really. I was married (widow now), no children and I’m considered an elder!
    I don’t worry about purpose, as I’m more concerned with getting what I can out of life before I kick the proverbial bucket. Sounds selfish, I know.
    Simple things give me pleasure and at the top of the list is food enjoyed with friends with some wine, of course. Then gardening and reading blogs and some quality TV, mostly British. That’s about it, but I’m content.

    I would love to be able to write, not novels, but more essays to make people think or change someone’s mind or open their mind to critical thinking, as we don’t have a lot of that now.
    When I see you’ve posted, I so look forward to reading it, not necessarily the subject matter, but your style. It’s fabulous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mary for the kind words about my posts.It’s encouraging.

      I am really trying to get away from the idea that doing things you enjoy is “selfish”. It seems, especially in women, that it is a deeply-rooted message. Most of us aren’t going to solve the world’s problems and the world is not improved by our own misery.

      That being said, I have realized how important, especially as we age, that community is. As an introvert, I can self-entertain for weeks on end, but I get very weird and self-involved! So I’m staying involved in local volunteerism. Not world-changing, either, but because I spend a lot of time hanging out with retirees, I see great role models for aging well. I feel pretty fortunate about that.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I think you underestimate the quality and impact of your blog, Michelle. You are a writer’s writer. You make people think, you make people laugh, you make people feel—and you do it all with enormous skill and tenderness. I sometimes think we denigrate blogs because they are so ubiquitous—and there are many that are not exactly literary (but they serve a purpose, too). Had Chekhov, Carver, or Camus (sticking just with the C’s) lived in a time where they could blog, perhaps we would now be referring to certain of their blogs as structural masterpieces or graceful meditations. These are the times we’re writing in . . . and you, my friend, are excelling at the craft and making a difference.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s very kind of you to say, Donna. Underestimation and self-deprecation are often my stock in trade, but it keeps me grounded. Your comment immediately got my wheels turning – imagine if Chekhov had a blog. I might get a story out of that! Sometimes I’ll read an established author’s work and look to see if they blog or tweet and with a sinking feeling, I realize that they don’t, as if that is the sole reason they write well or have such a large readership. It’s changing, though – even Margaret Atwood tweets these days.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I certainly can relate. And this makes me feel less alone. Your writing really moves me. To me, this is more valuable than being on the best seller list. You’d be surprised how much your words on this blog do make a difference. Yes, they do. I think we all tend to measure success with money or awards when in the end none of that crap matters. It’s how you treat someone or how you made someone feel. This is true success. I know I sound like a hallmark card but I get how you feel (because I feel the same way sometimes). Everything we do makes an impact, whether we realize it or not. Failing is something I’ve struggled with and gotten pretty damn angry about. I think most people understand that struggle. Keep on writing. I write because it makes me happy. Screw what others think of it. Okay I’ll stop rambling now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OK, I’m on the border between touched and flat out crying, Darla. Thanks for your generous words. I’m going to blame any sniffles on hormones, though.

      Sometimes when I say or write things that are essentially about “being someone”, I have a tendency to add a lot of caveats. Yes, family is important. Yes, parenting is important. Yes, volunteering is important. Yes, taking care of animals is important. But on a core, internal level, I have a tough time defining my worth in those terms. Perhaps it is because I was solo so many years before I had a family. But it’s still a relatively new realization that much of my sense of self is now inextricably linked to writing. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Michelle, Enjoyed your post, it covered a lot of ground and gave me lots to think about. I’m 70, never wrote until I retired at 60, for me writing is a pastime. My belief is anyone can change once they decide to . . . . just saying, Claudia


    1. Thanks, Claudia – I’m usually all over the place with these posts! I think there are different kinds of change. You can change habits, pick up new hobbies, etc. I’ve been thinking about what hasn’t changed since I was much younger and looking at that as being simply who I am. Turns out, writing was there all along.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Keep the profile pic until you’re ready for the next debut! It’ll be gorgeous! Really, it’s great that you’re going to be authentically you with real hair color and all. I’ll be 60 this year, and it is still very hard for me to wrap my head around that number. My sibs and I didn’t concede that our mother was “old” until she was in her early 80s. Now, she’s 92, still driving, traveling, going to the gym, etc. She’s outlived all her contemporaries, but thank goodness, she’s always had some much younger friends. As far as I’m concerned I have at least another 25 years before I start talking about myself as “old.” 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I have decided to wait on the pic – thanks for weighing in on that – I was having trouble deciding. It’s amazing how we always feel like a particular age. I definitely don’t feel like I’m in my 50s. My mom had me when she was 18, so she is still relatively young. My grandmother turns 95 next week and is still “with it”.
          Your mom has the right idea. I’ve found that the women I volunteer with are happiest when volunteering in the community with students and younger people. I really look for role models on aging these days and fortunately, there are plenty of them.


  5. Thought-provoking blog. I, too, have stories I’ve been mulling over for a while. I may not write the next great novel and that is ok. Now I write for myself. I have dubbed these my selfish years. I learned a lot about living from my sisters as cancer slowly took their lives away. Life makes no promises so why not go along with that school of thought and just enjoy what I am doing? Your frequent blogs add value to my life, possibly more so than any work of literature you might write. How selfish can I be?


    1. Thanks for the kind words about the blog.
      It’s good that you’ve been able to learn a lot about moving forward, despite the sad circumstances of your sisters. I keep working on keeping myself present, finding joy when I can, and not getting hung up on things, but a lifetime of habitual planning is hard to change. Still, there is no happier place for me to be than with my nose in a book or writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think all of you knows the power of words. You write thought worthy pieces one after another right here. Please keep on going. Something good is already coming out of it and there clearly is potential for more.


  7. Hi Michelle,
    What is your perspective when someone saying something like: “It doesn’t matter, we will be dead eventually?” Let’s put aside if this is something came from your daughter, because as much as someone love his life, that skeptic thinking is nesessary when things get so serious.
    There was a moment when i didn’t feel content with my life, and thinking how i’ve missed those days, when i did a lot more than i can right now, but at the same time feeling regrets why i didn’t do these and those, what i’ve missed and why i didn’t grip those fab days more than i should. They said we need to be present, enjoy while you still can and bla bla while naturally, most of the time we can’t see clearly it is a ‘present’ until it’s gone, so whats the point?
    Then i find a pill for my rambling thoughts. Aside from love, the feel to be needed, thats what make people rolling. And being recognized for what we’ve done, even it is a simple thank you, makes us happy. In my opinion, if someone value awards, money, or any form of achievement, it is part of natural human being to be recognized, to make a statement, to make a milestone, that he can look back once in while when he needs encouragement to move forward, or simply when he sit on porch drinking chamomile tea, thinking about something he can be proud of.
    As a Tiger uses animal instinct to find food in order to live, I use my human instinct to be loved, needed, and recognized to live and move forward in the dead end journey.
    Thank you for another thoughtful post.


    1. We have a dark sense of humor in our family, so the “it doesn’t matter, we’ll be dead” thing is not serious as a philosophical approach. I will say, though, that all the “be present/mindfulness” pop culture sayings aggravate me. That’s a lot of pressure on a human and we can only do the best we can do.

      As I get older, I focus on making sure that amidst all the chaos that can be daily life and worries, it’s important to carve out time for the small joys. For me, it’s making sure I have time to read and write, that I get outside a bit, and that I maintain a sense of humor about the stuff that gets me down. I try to really look at and listen to the people that matter to me. The gift and curse of being human is that our brains can recreate the past and imagine futures, so focusing on the day is only way it doesn’t completely slip through our hands.

      This, of course, is my way of living and we each have our own approach – as you do. Thanks for sharing your perspective!


  8. I’m going back and re-reading things tonight. I was having a bad evening and then I read this and it made me smile as being particularly apropos: “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.”
    That’s what your words do for me. Pick me up when I’m feeling low. Thank you for leaving pearls of wisdom for posterity. Posterity surely needs ’em.


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