Sometimes I’m pretty wise about other people. After all, I’ve been hanging around earth for quite a while, and I’ve been paying attention. My powers of observation, however, substantially exceed the example I set. In this post, rather than citing others’ work, I quote some of my own advice from my list of “Forty Guidelines for Becoming a Classic.” But then I explore the gaps between what I say and what I (am so far able to) do. This essay is in the second person because I am giving myself a good talking-to. Perhaps some of my self-talk will also be relevant for you.
The Point of It All
I’ll begin with a piece of advice that is both an obsession and a challenge for me: Have a sense of purpose in life and keep that purpose shining in your heart and mind.
Winnie, since your earliest adulthood, you have sought a sense of purpose, a way to serve, through writing. But you have wanted the heavens to open and present you with the perfect project, the golden one that will engage you for the rest of your days and give meaning to your existence. Even if the heavens did give you what you seek, would you be able to move forward, or would your fear of not being equal to the task soon send you back to procrastination and distress? You have had dozens of adequate ideas for major writing projects, but you have sooner or later rejected nearly all of them as either defective ideas or as ideas for which you are defective in your ability to bring them to life. Finally, however, your editing your parents’ memoirs, publishing your own, and finishing your novel are evidence that you are not irredeemable in your inability to move forward in your writing.
And as you are beginning to recognize, your writing is a flexible way for you to serve and to express yourself. Just as you have sought and pursued a wide range of experiences in your life, you will do best and find greatest peace of mind if you accept that you will write in the service of many different subjects, people, and areas of expression. Yours is a life about broad, varied activities and not about devotion to a single area, such as virtuosity on an instrument—or repeated excellence in novel writing. This is not to say that you can’t write a novel, even a good novel—and, of course, you have already tried your hand at a novel that expresses some of your heartfelt interests and values. But your life is not designed to parallel, say, Jane Austen’s, Elena Ferrante’s, Isabel Allende’s, or J.K. Rowling’s. And so: Understand that your sense of purpose doesn’t have to be flashy, obvious to others, or highly specific (such as “become a bestselling author” or “sing Aida at the Met”).
Dance Skirmishes and Other Melees
Another situation preying on your mind right now is the kerfuffle in your dance session on Friday. Let’s figure out what happened, why you let yourself get upset with a member of your amateur dance troupe; we’ll call her Hilda. You have, for years, objected to Hilda’s sometimes imperious (in your opinion) ways and railed against what you perceive as the unfairness of her dictatorial (in your estimation) pronouncements. The obvious question is: why associate, when you don’t have to, with people who upset you—and, at this point in your development, inspire responses ranging from headaches and stress (the usual outcome) to letting your feelings fly, as you did on Friday. You were reacting rather than attacking; it was a defense that you mounted, but an ineffective one that certainly did not inspire Hilda to engage in self-reflection or decide anything other than that you and your views are (in her estimation) worthy of rejection and resentment.
You can and need to find the lessons in the situation, lessons you have not yet mastered from earlier such occasions. From the past several years, we can think of two to-dos with similarities to Friday’s. That’s not a lot, but you’ll acknowledge that you’ve also had many, many episodes of saying to yourself, “Let me out of here—I’ve got a terrible headache!” The causes are similar.
One all-out to-do involved your crying in a post office in Rome, Italy, and telling Sylvia, your traveling companion, “I resign. I quit as translator and tour guide. I don’t want to have any more responsibilities for you or anyone else for the rest of this trip. I’m going for a walk.” And off you flounced in the opposite direction from the convent where the two of you were staying. When you did finally return, you and Sylvia tenuously reconciled. But during the night, she called friends and family back home to update them on what a rotten time she was having with you. Fortunately for you both, you managed to part ways two days later.
And then six years after Italy came the time you sat crying and distraught in the office of Mattie, the acting CEO where you worked. She had, by anyone’s estimation, been truly out of line and unbearable, but she was your boss, and distraught crying is not, as you know, an effective career strategy. Nor is it an effective reaction to any sort of bullying or other unfair behavior, no matter how egregious. And now, ten years after your work meltdown, you have had your encounter with Hilda.
To repeat an earlier point: Minimize contact with energy vampires and other people who don’t make you feel good about yourself. If being with someone is stressful and no necessity exists for being with this person, make the choice to stay apart. Obviously you would come to Hilda’s aid if it were your place to do so, and certainly you will look on her with good will, but you don’t need to dance with her. Yes, you love dancing. Yes, people in your community expect you to dance in the community’s annual talent show. But also yes, you can stop dancing with Hilda. You have other ways to practice and perform your dancing. But even if you didn’t, you need, as your wise mother sometimes phrased it, to take your sails out of Hilda’s wind.
Before boarding the plane to Italy with Sylvia, you should have, as you now know, established clear, mutually understood ground rules—such as, “We will each be free to go different places and pursue different activities.” In other words: In relationships, act from the beginning according to the principle of mutual respect; it can be exceedingly difficult to change the relationship dynamics later.
Better yet in this case, you would have recognized the ocean of differences between your interests and personality and hers and would have avoided trying to travel together at all. With Mattie, your job prevented you from avoiding her. But you could have surmounted the fear, the sense of being threatened, that led to your upset with her, as well as with Sylvia and Hilda. You believed you were about to drown under the tsunami the other person represented for you. While each tsunami was different in its size and perceived power and danger, the image holds true for all such cases in your life. But instead of being tsunamis, most challenging relationships represent a series of smaller waves that—if you act from a base of confidence, resolution, and mutual respect—you will be able to navigate calmly and justly, one at a time. Of course if you can simply step away from the water, why not do so?
An Age Full of Possibilities
Other areas of your life also need attention. You watch House and Garden Television and relish the transformation of other people’s homes. But your own woodwork has black stains; the veneer on the kitchen cabinets is peeling, and the curtains need washing. Again, however, your all-or-nothingness intrudes. You are so overwhelmed by the volume of things that need doing in your little apartment that beyond keeping the place neat, you usually only act when necessity becomes profound—such as when guests are coming. Do you also feel you don’t deserve a pretty home?
Certainly granite countertops are not one of life’s necessities, but your failure to upgrade your home in small ways that could be attainable is evidence of your unvoiced belief that life has passed you by and that you don’t deserve the possibility of having your small and large dreams realized. Of course your life is blessed exactly as it is—particularly in the parents that were yours, in your friends and community, and in the education and life experiences you have had—but you have not fallen out of possibilities, not aged out of worthiness to hope, whether for pretty cabinets or for a return to Italy: Know that it’s not too late. Know that you’re not too old.
Let’s directly address the issue of aging. While you are, for now, considered relatively young by your friends, you are not young, and most of the world does not look at you as youthful. You subconsciously think you have slipped up somehow by letting yourself age. While you would prefer an unlined face, your wrinkles are not enormously distressing to you, but you don’t like the “such a sweet old dear” reaction from younger people who hear that you tap dance and study French and Italian.
You sincerely believe that your older friends have enormous possibilities open to them and are inestimably valuable human beings. But perhaps because you’ve always felt that you’ve failed in so many ways to meet life’s expectations, you struggle to avoid feeling tossed out of the circle of life and into the bleachers to look on for the rest of your days. So instead: Practice being fully present in the moment.
Look at the beautiful day you have, this very day: Notice the interesting small details in nature and all of life. The sky is bright blue, and red buds are beginning to appear on the trees. The region had a ferocious nor’easter at the end of last week, and another is expected this week, but now the sun is coming in your window, which is rare because your apartment faces north. The light is reflected from the building across the way, rather than shining in directly, but you can be grateful, too—and you are—for light however it comes to you. Remember: Define the present moment as meaningful and interesting. And it is.