My first early retirement from life occurred when I was 22. I have always done a lot of living inside my head, and my college years added a particularly intense outside my head ingredient to the prematurely, precociously and presciently bleak mixture of public and private hopelessness I had been cooking up since I was 10. Then, as a graduation gift, my grandmother died, and I spent my first post-graduate year processing a loss that gave way to an absence never to be filled. But at least it gave me a societally acceptable period of not being expected to figure out, much less get started on, what was to become of me.
Led to Believe
As the Monty Python character claiming to have been turned into a newt by an alleged witch once admitted, it got better. It took three years, but eventually I emerged from my self-incarceration and took a part time job in a small library, which then led to a full time job in a large museum, and by the time I was 30 I was leading a life that included all the things I had been led to believe life was about: a place to go every day, work to do, friends whose company I enjoyed, and sharing my home and myself with a good man who loved me enough to ask me to marry him. I went from living as deeply inside my head as a person can retreat, to living as far outside as anyone dares venture.
True to Myself
Which was the problem. I became unrecognizable to myself. One by one, I came to question and challenge and eventually reject all the things that had contributed to construct what I presumed to be happiness because it looked just like the picture next to the definition. I found myself out the other side without a clue where to go next. Only this time, it didn’t get better. Being true to myself reaped no such rewards as denying, betraying and falsifying myself. And that has pretty much been the story ever since. The settings have changed, and the cast of characters, and the plot lines, and I am not exactly sure how I wasted whole years only half alive, and more recently endured yet another devastating relationship based on compromise, resignation and abnegation of self, but here I am, some thirty years later, feeling 22 again.
Mom and I
Back then, my Mom and I mourned her mother’s loss together. It suited us both to limit contact with the world outside, to seek solace in books and writing and midnight snacks, the familiar safe comforts of home and our own inner worlds. I wish I had known then that it would turn out not to be a brief hiatus, but who I am and always will be. It wasn’t me that needed changing, but my way of shaping the world around me. And since no one told me there were any other options but fully immerse or fully withdraw, I tried each to the exclusion of the other, alternately, repeatedly, to no avail, for decades. My mother chose full withdrawal, ongoing, and ingoing, further and further until her last years when her body, mind and spirit all retreated to some deep inner place leaving little for the world outside. And then, when there was almost nothing left, suddenly there was nothing at all, except another loss to process, another absence never to be filled. And the creeping suspicion that a life made up of what’s missing cannot stand.
Long Walks Alone
Some days it feels as if I may as well be that same 22-year-old who only left the house to go down to the Strand to prowl the stacks and barely made eye contact with other humans, who spent years taking long walks alone and reading big books and endlessly delaying any declaration of what I intended to do with my life or myself. As it is now, my life was on hold then, an elaborate and functional structure of distractions and stalling techniques. But unlike today, I wasn’t lost or frustrated, because I wasn’t trying to go anywhere or do anything. And unlike today, I wasn’t completely alone.
These days, I am. These days I know the world can’t and shouldn’t be entirely ignored. I’ve had to adopt a hybrid approach to living to survive, and on the days I am not the timeless ancient hermit I should have accepted as a very large, in truth the very largest, part of my true identity long ago, I am the social creature who has learned more than enough of the ways of the world to navigate them effortlessly, like a shark cutting through water without leaving a ripple. I have encounters and experiences in which I am fully immersed, and I continue on. The only difference between me and the shark is that things actually stick to the shark, living things, any things. I seem to shake everything off. Or everything shakes me off. I spend time with people. And I spend time alone. I’m pretty good at both, and fear or resist neither. And that’s an improvement. Of sorts. I don’t intend to be needing one anytime soon, but fearless and non-resisting is not such a bad epitaph.
Back in my first early retirement, one of the creative projects I undertook, because nothing fills an empty life of self-imposed solitary confinement like a creative project, was writing an autobiographical novel. I didn’t have very much personal history to relate, so instead I looked into a future imagined as a continuation of my current state, and appropriated quotes from all the books I was reading to support and enrich my own musings on the public and private human hopelessness of it all. The novel was called “Driftwood: A Life in Fragments” and followed its Dostoevskian narrator from her early realization of her own uselessness to a time when she has outlived even that, outlived everything, with even death eluding her when it would be most welcome, and in fact, the only meaningful thing that can be hoped to happen to her, ironically, the one thing that will make her feel she is alive at all.
What Happens Next
When I went looking for this novel in progress, it wasn’t where I remembered last seeing it, and honestly, I didn’t look that hard. Maybe it’s time to write a whole new autobiography. Or at least I think I’ll keep the main character exactly as she is, and take her story, with all her immersions and withdrawals, with no changes, right up to now. It’s what happens next I need to rethink.
All photographs taken by me on yesterday’s hike along the D &H Rail Trail - because some things that never change never should.