Don’t Look to Me For Direction
Personal Essay: Helen Candland Stark Essay Contest Winner
Claudia W. Harris
People are always asking me for directions. This morning when I was out for my morning walk, three drivers stopped to use me for a road map. I suppose, because I’m out there on the street moving along at a determined clip, they assume that I know where I’m going, but it’s probably not good for them to also assume that I know where they’re going. In fact, it’s not wise to assume that I know where I’m going in any but the most literal sense. I can tell you where I’ve been, and I can tell you what my big goal is, what my eternal aspirations are, but bogged down as I frequently am in the mundane, I sometimes miss the signposts that would tell me where I’m headed.
For that reason, I feel like a sham when I become award that others are looking to me for directions. And the older I get, the oftener I find myself in that role. Here I think of myself as still thoroughly involved in the process of becoming, and others see me as having already become. Perhaps I’m too sensitive, but I find myself less ready to contribute in Relief Society because I suspect what I say is given more importance than it merits. I’m resisting, and resenting a little, this elder-statesman role that has come to me much too soon.
One Saturday morning recently, I was teaching the in-service lesson to our ward’s coterie of Primary workers, which that morning consisted of eight eager young women. The subject I had chosen was self-esteem. To stress the importance of this principle for their young charges, I focused on the teachers themselves. We ended the meeting with a strength group in which each person in the circle named her own strengths and then the others bombarded her with what they saw as her strengths. This experience can be a confirming experience as it was that morning, but it can also be quite revealing. I was intrigued by what these young women said were my strengths. They described the role that they expected me to play more than who I really am. Deference can be very lonely; I ended up feeling more apart. The separation was definable by small things like calling me “Sister Harris” but using first names for everyone else. Here I had felt like their contemporary, struggling as they were to make my way, but they saw me as this mythical person who had somehow already arrived. One even told me that despite all I did I still took time to smell the roses. And here I was just barely able to remember what a rose looked like. Then after the meeting, she hugged me, telling me sweetly how I reminded her of her mother. Older sister I could have lived with easily, but mother!
After that experience, I must say I walked slower for awhile. Sometimes you’re not only as old as you feel; you’re as old as other people think you are. I’ve been looking around more carefully, lately. Why, everyone seems to be younger than I am, even my doctors. Unless I go to a nursing home or to the temple, I’m surrounded by blossoming youth. I like working in the Atlanta temple once a week because that Saturday morning shift is about the only time in my life when I feel like I’m still on the brink with a great deal yet to learn and plenty of time to learn it in.
I’ve had another birthday, my forty-sixth, which clearly places me on the downhill side; none of my relatives even lived to be eighty. But that isn’t what’s gotten to me. I enjoy being my age, even though I hear a few more creaks than I used to. I love being the mother of adults, and I literally revel in being a grandmother. If I’m suffering from a mid-life crisis, it’s only in relationship to how others react to my advancing age. Because I married when I was eighteen, many people assume by looking at my three grown children that I’m older than I am. For that reason, I freely tell my age. When someone exclaims in surprise, however, “Oh, I never would have believed it!” I want to scream back, “Forty-six is not old!” But then I remember my own perspective at twenty: I thought my life would be over at this point, not that it would just be beginning.
I have a theory, that I’m certain cannot be tested scientifically but is true nonetheless. I believe that we become frozen psychologically at a particular age, and even though our bodies begin to deteriorate, that inner sense we have of our youthful selves does not change—sort of a reversal of Wilde’s poor Dorian Gray. The age at which we become frozen can vary among individuals but is usually determined by some dramatic turning point in our lives. Our inner age could be set at when we marry, as mine is, or when we went away to school or on a mission or got our first real job. But I believe we carry that youthful sense of ourselves with us despite what the objective world might be telling us. Midlife is so uncomfortable because it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the feedback that we receive from our bodies, our mirrors, or our friends. We’re forced to admit that new missionaries really aren’t getting younger every year.
My husband, who is a youthful fifty-two, says it’s hard for him to relate to that old face that looks back at him from the mirror. I can empathize. My daughter, who hadn’t visited us for about six months, exclaimed when she first saw me recently, “Oh, you’ve frosted your hair!” I told her with a withering tone that it was all natural, and I must say, I enjoyed her discomfort. But choosing to age gracefully can easily be cancelled if I decide I don’t care for the particular grace that age has dealt me. Other choices or changes are not so readily overcome.
So despite how much I might resist the uncomfortable realization, I probably am more at the point of having become. The older I get the more limited my possibilities appear to be. One choice precludes another, and soon a path has been set that I did not anticipate. And I know now, as I wish I’d known at the time, how much some careless decision might eventually effect me.
I probably will never play the cello again, the one that I lugged around throughout elementary and high school, enduring jokes about getting it under my chin or marching with the band. When I was a senior, I quit orchestra to take debate, regretting the decision immediately. However, because I knew that I neither had the talent nor the persistence to play really well, I gave it up with some relief, not appreciating how much pleasure I could have gotten from playing as well as I could for myself or with friends. Now, after years of saying that I was going to play the cello again, I have at last admitted that I probably never will. And so I have become a non-player.
I can talk about cello playing because it is one of the least painful decisions that I could put in this class. There are many other choices that contribute to this person I have become and that more importantly cancelled out other choices and limited me in ways I did not foresee or consciously choose. I’m on the road, but it’s not a well-defined path with any iron rod along it. As a child, things seemed clear, not ambiguous. My early life prepared me for a true-false test, not the multiple choice one confronting me. In fact, when I really stop to consider what some decision might mean five years from now, I’m driven to indecision and inertia. And for others to look at my life, and see it as anything but the haphazard creation that it is, embarrasses me.
I have always felt on the brink—still able to live out any possibility. But now my honesty, or cynicism perhaps, forces me to admit that if I haven’t committed myself to something by now I probably won’t do it. It is this strong dose of midlife reality that chips away at that youthful inner center I try to maintain. For instance, I don’t believe I’ll ever learn to ride a bicycle despite the training wheels my husband put on my daughter’s old bike for me. The whole prospect is just too frightening; the ground looks so far down and falls hurt more now. Besides, I did feel a little silly with the whole family running along, encouraging me. So now I say that I am going to wait until I am old enough to ride a tricycle again; thus, I have become someone who doesn’t ride a bicycle and probably never will.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t value bicycle riding or cello playing, and I’m trying desperately to keep an open mind about learning to swim. I still say, once in awhile, that I plan to take tap dancing again as soon as I get a spare moment.
Yet I’m frustrated when other women compare my life to theirs and decide we have little in common. They assume that my life reflects all my values. I wish it did. There just doesn’t seem to be time to do everything possible. I wish I’d had twelve children so I could enjoy the expanded circle of love and the unselfishness and the many skills that experience would have brought me. I wish I’d written a wonderful novel or dedicated myself to art or law or politics. I want to be able to live almost all women’s lives; I certainly want all their positive experiences. That’s my fantasy celestial kingdom, I suppose: not only to have all knowledge but also to have all experience, to fully understand what it would have been like to have lived out all the various possibilities. I want to be every women I could have come had I made other choices.
That then is the crux of my disappointment in becoming: I am limited in knowledge and experience and perfection. Here I am writing my Ph.D. dissertation, and I know very little compared to what I expected to know. Each goal achieved simply points out more deficiencies. I’m beginning to figure out the questions, but I expected to know answers by now. Even though I am working on a degree that is interdisciplinary, combining just about any field that has interested me over the years, still the degree is another step in having become. I am now less ready to veer in other directions.
I refer to this Ph.D., jokingly, as my terminal degree, but there lies an undercurrent of truth in the statement. After forty years as a student, I’ve decided it’s time to stop playing that role formally. Maybe I’m just disappointed because at last I know what I’m going to be when I grow up. I like what I am; I just don’t like closing out all the possibilities of what I might have become.
The danger in having almost become is that I might not recognize new direction that are open to me. If my inner age changes too radically with all this buffeting by reality, I might begin to think of myself as unchangeable, as too old or too comfortable the way I am. I want to always feel on the brink, to be ready at any moment to learn something new, to be flexible in mind and spirit as well as body. Otherwise, I might not be like me friend LaVerne who realized at seventy-eight that not only must she get a driver’s license but that she was also not too old to learn. She called up an instructor, arranged lessons, passed the test, and has been driving now for four years. True, she acted out of desperation when her sister, the driver in the family, developed Alzheimer’s disease, but much of my best learning has been in response to just that sort of desperation.
And so, what is the answer? When people ask, I really do try to send them in the best direction, even though I sometimes resent being interrupted in my own struggle along difficult terrain. But I also try to be much more open about my unsureness and the details of my struggle. Even though it’s comfortable to think righteousness make life easy, all I can attest to is easier. Gone are the days when I pretended that life was a breeze and that going uphill was just as much fun as downhill.
And I persist. One positive thing that age has given me is perspective; I know now that the times I most value in retrospect are those time when the struggle was toughest because that was when my learning was greatest. But I also don’t go out looking for trouble. The gospel gives me a picture to follow—even if it isn’t a well-defined road map—and I am grateful for those times when my choices seemed clearly inspired. I have felt the concern and enjoyed the involvement of many from both sides of the veil. I am also relieved that I have arrived at this point with only a few regrets. So look to me for direction at your own risk, but join me on the walk any time you’d like.
Soon after writing this piece, my life fell apart. My sister, her husband, and two sons died in an automobile accident in Spanish Fork canyon. I suffered a nine-month illness that, when it was final diagnosed, led me to think briefly that my own death was imminent. This frustrating period was immediately followed by my husband’s diagnosis of cancer. His predicted six months blessedly stretched to eighteen. Just before his death, my nephew’s twenty-year-old bride died after a six-week bout with recurring cancer. After her four cancer-free years, we were totally unprepared. Interspersed in all this were biopsies and successful cancer operations of several other loved ones.
Because I have now because that most dreaded of all things—a widow—I decided to see if this essay on my discomfort with having almost become still expresses my feelings. I laugh as I read of my desire to stay on the brink of possibility because I’m now perched uneasily on an abyss of confusion. Anything is possible except what I spent thirty years building. What were comfortable givens are now all open questions. Too much choice is hell. My life then seemed clearly mapped out compared to the uncharted territory opening up before me now. I find that I don’t delight in change quite as much as I indicated.
While my husband was recovering from his first operation, I taught his Gospel Doctrine class. Word of the dismal prognosis had spread quickly, so when a sister came up to me one Sunday after class, I expected her either to express sympathy or say something about the lesson. Instead she looked at me hard and said, “I’ve got my eye on you; everyone has their eye on you.” She then told me angrily of her own husband’s poor health and of her feat that she might one day be in my position. “Women all over are watching to see how you handle it,” she said. I’m sure she had no clue how devastated and alone she left me standing. At that time, I remembered this essay and wanted to shout: “Don’t look to me for direction!”
I’ll probably always feel uncomfortable if I think someone is using me as a guide. Being responsible for my own actions consumes enough of my energy. But there’s a paradox here. Why write about it if I’m not willing to be judged? My husband hated bumper stickers and shirts that advertised. SO one Christmas I had a sweatshirts silk-screened for him, “I REFUSE TO FLAUNT MY OPINIONS,” followed by his signature. My point to him was that the refusal itself was an opinion. My point to myself is that teaching was the wrong career choice if I really didn’t want to be a model. I say that I don’t like being watched, and yet I put it out here for all to see.
But there’s still the difference between who I am and who people think I am . I wish I had a dollar for every time these last few years someone has told me that I’m strong. However kind, the remark robs me of my emotion; it tells me what’s expected. Recently, I was with a group of women, and one was sharing some lovely memory of Chet. Tears began to well up in my eyes; I so love knowing others appreciated him and miss him, too. But when I realized a particular sister was carefully watching my reaction, I involuntarily closed down. My tears dried, and I felt my face take on the pleasant mask that I usually wear in public. This sister has told me repeatedly how well I’m doing and that she would never be able to manage. I’m sure she doesn’t believe me when I tell her that she could do whatever she had to do and that all I’ve managed to do is put one foot in front of another.
It really is difficult, however, to know what to say to someone in my position. There are no pat answers. Simple expressions of love and caring and especially touching have helped. I cringe now when someone, with the best of intentions, says something unhelpful to me that in the past I have said under similar circumstances; I had also thought it would be comforting until I experience the remark myself. My answer to “He’s gone to a better place” is “What could e better than living with me?” The answer to that is “Living with me in a better place,” but the mountain looms too large right now for me to take much comfort in the promise of a beautiful view if I ever do manage to struggle to the summit. I’ll always remember my reaction when, soon after Chet’s death, I received insurance information indicating that my expected life span was thirty-five more years. It seemed like an unbearable life sentence.
I can no longer say that I enjoy being my age, nor can I hide it—I had it carved on the tombstone. Still mine is an awkward age—both too young and too old. I’m too young just to sit in my rocking chair enjoying my grandchildren; I need to build a career for myself. But I’m also too old to be thrust out into the world, alone for the first time in my life. New beginnings are not quite as exciting as my essay led me to believe. With Chet here, I felt young; now I’m struggling to keep my inner psychological age from resetting to the forty-eight I was when I became a widow. Some of my efforts, however, seem quite pathetic. In Moonstruck, Cher colored her hair and bought new clothes and makeup and she became Cher; when I do it, I’m still me.
In no other period of my life have I learned as much, but although I’m blessed by the knowledge, I’ll probably never delight in it. I’ll always curse the circumstances. This is one experience I could have done without. I’m tired of growing. But my life is not unpleasant when I remember what I’ve learned about being happy despite my situation. As long as I stay in the present, I can take pleasure in the moment—a step back in time, I feel regret; a step forward, fear. And I’ve begun to recapture my zest for living. The time stretching before me seems more like a gift now than a burden. I’ve also begun to appreciate some of the new possibilities open to me. When I keep my eyes on the present scene—not on the ground but also not straining to see the distant horizon—I can even smell a rose or two.
I’ve learned from others’ suffering as well as my own, but I’ve learned more correctly what their experience really is by being with them, not by looking on. The sister who had her “eye” on me now has her own terrible grief. But it was her son not her husband who suffered that expected fatal heart attack. There’s no way to anticipate our trials. I do hope, nonetheless, that something she saw in me might have made this loss easier for her. So now I’m saying, use me for direction is it helps, but judge me and yourself kindly. I’m still trying to be open about the details of my struggle, despite my fear that I’ll cross over that fine line between an honest appraisal of my life and feeling sorry for myself. If my worry, however, that I might become that most dreaded thing—a complaining widow—keeps me from asking for or accepting help, we all lose. I believe that we learn best by letting ourselves and others be weak as well as strong.
I’m still learning from my friend LaVerne. Suffering now from osteoporosis, she ended up in a nursing home in a distant state because she flew there during the holidays to visit friends. I got a note from her today: “My week has stretched into quite a few, but I’m beginning to see the end. I hope I can get ready for the move home this weekend. WE shall see.” This from someone whose family doesn’t think she’ll ever come out of the nursing home, who can break a bone turning over in bed, whose best day is when she can move painfully using a walker. It’s that indomitable spirit that I want to have. Yet I hope I’m not just watching her to learn how she does it but that I’m by her side, my hand cradling her elbow, listening with understanding if she cries again in despair, wanting to give up.
And so, what is the answer now? I certainly value the knowledge I’ve gained. Working so hard to be joyous has chipped away at my cynical shell and given me renewed innocence. Just learning to appreciate the intrinsic value of each moment of life has itself been a blessing. This path I’m on is one I would never have chosen, but nonetheless, I’m determine to make it a memorable journey. I get a funny kind of comfort standing in the cemetery looking at my name hammered deeply into that beautiful pink granite. Despite where this unexplored path might lead me, at least I know where I’m going to end up.
On the last walk my husband felt strong enough to make, I put my hand in the center of his back to give him a boost up a particularly steep hill. He let me leave it there only for a moment; although the support felt good, he was afraid someone might see. But, hey! I’m not proud. Give me a push if you’re so inclined. I’d welcome the feel of your hand in the middle of my back. What I’m saying is that not only are you welcome to join me on the walk as I once said, but please come. The path seems less steep with a friend by my side.