When I was a young wise cracker — as opposed to an almost old one — I used to answer friends’ announcements that they were off on some adventure, be it a trip or a new boyfriend, in order to “find myself” with “Have you looked behind the sofa cushions? When I’m missing myself that’s usually where I am.”
I still don’t believe you need to do stupid things in order to find yourself. Sure, there is some point at which your inner self says “this far and no further.” BUT the thing here is, how long would it take you to bump against all those points? And what if you drove past some that are, in fact, in our society unacceptable or at least undesirable, like, you find a true vocation for petty theft, or rape, or murder? Or what if you never stop trying to find things to define yourself against?
I’m not a child of the sixties, to the extent that I was born in the sixties, and that when 1970 came around I was 8. But by dint of having an older sibling and quasi sibling, I knew and heard of people who went to find themselves, and never came back. I.e. the voyage turned into a meander of “just one more thing” that amounts to wasting one’s life in myriad pursuits that lead nowhere.
Sure, I’m a libertarian. You’re allowed to waste your life in any way you choose, and go to hell on an express train if that’s your chosen destination, so long as you don’t default to public support when the voyage fails. (In fact, years ago, while listening to the “homeless” in the park I used to cross to go have lunch with the kids on school days, I realized most of them were there because their voyages of self-discovery had never ended. They’d left mom and dad’s home, because rules; they’d walked away from jobs and families because “they were tying me down” and they had drifted into shapeless, formless, totally unproductive lives, made possible by charity public and private. That I object to, because the government and so called charities are enabling the destruction of people and lives that might otherwise be productive.) Thing is, I have never met one of those people who was happy. The happiest outcome of such things is sort of an apathy and just going along because it’s easy, often coupled with inner resentment and seething at people who have more, have done better, or simply have a direction in life.
Mind you, there is a form of finding yourself — i.e. going into a place where you can have quiet and time for reflection, so you realize when coming back to your life, what is needed and what is extraneous — which is not wholly self-indulgent. To an extent this is what our writing weekends away are. We clear away everything but the two of us, books and writing, and make time to reconnect and find what is valuable and what is dross, then come back and act accordingly. My stress and sickness grows in proportion to how these weekends away diminish, which is why I’ve set a goal of going away once per novel completed. Now to complete novels. If my body stopped playing up tricks, it would be good about now.
But the other? The meander to life bumping against limits? Unproductive at best, destructive at worst.
I think it’s not a coincidence that those endless voyages into the sunset of ego became more normal as parents and society started imposing fewer rules.
Humans don’t do well with no limits and nothing to strive against, and in a society where abundance does not supply the sharp sting of lack or the fear of death, we need to have other things to test ourselves against.
To an extent I was fortunate, and I was happy both my sons also had vocations that will test them, many times in life. I suspect if my degree had been recognized (as it is now) and i’d been allowed to teach French or German in public school, my life would have been both less fraught but more devoid of purpose. I doubt without the need to do SOMETHING with my mind, and, often, to provide the needed little extra to get shoes for the kids or trips to the zoo or whatever, I would have stuck to writing as I did, particularly since most of my career has resembled nothing so much as a series of kicks to the teeth. But I needed to do something, writing was the thing I could do, and so I persisted.
This necessity — if self imposed — to pursue a difficult course gave me the measure of who I was, sometimes in unlovely panoramas of resentment and fear, and sometimes in amazing colors of persistence and hard work. “Oh, wow, look, I really can write that” is a good way to find limits.
So, what is this all about?
Well, it is quite possibly in a year, give or take a few months, both sons will be out of our purview. Oh, it’s possible basement son will still be basement son (we don’t know and will leave it to them to figure out) but it also looks likely he’ll be married, which means they can use the independent entrance, and cook their own meals, and we’ll keep our noses out of their affairs financial and domestic. (To be fair, they wish to find another place, but we would like them to have the advantage of living rent free, at least till he’s earning regular money.) And remote-location son will probably be graduated and hopefully (looks at sky) please Lord working and minding his own business, as well. Given that his interest is in aerospace, chances are he won’t be living anywhere near us.
Look, it’s not a sudden change. We’ve seen this coming for some years. And the last few years, even when one of them has an emergency that takes all my mind away from writing and other work, and to them, they’ve taken less and less of my time. We’ve not only come a long way from when they were infants or toddlers into whose faces I had to spoon food, they have come a long way from being early teens and my being the arbiter of their wishes and interests. “No, you cannot attempt to create life with highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide in the bathroom.” “Yes, sure, we’ll buy you the remote Greek Language course.” “No, you cannot have that either. I know it’s explosive. What are you trying to do?”
Over the last five to seven years, they’ve become young men in the fullest sense of the word, i.e. adults who mind their own things, unless they come up across something they don’t know how to handle, which is why we have parents.
But they’ve still been on the paycheck and they’ve been dependent on us to an extent. We can’t make plans to decamp for a month, say, because you know something will come up and one of them will need us. We need to husband our finances extra carefully because tuition and transportation and medical insurance take up most of our free money. Or to put it another way: I’m making more money than ever, and we’re more tight than ever.
Also meals include basement son, because otherwise he devolves to a diet of hotdogs and swears to us that mustard is a vegetable. So they must happen with some regularity, and going out can’t be (even if it sometimes is) a whim.
Over the last few years, too, holidays and annual feasts have been changing. They might not come to us for their birthdays; Christmas and Easter are still ours, but might not be next year, as one of them at least will have other obligations, and honestly we lost younger son from New Years four years ago, and this year we’re losing older son.
This leaves us, not bereft but back to the situation we were in prior to kids. I’m looking forward to a time when it’s just us, and we don’t need to mind anyone else for meals, or worry whether someone has clean clothes for work, or money for rent.
The world is contracting to couple-sized.
This is not bad, of course, except that humans thrive on traditions and routines. So I’m trying this time, not like when we had the kid like a chaos bomb implode our routines, to make rational choices for “this is how things will be now” based on who we are now. (Which needless to say is not who we were at 28.)
Find myself? Nah. I know what I want my epitaph to say. Beyond that (I hope) beloved wife mother and grandmother. I want it say I wrote hundreds of books in sf/f and mystery, and that they’re still popular and selling. Which means I have a ton of work to do. Which means I know where I’m aiming.
It’s more finding the pace and the routine at which I can work. Finding little comforting things to do along the way. Finding what I need, right now, at this place in my life.
At my age — and frankly experience — I’m not going to experiment with hallucinogenics or outre sex. But otherwise I’m finding things to bump against, and establishing rules ahead of bumping into some.
Part of it is trying to convince myself not to treat myself like a rented mule. As Jeff Greason has told me, “it’s important to care for the host” particularly as it’s not as forgiving as it once was. “Husbanding strength to create longer term productivity” is difficult, as I tend to go all or nothing.
But it’s important. Yes, I’ve looked behind the sofa cushions. I wasn’t there. So now I need to deal with myself as I am now, distinctly not 28 anymore, and learn to do what I can to keep my body as well as my mind happy.
For the mind, I think I’m going to brush up on my Latin and Greek. Set up a regular schedule of lessons, to keep the brain nimble. For the body…. Exercise is on the menu, and perhaps not eating random things through the day, but actually minding what goes in.
For the heart… For the heart I’ve always known what I wanted to do and what makes the heart sing. So there must be stories, and a lot more than in the last few years. Which means working on the other stuff.
Since modern life is so long and has so many stages, there is a good possibility two or more of you are frantically looking behind the sofa cushions to find out the self you lost somewhere along life’s by ways.
Instead of bumping aimlessly against limits, I suggest — note suggest, I’m not the boss of you — you find out what you want to do more than anything and aim for that, then create the rules and routines that allow you to get there.