Yesterday I turned 37. We celebrated pretty simply with sushi the night before, and I indulged in a facial while the kids were at school yesterday. We played a bit in the afternoon, and then they went to dad’s for the weekend, so now I’m in a quiet house and looking at a weekend that unfolds a lot a work I need to get done. This season of life is ever-busy it seems. I paused it all yesterday for a day of indulgence, but that means I have to somehow pick up the slack today.
I was talking with a friend a couple of weeks ago about the concept of aging. We went to high school together, so we are approaching 40 at the same pace, and she said, “Isn’t this age the best? I love getting older.” I think there would have been a time when I was surprised to hear myself say this, but I feel the same way. It continually brings me closer to some center that gets a little more solid every year.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of self-accountability lately, the ways I am good at it and the ways that I need to get better. There are countless floating pieces of that equation: boundaries, discipline, honesty, delayed gratification, perspective, drive, and self-respect.
I recently revisited that famous Joan Didion essay on self-respect published in Vogue in 1961. (First of all, wrap your head around that. That this essay appeared in a widely read fashion magazine years ago in America. Culture has changed a lot in fifty years.) She tells us, “In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues.” If that seemed true in 1961 – that character can lose ground to what is more “instantly negotiable” – just think a minute about how much more true that is today in 2018. When instant is the name of the game every single day.
Didion continues, “Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.” Weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts is something I need to write a hundred times to imprint it on my perspective. Not just in my own life where I can constantly use some encouragement to keep my eyes on the long game. But also in terms of the comparison trap that 2018 living drops upon us. Immediate comforts are glorified everywhere — on our social media feeds, in glossy magazines, in storefront windows. Everywhere.
Self-respect runs out the door when you can’t see past the immediate. That is a harsh reality that finally, at 37 years along after some painful life lessons, I can see so clearly.
Maybe it is the changing air of spring that is opening up for us in small ways here already, maybe it is the newness of my 37th year, or maybe it is that after 3 years of survival mode living, I am finally getting to the real living part. Whatever the reason, I woke up two weekends ago, and I’d been looking at a room full of furniture that I didn’t choose, couches left from another life, for 3 years now with that tiny urge to wipe it clean. And I’d been ignoring that tiny urge or telling myself that I didn’t have the resources to change it – for 3 years now. More than one thousand days. But something clicked inside of me, and I could not look at it for one more day. Not once. I listed it that morning on a local sale site, and by 5pm someone had come to pick it up, and I went to bed that night with an empty room.
I had to do this on a dime, but I didn’t care. I got a new couch for cheap, a discount rug, and I moved a couple of chairs from elsewhere in the house. I spent that weekend scouring antique stores and found a little table and lamp I loved, and just a couple of days ago, I bought another used table for $28, and somehow we have all that all we need.
I think when your outsides don’t match your insides, that incongruity can eat you up until it is unbearable. And this can work both ways – with an impeccable home and a stellar social media presence when the insides of that life are a mess. Or maybe, as it was in my case, you have come so far in the last few years, and then you suddenly wake up one day to open your eyes to some element of your life that doesn’t look like you at all. Stuff is more than stuff. It can cover up a lack of character and be used as armor sometimes. And likewise it can carry a heavy energy that just doesn’t belong with you anymore. I rid myself of all of it this month, and I feel like a two-ton elephant left my life.
Last weekend was sunny and 70, and I spent the afternoon in my backyard removing dead leaves and old stems from my flower beds, working pre-emergent in the dirt to ready things for the growing season come May. By the time I finished, my arms were sore from raking and digging. I swept the porch. I cleaned the front door. I left the windows open all day with the ceiling fan on and sunlight streaming through the house. Self-respect takes courage and elbow grease — whether that is selling something you don’t love anymore without a bundle of money to replace it yet, washing the winter’s dirty residue from your front door, taking an honest look at yourself and improving whatever makes you wince, or digging through overgrown flower beds.
Didion’s most famous line from that essay states, “character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.”
It can take a long time to accept full responsibility in every way. 37 years for me, I think. You eventually learn that you own all of your assets and all of your capabilities but all of your incompletions and your mess-ups, too. It is all only mine to reckon with. Aging, if you are doing it right, is one long look in the mirror. It is honesty and backbone — and eventually it is hard-earned self-respect.