A tectonic shift occurs with aging. After walking and running and snoozing and gunning through six decades, out here in the middle distance I notice that I finally know how I feel when I’m feeling it.
Those of you self-aware beings who’ve been raising your consciousness since the ‘60s might chuckle at this insight. Where have you been all your life, you might ask, besides in your own skin?
Looking back, I have been pretty much anywhere but inside my own skin. At five I was in a ditch bordering the schoolyard across from my house, on the periphery of my brother’s world, trying to insinuate myself into whatever war game he and his friends were playing. The boys constructed battle plans and let me work the assembly line, patting mud around rocks that would become missiles to be hurled at attacking marauders. But when the battle came around, I was ordered home to the front porch. I remember watching from across the street as mud bombs flew and cries erupted, legs scrambled and bodies crashed into the weeds a world away.
Throughout most of elementary school, I sat in a desk learning, but the focus of my attention was the teacher and whether she liked me. I was a willing front-row sitter, dutifully tracing the dotted lines of the cursive writing workbook; a reading group leader with a hand constantly thrust in the air begging to be called on; a capable faker of anything I didn’t understand, like science. How early did I learn to make the grade, never once admitting that the material was incomprehensible? Fourth grade, I think, when my teacher, Miss Ramsey’s opinion of me mattered so much that I staked out her house — a square, stone two-story house on a street across from the shopping center where my mother bought groceries. I spent weeks screwing up the nerve to knock on her door.
One day I finally did, dragging along my best friend Lynn. We walked onto the cold gray concrete porch and banged the iron knocker, then gasped when we saw Miss Ramsey, short and stout, glide across the wood floor of the entryway and draw back the sheer curtain on the front door window. She betrayed not one speck of surprise and kindly invited us in. We must have talked but that is not what I remember. I was too busy cataloguing the glassed cabinets filled with china figurines, the dusty tumble of books on shelves lining the four walls of the front room, the faint smell of something antiseptic and the weak cry of an old woman from a back room. Shock of my nine-year old life: Miss Ramsey had an ancient mother, a phantom being who could have tumbled off the pages of one of those dusty books.
In junior high, my consciousness shifted to the lives of girls I perceived as movers and shakers, the ones who parade through the halls of the school with confidence, their plaid pleated Bobbie Brooks skirts swishing behind them, attracting the attention of boys like dogs to a bowl. If I could be like them, I was sure, I would know what it felt like to be alive. I knew nothing about them or their pretty heads and what lingered within; the fascination was purely surface and lured me to places that scared and perplexed me: the woods surrounding our town where high school fraternities had keg parties, into cars of people I didn’t know, away from home to places that had to be kept secret if anyone should ask. I remember going anywhere I was asked to go and never knowing where I would end up.
In high school I moved from tribe to tribe — the sorority girls, the stoners, the jocks, theater geeks, the brainiacs — and accumulated a gaggle of fascinating and diverse friends whose paths rarely crossed. I became adept at shape-shifting.
Adulthood brought early marriage, decades of child-rearing, assimilation and hard work, during which the question of how I felt was so deeply submerged it rarely surfaced. Feelings erupted unexpectedly, then conveniently went dormant.
Then I started growing older and inch by inch, I began inhabiting the sagging skin of this person I’d carried for 50 years, 60 years. Yesterday, walking down the sidewalk, I was admiring the yellow leaves and felt an unmistakable tickle in my chest. I knew it immediately to be happiness. It stopped me in my tracks and said its name. Oh, that, I thought, then walked on into the glorious autumn afternoon.