The Glamorous Looking-Back

Last weekend I got a glimpse – just a small one – into my old life.

Now to be fair, it wasn’t so much a glimpse into my old life as a glimpse into the glimmering image of my old life that’s all-to-easy to become sentimental about. Especially when today’s version of life gets hard.

I tend to think of my adult life in two distinct phases: (1) the single, childless, responsible-for-no-one- but-myself twenties and (2) the married, mothering, responsible for very-important-little-lives thirties. If you don’t count college, I spent roughly eight years in the first phase. I’m about four years into the second.

Mine isn’t another tale of youthful, wild abandon given up for staid, respectable family life. Mine is a much tamer, perhaps more boring story of trying (and often not succeeding) to live a full and rich life, regardless of my circumstances.

Part of my single twenties was spent in Washington, DC. The corresponding glimmering images of that time involve exotic foods at cool restaurants; bars full of interesting, intelligent conversation; stimulating lectures by national and foreign leaders; formal dinners in fancy hotels; runs (I’ll just call them “runs,” even though I’ve never really managed more than a frantic-paced, arms-flailing kind of walk) on the Capitol grounds; lazy days at museums when I was – get this – free to sit and ponder and dawdle as long as I liked; and the exciting anticipation that comes from never knowing who you might meet next.

To some of you, that might sound like an enviable way to spend part of your twenties. To others (ahem, my brother), it might sound pretty dorky. To me, it’s downright dreamy. I look back on that time through a generous sort of haze – the kind that makes everything more beautiful/interesting/exciting than it could ever have been in real time. It glimmers.

And it is, of course, only part of the story. I spent the bulk of my time in Washington at work or at home or (so it felt) on the metro. I was bored and nervous and depressed. I was mugged. I was terrorized first by September 11th, then by the Beltway sniper attacks. I experienced heartache. I was the victim of a hit-and-run car accident. Most of all, I was lonely.

But last weekend, during two short trips into DC, I was ready to forget all of that. I went to a ball (thank you to my lovely friend Betsy and her husband Will for inviting us along as their guests) benefitting a very worthy charity, which was held at a gorgeous location just steps away from the White House. Black ties + beautiful dresses + live band + amazing setting = GLIMMER.

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I also spent an afternoon on the historic campus of Georgetown University to witness and celebrate the baptism of my best bud’s beautiful baby boy. (Thank you to my dearest Catey and her husband Eric for inviting us to be part of the big day.) Historic buildings + good company + lovely waterfront drive + witnessing a child I love enter the Church also = GLIMMER, as far as I’m concerned.

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As you might imagine, my weekend was punctuated with wistful sighs as I looked around at reminders of (the airbrushed version of) my past. While physically in the District, I permitted (indeed, I encouraged) myself to wax sentimental about the whole thing. But on the way home, I wizened up enough to take the longer view.

On the surface, my life these days seems exponentially less interesting than it was in my twenties. I get boys out of bed, I change diapers, I dress squirming bodies that act like they’re made of Jello, I prepare meal after meal after meal, I do dishes, I break up fights, I kiss boo-boo’s, I buy groceries, I wash clothes, I clean up vomit. Again and again and again.

I get to be alone once every two to three weeks for a solo trip to Target or church. Every three to four months, I have the luxury of two hours by myself at the hair salon. Gone are my heels and business suits, gone are my cute-ish going-out clothes. I now dress for basic public acceptability and the comfort that enables quick response times to boyish antics.

My life is common. It is tedious. It is not entirely my own. In looking back, I don’t think my future self will ever see this life glimmer.

But it just might see this life glow. This right-here life of mine has a few wonderful things that my glimmering, fancy-dress DC life never had: It has love, commitment, and contentment. It has three sets of arms to hug me. It has people who need me. It has the firm understanding that I’m right where I’m supposed to be.

To my own heart, nothing can compare to that.

The single, in-pursuit-of-the-interesting-and-exciting, unattached life can be wonderful. I wish I’d taken better advantage of it. I wish I’d done more of the lectures and the travels and the museum lounging. I wish that, while I was in the middle of it, I’d seen that period of my life as precious, rather than an annoying wait for my “real” life to start. Viewing your current life as less real or less important than some supposed future is no way to live.

Noticing and appreciating the beauty and opportunity in your own life – whatever phase you’re in – is, I think, the way to do it. I’m glad I got a pretty little glimpse into my “old” life last weekend. I’m glad my response to it was a loving sort of wistfulness. And I’m glad that the glimpse prompted gratitude for both that season of my life and for the one I’m in now. I was blessed back then; I am blessed now. And that’s worth remembering.

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On Authority

I have always known (or at least, my brother has always told me) that I’m a bit of a dork. Growing up, I never quite felt like I fit in with people my own age. With babies and old folks, I was golden. But from the ages of, say, 8 to 25 (dare I admit it lasted that long?), I felt a general sense of unease with my peers. It’s a good thing I’m not the least bit shy and I have a pretty healthy sense of my own worth, because if I’d been a timid, insecure little thing, I imagine that unease would have made for a miserable childhood.

As it was, I had a very happy childhood: I had a loving family and lots of close friends who were kind, funny, smart – all sorts of good things. When I did encounter classmates who saw through to my unease with the middle school sense of humor or the teenage sense of fun and gave me a hard time about it, I was usually able to stand up to them.

My adolescent social standing, though, was not helped by the fact that I was born with an innate distaste for anyone and anything “popular.” You know all those images of screaming, crazy-out-of-their-mind teenage girls waiting to greet the Beatles? And subsequent crowds of girls swooning over New Kids On The Block, Justin Bieber, etc? Umm… yeah… that wasn’t my thing. Not only did that obsessed-fan behavior kind of baffle me, but I had a knee-jerk reaction against anything that smacked of a fad. Torn jeans? Six-inch-high bangs? My response was almost desperate: “No! It’s a fad! Get awaaayyy from it!”

I also didn’t have the teenage rebellion thing going for me. When my classmates were sneaking out to go to parties or driving around with forbidden friends, I was… exactly where my parents thought I was. Behaving nicely.

I know – I probably sound very boring to you. (And yes, my brother would assure you that I was/am.) But I promise that I do indeed know how to have fun, if perhaps a tamer version of fun than you prefer. In high school my friends generally congregated at my house, playing volleyball in the summer, board games in the winter. In college my house was also the gathering place, full of friends and good food. It still is.

Reflecting on all of this afterward, in my late twenties or so, I couldn’t quite figure it out. Why did I have no rebellious impulse at all when it came to my parents, but a strong aversion to being influenced by my peers?

After a while, it came to me: It’s all down to authority.

Because really, I know how it feels to have that rebellious, “Don’t you tell me what to do!” attitude. I experience it frequently. I experience it when I feel like all the lovely ladies are obsessed over some new trend in fashion, when everybody’s talking up a new diet or exercise regimen, when all the mommies seem to be jumping on some new parenting method bandwagon, when my Facebook feed is alight with the latest “it” political cause. I get this stubborn urge to do just the opposite of whatever it is everybody is so excited about.

I know – it’s pretty ridiculous. You don’t have to tell me that it’s just as silly to dislike something because it’s popular as it is to like something because it’s popular. I know that. And I recognize that sometimes (many times?) I reject something that I might otherwise enjoy, just because everyone else seems to be enjoying it. Silly.

When it comes to rules handed down by institutions, however, I’m usually onboard. Parking signs, using your blinker every single time you turn, underage alcohol laws, college rules regarding who is allowed on which floor after which hour, Church precepts on sex or marriage or mass obligations… I’m fine. I have zero rebellious impulse when it comes to people/institutions I perceive as having authority over me. (That is not to say I never struggle with following their rules. I simply feel no urge to rebel against them.)

The lack of a rebellious impulse in that respect is part of my nature. It’s just how I’m built. But I also have a rationale for my obedience to authority.

Let me pause here and draw attention to that word for a moment: Obedience. We don’t seem to like it much these days, do we? I certainly don’t like its relatives – follow, conform, imitate – when they pertain to people in whom I do not recognize authority. We are each the protagonist of our own story, are we not? I am the central character in my own life. I determine how I view the stage; I decide the direction I take. So shouldn’t I also be the authority? Why should I be obedient to someone or something else?

Back to my rationale… As an example, let me sketch out my line of thinking insofar as it relates to the Church: Do I believe that God created the heavens and the earth and little ol’ me to boot? Yes. Do I believe that God’s son, Jesus Christ, came to earth to live among us and that he suffered a horrible, painful death to redeem humanity – including me – from sin? Yes. Do I believe that Christ established the Catholic Church and that it continues to hold the authority He gave it? Yes.

If I really believe those things, what choice do I have? What is more important to me – to view myself as the ultimate authority, or to submit to the authority of the Church? I choose the latter.

I recognize that to a lot of people – especially young people, and perhaps especially Americans – the idea of submitting oneself to the authority of a church is… shocking, maybe? Horrifying, even? Inconsistent with our society’s secular ideals and sense of personal independence?

Okay, then – call me a rebel. (If one can be both rebel and dork, that is.)

I would wager that very few people lead lives completely independent of outside influence. Few are genuinely self-determined, free spirits. Most people submit to something – perhaps to parental or institutional authority, perhaps to the advice given by experts in the sciences, perhaps to the trends handed down from celebrities. We may not think about it much, but we follow, we conform, we obey. It’s just a matter of to what.

Certainly, my personality (my “Don’t you tell me what to do, popular person!” personality) predisposes me to favor obedience to parents/church/state over peers/culture. But I still make choices. I think. I assess. I keep my eyes and mind open, aware that parents and institutions make mistakes. That sometimes they act unjustly. That evil exists and each one of us is vulnerable to it.

So I walk the line, I suppose. Perhaps it’s not a very neat philosophical ending. When I recognize authority in a person or an institution, I obey. I trust. I do not rebel, but I do watch. Trust and watch: I can do both.

When I do not recognize authority, however, I run. So if you ever want to get me to do something, for heaven’s sake, don’t tell me it’s popular.