True story: I’m walking down the road in my old neighborhood with my boss and a new client, asking forgiveness for my messy house. Then I realize I haven’t done the work I’m expected to show this new client, ideas for a new campaign. Dread descends; I simply didn’t get around to it! How could I be so scatterbrained? Picking up wads of paper, I quickly clean the room where I need to present the designs I didn’t do. I’m thinking up excuses, but they’re all so lame. My God, what am I going to do? Then the weight on my chest recedes, my arms un-clench, as I slowly pull up and recognize yet another work stress dream.
Long ago my recurring stress dreams were forgetting to wear underwear to school, or kidnappers wrapping me in the pink curtain in my room. But now I’m the product of years on the treadmill, working steadily to pay a mortgage and keep the kids in Converse high-tops.
When you look at me, you see the product of a life: the sagging jowls, the sprouting grey hairs, the struggle to remember a word I need. But you might not see the 60 years of baby boomer striving to find my path, nurture my family, earn my way, and feel good about my efforts.
You likely don’t see the beautiful, creative, caring people I helped raise, nurture, and launch into the world. The diapers I changed, lunches I made, encouragement I gave; driving to doctor appointments and school dances. Crying over my rookie stepmother screw-ups, my many parental failings. Thousands of hours of vacuuming, corralling all the stuff. The flat stomach and plump chest I once had; now it’s the other way around.
Looking at me, my half century of hard work isn’t apparent: the successful campaigns I’ve created, the international teams I’ve led, co-workers’ appreciation and design awards won. The new technologies I’ve mastered, the many countries I’ve traveled in, the many lessons learned the hard way. My drive to feel accomplished, to learn quickly, change careers, keep up with ever younger colleagues. Getting fired; getting hired. Dutifully saving little by little, knowing no one was handing me a retirement plan.
Recently, heading to yoga and admiring the sunrise, I was half listening to the radio when the author Penelope Lively said it well. “Old people after all are not just what you’re seeing now, they’re what they’ve been before. So you look at an old person, and she is an old person, but what’s easy to forget is that she has many, many incarnations of things she may have been that you don’t know about.”
What Dame Lively—such a becoming name!—didn’t go on to say is also so vital. You see someone older; she’s slower, but she’s still energetic, she’s choosing her life. She has all kinds of wierd new limitations and she’s also working to find her next new path. When you look at her, I hope you have the empathy, if not the life experience, to recognize the richly mingled layers of character, wisdom, human frailty, accomplishments, and good intentions that lie below the soft, crinkly skin and the age spots.