Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Style to Fit My Life

Jimmy Buffet has a song about finding a life to fit his style; it seems to me that my current challenge is the opposite.

While ironing this morning, something I do only around holidays and birthdays when we use the family china, silver and linen napkins, I got to thinking about my mother. She taught me to iron in what seems, from my distance, to have been the forced domestic period of her life. She’d gone from being a tenured professor at Cornell (in her day, the youngest woman ever to get tenure there, and one of the first), to being prohibited from working at the University of Illinois by nepotism rules. In essence, she’d traded her professional life for a domestic one, as she desperately wanted children and only succeeded after many frustrating years of failures: miscarriages, an ectopic pregnancy, etc. The consequence of that bargain was that she couldn’t work professionally. Those were years, as I recall them, of art classes, violin practice and performance, competitive dinner parties (making pate in the years before food processors, etc.). She had a lot of energy and she poured herself into a variety of endeavors to make use of it. I recall a birthday party she constructed for me with an elaborate treasure hunt, decorating theme, and an outfit she’d made me to match. When she was permitted to go back to work, it was as a lab technician, which was all that was then possible.

Feminism and the passage of time have treated me ever so much better. I’ve had the privilege of being able to explore and live who I am to the fullest. My constraints have not been those of my mother, only the self-chosen ones of caring for other people and balancing their needs with other goals. I’ve enjoyed a fulfilling professional life, one I’ve been able to craft largely to fit my skills and interests, through the luck of time and place and incredible mentors and opportunities. Through all that, due to an unbelievably wonderful and giving life partner, it was possible to raise a family and raise two pretty spectacular children, who as best I can tell, didn’t especially suffer from the balancing act. (I hope that's not self-delusion speaking.) It wasn’t all selfish and of course there were choices and decisions to forgo opportunities that would have been better for me personally but not so good for the family unit, or life’s overall balance. It’s hard to imagine another era before this one in which that would have been possible. My mother was likely a good deal more talented than I, and she didn’t have those options or my freedoms.

And yet, here I am, facing at middle age (how odd that seems to confront!) the challenge of devising a style to fit my current life. The brain tumor/surgery experience has left me a changed person cognitively and physically. Adapting my style to fit what I am now is a work in progress. Yes, these are the good problems to have. Yes, I have perspective and appreciate all the blessings of this process. That doesn’t change that, for me, in this place and time, they are still challenges that require work and persistence and some creativity and attitude adjustment from time to time.

Thus are the meditations of ironing on a cold, quiet Sunday with bright sunlight reflecting off the snow. Tomorrow brings a trip to Atlanta and back, not something I’m especially anticipating with pleasure. After careful consideration, I’m thinking to go through security without my knee brace, and then put it on in the airport bathroom, which of course requires taking off my shoes and pants. THAT should be fun. Wish me luck. May your Sunday be calm and lovely.

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