Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Still me

Yes, I was already aware of it. Every time I fill out class notes for my alumni magazine, I recognize that I don’t have much to report that’s very different from what I reported the year before.

But faced with the interesting challenge this week of summarizing my life in two or three sentences for a college friend I hadn’t seen in 26 years made it clear to me the full extent to which I’m the same person I was at 19. Two or three sentences…and the phrase “I still” came up again and again. “I still run a lot, but I’m still a really slow runner.” (Admittedly, it would be surprising if I were a faster runner at 45 than at 19, but nonetheless.) “I still live in a small town outside of Boston.” “I still write a lot” (though whereas back then I wrote journal entries and college papers, now I write for a major metropolitan newspaper.)

I tried to put my finger on just what this tendency for sameness said about me. “Am I static? Stagnant? Steadfast?” I wondered on Facebook. Supportive friends came up with other descriptions. “Solidly anchored,” said one, but of course, she’s a Unitarian Universalist minister; she’s arguably in the business of making people feel empowered by their own choices. “Consistent!” said another. “Practice makes perfect,” observed my husband, surprising me by coming so very close to calling me perfect.

So many of the things I enjoy doing are things I’ve always enjoyed: running, of course, and writing and reading, but also biking and walking. Cooking and baking. Traveling to some types of destinations but not others. Sometimes I try to remember the last new skill I acquired, and I almost always come back to the few new computer skills I’ve picked up recently, but in a way that’s more about the changing times than the changing me. Last winter I learned to drive a tractor, of which I was proud, but that’s really just an extension of driving a standard shift car, which I’ve been able to do since I was sixteen.

On the other hand, earlier this spring I read Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours, a book about managing time mindfully and intelligently, and I was particularly struck by her concept of core competencies. As she sees it, people are both productive and happy when they concentrate on what they do well and avoid dissipating their focus with a lot of other pursuits.

Of course, this flies somewhat in the face of the many societal messages about learning new things and being open to new opportunities. We’ve all heard inspirational stories about octogenarians taking up the piano or people who reach retirement only to begin a new career.

I don’t think that will be me, though. In early 2011, I resolved to try two new things: specifically, yoga and growing herbs. Both, I thought, could open up entire new areas of talent and experience for me in my mid-40’s.

I tried yoga for a few weeks, but I just couldn’t develop any excitement for it. “Runners can’t slow down enough for yoga,” I said by way of excuse, but I’m sure there are plenty of runners who disprove that theory. I gave yoga up. The herb gardening fared a little bit better. I grew enough chives, basil, thyme and mint to use all summer. (Okay, mint is a weed; I can’t take credit for that. But the others required a little bit of nurturing.) And I enjoyed it enough that I’m going to try growing more herbs this summer. But it’s more just something I did than something I learned to do.

So maybe I’m stagnant and maybe I’m steadfast. Maybe both. Mostly, I’m me: almost the same at 45 as at 19, other than a few obvious changes in life circumstances. These are my core competencies, and I might as well claim them proudly – then, now, and if I’m lucky, in another few decades yet to come.

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