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Who Are You?

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Rachel and I had a conversation last night, after our annual holiday party. It was a very pleasant party, but we thought of a couple of people that we thought might come, and we dwelt on the thought a moment too long, and pretty soon we were being resentful, and soon after that self-loathing. At least, I loathed myself.

Lately Rachel, who is the absolute sunshine of my life, courageous and loving and honest and true, has surprised me by expressing strong negativity on some topics. I think it is part of a healing process happening deep inside her — realizing that the plucky first half of her life is over, and therefore so is the era of striving for acceptance.

I’m not sure if the healing process is actually healing, but that’s what it’s trying to do. She reminds me of me a few weeks ago, endlessly “swallowing” in hopes I could open the closedness in my left ear. I was like a dog licking its belly, because there is cancer inside. External medicines aren’t much good when the wound is hidden away deep.

Back to Rachel and me. For better or worse, this is what we are now, at the half century mark. It’s a milestone moment, not just for taking stock of ourselves, but others as well.

It is odd how we still crave appreciation and respect, though, and how easy it is for others, even people we feel quite friendly with, to withhold it.

Some years ago Rachel was in a book club comprised mostly of women who were humanities graduates, masters of arts types. They were nice women, but they acted as a group within the group, and poor Rachel never felt she was allowed inside. She felt they were telling her that, because she was a nurse, she could not be a deep thinker or be well read.

I wonder if they were even aware of her hurt.

Now, today, she feels she is a shining emblem of what a modern woman should be. She wonders if those friends or other friends know that she isn’t a hospital nurse (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but a nurse practitioner, who is the primary provider for people with a vast variety of illnesses and health problems.

She is the GP of a generation ago, a flesh-and-blood Marcus Welby MD, only working at a third the pay scale. She is a highly skilled diagnostician, an intuitive counselor, and just experienced and knowledgeable and versatile and wise.

She served as president of the school council a few years ago, and became a skilled policymaker and peacekeeper between warring parent factions.

She taught herself to sing, taking lessons for six years. This year she competed for a position in three productions of the Minnesota Opera and won. She has already been in one production and did great. Not everyone understands how good you have to be to land a position in the choir. No, it’s not Beverly Sills. But it requires talent and discipline and coachability.

But isn’t it funny, this bitter memory of stereotyping at ther hands of “friends” — that she is a mediocre person, a non-thinker, a person of no great account. It haunts her, and she can’t shake it.

Rachel has made herself. Her parents were relatively uninvolved with her (though they loved her). When her dad died suddenly when she was 15, she was on her own in the world. Her plan had been to be a doctor, but she became depressed in college (made for by Social Security moneys from her father’s death) and was unable to do well in pre-med.

When the two of us met in November 1975, we were two mutts in the world, with neither pedigree nor portfolio, but with (at least we thought so) an interesting spark. I loved Rachel’s intensity. She burned with a pure blue fire, and I could sense the broken-hearted girl just behind her striving.

When you love someone like I loved her (and her me), these little sleights from other people dwindle. But she and I never rally healed from our childhood losses. All we had was “bootstrap therapy.” A resentful part of us still wonders if our better-educated friends know how hard we worked, and with what few resources.

I don’t feel quite the same way as Rachel. But it is not for a lofty reason. The fact is that I am in casual despair that, after all the millions of words I have written, people peg me as a technical writer, or business reporter. Or failed poet or fired columnist.

The difference between us is, yes, I’m misunderstood. but I can do this., what I’m doing right now. Even if no one reads me, I know I set the record straight where it matters, inside the honeyed head.

A favorite coda from a favorite Bob Dylan song, which I take to be a prelude to all meaningful peace:

If you won’t underestimate me,
I won’t underestimate you.

I don’t know why we do that to each other, that chronic habit of underestimating. I suppose it is Darwinian — if we were to get our entire minds around one another, we would explode. We need to forage for food, not feel ecstatic love for one another. Better to edit one another down to job descriptions, and leave it at that.

The truth is that we are all looking for love in all the wrong places — in the hearts of acquaintances, where our seed can find no purchase (a freely associated phrase from a favorite movie about love that never stops growing, Raising Arizona). They too are stumbling around in need, and we’re no better to them than we ask them to be to us.

The only cure for this ache, for those who passed, and those in the past who could not love us as we needed to be loved, is tears, and forgiveness, and our own reconciling dust.

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