Tentative notes on a performative life, and the challenge of cutting the puppet strings once and for all
Any decade is a big one as we age. Some consider thirty the end of it all; to which those of us well beyond that chortle in our imaginary wisdom at fifty, seventy, ninety, "you ain't seen nuthin' yet."
True? Maybe. It depends, as with all things. The last several weeks in my life have seen some stupendous revelations, shifts in perception, and as a result, some pretty nifty opportunities to rewrite various parts of my life which, at any stage, can lead to, well, who knows?
The "who knows?" part is like the first time you step on the strut of a plane getting ready for your first skydive. It is wet-your-pants exciting and terrifying all at once.
Given that I've got 131 skydives, that no longer scares me. But this does. I am all in, too.
Here's what I mean. I've been walking a very challenging path with my closest friend as she navigates a late-in-life love affair which involves two troubled adult kids, with kids addressing their emotional capacity, not age.
As we've spoken nearly daily, Melissa and I have stood right into the headwinds of setting boundaries with loved ones. Said loved one could tell us where to shove it and leave, then we face the feelings of being unlovable and this late in life, and ask, is this it for me romantically?
Those conversations have both inspired and pushed me to take greater risks over the last few months. They have paid off in ways that I never would have imagined, teaching me to trust my instincts as Melissa is doing. We check in, go very deeply into our lessons and takeaways, always guffawing at ourselves and the absurdity of life, and reinforcing the rightness of taking the high road whatever the cost.
Out of this came a realization that in my relationship with my ex-, I'd been guilty of what can only be called "performative" sex. Cringe.
Well, it wasn't long before I had to ask whether- given my sordid sexual history of incest and rape in the military- if sex had always been performative simply because it was so painful in the first place. Triple cringe. True that.
Well then. It wasn't long before that question had to get far bigger, to ask how much of my entire LIFE has been performative because of that history, the desperate need to prove myself worthy, all that.
Research backs this up, of course. It's one thing to nod sagely at research and distance yourself. It's quite another to own your shit where it applies to yourself.
You could trip on all that, but look. You and I can perpetuate toxic habits for life, or we can -somehow- find that root in the forest which causes us to land hard against a great truth.
This is that. Of course it's hard. Often what's no fun to face is a doorway to a very different kind of seeing, which leads to a very different kind of life, to lightly steal from Proust here.
Performative in this regard:
disapproving: made or done for show (as to bolster one's own image or make a positive impression on others)
While I have seen this third definition of the word used most often in the discussion of allyship and DEI strategies, it has far broader implications for us all.
While we all adapt to expectations or social norms in some way or another, particularly in this social media-Insta-Tik Tok age, we as a society are all performative. For clicks, likes, money, whatever. The rise of the (fake) Influencer is the best and worst example of that very thing, taken to typical extremes to get attention.
If and when we realize this, then how do we reclaim the geography we gave up to be acceptable and loved, most importantly by ourselves?
This "performative" theme is part of what I am taking on this year. But not today. Here I am going to end with a poem I composed thirty-six years ago.
Dancing in the Audience turns out to be prescient as well as predictive. At the time it flowed out of me whole, complete. Such work is terribly rare. In my case, this is as honest as it gets.
I've done some big work around this, including quitting corporate work to do adventure travel. That's just one example of a string cut. But in our emotional lives, those are harder. And therein lies one of the next great opportunities.
As I face seventy, Dancing has circled back around in a big way. As I balance on the cusp of seventy, I am revisiting this theme with a very different eye, heart and soul. I am twice as old as the day I wrote this. Perhaps it's finally time to see what else I need to release in order to expand the life I get to live on my own terms.
I offer it here to anyone who has ever questioned their authenticity, with the same invitation that I offer myself: what puppet strings need to be cut so that we can dance to our own tune?
Dancing in the Audience
All my life I’ve heard the sound
Of footsteps tapping on the ground
The ground a vast and well-lit stage
With bars around to form a cage
The footsteps tapping there were mine
To tunes I never could define
And looking out beyond the bars
Into the night I saw the stars
Below them was a vast array
Of platform seats of hardened clay
I’d make up personalities
To sit in judgement there of me
From those seats the music roared
And high into the air I soared
To finally fall into a heap
Only wanting rest and sleep
But never did I hear applause
Or get an encore there because
The performance over, I would see
The clay seats empty. Still for me,
I wanted music. So I thought
To dance at all I must be caught
By someone else’s tune. And so,
To let me dance, I made it so.
But one day in my melted clump
Of tired flesh I felt a lump
Of something hard just fitting there
I pulled a key into the air
With hesitance I sought the door
That I had faced so oft before
Slipped in my key to hear it fit
The door swung wide. I stepped through it.
A terrible crash! A crunching sound!
My stage and cage fell to the ground!
And in the silence I stood there
To hear faint clapping in the air
My audience of stars and sky
Were joyful for my choice to fly
A moment’s quiet…then I thought,
“But where’s the music?” And I sought
To find those faces with their notes
But all I found were only motes
Of stardust twinkling in the sky
I breathed in deeply, then with a sigh
Out of me came a wondrous blend
Of notes and joy enough to send
My body dancing! Off I leapt
Towards the platform, up the steps
In celebration for this song
Was what I’d wanted all along!
So with my song and precious dance
I’m dancing in the audience
And when I need a moment’s pause
I sit amidst my own applause.
@Julia Hubbel 1987
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