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On Becoming Invisible

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Sometime in 2013…

When I realized what was happening to me, I wanted to use elegant-sounding adjectives such as diaphanous or gossamer to describe the process or the outcome. Becoming diaphanous sounds so much more lovely than the reality of feeling myself disappear in dribs and drabs until I look like a moth-eaten cheesecloth or the elbow of my favorite sweater. I might even come to resemble the seat of my daughter’s Speedo after too many seasons of sun and chlorine.

This process had been stealthily underway for a few years before I stood up and took notice. Here, I am primarily referring to the fading and thinning, which is gradual and not, therefore, immediately noticeable. This gentle decline is unlikely to induce trauma.

I don’t care so much about the loss of color—skin lightening, lips fading from pink to beige, hair showing tendrils of white—or the miracle migration of hair from scalp to chin. The loss of skin tone is manageable. And so much for the loss of childbearing potential. I have three wonderful, healthy daughters, and I feel complete.

The loss of muscle has been a little harder to manage. I have always thought of myself as an athlete, a vigorous person, despite the fact that my exercise routine now generally consists of early-morning strolls through suburbia. This is par for the course, I tell myself, as is my diminished visual acuity and what may be the start of hearing loss. Oh, and who cares about that half inch of height? My daughters are thrilled to be taller than I am. They absolutely gloat. So let me be happy for them! It is well and good that they should wax as I wane.

No, I had expected all these developments. It was the disappearance of some of my actual substance that stopped me in my tracks. I went to look in the mirror, and whole chunks were not reflected back.

You know by now that my relationship to Germany, CityX, in particular, holds all kinds of powerful meanings for me. The years I spent there were critical in shaping my identity and my way of viewing life. Present during my formation and beyond, through the constant of our friendship, was Hanna.

As I aged and became further and further removed from those early days, Hanna validated that I had, in fact, existed in that time and place and had lead the life I recalled. The power of this type of shared memory, a kind of witness bearing, is truly a living thing. I think of it almost as blood.

Into my 40’s, this humor kept me firm and supple. I have experienced this phenomenon with other friends as well. My friend Anne, for example, knows my whole life starting with the first day of ninth grade. While our talks always contain new thoughts and happenings, part of what makes the friendship life giving is our holding of each other’s memories. The holding of each other’s substance, I’d say. For only certain people can recall whole swaths of us in this sacred way, keeping us alive and real as the pressure of time bears harshly down upon us.

My oldest friend, Hanna, routinely held up the mirror to me and told me the story of myself. I did the same for her. “Look in the mirror, Jane, look! There you are!”

“Look, Jane!” Yes, young Jane, you are still in this world. Even now, you exist. You are walking to school in your blue Kickers and wearing your green windbreaker. I see your pigtails swinging as you lope into the schoolyard with your red leather Schulranzen (bookbag) on your back. You are planning to collect horse chestnuts on your way home. Oh, there you are, kicking Peter Bachmann in the shin (again!). And remember how happy you always feel in the botanical garden? You are forever wandering the pea-gravel paths and rowing in the lake….

It went on and on, often wordlessly. I saw my story recited in her eyes.

I was unprepared for the blow which severed our friendship. It came in the form of a letter and carried with it the agony of death. The bitterness of Hanna’s denunciation left no room for reconciliation. It was as though she had died at her own hand and left a note saying, “I just want you to know you did this to me.” Terrible, unbearable, waves of shock, grief, self doubt, anger. It is hard to put into words, and trying to do so can still overwhelm me.

In the aftermath of her rejection, I began to notice the deflation. Parts of me began to sag and hurt. More gray in the hair, more hair in the brush. Hanna had withdrawn her holding power and denied a part of my fabric. I am smaller now, diminished. The fading has accelerated, and whole pieces are missing when I look into the mirror.

To a point, the thinning and shrinking is an unavoidable part of growing older. I do wonder, however, if it isn’t easier when friends die naturally or when they gradually move out of one’s life. I imagine the parts of us they hold drift off gently with the ebbing of their presence. I wonder—is this less painful than when they reject us and yank out great clumps of us on their way out the door? When there is grabbing, there is a sort of violence from which one must work hard to recover. At least this is true for me.

The good I have believed about myself and the authenticity of my experience has been ejected from the mirror and thrown down to crack into sharp pieces. My assumptions about myself must be reevaluated, and this will be difficult. A distorted version of events has been cut with a quick jerk of the jigsaw and bolted to the mirror–to the very spot where my eye has always sought perspective. Where do I look for answers now?

I have a lot of work to determine what is true here. I search and try myself.

Oh, I am understanding the aging process better as a result. I understand why I must diminish and become smaller and paler. Fewer and fewer people will know who I was and even who I have become; and key parts of my being will slowly disappear from consciousness altogether. I expect that in time people might stop noticing me in stores, restaurants, professional circles. Perhaps I will become just one more little old lady. Unremarkable. Unremarked. Hardly worth the effort of conversation. Someone whose presence is allowed but not welcomed. Seeing this potential clearly, I know that fear and vulnerability could cause me to shrink myself down further still, until I have withdrawn into a living death.

While I do not intend to lift, tuck, dye, buff, paint or plump myself back into a spectre of youth, I don’t begrudge those who would. It is simply not my style. Rather than deny the truth of my decline, I believe I will choose to welcome it. Yes, I am deciding right this very moment. I can cry over my losses or rejoice at my divestment.

It becomes my choice, then, to send Hanna off with a gift. No one can rip from me what I would freely give. To my children, I give my once-firm breasts and belly. To Henry, I present the lips which seek his and the hands which have issued countless caresses. To Christopher and Jack, my coaches, I offer the legs and feet of my youth. It was worth the bunions and fractures to know you, to run so fast. Hanna, I give you those parts which you have attempted to snatch. I nullify your theft by my consent. I bless you, dear friend….

Please don’t interpret my words as passive or depressive.

Make no mistake, I do not intend to go softly.

I will stubbornly affix myself to these pages so that I can look back and find myself when I feel unsure. And I’ll keep writing myself into new memories and new meanings. Just you wait and see. I ache at the loss of my past. I am unwilling to lose my future.

So I’m killing off the cheesecloth metaphor and sparing myself. I am made for better. That which remains of me after each act of giving will fold upon itself, concentrating my indivisible essence into an ever purer form.

I’m going to become my finest and truest self, a single filament as sinuous as silk and as strong as steel. And when I have divested myself so fully and stretched so thinly as to disappear altogether, I’ll just keep on going.

I am thankful for an eternal perspective.

This is part of The Story of Hanna. For the prior segment, please click here. For the next segment, please click here.

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41 responses »

  1. Absolutely beautiful writing. This is a very sad piece. I need to sit with it for a while.

    Liked by 2 people

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  2. Wow. Like Rebecca, I need to sit with this for awhile.
    Strong insights and beautiful writing, and also glimpses of a soul-level journey, a process that was not decided easily. A friend read THE DANCE OF ANGER, Jane, and then she wrote about her closing gift (and closing door) with her ex-husband. There are strong similarities with her journal piece and your post.

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  3. Quite a piece of writing. Very beautiful. I hear the loss and sadness, and then a shift into such strength. I love the transition, that no one can steal from us what we freely give away. There’s power in those words. Aging is a process of loss, and if we were willing, we would see that we start this journey of loss at our birth. The lessons we learn, that we hopefully learn, as we age, are how to embrace life, to touch joy whenever it presents itself, to honor endings and celebrate beginnings, to become creatures of bright inner heart as our outer shells fade.<3

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    • Thanks, Diana. Those were some very rough times but I can love the woman I see in the mirror now and be kind to her. Hope I didn’t write myself into a corner by posting that piece. There are more parts to the story. I just felt like putting that one up. The meaning making process is non-linear.

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  4. Beautifully put, clever to find words for such subtle life processes. Having lived in several different countries as a child I especially resonated with: “The power of this type of shared memory, a kind of witness bearing, is truly a living thing. I think of it almost as blood.”

    Liked by 3 people

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  5. If you had read this story to at a book-reading I would have stood and given a round of applause!

    The emotion you managed to evoke was so palpable that half way through I wanted to cry and by the end when you ‘freely gave so Hanna could not steal’ I was smiling so broadly because I was elated to see the strength you discovered and unleashed for self-preservation, validation and triumph in the face of adversity. Kudos!!!

    Listen to that! Can you hear it? It’s a standing ovation just for you! Now take a bow 🙂

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  9. I plan to reblog this. Would you email me? Holistic Wayfarer (one word) at gmail?

    Diana

    Liked by 1 person

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  10. Where in the world did they move the reblog button to??

    Like

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  11. Reblogged this on A Holistic Journey and commented:
    A rich post. The effects of place, friendship, loss, time on our identity. Likes and comments closed here.

    Liked by 2 people

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  12. What a beautifully written, sensitively felt and examined essay on aging and the many subtle and not so subtle changes that occur, both outside and inside. I am giving retreats for Women in Midlife and we always talk about this invisibility that is beginning to set in during the midlife phase. Perhaps, one of the positive aspects of losing our physical appearance (as defined by the culture around us), is the inward focus and the re-defining of ourselves, the finding of our true core identity; the Self that the Psychologist Jung talked about that only reveals itself and comes into its fullness during midlife and into our later years.

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  13. Two things come to mind: 1) I want to age with grace. The aging part is inevitable: the grace part is my choice. 2) I believe in seasons of life. I tend to think that some friends will be a part of every season of life. It is especially hard when it doesn’t work out that way. I try to keep the hurt in that season of life, but I still wish for a different outcome. Thanks for sharing something so personal.

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  14. Thanks for this gift. I lost one of my sisters several years ago. Not the way you lost Hanna, but I lost her, nevertheless. I’m in my 70s now and grieve the death of the one person in the world who knew me the longest and the best. The one to whom I could say anything and from whom I could hear anything. The one who saw me, not someone else, when she looked at me. We are what others accurately remember of us–not just what we remember of ourselves. You say this in an achingly beautiful tribute to yourself and your growth.
    Elouise

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  15. Joan Walsh Anglund, author and illustrator, wrote a tiny book about just such things, and I have cherished her work. In one poem the first line says, “I wanted to remain beautiful for you, but…” has haunted me and given me comfort too.

    She also wrote and illustrated books for children–the precious noseless children….

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  16. No greater gift, to you I suppose, but to others as well, to share your grief, and to write beautifully about this inevitable process of diminishing. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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  17. Don’t know how I missed this earlier, and I regret that. Your writing is moving and profound. With your permission, I’d like to read parts of this post to my classes on memoir writing. Would you mind?

    Liked by 1 person

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    • Josh. I am so moved that I am not sure of all the feelings your few sentences have evoked. Yes! Of course you may share it. I am so glad that you find some of the things I write worthwhile. I am actually a bit teary but am going to suck it up and not be lame about it.

      I am at a point of trying to discern what to do with my writing, my blog, etc., going forward–if anything. I am nearing the end of the material I wrote ahead of time for my two threads Family Rules and The Story of Hanna and I am not sure if I have anything else in me to say.

      I am not a writer by trade. I am a recent writer out of necessity (processing through hard experiences) and curiosity. I am asking myself not only whether I will have anything else I want to say but also whether or not there is anything else I am meant to say, how, for what purpose, and to whom. I find my introverted nature does not lend itself readily to social media or self promotion. I also wonder if I have the tenacity and endurance to continue beyond my fun blog fling and whether that is ok; or whether I am supposed to push into new areas, maybe even try to write for publication. I have zero idea how all that works. Those thoughts are kind of overwhelming and too big for me, and I do not know how to break them down.

      I will file your words away with other feedback as I try to figure out what comes next for me…..

      So, there! Bet you didn’t expect that reply!! Hope I didn’t terrify you. 😉

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  18. Amazing post written from the heart

    Like

    Reply

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