I am tired of being fifty-nine. It is a liminal, French-existentialist sort of age, a waiting for sixty—not unlike the limbo of pandemic, as I wait to contract the virus. So to hell with it. Today, I am eleven.
Permission comes from a remark by the writer Madeleine L’Engle: “I am still every age that I have been.” She did not mean to imply that we should get stuck in childishness or teenage moods. (We have all known fifty-year-old frat boys and grown women who cock their heads and pout.) What she meant was that all those earlier ages “are in me to be drawn on.”
And Lord knows I could use a little eleven.
I put on shorts and a bright T-shirt and my comfiest sneakers, and when I realize my socks are mismatched, I leave them that way. The first place I go is the park. With the dog. On the way, I see a soda cup tucked into a neighbor’s old tree stump, and instead of thinking ‘Trash,’ I think what a good keeping place that is. Outside the corner thrift shop, I see a lopsided sofa sitting and think, “That’d be cool for a clubhouse.”
Good. This is working.
Why eleven? Because I have never forgotten the findings of Harvard University education prof Carol Gilligan. After interviewing girls of various ages, she concluded that at eleven, many girls have a “moment of resistance”: a sense of purpose and an almost perfect confidence in what they see and know. It is the last time they are fully themselves. Then hormones kick in and society swoops down and they begin to doubt themselves, lose clarity, bend to accommodate. The needs and opinions of others chip away at their inner core, and the promise of approval or the lure of intimacy seduces them. But “eleven-year-olds,” said Gilligan, “are not for sale.”
At the park, a dragonfly spirals over my head, and I start to wonder how those delicate wings withstand the wind shear. I do not google this. My phone is home, out of sight, in a dark drawer—a drawer! Besides, I have focused on knowing things for so long that I forgot how much fun it is to not know something.
Granted, I am easily amused even in adulthood. But there is an open-ended quality to today; I am not just making an adult observation about nature and moving on. Instead, I crane my neck and watch the dragonfly for a long, long time.
So long, the dog tugs at the lead. I ignore him, caught up. Not fumbling for my camera to Instagram it; not snatching a bit of experience and boxing it up as a memory, just experiencing it, without a clue what could happen next.
Before our wedding, the priest told us to duck into the cry room when we reached the end of the aisle and steal a minute—maybe kiss a little longer, and let it sink in that we were now bound together for what we hoped would be eternity—rather than diluting that intense emotion on aunts and school pals and coworkers in all those reception-line hugs and handshakes. Some things really need to be felt. They need it the way plants need water. And we owe them that feeling, in full measure, before we box them up for storage. (This often takes concerted effort; the world does not encourage such delays.)
The dog is still tugging. He has seen a tiny frog hop from the reeds into the lake. Instead of yanking him back onto the path or scolding him for even thinking of plunging into that water to find the frog, I decided to throw it all on an external authority. “A frog! That’s so cool! But we better not go swimming right now. We might slip in the mud and get in trouble.” The difference? Two seconds of enjoying the impulse with him first. A shared glance, a happy pant, and the lead goes slack again. Plus, I do not take the rap for spoiling his fun. No wonder people invoke God to shame miscreants.
We walk uphill. Something weird? Being sweaty feels good. I do not surreptitiously wipe my forehead and neck when I see other walkers approaching. That was something layered on in my teens, a mortification at my body’s ability to pump out buckets of sweat. The brain keeps an accurate timeline.
Back home, instead of letting my husband in on the game, I decide he is the boy next door, here for a sleepover. My usual compulsion to prod him about household worries and chores vanishes. On a whim, I dig up some chalk and draw us—boy, girl, dog—on the sidewalk in front of the house. It is white chalk, so it barely shows up. At eleven, showing up is not yet the point.
When I start to feel hungry, I drive to the store—that is the fun of this experiment: I am eleven but I have a car!—and buy myself (with bright coins, not plastic) a can of Chef Boyardee cheese ravioli. It is my second trip to Schnucks this week, a frequency frowned upon in a pandemic. But the grownups will take care of the pandemic. (God. How long had it been since I felt that?) Besides, I am wearing my mask. I pretend I am going to rob the lobby bank.
Ignoring the shopping list in my purse, I bring home only my ravioli and eat it as it should be eaten: unheated, straight out of the can.
In Gilligan’s study, girls were asked how they would describe themselves to themselves; who they admired; when they had been uncertain about a decision. Then they took the Washington University Sentence Completion Test, which required them to finish such sentences as: “What gets me into trouble is…”; “My conscience bothers me if….”; “A woman should always…”; “Rules are….”
Having freed myself from rules, everything feels fresh, like an adventure could happen at any point. But near bedtime, I wonder if I should compensate for this day, spend a few hours at the computer. It is maybe the seventeenth time I have slipped out of age eleven. Nearly always, these are times I feel either hurried or worried. How often we order our days that way, triaging by fear or obligation. It is a sort of anxiety management: “If I do that now, I’ll get it over with, and then I can relax.”
Instead of working, I stay outside looking for lightning bugs and accidentally let one into the house, which is so cool. There is no anxiety left to manage. And so much is coming back! At the park, I glanced down and for the first time in half a century, spontaneously scanned for four-leaf clovers. Now the names of TV shows are popping into my head—The Bold Ones. The Odd Couple. God help me, Charlie’s Angels. Stuff my mom and I used to watch. Shows I have not thought about in years.
Photos do not evoke the past like this. I have seen them so often, they have become one-dimensional, a memory of a photo of a memory. Besides, why would I need cues? I am still eleven.
I just forgot.