Middle age keeps surprising me.
I keep running into things I think I know only to realize that I was
under a false
but lasting impression.
These surprises are not always pleasant
some carry a force upon arrival
that’ll knock you down
especially if you haven’t been paying close attention.
I thought I knew love,
thought I knew racism,
thought I knew how to show the former
and counter the latter.
Middle age presents the tests
but doesn’t ask if you studied;
doesn’t question your readiness.
Middle age says
work this out.
And there you are
grasping at straws
watching the clock
scouring your memory.
And there you are
stuck and stuck and stuck
to be so utterly clueless.
But middle age saw you coming,
sees your indignity
at being caught
Now, she says,
the education can begin.
Middle age has been on my mind A LOT lately. I identify as middle aged and regardless of how many folks kindly remark on how young I may appear, I know exactly how old I am and how many years this particular body has been in operation. On the one hand, I have some decades of life experience to draw on – full of family, work, and accomplishments, on the other hand, I face a great unknown of what will come next. After 60? 70? Even after 80? I’ve learned a great deal up until now, how much more will I learn before my days are at an end?
I’ve been reading bell hooks’ trilogy on love: All About Love: New Visions (2001), Salvation: Black People and Love (2001), and Communion: The Female Search For Love (2002). It’s a course of study I didn’t know I needed until I was deeply immersed in the material. Bell hooks is a patient truth teller as she guides us through museums full of mental models we apply to make sense of love; how we crave, practice, misunderstand and shun it. She speaks from a specifically American frame which helps me to connect it to my own upbringing in the Midwest and understand the ways I’ve applied those beliefs in adulthood in Europe.
At the same time I am making my way through Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist (2019). Similar to hooks, Dr. Kendi leads us step by step into a steadily more complex and nuanced definition of what an antiracist is, but more importantly he shows us what a true antiracist human does on the micro and macro levels of life in progress. What’s interesting is that both authors share episodes of their own lives – of their youthful fears, adult struggles and bracing insights along the way. Their lessons are personal AND intimately connected and embedded in the social structures they illuminate. We learn about personal actions and decisions and then witness how these can be seen in light of what we know about the impacts of race, gender and class.
I take note: None of us is operating in a vacuum as we lead our private little lives. On the contrary, our private spheres become sites of social interactions deeply impacted by the dominant culture’s overarching messages in favor of racist, sexist and classist ideas. Resisting all of these influences requires more of us than we often realize.
In an early chapter on dueling consciousness, Dr. Kendi introduces duels in Black and White, in the past and present, between assimilationist and segregationist thinking. In a remarkably poetic passage he describes the duel within the Black body:
The Black body in turn experiences the same duel. The Black body is instructed to become an American body. The American body is the White body. The Black body strives to assimilate into the American body. The American body rejects the Black body. The Black body separates from the American body. The Black body is instructed to assimilate into the American body – and history and consciousness duel anew. (How To Be An Antiracist, p.33)
Every time I reread this passage, I see it play out – sometimes in my own childhood, or on a recent news report – this back and forth without ever fully arriving: I know this duel. In my own ways, I live it. Then it hits, the other duels happening within.
Reading about love in heterosexual relationships, I am struck by the recurring duels that appear in hooks’ considerations: between feminism and patriarchy; power and love. She laments that feminists of the ’80s and ’90s while able to demonstrate significant gains in jobs, money and power, failed to share the discovery “that patriarchy, like any colonizing system, does not create a context for women and men to love one another… that domination and love do not go together, that if one is present, the other is not.” (Communion, p. 71-72)
I don’t remember ever having thought about relationships with that kind of clarity. I am familiar with the draw to compete; the unspoken patterns of one-upmanship that couples can fall into. To claim we want to love and be loved, but at the same time show with our actions that we also want to win. These are features of the dominant culture coming home to roost. Even when we believe ourselves to be beyond such influences. It’s the cultural air we breathe.
Given that lesson, the path to love that hooks sketches for us in Communion demands new lenses, above all for seeing ourselves. And she suggests that midlife lends itself particularly well for this endeavor. The timing of this reading could hardly be better.
I’ve had 4 lines written on a notepad next to my computer for about a month which means that I keep seeing them, rereading them, imbuing them with further meaning.
It doesn’t matter if I say
how much it hurts
the answer is always a question:
what did you expect?
Again a duel, playing itself out: answer and question. Midlife seems to be asking: What did I expect? Now I see that it is homework of a whole new variety. Work that may, in time, bring me home to myself.
“Now, she says,
the education can begin.”
hooks, bell, All About Love – New Visions, William Morrow, 2001.
– Salvation: Black People and Love, Harper Perennial, 2001.
– Communion: The Female Search for Love, Perennial, 2002.
Kendi, Ibram X., How To Be An Anti-Racist, One World, 2019.