To Do or To Be?

At lunch the other day here in San Miguel de Allende, two women friends and I got to talking about, among other things, the role older women should play in our communities. This discussion was, I think, prompted by last week’s WOW post inviting recommendations for prospective interviewees, women over the age of seventy who were still “creating and contributing,” women who could serve as positive role models for younger people (

My two friends, both in their early seventies, and, like me, long divorced and mothers of middle-aged children, gave me lots of food for thought over that lunch. I appreciated – and gained from – their differing points of view.

“We can’t all be writers or artists or role models,” one of them said. “Reading that blog post made me feel bad about myself. I’ve never considered myself a big achiever.”

The other said, “At this stage of my life, I just want to BE. I’m quite over trying to live up to others’ expectations of me. All I want is to be quietly happy. I want to be me.”

I used to tell my English 101 students that essays “should be the size of shoe boxes, not football fields.” In other words, don’t take on a subject that’s too large (“like World Hunger,” I used to say). Essays, especially personal essays, are meant to be small things, exercises in studying a subject and sharing it from your own point of view, never intended to be the last word.

That’s the way I see my blog posts, anyway. They’re derived from me — my mind, my heart, my (far from usual) life experiences – with all the quirks that that entails. I’m glad when they spark discussions. We all benefit from learning from others’ vantage points.

As I ate my chicken enchiladas at that Mexican restaurant, I wondered, Why have I never been able to just BE? What might that feel like? Where does this drive in me, always to be DO-ing, always pushing myself and striving, come from? I’m sure that philosophers and psychologists have had a lot to say on the issue of Doing vs. Being, but I could only narrow the subject to my own experience.

I tried to explain to my friends over lunch what might well be the source of this burr under my saddle since childhood:

“When I was little, my angry, drunken father used to say to us his four kids all the time, ‘Don’t just sit there doing nothing [we might have been watching ‘Lassie’], get up off your fat asses [we were all skinny] and do something around here! [something he himself never did]. Justify your existence!!!’ At first, I was too young to even understand the meaning of the words justify and existence. But with his repeated use, I learned them well. And I’ve been trying to justify my existence ever since.”

My friends seemed saddened by this true story, and I was sorry to see that. Yes, he was a negative role model to be sure, but in a way (I like to think) my father’s mean-spirited words, which stemmed from his own failures and life disappointments, worked out positively for me. Without any encouragement or support from him, I pushed myself to DO. I became a high achiever. And I came to look up to other high achievers (but never movie stars or athletes) as role models.

Another relevant memory surfaced, but too late to share with my friends over lunch:

My mother told me a story once, while she was dishing up dinner at the kitchen stove and I was taking each plate out to the dining room, about a boy that she and my father had grown up with in their New Jersey home town. His name, as I recall my mother telling me, was Tom Collins (the name, coincidentally, of one of my father’s favorite drinks). That boy’s father, my mother said, was a drunk, as many of the Irish immigrants became in their disillusionment with this new country. But the son never drank, my mother said. Instead, he grew up to become a well respected judge. “Everyone in town admired Tom,” she said.

In that instant, Tom Collins became a hero to me. Sometimes, I’ve learned, the stories of individuals’ triumphs can give others of us hope.

That’s why, through the occasional interview on my blog, I’ve wanted to present potential role models. I’ve chosen to feature older women who, despite setbacks and heartbreaks and discrimination perhaps, are still achieving, creating, and contributing in some way. I’ve wanted to take them off the sidelines, out of the shadows, give them visibility, let them tell their stories.

The “girl” with the burr… (Photo credit: Kharin Gilbert)

It’s not that we all can be like them – or would even want to be. (I’ve never, for instance, wanted to be a judge like Tom Collins). But to my mind, these WOW interviews represent a small effort to right the scales and say, Look! We older women still have something to offer! Don’t write us off or view us as has-beens! We refuse to be stereotyped or negated!

As for my being content to just BE — well, I still have to learn how to do that. It sounds so peaceful — blissful, even. Perhaps it requires removing that deeply imbedded burr beneath my saddle. Hmmm… I guess I must DO something about that, if anything can be done.