Carapace is one of my essays from my book From My Vintage which is a collection of sixteen creative essays, ruminations on love, life and loss told in an unpretentious conversational tone. I hope you enjoy it. Order From My Vintage from Amazon.
Rollo May has written that “Human freedom involves our capacity to pause between stimulus and response and in that pause to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.” Pause, the fraction of a second, the moment of choice that can make a forty-five degree angle change the path our life will take. Lately, I wonder how often over the years I’ve held that pause long enough to ask myself, “Is what I’m saying what I really mean?”
Looking back on it now, I spent decades ignoring the moment, that pause when I might have considered that I had a choice, the privilege of saying “no” or “I don’t think so” or “let me think about it.” I always found it easier to say “yes” to others while saying “no” to myself. If you had asked me if I knew I had given myself away to the highest bidder, I would have looked at you blankly, puzzled, not knowing what you meant. Yet, a part of me hidden in the shadow, knew what I was doing, and watched me act the part.
Now on becoming eighty, I’m aware of the choices I can make and do enjoy the pause before making a decision. What has come with my years is a sense of allowing myself to see things as they are, although clarity is often painful. For example, I know I tried to stand up for my ideals, to rail against injustices in the world, yet, I also know, I changed nothing as I told myself I would. I’ve paid back only a little of what I’ve been given, written checks to satisfy my conscience, otherwise, for the most part, I let the world take care of itself.
Still, on the upside, at eighty I do have more time to think and put my uncensored thoughts down on paper in the effort to better understand the life I’ve lived and the world I’m now living in. Perhaps it’s an effort that can never fully succeed, but I do enjoy making the effort.
What I’d most like to do is to climb into my mind, my emotions, and find, deep inside, a core that reveals what I might have been like before I sensed and accepted unquestioningly what my mother and then my peers wanted of me. With so many of those I longed to please years ago gone now, perhaps I can finally locate that core which existed before the expectations of others took over and wove a veil through which I thought, before the veil of expectations rapped itself around me as closely as an invisible membrane.
If mother smiled it was approval, if she frowned I knew something was wrong. Of course, I wanted her approval but then it wasn’t long before I wanted the approval of everyone. As a young girl, I quickly became greedy for approval; it was the elixir I drank up.
To be fair, when we are young, it’s not easy to calculate the ways of the world. Nevertheless, the lessons I learned on the importance of approval stood me in good stead, and a seed was planted, probably before I could string two sentences together, probably before I was aware I was trying to manipulate responses from others. And so I developed my façade, my persona, until the veil, over the years, no longer had tiny slits through which I could dimly see. In the end, (I can’t say exactly when, I only know it happened), the veil stiffened until it more closely resembled the carapace that protects a tortoise, who when he senses danger withdraws into his shell.
I know, of course, that no one can live without a façade, a persona to protect oneself from hurts, ridicule, cowardice. When we are young, raw, sensitive, we need a shell to protect ourselves. How else can we live in society? But when one becomes the persona, the carapace, what becomes of the genuine self, where is the authentic gem?
G.E. Moore, a student at Cambridge around 1902, was the dominant member of a discussion group called the Apostles whose members were the intellectuals on campus, some of whom were later to become what was known as the Bloomsbury group. Whatever subject was discussed, when one of the members made a statement, Moore would counter with, “what exactly do you mean by that?” To share Moore’s passion for truth was the only duty the society demanded of its members and a muddled sentence was unacceptable. Leonard Woolf, a member of that group wrote in his autobiography that it was the Apostles who had the greatest influence on his intellect. It taught him to organize his thoughts and respond precisely both verbally and in his writings.
If one were to ask me what exactly do I mean by a verbal statement I’ve made, I often wouldn’t know how to answer. With writing, reflection is part of the craft, but frequently I don’t really know if I know what I mean when I speak and no one ever asked me. Like many of us, I may have said out loud what I thought others expected to hear rather than what I meant to say.
I have a recurring day dream that comes by itself when I am alone, sitting in the little library in my apartment, reading. I’m fifteen years old, floating on my back on a windless day in Lake Michigan, while the waves are undulating gently, sensuously. When I close my eyes I’m cradled by the waves. There is nothing else except the particular fragrance of a lake, which I can still smell. I have no need to navigate, to think, it’s like waltzing with the music. I feel sweet, pure; I see my smile, the carapace thins, the shell softens, the veil floats away and there is no one through whom I need to validate myself.
Looking at the children playing baseball in Central Park last Sunday I saw a child whose parents were obvious in the crowd, calling out and waving to the boy, and I saw him struggling and failing to please his parents, dropping an easy fly ball in the outfield and later striking out when his turn came to bat. Then I noticed another youngster who was simply enjoying the fun of the game without being tormented by the need for approval, oblivious of the parents in the stands.
Writing this I recall one incident clearly, and still react with anger at my mother who is long dead. I was not more than ten years old when my mother and her friend, Mary, decided to take me and Mary’s daughter, Lenore, to lunch. I asked for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Lenore ordered a ham salad sandwich. When our lunch came, Lenore wouldn’t eat hers and announced that she too wanted a peanut butter sandwich . When her mother said, “you asked for ham salad,” Lenore threw a tantrum and my Mother quickly took over.
“It’s alright Mary, Jeanne likes both,” she said, as she took my plate and exchanged it with Lenore’s. I said nothing and recall smiling when my mother’s friend told me what a generous and lovely girl I was.
If I fast forward from that day I forfeited my peanut butter sandwich at the age of ten, I can recall myself in my last year of high school after I’d auditioned for the main character of Katherine in Taming of the Shrew in the Senior play. I was in competition with another girl named Doris who was assertive and unfriendly but she had developed earlier than many of us, and succeeded in making me feel awkward and stupid. Walking through the hall the day before the drama teacher, Miss Curry, was to announce her decision I passed the open door of her room and heard Doris telling Miss Curry, “I want to apply to the Pasadena Play House and to be accepted I need to have performed a lead role in a play and this is my only chance.”
Without thinking, without pausing to decide what to do, I kept on walking past Miss Curry’s room, told no one of the conversation I overheard, and Doris got the part. Of course, I could have walked into Miss Curry’s room that day, but the choice to do so, that I had that option didn’t occur to me. It was easier to continue walking down the hall of my high school with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
To this day, when I replay the scene it’s to confront myself. Why didn’t I walk in the room? Who in that room did I want to love me? Who was I afraid of confronting? Why was I so uncomfortable with the possibility of embarrassment? As an aside, I can’t resist writing, Doris didn’t go to the Pasadena Play House; she married the assistant manager of our neighborhood supermarket and years later when I came home to visit my parents I saw her on the street and she was fat.
At the end of that year, having survived the hurt and duplicity of Miss Curry, I graduated from high school and attended a small college in the Midwest where I majored in Art History. My ambition was to live in New York and to get some kind of a job in a museum, dusting, stacking books, any menial job would do as a beginning. A friend of my parents had a brother in New York who owned an art gallery and for a minimum wage he offered to hire me. With a stipend from my Father, I moved to the city, found a one-room apartment in the Kips Bay area and went to work. The owner of the gallery, Mr. Fitch, was a jovial sweet man, whom I learned in a short time knew little about art but was rich and liked the idea of owning a gallery.
I bought books, went to lectures, museums, I literally dove head first into the study of modern art and stayed one day ahead of my job. I loved working in the gallery, talking to people and selling art. We were a staff of five. After three years of my being there, Mr. Fitch lost some of his interest in the gallery and came in only a few times a week, leaving most of the responsibility to me. He began to take me to auctions, to artists’ studios, to dealers, and eventually he appointed me director of the gallery.
I went from making minimum wage in l964 to $12,000 a year. More and more people were beginning to buy art; it was becoming a fashionable hobby and we needed another person on the staff. One Monday morning, after the only man on our staff had left, Mr. Fitch called me into his office and said, “Jeanne, you’re doing a great job, but you need help. Now that Jeb has left, I think it’d be a good idea to hire a man to assist you. The hanging and re hanging, the physical work is a heavy job for a girl and there are things he can do that you can’t and, well,” he thought a moment, and continued, “you find him and hire him. You know what you need, and you can offer him $15,000 a year.”
I stood there thinking $15,000 a year? I only make twelve, and he’ll be my assistant. This was my opportunity to say “Mr. Fitch, if I am the director and he will be my assistant, don’t you think it unfair that he’ll make more than I do?” But I was tongue tied. Finally I said “Yes, sir, I think it’s a good idea to hire a man; I’ll begin to interview.”
Again I didn’t pause to state my case to Mr. Fitch. I didn’t speak. Instead I tucked my head into my carapace, rationalized that it was ok: men make more money, and went on for four more years to run the gallery with minimum raises that I never questioned.
If I fast forward from that day of my conversation with Mr. Fitch in the gallery, I can see myself falling in love with a tall, attractive, dark curly haired trial lawyer who, after two months of dating, asked me to marry him. I said “yes” to his proposal. Raymond was charming, attentive, I’d never met a man as caring and considerate and I was impressed with his decisiveness. We were going to live in his two bedroom apartment overlooking the East River for a year or two and then buy a house in the suburbs. Raymond disliked the city as heartily as I loved the city but as much as I loved it I willingly gave into the idea of eventually living in the suburbs and raising a family.
It was about a month before our wedding, we had been engaged for three months, the plans were all in place, when Ray made clear how strongly he felt I should stop working when we married.
“You’ve got to stop dragging your feet about giving notice and leaving the gallery, Jeanne” he said.
We’d just finished dinner at Camiglios, a little Italian restaurant we used to go to in those days, and were leisurely finishing our bottle of Pinot Noir.
“But I’d like to work until we move- that’s at least a year from now. What would I do with my time until we get the house and, darling, you know how much I love my work.”
“Jeanne, if you love me,” he responded, “you’d know how much this means to me, that you’d want to be home for me and available if an important client and his wife invite us out, instead of you going to gallery openings or working late.”
The next day I gave my two weeks notice at the gallery, with a promise to Mr. Fitch that I would stay an extra week if it was necessary to train someone. What I later learned was, “if you love me” was Ray’s mantra. But we were a perfect match: he needed to be in charge while I needed to please and acquiesce. Occasionally, a tinge of disloyalty would flit through my consciousness when I questioned what does love have to do with it, but within that tiniest pause the thought was quickly banished.
And so went our life, all the way to the suburbs. We had two children within four years; we lived a model 1950’s life style. I became an active member in the P.T.A., went to all the little league games. When, my son, Tom played quarterback on the high school football team, I went to every game, (not to be the perfect mother,) I just wanted to see him get up from under the pile. It seems so long ago; there were so many years when my memory shut down, but I think I enjoyed my life, the children, the friends, the activities.
Raymond and I rarely had a disagreement; if I did disagree or argue, I was easily convinced I was wrong. Life was moving on and my health was fine, except for violent headaches, that came on intermittently, and more frequently when I reached my middle forties and my son went off to college, and the following year my daughter left for her Junior year in Rome. But, despite the headaches, I was still active in volunteer work and local politics. Occasionally I went to the city in the afternoon, visited galleries and museums, shopped and was back in time for supper. We seldom went to theatre or concerts or met friends in the city. Raymond preferred meeting friends for dinner locally and going to the movies. In the winter we went to Florida for ten days.
When I ask myself today, what did I think about then, what was my own life all about, I have to answer, (well, I thought about the children and what I was doing.) I had no idea I wasn’t living my life, or that it was the reverse, life was living me. I didn’t question my relationship with Raymond.
As time passed my headaches increased and I spent an inordinate amount of time visiting Doctors and taking tests. One Doctor asked if I was depressed, and I looked at him puzzled. “No” I answered, irritated by his question. “I’m here because of my headaches.”
Then one day I bought a diary, I had no plan to write more than daily doings, but after filling the first half with meetings, and nonsense, it became boring and without thought I began to write about experiences when I was younger, my lost peanut butter sandwich, the Senior play and Miss Curry, how I felt when Tom went off to college. I wrote anything but never about my marriage. It just didn’t occur to me, although I wrote that each day at 3 p.m. I called Raymond at his office.
That pattern was sacrosanct, no matter where I was or what I was doing I called Raymond at 3 p.m. This was very important to him, the first time I forgot he said he always wanted to know I was in reach so he wouldn’t worry. The once or twice when I did forget, in 23 years of marriage, brought on a furious“ if you loved me you would never forget to call,” and was followed by an apology from me. It seems today, as I write this, that I spent half my life apologizing for misdemeanors I didn’t know I made.
Then on one Monday in July of 1969, I came home from a swim at our club’s pool, showered and dressed, made a gin and tonic and sat down at my desk to call Raymond. It was 3 p.m. I picked up the phone then very carefully put the receiver down. I waited a minute or two and reached over to pick it up again to make the call, but my hand felt as if it was paralyzed and I could not lift the receiver off the hook.
I sat at my desk looking out the window at nothing. At four the phone rang; I let it ring; at 4:10 it rang again. Then again it rang at 4:25, at 4:30, and at 5. Each time I let it ring. At six- thirty a telegram was delivered to the door.
“If you do not call me within the hour, we’re finished.”
I didn’t call. I have no reason to, nor do I want to relate further details. Suffice it to say that was the end of a 23 year old marriage.
I would like to think I made a choice, but if wasn’t a conscious move, did I make a choice? I still, after all these years, think of it as a mysterious force that took over and paralyzed my hand. But, whatever else it was, it was my first significant exploration of Rollo May’s “pause,” with my pause lasting three and one half hours, from 3 to 6:30 that afternoon.
It didn’t seem like much to me, my not picking up the phone, but it was the beginning. Eventually the veil began to develop tiny holes; as time passed age brought insight and some clarity, the holes got larger, the carapace began to melt, and layers fell away. The need to protect myself or to seek the approval of others left.
I’ve developed a deep respect for Rollo May’s “pause.” The pause contains thoughts, reflections, memories, a myriad of different actions. The pause is both my shelter and my companion. The pause is where I find, (as at this moment), there is often no need for a further word.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.