This morning as I was wiping the crumbs from the counter for the ten millionth time, it occurred to me, “Why am I doing this? We’ll have lunch in a few hours, and it will be exactly the same as it is now!”. Reluctantly, I kept wiping, knowing that if I began thinking like that, chaos would ensue. But the parade of questions marched on: Why get dressed? I’ll have to put my pajamas on again in a few hours. Why make the bed? We’re only going to get back in it tonight and mess it up. Why sweep the floors? (especially when you have animals in the house). For that matter, why put the cap back on the toothpaste? Why dust? Why put things away when you know full well, they will be back out of place in a matter of nanoseconds? And do dishes really have to be all that clean in order to eat from them? We all know that as a society we have swung the pendulum so far in the war on germs that our immune systems have gone to sleep. Gee, why bother at all?
As I swept the floor, I began to think about my father. My first recollections of Daddy were of a guy who insisted on having his shirts laundered professionally. He wore a clean, starched blue or white oxford cloth shirt every day for work. His initials were embroidered on the cuffs. His ties were kept in place by a gold tie clip. Most of his shirts had French cuffs, necessitating gold cuff links to match the gold tie clip. His suits were tailored to fit him to a tee. He kept a mirror shine on his shoes. He was one of the few men I have ever met who had a manicure on a regular basis. (He had worked with his father as a roofer when he was a young man, and his hands were constantly blackened by the tar. He said he scrubbed and scrubbed but could never quite get the stains out from under his fingernails).
Gradually, over the last twenty years or so of his life, he began to change. He traded in his Brooks Brothers shirts for polo shirts. He traded in his Italian loafers for canvas sneakers. He traded in his business suits for khakis. But it wasn’t just a change in costume. It was a complete makeover. Not only did he no longer send his shirts out to a professional laundry, but he began wearing his clothes until they were threadbare. He became less concerned with getting a haircut every month, and my stepmother had to nag him when his hair began to graze his collar. He seemed oblivious to the litter of old newspapers and unemptied ash trays around his favorite chair. Some of this could be attributed to the change in his situation after he left his business and retired. He didn’t have the kind of income he had had as a younger man, and in the end, he was not well.
But my father is not the only example of such a change I have seen. I have noticed that as people age, in general, many seem to shed their preoccupation with appearance like an old skin that has outlived its usefulness.
My mother, whose trademark throughout most of her life was her unaffected youthful beauty, was in very poor health towards the end of her life. In spite of her situation, her spirit remained strong, and she looked remarkably well, all things considered. People constantly asked her whether she felt as good as she looked, and she laughed. At one point, she even said that she wished she could finally look as old and as sick as she felt, so people would stop telling her how “marvelous” she looked! It seemed like a strange comment at the time, but she was “kidding on the straight”.
When I think about it, I can see how it happens. Keeping up appearances is hard work. Everything conspires to force us to relax our vigil against encroaching imperfection. As with my father, we may have less money to spend on appearances. The pace of our life may slow down. But there’s much more to this.
I now know that friends who cut me off because I don’t match up with their idealized image were never friends. I am old enough to have some sense of my own mortality, so time is precious, and I must make serious decisions about how I want to spend it. Energy, which I used to have in seemingly unlimited supply, is also less plentiful now. It is another resource which must be allocated judiciously. And it seems to me from this vantage point that the best use of my time and energy is tending to the relationships I care about.
Of course, I don’t want to live in a pig sty, but neither do I want to live in a temple to the Goddess of Cleanliness. She is a cold deity with no patience for human frailty. I am all about human frailty (as anyone who knows me can confirm).
As for personal appearance, I can only say this — I have to pedal faster and faster to keep from collapsing like a souffle. There are lotions, creams, conditioners, makeup, foundation garments, and all manner of gizmos and gadgets to keep me from looking my age. My hair is colored. And in spite of daily walks, using the elliptical, yoga classes, and watching my weight, everything is drooping. I can feel myself gradually loosening my death grip on youthful appearance. (Actually, it is being pried from my fingers by mother nature). My mother-in-law, who was as spry and vibrant a woman in her 80s as you will ever meet, shared her own wisdom on this subject: “I don’t look in the mirror anymore”.
The bottom line, it seems, is that perfectionism, at least in the name of appearance, can turn your life into a game of Trivial Pursuit. On the other hand, complete abandon, tempting as it may be, is probably not the answer, either. I guess I’ll keep wiping the crumbs from the counter, making the bed, and yes, I will change out of my pajamas before dressing for the day, even though I’ll just have to put them on again tonight.