"I will reward each one according to their faithfulness. You're on a even playing field with everyone!"~ Don Franklin
And yet even I have to admit to a small but signal change that has come with the passage of years. By the time I turned 40, I had stopped [well, almost] comparing myself to others. I had ceased, that is, running a kind of permanent college reunion in my head, a life contest in which I always fell last in the lineup of imaginary rivals. It's a psychological tic -a corrosive habit of mind- that is almost impossible to break. Virginia Woolf was beset by this compulsion, aided no doubt by the fact that she was one of many siblings and was intensely competitive with her older sister, Vanessa. Her need to scope out her place in the literary landscape among other women writers, such as Katherine Mansfield, is writ large in her letters and journals and frequently got in the way of her friendships.
I myself grew up as one of six closely spaced siblings and my mother compared and contrasted us with one another at every opportunity, usually to my detriment. My two sisters and I were examined and characterized in mutually exclusive terms; they were what I was not, they had what I was missing. So I formed the notion that the only way to know what I was feeling about my life was to assess it according to the self-incriminating standards set by others. Being a person of hyperventilating, even brutal imagination, I took this to ludicrous extremes. I remember lying on a beach chair in Maui on my honeymoon, wondering why I wasn't on someone else's honeymoon. [Yes, my marriage eventually ended in divorce.]
I knew I had to change. I had before me as a cautionary example a much older friend, a woman writer who had been married to a more famous literary figure. Both of them had been part of the incestuous circle known as the New York intellectuals, and my friend had never come to terms with her place in the world, continuing to be racked into her old age by feelings of being insufficiently admired, compared with Mary McCarthy, say , or Hannah Arendt. Watching this woman ravage herself scared me. Somewhere along the line I stared experimentng with inhabiting my own life, without recourse to envisioning the life of imaginary or real Others. Having a child helped ease me into the constriction - and occasional vivid pleasures- of being me and no one else on this carpet ride. I'm not yet up to celebrating myself a la Walt Whitman, but one of these days I just might get there.
...Image: "The Rokeby Venus" by Diego Velazquez