Nick Hitchon is the handsome young 21 year old on the far right. That picture was taken four decades ago, after the release of the third film in the “Up” series, which has followed the lives of those in the picture from age 7. “63 Up”, opened to thoughtful reviews, with many critics quoting Nick’s observation: “I’m still the same little kid, really. I think all of us are”, probably because it captures a universal dilemma. What we retain—the “essence of me” as we barrel into the future— is at the heart of defining identity as we age.
The jokesters say, “I didn’t expect to turn into my mother” while the cynics say, “you can’t get rid of the past”. In my case, the joker and cynic regularly change places. In my 60s, whenever I met my kid I was surprised. Now she is following me everywhere, mimicking my mother (and my father as well) and occasionally still rebelling at them. Some of my kid-acquired habits are modestly noble (giving as much money as I can to those who have less) and some are laughable (squirming, as I did this year, at the Ghost of Christmas Past visiting me again with the groaning mantra of “a little lutefisk at Christmas keeps you Swedish for the rest of the year”).
But the good side of revisiting my kid is that it causes me to think about the power of childhood experiences that have shaped me forever. How being asked to write the music for my 4th grade school play left me with the belief that I could do most things that I had no idea how to do if I had some help along the way and didn’t expect the outcome to be perfect. How traveling to Norway for a year in 1955 (we had to go on a boat!) gave me both a life-long commitment to visiting new places and a belief that kids are really alike, even if they travel to school on sleds rather than buses, eat whale, and don’t speak English. I learned to “Knit the Norwegian Way” even before Arne and Carlos became famous…These experiences, which were challenging and joyful, are a deep part of who I became. I think about them now not as stories of fun times, but as stories about the kid who is still within.
The “positive aging” gurus call revisiting these stories legacy wisdom (or a similar term): We want to make sense of what we have experienced or done so that we can explain it, with modest coherence, both to ourselves and our grandchildren (Lord only know that our children don’t really want to listen to it….). Just as important is remembering how my “inner child” is reflected in what I choose to do today and how I choose to do it. Now this can get even more fraught than legacy wisdom, since “inner child work” is identified with healing early traumas that hold us back. I have nothing against that, but I honestly don’t feel that any difficulties that I experienced before I hit late adolescence were anything but bumps in the road – certainly not axel-smashing potholes.
Instead, I remind myself that I am still what I was then. As a child, my mother took me to the library every week and I would read the 5-7 books under the covers with a flashlight in order to be ready for the next visit. I loved the words as well as the stories. I liked playing with other children, but I also liked being alone – my father made me a perch in a small poplar where I could sit and read as the leaves quaked silvery green.
I was curious, and looked forward to exploring our encyclopedia (it was bound in a pseudo-green leather and I can almost see the print in my mind). I was always too ready to speak up in class, which some teachers loved and some hated. I was not a daredevil, but I wasn’t worried about doing new or unexpected things when they came up, and I was never concerned about being perfect. Although I rode my bike everywhere (like all children then), I was happier when I was sitting. I was not a jokester, but loved to groan at my father’s shaggy dog stories. (I also have to admit that I was regularly mean to my little sister).
I am all those things today — curious, wordy-nerdy, happy with others but equally happy alone, experimental and modestly allergic to formal exercise. These inner child characteristics are, perhaps, even more apparent than I was when I was jousting with the world of work and frantically trying to maintain a reasonable role as a mom while maintaining a svelte shape – in other words, wearing my adult overachiever persona like a shield. But meeting and enjoying my personal kid does more than solidify my identity – as a “person of a certain age”, when I bring my child with me, I am less afraid of the very real uncertainties of tomorrow. Listening to my kid means paying more attention to the activities and interactions that reward her rather than “professional Karen”, whose persona is also still part of me. It is my kid who experiences joy that goes beyond satisfaction with accomplishment.
I review the list of opportunities that I described in Curating Joy – and think more about how they will make my kid feel. What is the right balance between Zooming with others and being alone? What will nurture my curiosity? How can I plan my days to make sure that I have time to knit and read? So, as I write this I am playing with my wordy-nerdy kid rather than cleaning my house, which is crying for attention. I was never a perfectionist….
Let me end with the surprising similarity between Nick Hitchon (a physicist) and Gertrude Stein (an iconoclast): Stein said, “We are always the same age inside” before Nick came to the same conclusion. Or, perhaps, we all come to that realization on our own, which is why if you google “I’m the same kid” you will find over 1 billion hits.
At least I am not mean to my sister any more.