Finding freedom on a middle-aged island

And then, not expecting it, you become middle-aged and anonymous. No one notices you. You achieve a wonderful freedom.

–Doris Lessing, British author and 2007 Nobel Laureate in Literature.

I hate to disagree with Doris Lessing, but she’s never been middle-aged on Bainbridge Island. If all the middle-aged people here were anonymous and invisible, we’d be a pretty empty place.

Maybe we’re not talking about the same kind of noticing. Maybe she has a different idea of freedom.

In one of my favorite Lessing novels, “The Summer After the Dark,” her protagonist, Kate, experiments going into meetings as a total frump, or smartly dressed with an expensive hair cut. She gets lots of attention all spiffed up, but passes through the room unseen when she’s a mess.

It doesn’t work that way here. Never try to buy something quickly at the Town & Country when you’re hoping to be invisible on a full-frump day. It can’t be done.

I don’t care how middle-aged you are, nor how much you’re hoping that no one you know will notice you’ve forgotten to change out of your flimsiest flip flops and that your roots need touching up and that you smeared saffron-colored lily pollen all down the front of your white jeans. You will see and be seen.

On the other hand, I’ve been reading about the natural brain opioids, oxytocin and dopamine, which get released into the blood stream when you get a warm, joy-filled hug from someone who is both relaxed and glad to see you. Like your mom on her best days.

It’s possible that T&C could be investigated for dealing drugs, judging by the number of hugs I’ve seen administered there. It’s a fine place for getting your neurochemical fix.

I’m no expert in this field, but it appears that oxytocin also keeps your adrenal glands from releasing the stress hormone cortisol. If you’ve watched any late-night cable TV you know that “Cortisol causes belly fat! Cortisol causes belly fat!”

We are a pretty lean bunch here on Bainbridge, in spite of all the wonderful bakeries and all the great food spilling out of our carts in the markets. It could all be hormonal.

Doris Lessing is one savvy woman so I don’t discount her notion of the cloak of invisibility you gain from giving up any hope of youthfulness. On the other hand, it takes a lot for us to do that here.

I don’t mean the Hollywood Extreme Makeover kind of hold on youthfulness. I’m talking about the energetic mom with mostly grown kids who not only participated in the Danskin Women’s Triathlon Sunday morning, but who later that day looked great and brimming with energy hurrying through the dairy aisle in her race togs, her entry number still scribbled on her taut bicep.

I’m trying to understand the freedom middle-aged obscurity gives you. Freedom from posing as someone you’re not, certainly.

A self-educated intellectual, Doris was raised by a proper British mother and a father damaged by the Great War. Born in 1919 in Persia, raised in Southern Rhodesia, two countries that in name have ceased to exist, she has moved around the world and through philosophies — Victorianism to Communism to feminism to Sufi Islam when she found her life short on spirituality.

She was, and to my mind, is still beautiful. The body of her work is staggering, and she’s won every award England can offer. Approaching 90, her latest book is a memoir of her parents published earlier this month.

What I love about our little island is that we’re known for more than extraordinary vitality, that we’re more than a place rampant with opportunities for spontaneous hugging.

We’ve got people here who in their own way are also beautiful, whose work in their later years continues to inspire, and whose eager curiosity about life brings them change and growth every day. People who embrace Doris’s legacy of resisting expectations of role, duty and class – and age. In other words, freedom.

Eve Leonard is a island writer and a real estate agent

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