We baby boomers are lucky if we can look back on a life well lived. But that’s not all of us. Writer RP Dennis looks back these days on a life well achieved, but not always well lived. Maybe there’s a lesson for others from this part of the prologue to her newest book, Meaner Streets.
I have been a uniformed Catholic schoolgirl, a benign druggie, a slouching activist, world traveler, two-time marathoner, smoker, disco maven, and porn, romance, and novel writer, psychologist, professor, filmmaker, gay when it wasn’t cool, and now a dinosaur lurching with my Boomers toward life without the marching, chanting protests we were sure would change the world. There’s still that gnaw of naïve altruism that made burning draft cards and Dow Chemical files noble acts. But now there is what seems a sudden creaking limit on who I am. It shocks me stupid. I am a tie-dye thinker trapped in an Eileen Fisher wardrobe.
After turning fifty I ran away to California again, this time to LA instead of the hip San Francisco of the Sixties. With three Masters degrees in clinical, social, and environmental psychology, a Ph.D., and twelve published novels, I started from scratch in UCLA’s Masters of Fine Arts program in screenwriting. That was my dream in a life of doing everything and being everything I wanted. Privilege without a trust fund. That was the ideal of my liberal education tinged with weed, LSD and equality for all. The good old days.
But in the turn of the shallow century I live as a gunslinger. The twenty-first millennium’s overeducated, hired help: an adjunct professor with an armload of textbooks rambling daily from college to college, teaching the classes no one else wants at crack-of-dawn start times or scary 10:15 p.m. end-times through dark and empty parking lots. My students run from classrooms before I even begin my lonely pack-up. I have walked backwards down many hollow corridors expecting attack. My sense of balance now rivals Philippe Petit’s when he walked triumphantly between the tops of the World Trade Towers when they were still new.
In the Eighties and Nineties in New York I adjuncted while I wrote romances and finished my psych degree. I taught a writing class at New York Tech in central Manhattan that ended at 12:30 and an Environmental Psych class at the Fashion Institute of Technology down on Twenty-Fifth Street that started at 12:20. You learn how to give group assignments that begin and/or end in class so the professor doesn’t have to be there. No, you’re on the train sweating making it to your elasticized class times. But it was fun and, damn, I was good.
I have loved and sought this life. Actively avoiding real jobs left me free to write, to party, have affairs, make film, be irreverent, stubbornly but passively anti-establishment… a fool to staying young. A friend who is a judge in New York labeled me one of the voluntarily poor. But privileged. The product of a true liberal education of those golden Sixties days. But freedom really is just another word for nothing left to lose, Janis. My most precious possession is my brain and I’m stupid enough to think it’s enough when I can barely buy my own lunch or pay my cell phone bills. Others of my generation own homes, have retirement plans, kids, stocks and bonds, and a security I have never planned for and thought was a sellout to pursue. Joke’s on me. I like to think I possess an economic purity, a perpetuation of Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out. If you get a pang in your stomach when you hear this, the ghost of that metallic taste of acid in your mouth, then you know exactly what I mean.
What have I done with a life filled with universities, writing romances, and some light work, and what do I want now? A job. I’m desperate. At over 50, I’m a woman alone. In the Low Countries of Belgium and France they called us femmes seules— “women alone”— in the Twelfth Century. At that time women escaped the Church’s wrath for this dishonored condition of independence and too much knowledge— also later known as witchery— and flew under Churchy radar by joining convents if they were rich enough or by pretending to be more religious than they really were. They did this in working collectives where they lived together as artisans, as goldsmiths, saddlers, soap-makers, leather-workers, cloth-dyers. They lived by the work of their hands, banned from the guilds, the unions of their day and so, alone. I’m alone because my partner of twelve years left me. OK, she died. I’m still angry on the days I lurch around needing an assessment of my makeup, how jeans fit, which detergent to buy, what movie to see, damn it, what to eat.
Copyright RP Dennis 2011