Throughout my life I have had many insecurities, most of them having to do with my weight—my belly in particular, my face on occasion, my lack of “cool” from time to time. But one thing I have never been insecure about is my intelligence. It was measured, when I was young, and, accurately or not, proclaimed to be higher than that of a whole lot of people, and lower than another, smaller batch.
I spent a lot of time trying to live up to the promise of that proclamation, trying to become, and then becoming, verbally agile, fast on my feet, and then using that quickness, in a lot of instances, to my great advantage.
I realize, when I say smart and intelligent and fast on my feet, that there are shades of different meaning attached to all three. But I have spent a lot of my life energy either being smart, or trying to get other people to see how smart I am, or trying to get smarter, as well as being utterly bedazzled by those smarter than me, without ever really questioning if I was getting a good return on that investment.
My animals don’t give a shit about smart, for example, and they are the people I want to be around most of all. I have spent some percentage of my life in academia and have noticed that an awful lot of people in academia are brilliant, cynical, a little bit empty, and terribly, terribly sad.
And if smart isn’t the big thing, I wonder what is. One is tempted to say wise, smart’s older, calmer cousin. At fifty-three, I am finding it harder to pull up those banks of stored knowledge that were always at the ready in my thirties, so it is getting increasingly harder to sound as smart as I used to think I was. The Rolodex is wearing out, and since I can’t always produce the facts, I have to go by feel or intuition. Maybe one part smart and two parts intuitive gets a person in the neighborhood of wisdom, and maybe wisdom is the reward for all that forgetting. Stay in the moment, the yogis are always telling us, and that gets easier when you can’t remember where you were five minutes ago.
But kidding aside, I think what it comes down to is presence—bringing my whole self to whoever or whatever is right in front of me. Maybe the big thing is being all the way here.
This piece is adapted from “Five Crucial Things the 53-Year-Old Bitch Knows That the 39-Year-Old Bitch Didn’t (Yet),” by Pam Houston, an essay in The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, edited by Cathi Hanauer, published last month by William Morrow/HarperCollins. Cathi’s book can be purchased here.