Through most of my life, and particularly my online life, I’ve been extended outward, performative, people-pleasing. Idiosyncratic and individual still, but putting things out there and waiting for the echo that tells me I did well, met some standard, am enough.
Leaning too far, I lost some of the core connection with myself. My project of the past couple years has been to bring myself more solidly on my feet at my center. Confident in my identity not only in presentation but practice. Grounded. Self-secure. And thus better able to perceive and protect my own boundaries, and correspondingly less worried about others’ impacting me.
Heady stuff, but the practical upshot in terms of online presence is to be a little more private. Also to look askance at the way the web I first came to and helped make has twisted to be a stranger, more commercial, more exploitative place. That observation only makes me pull back with more certainty. My librarian and historian instincts are outweighed by my increasing appreciation of personal autonomy.
That strong center self of the present slides the past within a wall, where friends are welcome, but strangers and bots needn’t pry. Not a fearful withdrawal, but a cheerful ‘well, I think I’ll be headed home’ to those near me as I leave the sprawling, chaotic, strangely populated streets of a changed neighborhood I used to know better.
My pre-kindergarten self, in her wide round-collared plaid dress, looks up from the book (Curious George?) she’s reading by a huge paisley pillow, glances around at the grown-ups talking grown-up talk and, bringing the book, comes to the children’s area within the wall where she can just be a little person who can act her age and nothing more.
Next the more adventurous little Dinah a year and more later, at the park playing on the old steam locomotive—yes, the children’s playground near my childhood home had an actual locomotive you could just clamber all over—in the company of my mother and the fluffy family dog. Mother and this, later the elder dog, look young and vibrant. My mum’s on that cusp between styles, bouffant top of her hair, but long and straight on the sides, hippie with a day job. Little Dinah has, apparently, a green jumpsuit? which is awesome, and sits on piping halfway up the front part of the engine, hanging from pipes that lead into the cab. I remember pulling and pushing levers in that cab in the early days before things broke from the vigorous work of amusing kids. This little green clad self gives an enthusiastic shout, climbs down to the metal walkway, through the cab, and runs down the access ramp by the train engine, almost falling, still shouting, and into the playground inside the walls where explorations are endless and ever-new.
Here she is again, just the next month, with a shovel, and soon a hole big enough to sit in, hair up in a ponytail for working, but child Dinah having wisps escaping restraint just like Dinah now. A camping trip adventure with my grandparents. Dirty and happy and full of vitality and can-do, will-do, that little Dinah marches in behind the wall, selects a location, and begins excavating a new hole, but bigger this time. My long-gone grandparents laugh and grin and give us both a thumbs up.
That’s the little Dinah I remember, but there was also the one who was girly and wore a fancy pink dress and a ribbon in her hair for a special occasion. I don’t know her as well, so many girly things were segregated then as not being smart-person things, and it was very important to be a smart person. Was I having fun? Or being good? How much of Dinah then and through the rest of childhood was interested in stereotypical girl-stuff, but backed away from it because it seemed like a fork in the road with books and exploring and getting muddy and building things down the other path? I invite her in behind the wall, there’s a tea party and a costume wardrobe as well as a workshop and pathways through the woods and a library of all the books ever. She can have all of it, in any order and combination.
Perhaps the next month little Dinah was sad. Immunizations against measles, mumps, and polio. Bring her in and let her feel the glorious relief of understanding the threat she was spared. Worth the discomfort, still OK to cry and think it’s dumb and awful to have to do it.
Another couple months on and little Dinah is at school, climbing up a big tarp covered pile of something (hay bales?), book under one arm, Peanuts lunchbox in the other hand, to join my best friend Rick on top, while another kid I don’t recall frowns ferociously, possibly at the proximity of my book to their face. In the background is a rusty old tractor as another piece of ‘playground’ equipment, a goat pen, and the beauty of the rural valley where I spent my first eleven years of school on a six acre plot that never held more than 80 students. Here’s a Dinah that I recognize inside me still: sneakers, comfortable clothes suitable for adventures, something to read, something to nibble, a friend to share the fun. Bring her in behind the wall too, and let her tell us all about the book, and maybe share a bit of lunch. Is it french bread with butter? Present Dinah misses that (sensitive gums can’t take the crusty bread scrubbing). Present Dinah will step into those little sneakers and run around outdoors all day with no pressure (“Side effects of this medication include sun sensitivity.”) Freedom and so much blue sky above.
Here’s the beginning of the end of the happy obliviousness of very young childhood a couple months later. Laughing, excited little Dinah in her white turtleneck and her patchwork maxi skirt doesn’t know that the parents on either side of her will soon decide to part ways, and her daddy will change to something more distant, still loving, but ever mysterious and somewhat confusing from then on. We’re at grandma and grandpa’s house (my mother’s parents who hold those titles first in my mind now, perhaps then too, having spent more time with them), my parents sitting on the brick hearth-bench and me standing between them, only just at full height as tall as them seated. I’m holding a natural colored deer model, Breyer maybe, perhaps a Christmas present I’ve just received. Present Dinah has a silver deer in the same pose which serves as my primary holiday decoration at the end of each year. Everyone looks happy and as I welcome this little Dinah across to show off her deer, I let her teach me how to believe in the present happiness, enjoying it without worrying about past or future.
Four months on and this Dinah also can teach me that lesson, she sitting cradled in Grandma’s lap in the springtime foothills of the Sierra Nevada, dressed for hiking, gathering wildflowers, joyous in the beauty of the world and the time together. Welcome, love.
Two and a half years pulled close to me, and made private. Treasured, but also no longer self-defining.