Twice this week just gone she's sprung to mind. She was my friend's mother - we were 10, our friendship brief, deliciously intense - and I imagine she was oblivious to the ways in which she was shaping me. But when she cooked stroganoff, full of the mushrooms we never ate at home because my own mother hated them, I decided this must be what sophistication tasted like. And when she cleaned her house fast and furiously, Bruce Springsteen blasting through the doors to where we played in the overgrown backyard, I decided this must be what liberation sounded like. Last Saturday at Mt Smart, seeing Springsteen live for the first time, the inhibition that has crept up on me with age threatened, and I thought of her, dancing while she dusted, and instead got down and dirty. And when, on Wednesday, I went to a new Russian restaurant and there was stroganoff on the menu, a dish not fashionable since the 80s, I washed it down with several cocktails and hoped I was the woman I imagined I'd be.
Mostly we are ignorant of what we will become. I spent much of my teens and 20s studiously exposing and subjecting myself to what I deemed would be life-changing, character-building. Plays, poetry-readings, dance parties. Dating men I didn't really fancy but thought I should. And mostly what I learnt is I'm not one for live theatre, house music or pseudo-intellectuals. That in the end you don't actually choose who or what will impact upon you. That while you might hang off every word to roll from your romance languages lecturer's tongue, it's your boss from your part-time job at McDonalds who you actually quote at your first professional interview. That as the existential psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom says, "It's the interpretation of our experience that matters rather than the experience itself." That although you might come back from that two-day tramp raving about nature's transformative powers, the next guy just got a bunch of mosquito bites.
"Look," said my friend, walking past the local tennis club the other day. I looked and I saw a group of women our age enthusiastically whacking a ball. "My 16-year-old-self would never forgive me," she said, "if I'd ended up doing that." I could think of worse ways to spend a sunny morning, but I got what she meant. The younger we are the more exacting we tend to be when we conjure up our futures. And while in many ways I'm not who I thought I'd be (the high-powered life and soul of the party), I hope my younger self wouldn't be too disappointed either. That though she might sneer at the cliche, she'd appreciate how increasingly I find myself drawn to goodness. That now I understand there is beauty if you look.
Our seats at the concert the other night were located behind the area for people with disabilities and I tried not to stare at a young man. Prostrate, his head supported by a brace, he appeared completely paralysed, his only means of communication a small screen attached to the arm of his chair. He was accompanied by a middle-aged couple I took to be his parents, and I was struck by how attentive the woman was to his needs; putting a hat on his head, a blanket over his legs, taking it off again. I don't know whether he was born that way or a terrible accident or illness had befallen him. But I thought about how whatever that woman had imagined herself to be, she couldn't have imagined this. And how despite, or perhaps because of, their hardship, there was a unity and a closeness to the three of them you could search a lifetime for.
Last week I wrote about life when your partner is away, not anticipating what my words would mean to some. Several readers said they could relate to what I described, but for them the aloneness was more permanent. Kath became a widow four months ago, something, she says, she had never really considered. "So here I am, this new me, sitting on the couch, not only as widow, but another new label, 'solo mum' to our three boy men, and in your words, 'contemplating the loneliness of a new day with a reluctance to impose on others'. What I would give to have him come through the arrival doors one more time. To hold me. To be home."