On Reinventions Big and Small

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A midcentury-era ceramic statue of Mother Mary is shown with her hands clasped and a lit-up halo of stars around her head.

Last week I read a really fascinating article about Ann Russell Miller, a socialite turned nun. Having lived to her late 90s, she described her life in three chapters:

  • Her first 30 years were dedicated to herself
  • Her next 30 years were dedicated to her kids
  • Her last 30 years were dedicated to God

Her reinvention was particularly shocking because she had been a wild, hedonistic rich-lady-about-town prior to joining the convent. But in her late life, she threw herself a farewell party and closed the door on everything she had known. She gave away her wealth, said goodbye to her kids and grandkids, and essentially stripped herself of everything that had made her her, at least in the eyes of the world.

Post-pandemic, a lot of us might find ourselves at a similar crossroads as Ann at age 61. After all of the disruption and grief and solitude: what’s next?

For me, change has been a constant. When I was a teenager, I would reinvent almost every year. These new identities were usually tied to subcultures around music or art. I was an unapologetic poseur, in the parlance of the times. I would get curious about things and want to not just experience them, but embody them. That might mean changing clothes, but also opinions, possibilities, and politics too. I still carry pieces of those past me’s – they’re like old friends.

In my twenties, all of my identity shifts centered around my romantic relationships. Essentially: Who am I in relation to this person that I’m dating? Where do we intersect? What new feelings and interests and activities do I want to wear? And what do I keep when the relationship ends?

In my thirties, once my love life stabilized, all of my identity shifts were based around professional growth. Who am I as a podcast producer? As an arts administrator? As a community manager? As a technology consultant?

The last big chapter to pass felt less like I was adding to my identity and more like I was subtracting. I had burned out really badly, and after scrambling to keep up with basic functions, my brain and body forced me to start quitting all the things. Every group I belonged to, every Slack channel I was in, every social media platform I was following. Quit, quit, quit. I needed a break from all the input to see what was even left of me.

Around that time, I became hyper aware that all of these identities – not just in my burnout era, but all my life – were defined externally. I changed a lot in reaction to individual people, communities, culture ostensibly to become happy, successful, and good. But really, it was just swapping out patchwork for vintage all over again.

Post-pandemic, as I’m approaching 40, for the first time I’m feeling called to start a new chapter that’s less focused on what I’m doing than how I’m doing it. It’s not nearly as dramatic as giving away all of my belongings and running away to the convent, but in the context of my life experience, it’s rebellious enough to spark some teenage-level thrill.