It crept up on me, really, like the cat you don’t notice until its claws are in and drawing blood. An aunt had sent me a letter. Amid family updates in slanted cursive, she mentioned some unexpected aspects of the aging process. Feeling invisible, she wrote, was a mixed bag. Knowing you’re not seen may be freeing, but it really drives home a sense of being old.
I looked up from the letter and thought for a minute. When had I ever felt visible? No answer came. I was not, nor had I ever been, on anyone’s radar as far as I could tell.
Perhaps that’s not entirely fair. As a kid I was fat and not at all confident, which made me a slow-moving target for bullies. Being shit on every day made keeping up in school a challenge, though, so I learned to blend in with the walls. When lunches in public areas were too risky, I found an open classroom and ate there. Showing up to be marked present in PE class was quickly followed by sliding myself behind the retracted bleachers in the gym and trying to pass a relatively motionless hour avoiding detection. I was good at this. Perhaps a little too good.
When you make a habit of not showing up, it spills over into situations where no threat is apparent. My invisibility may have protected me from bullies, but it made relationships distant and muted my voice as well. If I didn’t articulate my wants, they were overlooked, and I gradually stopped caring about them. The habits of others grew around my own way of being, and I became at best a vivid blur. Being queer and growing up in a tiny logging town meant I took the potential dangers very seriously, but I also didn’t rush to leave. Where would I go? Who teaches classes in human luminescence?
I’m older now myself and find that one layer of invisibility swaps out for another very easily. The field of play may change, but the sidelines still have plenty of benches.
In my early 30s I put some effort into losing weight as my health was suffering. But the two years when I lost 90 pounds were spent between permanent addresses and ultimately found me in a new town where nobody had seen my “before” picture. Rather than being seen as a person who underwent a dramatic transformation, I was merely seen as slightly overweight and once again easily overlooked.
I’m older now myself and find that one layer of invisibility swaps out for another very easily. The field of play may change, but the sidelines still have plenty of benches. Please note that these aren’t complaints. There is not a thwarted flamenco dancer somewhere inside me seeking justice in a pair of stompy shoes. If anything, my experiences have taught me that being unnoticed doesn’t mean there’s nobody there or that the person there is amorphous.
When it counts — and for a writer, that’s frequently on the page — I’ll insist on my specificity. I love licorice (all kinds, even double salted), and cats (except the hairless ones freak me out), and making garlicky minestrone soup in my slow cooker. I love women. I love learning the names of trees where I live and how attending more closely to nature encourages a deeper connection with it. Sycamore, dogwood, maple, redwood, so many oaks with their galls and catkins: my neighbors.
The past year found me fooling around with henna in an attempt to cover some gray hair while stalking the elusive day job, but it’s not a habit I can keep up with. I earn an income below the average for a freelance writer, so, a pittance; vampire breast lifts are not in my future, and I will not be whitening, straightening, or capping my teeth in any hurry. I plan to try to stay alive — and thus to keep aging. If that means further levels of disappearance from view, so be it.
This all reminds me somewhat perversely of the line from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
I may pass undetected, but I’m still right here if you know where — and how — to look.