Age does not automatically confer wisdom. If it did, every old person would be a joy and a treasure to meet and to know. Instead, wisdom seems to alight haphazardly in the strangest of places, although rarely where expected. There is knowledge and there is savoir faire, and these two can get you far in life. But they fly apart like leaves when wisdom approaches.
About 20 years ago I was doing some gardening work for an old man, who taught me a lesson. I showed up for the day in my old ripped jeans because I was gardening, but also because they were the only jeans I had. An old t-shirt, some old gloves, and a beaten up old hat completed the ensemble. This was, after all, back-breaking work in the tough Maine soil. On this day, the old man decided to take me around his property and show me all he was building with his new house. I have to say, it was impressive and could only be done with money “from away.” He spared no expense, and he was extremely pleased that I was pleased with all of his efforts.
On the way back to the gardens, he waxed eloquently about the vagaries of life and about what he was trying to portray with his new home and his long-awaited retirement. He suddenly turned to me and said, “Appearances are everything. Ev. Ree. Thing.” He said it just like that, dramatically emphasizing the final “everything.”
“Do you really think so?” I asked, not bothering to hide my laughter.
“Ooooh, yes,” he said as he rolled his eyes.
Then he gave me the once-over, taking in my ripped jeans and my old sneakers with a very derisive look, and he headed back to his almost-finished house without another word. I went back to my gardening.
Now, it must be said that this was, indeed, a very dapper and sophisticated old man. He was cultured and educated and tenured at a very exclusive university. He had money, position, and power, and he knew how to use all three. This was a man who was used to getting his own way. Always. I wondered why he had said what he said to me.
It must also be said that I have never cared very much about my own appearance. I don’t believe anyone has ever referred to me as dapper or sophisticated. I am educated, but culture and tenure continue to elude me. And then there’s money, position, and power. The short story is that I haven’t got any, and if truth be told, I wouldn’t know how to use them if I did.
Appearances are everything, he had said. My old car was parked next to his flashy sports car, and I thought about that as I smiled at how diametrically opposed the two of us were. But there was one moment, just one brief moment, I was thinking about as I admired the shiny red vehicle, and that was the tiny flicker I saw in his eyes as he was telling me that appearances were everything. It was the tiniest flicker. I gazed directly into his eyes and saw just the tiniest flicker of doubt. And I knew that his speech was intended more for himself than for me, although he probably didn’t know it. He could not close the curtains to his soul with all the money in the world.
Perhaps the old codger was right after all. Perhaps appearances really are everything. It just depends on what you’re looking at, really, and I was never one to look much at glitz and glamor. Superficiality is just that. I never reach for what I’m given. Give me instead the eyes, the windows to the soul, and I will paint an accurate picture.