Last week the Accidental Icon Project turned seven. I can’t help but think of the term “seven-year itch” because I have one. The term, introduced in 1955 when I was two, came from a film based on a play starring Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell. In keeping with my moniker, it contained perhaps the most iconic scene ever delivered by Marilyn Monroe; her standing over a subway grate her white dress blown upward by a passing train. The film is the story of a middle-aged man having fantasies of an extra-marital affair with a younger woman to relieve the boredom of a monogamous relationship. It reveals the pleasure derived from flights of fancy, but also the guilt involved in the contemplation of transgression.
The Urban Dictionary describes the seven-year itch as, “The common time period where the desirable, or sometimes undesirable, urge to change comes about.” Here we’ve always called it the “What Now?” This desire to change at fairly frequent intervals has alternatively been labeled by society as pathological (during my early life where long term stable work situations and interpersonal relationships were the hallmarks of a psychologically healthy person and instability named borderline personality disorder) to now where constant change is the norm whether that be in the work you do, how you perceive your gender and the way technology creates new things at astounding speed. Common knowledge suggests the need for a dramatic change in life comes about every 5-7 years or used to; perhaps this is no longer a relevant marker given the speed we travel at today. If I look at how my life has developed, the itch usually begins at the 5-year mark and I spend the rest of the time being uncomfortable with its nagging and then find a way to soothe it. This current itch probably began 2 years ago and intensified to an almost unbearable level during the Great Interruptor.
I change where I live (a hands-down favorite dramatic change), go back and forth to school (collecting 2 masters, a Ph.D., and many continuing education credits along the way). I think the best thing about being a social worker is that as a profession it accommodates an endless change in role and in the systems and spaces where you can work. I’ve been an administrator, a clinician, a trainer, a consultant, a community organizer, a policy advocate, an expert witness, a supervisor, a field instructor, and a professor. I’ve worked in residential facilities for adolescents, jails, private practice offices, law firms, community-based organizations, family and criminal courts. I’ve used theater and art to do my “social work” as well as evidence-based interventions. The constant for 38 years has been my daughter, my immediate family and Calvin has already broken my romantic partner record coming in at 22 years and counting. My new constant is the first home that we own; we’ve committed to constant after years of renting to make the seven-year itch more easily scratched.
Seven years ago, while very itchy indeed, I started, though I still maintain accidentally, a successful social media enterprise for which I have earned more than I did as a social worker and professor, which says something sad about what we value. During the last seven years, featured in fashion magazines, news programs, commercials, and music videos I’ve traveled to China, Japan, Spain, Great Britain, Portugal, France, Netherlands, Iceland, Germany, and Switzerland. I am grateful, as this project has allowed me to save, making retirement a little more comfortable than it would have been if I remained working only as a social worker. If I’m like my almost 95-year-old mother (who I resemble in many other ways), I still have a lot of years ahead to fund. I got to travel in ways I never could have afforded.
It seems fitting as I reflect on what I wrote today that it is being written on Labor Day. The day where my country celebrates the achievement of its workers. Work has always provided the context through which I construct my identity. It’s always a challenge to de-couple this. When I’ve remained in a job for long periods of time, including my last 20-year stint as a professor, it provides a container for how to structure the tasks I must do every day, the people who become my friends and closest relationships, what I wear, how I travel to and from and provides an endless stream of new experiences and challenges. It provides a center when everything else around me does not hold. I’ve been unmoored since I stopped being a professor and the context in which I performed as Accidental Icon was abruptly interrupted by forces that were out of my control. The structure of weekend shoots with Calvin, the steady influx of opportunities to travel, meet new people, get dressed in endlessly new outfits, and have experiences I’ve never had before, has slowly disappeared like a burst of air rising from a subway grate, revealing something glorious for a moment and then passing by like the train that created it.
Yet considering all that has occurred during the last almost two years and keeps relentlessly occurring, I found I’ve lost the edge that has always been the hallmark of this persona I have created. I’ve become vulnerable; softer and more rounded in how I show myself on these platforms now. Sharp edges feel dangerous; like they will cut me and I will bleed. They surround me like a cave of long shards of stalactites. They are floods and fires, guns carried in the street masks unworn despite the risk to your fellow humans, death and disability, neighbors being paid to report you, or anyone who helps you, for a decision made in the most desperate of moments for a woman. It’s a powerful time of reckoning. Nature and what it means to be human, to are as a human, is holding our feet to the fire; literally and figuratively. It’s a time that calls for bravery in severing the relationships, the value systems, and resources that don’t acknowledge the gravity of where we are right now. I struggle with the implications of making this transgression against the systems that have rewarded me so generously these last seven years. While I may not feel edgy, I feel strong. What does this mean for how I will labor now?
My “itches” have always resulted in a re-invention and involve constant recycling of the knowledge, values, behaviors and experiences I have cultivated throughout the life I lived until the current moment. I try to think about what this time in history calls me to do. One benefit we have as we contemplate the questions of “What Now?” and “How to Be Old” is the vast pile of resources collected when one lives for a long time (the neutral, societally uncluttered dictionary definition of old). When we focus on this plethora of riches, rather than on what we may lose, or have lost, we can open ourselves up to endless inspiration when we ask ourselves the question, “How will I labor?”
I’m making a list of all the knowledge, behaviors, and experiences I have collected during the past seven years. What needs to be different is the lens through which I view them. This has been unsettling to me. During the last two years, as I experience the itch yet again and figure out what balm I need to soothe it, values and purpose have been on top of my mind. Perhaps I’ve re-discovered the ones that are important to me that got set on the back burner while a gourmet meal was cooking on the front; writing and expressing my creativity in the service of something more. As I sift through all the literal and figurative clothes I’ve collected, souvenirs from my travels, and what I do to sustain it through various value lenses, I am reminded of the experience of securing a new prescription for your glasses; the back and forth of the changing lens that makes your vision more blurry or clear. The value of care for people, the planet, and the community seem to be the one that provides the greatest clarity.
This week is NYFW as it was seven years ago when I waited on the Plaza at Lincoln Center for a friend and was christened the “Accidental Icon.” I had no notion of what would happen to me, no expectations of what could happen when I accepted the name. This fashion week I feel once again like an outsider looking in as I did then. This year I’ll be having a tiny dose of events and shows, just enough to provide a little excitement, break from my routine and see friends I haven’t seen now for two years. This week my agent sent out my book proposal. Once again, I do not know what will happen, no expectations, just throwing something into the universe again to see where it lands. Perhaps if luck is with me, like it was then, I will find some direction in how I will labor.
I heard a wonderful quote during my London Writers Salon session Monday, Labor Day. By Amie McNee, the words that I wrote in my journal are, “Create to connect to those who need you.” Creating is not a sport, it shouldn’t be about competition, which, when done on Instagram, it quickly becomes. So dear readers, part of figuring out what that means for me is asking how what I can create could be of use to you, as I also ask that question of the earth and my new local community. So this week I leave you with two questions:
“What can I create for you that will make you feel connected?” and “How are you thinking about your labor?”