March 2023 . . . .


Quick definition — Umarell is a bit of regional Italian idiom that refers to men of a certain age who stand around, usually at construction sites, observing the goings-on and occasionally commenting to anyone within hearing what they think about the work’s progress. Giving unsolicited advice. It is a funny sort of a thing because I doubt there are any of us who cannot see in our mind’s eye someone like that. Serious-faced, a grandpa type, hands clasped behind their back, grumbling about the lack of this or that, or too much of something going on. Hard not to smile at such a picture, even more difficult not to see ourselves (yes, you too) in their place at some time. Soon. Maybe now. What I cannot tell in reading the definition of the idiom is if it is tongue-in-cheek or a serious thing. Are the men being made fun of?

A while back, Dad wrote a short essay, maybe for an adult Sunday school class he was leading, I don’t know, about those things we carry in our pockets, and what happens when we no longer need them. The car keys, some spare change, your wallet. Cell phone. Maybe a cylinder of Life-Savers. A penknife. Clean, folded handkerchief. We stop placing them on our person when there is no longer a purpose. No more car keys. No cash or credit cards, no driver’s license. At some point in our life, perhaps sooner than we want, or later than we imagined, we will have nothing to do with taking care of ourselves. And the bitter truth is that this moment will come upon us, will only happen if we are lucky. If we are privileged to have circumstances where we can afford for a level of care that includes . . . everything. Like royalty, we will walk around with our hands clasped behind our back, possibly literally, perhaps only metaphorically.

Nevertheless, without our self-worth, our obvious purpose — as represented somewhat by our pockets full of stuff, we begin to feel less ourselves. Less involved. Less useful. Less independent. We rely on our perception of those things to be part of the world we live in. Often we receive our perception as interpretation of how others see us. The obvious devolves into the oblivious. (Yes, that is just me being fatuous with wordplay.)

And so we fade away. Or just fade.

Clasping our empty hands behind our backs because we’re done with our pockets. Our pockets. Our apparently empty pockets. That lack is what we fear. Lack of usefulness, lack of value. But there is, not to be cartoonish about it, something out there. We have a perception-glitch that prevents us seeing beyond the horizon, as if it is death and we are not permitted to know until we get there, so to speak.

To me, it is a strange irony (like quarks, ironies come in different flavors — hidden, mad, charming, strange, top shelf, and bottom feeding) that we crave solitude, but not when we don’t want it. Unwelcome isolation is simply loneliness, and this is a completely different emotional beast. While solitude may rebuild and restore, loneliness seems to only inflict damage. And, again if we are lucky, we wander our mortal coil making social choices — to be with others or not to be with them (no Danish pun intended), or having those choices made for us. We measure ourselves by what we do, what we accomplish, and as the list shrinks, so do we.

May I suggest an alternative plan? Don’t surrender. Don’t let your usefulness be conditional. Get out there by yourself. Tilt at the windmill confidently, look, no hands! Maybe a bit of alone-time, in whatever manifestation that takes, when we’ve had too much group-think. Or immersion in the crowd, when we feel sorry or sad, to help us get past the moment. Yes, I’m painting with a very fat brush — nothing is ever this simple. But I think the point is valid. Be prepared for loneliness. March forward into it. Tuck your hands into the small of your back and stand outside, observing, nodding, gesturing at the world.