Is there a peak period of being your essential self? Is this time universal or does it vary from person to person? Is your essential self something you become as an adult or are adults the remains of what we once were?
Do you return to yourself with the regressions of old age, when the murky, complicated middle aged bits slip away like the contents of files from work, those notes from a meeting that happened four years ago. Is your essential self like the idea for an initiative that later turned into a committee that became a task force and now you, the tradition of you now well established is, at say 50, hardly able to imagine that you were ever not thus?
I wake to Rachel Johnson reading aloud from her teen diary on Radio 4, the premise being that the teen self is perhaps the rough and uncensored real you that is refined as we age, but is the core. Why has she, callous leaver behind of unwell hiking partners, wanted to expose this seam of pure, unadulterated selfishness? To atone or continue to be remorseless? To forewarn future acts because it’s just who she is?
And at what point do we peak? And who would know? No one you can ask will have the entire arc of you. If you are there as a child and if it’s still you at 37, 45, 60 at what point did you ever change?
I flip through journals looking for a summer in the early 90s. I find myself staying out late, going to Wigstock, attending our friends’ band’s last show. That night someone says, “This is the end of our 20s,” even though we were still well in them, but I knew what he meant. The drummer had gotten a gig at the New Yorker. The bassist was engaged with a day job that was starting to be a career. Neither, at this point, were going to start a band, they were only going to stop being in them. Did this mean they would stop being those selves or that those selves needed to progress in other ways?
Was I more myself then or now? Certainly I was a better writer of journals then, funnier, more observant. I wrote notes on the televisation of Desert Storm, the weird wrongness of branding a war with TV graphics and ominous little musical clips to suggest the raining down of Scud missiles; the stories they showed us: journalists on hotel balconies; a group of terribly beaten soldiers, bowed heads, for me a viewer first, which I found deeply disturbing. Another first: movie violence that left me feeling physically ill for several days, a character assassinating his childhood friend. Are we grown up now? We see that human lives are fragile. Think of all that has happened since.
Does life distract us from ourselves? Or is it the immersion into the flow of living among others that gives our lives meaning and definition? Is our natural state one of yearning to be in a different state, ahead or behind of where and whoever we are at the moment? Or are you nothing without others?
I started this post a month ago, a reflection on meeting with a family friend, and maybe on that idea that when you look back at a period of your life you think, “I was a different person then,” but not so. And if you are composed of thoughts how many iterations of oneself must there be that we can forget things mid-sentence and still consider ourselves to be the same person?
Since starting this post in August, I lost a good friend to a sudden and unexpected death. His memorial has been happening on Facebook, among other places. Videos (talking smack in the persona of a tiger shark before a water polo match, making a documentary of his summer softball team and then of the actual memorial service, where his wife, daughter, parents and brothers all speak), photos and stories all point to a consistency of who he was: his humor and his acuity; his love of people for who they were, as they came, not as he thought they should be; his enjoyment of life. In a letter from travels in his 20s he writes to his brother about the experiences he was having with friends, “I have NO clean clothes. I stink like a dog. This is amazing.”
All the stories and the documentary evidence contain certain essential qualities of him that, over time, are a fluid and forceful unfolding of personality and enjoyment of each moment. As people write their remembrances of him, we define him and he defines us.
I watch the video of these childhood friends and feel that his life was lived so much more fully in his connections with others; his gift, not mine. And this, too, is the tragedy of dying mid-life, that we do see the arc of the person and he is mourned by the greatest number of people, across three generations, in the most profound ways.
Certainly eulogies seek common themes and traits to create coherence, but he was someone whose essential self shone brightly, clearly and consistently. My own story is one of revision and doubling back, reflecting and catching the flashes of light, turning the thing over and over, dark side, light side, told by a shadowy figure wrapped in a trench coat, a cigarette still smouldering on the pavement, a voice on the radio, an incomplete novel under my desk. Consider the palm reader, tracing the lifeline. Your story stops here.