What remains

2014-08-09 15.19.51Is 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.


2 Replies to “What remains”

  1. Deborah Garrison’s poem “A Kiss” introduced me to the idea of versions of oneself, in which the speaker says that the kiss was “Not like having a conversation, exactly” but lead to newly discovered self-knowledge: “There was a part of myself. / I didn’t know. // An introduction,/then, to the woman I was like,/at least as long as you kissed me./Now that’s a long time, at least a couple of women ago.”

    I think it was last weekend, possibly around when this Wertis was taking on more shape, that I mentioned the Carly Simon line from her song “Grownup,” how the little girl in the song looks at the adult and doesn’t see a child who’s simpler taller and older. Funny and sheepishly sad, the truth of that.

    Which is a long way of saying, I’m not convinced of a peak time for an essential self. The very notion of a peak is probably a construct more than anything worked up by narrative needlers. A peak is simply narratively desirable.

    Are we the remains of what we once were? (which sounds a little like we are now running on fumes?) Possibly. Especially if what we once were had more brightness than today.

    The real life becomes stranger as one gets older, I’ll say that.

    Another bit from DG, in a poem called “Perfectionist on the Beach,” in which the narrator is arguing with a friend about the prospect of suicide: “If it’s pain you don’t like / you’d take pills, I said.”/ ….”Aren’t your curious how your life / is going to Turn Out?” This idea, that there is a now, and then there’s an After, when things have “turned out,” well: That is just so naïve, isn’t it? Just like this idea of What do you want to be when you grow up? As if we have control over all the elements that yield the life desired.

    I don’t know that there’s an essential self. There may be an essential set of behaviors, which so often can be very subtle, so often unfit for prime time or publication, emerging in the tiniest of gestures and tics and vocal intonations, the timbre of a laugh or the carriage of a posture.


  2. An addendum to my previous comment, which I think (but I’m groggy, so I might be mistaken) was left incomplete by the omission of two lines from DG’s “A Kiss”: “An introduction,/then, to the woman I was like/at least as long as you kissed me./Now that’s a long time, at least a couple of women ago.”

    “A couple of women ago” was what turned me on to the idea of different versions (editions? multiples, as a printer has) of oneself. Versions allowed for the idea of a container with many selves, such that the essentiality resided within the membrane and not with its contents.


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