My brother Michael has appointed himself the family archivist. He has been scanning old snapshots, giving them titles, and posting them on Facebook. I look at the images of myself, siblings, and parents from the 60s and 70s with wonder, and a pang.
My impulse is to say, “This is everything we were before [fill in the blank] happened.”
As I first stared at this image of me on my tricycle, I actually felt myself to be on the tricycle. I looked down at my chubby legs; I felt my rump on the curved seat. I remembered the time I rode the bike without sneakers and imagined that I felt my own innocent curiosity: I am going to do this because my mother said not to. My toes got stuck in one of the pedals, and my mother had to call Mr. Galaski from two houses away, because my father wasn’t home, to bring his tools to undo the pedal and get me out.
I stared at the image, too, from the perspective of today and had a feeling of looking at a picture of my own baby. The equation is as simple as this: I = my own baby. I even wanted to nibble on myself in the picture, as I wanted to nibble on my own children when they were infants and delicious.
I teared up, too. “This is everything I was before [fill in the blank] happened.”
Bountiful possibility. An almost-blank slate.
I don’t look at pictures of myself from my teen years or adulthood — even pictures taken at moments of extreme happiness — with the same sense of wonder. Where’s the cutoff point? When does possibility start to get narrowed down by development? It may be when the body starts to get awkward, when it loses childhood and hasn’t yet gained adulthood. Some sorting starts to happen at this point, by others (school, peers) and by ourselves.
By choosing one thing — or by being chosen for it — we close the door to another thing. There is no other way. The many doors of childhood cannot remain open indefinitely.
We change. The self who closes one door and opens another is a different self than s/he was before. I always find it interesting and troubling when I read a story of yet another person in his 40s or 50s who searches for and finds his high school sweetheart. The two of them believe in some true childhood selves at their core, and that they can be resurrected.
I do not believe this. My mature self may be continuous with my young self, but there is no unadulterated Jane.
The trick is to understand this and still to not give up on wonder. I’m sure most of us experience wonder at the world around us, including the people in it, but what I mean is that we must not give up a sense of wonder about ourselves, that we could make something new happen.
It’s so easy to hoe the same row over and over, once you get good at it. Earlier today I had a feeling of wanting to give up on my near-and-dear personal projects — skating and writing — because improvement, if there is any, seems only microscopically measurable. Everything is hard work and I am going nowhere fast. Time is no longer spread out in front of me, as it was when I sat on my red tricycle, or when my brothers and sisters and parents and I traveled across the country, sufficient in our station wagon and camper.
It’s funny, I actually think of myself as an optimist. This is starting to seem rather too pragmatic. What’s my message? That one must be realistic? Narrow one’s sights?
Not when the hunger is still there.
This week I went to the regular lecture for one of the classes I’m assigned to. There are many students and many instructors for the various sections. During the lecture, I turned and looked at the body of students for a while; some leaned forward, like tropical plants toward the sun, as the professor made his remarks and answered questions. I looked too at my colleagues who were in my sight, and I wondered at that secret something inside all of us, youth and middle-aged and older middle-aged. What do we all imagine ourselves to be on the verge of?
I could ask my brothers and sisters as well: What have we yet to do with our lives?