Once, this girl could do anything

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?

L to R: Sally, Brian, Michael, Emily, mom (Elizabeth), and Jane. Dad behind camera.

6 thoughts on “Once, this girl could do anything

  1. You always write so movingly, Jane. Progress on the cello is likewise measured microscopically. I’m shortly to be a participant in my first student recital, with my youngest brother (John is only 60) accompanying me on the piano. It’s the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria”, which is also the first piece I was able to play on piano with my father at the violin. Musically I can only encourage you to stay away and wear earplugs for the whole day, but in a personal sense it’s got a lot of milestones and special content in it for both of us. Thank you again, Bob.

    • This is inspiring, Bob. I have a habit of looking to my older mentors & role models to see what’s ahead, what’s possible. There may be a recital in my future, too.

      And you also remind me that my relationships with my siblings may not be static. Who knows what miracle I will perform with one or all of them years from now?

  2. I had similar feelings when I found photos from my childhood. I really only remember the fear of adolescence and my ongoing recovery from it. In the childhood photos, I appear to have been brave and happy. I’m kind of like that again, but probably very different, although I can’t be sure since I don’t remember how I felt way back then.

    • I loved when you posted all those childhood pics on FB. I see the j3 smile in the little boy.

      I don’t recall what I felt way back then, either, but what I think I recall is telling. So, if I recall being defiant, then I must have some defiance left in me now. And you: bravery and happiness.

  3. The hardest thing about being in my 50’s was the sense that I could no longer live on the hope of what might be around the next bend in the road. It was like I was driving along, anticipating, and then there was a major rockslide in front of my car and behind it and there I was, me and my station wagon full of a lifetime’s baggage, unable to go forward or back.
    Now that I’m 65 it is somehow different. Those things that I used to hope would happen around the bend are not going to happen, but this doesn’t mean nothing is. And I’m just figuring out that I don’t have to try to hold on to being the same me — which is impossible anyway.

  4. And sometimes it seems as if that station wagon, too, will always be one’s own car: I am going to drive only this, and it will get older, for the rest of my life.

    It’s hard to minimize the imaginative presence of the stuff “around the bend,” which one always hoped would happen, and find a new movie to play in one’s mind. I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of fantasy in one’s life (and I don’t mean Harry Potter). Can we fantasize in a way that’s actually helpful to our forward motion, and not just paralyzing or chilling?

    And yet I don’t think we should actually seek to avoid frustration. My skating teacher said to me once, when I couldn’t get something: “I don’t want you to be frustrated.” And without thinking I said: “If I wasn’t frustrated I wouldn’t try to learn something!”

    Fantasy, motivation, frustration, ambition… they fit.

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