A series of events sparked my thinking about whether we are or are not the same person throughout our lives. The first is a howler (better, of course, if you had actually been there) of an anecdote involving my husband and me in our adjustment to retired and semi-retired living. As we navigate these first few weeks of our “altered work status”, we find ourselves hanging out at home, in what might charitably be described as ever more casual dress. For me this summer, that has meant fairly ugly, baggy shorts. One day last week, I decided that I needed to go to our local food coop to pick up something for dinner. I asked my husband if he wanted to come along and have lunch in the coop cafe. As we pulled into the co-op parking lot, I looked down and realized that I had failed to change out of the ugly baggy shorts, a fact I announced with dismay. My husband kept assuring me that I “looked okay” as that is his nature. We pulled the truck to a stop, me still inwardly fuming at my sartorial failure, when my husband slid from his seat, began to walk toward the coop, looked down at his feet, and said “Oh god, I am still wearing my bedroom slippers.” We had that moment when we were simultaneously horrified and amused. And we asked ourselves: Is this who we have become?
Not long after the this incident (which we weakly vowed never to repeat), we went on a long (geographically) although short (temporally) road trip. Each stop represented a different part of my life: two days with extended family, an afternoon on my old college campus, taking photos of me in front of my old dorm room, lunch with two friends I had not seen in decades, time alone with my husband of 13 years. I saw myself at 19 and at 60, and at many ages in between. As a wife, a friend, a daughter, an aunt, a great-aunt, an in-law, all in multiple settings. I thought about how my appearance had changed, long-to-short hair, thin to not-so thin. Single, many relationships, then married. Friends of all sorts and in every corner. How much change occurs in one lifetime, and what does it all mean?
Toward the end of the trip, I came upon a profile in the NYT about the writer George Saunders. The reporter, interviewing Saunders at his home, notices a photo of a much younger Saunders, playing guitar “with white-blond Johnny Winter hair to his shoulders. . .” As if in response, Saunders picks up the photo and says “In our lives, we’re many people.”
Can’t stop thinking of that. In the most shallow example, am I moving from being a person in professional attire plus lipstick to a different person, one in baggy shorts? A person who spent decades striving in her career, now a person who is not? Were the decades-old funny stories my friends told my husband stories about me, or about a former me, one of the “many people” Saunders claims we are during a lifetime? If we are “many people”, what is the core of who we are, and does it shift, disappear and re-invent itself over time?
I don’t know the ultimate answer. For me, I would suggest a variation of Saunders’ comment. Rather than being many people in one life, I feel as if I am one person in and with many lives. I recognize the 19-year old as me, albeit a me with a then different life. My friends, whom I had not seen in decades, recognized me, and I them, despite the fact that each of us is living a life very different from the one we shared together. For some reason, this gives me comfort and a connection to the past that I savor. Life is what changes; what we get to carry with us, what is the constant, is who we are. What do you think?