At sea with the true self


Someone I love seems intent on self-destruction. But that’s not how he sees it. Rather, he’s living his truth. His easy humor and gracious personality have been supplanted by a flag and an ultimatum: See me as I wish to be seen, or you’ll never see me again.

Do we all have an unchanging core identity that can be at odds with our body? He says yes. His anecdotal testimony ought to be good enough to convince me.

At the first explosion, he wrapped his arms around my neck. He was just a toddler then, maybe two years old. Fireworks bloomed in the sky above the swimming pool. I carried him into the club, swaying and jiggling as with a baby. He held on tight as blasts shook the windows. I could do nothing to banish what frightened him. But I was with him in solidarity.

Years ago. Why do I remember it now?

For him and his sister, I wanted to be like Mame Dennis in Auntie Mame—the movie version, starring Rosalind Russell. I wanted to be an unconventional, unconstrained woman living life to the fullest.

I’ve become, however, the type of woman who cares deeply about locally sourced in-season fruit. The most unconventional thing I’ve done lately is bake a lemon-zesty pumpkin-seed baklava. Strangely delicious, even he would attest.

In my world, it’s not unusual to be multiple people simultaneously. I live with my 95-year-old dad who, most of the time, is convinced he’s a 20-year-old merchant sailor. He recounts events from 1948 as if they happened last week. Sometimes, he’s a forty-something businessman with important deals to make. And, suddenly, he’s my regular dad who asks me where I am.

I’m here, in middle age. I can easily remember myself in my early twenties, heedless and naive. Or I can recall the optimism of my late thirties as a new auntie.

Much as I try, though, I can’t escape who I am now. I run errands and roll garbage bins to the curb. It’s not hard. My biggest responsibility is keeping track of everything on behalf of a household that jumbles and misplaces memories.

My sister and brother are dead, for example, but at times in this house, they’re vividly alive. I live in a place where people are both children and adults, both young and old, both alive and dead, both bereft and at peace. It’s not weird at all. It’s just a normal day.

So, I’m open to mystical claims about identity and existence. I’m open to, say, transubstantiation, in which a piece of bread can embody the divine. Or karmic rebirth, in which humans can inhabit future lifetimes as flowers, demons, or turtles.

Why not? We don’t know everything.

We’re free to believe what we want regarding metaphysical matters. Aren’t we?

Here’s my preferred metaphysical analogy: our individual lives are like waves on the ocean—arising, moving, cresting, crashing, always inseparable from the sea. Let’s say the sea is something immense, intelligent, and deathless.

Usually, we’re ignorant of this contextual sea. We observe ourselves to be individuals, and thus believe we’re disconnected beings, forever separate from everything around us, alienated at times even from ourselves.

In this analogy, the all-encompassing sea of inseparability is real, and so is the perception of separateness. Both are true. Human embodiment is the intersection of these two seemingly incompatible realities.

For thousands of years, people have devoted lifetimes to explicating this fundamental mystery. Yet I’m asked to believe it can be resolved with pronouns, hormone injections, and cosmetic surgeries.

Decades ago, my parents went under the knife for facelifts. My dad went first to show my mom she had nothing to fear. He almost died from complications. My mom was not deterred. I will never forget her post-surgery face—swollen, misshapen, and yellowish orange like a battered pumpkin. As I applied ointment to her lips, she said: “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”

Oddly, though, strangers sometimes comment on my elderly parents’ glamorous good looks.

Point being, maybe you think your life will be different or better after cosmetic intervention, but you’ll still be you, whoever that is.

If we’re not who we think we are, who are we?

He presumes the self—the vaunted “true self”—to be a static entity or sacred monolith. He wants surgeries, laws, and customs to ratify this monument.

Meanwhile, the self is drifting, undulating, and doubling back, moved by currents of memory and relationship.

My dad, the 20-year-old merchant sailor, recalls being mesmerized by sea sparkle. As his freighter cut through dark waters, the wake of the ship glowed with eerie luminescence. I’ve never seen such a sight, but I almost believe I have seen it because my dad has told me about it, and I can imagine it, as if his memory is part of who I am.

Memory and relationship—independent of these, how can there be a self?

I remember a warm autumn day when he was six months old. I held his tiny hands as he danced on the patio. In addition to whoever else he may be, to me he remains this radiant boy who’s like an emissary from another, happier world.

I’m not that person, and never was, he can protest. Because who’s to say? Who adjudicates such claims?

Granted, memories are not infallible nor necessarily factual. People can share the same memory yet disagree about its content and meaning. Not all memories are worth revisiting. Certainly, some relationships are better forgotten. Sometimes people just make shit up.

Still, I hope someday he’ll be older and discover how little control one has over memory and digression, and how one loses and finds oneself in shifting tides.