Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Painting by Paul Gauguin

Ten years ago, I conducted ghost tours in New Orleans. This era of my life has become one of my party tricks, an ace tucked in the sleeve: the job title itself is an attention grabber, but with it comes a cast of colorful characters, a louche lifestyle, and a sort of appealing tenebrousness that surprises new acquaintances nearly as much as my tattoos do. My opportunistic storytelling–this reminds me of the time I learned to read palms and that sort of thing–is what prompted a Toast commentor to encourage me to pitch something to the site, which I did.

It’s easier to tell that reminds me of a time stories than it is to string one together in a coherent arc. I didn’t want to use the piece to retell the ghost stories themselves–they are really all over the internet, and in fact I’d need to use internet versions to reconstruct my own, since the memory of my scripted tour spiel has eroded with time. So instead I wrote about my impressions: how the streets looked, what was said, how it felt. These were much easier to remember, especially with the help of my old journals. I had a lot of time on my hands in those days, and have numerous files  and notebooks full of prose dedicated to the particular chartreuse light by the river and the winter fogs and the sound of hooves.

My journals also record my preoccupations of that time: yearning for a purpose or career, frustration with my lack of focus, hopeless crushes, detailed play-by-plays of parties or fun nights out. These were startling: in them I can very clearly see myself as I am now, ten years later. In some entries I am only just starting to articulate the values I hold now, or casting about for the language to describe observations I now hold as beliefs, but “I” am already there in those entries, such as “I” am.

It has always been important to me to think that I have changed, and that change is always possible. Everything I believe in depends on the conviction that people can and do evolve. Writing 101: your fictional character should change as events unfold. How surprising to think that maybe we don’t. How humbling to see my emotional core exposed, wanting the same things it has always wanted.

About a month ago I hosted a friend who had once lived in my city and was returning to see it, and me. We took a stroll in West Philly: he wanted to see the campus where he’d gone to college, and as we walked around he pointed out places where he had lived, gone to classes, had parties, met girls. “What do you think your self at 20 would think of yourself today?” he asked me.

I was surprised by his question and even more by my answer. I think that myself at 20 would admire myself in my early thirties. On paper I sound pretty good. I have an extensive education and an interesting job in a related field. I write when I can, and sometimes the things I write earn me attention and even money. I have a nice apartment, a comfortably busy social life, no spouse, no kids. That is more or less what 20-year-old me imagined as glamourous, desirable adulthood.

This was surprising because I spend no small amount of time complaining about my job, my bank account, my degree, and my perfectly lovely apartment. The question made me feel a little defensive, as though I had to justify my restlessness to this younger version of me.

20-year-old me is not necessarily the expert on who I am and what I want. 20-year-old me knew a lot less and experienced very little of the world, and she was likely to be impressed by things that seem stale or uncertain to me now. I don’t think that experience is the opposite of innocence: the life my 20-year-old self wanted isn’t more true or pure just because I wanted it first.

Still, that’s something to think about. What she wanted, and why. What I now want, and why. Why want is the core constant.

My mom has been going through our old things: notebooks, drawings, photos upon photos from when we still took our film to the drug store and got extra copies of everything. Some time ago she sent me a package that included a peach-colored envelope on which my teenaged self had written:

1. If you know what you want, find a way to get it.
2. Always be friendly, but don’t always make the first move.
3. Pay close attention to people, but seem to not notice them if they’re not talking to you.
4. To be happy you must be independent. To be independent you must be strong.
5. Should a cat walk by herself? Only if she feels like it.

I posted it on Facebook because I thought it very funny. How Machiavellian of my teenaged self. I wonder what I was reading or doing to prompt a back-of-envelope manifesto.

It’s also funny because the list so recognizably me. Rule #3 became a deeply rooted self-preservation instinct. Rule #4 is the north star of my love life. Rule #5, of course, refers to Kipling’s Just-So cat who refuses to be domesticated yet insinuates himself into domestic comforts such as warmth and milk. I’m still like that, I still don’t see why I can’t have it both ways.

I want to tell a story about myself that goes in a straight line, preferably forward and up: I endured and now I am stronger; I learned and now I know. But how many times have I had to relearn the lessons I tried to teach myself on the back of an envelope so many years ago? Suppose a character arc doesn’t arc at all, but loops back itself over and over? What can I do differently? What should I?

A blog post that ends in a question begs an answer. A painting that ends in a question provides itself as the answer: an landscape, a mood, something that exists in space and not in time. That’s how I intend this post. It’s an artifact, something to return to in a later year and ask again.


3 thoughts on “Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”

  1. I didn’t get a chance to reply to this when I first read it – in a Waffle House on the outskirts of a tiny Texan town. (It was my first time at a Waffle House, which turns out is not my thing, and Audrey was in the bathroom with Rebecca, and we were on the first evening of a 14-hour road trip, and I felt very far away from home.) This entry was unexpectedly comforting, though I’m not sure why. It felt a little lost too.

    1. That is a very long trip to take with a little person, too. Sometimes when I’m traveling I feel very aware that I’m like a sprig poking up out of an enormous sphere, and that I’ve placed my feet on an arc so far away from where I usually stand that it looks flat. Travel can do that.
      I guess I was feeling a similar way about the past, although I usually assume the opposite–I thought there was an arc, and am surprised by how flat it looks behind me.
      Waffle Houses are for hangover breakfasts or late night carbs, anyway.

      1. I forgot to tell you about the follow-up, which is that like 30 minutes after reading this post and leaving the restaurant, Audrey tossed up her waffles – I don’t even know how to explain how horrible it was, except that she ate pretty much her entire plate. My guess is hat those two events are going to eternally stick in my mind as my one-time Waffle House experience. Denny’s remains my go-to place for perverse late-night breakfasts.

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