My first magazine article, published 30 years ago, has a picture of me, the wannabe writer. There I stand: a young, suburban mother of two, all smiles and shoulder pads. Ten years later (astonishingly), I’m smiling from the editor’s page of the same magazine. I’m in corporate black, of course; I have streaked blonde hair, taut skin and mascaraed eyes. Fast forward to this year and there I am again, photographed for a recent story. My hair is grey now, and I’m wearing glasses.
Looking at this visual timeline of my professional writing life, I wonder which version of me is the most accurate. If I delve into the past, I find the 15-year-old, composing angst-ridden poetry; further back, I arrive at a five-year-old with a bow on top of a head full of stories.
Was my path set then? Have my later-life abilities been learned or have they been there all along, waiting for triggers to activate each new phase? How much potential is destined never to emerge because other choices were made? These are impossible questions but I consider them anyway, if only to remind myself to inhabit each stage of life fully.
Our days are only ever spent in present time, yet instead of feeling complete as we are, we mull over what’s gone and project to a future in which we imagine ourselves somehow improved. But when that day comes it is still ‘today’, and today is beset with challenges that didn’t exist back in what now look like the good old days when we were younger and stronger.
Who were we then? Who are we now? Philosopher Eckhart Tolle says that no matter how many definitions we create, none can describe the formless experiencer without whom there would be no experience. It’s a tricky concept, but I think I get it. My definition of self at various times has been daughter, sister, schoolgirl, student, wife, mother, single woman, editor, writer. Now I’ve added teacher and grandmother to my ever-evolving description of who I am. I have never not been me, yet I have been different expressions of me as the years have gone by and my experiences and circumstances have changed. This suggests that there is a self underlying all the things I’ve ever been, which is more than any of them. Each persona is merely a costume worn for a season of the long-running comedy-drama that is my life.
That is why I can look at my current form without feeling compelled to change or fix what I see. What I’ve lost in youthfulness I’ve gained in acceptance of how things are, and – paradoxically – in understanding that none of these apparent certainties is what it seems. I have no idea how we humans are going to navigate our troubles times, but looking beyond the transitory, external definitions of ourselves to the humanity we have in common may be a good place to start.
I’m grateful to have this writing life as my means of exploration – not only about the physical world, but the nature of the invisible threads that that weave our histories into the rich, interconnected tapestries that they are.