Chap. 9, How to tell if you’re really you, after all these years.
To me, it seems we all have a crucible age — some crux where, within the alchemy of time and experience and pressure, an overlord of our personality is born. Mine emerged around the age of 15, in troubled times. My sister says hers was born around the age of 25, in good times. Depending on who you are, the overlord might be stern or sensitive, the pain body or the essence of the highest of ourselves.
Over the years, in times of crisis especially, I feel the creep of the 15-year-old sidling in, an adolescent in a Catholic girls’ school tweed skirt, one whose father didn’t believe in fiction or fantasy (because, after all, why would you, when you had the here-and-now along with a firm footprint of the future.) Shoulders back. Chin up. Stop reading novels.
In college, pretty much all I did was read novels, study dead languages, and learn about art. The overlord was thrashing, in transition, seeking a balm, liberating and alchemical.
I’ve always been a fan of fiction and imagination and romance — of what on a good day you would call the greater heroism of our lives and on a bad day you would call dangerous liaisons and a waste of time. That being said, some of my greatest heroes and favorite friends — spirits I have learned the most about from — have been not real people but fictional characters. Some have even been animals.
Early on, the most profound fictional character I knew and one that richly filled my heart was the country bunny from The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. She was the single mother of 21 bunnies, clever, wise and swift enough to become the gold shoe Easter bunny (despite being made fun of by the younger and more masculine rabbits in the running). A gold shoe Easter bunny could fly to where the Easter baskets meant the most — to an invalid child, for instance, at the top of a mountain. What was not to love and cherish about this charming, humble and exceedingly strong child-rearing rabbit who wanted a life of service?
To me, the story (like a few others in my life) had everything and could never have been told any way but the way it was. It makes me wonder about the person who wrote it (DuBose Heyward) and about the person who illustrated it (Marjorie Flack) and about the time it was written (1939). The message is so modern and timeless! A young child hearing this story lives and breathes with the country bunny, feels the love she has for her children, the courage in her heart, the goodness. Does the effect this had on me not make her real in a most profound way?
In reacquainting myself with my own characters, the population of a novel written in the 80s and one that I have literally not reread in 20 years, I feel warmed and so reassured by their presence. Not because they are exceptionally complex or memorable or even that well drawn. But because they kept me company just as the real and parallel people they were based on had kept me company in my life. They filled me up, made everything feel so expansive, so seamlessly flowing from imagining to being to being imagined. In meeting my characters again on this road of rereading and rewriting, I recognize so much of myself still in them, so much of them still in me. However many more challenges I’ve met, wrinkles I’ve collected.
It makes me wonder about all the mind-stretching things I love to wonder about, the things that make me feel free inside instead of wrestling with the overlord whose grip is getting tired and boring. Is my creator imagining me every day? Am I based on a million other hearts that humanity has given birth to before me? And by what act of grace can my story unfold in more heart-opening ways? And who am I, really?
Well, one thing we know. You can’t be anybody but who you are, whoever that is. Because everybody else is taken — right?