Incarnation.

Dear friends,

I have a recurring dream that has punctuated most of my adult life.

The details vary from occasion to occasion, but the theme is the same: I’m in between semesters, in between jobs, in between places to live. I don’t know exactly where to go or how to support myself. Graduation is still a few classes away, so adulthood is just around the corner, but not quite here yet.  Sometimes I imagine I will go back to my mother’s home and other times I imagine my father’s. (Neither landing strip is attractive to me so I try to keep moving.) Always, I am unsure – how to stay afloat just a little longer until I can earn my degree and get a real job.

Unlike a lot of my friends, my college experience was not idyllic. I worked three jobs and took out loans to get myself through, so I was certainly not carefree. Honestly, I don’t remember having much fun. I remember stress and worry. I remember being restless and melancholy and impatient. I remember getting my heart broken by a boy and feeling adrift. I remember just trying to get through another semester, then another, and another, just hoping something better was in store for me beyond graduation.

It doesn’t surprise me, then, that the old anxieties of my early 20s come back to me through dreams.  What does sometimes surprise me is how far I’ve come since then, how a girl who didn’t have a clue who she wanted to be or how to be it managed to find her place in the world and put down stakes,  how the ennui of my youth became the equanimity of my adulthood.

A friend of mine started an interesting thread on Facebook the other day about graduation memories, in which he said: “I think my 1988 self wouldn’t be comfortable with my 2012 self, but could recognize him dimly.”

His words gave me pause because it’s the opposite of my experience. I’m pretty sure my 2012 self isn’t comfortable with my 1988 self, or any of my selves before it.  Sometimes I think my recurring dream is suggesting that my 2012 self is still trying to outrun my 1988 self.

Maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated by the AMC series “Mad Men” and its protagonist Don Draper, a man who recreates himself at will, over and over again, at no small cost to those around him.  I’d like to think I’m not nearly as self-centered and detached as Don, but a piece of me understands his shark-like instinct to keep swimming or die.

Middle age (as I define it) officially arrives for me in 2012. My “big” birthday is in December and after I cross that line of demarcation, I am no longer young. But I often think youth, except for the stamina and the slenderness – and, lord, that taut, tan skin – is vastly overrated.  I think I’ve arrived at a place unimaginable in my teens and 20s  – a place amply comfortable, and peaceful, and stable, despite my peripatetic beginning.

Maybe I didn’t really run away from myself as much as I ran into myself, into the heart of a girl who couldn’t see the destination but clung to the path anyway, jaw set, hopeful the margin would widen over time, only to look up one day and see the self she never imagined but whose reflection is startlingly satisfactory.

Or maybe my previous selves coalesced, a collage of incarnations, each of them contributing a piece of my existential puzzle that is never really solved but whose mystery is nevertheless a glorious, curious, amaranthine quest for the single self which eludes us all.

With gratitude {for all my selves},

Joan, who offers many thanks to her friends and fellow lovers of words, Dave and Maridel, whose sentence and word, respectively, inspired this post

“And only the enlightened can recall their former lives; for the rest of us, the memories of past existences are but glints of light, twinges of longing, passing shadows, disturbingly familiar, that are gone before they can be grasped, like the passage of that silver bird on Dhaulagiri.”

— Peter Matthiessen, in The Snow Leopard

“I am no Hindu, but I hold the doctrine of the Hindus concerning a future state (rebirth) to be incomparably more rational, more pious, and more likely to deter men from vice than the horrid opinions inculcated by Christians on punishments without end.” 

— William Jones