“Who are we,” Italo Calvino asked, “who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined?”
Reading this statement, I thought about how much of what we refer to as our identity is given to us from sources outside ourselves: the family we grow up in, the books we read, the people who come in and out of our lives, the music we listen to, the films we see, the religions we choose to embrace or reject, the society and culture that we are in.
So much of our identity is shaped by story. The stories that are rooted in memory (a combination of both reality and our shaping of reality to fit within a specific framework or context that makes our lives a cohesive narrative). Much of those memories are stories that are told to us by our families about our past and how they recall who we were, what we did, and even in the photographs that were taken. That’s why when we lose someone from our past, we lose a part of ourselves, a part of our story, a part of our memory.
How much of our stories are shaped by the stories of our parents?
How much of how we see ourselves is shaped by how our parents see or saw themselves?
After the funeral of my grandmother, on my father’s side, I was sitting next to him on their couch in their living room. My dad said aloud, though not really to me, “I never got a new bicycle. Every bike I ever had was a hand-me-down. I never got a new one.”
In that moment, my heart broke for this man who still saw himself as a boy who wasn’t worth a new bicycle. How much of that one (what many would see as insignificant memory) shaped his life and who he became? How did that impact his relationship with his own parents? And how much of that memory impacted my own relationship with him and he with me? How much did it affect how he saw himself as a father?
My own mother saw herself, in many ways, through her own mother’s telling her of how horrible giving birth to her was and how she would never, ever go through that pain again. Because her mother presented her birth as traumatic instead of as a miraculous gift, my mother’s relationship with my grandmother remained a strained one. I think it also effected how my mother saw herself. The identity her mother was giving her in that retelling was one of difficulty and never with a mention of that act being worth it because she had her for a daughter.
In many ways, my parents both, I believe, felt in many ways, unwanted and how did this impact their marriage and their being parents to my sister and I?
How much of their fears and insecurities became those of my sister and I?
While having struggled with this for many years, I look on both, not in anger or blame, but with a sense of compassion and tenderness towards the unseen wounds that both carried within themselves.
How much of my own marriage and parenting has been influenced by my own childhood fears, insecurities, memories, and joys? Certainly I work towards parenting my sons by seeing them, not through the lens of my own life and mistakes, but as them having their own identities and not merely as a reflection of myself.
Certainly, having grown up a day-dreaming, overly imaginative, bookish kid, I have been shaped by the stories I cherished and read and reread most often. So often the characters in books were more real to me than the kids around me. One of the first authors whose works had a huge impact on me was Maurice Sendak. With classics like Where The Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, the Little Bear series he illustrated for Else Holmelund, his Nutshell Library series, as well as his collaborations with Ruth Krauss, I saw the world as wondrous and, while there were wild things, wild things could be tamed. As Maurice Sendak so wisely said, “. . .from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.” That was also why I was drawn to fairy tales and fantasy books (series like Narnia and Middle Earth) because they were not only an escape for me, but a way of processing the reality that there was light and dark, good and evil, and that there were obstacles to be overcome.
Childhood and memory are so interwoven with fantasy. Stories that are retold are reshaped and reformed. We remake ourselves over and over, again and again. How much of who I am is shaped not only by my own memories, but the memories I have of reading and of the books that are dearest to me? When I think back on my childhood, I cannot disconnect those years from the books I most loved: Charlotte’s Web, A Wrinkle in Time, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Anne of Green Gables, the Little House on the Prairie series, Little Women, The Secret Garden, and The Wind in the Willows.
These books shaped me and instilled in me a love of reading, of words, or imagining and living within the worlds that these beloved authors created. They led me to the books that would usher me from childhood to adulthood; to writers like J.D. Salinger, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Neil Gaiman and so many, many others. Certainly my childhood love of fairy tales and fantasy helped me to entere the magical realism of fabulists like Mikhail Bulgakov, Jorges Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, Salman Rushdie, and Karen Russell.
Their words have found me in times when I most needed them, to remind me that I’m not alone, that what I was going through was part and parcel of life. They connected me to a bigger world when I sometimes felt my world was such an isolated one. How much of my ability to embrace those different from myself came from being able to imagine myself as other characters from the books that I read?
How much of my own sense of self was emboldened by Jane Eyre’s? (“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will”)
How much of my deciding to adopt a child was born from Anne of Green Gables or the orphans that populate so many of Charles Dickens works?
In so many ways, I am what I have read. They have expanded my thoughts and beliefs, they have offered me better and more beautiful questions to ask, they have opened me to experiences that I would never have considered if I hadn’t read their writings.
The same could be said of the films that I have cherished. As a boy, going to the movies was a magical experience. There was no VHS Tapes, DVDs, or Blu-Rays to allow me to watch a film over and over again as my kids have. Instead, we went to the theater whenever Disney re-released one of their classic films (Dumbo, Snow White, Pinocchio, Peter Pan). Sitting there in the dark, watching these films play out on the big screen was overwhelming to me and I liked to imagine myself in their stories, as a character in them, as the hero who overcomes all odds and obstacles. Like fairy tales, these films showed me possibilities and that our choices determine our character.
As I grew older, these films were joined with super heroes (Christopher Reeve as Superman) and science fiction (I cannot even begin to express the huge impact the original Star Wars films had on my imagination and my love for mythology and the hero’s journey). After seeing films, I would go home and have my friends and I reenact or play out scenes from the movie (casting myself as the lead and hero each time). This became a way of processing what I had just watched and integrating its narratives into my own.
To this day, I am still drawn to films that embrace the magical (Pan’s Labyrinth, the work of Hayao Miyazaki, Amelie, The Double Life of Veronique, Fanny and Alexander). I am also drawn to works that make me think and to question. Directors like Ingmar Bergman, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick are all filmmakers who understand that art, like prayer, is a reaching beyond self towards the transcendent. The way they so often view the world, God, and nature has made me rethink my own and to ask, “What do I believe and why do I believe it?” (This also goes back to childhood and how much of our beliefs are not so much formulated by us but given to us by our parents).
What tiny details shape us in ways that we aren’t even aware of?
How much of who we are stems from what we imagine ourselves into being or becoming? How many astronauts or scientists became so because of Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or an author because of a book a librarian suggested we read and it changed everything for us in such a way that we could be nothing else but a creator of such imagined worlds? Or what film sparked something in the imagination of a child that stirred within them the desire to make their own movies?
How much of our present is an attempt to escape or rewrite our own pasts? I think, so often, when we get married, we marry people who remind us of our parents but, in whom, we hope will correct the mistakes of our parents.
How much of our identity do we allow to be shaped by the opinions of others and our need for acceptance? By our family, our peers, and our colleagues? How much of what we go see, read, buy or wish to own are shaped by what we see through the lens of others? Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
How much of our desires to have or to experience come from a wish to reshape our own lives so that it isn’t like that of our parents?
In his book Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald writes, “We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious.”
The self is not stagnant, but is ever-changing. Self is a process by which we become again and again, over and over, defining and redefining ourselves by what we discover and uncover in the world about us: through memories, books, films, music, relationships, friendships, experiences, travels, and discovering new questions to ask. There is something beautiful and frightening in that. And I cannot help but wonder: what will be the books and films and people who shape and reshape me in the years to come? Isn’t this all part of the wonderful mystery that is life?