The older I get, the more the Buddhist idea of no-self makes sense to me. That there is no fixed and unchanging kernel within a person, no eternal and immutable identity, seems especially true when I look back over my life and see all the people I have been in only a few short decades. For example:
As an adolescent I was full of angst and self-loathing. (What teenager isn’t?) Preoccupied with death and sorrow, I hoarded the silica-gel packets that came with new shoes and in bottles of vitamins. The packets said Do Not Eat and so I thought they were a deadly poison. If ever I needed to off myself, I’d be prepared.
As a young woman, I belonged entirely to someone else. Caught up in a psychologically abusive relationship for many years, I lived to please a severely damaged person, to manage his dark and unpredictable moods. I don’t even remember what I thought or felt back then; those years of my life are an unreadable smudge.
Later, I was the Bride of New Orleans, a woman who stood on the banks of the Mississippi River and married an entire city, ring and all. And then I was a refugee from Hurricane Katrina, ragged, heartsick, and homeless. No place was beautiful to me because all places were equally not-New-Orleans.
From the ashes of that emergency, I rose, Phoenix-like into a creature who lived in Arkansas and drank whiskey straight from the bottle. I shaved my head in Arkansas because as much as loved cornrows, my hair wouldn’t stay in them. Once, I spray painted my body gold for a party. With actual spray paint, not body paint. Did I care about chemicals and poison and cancer? No, I did not.
When I got married and changed my name, it sent me into a minor crisis. Who was this new person named Watson? I wore vintage aprons and baked whole chickens. Where had the other girl gone? I suppose on some level, the permanence of my new situation unnerved me. Despite the aprons and chickens, I insisted to my new husband that travel was of utmost importance, as was living other places. I had chosen him for life, but that didn’t mean I was “settling down.”
Am I the sum of the “selves” I’ve been? Or am I like a river that floods and changes the shape of my banks each season? Or am I somehow both? Some days I long for New Orleans so bad it hurts — but only some days. Some days I put my apron on and bake a chicken, but mostly we live on pre-cooked foods. I have no urge to spray paint myself ever again, but more days than not, glitter lip gloss and a sequined beret seem like excellent ideas.
I used to hate working out. Working out, I believed, was for superficial people who were preoccupied with their bodies. And then last summer, while trying to find a solution for severe seasonal depression, I started working out, I was desperate. And I love it. I love feeling strong enough to run away from something (or toward it), I love being strong enough to lift things and kick people, if need be. So now I am a person who goes to the supermarket in workout pants. (Ew.)
I used to think the American Civil War was the most boring subject on the planet, almost as tedious as algebra. Now I find it endlessly fascinating.
To my great surprise, I find that these days I’m more interested in journeying inward than traveling to exotic locations. Although every flavor and sensation, every spire of a cathedral rising from the mist of some ancient city is fodder for a poem or a story, I no longer seek these things the way I once did. I would rather write — and generate experience — than accumulate it. These days, few things are more satisfying than to be surprised by my own stories and poems, and by the humor and wisdom that only arrive when I get out of the way.
Now, going for a hike with my husband or for a glass of wine with a girlfriend is in many ways richer than getting on a plane ever was. Although sometimes we’re hiking in Colorado or Washington, and sometimes when I go out for wine I’m wearing some kind of costume for no reason at all. Maybe I’ve just learned to be more present. Would I move back to New Orleans if I had the opportunity? I can no longer unequivocally answer: Yes.
I know that my life, to anyone on the outside, probably seems smallish and quiet, maybe sort of weird or maybe sort of lame. No kids, no big dramas, no globetrotting for several years now. Lately, all the interesting stuff is happening on the inside. Some days there are supernovae inside me. And some days I’m just giddy because my orchids are blooming again. Maybe this is what it means to get old.
At the same time, I’m perfectly willing to accept that who I am in this season will not be who I am forever. I may sell everything and move to India. I may acquire forty cats. I may run a marathon.
Difficult to believe though it may seem, I may even one day fall in love with algebra.