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 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 I loved my 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.
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. I may even one day wear cornrows again.