Reflection 243: Self-Reinvention

March 19, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Every morning when I wake up, I have to reinvent myself in conformity with whom I thought I was when I went to bed last night. I use a variety of tricks to help me gain a sense of continuity in my life.

This morning, for instance, I awoke from a particularly intense dream in which I was lost and couldn’t find my way back. In my wanderings along gusty city streets I came across men working on a flimsy scaffold suspended from the roof of a building. I watched as the wind seized the scaffolding and floated it free of the building, hurling it into the street blocks away, where the workers’ blood splattered the pavement.

There was much more to the dream, which I vividly remembered, so I lay in bed replaying what I could recall of my adventures. Then I got up and gradually shifted from my nighttime to my daytime self, which I found to be hard work because I was still in my dream. Ah, I discovered my socks and shoes more-or-less where they should be; that was a good sign. And my boots. The pruning shears I had gotten ready last fall and hadn’t used in five months. On my table I discovered several notes to myself about what I wanted to work on today. I didn’t remember writing them, but there they were so I could set my sights by them in picking up where I’d left off when I went to bed.

Out of habit, I bent down to inspect the kitchen floor for ants, which I’ve been feeding all winter. My strainer was in the drying rack next to the sink where I’d rinsed it after scrubbing five pounds of potatoes. The scene in the kitchen looked vaguely familiar, and I reaffirmed the connection I’d had with that room yesterday. Slowly, I began to make breakfast, filling the kettle, heating water, taking a mug off the shelf.

Gradually, I headed into the day—clinging to dream fragments all the while. The crib notes I’d left on the table scrawled on the back of an envelope reminded me that this was the day I was to attend a joint meeting of the Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island Occupy groups for training in group process and consensus building. I was to redo my senior college schedule, call the local newspaper, proofread a draft watershed handbook, make an appointment with an audiologist, and so on. Slowly, slowly I began to feel like myself as traces of the dream receded.

This illustrates what it takes every morning to crank up my loop of engagement so I achieve a sense of continuity in my life and coherence in mapping out my day in more-or-less orderly fashion. Every day I am faced with the challenge of reinventing myself so I appear familiar to myself and know who I am. If a tsunami had struck in the night and the world I woke to was topsy-turvy, I would be an entirely different person without shoes, boots, notes or relevant thoughts. I would be distressed because I wouldn’t have a sense where I was or what to do.

I still remember the day my three-year-old son pulled the handle of a pan on the stove, tipping a stream of boiling water down the length of his left arm. My fingers just wouldn’t dial the phone as if they’d never done it before. I shook all over, and had to force my fingers into the little dial holes until I got the numbers in the right sequence. Once in Eastern Washington State when I was heading off into the bush to urinate, a rattlesnake slid across my path—abruptly the urgency left me and I didn’t have to go any more but turned on my heels and got out of there.

If getting married, building a house, finding a new job, getting into a new school, all require a strong and enduring engagement with what is relevant to such matters, think of the havoc that getting divorced wreaks on that commitment, or moving out of a house, being fired, or having a baby in tenth grade, or kicked out of school. In such instances we have to invent ourselves anew, taking on entirely new identities because our drives and values have been proven no match for the lives we actually lead.

When a loved one dies, we are left behind to suffer the loss, not just for a day or a week, but forever—the rest of our days. When a woman I know was in her eighties, she had a blood clot that moved from her hand to her heart, her lungs, and her kidneys. Her children wouldn’t let her go because they had lived with her for their entire lives and couldn’t imagine life without their mother. So the woman had quadruple-bypass surgery, was on dialysis and oxygen for a year, and lay in bed building up debts she lacked the money to pay until her body called it quits on its own because her children couldn’t let go of an engagement that was fundamental to their most basic identities.

Whether dreams or major events in the course of our lives, our engagements in life are not frills; they are fundamental to our sense of identity and well-being. They define us and make us familiar to ourselves so, as long as they continue, we know who we are. The tools and accessories we employ in maintaining those loops—breast implants, good looks, hair color, muscle strength, cars, homes, clothing, vocabularies, professions, medications and all the rest—become valued possessions in enabling us to be who we dream of being, and we defend such possessions because our personhood depends on them.

Until the tsunami rolls in, the earthquake or mudslide takes our home, the tornado strips us of every possession—and we are left to fend for ourselves with only two bare hands to use in clawing for our survival.

All that was clear to me this morning when I groggily reinvented myself in the wake of nothing but a dream. Imagine what Syrian rebels are going through these long days, the people of Greece, Mexican immigrants without passports in Arizona, people whose homes are being foreclosed in every state, pre-tsunami residents of northeastern Japan, Palestinian refugees from so-called Israel, and quake victims still without housing in Haiti. My car almost died when its timing belt frayed last year. Think what you face when your fundamental engagements in life shred to a full stop and your perceptions and actions become wholly disjointed and nonfunctional.

What can we do but be grateful for what we have? And not crave more than we need to get by with grace?

That’s my thought for today. More later. Y’r friend, –Steve

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