Who are we? No, really… I’m not talking Canadian, or Catholic, or even hominid –and certainly not the kind of who you’re expected to reveal at a party or perhaps on the long census form. And just what is an identity anyway? The word itself ultimately derives from the Latin idem: ‘the same’; or even identidem: ‘over and over’ –although that’s a bit of a convoluted etymology. The point, I think, is that identity is supposed to be something that is consistent –perhaps unique.
Unique, I realize, is easy –each and every one of us is unique. But if identity is an attempt to pin something on any of us that is consistent and the same, there is a problem.
George was sitting on his veranda as I walked by on the sidewalk in front of his house. It was raining lightly and wind was raking the yard and robbing the trees of what few leaves they still possessed. But he seemed entertained by the scene and sat serenely comfortable on a deck chair dressed in a heavy grey coat and blue toque. It wasn’t cold enough for a toque, but he’d knitted it himself and wore it at the slightest provocation to show off.
I tried to pretend that I was texting and didn’t see him, but he called out to me. It’s hard to pretend you don’t notice somebody when they shout your name and wave.
“Come on up, Goz,” he said when I raised my head. I forced a smile -it bothers me when anybody calls me the childhood nickname that I let slip late one night at a party.
“Don’t call me Goz, George. It’s not my name.”
He sighed over-elaborately and pointed to a seat beside him on the porch. Sometimes it wasn’t just his toque that was annoying. “I’m sorry, I was just teasing. I like the name…” he added to mollify the expression on my face.
“My father liked it, too, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” I explained -it seemed to encapsulate my feelings. I hoped he wouldn’t press it any further.
He smiled broadly at my biblical reference. “Paul, in his epistle to the Corinthians, isn’t it?” George is an emeritus professor of Philosophy who took an early retirement and I think he likes to keep in practice.
I had no idea where the phrase came from, but I shrugged as if to indicate that it was common knowledge. I probably shouldn’t have used it around George, though.
“Names are like adjectives, don’t you think? They describe the noun.” He wasn’t going to let the nickname go without a fight.
“Described, perhaps,” I said, attempting to emphasize the past-tense of the word.
“We all change, I suppose,” he said, trying to be conciliatory, and pausing briefly to let me enjoy the reprieve. A gust of wind swept a parcel of leaves onto the deck and he studied them for a moment. “But sometimes I wonder just how much…”
“How’s Retirement, George?” I had to change the subject before it got out of hand.
He looked up from the leaves and smiled with an expression that said his mind had been miles away. Then, he sat back in his chair and stared at an empty tree across the road for what seemed an eternity. “It’s given me time to think,” he said, finally breaking the fast of his silence.
“Think…?” Good I thought -it worked.
“Those leaves,” he continued, pointing at the dreary, sodden lump near his feet. “They’re not where they used to be…” He paused as he thought it through. “And they’re not doing what they were designed to do on the tree…” He looked up at me. “I suppose they’re fulfilling another function in nature now… But they’re still called leaves.”
I had a feeling this was not going where I wanted. I decided to shrug. “It’s a generic descriptor, I suppose.” A weak response, but couched in big words. I hoped it would suffice.
He stared at the tree again, considering my answer. “There’s been a change -I’ll concede that, if you like- but the name is still apt nonetheless, don’t you think?”
I studied his face for a moment. I had the uneasy feeling I was being led into a kind of Socratic trap. “George, I’m not the same person that ‘Goz’ described, if that’s the trap you’re trying to entice me into.” I felt pleased with that –especially when he sent his eyes out to perch on that tree again. I was a bit concerned about the smile, though.
“Who are you, then?” he said, still examining the tree. “A rose by another name…?”
I hate it when people use Shakespeare against me; it almost seems sacrilegious to argue the point. “I just don’t like the name…” I might as well put it on the table, I figured.
His eyes flitted to my face for a moment and then withdrew to their assigned cages. “Because you’re not the same person, you said?”
I could feel the door closing on me. “No, I’m not the same person I was when I was ten. Neither are you,” I added, hoping to salvage something in the argument. Anything, actually.
His eyes were twinkling now, although he was trying to disguise them by sending them back to the clump of leaves to hide. “Neither is the tree, I suspect…” He freed his eyes briefly to sample my face.
I took a deep, somewhat stertorous breath -I also dislike losing arguments. The funny thing was, I wasn’t actually sure that I had. Hope springs eternal, I guess.
The rain had stopped and although it was still windy, I could see some blue sky beginning to accumulate in little patches. “I was just heading for a coffee,” I said, rising to my feet. “Want to join me?”
He smiled and nodded his head. “Actually, I could use an espresso this morning…”
“Still coffee, though, isn’t it?”
He looked at me and laughed. Sometimes friends have to let each other win…