Life Without a Mask

As age slowly strips away what fashionable certainty I used to wear, I have come to wonder about identity. What is the wood, in other words, that I have hidden all this time beneath the now cracking veneer? What am I –or, more usefully- who am I? At what layer do I stop and abandon the search? We are all Matryoshka dolls, I suspect –apparently unending regressions from the mean. Identity involves far more than our names. The word, from the Latin idem meaning again and again –‘the same’- seems a mere gloss when applied to our ever-shifting Weltanschauung.

I suppose I should have figured all this out by now –I mean, what is it that the safe passage through Time offers other than a thin coating of wisdom thrown loosely over whatever shoulders remain? And yet each time I try to examine it more closely, it crumbles beneath my fingers and I am lost again. It occurs to me that I am more a wardrobe than a single coat, and I wear whatever the day requires.

But sometimes when I awaken in the night, and see the moon slip behind a cloud, I wonder why I cannot do the same –shed my name, disguise my clothes, and disappear behind a mask. Anonymity, if only for a day –what a thought! And yet, how possible is it? What does it mean to be anonymous? Would I simply disappear? Could a simulacral ‘I’ just start again? Not in Time, of course –the debt of years is accumulative and inexorable- but rather in persona? The very thought is a banquet.

A while back, while digesting the intriguing possibilities of Doppelganging, I came across an article online that questioned the very concept however. Dreams like mine, I realized, were just that –nocturnal phantasmagoria that blistered in the dawn.

I’m not certain what I had expected, actually. I’m happy with who I am –or at least who I have become (or is it whom?)- but I sort of imagined me as an unexamined lottery ticket, full of as yet unexplored potential, an unborn, unnamed, and so far unassigned infant in the nursery. Of course until I check, I suppose I still am though, eh? As Shakespeare’s Ophelia opined, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.

Fair enough. I thought I’d give it a try –but in small, steady steps that I felt I could handle. It occurred to me that rather than peeling away my layers, I was just putting a new carpet over an old floor, but you have to start somewhere.

I didn’t feel I needed to tackle the thorny issue of my digital presence or the overweening facial recognition software that threatens anonymity everywhere, but merely the surprise of the unsolicited –the unopened gift under the tree. And anyway, true ambiguity lies in the unanticipated. The unsuspected plant that flowers from a once barren earth. It is of little help to recognize my name, or to Google my past history, if what you are confronting is not a clone. Sometimes a rose wearing another name is not a rose…

There is a trail I often walk and the people on it seem as familiar as those who take the same bus as me each day. We wave and exchange pleasantries, to be sure, but names are seldom exchanged. We judge each other by our habits –some are always hurrying past as if the aim was more the completion of the journey than its enjoyment. Others, though, tarry on the path, their eyes flitting like birds from tree to tree, their ears as open as the robins listening from within the bushes. And if I ask if there were some special thing that had attracted their attention, I am usually greeted with a shrug or an embarrassed smile. It’s hard to explain the awe of Nature.

I fear that the trail persona I have worn these many years has been one of hurried passage, though. Of watching from a private place, preoccupied with inner things, my eyes only concerned with roots that sneak across the path in case I trip. I did not consciously seek this identity –I, too, am enchanted with birdsong and delighted with the dance of light and shadows as the wind sifts softly through the canopy of green. But I seldom stop to take it in like others –I do not examine nature like a painting in a gallery. I am more inclined to view the ever-changing patterns kaleidoscopically as we move past each other I suppose. And yet even that is not immutable.

I stopped one day to listen to a bird whose song brought memories from a childhood camp, and I was peering intently into the thick, impenetrable curtain of leaves when a voice I recognized spoke softly near my ear. It was a woman, familiar from the route who always greeted me with sparkling smiles and dancing eyes. I’d see her standing as motionless as a heron, intent on something hidden far up in the trees, or rustling in a bush just off the trail. “Slow down,” she’d often whisper conspiratorially at me as I passed and then follow that with a smile so disarming I would stop and bow hello at her. It was who we were to each other, our roles assigned by observation and confirmed by repetition. Identities, of a sort.

“Not rushing somewhere today?” the woman said, grinning from ear to ear. I’d never really examined her before –only the cursory acknowledgment of a familiar stranger, recognizable in a crowd, but no more. She was an older lady –older than me, at least- and she was leaning on a stout but nobbled wooden cane that I’d never noticed before. Her face was wrinkled, and her posture stooped, but she wore her age like a summer coat.

I smiled at our unexpected role reversal and pointed vaguely at the forest in front of us. “I was just enchanted by that sound.” I stopped talking so she could hear it. “I remember it from years ago when my parents used to send me to summer camp…”

She smiled and turned her head so one of her ears was pointed the direction I had indicated. “That’s beautiful!” she said, nodding her head. “Do you know what bird it is?”

“It’s a Swainson’s thrush…”I said, unsure whether or not it would have been more polite just to shrug and smile.

“I don’t remember hearing it before,” she said, turning her head to look at me again.

“The song is so haunting, so evocative, that each time I hear it I can actually see the camp and the lake… I seem to remember the song coming from deep in the forest in the evenings so I can even smell the bonfire the counsellors used to light for us to sit around…”

Her eyes tapped gently at my face, nourishing themselves on my memories, and she smiled like a mother with her child. “It’s surprising what sustains us, isn’t it?” she said and sighed as she sent her eyes to search among the trees again.

She turned and hobbled slowly down the trail, carefully examining the route ahead of her for roots, while I, the unaccustomed watcher, adjusted to my newfound role. Sometimes it’s the little changes that are the most surprising…



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