Who am I? I have been asking myself that question so often lately, I feel I probably owe myself an answer. The problem, however, lies much deeper than any glib response is likely to offer. The ‘who’ is merely an acknowledgement that I am he who asks the question -no more and no less.
But am I judged that way? Does judgment depend on what I say and do, or is it usually about something more physical -more acquired? There was a time when I rather hoped it was more spiritual -an Attitude, perhaps; an Aura, even- but for those who only interact with me in passing, I doubt that anything other than my appearance makes much of an impression. Let’s face it, unless I am actually interacting with someone who knows me, I am what I exhibit; in stores, in restaurants, in casual encounters, I am not a ‘who’, but a ‘what’ -a ‘that one over there in the blue tee-shirt…’. What else could I be after only a brief and likely uneventful meeting?
It’s a humbling thought that, although I occupy my own world as if I were uniquely important, it’s not usually how I am judged; for other people, their own worlds matter more, and unless and until I display a warm smile and an agreeable countenance -or, contrarily, a disagreeable one- I am likely to be forgotten as soon as I leave. So, who -or is it what- do I offer to a largely disinterested and as yet unacquainted world? And, does it actually matter?
Maybe I’m alone too much, with an overabundance of time to think about what it is that constitutes an identity. About what, really, makes me the ‘who’ that I have come to know and wonder about.
It’s probably not my sense of fashion or anything -I haven’t bothered about that since I retired -well, since grade school actually, when my mother decided what I should wear so I didn’t embarrass her. Anyway, apart from socks and underwear, everything else lasts forever if you take care of it. And let’s face it, clothes are just the envelopes in which I mail myself to the outside world. I don’t really consider them as ambassadors, but more like text messages incapable of any meaningful expression.
Still, my question stands: is there anything, apart from a name-tag, that would reliably distinguish me from any other aging male whiling away his time thinking in a darkened corner of a coffee shop, or more likely, sitting for hours in front of a computer screen trying to put the question into words? More importantly, is the question so unusual that it would single me out in a crowd even if it were known that I had asked it? Although we all think of ourselves as unique, very few of us really are. So, is there anything about any of us that would classify one as special -as in ‘distinctive’, as opposed to, say, ‘idiosyncratic’? Or worse, odd? Strange, even?
Sometimes when I am really puzzled, and just seem to be scraping barnacles off old rocks, I visit Brien on his porch. Remember him -the one who named his cedar tree Sheda, and spends most afternoons drinking beer and watching her waving at him with its branches in the wind? Brien, despite his idiosyncrasies, is also an astute observer of humanity walking its dogs on the sidewalk in front of his house. If anybody could point my inquiries in the right direction, it is him.
I hadn’t seen him for a while though, so I stopped by Tim Hortons and bought him a bag of Timbits. By this time in the afternoon, Brien needs a little something else in his stomach. I thought I’d surprise him, but by the time I was several houses away, he was already waving and pointing to the chair he always keeps beside him on the porch for me.
Somebody had cleaned his front yard and aligned the broken fragments of concrete he used to use as his pathway to the house. Even the broken wooden steps up to the porch were mended.
“Don’t recognize the place now, do you G?” he said as I carefully balanced on the still-rocky cement slabs that served as the sidewalk. “The neighbours were getting tired of my choice of flowers,” he added, handing me a beer.
“You mean the dandelions, Brien?” I handed him the bag and smiled. “I kind of miss them, actually. I mean they’re so… you.” Brien, at least, had an identity. “How did you know I was coming, by the way? I saw you waving at me. He just shrugged and dipped into the bag of Timbits. “Saw it was you a block away.”
“The hat,” he interrupted, pointing at my head. “You always wear the same hat, G… You’re so recognizable.”
“It’s my favourite, Brien…”
“It’s your only, G!” he chuckled and grabbed another Timbit. “You’re so predictable,” he said, through pieces of as yet unchewed donut.
I shook my head at that -I mean, I don’t wear hats very often.
He snatched my left arm, raised the sleeve, and touched the old fashioned watch my father had given me when I left for university. “Figured it’d still be there, G…” he said, swallowing his mouthful before refilling it with another. “It’s as much you as the dandelions are me, don’t you think?” I must have looked surprised, because he sighed and rolled his eyes. “Do you still have the 10,000 books lining your walls at home?”
My turn for the eye-roll. “No,” I said, overly emphatically. “I only have, oh I don’t know, maybe 500… or less…”
He raised his right eyebrow, and then his left -I really don’t know how he does it.
“Okay, it’s closer to 1000, I guess…” I had no idea how many books I actually had.
“And you don’t think I know you well, G?” he had a swig of his beer and sat back on the chair, all smug-like. “I’ve never met anybody who reads as much as you.”
Brien did know me I had to admit -we’d been friends since university, but I was surprised he’d picked the books as evidence. “Why did you think of my books, Brien?”
He shrugged and helped himself to the last Timbit in the bag. “Because they’re so you, G,”
I think my mouth dropped open, and he smiled in response. “Our things are who we really are, you know,” he added, and felt around in the bag for crumbs. And then, when I looked doubtful, he winked. “Why else would we choose them, eh?”
I had a deep pull on my beer. Sometimes I think Brien’s mind is wasted on the porch…