I started a new job recently.
So what’s your story? Why are you here? A coworker asked me.
I hesitated. What is my story? Why *am* I here? I didn’t know what to include, what elements of my life convey the realest parts of me. My interests? My jobs? My travels? My education? The way I feel when my head is out the passenger seat window and the mountains are flushed with color?
How do you tell someone who you are? How do you even know?
I went on a naturalist-led hike the other weekend. The woman talked about goldenrod and nightshade and emerald ash borers. She stopped at predetermined places along the route and pointed out the features of the forest. I walked. I listened. The whole thing felt a little surreal. When she mentioned an aquarium invasive that was wrecking the wetlands, I thought of milfoil in Lake George. When she talked about the brumation of snapping turtles, I thought of Cape Cod and the giant snapper kids fed hot dogs to. And when she talked about how volunteers yank out mint by the handfuls to help native species, I thought about the invasive ice plant in California and how I’d pluck a blade and snap it between my fingers just to feel it crunch.
The whole time we were walking I thought how close I was to being her, and yet how far away I was, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be her at all or if it was nostalgia welling up, and I didn’t know what I wanted anymore, I didn’t know who I wanted to be.
Self as a collage. Self as a scrapbook. Self as torn pages and ripped notes and railroad spikes shoved beneath narrow beds.
A couple months ago, someone asked me my thoughts on the transcendentalists. I was visiting a friend in California, and a bunch of 20-somethings were all sitting in the common room, mostly talking about work. And then this. A question out of the blue. What are your thoughts on transcendentalism?
The question awoke something in me, an echoing midnight self. This was once something I knew very well. I wrote an award-winning paper on the transcendentalists. Those are the words that surfaced. That’s what I wanted to say. Instead I answered broadly, and I quickly realized the question was mainly asked so that he could respond. I let him. But the whole time he was talking I was thinking about how I used to know the difference between Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass and his sixth, but I don’t know that anymore and I don’t know what to make of that loss.
Self as a series of unanswered questions. Self as yes. Self as no.
It is my fourth day of work. I am still meeting my coworkers.
Channing? One of them says after I introduce myself. He pauses for a moment then says, Rower Channing?
Suddenly I am 14 again. It all comes rushing back.
Self as petals and pines and water-washed pebbles. Self as worm-laden loam.
I messed up my fingerprints last summer. Only the ones on my right hand. I thought they’d heal normally, but my body bruises and scars easily and they’ve never been the same. It’d be one thing if they were damaged in a permanent, certain way but they change with the weather, with the dryness of my skin. My fingerprint reader on my phone never recognizes me. Even if I reprogram it. I am always changing.
Sometimes I think my hands are the most honest parts of me. They tell stories that I never will. Scars on my knuckles from campfires and metal gates. A permanent puncture wound from a horseshoe crab.
One time someone asked what words I’d traced on their skin. I lied.
Self as mercury. Self as water. Self as gasoline puddles in abandoned car lots that catch ribbons of sun.
It’s all water, you know that, right? Like a river?
Yeah, I know, I told the man on the bus in Zion. He eyed our clothes skeptically. Our t-shirts and shorts and hiking boots.
You’re going to get wet.
Yeah, I know.
We were hiking the Narrows, hiking up a river. None of us had appropriate water shoes, so we wore boots, sneakers, whatever we had. We were young and we didn’t care and we just wanted to be outside and have an adventure, and we went farther than most people and I remember how heavy my feet felt when I was literally swimming, keeping my bag above my head because I’d been entrusted with everyone’s cell phone, and it was stupid and I melted my boots when I tried to dry them that night, but it was that stupid perfect fun that only happens so many times in life.
Self as longing, as desire, as deepthroated wishes. Self as daydreams that catch fire.
One time I let a boyfriend read my old journal entries. It felt like that was the most honest I could be with him. It felt important. I was shoving my past selves beneath his gaze, asking him to see who I was and how I’d gotten there. This used to be me, and this is me now, and I don’t know who I’ll be a year from now, maybe even tomorrow, but this is me. Do you understand? Can you see? Can you? Can you?
But wasn’t that love? Seeing what no one else could? Laura Ruby wrote.
To love someone long-term is to attend a thousand funerals of the people they used to be, Heidi Priebe wrote.
Self as lonely nights. Self as hot salt water showers. Self as staring at the mirror and thinking about Jupiter and what it means to be an unreachable planet.
Every time I think I know you, there’s another layer, someone once told me.
We were poolside and the irony of laying there in a bathing suit, exposed, did not escape me.
You’re so mysterious, another person once said.
How do you show someone who you are? How do you strip away the petaled layers and let your core stand alone, barren, naked of adornments and half truths and jokes that cushion reality?
…a wedge-shaped core of darkness, Virginia Woolf wrote.
What if you show someone who you really are and they still walk away? What do you do then?
Self as every hand you’ve ever shook. Every inch of skin touched by fingertips. Self as an exploding house.
I am standing in line to vote when I spot a gingko leaf on the ground.
Want to hear a cool fact about gingko trees? I ask my mother, who, because she is my mother, says yes.
My relationship with the world has changed a lot in the past couple of years. I notice more than I used to. I can identify leaves on the ground and tell you that my favorite clouds are altocumulus standing lenticular and did you know that anorthosite is found in both the Adirondacks and on the moon and no one really knows how it forms? Isn’t that wild?
What I’m saying is that the last time I stood on the bank of the Merced I realized how quiet it was and I missed the frogs. That wasn’t something I noticed three years ago.
What I’m saying is my professor mentioned Hegelianism the other day in class and people nodded along like they knew (did they?) and then my classmate brought up Agamben and his canonical texts, and it was strange because I’ve never heard of Agamben in my life and I never once cared to study Hegel, and it was strange feeling like an imposter but also not really caring.
What I’m saying is one time I spent hours researching poetry for my favorite dead rabbit and then even more hours wood burning my selection into a tree stump. I did a poor job with the sealant and the whole thing is probably rotten now.
What I’m saying is people change, and I feel scattered and refracted, whole and dismembered, and I keep running into shadow versions of myself and I keep trying to shake my own hand and look in the mirror. Is this you? Is this me? Why do we run? Is there even grass on the other side?
One time someone wrote me a 32-page letter.
Self as a series of refracting mirrors. Self as light. Self as absence.
Self as blue.