When I was three years old my mom dressed me up as a clown for Halloween. I guess she didn’t realize I was afraid of clowns.
“Eva, take a look at yourself,” she said. I stood in front of the mirror and immediately started screaming. She tried to take me around the neighborhood trick-or-treating, but since I wouldn’t stop crying and shrieking in terror, she eventually took me home and washed off the make-up.
I think we’ve all had this experience at one point in our lives at least, where we take a look at ourselves and don’t recognize, or even like, what we see. We’ve been wearing masks, we’ve been putting on an act. Sometimes you get so into your act you start to believe it’s your real self. Then you wake up one morning, take a look in the mirror, and wonder, “who am I, really?”
This question has been confusing me lately. First of all, I’m getting married in April. For so long I was a single girl, and my identity was very much tied to being independent, on my own, doing my own thing. Now I have to try to understand myself as a part of a couple. Joseph Campbell says when you marry, “you’re no longer this one alone; your identity is in a relationship.” He says, “it is, in a sense, doing one’s own thing, but the one isn’t just you, it’s the two together as one.”
That’s beautiful and wise, and maybe we’ll use it for one of our wedding readings, but it’s also scary as hell. I spent thirty-three years trying to get to know myself, and now I have to dissolve myself into what Campbell calls the “alchemical stage” — two people being melted down and reformed into one.
So there’s that.
There’s also all the Buddhist and spiritual stuff Paul and I have been reading lately. So many of these texts seem to say that to find happiness and enlightenment, we must stop holding on to the impermanent notion of ourselves as individuals and instead see the bigger picture. In Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham says “the web of thoughts we solidified as “me” is actually a series of vibrations…believing that thought patterns are a solid self is the source of our bewilderment.” True happiness and liberation, he says, “is life without the illusion of “me” — or “you.”
That’s kind of scary as well. I’m not sure that I want to let go of “me” and “you.” Not yet.
But then, back to the question, who am I anyway? Am I my thoughts and emotions? (Mipham would say no.) Am I my relationships? (Campbell might say yes.) Am I my actions? If I am, what does it mean if there are some things I used to do that I don’t do anymore? Am I becoming less of myself? Is the “me” I thought I knew just an illusion?
Recently my mom sent me a care package and in it she included a plate I made in second grade. The teacher must have told us to draw ourselves and the things we like. According to the plate, I liked washing the car, playing beach ball, “lesing” (listening) to music, and writing.
“Not much has changed,” I said to Paul.
“Do you like washing the car?”
“I like going through the car wash,” I said. But really, it was the picture the in the bottom right corner of the plate that gave me such relief: that picture of a pencil and a piece of paper filled with scribbles. I’ve been writing stories ever since I was five years old. I’ve changed in other ways; I’ve worn a lot of masks and put on acts for myself and others, but I can honestly say that writing has always been a part of who I truly am.
And the great thing is, not only is writing a part of the impermanent but still important “me,” but the act of doing it also helps me understand myself better. When I’m feeling lost, when I’m not feeling totally like myself, I sit down at my laptop and write, and what comes out usually gives me a clue. It’s a way to take off the mask and remember who I am underneath.