It means ninety (plus) million sperms hustling through pleasure, an egg suddenly put out of sleep, a new life made slowly or gently or violently, without say in the matter. A body’s arrival at a town in a country in a continent on planet earth.
It means infancy. The awws of aunts and uncles and strangers. The love or non-love poured into a crib. The entrance into firstchildness or lastchildness or singlechildness, into a family tree. The hope or hate rising like smoke in the heart of its parent(s).
It means chaos. A child unwell rushed to an emergency room. A fever too high for the doctors’ years in training. A couple dazed by the stiffness of a body under the earth, in a grave sized like the still-small body it holds, a site marked with, if at all, a gone too soon sign.
It means another egg suddenly put out of sleep, ninety (plus) million sperms hustling through pleasure, a new life made a thousand miles from a grave sized like the still-small body it holds. A newborn presented at the altar, for baptism, the priest blessing the infant in the name of. The congregation offering amens before emptying the buffet. A cooing being weeping tirelessly, laughing heartily, babbling ceaselessly, absorbing subconsciously, watching the world in amazement, recognizing the sound of its name, renaming its world with protowords, walking with all hands and knees, collecting and absorbing and releasing states of self, finding music and entering a there world in this here world.
It means toddlerhood. A body finding its feet. Rooms filled with first words, with telegraphic speech, with simple pronouns. Toys and games. Tantrums. Wild imaginations. Lofty aspirations. A duplication of other selves. A life hungry for walks and jumps and climbs and bedtime stories, asking why, full of wonder. A self recognizing its image in a mirror, puzzled by what it is.
Maybe home is a place of rest for this being; an abode for laughter, peace, and respect. A child in a shelter.
Maybe home is a troubled land; a yard of folded fists, distress, and nonlove. A child forced out of a bubble.
Maybe a being becomes another body for a grave, a closed chapter, a reason for eternal grief. Still, other lives stay, entering new phases of self.
It means an awayness from childhood. A body—if lucky—feeding itself, clothing itself, brushing its hair, walking without falling, holding its likes and dislikes, showing anger, comprehending danger, etc. A form noticing its nakedness as if for the first time, telling good from evil, a true descendant of Adam and Eve. A mind exiting wonder and walking into rooms of groupthink, into corners of comfort because its self cares about being disliked, its veins find terror in isolation, its head to toe desires belonging. Pimples finding home in uncomfortable places. A girl learning that the blood on her underwear is to become a nonnegotiable part of her life. A breathing being understanding that color-coding is indeed a method of separation, that skin can be enough justification for approval and denial.
It means a body in its twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, etc. An unpreparedness for wins, losses, more emotional dips, cultural shifts, economic changes, uncertainties. A twenty something sad about its before self, confused about its now self, anxious about its later self, making choices with or without a knowledge of self, with or without trauma in the background, with what information they wear on their sleeves, entering forty something with the same self or with a self less afraid of itself—a self less or no longer in search of validation by the external world, a pair of eyes seeing the world anew. An eighty something in a more relaxed body, not because it doesn’t still worry or make mistakes or hold regrets, but because their had I known is almost silent, their worldview in this now self is an embraced chorus of the past and the good and bad within, their wishes are a future looking—a soon to be dead body wondering what next for its offspring (if any) and the world.
It means a scalp carpeted with hair; thick, red, woolly, short, curly, woven, or not. A self held in a skin colored by the world. A body collecting words and cultures, marked by the touch of other selves—the contact with other lives and non-lives on earth. A self arranged by its paths and associations, shaped by its acceptances, molded by its experiences. It means what Amin Maalouf explores in In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong: To be born a girl is not the same in Kabul as it is in Oslo. To be born black is a different matter according to whether you come into the world in New York, Lagos, Pretoria or Luanda. Each individual’s identity is made up of a number of elements and these are clearly not restricted to the particulars set down in official records. Of course, for the great majority these factors include allegiance to a religious tradition; to a nationality — sometimes two; to a profession, an institution, or a particular social milieu. But the list is much longer than that; it is virtually unlimited.
It means an acknowledgement of the this and that within, a recognition that we’re not either or—the self is not black or white. An acceptance of all that we are; of our multifarious, if not contradictory, nature; that we’re capable of building and destroying, loving and unloving, giving and taking, healing and hurting, being selfish and unselfish, causing laughter and bitterness, wearing habits liked by some and disliked by others. An understanding that we each wear more than one self.
It means the stories we tell ourselves; the self shaped not only by the touch of its environment and the existence of other selves, but by the narratives we knit of ourselves. Oliver Sacks has said this in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: If we wish to know about a man, we ask “what is his story — his real, inmost story?” — for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us — through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives — we are each of us unique.
It means an understanding that the self is always shifting and being revealed; that only an in-looking self would observe this remoulding, a self unafraid of its adjustments—of life saying: you’re still who you were last December, but you’re also who you were in January, March, May, July, even now. You’ve plucked bits of being and are becoming V2.0 or V5.0 or V10, a different version of yourself, either an upgrade or a return to V1.0. Life asking: can’t you feel it? Can’t you see? The self, as Robert Penn Warren observed in Democracy and poetry, is ‘a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.
It means moving—walking, speaking, choosing, entering rooms, holding ourselves—with this knowledge that we’re a product of our experiences; that to be both good and bad is a feature of us all; that it matters the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, because there’s power there; that we’ll always be retouched by life because, as Jorge Luis Borges saw, and shared in Meditation On Time, we are made of time. And if we’re made of time, then we’re a body of what was, what is, and what is to come.
It means you.
The Big Question
I recently told a friend to be himself. He had an interview and I figured those were fine words of encouragement for his anxious mind. But what does it even mean to truly be one’s self? I wondered afterwards. What does it mean to be you among different yous?
As you think through this question, here’s what you should read next: Because we’re each of us a host of many selves, read how we all wear several identities. Because, more than anything, it matters what we call ourselves, see how we’re shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. Because we’re all touched by and likewise touch other lives, read up on how you’re changing the world.
*Onte means five in Sidamo, a Cushitic language under the Afro-Asiatic language family. I use Onte here to represent the month of May. Sidamo is spoken by over 4 million people in parts of southern Ethiopia by the Sidama people.
Thanks for reading.
If you enjoyed this piece, consider sharing it with a friend. It makes all the difference to me as an artist.
I started Strange Notes because I wanted an open space to ponder on existence. That’s still true. But here, too, is a body discovering itself. A house beyond borders that’s open to you, to selves in search of, to heads seeking rest. A room where thoughts turn to words turn to records and meet you.
I share notes on my questions about life, conversations with friends and strangers, and art that shifts something in me (and could in you too). In this place, there are no rules. Move the vase around the tabletop. Shift the curtains to the wall. Pull the rug to the ceiling. Daydream. Come, find, ask still.
I publish Strange Notes monthly (typically on the first or last Sunday of the month), and as you read, I hope each note initiates a question about the fabrics of existence: the things that make us who we are and the events that define life.
Want to share your thoughts on this essay? Find me on Twitter or sign up for letters of consolation below.