As I approach my fourth quarter, turning 75, I realize why I could never have been this old before now. I was never as ready before this as I am today. Although all this is now a foreign territory, and although I’m a stranger in these parts, I’ve become no stranger to myself over the years. I’m still the same me.
The wartime years of my childhood – the huge sheds of the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond at which my parents worked, and the long backseat ride across the great Southwest deserts to the broad plains of my Oklahoma roots – all told me how small I was in such an enormous world. Then, when the war was over, we settled in the country near Sebastopol, where I began to find a place where I could fit. Nature provided the assist. The groves of eucalyptus, the streams and rolling hills, the small animals that I surprised (and that surprised me), the ocean and the sky – all made room for me.
Still, I was in awe of the magnitude of this world, and this life. One evening, walking back from the cow barn with my bucket of fresh milk, I stopped to regard the night sky; and suddenly I saw the stars differently than before – not simply as bright objects in the dark, but as pinholes in a soft black sky through which light poured from one single Source Beyond, with which I felt the thrill of a certain mysterious affinity.
Years later, standing in a similar reverie at the edge of the sea, I watched my footprints slowly disappear as the waves, one following the other, gradually, gently erased them. Then my sense of life being only provisional was eased, when I saw how the waters were themselves changed as they attended to my footprint, and that my presence – temporary as it was – had changed the tides, and the entire ocean, probably forever.
Although they say every physical cell in our bodies is replaced in seven years’ time, the cells hand on what they know from generation to generation. This is the continuity of identity, how we know who it is we are – the things we learned over the years, and discovering our opinions about them. And while our opinions and memories adapt to one another and merge as we grow, we still reach back to our roots even as we reach out through our branches toward the fruit they bear.
When we were born, our mouths had the potential ability of making every sound of every language, but as we learned the language of our parents we gradually lost that ability. Throughout childhood our potential becomes reduced to something more actual, and our character is pruned by the prevailing influence of events and the agendas of other people. We hardly notice for example that we are speaking in English, and we hardly recognize how our very thoughts are shaped by the assumptions that we acquire.
There is a reward in remembering who we originally are, in discovering and finding ground in our own authenticity – the person that meanwhile became influenced by life’s encounters – growing and changing, yet possibly without loss. There are clues to who we are in our opinions regarding our earliest memories, then and now. I remember for example being taken to see The Bluebird, a film with Shirley Temple, and as I watched a scene in which souls to be born are seen boarding a ship with silver sails I remember thinking “that’s not really how it is, but it’s a good description of how it is.”
I’m still the same me as I was then, paying attention to not just the appearance of things but to the very nature of things. Because things appear to change as my awareness of them changes, the very nature of their presence in my life is changed. And so, I look to understand the crises in peoples’ lives to find what significance there is for them within each event, over time. This is how healing is made possible – when traumas become recognized as interrupted transformations and, once safely resumed, can then become complete.
None of this is to say that there is any particular Intelligence driving the entire thing. Our attempt to find meaning in the events of life, to put them to some personal use, can find a certain usefulness in an otherwise meaningless world. The trick lies in finding our original coherence within ourselves, rather than looking for one beyond us – an immanent sense of self that does not forget our potential, and does not settle for the actual as the limit of possibilities.
So here I am today, at this forward edge of my life where the air is fresh and sweet, and I’m content. There are times when I gaze at myself in the mirror to realize that I really am still me (and against such odds! – one out of more than seven billion! I should buy a lottery ticket with this luck). The only thing left for me now is to enjoy the remainder of this life, for as long and wide and deep as it may be, and to know there is a place in that great space just my shape and size.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.