A Little Bit of Wonder is where I journal about the somewhat roundabout way that I have been working to establish a career and a strong sense of self--I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "direction" and "identity." I have a Master's Degree in Literature, but I'm no longer working as an English Professor; I'm starting the next step in my life as I work to establish a career as a writer in the non-profit sector.

At my companion blog, Little Wonder's Recommended Reading, you will find reviews for both books and other blogs that I enjoy. The two blogs are inter-linked, so you can access my reviews and reading challenges from the sidebar on the left.

Monday, February 21, 2011

One, Two, One, Two

I’ve been thinking lately about different ways that a person might define him or herself. For the last several months, I’ve been obsessively focused on my career because I’ve been in the midst of a career change, but I’ve been vaguely aware that it’s probably not healthy to define yourself solely (or predominantly) by your job, even if you hold the same position for thirty, forty, even fifty years. It’s hard not consider yourself first and foremost a teacher, a musician or a scientist when you’ve invested so much time and energy into a particular field like that and I’ve devoted myself to literature and teaching for so long that even when I no longer consider myself “Professor Schultz,” I still find that I can’t seem to separate my identity from stories, books and writing.

Even so, I know that there is more to me than a career, or even a long-standing and passionate interest that motivates my particular career choices. After thinking about the lives of my grandparents, who were generous, servant-hearted people, I’ve concluded that one alternative means defining an individual is by examining the ways that a person treats other people (see my post on that subject here). Our actions toward our friends and family will, if we look closely enough, reveal certain things about our character.

But my husband took me out to Greenwich Point Park on Long Island Sound this weekend, and as we sat by the water, I started to think about how certain sensations could also be something that connects the dots between many moments in a person’s life. A smell, a sound or a song – if experienced repeatedly, any of these could provide a link between different events in our lives and help make an individual moment more significant for us.

When my husband and I drove out to Greenwich Point Park, we found a beach unlike any that I can ever recall visiting before. There was no sand and very little grass – the entire shoreline was covered in shells. Just mounds and mounds of shells, which covered even the narrow parking area. This difference was exciting enough to propel me out of the car and into the cold wind, at least long enough to grab a couple of the shells and sparkling pieces of granite.

But the wind was far more blustery and cold out on the Point than we had anticipated, and we weren’t dressed warmly enough to enjoy walking along the shore. So we retreated to the warmth of our little Saturn and simply sat in the parked car by the water. We rolled the windows down about a half an inch and sat listening to the sound of the waves – and that’s when my sense of familiarity began to grow.

I don’t mean that I was experiencing déjà vu – it was not the sensation that I had been to this beach before. But it was the same sound of the water lapping against the shore that I have heard so many other times; the sound gave me the sense that this beach was tied to all the other beaches that I had visited, and that this moment was tied to many other moments that I have spent by the water.

“Do you remember,” I asked my husband, “the time that we went to Port Huron in March? It was so cold and everything was iced over. I was sick. My nose was stuffed up and I was incredibly miserable, but I went because you wanted to see the water so badly.” I paused, then added as an after-thought, “I love you a lot, you know, to go out like that in the middle of winter when I was sick. Especially the middle of winter in Michigan.”

“And do you remember,” I continued, “the time that we went to the beach and the wind was so strong that we had to sit with our heads under your jacket? We made ourselves a little tent to keep the sand out of our eyes, but we were determined to enjoy the beach, since we had driven all the way there already. I don’t remember where we were, though.” I paused, then observed, “We are such determined beach people.” I gestured to our current soundings. We were, after all, sitting by a shore that was partially iced-over.

“We both love the water,” he said simply.

And it hit me at that moment that this is part of who I am, who we both are. It may even be something that draws us together – the comfort that we are both able to draw from that sound of the waves on the shore, the need to listen to that particular natural rhythm.

In her essay “A Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf, who is one of my favorite authors, relates that her “first memory, and in fact it is the most important of all my memories… is of lying half asleep, half awake, in a bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind… of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive. I could spend hours trying to write that as it should be written, in order to give the feeling which is even at this moment very strong in me.

So it seems to me that a certain kind of person is drawn to that sound of the waves; that sound means something to me, to my husband, to many people. The sound is a constant – even if I go to the beach with different people, or to different beaches. Although I can’t express exactly what it means, the sound of the waves is something that ties together many moments of my life.

But it is not only the sound of the waves that seems to have the power to connect the dots between different moments of my life. I experienced a similar nostalgia when I returned to my grandparents’ apartment after my grandmother passed away last October. The space itself started to become foreign and uninviting once many of their things were packed up in boxes, but then I went into the bathroom. I noticed a particular, familiar click of the latch as I pulled the door shut behind me. The fluorescent light began a well-known hum when I flicked the switch, and the faucet made an oddly comforting sound as I twisted the knob. Then I listened to the creak of the cabinet door as I moved it back and forth. These sounds suddenly brought to mind the nights that I had stayed over at my grandparents’ apartment – I was reminded of the excitement that I felt when I stayed up until midnight with grandma watching I Love Lucy and Mary Tyler Moore on Nick at Nite. I suddenly remembered the sneaky thrill I felt when I crept past my sleeping grandfather in order to use the bathroom during a commercial break.

I am not sure that I can explain how these sounds help define my identity, either. But the click of that door latch and creak of that cabinet are noises that tie together many special moments of my early life, when my grandmother and I stayed up late at night and no one else seemed to be awake; it was then that we shared a secret little world. The excitement that I felt during those sleepovers is the same excitement that I felt when I tried out my independence in other new ways – like sneaking out to see a movie or go to a party when I was in high school. And because it was my grandmother who taught me to be more independent and a little bit naughty (even though she was mostly a very proper lady), every time I try something new out on my own, the exhilaration that I feel reminds me of her.

In that way, so many moments of my life seem connected, and even the most disparate events seem to create a pattern. Just like the repetitive sound of the waves on the shore: one, two, one, two, one, two.


XY said...

Moments in life. They are crystallized feelings left in our memory. I can see how they could help define someone and connect dots in the past. Most of the moments that are meaningful to me were with other people, but there was one that was interesting and it was just me, guess that's what social psychologists call "self awareness". I was only 7 or 8 years old, home by myself. I remember I was pulling out a drawer from a dresser. At that moment I paused and I thought I would remember this moment and ten years or twenty years from now I would think back and realize how time has elapsed just like that! I still don't understand why I would have that strange thought at that age but I vividly remember that moment till now and indeed every time when I recall that moment I think, all this time has elapsed just like that!
I love how your wrote about the beach with all shells and nothing else. I'd like to see that one day myself:)

Dapper Daisy said...

This is a really beautiful post. It made me think about how there is so much more than a chronology of events that defines our human experience. There are always those experiences (rather, "feelings" as the previous commenter said)that connect them. And meaning gets redefined when we look at those feelings, sounds, experiences in new ways too...which can be scary because it means giving up special memories and ways of being. For example, what would happen if I stopped associating the smell of fresh linoleum with fond memories of elementary school? What if the smell now makes me think of my dad's office?

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