“I’ve always been aware of being an inconsistent personality. Of having a lot of contradictory voices knocking around in my head. As a kid, I was ashamed of it. Other people seemed to feel strongly about themselves, to know exactly who they were. I was never like that.”
-Zadie Smith, “Fascinated to Presume”
Lately I’ve been worried about words. All of them. These, for instance. Because look at them: it’s true that I’ve been “worried about words,” lately, but I’ve also been eating oranges. And kicking up orange leaves, and walking through snow, when it comes and lays down with everything. I’ve been sticking out my tongue to taste 11 degrees. It tastes shhhh.
I’ve never felt like a consistent personality. There isn’t one me in me. For years I’ve felt shame around that, the shame (I think) that Zadie Smith mentions: being many and confusing and confused when I was supposed to be (I thought) one and certain. But the thing is, before that, in the gift of my early years and my early attempts at fiction or friendship making or sandcastle building, I didn’t feel ashamed at all. I felt happy. I felt playful, and serene. Irritated, and overwhelmed. I felt all kinds of things and felt like all kinds of people. I remember walking through the house making up a speech for D’Artagnan to give his friends, and then spending a little while as Frodo, looking out the window, and then going outside and narrating a conversation between characters Sibylle von Olfers gave me in The Story of the Root Children. And all of those felt me. It could be true that none of them were me, not exactly, but dancing through them made something in my heart. It made sense and meaning and joy, maybe.
Lately I’m not so sure about words. Whenever we say something, we say this, not that. Apple doesn’t mean taste of old sunshine, and it doesn’t mean moment far away from doing, and it doesn’t mean sweet—but it did mean all those things, and more, when I ate an apple one afternoon. My attempts to stumble into the world bring me into a wondrous, confusing, ever expanding constellation of moments and maybes. To try and communicate these, to put them into words, I work to create some amount of coherence: “I ate an apple today: a taste of old sunshine: a moment far away from doing: sweet.” But that’s a list trying to conjure a loose collection. Talking is like pulling algae up from the pond (ponds are yucky, yes; they’re also full of life, and there are frogs near them, and polliwogs, and there’s light in the water if you look just right) in my mind. In the water, that algae was full and voluminous and pressed by currents. Pulled out in my hand, it’s one wet, bedraggled scrap, one pinned down thought, already drying and dying in my fingers.
I feel the shame Zadie Smith describes. I feel it often, and a lot. But half a step away, half a turn different, there’s that pond in all its changing messy muchness. Do you feel that way, I wonder? Do you spend time there? Do you tell yourself you shouldn’t? If you stopped pulling yourself toward coherence, toward consistency, if you sat down and splashed in the green water and felt so many things, do you think you might—well, might something with sand castles, which are the beach and the shape you’ve made and the promise of washing to something else, and more, and are all those things, together, and all at once?