Dec. 23, 2009
I thought the other day about a phone conversation I had with my aunt Gina a few days before I left for Paris.
I stirred lentils in the kitchen. I told her I was going to come back a different person.
“Yea, I believe many things about you will change. But you, Rach, will never change who you fundamentally are."
I wondered about this word for a long time, fundamental.
My knee jerk was supported by a philosophical perspective, of course—that it all boils down to identity. And by that I mean whether “I” is contained in the flesh of my body, the neurological functions in my brain, my memory, my mind, conscience, consciousness, my will, or (and this is my favorite) my soul. Ignoring the rigorous philosophical debate on identity and memory loss, comas, etc., I specifically questioned whether or not one can actively manipulate, by the drive and direction of the will, the formation and transformation of one’s own identity--or whether its composition and evolution is necessarily contingent on environmental and historical factors (because though “identity” is an idea, it is an idea that manifests itself within the human across a certain fragment of space and time.)
The body is the most obvious indicator of the self aside from one’s own name. But let’s take it from a physiological perspective, in case you’re hungry for some thought food. Fact: The human body’s cells completely regenerate every seven years. So if the physical particles of my flesh and bones are in constant flux and transformation, I can’t ever be exactly the same person at any given time. If not my body, what exactly remains constant? What keeps me me if not my mane or gangly limbs?
But then I figured I’d take the fundamental question from a different approach. Maybe strictly linguistic (which, of course, is inherently linked to all philosophical investigation). What does “fundamental” really mean? Original, primary, vital, essential. Sure. But these all mean different specific things. By definition, I cannot change my origin: I was born a female into the Hammel family in Berkeley and grew up in the San Francisco suburbs. If you trace my family heritage far enough, you’ll see that I am of Northern European descent, mainly German, Swedish, Norwegian, and Irish/French/English. Oh, and keep an eye out for good ‘ole Abe on the family tree.
My essence—what is essential for my being—is my history and background, my physical appearance or figure, and my internal states (personality, worldview, tendencies, mannerisms, ideas, opinions, likes/dislikes, ambition and drive). I suppose the questions is where it’s all situational, depending on constantly fluctuating external contexts like age, living conditions, resources, events, opportunities, etc., or if it’s engrained in the very blueprints of my makeup, transcending the thresholds of purely external limitations.
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I will say that as far as identity is concerned, there is surely room for variation.
All this thinking about identity led me to examine my own self, making me wonder whether or not my aunt Gina was right. In Paris, I spent my days speaking a different language, living with a different family, indulging in a different diet, learning different rules and adopting different habits, delving in to different academic dimensions, and observing radically different forms of life. So where was the line of constancy preserved during my four month experience of cultivating a lifestyle that directly threatened the status of my pre-existing fundamental? I wondered if I really was still the same old Rachel, or if maybe it was possible that I had tapped into my fundamental and done a bit of maintenance work.
None of the perspectives led me directly to the answer, as you can see from my aimless ramblings. But, as a budding writer and a sucker for art, all messy smart crap aside, I thought I’d close the final chapter of my travel journal with one last perspective. None other than: the poet.
The word fundamental followed me to France and stayed stuffed inside my pocket for many months. The edges, rough, but the surface, flat and smooth. The colors, fading and illuminating. Sometimes it froze in the cold weather, or melted under the heat of the sun. It indulged and it created and it felt sorry for the homeless child on Rue Daguerre. It got angry and frustrated and threw belongings at the wall, shattering them into pieces and staining pillows. It smiled at the rising sun of a new day and reflected about its blessings. It didn't care too much about material things. It laughed off its inhibitions and trusted the intentions of pure strangers. It sat at the old piano in the living room of a new family and lay in bed awake all night, listening to rain drops hitting and sliding off the roof. It balanced on the threshold of awkward and inviting and it helped a blind man across the street. It asked far too many questions and didn’t ask nearly enough.
It climbed hundreds, thousands, millions of steps. It took panoramic snapshots of rusty chimneys and stories untold. It snuck food into the bedroom and spilled coffee on the carpet. It marveled at the wonders of the world and the timeless deliciousness of a rustic baguette.
It wondered and it loved and it learned about the secret workings of the soul.
It cried tears beneath le tour Eiffel on a sober Tuesday night. It cried tears of loss, a second mother. It cried tears of the simple joy of existing.
It learned to look back and it learned to never look back.
Is it the same? Yes, very much indeed.
Is it different? Yes, very much indeed.