Thursday, December 9, 2010

If Only I Had A Fourth-Dimensional Mirror

Since I've moved house, I've been looking through all my old clothes that have been stashed away for years. I'm one of those people who find really cool clothing and then when they look ridiculous I stash them away until they are reasonable to wear again. It's surprising how many clothes actually do work fifteen years later (as long as they're not bubble gum fashion statements).

One thing that has been striking me over and over recently is the shadow-me that I seem to live with. By this I mean, my younger self, which hangs around in these clothes and in photographs. A tall, slender girl with blonde hair who lacked the confidence to express her opinions. I pull out dresses with the 26 inch waist and think, who was that person? Why didn't she speak up? And I still feel her inside me somewhere, still anxious about things, still idealistic, and she's wondering "what the heck happened to me! I want my body back!" It's like being schizophrenic.

I think I blogged somewhere in Croatia about palimpsests, those places where the information from older times gets layered over newer information. Lately, I'm thinking that people, as creatures who live and grow through time, are really just living palimpsests. Our older selves are simply layered versions of our younger selves. Take a look, sometime, at an older person's face: you'll see every experience they ever had, etched into the lines there. If the person has had a bitter life, their face will show it; and people who live their lives well have a certain beauty, laid into their faces like a mosaic or like those poles with the layers and layers of posters stuck to them.

Have you ever seen or read Flatland (my favorite is the wonderful 1965 animated version, with members of Beyond the Fringe doing voices)? It's about some 2-dimensional people (squares, triangles, etc.) who meet a sphere as it passes through their space. The sphere, as it passes through, appears to grow and shrink as different parts of it are bisected by the 2-dimensional plane, and the denizens of that world think that it's only a circle which appears and disappears and fluxuates in size.

As you can see in the video above (which I found after writing most of this post), we are all multi-dimensional creatures, made huge with the vastness of time's dimension, yet seeing only the three-dimensional slice of ourselves in each moment. The younger me, the older me, the me-that-is-to-be, they are all only aspects of the wholeness of myself. So I really am only looking at a part of the whole when I wonder who that person is/was/will be.

What is the shape of that whole, really? I don't mean just in terms of our bodies moving through space; I mean, who are we? What drives us? How does that inform the multidimensional self?

Up to about twenty, we are growing so much that we can't keep up with our own changes, and as a result every time we meet ourselves we are totally different. We get used to this flux: it's all we've ever known, and we don't generally have the agency to influence the world, so we take it in stride.

However, by the twenties, then, are about being Finished -- about Being A Grownup. People in their late teens and twenties are busy reveling in doing all those things they've looked forward to doing when they became A Grownup: going out to clubs, eating whatever, drinking, staying up late, taking terrible care of their bodies: in other words, going where they want to when they want to -- and reading all those banned books. They smoke, they swear, they talk about exciting new things. They try stuff. They are busy devouring the world and showing everyone how they are Not A Kid.

In their thirties, people tend not to need to prove this point so much, and often settle down a bit, getting involved in their job or family life and generally feeling youthful but settled. Their bodies are still good, their friends are smarter, they are deepening intellectually. Life is good.

Then a weird thing happens in the forties and/or fifties. Suddenly their bodies are betraying them; weird physical anomalies appear as if overnight, literally -- one day they're not there, and the next day they are: weight gain, strange fallen bits, wrinkles and bags and puffy bits you never imagined on yourself, all materialize, one by one, in an avalanche of hellish change. By the time you're sixty or seventy, perhaps you're used to it. I don't know; I'm not there yet. However, it's clear that some people go down fighting all the way.

I used to look forward to getting crow's feet. I thought getting old wasn't such a bad thing, and looked forward to someday being one of those leathery old ladies full of cool stories (as opposed to the unmarked, unremarked face which was my youthful lot). Then one day, for reasons which aren't important but were temporary, I woke up and the space above my eyelids had fallen down over my eyes: I could feel my eyelashes holding them up, and when I looked in the mirror I almost screamed. My eyes had gone from the familiar crooked, normal-sized, expressive and not-ugly eyes to some horrid small and mean-looking ones, the eyes of a stranger. I'd swear it wasn't even me looking out of them.

In that moment, it suddenly occurred to me that this might be what my eyes might look like in old age. Suddenly I was a lot less keen. Where were my same eyes with the crow's feet? Would my eye-skin do this, simply sag over my eyes until I was drowned, lost, subsumed in someone else's face, getting up every morning and looking in the mirror and wondering where the me that I had looked at for years had gone? Was I doomed to look mean forever?

Luckily, the awful swelling passed, but it definitely shook me up.

I remember my 90-something-year-old great aunt -- the one who was married to the painter, who made amazing clothes out of curtains and wrote poetry and called you "Darling" in a wonderful deep voice -- I remember her telling my mom, "You're always sixteen inside, darling." She would flirt with young men and get away with it, because she was so dynamic. The young men always responded -- they were fascinated by her. She was as wrinkly and lacking in hair as the next old lady: but she carried herself with drama, wore interesting clothes, and was a marvelous conversationalist.

The thing is, I always aspired to be her. I thought I wanted to be that cool old lady when I was older. But I didn't realize how hard the journey might be -- to go on keeping hold of who you are when the outside of you changes so much. I'm already one of those people whose outsides and insides have never matched: I used to look in shop windows when I walked by, not because I was vain, but because I could never get used to the idea that that person was me. Initially, it was because I couldn't believe that I was fully-grown and had all the grownup bits; but later, it was more to do with not believing that the person with the blonde mane and the unfinished-looking face was really me. It simply didn't seem like an outward expression of who I was. And yet, as the years go by, you get used to that outer self and you come to see it as a favorite sweater, something comfortable that you wear every day and even dress up with accessories -- like clothes, for example (In my case, later, when I had a few more lines in my face, I dyed my hair red and became much more satisfied with the match between inner and outer selves).

Eventually, however, the sweater gets baggy -- and that's when you suddenly realize you're stuck wearing it even if you find you don't love it so much anymore.

I'm thinking more and more that what you have to do is stop thinking of it as if you are an unhappy consumer who can't buy a new sweater (although many people actually try to get the old one retailored); what you have to do is think of it -- all of it -- as a whole. It's not so much that the outer you has worn out, while the inner you is inside screaming to get out; rather, all of those incarnations of you -- the child, the nubile young thing, the virile strong young man, the parent, the middle aged person, whatever guises you have inhabited along the way -- all of those are actually still there. Literally. You just can't see them anymore.

Wikipedia informs me that although I was taught that "Time Is The Fourth Dimension," in most mathematical models there are many different spatial dimensions, and time is not a part of these dimensional spaces. However, there is a type of space (or spacetime) called Minkowski space: "In physics and mathematics, Minkowski space or Minkowski spacetime (named after the mathematician Hermann Minkowski) is the mathematical setting in which Einstein's theory of special relativity is most conveniently formulated. In this setting the three ordinary dimensions of space are combined with a single dimension of time to form a four-dimensional manifold for representing a spacetime.

"In theoretical physics, Minkowski space is often contrasted with Euclidean space. While a Euclidean space has only spacelike dimensions, a Minkowski space also has one timelike dimension."
Et voila! I can still talk about time like it's a fourth dimension. Mathematicians may scoff, but it's just damned easier this way, so I'll willfully stick to it for this post.

Hubble Captures View of
In some version of Minkowski spacetime, then, your tired old body might look like a Nebula photo from the Hubble telescope, or like the best palimpsest you could never imagine. You might find that all the joyous moments shine among the multitudinous wholeness like stars, or that each care that etched its line on your face was represented by a thousand tiny vacillations, like the delicate frills on a jellyfish. You might find that all your many travels make you into a great creature so tangled and enfolded in the Earth that the two have become inextricable. Which gives a new meaning to the "personal responsibility" part of ecological stewardship.

Looking at the women I know who have reached the crone age successfully, I think to myself "it is possible." It's possible to move through the baggy patches with grace, building a beautiful whole. The secret is to live with joy, and the wrinkles in your 3-D self will hopefully layer themselves over the droopy eyes until the palimpsest of happiness embeds itself in your polished old skin so your eyes can't look mean, especially when you look at them in all four dimensions and see who you were, where you went, who you became, and all the many layers and scars and travels and experiences in between, becoming something so vast, so world-encompassing and beautiful that you can't help but be proud.


nofixedstars said...

oh yes, i feel you on this! aging is especially difficult in this culture, with its over-emphasis on youth. but like you, i've always admired the elders around me who have that strength and sureness that come from many years of being in the world. i think they are so beautiful. but of course, when signs of physical aging begin to appear in one's own face & body, it's not a wonderful thing. it's almost like going through a second adolescence...who am i? who was i before, and how have i changed? how will i continue to change and how will i be the same? i think how we react ultimately has a lot to do with how well we know ourselves. and yes, we are palimpsests, multi-dimensional beings; our bodies move through time and change, but our souls remain the same---not static, but ever-growing, gaining layers and depth...

Oldfool said...

When I look at my spouse I see all those layers. She is 65 and wrinkled in this time but I see her sometimes as young as eight years old and sometimes 16 and sometimes when she was 39. In our day to day lives I see her as all those ages and all in between. She is seldom an old women although that comes out when she gets a mean streak. Within her there is always "the girl" and I can see it.
Apparently others can too as all men including the young respond to her. She is remarkable.
Being old is not a problem but getting there is.

Mim said...


You've encouraged me to see my lines in a different way.


It'sAllTooMuch said...

George Orwell said, "At age 50, every man has the face he deserves." I like that.

I do not recall where I read it, but someone pointed out that we are born "aging". From a biological perspective there is no magical point where 'growing up' turns into 'growing old'. (Though, it would be interesting to ask people of different ages what that magical point was.) All just different slices of your timeline, slippin' through.

Jenn said...

"... it was more to do with not believing that the person with the blonde mane and the unfinished-looking face was really me."

This, or some subset of it, may be universal. You've expressed very well my experience with the mirror.

zellerzone said...

Speaking of palimpsests and Croatia, Franz von Suppe came from Split. Hearing the Poet and Peasant Overture without visualizing cartoons is impossible.

Anonymous said...

Holy crap. I can't believe I stumbled across this. Brilliant and it made me cry.

molly said...

FANFUCKINGTASTIC post. wow. thank you.
you're helping me age gracefully.