I came across a picture of me as a child that was reminiscent of a picture of me taken this Christmas. Our faces are turned at the same angle and our coloring and features are similar. I never grew out of that unruly hair. But there are differences, of course. Nine-year old me had some teeth that were an orthodontist’s dream. She rocked a pink polyester shirt, tiny ribbon bow and all. I not only remember what that shirt felt like, by the way, but I remember LOVING IT. Nine-year old me had the most beautiful skin. She had eyebrows that did not need grooming and hair that did not require color. She had a little sparkle, that kid, sometimes, and this picture shows it, I think.
Most of what I was made of then, cell-wise, is long gone. There are between fifty and seventy-five trillion cells in a body and each type of cell has its own life span. Some live just a few days while others live months before they’re replaced. Only our brain cells remain fixed, and we don’t get new ones for those we lose. So, that nine-year old body that played in the neighborhood with her sisters and climbed trees and ate snow cones from the ice cream truck…that girl is gone, literally, in most every way. Yet she’s with me still. I could tell you what that pink shirt felt like, even though my skin has never experienced it. Maybe her history, feelings, and emotions are stored in the brain cells we uniquely share. Maybe the substance of who we are is separate somehow from our bodies.
Thinking thoughts like these usually leads me down a path of wondering just where it is that the soul resides. Poets might say it’s the heart while others would guess the brain. Still others would scoff at the idea that there is an immaterial, yet invaluable substance at the wheel of the uniquely perfect machine that is a human body. Whatever your belief, as Tom Cruise said before he punched a horse, I’ve no wish to fight you.
But I do wonder at the idea of reinvention, the many versions of ourselves that have lived and died and yet somehow reside in us. There used to be a me that chewed grape hubba bubba gum, and another that drank terrible wine coolers (the loss of those particular brain cells is particularly regrettable). There was a me that played softball and one that sang in churches in Czechoslovakia. The taste-bud cells and scuffed knee cells and vocal chord cells (please pardon my medical jargon) that experienced it all are gone. But I can still remember the feel of a solid purple rectangle of pure “grape” flavor in my mouth, getting the gum to the point when it was bubble-worthy. I can feel the weight of the catcher equipment on my small frame, the dust kicking up into my mask. I can still experience the awe of singing ‘Il Bianco e Dolce Cigno’ surrounded by friends and sacred art and the holy echo of our own voices coming back to us. I remember it all. It’s part of me.
It’s not a new idea that to say that who we are today is a mix of everyone we’ve ever been. We bring lessons, experiences, and memories with us as we grow and change. All of that is as it should be. But I find I’m drawn, still, to my nine-year old self, and I love her uniquely, more so than “three” or “sixteen” or “twenty-three”. She was smart and brave and she had a twinkle that would dampen some later on, but she didn’t know that. She was optimistic and naïve and she wore pink and liked it. She played all day in the summer with a pack of hubba bubba in her jean shorts pocket. Her hair never looked the same two days in a row but she didn’t care. She checked out a new Nancy Drew every week at school where she loved learning, and she was quiet and imaginative and good. Who wouldn’t love her? I do. It’s nice having her on board.