Along the way we can become obscured to ourselves.
A few days before the new year my grandmother told me about an exchange I had with her when I was a little boy, and I was stunned by her words. I was stunned by how little I had changed in all these years and by how that miniature me seemed to know who I was in a way that had been lost to the man hugging his grandma goodbye in a parking lot.
Maybe it's a side effect of becoming a thirty something, but the archives of my childhood seem unusually spare. Just a cloudy stack of 8mm remembrances: My favorite color was green. G.I. Joe was the best damned cartoon on television. And Batman was the go-to Halloween costume, despite that POS plastic mask.
I remember the exhilaration of mornings, the bed-head dash for a bowl of cereal and waiting toys. I remember sleeping in jeans and a tee shirt simply on the promise of being driven to a buddy's house in the morning. I woke at dawn. My mom did not.
I remember discovering Alexander the Great inside a library book. Several days later, I proudly wore a shining helmet, a kid's hard hat remade by my father with tin foil and a cardboard crest. I was now the Greek conqueror of my backyard; but to the mother watching through the kitchen window, I was the beloved son she kept from kindergarten an extra year so that I might run and shout alongside my imagination a little longer.
And I remember the sea. Always the sea. There I am, the volunteer castaway hiding among hot dunes and coarse grasses, or holding my breath beneath the rolling shallows of Lake Michigan. I always isolated myself at the beach, seeking out lonely nooks, at ease on my own and content with the mirage of pirates.
If I squint, I also remember my school friends and my first brown-eyed crush, flickering phantoms framed inside the scenes of youth: grass stained knees and laughter, birthday parties and Nintendo, family moves and goodbyes.
And within that 8mm stack there's an image of me, a class photo from the first grade. Behind those wide eyes, I sense fear. I was already afraid. Though I wouldn't wear thick brown glasses for another two years or get acne break-outs for a number more, the seeds of insecurity were there, safe inside the boy who carefully wrote Air in black ink on the back of his Nikes. But those shoes would never be Jordans, and I would never be them. I was me.
Life's progression is a wondrous and sometimes painful experience. Along the way we can become obscured to ourselves. Sometimes we build identities using cheap materials selected from or chosen by friends, by fleeting enemies, and by popular culture. Add to this the struggles and complexities every person must face growing up and the result is an ambiguous sense of self - some days are clear, some days are a foggy mess. But on that gray afternoon when my grandmother slipped her frail hand inside mine, there was no question. She knew my worth.