She is sister of no one. He needs sleep, cake and shelter. She hates people who hunt for fun, eggplants and raisins. He dreams of cash and travelling the world. She sees colourful candy floss clouds, unfinished puzzles and someone standing in the sunset. He hates hot beds, meatballs and falling off the bed. She needs animals to love, laughter and someone to rely on. He hates bullies, Donald Trump and kale.
Look, said my daughter, taking me by the hand and leading me across her classroom. Look at my poem. It's about me. About who I am. And it was.
It was her, and it was all the other boys and girls, a whole wall of these strange and wonderful declarations of self.
Does it begin then? At 7 or 8 or 9 years of age? This knowledge of what makes you you. Your frailties and gifts. What pleases you and what leaves you cold. From where do these qualities and choices that constitute us come? How do you explain my daughter, who was born in a city to city folk, and yet would give her right arm to live among paddocks and horses? And what does it mean when we are wrong about what and who we are?
If you had asked me at 8 what I dreamed of, I would have told you the stage, that clearly I was destined for something theatrical. Now though, at 42, I wonder if, like my dwindling supply of eggs, I only had a finite stash of extroversion, most of which I'd used up by my 25th birthday. I fear, I said to a friend the other day, I've been deluding myself all this time, that I'm actually an introvert. More likely, she said, you're an ambivert, a person who is neither extrovert nor introvert, but both. (This struck me as being at once perfectly commonsensical and a suspiciously convenient psychological catch-all.) Over too many drinks a few nights later, a man I know as always sure-footed, conceded to me that, having recently enjoyed initial success in a new field, he had assumed he could shed the career that had defined him, but now, his new trajectory not having taken off quite as anticipated, he found himself floundering. Half-cut, I offered him nothing insightful. Next time I see him, though, I will tell him we are not necessarily one thing at the exclusion of another, that identity can be fluid and what matters is remaining on the best and most familiar of terms with oneself.
I received a letter from Bruce last week. Bruce said he learned a long time ago to be happy with himself. "Life," he wrote, "becomes a helluva lot easier when you accept you probably are not going to be a top heart surgeon changing the world. I have just started my 50th year as a mechanic; I'm good at my job and accept that." I reckon Bruce is on to something. That he's reading from the same page as Nietzsche, who believed we only grow wise when we learn to listen to the wild dogs barking in our cellar.
My daughter is the one who hates raisins, sees unfinished puzzles and needs laughter. I could have added to her poem that she is also unbelievably bossy and exceptionally dogged. She doesn't yet recognise these traits in herself but I do, because I know they are both my legacy to her and my curse upon her. And when she comes home with tales of how she has clashed with this or that friend, I say first she must look to herself, at the ways in which her behaviour contributed. That ultimately she can change only herself.
After I admitted to being down in the dumps last week, many kind readers wrote in with advice and consolation. "Keep gratitude in mind throughout the mundane," said Delwyn. "Memories will someday want all those bits back again, for the unity and the warmth of their repetitive bustle."
"If we didn't have the lows," wrote Xenia, "we'd never be given the highs." Anon: "It's okay to feel down, even when people are worse off than you."
"I used to find that getting cracking with something physically demanding could help," offered Jim, "but I don't know if that works with women. Could be worth a shot."