We Are Not What We Once Were

I believe there is some kind of psychological disorder where something one says in the course of normal conversation captures their own attention and sets them on an entirely new line of thought that threatens the listener with an endless monologue on countless subjects. It is, as if one keeps fascinating one’s self by their own expressed ideas. Within their monologue are triggers that spark a change in subject so the speaker just keeps jumping from one topic to another. While I don’t believe it rises to the level of a psychological disorder, I do confess that sometimes I say things that only later I come to consider more interesting than I initially realized. By ‘more interesting’, I mean, of course, more interesting to ME. So, if something I say or write sets me on the path to a new monologue (read: blog) then therein, lies the potential for perceiving it as some sort of disorder. But I can’t help it! I keep fascinating myself with new thoughts that arise in the course of my writing. And, of course, if it’s fascinating, I can’t help but write about it hoping and believing you too will share this fascination. I appreciate there may be those who will wonder whether the small number of blog subscribers suggests my assessment of what readers find fascinating may have missed the mark, but as Kurt Vonnegut so aptly put it,

“So it goes”.

I have been pondering something I casually remarked on in my last blog post. I described the home of a man in my neighborhood as having the façade of what once appeared to be a storefront. I said “everything in this neighborhood was once something else”. As I read and reread that line, I thought, “Oooooo! Now there’s a meaty metaphysical tidbit worth chewing on.” Everything is this neighborhood was once something else. The more I considered this, the more I reasoned, while it may be self-evident, it seemed to me infinitely intriguing.

Consider the following:

  • The fire escape affixed to the side of our old home was to comply with regulations that required it when it was a boarding house in the early years of the 20th Century.
  • During those years the windowless sides of these large brick homes provided a perfect palate for a painted advertisement. The fading images of turn of the century popular products are still visible today.  
Advertising on the Homes that Once Were Boarding Houses
  • On my daily walks I pass by an old brick building with a sign etched into its façade “The St. Louis Compressed Yeast Company”. Somebody either lives there or uses it for storage now, but I’m pretty certain no one is still compressing yeast (whatever that actually means) in that building.
The St. Louis Bakers Compressed Yeast Company
  • Next door to that building is an old firehouse with a relatively narrow entrance through which only a tiny fire engine could come and go as needed. Now, someone seems to use it as an office and a place to store things.
The Fire House
  • Our roofer whose office is just a short distance from the house occupies what was once a laboratory operated by Dr. Diu-Good who produced, among other things, pharmaceutical products under the name Dr. Du Good. The good Dr. was the first Black American to graduate with an advanced degree from Cornell University according to one source I consulted. In the front of the building was a pharmacy where one could purchase various pharmaceutical agents while the stables were located in the same structure in the back of the pharmacy.
  • There is a large institutional-looking Georgian brick building nearby that are condos. Many years ago, it was the City Hospital Originally built in 1845 to manage widespread Cholera but destroyed several times- first by fire, then Cyclone before its current structural incarnation and finally conversions to condos.
  • There are two Churches just a block from where we live that have been converted to private residences.
  • And just a short few months ago the old Victorian era funeral home was sold and will soon become a bed and breakfast. I can’t imagine how they will market the building’s past as an incentive to stay overnight, but suspect there are plenty who might be intrigued by the idea of spending a couple of nights in the same place hundreds of dead people had been prepared for burial.

Everything here was once something else. Of course, this is true about everything everywhere. And perhaps most profoundly important, it is true about you and me. Even we are not what we were. This is true right down to the molecular level. We are in a state of constant flux- always creating, sustaining, then dying, only to create, sustain, and die yet again and again. We are always becoming. Precisely what we are becoming is a mystery, impossible to accurately predict because of the infinite number of variables that can influence, in the blink of an eye, the trajectory of our path forward. We cannot say what we will become, only with hindsight, unsatisfactorily appreciate what we were. All that we can know, and therefore state with certainty, is that we are no longer what we once were. And yet, while what we were is not what we are now, it has played a role in creating who we have become. We cannot begin to appreciate even a vague understanding of who we are without undertaking an investigation of who and what we once were. Pick your own analogy, but self-awareness requires us to become detectives, archeologists, miners, all searching beyond the vague or reworked memories we cannot help but embellish, burnish, and mythologize over the course of time’s telling and retelling.

We can only begin to understand who we are by exploring and excavating the artifacts of our past. When I was a kid we used to search for arrowheads that conjured up images largely shaped by the cowboy and Indian stereotypes that pervaded the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s. The hints of the past were insufficient to help us shape little more than a misguided impression of who we are at that time. I was surprised to learn that several contemporaries of mine have discovered places in and around St. Louis (usually, they say along the riverfronts) where arrowheads and Native American tools from community encampments still can be discovered. The impressions these discoveries now make are very different from those I recall as a child even though the collected relics are relatively similar. The parallels between understanding our communal and individual identities are compelling in at least one regard- they both underscore how limited they are as sources for understanding who we are now.

We are weighed down by a past we all must carry even as it cannot fully reflect who we are now. We will always be more than the sum of our experiences. Yet, like Jacob Marley, we haul around the jangling, heavy chains of our past as a constant companion; like some vestigial hulking ornament we cannot shed, even as its utility to us is limited, reflecting who we once were but are no longer. Its value to us, will never be definitional and barely impressionistic, always hinting at who we once were but offering little more than an impression of who we are now. I imagine it like looking at the impression left in one’s unmade bed after they have left for the day. You can study it for days, yet understand very little about who it was that lay there.

Yet this is all we have, flawed as it is. It underscores the notion that:

What we were is merely an imperfect memory,

What we are is mercurial, untouchable because what we are is always passing away while, at once, becoming something new,

Who we will be is unpredictable, unknown and, of course, like the present, is redefined the moment it has been defined.

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