I flew away to visit my sister for Thanksgiving. We took the kids ice skating. I had a few minutes to myself where I skated alone — weaving through groups of strangers with no one’s hand to hold and no conversation to pay attention to. I had stripped off my jacket. The air was cold but the sun was warm. I thought, I love having a body. There’s so much I can do with it.
Babies are just starting to figure this out. I’m not used to babies. It took me a while to warm up to my new niece as a small person, rather than a fragile irreplaceable treasure that may shriek, shatter or cover me in vomit at any moment. She’s six months old and pretty chill. She smiles a lot. She’s interested in textures, and can tell when you’re nervous. She has a personality, opinions, problem-solving style and other reactions that came prepackaged. The only limitation she has on these responses is that she’s not quite used to driving her body yet.
Upon discussing the matter with my sister, we noticed the same about her son (six years). She was nine when I was born, and a lot of how I interact with the world hasn’t changed since then. We talked about how some people have a narrow range of passion, and some have a huge range (and will smash things, even if they’re overjoyed!) Some of these traits are prepackaged and clear from day one.
Her son sang songs about Minecraft for most of the weekend. He sings when he’s happy, my sister told me. The two times he came near tantrum were to do with too much advice crashing against his pride, and from wanting to participate but being exhausted. I felt for him. I’ve been there. So have a lot of adults I know. It reminded me of something brilliant my riding instructor once said, that’s helped a lot when working with personalities that get frustrated easily.
One of the first conversations I had with my now-verbal nephew went like this.
“I remember the first time I met you, you were only a little bigger than your sister. We were at a restaurant. You grabbed my elbow and tried to eat it. I couldn’t believe how strong you were! I had to pull and yank my arm away from you!” I said.
“Wanna try it again?” he grinned, as though to lunge at me.
My sister explained to him that I rough-house for real, and to be careful. Then she asked me to take it easy, and do my best to not wake up swinging when I get jumped the next morning.
8am rolled around, and I opened one eye when I heard little feet coming down the stairs. Rather than pouncing on me, as he does with all the other relatives, he leaned over the edge of my bed and said in a quiet voice, “would you like to see my basic Minecraft set up, or the full version?” After a short negotiation, we settled on the full version, once I’d fixed coffee and he’d fixed toast ‘n jam.
A personality is a tool like a flexible body is a tool. Having the tool is one thing, but perception and awareness of choices — is it more important to huff, or actually solve the problem — determine how we wield the tool.
This muddies the concepts of fate and destiny a great deal.
There are a number of arbitrary systems that have explained to me me my place in the world and how I should interact with others.
- There’s Greek astrology, which tells me I should be a home-body.
- Chinese Astrology, which tells me I am hard-working and persistent.
- Phrenology, which tells me how strong my brain is and in what areas.
- Physiognomy, which tells me I have an aggressive, dominating nature.
- Palmistry, which tells me that my heart will split in two, and that I’ll have four children.
- Mood rings, which tell me that when I’m cold I’m unhappy and when I’m warm I’m happy.
In addition to baby-meeting, Thanksgiving feasting, ice-skating and late-night catching up, we also pulled out our instruments and noodled our way through everything from carols and reels to Tori Amos and Rammstein (“Sonne for flute and two violins” didn’t go all that well). Personality traits again came to mind while trying to reconcile jamming between those who have lots of music theory and technical knowledge with those who can figure out any song they know after a try or two. Matching pitch was on my mind.
On the plane from St. Louis back to San Francisco, I thought of another arbitrary system. Imagine for a moment that your personality, disposition, and place in the universe could be determined by one precise and intimate occurrence:
Of the buzzing in your head,
When you listen to silence.
“Children are still people — willful small people with a full range of perception and a lack of experience.”
“I’m basically here to entertain you while you figure it out for yourself.”
– Garyn Heidemann, my riding instructor.