Birthday, self-image, and actual age

Today is my birthday. As with most birthdays and holidays the last several years, my first thought when I saw it coming closer on the calendar may well have been “What? Already?” But here it is.

All my life, my image of myself (that is, of my own appearance) has been set far more by the yearly school photographs than by looking at myself. I am that man that James uses as a pointed simile, who looks in the mirror and goes away having forgotten what he looks like—when I notice what I look like at all. (I am not very visual; to describe what one of my friends looks like, I generally have to have a photograph in front of me, even if I’d spent hours looking at and trying to study the picture to remember it.)

1993 school photoAnd with a picture like the one at right still sitting on top of a bookcase as one of the more prominent of our family photographs, that image of my younger self has percolated into my mind far more thoroughly than any of my other
transient “looks.”

I also spent what I now realize was vast amounts of time looking back over class pictures and yearbooks, so while I didn’t focus on the pictures of myself, they still passed before my mind’s eye far more often than the image from a mirror.

A picture from the spring of 2007As I grew older (and more negligent) and went off to college, the time I spent in front of mirrors (and thus looking at myself) lessened, but I no longer had such memorable pictures of my far younger self staring at me every time I ventured into one particular room. And friends occasionally took photos that included me and shared them—the one at left, for example—so my self-image
grew older, though it still lagged.

It also helped that I at least sometimes tried to cultivate a consistent appearance—always wearing that purple sweater during Lent each year in college until its elbows wore almost entirely through, for example—which gradually filtered into my picture of myself.

From a graduation party in 2009And perhaps it also helped that I was for the first time in my life surrounded by people about my own age whom I had not, in theory, known since childhood. As friendships deepened, perhaps I saw myself as closer to the age of these
dear friends—a few of whom are pictured here with me as that era closed. (This picture has been my “cover photograph” on Facebook for a few years now.)

Dancing in the Streets 2013Of late, a few more recent photographs of myself have lingered in my mind’s eye enough to bring my mental self-image still closer to reality. This one, for example, for once captures one of the happy moments I dearly wish to remember—the visual component of such memories usually slips right out of my mind despite my best efforts, so I’m grateful for this photograph.

Maybe one of these years I will learn to remember what I look like when I look in the mirror. And someday, I hope, I shall be so content as to no longer often think longingly of (what were in retrospect) happy days gone by.

And maybe someday I’ll finish the Shine Cycle. But a temperament bent toward melancholy, with occasional bursts and even more occasional extended periods of happiness, has proved useful in the development of my poetry.

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