He tripped, catching the pointed toe of the winklepickers on the kerb. Righting himself he looked around, his eyes darting self-consciously to seek out any possible observer, even while he reassumed his pose of studied nonchalance. Do they even call them winklepickers these days? From the anonymity of the car, I watched… the shutter of memory capturing the scene in vivid detail.
I took in, with some appreciation, the shiny black shoes, drainpipe jeans and striped shirt. Honey gold hair, worn a little too long to be called short, carefully coaxed across his brow. From one hand dangled a blue jacket… but what had caught my attention was the brown waistcoat and large, black satin bow tie.
This was a late summer Saturday. His attire both too warm and too contrived to be casual. An incongruous look, even if he was going to a wedding or other social gathering. Heading in the direction of the town centre and around fifteen, at a guess, I couldn’t see him making his way to such a function alone. The town and the plate glass reflections of shop windows were, I guessed, his goal. And possibly a girl. He looked nervous enough.
You could read his emotions in the way he walked… every step seeming to shout ‘look at me!’, even while something in his stance suggested he still wondered if he looked as cool as he felt or as idiotic as his father may have told him.
I smiled to myself; a mother of sons. There is something very fragile about those first, tentative steps into a grown-up world of independence and learning to express the person you know yourself to be on the inside. It is a time of great vulnerability when the desire for acceptance and approval can lead to you conforming to the patterns laid by others, responding to their image of who you ‘should’ be.. and a time when the fledgling wings are easily clipped, damaged or irreparably broken by an unkind word or a lack of trust in your ability to become an individual in your own right.
The indulgent smile froze for a moment as I realised that some aspects of teenagerhood are not reserved for teenagers… but can happen to us all at any point in our lives. I thought about my hair.
It is now non-existent, lost to chemotherapy…a temporary state, I can hope. It had once been dyed red , but although it had felt outrageous, in retrospect it was fairly tame, almost natural. A small, domesticated and timid attempt at self-expression. It had been building for a while and though the mahogany was quickly allowed to fade back to propriety, the lava was rising.
I was in my fifties when I dyed my hair rebellious; a colour somewhere between disaster and flame. It was short too; I had hacked it off with the meat shears in an act of sheer defiance… carving an image that owed no thought to anything but my own freedom to choose. I loved it. It carried danger signals and waved a flag of independence, screaming in no uncertain terms that enough was enough and I would no longer take either the garbage or the begrudged crumbs of affection upon which I had subsisted for far too long. I had no idea where this was going, but that it was going to go somewhere… anywhere….I was very certain….
Basically, I was little more than a come-again teenager, facing the world all guns blazing to assert a self-image I had yet to form and a confidence I had yet to feel. It was a time of change and reaction where I tore off the masks I had allowed to take up residence and began to wear instead the passion for life that I had always felt and kept locked primly away in the staid closet of domesticity.
Such a conflagration can go either way… but having once embraced the searing of the flames, I grew to love the contentment of the warmth of glowing embers. I did not need to display the blazon of a passion that will always burn. The challenge became a more carefree confidence, the red once more its gentler, natural shade, though now comfortably streaked with silver and growing wild. Outwardly, I have come full circle, back to the place I began, yet I see now through different eyes from another arc of the spiral of understanding.
Major changes always bring on a moment of panic, while the wave rises high and gathers momentum. A new job, new parenthood, the end of a relationship or the beginning of a shared life… all call for us to readjust our perception of who we are as values and the demands we make upon ourselves are shaken out of their accustomed patterns and rearranged. We can change our style, choose a different expression of who we are, or who we want the world to perceive, but these are no more than outer manifestations of an inner state of mind and heart. At some level of consciousness we are always wondering who we will be when the wave of change finally crashes to the shore, spreading its fanning arches of foam across our lives.
As I watched the youngster walk up the hill, I realised I could not have told him the answer to that question…it is always one we have to learn for ourselves through lived experience. We will be who we have always been… our essential self does not change; we may learn and grow, we may alter our perspectives, swap one mask for another or discard them altogether… We may seem to recede into our own shadow or blossom in the sunlit fields of joy… but the essence of our true Self remains as clear and pure as the day we were born…and at any moment we may turn and drink from the well of being that resides within.