In high school, us gals had this obsession with taking candid photographs. We were desperate for this sliver of authenticity in social media (a paradox in and of itself). Practiced poses and copy and pasted grins only brought us so far.
There was this desperate desire to have someone catch you mid-laugh, mid-dance, mid-conversation.
The wind, a ventriloquist, playing with strands of your hair like puppet legs. Your smile, more of an organic motion, not a painted expression. That was the ideal Instagram post. Something charming, but still conventionally beautiful...acceptable.
I had a handful of such photographs taken of me. Though, I was more enraptured with the idea of documenting what seemed like important life events at the time than actually seeing this so-called 'candid' side of myself.
There were a couple of videos, even, that I found of note. Videos where my skin looked particularly clear...my movements, free. Videos that gave me a transitory glimpse into how an onlooker would see me. We all yearn for such an insight, no matter how much we like to deny it.
But no matter the audio-visual content I amassed, I had no concept of a purely unfiltered, candid side of me. Such is the case when your sense of self depends so highly on the gaze of others...of unread messages and pregnant silences.
For almost two years, I have spent what seems like eons alone - and I’m not complaining about it in the least. I always had this inherent need to retreat back into myself and recharge. Influencers today would call it self-care. TikTok trends it a “no-bones day.” I deem it the source of all my creativity - a state of unending apprenticeship.
In self-defense, my time in silence never feels empty. I’m an avid reader and I write with a sort of desperation. A means of survival. In other words, I’m an English major for a reason. I’m disengaged, but the most alive when doing so.
Apparently, I also easily drift off topic :) Back to my original train of thought!
I basically spent most of my entire existence void of any awareness or understanding of an authentic side of me. That is until I read Mary Olivers’ Upstream: Selected Essays.
Oliver has always been one of my favorite poets. She has all the inexhaustible reverence for nature as that of the Romantics, but she is also intrinsically modern in her exploration of humanity.
What particularly struck me about this collection of essays was her exposition on “the third self.”
She breaks down our identity (or rather, our sense of self) into three categories: the child self, the social self, and this more obscure, creatively-inclined “third self.”
“Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time" - Mary Oliver
Immediately, this seemed to explicate this inconsistency I felt between photograph and mirror. Between the sound of my voice and my constant patter of silent thoughts. It appeased my various tribulations of identity - my ability to put on multiple guises for watchful eyes (at my own expense).
Above all, it reminded me that in all the places I searched, I only found myself truly authentic when I was alone. This drove me to write. It drove me to observe more...
To break it down as best (and authentically) as I can --
Child (a memory)
A stack of early 2000s glossy photographs featuring my chubby fists and inquisitive eyes.
Mom and Dad are scraping off the old wallpaper in the kitchen. The house would go up for sale and Dad would leave shortly after. Dad buys me a Green Day CD, takes me to Fenway Park, rips books out of my hands….
There is something so peculiar about the child self and the way it lingers long after we grow to completion.
Undisputedly, it shapes us, but it still seems to be distinctly severed from the present. The lucidity of my childhood experience and all its extremes waned quickly and imperceptibly. Sometimes I’m not even sure I experienced it at all…that the child in the photograph is truly me, with the same (smaller) skull, same brain, same racing heart...
Social (a mask)
Increments and job titles and waivers and rubrics. Pointedly small interactions. Cashiers and wary emails and sticky restaurant tables.
They all provide a sense of tangibility. In accordance with the childhood well of memory, the social self is a source of reference points. I lived in the slideshow of such masks for years and almost wish I continued to do so.
The Third Self (a force of feeling)
The third self, my truly candid self, is heedless of a formula. It is like walking upstream fueled by a force of feeling that doesn’t so easily slide into a concrete form...into words.
All creative work is the channeling of this intangible self into a more tangible form of expression - condensed into stanzas, stuck to a dancer’s feet, written into symphonies, and left to dry on a canvas. There is nothing linear about it. It is a state of perpetual learning and wonder and vulnerability.