Sometimes I’ll find myself cataloging things I do, say, or believe in and wondering where that came from. For example, I can look at a city street scene and automatically tell you that my ability to read it came from my mother and father. New Yorkers live and breathe this if they expect to continue to live and breathe.
I’ll casually pick out songs learned in the sixties from friends in Boston, Greenwich Village, Baltimore, or Toronto on the guitar. Then, at four AM, I’ll wonder what happened after they split for a road trip to Chicago. Finally, I’ll contemplate our being permanently split but forever bound together.
Occasionally, I’ve been known to blurt out aphorisms, quotes, and bits of the Bible that seem at odds with my background. I did not hear these things growing up in New York City. They were not part of my family background. Instead, they derived from my inlaws along Maine’s coast: my first wife’s family. After the marriage ended, I attempted to bury much of the influence, but they stubbornly refused to stay hidden and joined the rest of the mish-mash that is my life.
Some of this stuff that sticks to us is subtle. For example, when teaching anthropology as an adjunct professor, I’d set up a pocket watch on the desk to stay on track with the day’s lecture. At the beginning of class, one day, I was ritually winding the watch when I recalled that I had picked up the ritual of winding the watch, setting it down, and periodically checking it from my favorite professor, whom I most admired and wanted to be like.
I don’t think I’m out of step with my contemporaries. We are like packrats who borrow and collect. Our lives are a sort of tapestry of things that we love but sometimes dislike; that tobacco habit we worked so hard to overcome or the nasty habit of eating too fast we picked up in the Navy.
Now, without too much outcry, quietly reaffirm the contributions friends, family, enemies, and teachers have made to who you are. Because while it is true that you are you, not all of that is original to you.