some words on reinvention
It’s hanging in my closet now, nestled between T-shirts and button-downs, carving a category for itself. My Going Out Shirt. Shirts, if you count the other vaguely shimmery pieces on either side, the ones I wear to class and the library and, most often, while lounging in bed. It’s green, my Going Out Shirt, green velvet, and crushed just a bit to reflect the light while dancing. Or, at least, I’d assume. I’ve only danced in the dressing room while wearing it because as much as I’d like to try , I’m not quite sure how much of a Going Out Person I can be.
There’s something about late summer (or early autumn) that makes reinvention seem possible. Perhaps it has to do with the start of a new school year. We sharpen our pencils, we reconnect with friends after a summer away, and on some level, we feel different. We are older, sure, though not necessarily stuck in our ways. We are more well traveled, though not necessarily world weary. We have spent the last few weeks whiling away the last sunlit nights and wondering about the days to come, about how we’ll fit into them and how to shape them to fit us. We are, essentially, ourselves, hardly different at the end of this summer than we were the last, and yet, we feel like we could be someone more. More interesting. More fun. More exciting. Or less, depending on what we’ve done with our lives up until now. We experiment with changes both visible (dyed hair, new piercing, a set of shiny shoes) and invisible (cooler temper, kinder heart, a greater sense of responsibility,). We dial up or tone down aspects of ourselves to correspond to lives lived at a different volume.
Reinvention is a tricky concept because on the surface, it seems so easy. Put on the Going Out Shirt, and you’ll become a Going Out Person. In many ways, it is this easy. I love the way a slick of red lipstick and a good song to walk to makes me feel powerful, even if the hour before, I’d been struggling to leave my room. We feel a little bit like new people when we make these small changes; and if we make enough of them, we start to feel like we can change who we’ve always been. Sometimes, that’s a great thing, and it’s definitely something that we’ve all heard college is for. Becoming someone new is exhilarating, a flying leap into uncharted territory. But there are moments when I wonder: Just how much of that vast expanse—that great unknown—have I been carrying with me all along?
In a 2015 interview on BBC Radio 4’s iconic program, Desert Island Discs, the great comedian/writer/actor Stephen Fry grappled with this idea. In between discussions of the music he would take with him to a desert island (mostly classical, a bit of Brahms, and some Wagner, which he described as “transcendent,” in case you were wondering) he came up with the following musing:
“The nature of oneself is a bit like a signature. As a teenager you practice your signature all the time; you think ‘oh, I’ll do a straight down Y or an F that’s backwards’ or something. And then after a while it becomes your signature. It’s a bit the same with your personality. When you’re a teenager and a young adult you think ‘I’ll try this pose, I’ll try this interest, this style of dress’ and then slowly, it is you.”
We often view reinvention as something that just happens. You change your signature, you change yourself. To extend the image of “the great unknown,” throwing oneself across a chasm seems less daunting if the other side is clearly visible. If we can embrace change immediately, with every fiber of our being, of course we should be able to leap gracefully across. With the end in sight, the journey, the actual act of transformation, doesn’t matter as much.
Despite fun bits like backwards Fs, I think the most important word in Fry’s speech is “slowly.” It explains why I and many people I’ve known have trouble with the concept “New Year, New Me.” The year changes, of course; but somehow, we can still feel static, no matter how hard we try. Bursts of frenetic activity during moments of beginning, all-or-nothing attempts to get fit, get smart, get cool, almost inevitably die out. And if they don’t, the drastic transformation can be jarring. To change oneself so quickly is, in essence, to sacrifice one’s signature, as Fry would say. You can change the way you draw your Ys, but at the end, you should still be able to read your name.
This is not to say reinvention is impossible, or unworthy, or a process reserved for posers. Rather, reinvention is, at its core, a process of rediscovery, of figuring out which parts of ourselves we’d like to highlight at a given moment in time. It’s a constant process and one whose allure I’m not sure we’ll ever truly be able to resist. And maybe that’s good. Maybe we’re all constantly striving to be a different—if not necessarily better—version of ourselves, and when we get there (if we get there), we’ll have shone enough light into enough dark places for us to be able to see a little clearer. If we cultivate our appearances, or behaviors, or the types of music we listen to, maybe, just maybe, we’ll get closer to becoming the people we want to be. The kind of people we might have once admired, whose traits we may have taken note of and tucked away in an ever-growing list of attitudes toward living. The kind of people who, if we were to see them across a crowded room, might be wearing green velvet.