Never mind rivers. You can’t take steps in the same body twice. May I find my way into this subject by way of something gross? I’m typing on a laptop that isn’t very old, but is thoroughly coated in me. My skin and hair, that is. I’m literally losing myself while writing this; tiny bits of my fingertips and face shed into the crevices between these keys, and I’m already physically other than I was when I began typing. And readers, we know, become physically embedded in their reading spaces, as well, and even give some of themselves to the objects they read. Whether on page or screen, that dust is us.
And, of course, we change on the so-called inside. The “what” that we are, our bodies spend our lifetimes silently (usually) dying and rejuvenating into millions of incarnations of us. But the “who” that we are morphs, too. As we learn and unlearn—consciously or otherwise—from our experiences, we become more or less patient, kind, humble, and so on. Perceptibly so or no, this is as true upon writing or reading a story or poem as it is upon surviving a traffic accident, adopting a child, or losing a job. So writing and reading change us.
How do we as writers and readers negotiate such a complex constellation of selves, no point—that’s us—of which remains the same from word to word? To answer, I take us to that bastion of literary theory, USA Today.
In “Cells that Last a Lifetime”, a 2007 piece by April Holladay written in response to a question regarding cell replication and lifespan, we learn that scientists have found evidence that three areas of our bodies feature lasting cells: our brains, our hearts, and our eyes. Is this not lovely?
Neurons in our cerebral cortices appear to hang with us even as we slowly grow new skulls and, give or take a particular, new brains. That’s appropriate, because the cerebral cortex is apparently crucial to memory and much else that we consider fundamental to selfhood, including consciousness, perception, and language.
While hearts can change somewhat at the cellular level, heart muscle tissue largely remains with us throughout all the wrenching, breaking, soaring, and so on that it’s subjected to as we go about the business of being alive.
The lenses of our eyes are partly new, cellwise, but the innermost cells of those lenses have always been with us and always will be.
I know nothing of their status as fact among experts, but these notions strike me as wonderful, if only metaphorically. How propitious for literature that the everlasting essence of our selves may find biological safe harbor in these of all three places, the eyes with which we take in the language that our minds make sense of and that our hearts connect with. This keyboard can have my skin and time can take my bones. But neither this machine nor this passing time will take me, that me that I see and feel in the language of literature. And that you that your world absorbs as you read this, it wasn’t you to begin with—those were borrowed parts, now used, refuse. You and I are what lasts in us, what remains of us as we renew; we are vision and insight, love, and thought.