Once upon a time in Italy, a beautiful woman winked at me. The wink occurred in a church, and I saw it from across the nave, as clear as a twinkling star. That was eight years ago, and it continues to stand as the only wink I actually remember.
Truth be told, that woman was my mother. My high school choir was on a concert tour in Italy, and my mother was a chaperone. She had, just moments before a concert, learned that her other son (my brother) had been diagnosed with cancer. At the time, I was still unaware, and yet, singing with my choir from the risers to the distant pews, her wink called out to me from the depths of the audience and continues to carry itself with me through the years to the present day. The wink stood as a sanctuary of maternal love. It stood for the trials and tribulations my brother would soon endure, and his perseverance therein. It was a wink of anxious benevolence, of kinship that brought with it the weight of the past and the lightness of the future (that is, if lightness and weight can be so placed).
Only occasionally do I wink at people. They might think it’s silly. Perhaps it is. But it’s not my wink. It’s my mother’s wink. They can think what they may; I won’t bother telling them the story of the wink. I just hope that perhaps they feel its significance, and maybe even develop their own story behind it. I do not pass on my mother’s wink lightly.
I’d like to think that gestures, like words, carry all the weight of the past with them, from the context under which they were first exchanged through the whole journey they’ve traveled to get to where they are once again exchanged anew. Behind every gesture there exists a story, a relation, and an emotion unbeknownst to future recipients. My handshake is not just a handshake born out of a vacuum in a moment in time. It traveled for twenty-six years, refining itself through decades of other well-traveled hands just to get to you.
In my current life, there exists an enigmatic individual with whom I communicate exclusively in facial gestures. We do talk, but our words are often superficial, overly topical, even banal. Our faces, however, attempt to breach the depths of the psyche, the plight and pathos of our existences. Or so I’d like to think. I want to believe her faces are as meaningful as I try to make mine, and that the faces we make at each other are actually deeply personal conversations about life and people in our pasts, even if our verbal conversations are about lollipops and rain. As far as I know, she’s just making faces. As far as she knows, I’m just doing the same. I suppose that’s alright. Half of the faces I make are her faces anyway. Maybe I’m regurgitating some foreign language only she understands. Or maybe I just look like a buffoon. It’s an odd sensation to feel like you know so much about an individual based solely on their gestures, and yet be able to say so little about them.
But now I catch myself sending her grimaces off to other people. Do I have no grimaces of my own to give? What faces did I make before I met the Enigma?
Faces, winks, handshakes, Identity – Sometimes I look down at myself and see that I am wearing blue jeans and a pair of ratty sneakers, not unlike the jeans and sneakers my brother often wears. It makes sense that my brother must feel his feet like I feel mine, resting within a pair of worn running shoes. We have at times been called twins, born five years apart. Maybe these jean-clad legs… maybe they’re my brother’s legs. Maybe I am my brother.
No wait. I am not my brother. I am myself. Or, am I? What can I claim to be of myself? I have my mother’s wink. I wear my brother’s pants. I speak with Julia‘s words, and I grimace with the Enigma’s face. I am nothing but a conglomerate of people about whom I care – people who have made an impression on me over the duration of my short life.
What does it mean for the precious Sense of Self when our lexicon of expression is built on the mimicry of actions whose meanings we can only really pretend to understand? Maybe self-expression is an illusion. Perhaps it should be an illusion. I should be proud to pass my mother’s wink around the world – to acknowledge and honor the roots of my expression, and to accept my identity not as a self-made anomaly divorced from the influence of others, but rather as a mirror, happy to reflect the little smiles and winks that have helped connect me with people in an otherwise alienating world.
Through our gestures may we find empathy. Through empathy, humanity.