Mary Oliver’s words about writing poetry with a pencil – so you could see the words that underlay the final words – made me think about pentimento, and I’ve been musing about that word ever since.  I had my own experience of pentimento, sitting there in the Wellesley chapel, because sitting beside my mother and me was a woman who has known me since birth.  She is part of the extended family who was such an integral part of my childhood.  That woman, a beautiful, serene person who radiates calm, is woven tightly into the fabric of my childhood.

She’s known all of the Lindseys who came before the Lindsey I am now.

The toddler with a bowl cut, the short girl with messy red braids, the bossy high schooler who forced all the other children into performing Circle Game wearing all white, the fellow mourner at Susie’s funeral, the bride, the new mother, and on, and on.  She knows – as does my mother, of course, sitting right next to me – all of the faces that are layered underneath the face I have now.

We are all composites.  We are made of all that has happened to us and all we have made happen.  Of the people we have loved dearly, those we have lost painfully, those who still walk beside us.  Of all of our erased words, our painted-over images, the things we prize and the things we aim to hide.  This is what I loved most about Darin Strauss’s gorgeous memoir, Half a Life: the examination of the way that who we are is made up of what has happened in our lives.

I’ve written before about the mute indifference of space, about how baffling it is to me to be in physical places that hosted important moments, and to feel as though somehow the space is just blank, empty.  It seems as though the place should still hold a shadowy remnant of what happened there.  I know inside of me there are certain events and people who, though long gone, beat on, steady as a pulse.

Similarly, certain freeze frame memories of who we were at specific moments seem more vivid than others, their imprint more visible on the palimpsest of our souls.  I’ve had moments with friends I’ve known intimately for a long time where all of the people they’ve been to me flash across their face.  These experiences reinforce the depth of a many-year bond.  I wonder if, when we think back on the pentimento of our own spirits, the images that rise up are the same ones that those who have known us longest see?

What I know for sure is that the irrefutable beauty of a person is in this texture.  What fascinates me about people is the way that who we were peeks around the corners of who we are now, informing it in ways both visible and not, and that we are not, in fact, immutable, but always changing, buffeted and shaped by those people and events we draw into our lives.

I never thought I’d compare oxbow lakes to pentimento, bring geography and art history into close adjacency, but the echo seems impossible to ignore now.  As I wrote in January, “As moving water marks the earth, so does time mark our spirits. Minutes add up to months, and months add up to our lives. And as they do, they indelibly shape and mark us.”  And that passage is visible, if we look closely, underneath the surface of each of us.

I wrote this in October, 2010, but they came to mind recently for two reasons.  First, in my words to Grace – in which I note the way her face contains all that she was and all that she will be, and second, because I just attended my 20th high school reunion and felt the presence of the me I was all those years ago beating in my chest.

8 thoughts on “Pentimento”

  1. In the last year I’ve been to my 20th college and 25th boarding school reunions. In my mind, personalities distill. A boiling down of what was always present. As in, people don’t change, they just get more so. But that’s too simple, because of course life’s passage leaves a mark.

    I am really responding to your idea of faintly visible passages. I will now think of wrinkles as life’s oxbow pentimenti!

    Interesting to note is that the word pentimento traces back to the Italian word for repentance. Hummm.

  2. Beautiful! I love this notion of “containing multitudes.” I SO wish you were coming to the retreat this year — for many reasons, of course — but because the house we stay in very much has that feeling of an imprint of past occupants left behind. In some sense it feels like “our” house, but in another way you can feel the pulse of other lives lived, other magic made, beating just below the surface.

    I can’t wait to read about your high school reunion. My 20th is coming up in a few years, and I think reunions are such an interesting phenomenon in our Facebook world (I love how Darin Strauss writes about his own reunion in Half a Life).

  3. In my mind, you are ALWAYS gorgeously dressed, sitting at a fabulously swank Manhattan café, drinking a pale rosé. And I am overjoyed and wondrous that you are my friend.

  4. I think that’s one of the thing that awes me about parenting: seeing firsthand for the first time those stages from newborn to now. It’s one thing to think it about ourselves, but my knowledge of myself is so different than the physicality of seeing that in my daughters.

  5. I had to look up “pentimento.” But “palimpsest” fits, too, doesn’t it? It does not imply the notion of repentance . . . but I did find this example (Wikipedia, which I refuse to denigrate completely):

    “Thus architects, archaeologists and design historians sometimes use the word to describe the accumulated iterations of a design or a site, whether in literal layers of archaeological remains, or by the figurative accumulation and reinforcement of design ideas over time. **An excellent example of this can be seen at The Tower of London, where construction began in the 11th century, and the site continues to develop to this day.**”

    This makes me think of my son, who decided to start over and re-create himself, by choosing to attend a high school that was NOT our neighborhood school — thus giving himself the opportunity to re-invent himself — or as I like to think — present his best self to a new world. The palimpsest of all of his older selves are always still with him, even now, as he has moved on to a college where no one knew the “old” him. We all have done this when we have gone off to college, or have taken a job in a city half a country away, or . . .

    My response is much too long, but I love this post!

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