Does Anyone Own a Smile? The Origins of Gestures

I get a sense that as I move through life certain character traits adhere to me and accrue over time while others flake away and lie strewn about the path I’ve left behind.  Where do new traits or pieces of identity come from and what happens to the old ones when they’ve fallen away?  I ask because when I’m at my most self-aware, I feel like certain personality tics and affectations–the way I raise my eyebrows when I’m happy, roll my eyes when I’m annoyed, sigh when I lose patience–don’t belong to me, but to someone else; and that if I set myself to it, I could trace them back to someone I once knew.  In whom do those raised eyebrows or that particular sigh originate?  Does anyone own a gesture?

My grandfather used to raise his eyebrows in moments of delight.  He would cock his head back so that he was looking at the ceiling, open his mouth wide, and explode with uproarious laughter.  He would spread his hands wide and then clap them together in slow motion while the joke he had heard coursed through his body like sound through a tuning fork.  Did these mannerisms belong to my grandfather?  Did I acquire any of my own mannerisms from him or my mother, who laughs in much the same way?  In a sense, do certain gestures exist apart from the people in whom they live, so that they’re like silent memes that spread through a civilization horizontally in the present and vertically from one generation to the next?  And if they don’t belong to anyone, but in a sense have a life all their own, why do we use them as markers of individuality.  Why do we say, “I love so-and-so’s laugh,” or, “she has the most beautiful smile,” when one person’s laugh and another person’s smile may have been repeated a thousand times throughout history?

Although none of these mannerisms may belong to any one person, maybe they are arranged differently in each of us.  My grandfather combined a multitude of common gestures in a way that was his own and marked him as an individual. I can imagine a man living two thousand years ago in ancient Rome cocking his head back the way my grandfather used to do when he would laugh.  I can picture some 19th century Russian peasant raising his eyebrows in delight just like my grandfather would do after hearing a good joke.  I can imagine a hundred other people throughout history adopting my grandfather’s mannerisms, but I can’t imagine all of their gestures coming together except in my grandfather.  It’s the symphony, not the instruments or individual notes, that gives rise to our individuality.

Losing Myself in the Desert

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California. My dad, Steven, took this picture. There are two people on the dunes. Can you find them?

*I think the second half of this post is much stronger than the first half.  When I write, I usually start off pretty weak, so why not be honest about that? 🙂

I sit atop a sand dune.  I stare out at the desert and I wonder at its bleakness.  I try to understand it.  I rest my eyes for an hour on one mountain peak.  I stare at a cactus.  I leer at a clump of vegetation that has crowded around a trickling spring.  The desert confuses me.  It envelops me.  It includes me, so that even as I gaze at that mountain and that cactus and those plants around the spring, I stare into myself.  Is that what I love about the desert?  That when I look at it I look at myself?  Do I gain a heightened sense of the universe peering in at itself through my eyes, and do I see myself as the universe does, as something small, fragile, barely existent, some spark that in a moment will fizzle out?  I try to understand the desert, but before long I realize that I’ve embarked on a futile endeavor.  I can’t hold this landscape in my mind.

Death Valley, California. That's my mom.

I love the desert because I lose myself in it.  My soul, my thoughts, my selfish drives, my everything seeps out into the emptiness that surrounds me.  In an enclosed room, let’s say in a prison cell, my self would bump up against the brick walls of the prison.  It would try frantically to slip through the bars and escape into a larger space in which it may roam with greater freedom.

Death Valley--this bench no longer exists.

In a prison cell I would suffocate in my own company.  But the desert disperses me.  It turns me into an insubstantial vapor that is now here, now gone.  I disappear, and with me my pain and my sadness disappear, too.  I’m nothing, and all that remains of me is the lingering residue of a thought, a question, a sigh.

Then the moment slips away.  The desert returns me to myself.  I remember who I am and what I’m doing here.  I leave my perch atop the sand dune and I carry with me the pain, the sadness, the complex mix of emotions that churn inside all of us even in our happiest states.  But I leave with something more, a memory of the sigh, of a moment in which I was both everywhere and nowhere, and everything was all right.

——–

This was something I was going to expand on during my trip to Chile, but it’s fine as it is.  When I wrote it, I was thinking of Death Valley, where from some points you can see mountains two hundred miles in the distance.  And at night, if you park yourself at the southern end of the valley and look north, you’ll see dots of light below the horizon.  They stand still.  You know they can’t be buildings because the desert is empty.  You know they can’t be stars because they lie below the horizon and they don’t twinkle.  They don’t flicker like candles suspended in space.  They shine steadily.  After a moment you see that the dots of light are moving.  They rise and fall with the contours of the now invisible mountains that line the valley.  They sway right, they sway left, as if unsure where to go.  Every right-left motion brings them closer to the valley floor.  They sink deeper into the sea of darkness.  You hear nothing but the sound of your own breathing.  You hold your breath and you hear even that, because there is nothing else, only the mysterious dots winding their way silently through the emptiness.

You realize that the dots are headlights.  They light the way for a lone driver, maybe a family.  They may be thirty miles away from you, but since nothing stands between you and them, they’re as present as a stranger sitting across from you in a café, sipping her coffee, glancing your way in between sips.  Who is she?  Who are they?  And where is everyone going?

Funny: The first half of this post was about losing yourself in the desert.  The second half was about finding yourself, and in some strange way connecting with a distant dot of light that represents a person who will never know you saw her.  Alone, in a prison cell, I would see myself everywhere and I think that eventually it would drive me crazy.  In the desert, also alone, I would see myself nowhere; the landscape would erase me for a moment, and I would become nobody.  But again in the desert, seeing another human being thirty miles away, I would feel my individuality contrasted against the driver of the car.  I would come into focus, and so would she, and I would feel some kind of fellowship with someone I’ll never know.

Old, old car near an old, old gold mine, Death Valley.

Death Valley. My dad took this one, too.

NOT Death Valley. This is the Grand Staircase Escalante, in Utah. I'm including this picture because of the road.

Also not Death Valley. This is from the Great Sand Dunes National Park, in Colorado. Don't we all want to take our own version of that famous Ansel Adams self-portrait?