In response to The Daily Post’s weekly writing challenge: “Ice, Water, Steam.”

Ice, water, and steam. Regardless of form, it remains H2O. That’s the nature of the universe: dynamic, changeable, and yet certain properties endure regardless of form or function. Matter forms and reforms, continually shaping and reshaping itself. Atoms and molecules flow into and out of each other. Creatures live linear lives yet within the cycle of seasons and phases, as in birth, life, and death. Nature abhors a vacuum and with it, stasis.

You and I shouldn’t be surprised to discover that we are at least chameleons if not shape-shifters; creatures who readily transform ourselves to meet new circumstances by adapting, mimicking, or conforming to others. It’s an inherent part of our emotional DNA; it’s how we survive as individuals and societies. We do this naturally, unconsciously, and every minute of the day as circumstances require. And yet, like water evaporating, condensing, precipitating, flowing, or freezing, we never lose our essential character. What the others see as ‘you’, are narrow facets of the greater being deep within you.

Ice: In its solid state, water can be locked in place for a long time. I started life with the illusion that I would be the person I willed myself to be; and it worked for a while. After a successful career as a public affairs professional, historian, author, and conservationist, I had a ‘reputation’ as a man of integrity; thoughtful and analytical but guarded and hard to know. I was who I thought I should be and worked hard to become. That’s the downside of success; being afraid to step outside our customary boundaries, fearful of losing our ‘identity’. Nothing is further from the truth. Only later did I learn that great changes and transformations are always possible. The processes are those of expansion and addition, not contraction and reduction.

Water: In its liquid state, water will take on the shape of whatever contains it. All life depends on this fluid state. As a Spanish language student in Mexico, I left behind the identity signified by my ‘reputation’ because it was irrelevant to my studies.  Yet, I didn’t lose my identity. Liberated from the obligation of living up to the container of my ‘reputation’, I adapted, mimicked, and conformed to the people among whom I lived. Very quickly, I noticed a new aspect of my personality emerging, something long-dormant that germinated only after I entered the right environment. My guarded introversion became a more open extroversion, opinions trumped objectivity, and emotions overcame analysis. As my wife later observed: ‘You’re a different person in Mexico.’

Steam: In its gaseous state, water is a cloud, an evanescence, a possibility that can condense as dew, precipitate as rain, or freeze as snow. The future is a steam of unknown possibilities. When my father died last January, I became the elder in our extended family; the oldest of my siblings and first cousins. I’m the keeper of the family’s past, the one who knows its history. To be the eldest has less to do with my actual years than my place in the family. Death isn’t a stranger to me, but I feel more deeply now the shortness of time ahead. Ignoring my mortality was easier when Dad was living. No longer can I ignore the fact I might be next. I retired, my daughters have married and moved into adulthood, my granddaughter was born a few months before my father died. Few months, our family comprised four generations spanning 93 years; the full cycle of life and its possibilities.

Water changes form with the cycle of the seasons: Precipitating, flowing, evaporating, and freezing. My being changes with my location and company: Guarded professional, open traveler, family elder. I am these things and more. There is joy in the constant dissolution and reconstitution of my life, it is ever different and yet always the same. Nature abhors vacuums and stasis; that’s why we are shape-shifters.

It is rare that I enter anyone’s  house or office that I don’t immediately glance at the bookcase or the magazines on end tables. It’s a habit in homes and offices where I don’t know the people. Title by title, I try to extract a clue as to their interests, their tastes and, possibly, their character. It’s more than idle curiosity; it’s part of a ‘strategy’ for making a connection, establishing a rapport, and knowing what topics to avoid. I

I lived with a Mexican family when I studied Spanish. The first time I entered their home, it took only a minute or two to see the titles in their bookcases covered a wide range of art, culture, and history. I knew immediately we would have a lot in common. In time, our shared interests grew a deep and lasting friendship.

The contents of a bookcase are something unique if not personal, and may be as good as a curriculum vitae. Its quirky collections are as individual as a signature, and a quick study of titles may reveal its owner’s ideas, interests, and passions – a map of the soul. Now and then I come upon a bookcase stocked with new, leather bound books, for ‘show.’ I know they’re meant to impress me but pristine-looking books aren’t impressive, regardless of the authors. Worn covers and dog-eared pages, books leaning on each other, are the spoor of a serious reader.

A large, ceramic disc of the sun hangs over my desk; a simple work by a Mexican artisan, something we brought back from Oaxaca years ago. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about it, just as there is nothing peculiar about other common objects in my study. But if you look closely, these things might tell you a lot about me.

The disc hangs on the wall of my den at a height where we look at each other – eye-to-eye – while I’m writing. Its taffy-colored face has a blue nose and lips, but the right side of the face is brown and shaped like a crescent moon with one eye. Uniting of the sun and the moon is a common motif in Mexican art. To it, I’ve tucked small American and Mexican flags, their staffs crossed behind a gap between one of the eleven triangular ‘rays’ surrounding the face.

The two flags are important to me. I’ve grown to love Mexico as I love the United States, but I love them for different reasons. Each culture has its great virtues and its tragic flaws; and at some level these virtues and flaws are complementary antidotes for what ails each country – if only their peoples can see it.

At some point, years ago, the disc broke, the break running from beneath the eye of the ‘sun’, then just under its nose and across the lower cheek of the ‘moon’. I don’t remember when or how the break occurred. The cause of the fracture, like the spark of a lovers’ quarrel, is lost to memory. But the line where it broke is as obvious as the Río Grande. It’s that way with many of life’s breaks and difficulties; the cause isn’t always remembered but the scar is visible.

Instead of throwing away disc, I restored a piece of the universe; gluing together the sun and the moon, the masculine and feminine faces of the cosmos. Now, like a couple after counseling, the breech is healed and the union is stronger than before. The still-married sun and moon, bedecked with Mexican and American flags, smile as I work beneath their gaze.

Behind me stands a tall, white bookcase from Ikea. The lower three shelves are filled with books, the upper two hold CDs and DVDs. Atop it are small wooden figures, fanciful animals, two elephants, a rhino, and a giraffe, playing musical instruments; produces of a Mexican artisan. The disc, the wooden animals, the bookcase, and its contents reflect if not describe me in ways I hadn’t considered.

The rows of books are segregated. On the very bottom are the larger, heavier books: a historical atlas of WWII, and a volume that accompanied Ken Burns’ film, The War, an encyclopedia of American history, How Fiction Works, Child’s History of Waseca County, and others, including a Rand-McNally road atlas. On the shelves above are paperback books on Mexico, anthologies of short stories written by Latin American authors, a study of Mexico’s presidents, bi-lingual Spanish/English stories, novels, and histories of Latin America.

The CDs are arranged somewhat by genre: Folk, country-western, Latin, Irish, jazz, classical. Within each genre are one or more favorite songs from certain times of my life. To say that only one song is my favorite is difficult if not impossible. That’s the rub. Each song occupies one of the many corners and phases of my life. To pick one song over another as a favorite is to diminish the other parts of my life in favor of another. But life is an indivisible whole; but certain songs encompass a defining moment, an era, an evening, a love, or a phase of my life. They’re part of my personal archeological record.

Listening to the Fleetwoods sing I’m Mr. Blue takes me back to high school dances and an innocent time with no clouds on the horizon. If I play a Duke Ellington recording of It Don’t Mean a Thing, I can see my parents dancing a little in the living room to the music of their generation. Strains of James Taylor singing Sweet Baby James carries me back to grad school in the ‘seventies and finishing my dissertation knowing I won’t be a history professor. As a corporate professional in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, I escape that mode by listening wishfully to country-western music of Willie, Waylon, and the outlaws. On road trips with my daughters, they choose the music and I pick up the expenses. Now, when I head west, either alone or with one of my self-styled ‘roadies,’ I leave before daybreak to the strains of Willie Nelson singing On the Road Again. I play this when they aren’t with me, letting the melodies conjure up memories and something of their bright spirits.

More than music, it is language – books – that hold a special meaning. On my shelves are John Gerach’s Sex, Death and Fly-fishing, my father’s Minnesota Legislative Manual, Wallace Stegner’s Sound of Mountain Water, The Book of Common Prayer, autographed first editions Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson, Theodore Roosevelt’s Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, We by Charles Lindberg, and Canoeing With the Cree by Eric Severaid. There are many other books on writing, collections of stories and novels. It’s a collection of interests, a hodge-podge. But a bookcase with its contents is the invisible but emotional catalogue of our lives.

Whether music and language, certain songs and words are embedded in the eidetic memories at the center of our being. They are there, always. Songs and words sometimes define a present moment; and sometimes they take us back to a particular moment. And for me, there are times when I don’t know whether I am going forward or backward in my soul. Nor do I care, I enjoying the ride.

pt: “Final Trio.”