(Click here before reading. Feel free to expand the photo to full screen and scroll around the photos.)
Eighteen birthday cakes, eighteen Christmases, eighteen spring cleaning sessions, eighteen Halloween costumes, eighteen boxes of Valentine candy from my parents, eighteen self-affirmations in a diary that this has been the best year ever, and eighteen trips around the sun. I am Rachael, and I am eighteen years old.
I am eighteen years of good things. I am my family: a mom “airdrumming” Phil Collins in the car; a sister conducting an entire marching band; a father taking his daughters on hikes; a brother flying home for one night just to be at his little sister’s graduation party. I am my friends: riding on top of a minivan for the sake of a school project; leaving their painted handprint on the senior wall; hanging out in the protection of night on their middle school roof on the eve of another school year. I am the meals I have eaten: peach pancakes in Nashville; tapas in Barcelona; crêpes in Paris; strawberry sundaes in the Port Huron Big Boy after every band concert. I am where my feet have taken me: the quiet streets of Chartres, the sands of San Sebastián, the cobblestones alongside the Queen’s Guard, the meadows and mountains of northern Michigan. I am also a hodgepodge of other things I love: the smell of burning matches, the heat and camaraderie of a bonfire, the satisfaction of a finished drawing, and cozy evenings in the city. All of these memories make up who I am. They work as points of conversation when meeting new people or sustaining friendships, they provide a safe haven in my mind when the pressures of the world have become too great, and they are inspiration to seek out more of life’s sweet, and often simple, pleasures.
I am eighteen years of bad things. I am the unhealthy relationships that dot my life: boyfriends who thought with the wrong head; failed commitments and broken promises; a constant scurry to save face for alcoholic family members. I am the poor choices I have made: waking up in a hospital after a particularly infamous night; a short-lived cigarette phase; spending time with people who would not care if I was with them or not. I am my illnesses: an underactive thyroid, a history of disordered eating, and bouts of depression. I am my personality faults: cynical, scathing, and jealous. I am my debilitating insecurities, nights of lying in bed and self-loathing, and fights with my parents over ephemeral adolescent problems. Like the good parts that make up who I am, these flaws too make up my existence. They work as lessons learned, scars that remind me of what I should avoid, and points of comparison for future, hopefully better-willed, endeavors.
I am eighteen years a collector of good and bad things. I created this self-portrait of myself by selecting photos from these past nearly-two decades that represented this collection. Going through my photo library, I came across photos that aroused in me a full spectrum of emotions. Some photos allowed me to momentarily escape to faraway vacations, while others made me solemn as I saw people who anymore only existed within the 4×6 frame. I even came across photos that made me cringe so badly that I was inclined to delete them from my computer. But whenever I experience that emotion, I can never bring myself to do it. If I were to toss a few bad memories out of my collection of good and bad ones, I would lose meaningful experiences that ultimately made me a better person. I could not acknowledge a lesson I learned without first acknowledging my failures that prompted the lesson; the pain was my baptism. All of these memories, whether smile-inducing or cringe-worthy, build me. I carry the collection with me every single day; it is in every decision I make, every wandering thought, and in everything I create. The fact that I hold this collection within me and take pride in it as a whole, rather than selectively choosing memories to be proud of, is a major part of who I am.
Yet, keep in mind that I am eighteen years old. Consider the self-portrait: the relatively small number of photos creates a chunky, distorted image that only vaguely hints at the form of a human. Despite the awareness of a sort of identity I have built for myself thus far, I am keenly aware of that I do not have a complete, clear sense of myself just yet. While I have grown from my failures, personal mistakes are still inevitable. In fact, I have a lifetime of failures ahead of me. I still have decades of car troubles, physical injuries, and bad dates lying out in the path in front of me. But let it not be mistaken that this lifetime of failures cannot coincide with a lifetime of successes, for indeed, I have a lifetime of successes ahead of me as well. I look forward to years of promotions, beautiful relationships full of love and communication, and the comfort of a home that casts golden light upon a nighttime snow. As the years pass and I accumulate more photos of holiday dinners, broken arms, foreign monuments, departing friends, and a smiling family, the self-portrait will become clearer and more defining of the person that I am, for I believe that identity is an ever-evolving concept. Identity cannot be fully defined until the day we are ready to depart from earth and, reviewing the complete collection of memories, lessons, and pictures, we can “This is who I am.”