Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘identity’

“Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

I have been re-reading bits of Letters to a Young Poet and then I found this cool site called zenpencils.com that illustrates quotations and poems in a comic-like style, and they recently did this Rilke quotation, and it seemed timely. So here we are. (The latest one they did is a Lang Leav one, which I also highly recommend, especially because I love Lang Leav’s poetry.)

20160217_120509

It’s nice to think about living into an answer, but I think we are always living our questions. And the answers simply lead to more questions. Sometimes life seems to me to be one giant experiment. You can follow blueprints left by other people, some of which are more detailed than others. Or you can strike off on your own and see what happens. But it’s all about questions, starting with the simple “What will happen next?”

I ran into a friend at a party some time ago, and he said he reads the blog from time to time, and he told me how idyllic it seemed, that I got to sit around and ponder the big questions. And I do. That’s exactly what I do. I spend a lot of time sitting around and thinking. So here’s another question for you: Why? Why do I sit around and ponder the big questions? And why do I get to do this? And does it have any outward effect whatsoever?

I’m reading a book about playwriting, and I have learned that the “action” of the play is what the characters want. This idea will be familiar to anyone who has studied any kind of storytelling for more than a few months. (Weeks? I don’t remember, I just remember it is foundational.) So then some of the other questions we live are “What do we want?” and “Are we going to get it?” and “Are we going to keep it?” and “Is it going to change?”

I spent several hours on the phone this past weekend with a friend who is going through a break-up after spending more than twenty years not being single. “Friends aren’t the same,” this person told me. “I feel so alone.” And I felt a jolt of surprise that this was a revelation, even though after twenty years, of course it was. Yes, being single means being alone in a different way. How do we become okay with this? How did I come to this almost benign acceptance of yes, that is really how it is? And then another question: who am I when I’m alone? Who am I when I’m not fulfilling a role that is at least partially defined by my relationship to someone else?

These are questions that have been occupying my spare moments lately. Who am I when I strip everything away? When I put aside relationships to friends, family, a lover? When I subtract job and career and calling? When I suspend my hobbies, my interests? When I forget about my past? When I am no longer concerned with status, power, wealth, influence, and ego? Who am I then?

Who am I then? I am living that question. Maybe nothing, maybe everything. I am present. I am living into answers that will give me more questions, and my curiosity will be my fuel.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

I have always had a very strong sense of self. Admittedly, it has sometimes become somewhat buried under expectations or confusion or trauma, but even in the hard times, I have known on some essential level who I am.

But it wasn’t until a bit later in life that I realized not everyone has this same confidence in who they are. And once I did understand this to be true, this question both worried and fascinated me: Why? Why do I know who I am? What is it that forms that core sense of self that I am able to fall back on in times of stress and trouble?

And how can I be so very certain of who I am when I also believe myself to be constantly changing, when I enjoy learning and challenging myself? How do I know myself when sometimes my behavior changes, or my environment changes, or my interests change, or my opinions change?

I don’t know that I have a complete answer to this question, but this is what I’ve got so far:

My basic stories about myself are simple. We all tell stories about ourselves, and we start this at a young age. Someone does well on a certain art assignment at school, and then he has a story that he is an artist. Someone wins a competition, and the story of winning can come to define her. We tell stories about our physical and mental attributes, our personalities, our families, our love lives, our careers. And this is perfectly normal.

But I’ve always been clear on my basic story, and my basic story tells both who I want to be, and, because these stories can end up being self-fulfilling prophecies, who I am. I become who I want to be–not all the time, but quite often.

So what are my fundamental stories?

I love the world. I love being alive. I’m curious. I’m determined. I care a lot about resilience, and kindness, and joy.

Does this mean I am always resilient or kind or joyful or happy about what’s going on? No, not at all. But I always care about those traits, and I always come back to the sense of feeling lucky to be alive. Perhaps this is temperament, or a basic value system, I’m not sure. But these things have never changed for me, not over the long term.

I recognize my experience as part of my identity.

For many years, I taught music as a profession. So one of my identities was musician. Now I only do music for fun, and when I get busy, my practice falls by the wayside, sometimes for months at a time.

But being a musician has been folded into who I am. I spent over fifteen years putting huge amounts of time and effort into music. My skills, without so much constant practice, are no longer at their peak. But my thousands of hours as a musician shaped who I am today. How could it not have?

Experience matters. And just because it changes over time does not mean it automatically becomes lost. Experience ripples into the present, in both predictable and surprising ways.

I don’t define myself by comparing myself to others. I have never thought of myself as being the pretty one, or so-and-so’s girlfriend, or the geek girl, or the smart one. I can be all of those things, sure, but that’s not who I think I am, not in the essentials. In fact, when I was voted Most Intelligent in high school, I was completely shocked. And not because of modesty, but because it simply hadn’t occurred to me that being intelligent was the way my classmates defined me.

Who I am is not determined by others. I’m not in some kind of competition with the rest of the human race so I can define myself by whatever traits or skills of mine are better than average, or get more recognition. I’m not merely what other people see in me. And if I meet someone who is better at me at something that is important to me, that doesn’t change anything about me.

I determine for myself who I am.

20160203_222453

Read Full Post »

I was getting ready for bed on Monday night, flossing and brushing my teeth, when suddenly I looked in the mirror. I stared at my face, and I said, “Wait a second. Amy, what are you doing?”

And I blinked and looked myself in the eye, and several layers of exhaustion and doubt and fear and overwhelm sloughed off, and I said, “Oh yeah. Right, then. Back on track.”

Because in that moment, I remembered who I am.

20150716_185427

*

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently: what is essential to identity, of what layers it is comprised, how malleable it is, why some people are able to hold onto some core of who they are throughout their lives while others are not.

And I realized that an essential part of change, for me, is re-crafting personal identity. External circumstances can and do change, sometimes because of a deliberate decision we’ve made and sometimes not. Sometimes our lives change because of other people’s decisions, or because of the accumulation of lots of tiny decisions we’ve made mostly unawares, or because of pure happenstance.

But I think the change that matters most, or certainly that is the most interesting to me personally, is the change of self. And while identity can change based on external events, it certainly doesn’t always do so. And sometimes external circumstances can change from the inside out, based on changes of the self.

And then there’s the common temporary changes, such as most New Year’s resolutions, that end in backslides and no long-term change whatsoever.

One of the ways to hold onto change, then, is to craft that change into your personal identity, into how you see yourself, into who you are. For example, I am a person who is confident in her abilities. Or, I am person who cares about eating healthily. Or, I am a person who is kind to others. Or, I am a person who goes out of his way to be generous.

We can incorporate these beliefs into our identities through repeatedly engaging in thought patterns and behaviors that support them. If I go dancing one to three times a week for six months, then it is easy enough to include “I am a dancer” in my self-identity. If I am steadily working on writing projects, then “I am a writer” comes easily as well.

And the same holds true of traits. For example, I decided I wanted to be more confident. So I told myself over and over again that I loved myself, even though it felt like one of the stupidest things ever. And I gave myself pep talks. And I encouraged myself to stand with my hands behind my back in a confident pose, especially when I felt the most nervous. And I made the deliberate choice to surround myself with people who boosted my confidence. And I experimented with acting confidently even when I didn’t feel that way to see what happened. And I did all these things for years. Literally.

*

The test comes in times of stress. Now, invariably when I am faced with a challenge, I think to myself, “Wait. What would I do now in this situation? I have been practicing for this!”

So I’ve been tested these last few stressful weeks. And because I’ve practiced so much, I was pretty pleased with how I was doing. But even so, that much deliberate action during stress was taking its toll, in that I was getting more. and. more. tired. And as I got more tired, my confidence was decreasing. And doing the things I wanted to do and reacting the way I wanted to react was getting more and more difficult. And I was feeling more and more pull from my old identity and from old ways of thinking.

Until that moment at the mirror. Because what I felt wasn’t disappointment or anger or fear. It was confusion.

Wait a second, I thought. This isn’t who I am. I am perfectly capable of coming up with good plans and following through on them. I don’t have to feel threatened; I know I’m enough. I don’t have to feel frightened because I know I can see this through for myself. I can write this fucking book. I can take this fucking risk. I can live this fucking life.

Once you’ve built your personal identity to be strong and true, sometimes all it takes is one moment to remember who you’ve become.

Read Full Post »

“I can’t imagine you being angry,” he says to me as we dance. He pushes his palm towards me, and I turn–or do I spin? I think I spin, the soles of my dancing shoes slippery enough to make it easy. I can’t imagine a person who never gets angry.

I can’t imagine this version of myself.

“I can’t imagine you being angry.” It is someone else this time, many months ago, I can no longer remember who, but I remember it was a man–a writer, I think–and I remember feeling the same bafflement.

What do people think, when they think of me? I imagine they think of me with charm pushed to maximum, my smile lighting up not only my face but my entire presence, as I interweave through a complex dance of conversation and introductions and “yes, I know so-and-so” and gaze intently while someone speaks and then throw back my head and laugh. This is maybe the person we cannot imagine being angry.

This is maybe the person we imagine being too much. “I think maybe you’d be too much for me,” he tells me, unprompted. I wonder why he is telling me this, but he does, and I consider it some time before rejecting it.

“I thought maybe you’d be too much.” A different person, about three months later, and the echo makes me take it more seriously this time.

What is too much? My full dazzle social mode? The social skills I spent huge amounts of energy building up once I was surprised to discover I needed them to be a writer? The skills I built up so I’d no longer be so isolated, so I’d no longer fade into the wallpaper, so I’d no longer keep all my thoughts to myself? So that I could walk into my fourth social gathering of strangers in twenty-four hours and speak with a smile about science fictional ideas instead of wilting in on myself and wishing I were somewhere else?

Or, since it is this year, is it the unbridled joy that is too much? I would have thought if I were to be too much, it would be the dark sides of myself, but those haven’t been on display to color these people’s impressions of me. Other things not on display: Many of my emotions. Many of my thoughts. The price I paid back in my days of invisibility. The price I pay to be too much. How after social gymnastics practice, I crash on the couch or on the bed, drained in a way that leaves me feeling empty of words, sometimes even empty of thought.

If I have to suffer through that same conversation one more time, I think to myself, well…I don’t know what.

I inevitably have that conversation again.

They do not see me stride deliberately to the end of the beach, away from the crowd and the lights but just in range of the music. I dance by myself with the waves.

I ask her, “Do you think I’m an extrovert?” She is an extrovert herself, and she does not think I am. “You get really quiet when you’re in a group,” she says.

Except when I don’t. Except when I am very chatty. Except when I accept, mulling through these diverse opinions, that I am a multi-dimensional person.

I said to myself, I want to shine bright bright bright. I said it over and over, through the difficult autumn and into the winter, and I wonder now if that is what you see?

But let’s go back to the summer of 2013, two years ago now, and she says to me, “You’ve lost weight. It was like you were hiding behind it.”

And I thought to myself, hiding? Was that what I was doing? Because at the time I felt like I was shrinking, disappearing, becoming smaller, less than. The weight was mysterious and fickle in its passage.

In retrospect, of course that’s how I felt. Because my old self was disappearing as the new one was being reborn. And it hurt, oh how it hurt, and watching the old self fade away was frightening. And watching the new one emerge, well: Would it be enough? I wasn’t so sure.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, soon after I’d been horribly ill. “You’ve lost some more weight, haven’t you?” my friend asks. He is concerned. He wants to feed me pie. I am relieved that in our culture of thin-worship and body hatred, someone else has noticed that maybe me becoming this thin because I was really sick isn’t actually a good thing. I want to be fed pie.

And I remember then what she said about me hiding behind the weight. I guess I’m not hiding anything anymore. Instead I’m trying to keep eating, eating, eating, to get back to a healthier weight. But it turns out I’m as challenged at deliberately gaining weight as I was at deliberately losing it. My body does as it pleases.

The reason this is relevant, my body–which I don’t like to talk about because I don’t want any of you to feel comfortable commenting on it–the reason my body is relevant is that we place a lot of emphasis on what we can physically see, us humans. It is so easy for my body to become how you see me. I deliberately try not to cross my arms in front of me because I know it matters.

Too much, not enough, I couldn’t tell you. Once upon a time this was the three bears’ house, and you were Goldilocks, but that’s not the way I run things anymore.

As I accumulate experience, I realize more and more how little the way you see me relates to the reality of who I am.

20150215_230425

Read Full Post »

I love selfies.

I know there is a lot of judgment swirling around the idea of the selfie, along with a lot of criticism. Apparently there are many of us who are ultra super threatened by the idea of someone else posting a photo of themselves…because…?

Heaven forbid someone else feel comfortable with how they look. Or experiment with identity through appearance. Or make a bold statement: THIS IS WHO I AM, WORLD.

This is who I am.

#

OMG, world! This is who I am.

OMG, world! This is who I am.

#

I was opening up the photo gallery on my phone to show a photo to my friend, and he was looking over my shoulder. “Wow, you have so many selfies.”

Yes. My phone is full of selfies.

When I find myself in front of the mirror, I make faces. I’ve done that ever since I can remember. I want to know what different expressions feel like. I want to be aware of the form of self-expression that is my body and my face. I want to know how I’m opening my mouth when I sing. I want to know how I perceive myself from the outside, just as I want to know who I am from the inside. And I want to know how the inside and the outside interact.

Mirror, selfies, what’s the difference? Mainly that I can use the selfies to trace the development of my identity over time.

#

20140716_181959 (1)

#

Justine Musk has smart things to say about the phenomenon of the selfie:

“I don’t buy that every time a young woman (or an older woman) posts a selfie, she is seeking external validation and approval because she’s so insecure. She is telling a story about who she is – I’m the kind of woman who goes to Positano – and in this very act of declaiming her identity, she continues to create it.”

Selfies tell a story, just as status updates tell a story, just as blog posts tell a story, just as autobiographies tell a story, just as how you behave when with other people tells a story. This is a story of identity, and when it is about your identity, it is one of the most important stories you will spend your life telling.

#

20140430_121023

#

Selfies have another important purpose; they are one way to disrupt the narrative of low self-esteem, of constant self apology, of being afraid of taking up space. Because they are prone to receiving judgment, they become a way to face that judgment and say, “You know what? I don’t really care what you think about me.”

They are a way to reclaim a love of self.

#

20140629_022306

#

We are afraid of this love of self. We throw around words like narcissistic and selfish very freely. There are people who are narcissistic. There are people who are selfish. And then there is everyone else, people who are afraid to “brag” and “toot their own horns.”

Please tell me, what’s wrong with liking yourself? What’s wrong with liking specific aspects of yourself, whatever those may be? Maybe you like the way you look. Maybe you like your smile, or your eyes, or your teeth that are pleasingly straight after years of orthodontic torture. Maybe you like the way you play soccer, or the way you’ve become an expert on geopolitics, or the way you paint, or the way you can walk out of a party with five new friends.

I fail to see what’s wrong with any of that. Good for you! And good for you for celebrating yourself. I want to celebrate you too. There is a difference between being humble and not allowing yourself to appreciate your positive qualities and accomplishments or acknowledge them in any way.

#

Oh no, not another selfie! Because selfies are *serious business.* Ha!

Oh no, not another selfie! Because selfies are *serious business.* Ha!

#

And what’s wrong with taking selfies? As far as I’m concerned, nothing at all. A selfie is just one more tool for expressing who we are.

 

 

Read Full Post »

I’ve been meaning to write about my birthday party, which happened a few weeks ago at this point. The theme was “Come as you aren’t,” a brilliant idea that was originally suggested by my friend Mike on this blog. It took me almost a year and a half to implement the idea, but it was completely worth the wait.

I dressed up as a hipster Jedi princess:

With my shiny lightsaber that makes cool noises!

With my shiny lightsaber that makes cool noises!

We also had some unusually smartly dressed people, a belly dancer, another Jedi complete with Hawaiian shirt (yes!), and a whole host of other oddments of apparel. It was a fun spice to add to an evening of celebration.

And here's me with Petyr Baelish for good measure.

And here’s me with Petyr Baelish for good measure.

I have a confession to make: the obligatory singing after the cake candles have been lit usually makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I always do it anyway at my birthday parties because I tend to get attached to traditions, even ones that cause me slight awkwardness. But it’s hard to be the center of attention when I’m not DOING anything. I don’t usually know where to look or what to do with myself. I kind of wish I could sing along.

But this year, the moment of singing was the most memorable and the most touching. I didn’t feel awkward. Instead I felt surrounded by the love and support of my friends who had gathered in my overly hot apartment to celebrate the fact that I exist and that we get to know each other. I felt caught up in a strangely physical experience made of singing and proximity and affection, like I was receiving a hug from all my friends, even those who couldn’t make it.

I’ve written about creating a chosen family of friends before, and this has been my most tangible experience of this. I used to be so afraid that having such a family was impossible, that the only way of receiving this support was through blood relatives and significant others. I’d comb the internet looking for people talking about chosen families, and I’d come up relatively empty-handed. Why was nobody talking about this? I didn’t know, but I held close the few examples I knew about. I needed the hope.

So when I say that I have never felt as loved and as safe as I did at my recent birthday party, I say it both to thank those of you who have touched my life so significantly and to pass that hope along to those of you who need it right now. Creating a chosen family of friends IS possible. Whatever your situation–if you don’t have much or any family in your life right now, if you are single, if you’ve moved to a new place, if you’ve been through a lot–none of this consigns you to a life of being alone and unconnected.

And of course it’s not just the birthday party. Regular readers of the blog may have noticed I’ve been having a tough time this last month and a half. But one of the things that has made it much easier than it otherwise would have been is the friends who have been reaching out to me. This time has been an inadvertent pressure test, and it has left me with the strong realization that yes, my life really is different now. I am different, and the relationships I have in my life are different, and these changes are a source of strength and solace.

And when it comes down to it, good friends will take you as you are, even when you come as someone different than you used to be.

Read Full Post »

I wrote last spring about clothing as a representation of identity. There’s an interesting dialogue going on now about clothing and other status symbols as they relate to class in the United States, begun by the essay “The Logic of Stupid Poor People” by Tressie McMillan-Cottom. Of course, this is not about exploring identity through appearance and presentation, as I was talking about, and much more about what it means to be able to carry off different signals of class and education through appropriate attire, speech patterns, and the like. This is a world in which whether you wear a cotton tank top or a silk shell under your blouse can mean the difference between being hired and being dismissed as not right for the job, regardless of any other qualifications.

This summer Theodora Goss wrote about the Lady Code:

“So dressing, for a woman, is a complicated affair. When you look into your closet in the morning — and even before that, when you buy your clothes in a store or online — you are making a choice about what you want to communicate. You are speaking in a coded language.”

This is, I think, why I am so interested in clothes, because I do see them as a means of communication. I didn’t learn the lady code or any of this sort of communication at home; my mom was completely not interested in matters of clothing or personal appearance. So I’ve had to learn it gradually as an adult, and I remember how much I still don’t know when I read some of Theodora’s posts. I don’t know the right kind of dress to wear to the ballet. I didn’t know that professional women don’t wear nail polish. For that matter, I didn’t realize the important distinction between a silk shell and a cotton tank top.

I’m fascinated that this coded language exists. Some people are unaware of it; some people don’t care about it (although when that is the case, it is usually because they are in a position in which they don’t have to care). Some people have trouble saying what they’d like to with it, either because they don’t know the language well enough or because they don’t have the financial wherewithal. That’s why historically if you were going to be introduced into society, you’d usually have some kind of sponsor, someone who could teach you all the intricacies you’d need to know to send the right message with your appearance and behavior.

John Scalzi talks about his go-to clothing choices (Levis, polo shirt, casual brown shoes) and how they represent “the basic uniform for a middle-class male.” Where I live, in the Silicon Valley, even a polo shirt for a man represents a certain amount of effort. Some men here tend to deliberately ignore style, which is a code in and of itself. Wearing random ill-fitting blue jeans and a free swag T-shirt from your company of employment? Probably a software engineer. Getting to wear those clothes is one of the perks of that position, at least if you’re a guy. I see that uniform less often on women around here, and even when I do see it, the clothing items tend to have a better fit, but I’m not close enough to the industry to say whether this is true across the board or not. I’ve also seen software engineers have to spruce up their wardrobes when they’re after certain promotions; they need their clothes to say something slightly different at that point. (But not too different. It’s a fine line.)

Look closely to see the little dog in this photo....

Look closely to see the little dog in this photo….

Today I’m wearing a black turtleneck sweater with metallic detailing, a ribbed blue shirt that peeks out from the bottom of the sweater, and stylish blue jeans. I’m wearing sneakers because I was out walking the dog this morning, but I’ll probably change shoes before I go out tonight. I’m not wearing any makeup, and I deliberately have a low maintenance hair cut. No jewelry today, although I’d add a necklace if I wanted to try harder.

All of those facts mean something in the coded language of dress and appearance. What are you wearing today? What messages do you think you’re sending? (And if you’re wearing a Halloween costume, I want to hear about that too, and especially what you think your choice of costume says about you.)

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »