Who I Am Not (Part 1- The Question)

I was listening to a podcast of “Snap Judgment” called “Identity Theft” when the host said there would be stories about people answering the question we all ask: “Who am I?” And I thought about that, how I no longer ask myself that, how angry I feel about that question. About how the first thing I think about the question is, who, exactly, is doing the asking?  Are the asker and the “I” two different beings? If someone asked me if I ever wondered who I was, I’d answer that I was the one doing the wondering.

It’s a relief that question doesn’t bother me. I used to torture myself with it. Who am I? Nothing, nobody, unlovable, average-everything and so seriously troubled that I didn’t finish college and didn’t have a career so I couldn’t even say I was something. And most devastating was I couldn’t say I was a writer. I wasn’t published, I hadn’t the legitimacy. So if I’m angry when I hear that question, it’s because it implies there’s an answer that can be found – at least in part – through naming what it is I do.

Of course, for the last 24 years I could call myself a mother. But that wasn’t ever enough. I told myself I stayed home with my kids not so much out of choice but because I hated my job and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. That was true – and what I wanted to “do” was – at that point – unknowable. I believed that was why I suffered depression – I was here, but what the fuck was I supposed to do with myself? Everyone (everyone!) had a life. Work, friends, vacations, interests. Whatever I was interested in I quickly tired of. And I spent much of my time alone.

Things have changed since Philip died and what matters or doesn’t has gotten a whole hell of a lot clearer. I don’t think about “who I am.” I just am. And I won’t be for long, either. I am as temporary as everyone and thing else. I get up every day with a heart that’s cracked open which means I hurt as much as I love. Then I tend to the day. If it’s a weekday I go to work. When I get there I do what needs to be done. I am an assistant – never have I cared less what title is given to what I do. I love my job, I love the busy-ness and diversity. The people are funny and demanding and we work as a team. I love all the ways I am helpful, and that no matter how much I do in a day there are things left unfinished, which means there’s always something waiting for me next morning.

So call me an assistant, call me a mother, a writer, call me whatever you think I am because as you read what I write you are forming a picture of me. That’s what we do. We label people, and since those labels have meaning, we assign that meaning to the person we’re labeling.  To label someone implies you know something meaningful about them. But really, all you know is what they mean to you.

Like this. I dress in what I’ll call Free People du jour. I live in a very liberal town. And when I used to care about politics (which is to say I loved the argument)  I called myself a Republican. One morning I called into the Brian Lehrer show to offer the lone Republican voice on something or other. The next day I met a woman I knew outside the school our kids attended. She hurried over to me. “I heard you on the Brian Lehrer show this morning. I didn’t know you were a Republican…I mean, you don’t dress like a Republican,” she said sadly.

So she saw my clothes and made me into someone, then heard I was Republican and made me into someone else. Those words have nothing to do with me because she’s the one who gave them their meaning – as well as my meaning, by extension.

So “who I am” came to seem a pointless question. The words I longed to use to tell people who I was – a writer, a quilter, a chef, a therapist – were words that conjured up a meaning to me, words that would give me an identity and show people the me I wanted them to see. An acceptable me. No. If I want to do those things, fine. Whatever troubled me wasn’t going to get solved by calling it what it wasn’t.

Philip’s death has left me a wide open space. To be his mother is not just to be the one who gave birth to him, nursed him, took him to school, tended to his needs. Because as he grew so did what was between us. Whatever I was to him when he was five or nine or 12 or 21 changed. The lines blurred, the power shifted. If he had a need I would rise up to meet it in a way that I would only do for my child. But the rest of the time it was a dance, a lovely, lively, lilting play between us. Sometimes I led, sometimes he did. Mostly we were in step with each other, always we did love each other.

To be an assistant is to help in a way I find joyful. To be a mother is to know love. To be a writer is to sit here and work to put words on what it feels like to be alive, what it feels like to live with the death of my son. But whatever it is I am doing, it is not who I am. It’s just what I do. Who I am is part of the mystery. My work is to respond to the moment, not ask myself questions that have no answer. Who am I, why am I here – impossible distractions from reality. Because no matter who, how or why – I am. And “now what?” is up to me.

But life will out, and what I need to live more deeply will be given me. And I am not talking about a walk in nature where the play of sun among the awesomeness of the now-naked trees reveals the meaning of God. How I long for my epiphany. I’m talking about the harder stuff, like going to my junior high reunion for the first time ever, which meant the past mixed in with the present. As did the shame and the joy.

Next: The Reunion

© 2014 Denise Smyth


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Unconfirmed Bachelorette
    Dec 21, 2014 @ 23:14:10

    I think you’re my soul sister. Except I abhor my meaningless job. I too used to love the argument, but from the liberal side. Funny, at times I dress like a republican. Now it all seems trivial.


    • Denise
      Dec 22, 2014 @ 04:07:25

      Hey sister – you’re right. When life starts kicking your ass, there isn’t any energy for trivial.

      And as for my clothes – completely, unabashedly liberal (heh)


  2. Sammy
    Dec 21, 2014 @ 23:20:39

    Your a good writer. Sorry, didn’t mean to put a label on you, but you are 🙂


  3. jmgoyder
    Dec 22, 2014 @ 04:50:23

    You always get me rethinking all sorts of stuff and that is a good thing. Sending love, Denise xxx


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