A cold, miserable mist greeted me when I walked out into the evening after my last semester final. The kind of mist that doesn’t quite call for an umbrella and yet leaves you damp by the time you get where you are going no matter the distance traveled. It fit my mood perfectly and summed up the semester quite well: all wet.
It really bothers me that I have not performed well, especially in this anthropology course on identity, despite knowing that there have been some extenuating circumstances involved – work issues, home issues, health issues – and as only my closest of closest’s know, identity can be a challenging subject for me. But I also know that I made some poor choices in the past fifteen weeks. All came back to haunt me this afternoon.
Given the choice of two out of five or six questions, we were to write complete essays integrating the information we gleaned from the course and our supposed intellectual interpretation of said information. I say supposed because, at least in my instance, my intellect fled from my brain as soon as I began to read the questions.
The questions weren’t difficult, really just slight variations on things we had discussed in class. What was lacking was my ability to form a single cohesive unit of thought. We had two hours to give back any indication we understood the course work. It took me an hour and a half to write the first piece of drivel and the remaining half hour to slather my paper with the second piece of nonsense. I cried on the way home, whether in frustration, relief or shame I cannot say.
Bashert, bless her non-cooking soul, had made matzah ball soup while I was off torturing myself. It was a welcome balm to my aching ego, as was the time spent relaxing on the couch with her and Yoda just watching a mystery show together. It gave me space to breathe and mull over what had occurred during the final. It gave me a chance to get my thoughts in order and think about what I would have written had my brain been in working order.
One of the choices in the questions given was to state three things you have learned about your identity through this course. This is the essay that I should have written.
Identity is a nebulous thing. It tends to defy definition because there are so many ways to define it. When researching information about my term paper, I found that Toon van Meijl attempted to define identity as “a kind of nexus at which different constructions of self coincide, and sometimes also collide”. Identity is who you are, but also who you are taught to be and who you are ascribed to be. Identity is fluid and changeable, yet fixed and determined. That is what I have learned this semester.
In my parents’ home I am the third child and youngest daughter, sister to my siblings; immutable non-choices, determined by my parents’ genetics and timing. In my own home, I am Mom; I am now daughter and mother. Two of my identities have coincided and collided. I exist in the context of both constructs.
In my spousal relationship, I am wife and not-wife, to corrupt a phrase used by Serena Nanda in her article, “Men and Not-Men”. The hegemony in which I reside still does not fully accept the identity marker of wife for my partnership in life. Since I live in a domestic partnership and have the sex designation of female, it is customary to identify my role as “wife”, but in my domestic partnership, the other is not male. Here a different construction collides. Because of my sexuality, I am not wife, but I am not husband.
Along the same lines is my gender identity; gender, as we have been taught, being the cultural interpretation of physical appearance. Because of agreements to societal changes over the years in the Western cultural structure in which I reside, I am able to utilize my own agency and choose to not wear clothing typically interpreted for people who have a feminine gender. But because those societal changes did not necessarily encompass a change in the central meaning of the generalized concepts of what masculine and feminine connote in our society, my choice of attire and even hairstyle creates yet another identity when seen from another social worldview.
In my place of work, I occupy multiple spaces. I am employee, boss, trainer, acquaintance and friend. In school, I am student, but designated as other since I do not fit the cultural profile of the typical college student. In my religious sphere, I am Jewish to the outside faiths, but may not be considered as such by those Jews whose worldview is much more orthodox than mine.
At my own nexus of self, I am all of the above and more. I identify as artist, writer, political agnostic, curmudgeon and nice person. How I see myself may not be the way another will or can view me. If I have learned anything in the time spent through this course is that identity is a process, a state of being that is always fixed and always in flux, determined not only by the institution in which we reside, but also by the resistance and agency we as individuals choose to apply.
In my grandmother’s home was a magic box. Every child in our family was magnetically attracted to it. It sat almost at the end of a long hallway that divided Mama’s shotgun house, directly in front of the single bathroom.
It wasn’t a grand thing. Only about as wide as a five year old’s arm and covered with brown shelf paper, it was an unassuming vault of treasures. It was Mama’s toy box.
As soon as we entered the house, my younger brother and I would beeline through the living room, dart through the doorway from the dining room and race down the hall to the awaiting trove. Lucky was the kid who arrived first, she or he got first dibs on what was the choice item of the day.
It varied from time to time what things it held for us to discover. Slinkys, yo-yos, soldiers with their feet frozen in blobs of green plastic or some ViewMaster reels might be found. Often, Matchbox cars, HotWheels and Tonka trucks were at the ready to populate the small, two-story garage handbuilt by my Grandfather or race down the long hall.
There was never anything large or very expensive in the box. Mostly just odds and ends left over from birthdays or Christmas’ past. Things to be discarded or treated with possible childhood distain would be magically transformed into an object of desire. Mr. Potato Head might not have both ears, but his pipe and glasses were there and that was great. Only a few Spirograph gears might be available, but there was enough to create fabulous designs to captivate any willing adult art admirer.
Palpable delight was felt in digging through the bit and pieces, mining for just the perfect toy to claim for the day or the hour or until Mom told us our turn was over. Imagination would take over when we found the stray crayon or some pirate coins hidden in the back corners.
Built way before mandatory locking hinges and I’m sure repurposed from another use, the box had a lid with the tendency to fall back into closed position. You really had to make sure that it was all the way back before starting to rummage. Once, in my haste to grab a good toy, I failed to push the lid all the way back. Slap! across my nose the hasp came – blood, tears and a lesson well learned.
The inevitability of growing up and its cruel disassociation with the magical never really affected Mama’s toy box. It never moved. Even as we grew and became busily involved in the ways of adulthood, it remained steadfast in its place guarding the long hallway ready to offer any passing child a chance to play. The next generations would soon experience the joy of running through the house to claim their daily prize.
In these often harried and tense days, it is nice to bring to mind the magic box in Mama’s hall. Though the home she kept for 40 odd years or so has been gone for quite some time, claimed by urban planning, the memory of it and that box full of childhood joy will always be there ready for another day of play. Race you there.
There are people sent into your life for a purpose, not always is this purpose clear beyond gaining a new friend (or enemy), but there is a purpose. Take my friend Betty.
Betty is an eternal optimist. Like Annie, she knows that even though the sky may be covered in bruise coloured clouds, there is a sun shining fiercely behind it just waiting to break through. Don’t get me wrong though, Betty is no Pollyanna (for those of you not born of an age, go look her up). She doesn’t spout cloyingly sweet phrases or sing to the birds – at least I don’t think she sings to the birds, I’ve never witnessed it anyway. Betty is just, well, happy.
Betty has seen her share of things that would rock anyone’s world. I’ll not relate them here as they are her private affairs and hers to hold on to. Let it suffice to say that these things could bring a lesser person to their knees. Betty rose to meet all comers and came out the victor.
She is the woman, who under any other circumstance would rub you completely wrong, with her: “Hello! Monday, what good have you got for me to start the week?” But Betty in her determined sunny-side of life, makes you inquire what wonders Monday might actually hold.
Her laugh is incredibly contagious. One of my
fondest, BEST memories of my college years (the last ones, not these) is of a rainy afternoon down in the sculpture lab with Bashert, Thriver, myself and Betty. We laughed so hard that my face hurt and I couldn’t catch my breath. I will never look at another bamboo paintbrush or container of Preparation H in the same light after that day.
She co-hosted our baby shower for Yoda (her co-host was the friend we lost a year ago – see “Just Keep Singing”) – a marvelous affair with friends, family and lots of yummy food mixed with that laughter. If there is a woman who loves babies, there’s Betty (just ask her granddaughters).
She spends many of her days working with pregnant women. She’s not an obstetrician, no Betty is an artist – a sculptor. She creates wonderful memories to, as her website puts it, “preserve and celebrate” a child’s first home. No wonder she’s a happy camper.
Betty is a free spirit, who has paid her dues to be so. She takes little for granted and beams her gratitude out with rays of joy. Even in her darkest hours, at least those I have been privileged to witness, she finds a spark, a reason to look for the light to come.
I’ve been in a funk lately. The triad of my life; home, school and work have been a little at odds. It’s kind of like the uneven three-legged stool. You keep cutting a little bit off each leg, but it never seems to quite even out.
Whether she knows it or not, Betty has been quietly encouraging me. She’s going through her own struggle right now, but even when she has a set back of some kind, she finds something good in it even it means that she must take a step back. Her fortitude lets me know that there is light to come and that sometimes you have to make your own torch to brighten the way because some tunnels are longer than others.
I may not be able to rise to her level of zen just yet, but she gives me hope that I might get there someday. What an awesome purpose. Thank you Betty.
I owe my mother apologies for many things done or not done over the years, but I believe high on the list should be a hearty, “I’m sorry” for the repeated utterance of the following three little words:
“What’s for supper?”
Every night the same inquisition. Every night the same stares of anticipation. Every night the same dread. What’s for supper?
My Mom faced this eternal (infernal) question each night from four children, a husband and various and sundry pets who passed through our way for thirty years or so. Bless her little heart. I wonder if she, like I now, wanted to slap a frying pan upside someone’s head when those three little words came out?
Mom made do. I admire that and wish I had more of her “do”. She made supper and we ate it (with the exception of my younger brother Ernst, who subsisted on peanut butter & jelly sandwiches for 18 years, but that is another story). We had a meat, a veggie and a starch every supper. She made it work, whether we deserved it or not.
When we asked “what’s for supper?” I’m sure there were plenty of turned up noses at times, but the menu she worked out is what we got. There was no ditching the kitchen and heading off to the nearest fast food establishment. Going out was for special occasions and with dinner guests numbering from four to six most of the time, it was rather expensive, too.
We lived on my Dad’s one salary. Mom made it work. Some nights we had Spam patties as the meat source, other nights we had round steak that had been split in half lengthwise then pounded out to stretch. There were other nights of fried chicken or pork chops and mashed potatoes (not applesauce). Looking back those must have been the times my parents were more flush, but it didn’t matter, we partook of what we had, which is not to say we ate it all – no, I remember clearly trying to hide peas under the rim of my plate and I’ve heard stories of my brother Stavro covertly placing items behind the refrigerator.
Supper was the time the family regrouped. All were called by the rallying cry, “supper’s ready”! Off went the t.v., down went the books, the telephone conversation was cut short, play was halted and we all came together.
We had marvelous conversations and learned of each other’s daily lives. We told stories, passed on new knowledge, played word games and made plans. Occasionally, we would fight, but most of the time we laughed, a lot. Supper became less about the food and more about the time spent together. It was something I think we took too much for granted. Another apology owed to Mom.
Maybe that’s the “do” I’m missing. Even in the worst of times, Mom found something to make for us so that we could sit together and eat. She may have wanted to conk each one of us on the head for asking what’s for supper, but she didn’t and we survived to ask another day.
Perhaps I need to take the message more to heart. The t.v. needs to go off, apps turned off, Yoda called in from play and make supper the focus it should be, our family reconnection. Stretched paychecks and crossed schedules need to take a backseat to the preparation of what’s for supper. Nothing says I can’t resent the question, but everything says I can make it mean something else.
Thank you, Mom.
Victoria: Your problem, Mr. Marchand, is that you’re preoccupied with stereotypes. I think it’s as simple as you’re one kind of man, I’m another.
King Marchand: And what kind are you?
Victoria: One that doesn’t have to prove it. To myself, or anyone.
I was “Sir’d” again this week. The oh, so polite drive through attendant at Arby’s ended each of his inquiries and statements with “Sir”.
“What type of drink, Sir?”, “You just want the sandwich, Sir?”, “Your total is $8, Sir.”, “Please drive around to the first window, Sir.”
I’ve given up trying to correct people.
As a kid, I was forever mistaken for a boy. My manner and dress bucked the norm of 1960‘s middle class suburbia. I was Scout on paved streets.
The teen years didn’t bring anything different. Although I had changed from a solid, square block to blocky hour glass the question still rose, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
One would think that true adulthood would bring some clearer distinctions, but no on that one too.
Once for Halloween, Bashert and I traded costuming. I wore one of her folksy skirts and tops, put on make-up and jewelry, while she dressed in slacks, a button down shirt, vest, tie and sported a hat. Her gear was beyond my usual attire. I was the one mistaken for a cross-dresser.
What confuses people about a short-haired, middle-aged, heavy-set, well-endowed woman, that they would make the jump to give me a not just a masculine identity, but a male identity? I tried to find some information on line, but to no avail yet. What is the data? What markers or culturally induced suppositions are at work? Is there something innate about these assumptions/presumptions?
You tell me. I have yet to figure it out. All I know is I received a “Thank you, MA’AM” and a 10% discount when I got to the window.