Tuesday, November 18, 2008

IDENTITY: Personal or Political?

Surely by now we know we are animals, which is to say creatures with capacities in some ways greater than those of other animals but in other ways just the same or even lesser. I can’t smell as keenly as a dog; I can’t see as sharply as a cat. (Why are senses described as though they were knives? What do they cut?)

I’m so aware that I’m a candle, that my mental/emotional identity is a dancing flame supported by my burning blood. Sometimes my mental image of myself is a little can of Sterno and I get an imaginary whiff of that characteristic smell. (When we kids were little and traveling, my mother heated my youngest brother’s bottle over a can of Sterno. I smelled it as I drifted into sleep. I have a little stash right now, just in case the electricity goes out.)

I am a flame, I am a process. I consume. I throw heat. The constant flow of sensory and narrative information through the limbic system of the brain where everything is sorted for reasoning and storage IS me. It filters everything else, both coming and going, as it has learned to do by my experience in life, the same way the junk category on my email works. I’ve been lucky to careen from rarefied heights of learning to low drudgery in the muck. Both were valuable.

In the broad sense this is the source of art, the writing and painting and singing and dancing. The culture gives us a “line” and then we either elaborate it or work against it ironically. It’s also possible to go off to the side and start a new line, but that’s much harder, like inventing abstract art. It helps then to be part of a group that can help explore and critique -- if they were trustworthy. (How do you know? They might be worthy, but trust isn’t in their hands, is it?) If the art is powerful and intense enough, it makes more identity, maybe a new identity. But it can also destroy identity, so it helps, when you come out of a coma or simply a confusion, to have a group that can say, “Oh, yes. This is who you are.”

Sometimes humans WANT to destroy their identity, like alcoholics who strain Sterno through an old stocking and drink it to be drunk, blotto, not thinking, deranged, chemically asphyxiated by the clotting of their blood corpuscles in their capillaries. A semi-suicide.

People get invested in having you be the way they want you. They coax, they bribe, they describe you to others from their own point of view, and how do you resist? The easiest is to do a bit of shape-shifting, to give them what they want -- for the moment. If you can do that without losing who you REALLY are. My middle brother used to advise me to do it that way, wave ‘em on. I never would. Got lumps from that.

My friend Eavan O’Callaghan, who knows a thing or two about the “hospitality industry,” talks about giving people an idea of yourself without ever really giving them yourself, sort of like a movie star projecting a persona of smouldering glamour when really they mostly lay around the house in sweats and read, say, Edith Wharton. Part of the secret is props, since we are so conscious of branding that some people write short stories packed with the names of ketchup or cigarettes. Part of it is synecdoche, supplying a little part and letting the observer fill in the rest to suit themselves. A cartoonist said that in order to draw a tree, one draws a cluster of leaves superimposed on the general shape of the tree, and then the observer will recognize “tree” and remember it as having all its leaves.

Part of the illusion is setting, since certain kinds of people are expected to be in certain kinds of places. When I say I’m in Montana, there are mental assumptions on all sides. When I say Blackfeet Reservation, the same thing happens. When I wanted to slip onto an Indians-only bulletin board, even though I am white, I didn’t lie directly. Instead, when the moderator asked, “what tribe do you belong to?” I said, “I’m from Browning.” He knew what that meant. Or thought he did. That’s when I began to be Prairie Mary. The reason I am here in this village is that I really DO want to be Prairie Mary. Just not too far from the mountains.

I’m always interested in people with multiple personalities. (Who isn’t?) It’s the relationships among them that are most intriguing: some will know about the others, some will not know they are ever anyone else. What is actually happening in the brain? It’s not like acting, when you deliberately find pieces of yourself to fit into the framework of the character. It’s not like mirroring, when you’re with someone, deeply in tune, and begin to gesture, choose words and sit just like the person -- all without quite realizing it. Doesn't every author have multiple personalities?

Yesterday Dear Abby printed a letter from a woman who said that a fellow employee kept asking her what she was really like. A few times she had gotten upset and then that employee will remark, “Oh, now the real you is coming out,” as though “realness” is defined by something ugly. Yet the business page of the newspaper is constantly advising people to be cool, to present an agreeable front, not to get too chummy at work. Maybe it’s impatience with this “fronting” that makes so many people intent on unmasking.

When I was working at the City of Portland, one of the other clerical specialists remarked about how “powerful” I was. “You’re one of the most powerful people here,” she assured me. Actually I felt aged, trapped, stifled -- not in the least powerful. I thought about this for a long time -- still do. That woman is one of the few who has called me up now and then, though we were never close.

I think what she meant was not really “powerful” but something more like “authentic.” I really was who I really was. Not that I went big-footing around, not that I didn’t try to be tactful most of the time, but -- I suppose because of the kind of “therapy” and group talking that I got in preparation for the ministry -- I was pretty clear, focused even. It’s an old counseling mantra that clarity gives a person power. In the case of ministry, it was the power to leave but in that last job I didn’t have that power.

But maybe too much analysis and reflection is a mistake as well. I’m big, hearty, wear no makeup, have short hair and dress in workshirts and jeans. Therefore, taking on these clues, city people ask me if I’m lesbian. (Country people don’t.) One day in the city I got to fussing about whether I was “feminine” enough. An impatient friend said, “Good grief, look in the mirror. You’re a woman. That’s what women look like. Now shut up.”

Put THAT in your limbic system!

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