Sunday, January 31, 2010

Identity - You are my sunshine...

My week-long series on identity was hijacked by the cold from hell. Instead of being a blogger I became a shambling consumer of tissues and cough drops.  Yuck. While identity is a topic that continues to interest me, I'm not sure if I will post on it through the coming week. Stay tuned.

For now, however, I want to look at identity in the context of other people. So far we've looked at identity through action and identity through sensory information. Both of these are ways we tell ourselves and others who we are. Today I'm interested in how we are viewed by others.

To my parents, I am first and foremost their daughter. They will always worry about me and love me as only parents can. I will always be their little girl, no matter how old I am, how self-sufficient and how capable. 

It would be wildly inappropriate for my lover to treat me the way my parents do. Instead he sees me in a completely different light, as friend and helpmate, as sexual partner and companion through life. He sees me as an adult and someone with whom he is particularly intimate.

My friends see me as someone else entirely, while my step-daughter sees yet another person, my co-workers someone else and so on.

We don different identities with each relationship, because each person with whom we interact sees us as someone different, depending on context, the power structures and roles in that relationship, its duration and so on. With luck, the person they see us to be has some correlation with who we are inside. We need to remember that our internal definitions may be at odds with someone else's definition of us and make allowances. Or not. The song You Are My Sunshine is a chilling example of what can happen when we think someone is a person they are not.

While we can never be who someone else wants us to be, it's worth just keeping their assumptions in mind. Sometimes they let us be better than we are.  And remember, the people you know may have a different image of themselves, so be kind. If you give someone the gift of being a bigger person than they are, they just might grow into it.

So, who are you to others? Do you agree? Are you a better person in their eyes?

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Fiction - Things are never the same

Please note: I've been ill and wasn't able to complete the Identity series. I'll return to it in the next few days.

*  *  *

When the blade hit the bone it made a curious scraping sound. The student digging stopped and called the professor over. As they uncovered more, small spades and brushes in hand, the professor began to shake, thinking, “Finally, tenure is mine! Things will never be the same.”

When the blade hit the bone she was surprised by the jolt. She was expecting the resistance of muscle and organs, not much different from any other animal, but he was so much smaller than a deer. He gripped her hand as though to hold her in place, then his eyes closed and his weight sagged against her. She smiled. Things would never be the same.

The careful arrangement of the corpses made her think that this must have been a ritual burial, of some significance to the community. She began to hum as she ordered the students this way and that, measuring, recording, capturing everything about this ancient moment in modern time.

The careful arrangement of his body in the dirt hid the wound. He didn’t look like he was sleeping (they never did) but it was close enough. He looked peaceful. She hummed as she worked, this was her favorite part of the job. She thought about how he was now forever in this moment, never to age or change, how the last memory of him would be perfect.

Once they were uncovered everyone gathered around to look. It had been a long, careful process, no one wanting to jinx the dig by hinting at how special this might be. The lack of grave goods and the odd location of the burial (who expected it here of all places?) made the tender pose even more surprising. An undergrad sighed and said, “They must have been in love.” The professor evenly replied, “We’ll never know. What matters is the stories the bones say, not the stories we tell about them,” but in her heart she hoped they had died happy.

While he was still uncovered she stretched in the evening glow, the copper light washing over the red earth. She turned to look at him one last time and caught her foot on a pile of dirt, thinking only, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to end!” before her head struck a rock as she crumpled beside him. Later, much later, hands tucked her legs in place and left flowers for the man. No songs were sung nor tears were shed. The sun rose and set, ignoring the land below.

The exhibition was titled The Lovers. The lines were out the door. The professor hit the lecture circuit and wrote a book the changed cultural theory for that part of the world. Two of the students on the dig married. Things were never the same. 

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Identity - I am what I do

I decided to undertake this week of blogging about identity then promptly got a cold. I'm sorry that these posts are arriving late in the day, but congestion and sneezing has slowed me down.

*  *  *

Next time you go to a party, pay attention. At some point, someone will as you, "What do you do?" which means, "What's your job?"

I think the question, "What do you do?" is far broader than just your job, with greater implications for identity than simply the job we do to pay our bills, no matter how much we may love our work. An important component of identity is action - we are defined by what we do, we are remembered by the things we accomplish as well as by the more ethereal aspects of our personalities.

If I am what I do then a partial list might look like:
  • writer
  • storyteller
  • listener
  • cook
  • complainer
  • intermittent exerciser
  • reader
  • tv-watcher
  • meddler a.k.a. speaks up when she sees something she thinks is unjust
  • eavesdropper
  • etc
While aspects of my job are on this list, my job title is not.

I have choices about these definitions, which I embrace or ignore and which I choose to identify with. I'd rather be known as someone who acts when she sees a wrong than someone who watches too much tv. But I do both. I suspect it comes down to mindfulness: The actions I undertake more mindfully feed more into my own sense of identity. I think of myself more as a writer, storyteller, listener, cook and meddler than I do a tv-watcher and complainer. I am more mindful in the first set of actions. And I hope those actions are more memorable, though I suspect it's not always the case.

Of the things you do, what defines you? What things do you do less mindfully that you'd prefer are not part of your identity? How can you be more mindful about the parts of your identity through action you want to cultivate?

If what you do helps define who you are, keep that in mind in your next set of interactions with the world. Let your actions speak for you.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Identity - the five senses and external assumptions

As I've been pondering identity I keep coming back to internal vs external measures of who we are. We can define ourselves by internal measures or be defined by external ones. While ultimately I believe our internal definition carries more weight and power, as well as influence over those external assumptions, we are all labeled by various factors over which we have little control. Let's start there, with how we're identified on the outside. This also touches on cultural identity labels that we can't help but internalize.

When someone looks at you they may make some assumptions about you based on what they see, hear or smell.
  • Skin color
  • Sex
  • How you're dressed
  • How you look at them
  • The tone of your voice
  • The pace of your speech
  • Your accent
  • Your scent - good or bad, innocuous or overwhelming
Writers and those in the business of shaping identities know this well. They shape a reader's initial perception of a character by describing them as ragged or well-dressed, a slow, honeyed-drawl or the clipped tones of a school marm. You probably make assumptions about someone's identity by sensory input too, based on cultural assumptions. We all do. After all, a black man is more likely to have trouble flagging down a cab than a white one.

I know that when I dress well I am treated differently than when I wear jeans and t-shirt. Is this because I feel better about myself, I am telling myself I am worth a little fuss, and so project myself differently or because our culture responds differently to a woman in a dress? Equally, I know I shy back from someone wearing heavy perfume and may not take the time to get past my initial flinch of "Ugh, so-and-so smells too much. How inconsiderate." I read inconsideration into their identity when really, they probably just love their perfume and forget that others may not.

Another way to think about this is to consider what identity you project by your dress, your carriage, your cologne, your movements. Who do you want people to think you are? What would happen if you were to change some of your identity flags? How would people react? What if you decided the flags you can't change don't matter so much and you challenged assumptions people made about you based on them? What then? What if you decided to tell a different story? To what degree are the assumptions about our identities fixed by the outside world?

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, January 18, 2010


I've been thinking about identity quite a bit lately on both an individual scale and as a broader theme. Who am I? How do I define myself as an individual and in a broader cultural context? To what extent am I defined by my actions, my beliefs, my connections, by some other factors? I know these are big philosophical questions and I am certainly not the first person to look them nor will I be the last, but it's an exploration everyone should undertake from time to time. This whole blog, really, is an examination of who I am. For now thought, I'm interested in how any individual answers those questions, what tools do we use and how effective are they.

Over the course of this week I'll take a look at different factors that effect identity, how we define ourselves, how we tell our story. I'm really interested in how we talk about each aspect of our identity, how we construct our identity through story. I'm trying to get away from the mammoth blog posts I lean towards, so I thought I'd break up this conversation into different parts. Each day I'll look at a different measure of identity then next weekend I'll see if it's given me any new insight.

Topics I plan to touch upon include identity in the context of: action (I do this...) , relationships to others (I am a daughter, etc), cultural context (ways we support or violate cultural expectation or what our culture expects from us) and belief (what our belief and philosophy suggests we are). Any other suggestions?

I would love your input. Navel gazing it no way to understand ourselves, so if you have any thoughts or tips, please post them in the comments section. How do you define yourself? What do you tell others when you talk about yourself or your life? What don't you tell? When do you most feel like yourself? Thanks.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Friday Fiction - Devil on the Bus

In spite of what you may have heard, the Devil doesn’t have cherry red skin, a long pointed tail, horns or even hooves. Maybe. I’m not sure about the hooves, I never saw the Devil standing. The Devil’s eyes don’t glow with hellfire. The Devil doesn’t even really smell of brimstone - more like Chanel No. five. I know this because I met her on the bus.

I was riding to work, absorbed in a book as always. The middle-aged woman sitting next to me was staring blankly out of the window, the way you do when you’re on the bus, watching the panorama of the world slide by. Maybe she was a few years older than I am but dressed more like my mother. Midway through the ride she shifted and said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“No,” I replied, expecting to be asked if I had found Jesus yet (no, and I wasn’t planning to) or if I wanted to buy a copy of WatchTower (no, I already had something to read and please refer back to the Jesus answer) or if I knew the time (I don’t wear a watch, so, again, no).

“What would it take for you to sell your soul?”

“Pardon me?” It seems as though we often deny the remarkable when it confronts us.

“What do you most desire? What would you give anything for?”

I was stunned and as my astonishment showed on my face, she smiled a little while waiting for my answer. I guess I was quiet for too long because she added, “Come now, everyone has a price. Do you want riches beyond belief? Power? Beauty? What would it take for you to sell me your soul?”

I have always believed there is more to this world than meets the eye. When I see a mushroom fairy ring in the forest I respectfully walk around. I knock wood. I try to be kind to beggars and lost souls not only because it’s the right thing to do, but who knows? maybe they’re a king or a witch in disguise; besides the karma can’t hurt.

“I don’t think I want to sell my soul,” I replied. “While I don’t know what happens when we die, it seems a risky proposition to let something that go for money or power or looks. Besides, how do I know you are who say you are?”

“But I have said I am no one. Just someone you met on a bus, who asked you an interesting question. Everyone has a price. Let me show you something, maybe this will help.” She rummaged around in her purse, a perfectly ordinary handbag - I caught glimpses of crumpled tissue, a hairbrush, lipstick and she pulled out a gently closed fist.

“I will offer you a few pieces of what might be proof and then maybe we can negotiate. You seem to be of a scientific mind.” Again, that small smile decorated her face.

She handed me a broken piece of wood, smooth and rounded at one end, ragged at the other, about two inches long and as thick as my little finger. “Pinocchio’s nose,” she announced. “The little man so wanted to be human, I was the only one who could grant his wish.”

“But I thought by becoming a real boy he gained a soul. And I thought it was the Blue Fairy -”

“Oh, he did. And I have worn many guises. But he lost that which he most loved, his father, in exchange for his humanity. Without his great love the guilt of his trade consumed him and he just drifted away into grey existence. Last I heard he kept looking for a life at the bottom of a bottle then disappeared into the woods, shouting at the trees that they betrayed him. A wooden life would have been more fulfilling but who am I to judge what people do with their lives.”

I rolled the little nub of wood back and forth between my fingers. It felt smooth and worn, and ever so slightly oily. It felt like one of the millions of sticks I had whittled in my childhood into swords or magic wands and then carried in my pocket until they became splinters. I handed it back.

“And this,” she said, passing me a shard of mirror, wrapped carefully in a silky fabric. “This is a scrap of the mother’s mirror. She told me she wanted to be more beautiful than her pale skinned, black haired daughter. She did not care for my price and tried to fool me with a deer’s heart. Foolish woman. The mirror showed her exactly what she most feared. She would have done better to deal honestly with me.”

A stab of light from the mirror threatened to spark a migraine and I didn’t look to see what would gaze at me from its face. When I handed it back, the woman glanced at her reflection and wiped away a tiny smudge of mascara.

“Well, child? What do you have to say? What would you give everything for?”

I thought about it, sitting there on the bus. How could I not? Money, power, beauty, all of those would be nice but not worth the price she was asking.

Into my silence she revealed a samara, one of the seedpods shed by maple trees every autumn. “This is perhaps my favorite.”

Any good salesman knows that the secret to selling lies in intriguing the customer. She said nothing as I looked at the fragile thing in my hand. Finally, I had to ask, “What is it?”

“It is a wing from a fairy who wanted nothing more than to be human, to be seen for more than a spark in the night.”

“Why would she want that? Wasn’t being a fairy enough?”

“Because no one believes in fairies anymore.”

I do, I thought.

“So I gave her humanity in exchange for her wings.”

“And what happened to her?”

“I do not know. I just made her human, then let her be. There are some things even I do not want to see.”

The bus rumbled into the next stop. The woman looked at her watch.

“Come child, this is a limited duration offer. My time is valuable. What will it be? World peace? Success? Secret knowledge? Revenge? There is something. Everyone has a price.”

I thought about it. I really did, you can’t help but think about it. World peace was alluring but God only knows how she would go about achieving it. Success? Well, I preferred earning it. Secret knowledge? Tempting... but no. Some things weren’t worth it. Revenge? I had no one I hated that much.

I thought of all the things I’ve ever wished for. I thought of the opportunities lost, loves withheld, dreams deferred. And then I thought of her price. It wasn’t worth losing my wings for.

“No, thank you. I appreciate the offer, but I can’t think of anything I want that much, anything I would want enough to give up my soul for. Better luck next time.”

She shrugged. “I do not need luck, most people are happy willing to pay my price. Indeed, I am sure I will see you again.”

The bus shuddered into my stop. I walked down the stairs then turned, watching the bus drive away in a cloud of diesel smoke and perfume.

And then I knew.
Everyone has a price.

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer
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