I have been thinking and talking a lot recently about identity and creativity. In part of an email to a friend, Onke, last week, I wrote “I wonder if we all struggle to some degree to acknowledge or recognise our ‘true self’? It is such a flexible and constantly changing thing, responding to our environment and the various roles we fulfil. I have come to believe that we don’t have one self, merely multiple selves that are facets of our complexity. The challenge is to try and give space to sometimes conflicting desires and expressions of being.”
He replied, “As a person and psychologist I do agree with you that we all struggle to reconcile the different aspects that make up our personalities. The challenge really is in accepting and giving space to all the different aspects without being drowned by all of it.”
There is no doubt that I sometimes feel like I am drowning.
I suddenly noticed last night the pile of books that has accumulated next to my bed, and I laughed at what an appropriate reflection it was of my thoughts. They are all books that I pick up now and then and always gain something from when I read a chapter or two, and they all have special associations with the person who gave or recommended them to me (four being from my mother). I used to be someone who read a book cover to cover before picking up the next one, and I usually made short shrift of it too – as a teenager I devoured fiction, reading for hours each day. For various reasons I find that these days I seldom read for more than 15 minutes a day, if that, and I am trying to accept that in the madness of motherhood, work, love, sport, friendship, study and writing, this is simply where I am at this stage in my life. A few of the books I am reading (or, rather, ‘browsing’) are listed below, and I will let them speak for themselves rather then analysing what aspect of myself each one speaks to and of:
Women Who Run with the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman (Clarissa Pinkola Estes)
When Parents Die: Learning to live with the loss of a parent (Rebecca Abrams)
Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the last 13,000 Years (Jared Diamond)
Finn Family Moomintroll (Tove Jansson)
Eros and Pathos: Shades of Love and Suffering (Aldo Carotenuto)
Sarah’s Midnight Anthology (Poems selected by Sarah Nock)
Intellectual Growth in Young Children (Susan Isaacs)
Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss (Hope Edelman)
I have been feeling the need to start getting back on top of the various aspects of my life, but each time I feel the enormity of each one, let alone the collective, I feel a powerful resistance turn my mind away. I am not used to such conscious avoidance, as I usually prefer to tackle challenges head-on, to minimise them down to manageable, planned chunks. Sometimes, however, it can seem like all too much to even begin to face. The challenge is to stop thinking of the limited amount of time in an hour, day, or lifetime as an insurmountable problem, and to instead find a way of balancing out my time in a way that gives just enough nourishment to the most important aspects at any given point in my life. That would, of course, be far easier if there were a simple formula by which to process the data of our lives and identify those priorities, and a way to minimise the pain of what we must necessarily chose to forgo.
A few years ago I went through a true crisis of identity. Through a series of painful realisations I became aware of the way I had gradually and unconsciously turned away from my creative outlets, until I was left in what felt like an empty shell I barely recognised. I stopped writing poetry, painting, dancing, playing flute, and writing. I hardly even read anything, because I was too busy, and too tired. Through a series of small decisions, each one with its own logic and sense, and each one taken in the hope of becoming happier and more fulfilled, I suddenly realised that I had lost myself. I was a farm girl living in a big city; an artist working in Data Management, a dancer playing a structured team sport six days of the week, and a lover of purple and red who was wearing grey and black. The question in my mind at that point was if I should tear it all up and start again, but I chose otherwise – I chose instead to try and make different small decisions to gradually try lead myself back to a place in which I felt more whole. I wasn’t sure at the time what the bravest option was, but I believe now that I chose wisely, because while the journey will last a lifetime, I have maintained and improved many aspects of my life rather than discarding them entirely. But there are some steep hills still to come, and there is no denying that I still push myself too hard and stretch myself too thin. I have chosen evolution over revolution, but it feels like more hard work than it should be to keep evolving towards where I really want to go, rather than where life’s currents take me. As I wrote to a colleague-becoming-friend a couple of weeks ago, “Seeking, rattling, moving, trying to figure out how we fit in our lives and bodies and spaces… the little compromises that shift us further and further away from our truth. It feels like it shouldn’t be so difficult to be true to ourselves.”