Friday, May 09, 2008


I grew up in a small town; a small town is a panopticon. A small town is a panopticon where all views leads to one identity—the identity the town decides you have. For some, this may feel, I suppose, holistic and integrating. Or perhaps just normal. For me it was clausterphobic, and I’ve spent my life since then climbing out of every identity box I (or others) have put me in.

One question, twenty odd years into this experiment, is: What is it that actually evolves one’s identity? My boyfriend—who knew me at age 19, then didn’t know me for many years--sometimes says to me (teasing but serious), “You’re just a doctor’s daughter from the suburbs.” This usually sounds to my ear like someone saying to me, “You haven’t changed an ounce from what you were, and you never will.” But now that I’ve lived with him long enough to hear him differently, I wonder if he means--not that I haven’t changed at all--but that I have rebelled in the way that a doctor’s daughter from the suburbs would, revolved my life (identity) around THAT particular axis. Indeed, when he met me all those years ago at the southern university we both attended, he had a name for ‘my kind’ at our school: “Undergrad Type II.” He said, when pressed, that ‘Type I’ was the kind that came to school hopelessly preppie and left preppie, and rebelled by drinking copious amounts of keg beer and playing rowdy matches of rugby and turning up Zeppelin way too loud. Type IIs were the English majors who dressed in black, revered Hermann Hesse in high school and French criticism in college, listened to Robyn Hitchcock and Public Enemy and preferred scotch to beer; they thought they were rebelling philosophically. I’ll admit that back then the latter was indeed close to my definition of evolving my identity: reading things my parents had not, going places my classmates might never, opening my own mind as far as I could stretch it; part of the goal—or the method—being not to live with loose morals but to approach life without morals or prejudgements at all. But the ultimate goal being to outgrow the fearful and sheltered identity-cage I was once asked to stand in, once willingly stood in.

What are the uses of a stable identity, of an evolved identity? What is the ‘ideal’ identity generically- or specifically-speaking? If identity is achieved, what is desirable in a “final” identity? To my definition, an identity should always allow for growth and fluidity, but then, is it still called an identity? What makes the difference between growing up and growing older? Is it possible to ‘become different’? Is it possible to NOT become different?

Something that strikes me now, as I look back on what’s behind me, is that I constantly flipped everything over, everything that might stabilize an identity. (Nor did I change things out of indecision or fickleness, more out of post-passion exhaustion, the feeling that I’d used something up--mostly, my own identification with it.) I’ve inhabited 18 apartments in 20 years; I shared them with 41 roommates. I switched neighborhoods, jobs, lifestyles, lovers, whole sets of tight friends, artistic media, and sometimes cities. But as quickly as I was able to squirm out of each identity, I see a trend from the other end of the spectrum: in certain relationships, especially at work or in romance, I'd get stuck in the smallest pigeon holes. All it took was knowing that someone wanted me to be something I wasn't, and knowing that I could appear to be it, and suddenly I was stuck playing that role, weighed down with sorrow that the person wouldn’t accept me more freely. And I was good at this—this pretending, this mask-wearing, I could sustain it for a long time. Oddly, it was staying in an identity I ENJOYED that seemed to pose the challenge.

I woke today with a Carole King line in my head, but I had the wording wrong for a few hours before I noticed: My line was “Way over yonder, that’s where I’m found.” (Really it’s ‘bound.’) For I’ve noticed before this writing that I have a penchant for motion, for migration, for longing to be where I’m not. I take busses and trains to get places, rather than airplanes, which are too quick; I like the getting-there part; I like the being-not-here-nor-there part. I like the you-can’t-locate-me part.

I used to have the fear, the ultimate feminist nightmare, that to live with a man would mean that he’d always see me as inherently subordinate, or only as a sexual object. I no longer dwell on the male opinion of me so much, but I am aware that sharing a life and a home with one person means you are bound, to an extent, by his view of you. But that’s if the other person is merely a mirror to reflect you; and while I believe we are all that for each other, we are also people, which means we are dynamic. We are fluid in minute and grand ways, whether we want to be or not, and even when we are mirrors we are also kaleidoscopes, so the mirror, too, is changeable and changing. Sometimes it is not the mirror across from us that is so unbending but our own mind that is made rigid by fear and anxiety, fear of the reflection that once came back to us.

Maybe fear is the only identity cage.

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