“ I know what worries me most when I look in the mirror and see the old woman with no waist. It’s not that I’ve lost my beauty – I never had enough to carry on about. It’s that that woman doesn’t look like me. She isn’t who I thought I was… But all the same, there’s something about me that doesn’t change, hasn’t changed, through all the remarkable, exciting, alarming, and disappointing transformations my body has gone through. There is a person there who isn’t only what she looks like, and to find her and know her I have to look through, look in, look deep…” - Ursula Le Guin
This past week I read an article in the NY times about Emma Thompson. At 60, she speaks of not knowing who she is. I was shocked to read this because if anyone appears to have crystalline clarity, it’s Emma Thompson...
And then I read an article about Diana Kennedy – dedicated to a life of deep inquiry, she is the woman responsible for inviting us to the cuisine and cookery of Mexico. At 96, she is still vibrantly in motion, setting her own terms, keeping to standards she set.
I’m curious if what grabbed my attention had to do with concepts of identity: what we do for a living (to pay for a life), the roles we play in various relationships, the communities we belong to, what matters to us, how we define all of this for ourselves and explain it to others, using succinct recognizable labels
Upon meeting someone new, we ask – ‘What do you do’ – but rarely mean, who are you and what do you stand for and how do you contribute to this world we share? Rather, it’s more to mean – where do you work? what job do qualify for? how is it you pay your bills?
We don’t first ask strangers what their favorite story may be, or about an inspiring moment they’ve experienced, or even three of their favorite things about themselves… nothing that would actually reveal and connect.
(Ok. Sometimes this may happen. But in my experience, it is not the norm.)
Meeting someone(s) new can be like that moment in a conference break out session or workshop when the leader has everyone introduce themselves. You have 90 seconds to reduce your entire life to what you are called, what you do, where you do it, and maybe a haiku-length explanation as to why you are in the room.
Identity always feels just a step behind where we actually are. A social construct. Like asking someone, How are you? and not really checking in to be sure all is well.
It makes me think of Discovery of Women – a book that continues to be an inspiration for me - filled with stories of extraordinary women around the world. Pathfinders. Rule breakers. Creators. Adventurers. Visionaries that took on the responsibility of doing something because they were the ones that saw the solution, the invention, the possibility something could be different.
There are no labels, no identities that can hold the all of who these women are, what they have done, why it continues to matter. And though not all of us will be written about in the history books. The all-of-everything that makes up a life ought not be reduced so as to fit on a business card or an email signature or a 90 second introduction.
Perhaps, like Le Guin, Thompson’s reported confusion is less about some mid-life crisis, and more about seeing a woman in the mirror that contradicts and even defies all existing labels. The juxtaposition of body with the soul-heart-mind-complex-life-that-was-and-is-now-and-has-yet-to-be cannot be reconciled with current labels never meant to hold the vibrancy, courage and grit of such a woman. Kennedy, who belongs in the next edition of Discovery of Women, appears to have found her own way to face that mirror... she smashes it.
I'll be 46 this year and in many ways feeling quite in the middle of things. I too look in a mirror, see grey I choose not to cover, crinkles in my skin in places that seem like they should not be crinkling, and freckles I call kisses-from-the-sun though others may call them sunspots.
I take away the number and so many "meanings" fall away. What's left are stark questions that only I can answer. Am I where I wish to be, doing the things I see want doing, in all the ways that align with the moral vows I have chosen for myself... ?
Beauty. Worth. Aging. Identity... can we redefine this for ourselves and others in new ways that smash the mirrors?
always in motion,