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Who Am I?
If you are alone and naked in a room, separated from everything and everyone by whom you define yourself, who are you?
Tree falls in a forest kind of thing.
When you take away mom, sister, daughter, friend, partner, job description, activities description etc. etc., what’s left?
Imagine your end of life. Your work days long behind you, your time raising kids, spoiling grandkids well over, everyone’s stable and mostly OK. Your partner no longer here. You’ve done all the traveling you hoped to do, you even took a few risks. You’re in the bed now, quiet most days, preparing yourself to leave this world. Who are you now?
Is it even possible to define one’s self separately from all those roles?
One of the things I like to do is map my life. From time to time I go back and think about … all the islands I’ve visited or all the sports I’ve played, all the states I’ve been to. I map relationships that have held meaning, classes I’ve taken. It’s a really fun exercise and I’m often pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve done and seen so far.
Recently I started thinking hard about what I want to do with my remaining days. All the kids are gone now and we’re here in this very quiet corner of Vermont figuring out our next moves.
For a long time I thought I wanted to expand my role as a spiritual teacher and guide in this world. I always said I wanted a larger audience. So I took a pause and tried to figure out what I really mean by that.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a teacher. In part that had to do with my limited exposure to the world. My imagination wasn’t rich enough and no one had planted any seeds of think big! or you can do anything! in me, so I kind of defaulted to the stereotypical vocation for a woman: teacher. I love kids! was probably what I was thinking.
Looking back now I think I see it differently. When I was a kid I set up a little make-shift classroom in our basement. Not because I wanted to teach math or science, because I wanted an audience. I really think that what I wanted was to stand in front of people who would listen to me.
And I think … I’m a little afraid that that might have been the driving force, the wind beneath my wings (try not to vomit), that compelled me toward the things I’ve done.
I did become a teacher. I liked teaching; I didn’t love it. I liked it. But I can see now how acting or the idea of being an actor was kind of always standing close by, I just never really peered over at it long enough to see what it wanted.
In fifth grade we spent the entire year making a film about the history of our town. We wrote, created costumes, filmed, edited and spliced. Back then we had to cut film and literally splice it back together to edit! At the end of the year we had a full length historical documentary. That same year I saw Grease on Broadway. I’m not a fan of musicals, but I loved the story and there was something very, very magical about seeing it on stage.
Around that same time the movie The Way We Were was being filmed in a town nearby and my parents took us to see what was happening.
Throughout all of my school years I was known as a good writer. I was the editor of our high school newspaper, but I loved making people laugh with funny social commentary more than reporting any actual news. I loved seeing peoples’ reactions.
In college I went to London and fell in love with Shakespeare—every time we read a play we went to see it in the theater. Second semester of my senior year I took an acting class and loved it so much that I was mad that I was already on my way out the door when I finally found something I adored doing.
My first teaching job was in Bedford, New York and Jill Clayburgh’s daughter was in our class. I was mesmerized by her elegance and grace. Her daughter, Lily Rabe, is an actress now.
While I was there a film crew came to make Fatal Attraction and a couple of years later, when I was teaching at Emma Willard School in Troy, New York a film crew came to make Scent of a Woman.
What are the odds?
Later in life I met, on a short flight, an actor who invited me into his acting life. Last year I officiated at his wedding and there were lots and lots of actors there.
And now I’m a preacher, which is basically a teacher with a microphone and a fresh audience every week. I mean, let’s face it: as a pastor you get a stage; you put on a little play every single week. It’s nice to think of it as a profession to which one is called, but the truth is that a lot of us actually do have ambitions.
It’s obviously too late to switch gears and storm Hollywood at 58 with my little dream of landing a starring role in a really funny series, but I am a little surprised by the realization that there was this thing always nearby in my life that I never really paid much attention to. There was acting, all along, kind of beckoning me and I didn’t go.
Did I miss my calling, as they say, or did I just take the idea and morph it into other things because it didn’t feel real enough or possible or was it that I just didn’t even know where to start with a dream like that?
Was I supposed to have been something different?
When I say I’d like a larger audience, is this some voice lodged deep inside that has been trying to be heard all these years? If I had a larger audience, what on earth would I want to tell them?
I’ve always said there’s a very thin line between being a pastor and being a stand-up comedian. Is that the thing?
Is the answer to the question, who am I? simply … a never-ending work in progress?
Daughter, mother, partner, grandmother …
Student, teacher, preacher …
Does our childhood hold more answers to the question than we know? Did I become what I was supposed to become or was I so distracted or lacking in courage that I ignored all the signs?
I have a sneaky suspicion that it’s actually far more simple than we think.
I have a gnawing sense that we’re here to manufacture joy. And we can do it in lots of different ways with lots of different costumes and scenery, but that’s what we’re supposed to do. Generate joy, liberate joy from beneath the weight of grief and disappointment, marinate in joy, live it.
I think that’s probably it.
Who am I? I’m just a brief shooting speck of light, moving from one end of this to the other. I hope when it’s over you will have thought the rays I sent your way helped, even just a tiny bit. Whether you were in my classroom, one of the kids I shuffled around with my kids, an old lady I visited in a nursing home, someone whose hand I held while you were dying. Maybe you sit in a pew in the church where I work or you work in a restaurant I go to a lot. Maybe you’re a stranger out there, reading what I write. Maybe you were hitchhiking once and I gave you a ride. Maybe I saw that you didn’t have enough money in line at the grocery store and I paid for you because I just happened to have a little extra that day. Maybe we were pals in high school or college. Maybe you were my teacher and you helped me figure something out. Whoever you are, I hope you and I meet (again) one day on the astral plane and and have a good laugh seeing how we overthought everything while we were here. After all, as my buddy Will wrote, All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.