Who I am vs. What I do

I am coming back off my dance hiatus this week, and in addition to lots and lots of dreams in the weeks leading up to the day--some anxiety, some hope-filled--one theme keeps running around in my head: the idea of your profession being something you do versus something which defines who you are.

When people ask what I do for a living I have long said "I am a bellydance teacher and performer." When I think about it, I can see that I am answering a question that wasn't asked. Isn't this a response we all give equally casually?

"What do you DO?" they ask. And we answer "I AM a..."  There's a subtle but important distinction between the question and the answer. 

The former is an action or a behavior, and the latter is a statement of self-definition. (As an aside,  I wonder if the language changes if you are doing something you don't enjoy... like do you say "I am a burger flipper" or do you say "I flip burgers", or whatever stereotypically hated job you want to insert in there? )  What I keep wondering these past few weeks is am I a bellydancer, or am I many many other things as well, complex and simple, and bellydance is simply something I do? Do I sincerely feel that "I am a bellydancer" is the most accurate way to respond to the question?

 When  my mind wanders in this direction, I remember a moment I have kept close to my heart for years. At Tribal Fest 2004, I believe it was, I was taking time away from my booth to get a glass of wine. Running the drink table was a small grey haired woman with a sweet smile and easy manner, and we struck up a conversation. She revealed that at 70-something, she was going back to college to get her AA. I remarked how incredible that was, and she agreed, but that she was really hating having to do math again, which we laughed about in agreement. I asked her if she was a bellydancer, and she said no, she just lived nearby and heard they needed help and she thought it would be fun to see the show and meet people and lend a hand.  She then went on to share that she has never liked being just one thing at a time. That all her life she has done whatever felt good or right at the time, and had moved through many different professions as it suited. She liked that she was never just one thing, but always had opportunities to explore so many different jobs, people, and avenues of expression. And that she planned to do just that until the day she died.

I can still see her face so clearly in my mind as she told me this--how happy she looked, and how unapologetic she was that she had never "settled down" into one way of life. She stated her fluid nature as a strength and a pride. She was so vibrant, and her philosophy so inspirational to me in that moment, that it has stuck with me and percolated inside my soul ever since. 

When I stepped away from the dance to take my hiatus, and all the issues that swirled around that choice and change, I asked myself if I was ever going to come back to the dance. And even entertaining that thought in passing felt like a punch in the gut and a tearing at my heart. I love teaching dance, I believe in what I do, and I am good at it. How could I possibly consider not teaching or performing bellydance any more? That is who I AM.  And the unintended pressure came from well-meaning friends and loved ones as well, who reeled at the mere suggestion I may not dance or teach again. After all, they said, that is WHO everyone knows me to BE.  Can you imagine the weight of that attitude as it pressed down on me, from within and without? The feeling that I was somehow trapped insinuated itself into my mind--that I was locked onto one path, that I had to bellydance, or else who was I?  That I would be confusing people who knew me as a dancer, and worse yet that I would be letting people down. What a burden it felt like. And I began to resent the idea of coming back to dance at all.

That thing I loved had become an evil "other" that encompassed an ocean of expectations and requirements in order to simply be myself, without which I was nothing.

So I railed against going back. I brushed up my resume and started casually job hunting, looking for anything that sparked my interest, irrespective of the details of time or finances.  I tried to explain to my loved ones that I wanted to take time to see who I was, rather than be defined by what I do. That there were so many interests I had which were placed on a permanent back-burner over the years because I had so much of my energy--my being, if you will--channeled in one direction. For all I know, I could be a fantastic photographer, or my graphic design work may grow by leaps and bounds if I gave it more dedicated attention, or what about going back to the theater I loved so much, or any number of other "side interests" I have not been able to nurture because I couldn't take my eyes off the road in front of me.  But this idea of being more malleable in our definition of self and profession, and less single-focused, is not a popular one in our culture. The prevailing attitude is that certainly at 35 you are supposed to know "who you are", which we define almost entirely by our careers (or children). To tell people you don't want to be just one thing any more, especially when they are familiar and comfortable with that definition of you, really sends them into a tailspin. They were trying to be supportive by encouraging me to not "give up" on the dance, but it only made me despair even more that I would never get out of these handcuffs of "bellydancer".

My Mom was one helpful voice among the many. She encouraged me to take the time away to explore other opportunities, and let the dance come back to me, so to speak, rather than rushing back to it for the wrong reasons.  She didn't seem the least bit alarmed or concerned at my confession that I wasn't sure if I would return to teaching.

And I realize it is because she is my Mom (duh), and she doesn't see me as only one thing or another. She sees me as her daughter, first and foremost, and she simply wants me to be happy.  

Not that my other friends and family didn't want me to be happy, but that in their minds, I had been so completely fulfilled as a dancer, it worried them to imagine me trying to find that someplace else, and risk losing that joy they saw in me in the bargain.

I was just getting used to the idea of maybe taking a more extended hiatus (after all, my foot is still an issue, and I need to get that surgery--can't go into releve at all right now), and possibly never coming back at all, when hubby piped up with another pearl of wisdom.  In a nutshell, he pointed out that a lot of shit came down the pike around when I took time off from dancing, and if I took time off from dance now, and perhaps never returned, I may always wonder later in life if I left because it was truly time to move in new directions, or because I was trying to escape all the difficulty and sadness that happened to overlap with my time off. He said that when and if I decide I want to explore other avenues of expression and leave bellydance behind, he completely supports me, but that I should try to do it cleanly and without all the baggage that is tied to it right now in my heart, so that I am not left with potential "what ifs" and regrets.

He is so wise.

So I started to get my new website together, contacted the community center to set up my schedule for the fall, and sent out my class newsletter. Getting back into the swing feels strange...feels so different than before. It seems like I have been away longer than I actually have. I feel a little less steady. Honestly, while there are many things about going back to teach this week that I am looking forward to, I still feel a little trepidatious, like I am coming back to the dance before the dance has come back to me. But maybe, just maybe, it is waiting for me to meet it halfway. And once I show up at our designated meeting spot (not the top of the Empire State Building, too cliche), the dance will leap from its hiding spot with a big bouquet of flowers and colorful balloons and throw its arms around me and welcome me back. And I will fall into those arms and feel like I have come home. Maybe.

But one thing I feel very confident of. That for now, I want to be clear that I do this, and not completely am this. I don't want to put all my eggs in this one basket, or limit myself to one path for my energies. I want to be invested, but also able to let go, and not feel like I am losing my fundamental self.

Last spring I read this quote on Zen Habits, and it is so perfectly perfect, it sums up everything I have been thinking so neatly:

Define yourself in fluid terms. We are all constantly evolving and growing. Define yourself in terms that can withstand change. Defining yourself by possessions, roles, and relationships breeds attachment because loss entails losing not just what you have, but also who you are.

Yeah, what she said.

1 comment:

  1. I just want to say that this is an excellent issue, one I've been thinking about a lot lately, and one I don't have any answers to!

    Specific sub-issues I've identified are:

    +Our culture's expectation that one will find a Dream Job that will perfectly utilize what one is, and turn it into what one does. You're absolutely right--by 35, you're supposed to be a grown-up who knows exactly who you are and are working at a completely fulfilling job (so fulfilling you don't need hobbies!) and married and have a house with a white picket fence and nice hardwood floor (and preferably kids and a golden retriever, too). People feel pressured to live up to this ideal!

    +Many years of education being required for certain professions (my own future profession included) that, through the many years of struggle and sacrifice and devotion and training, shapes who you are. It's tough to draw a line between who you are and what you do when both have so intimately informed each other.

    +Being part of a profession that rewards who you are. This is particularly true for me as a scientist--For all the talk about girl power, I recieved messages every day as I was growing up that girls aren't supposed to approach life as I do. When I approached problems scientifically (which is simply how my brain works), I was told I needed to 'open up' more, be more 'emotional', that I needed to 'be more creative', or point-blank that I needed to dumb myself down. Boys were never told these things! One of the very first places where I've been accepted for who I am and how I naturally think is in the scientific community, and at my work. My work is also deeply satisfying to me, because it does mirror how my brain works! It would be very easy to let my work dominate my life (more than it does already), because it was one of the first places I've been accepted as the type of thinker I am, and as part of a predominantly female lab, I'm surrounded by other women who "get it".

    +"Who I am" is so freaking complicated. Does anyone ever know who they are? It's just easier to answer stuff with your occupation, and not really think about what one values, and how that informs how you choose to spend your time and money. It's tough stuff to think about! I've been thinking a lot about that lately as a graduating college student/aspiring doctor, and it involves looking at the icky underbelly of yourself, and it's absolutely no fun! Some days, I ignore the whole thing and pretend who I am and what I do are the same thing, even though deep down, I know differently.

    I really think there's something to the fluidity you talk about, but how does one detach oneself from one's job and relationships, particularly if they are usually fulfilling? What does that mean, to be detached? Is that neccessarily a good thing?



On this blog I share my personal posts about cooking and knitting, travel and other musings; while I will blog about dance-specific topics over on the Deep Roots Dance blog:

I hope you will enjoy both my sites. Thanks for visiting!
Powered by Blogger.