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?
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".
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.