Peggy often asks that question to new faces she meets at parties. Some people are stumped… at least it gives them pause. One time a woman ran over to her husband excitedly saying she’d never been asked that before and this person really wants to know who I am. Others might say they are so and so’s cousin or name their profession.
The story of doubtful provenance goes like this: There was a banquet honoring the chief justice of some state. When he asked his waiter for the third time for more butter he got irate saying, in his best authoritarian voice, Young man, do you know who I am? I’ve made decisions that have affected millions of lives. Now get me more butter. The man responded, Do you know who I am? I’m not your young man. I’m the head waiter and I’m in charge of the butter.
So much for titles.
I’m not sure how I would respond to the question. Hmmmm, give me twenty minutes and I’ll think of something. It is actually asking, what is your story, more than your bio. Your movie. Your mythos.
As Rebecca Solnit reminds us in her new book, The Faraway Nearby, this is what makes all of us artists, our created self. In a sense everything we paint, sculpt, write, compose etc…is part of that creation.
It is always a work-in-progress even though we have the general arc pretty well-rehearsed well before the final chapters. My guess is that there is the tale we tell and the one we don’t or won’t or can’t. The narrative of a life is necessarily non-linear. It stumbles and bumbles. There are missteps. We get lost and probably go off the map into unknown precincts a few times. If we look at our children we may discover some disowned parts like unopened doors in our modest manor house.
I have a habit of giving short shrift to my 53 years as a pharmacist. It has become my own faraway nearby. It seems distant; a half century stuck in a wrong turn. On the one hand it was my penal servitude. The consequence of having made a choice while still a man-child. It was the easy path laid out by my father and to some extent I became him. He was certainly my role model and a good fit if snug was to be a goal. Perhaps I sacrificed the necessary murky journey for coherence and the familiar.
On the other hand my time as a poet and now a blogger feels more challenging and risky if vulnerability and disclosure count for anything. Maybe I needed those years of gestation to help define myself by what I wasn’t. I got triturated in the mortar and pestle, ground to a fine powder and by that time the profession itself was unrecognizable.
Solnit writes about her turn in a darkened labyrinth and how we have named the middle ear by the same name. As a writer I find my voice, which is to say I’ve heard a sound in my labyrinth, that I can meet half-way in resonance. To be fully met on the page is a kind of congruence I would cherish.
Who we really are is more than the sum of what we did, who we married, where we lived, when we moved and how our health has fared. Even if we found the words pieces of ourselves would elude the statement. It really has more to do with being and maybe that’s the part we can shape but never fully see. It doesn’t get any better than sailing through the unknown with the ones you love.