And it was a pretty big one. I was attending a lovely dinner and salon given by the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Attending were board members from ACA, supporters of the Center, current artists in residents there to talk about their work. It was a satisfying evening that mixed good food, good company, and a good cause.
At dinner, I was seated with a pleasant older couple. As a conversation starter, I asked them about their affiliation with ACA, and they explained their work over the years on the board. Then, of course, the question came back to me. When the man asked me what I do, without blinking an eye, I said I teach at Rollins College. He was, of course, delighted to hear this. He’s a long-time Winter Park resident. His son graduated from Rollins with a degree in economics. They were fans of Rollins. And without my saying another word, I watched my new-found friend shift me into a new category, one that said “This woman is a highly acceptable dinner partner, a person of substance, a significant member of this community, and a most appropriate guest at an event focusing on the arts.”
I could feel myself basking in the glow of his regard. I felt solid and clearly identified with good work in the world. I could feel the array of assumptions tumbling out onto the table by virtue of my answer to his simple question, “What do you do?”
We all do it, don’t we? We sum up people by “what they do.” My moment of glory was just that, momentary. For as the words came out of my mouth I knew what I was doing. I was lying. Flat out lying to protect myself. Because the truth is, of course, no longer am I a full professor at Rollins College. I have willing stepped away from that comfortable and prestigious role. But last night was the first time I experienced this fact in a public way: I am no longer a full-time member of that academic community, and thus no longer tidily categorized.
So how do I answer the question now? I refuse to say I am retired, because I’m not retired. I am still teaching a writing course each term. I am still doing workshops for writers and creatives. I coach people interested in exploring and ramping up their creative life. And I am pursuing my passion of practicing and teaching yoga. But how to put all of those endeavors into a tidy container? What do I call myself?
I realized how easily the question of what one does glides into the question of what we are. My dinner companions immediately gave me virtues that I may or may not have just because I said I was a professor at Rollins. Do I still possess those virtues now that I’ve left academic life? What am I now, I thought as I walked back to my car after dinner. How do I give the elevator speech about what I do? For a while, I considered the term “creative technician of the soul.” Sounds kind of audacious, I know, but the truth is, every part of my current work pursues the big soul-level questions: are you awake? are you real? are you doing what you were created to do? But such a label doesn’t fly at a dinner party. Surefire way to clear the table.
I see how important well-designed business cards are to free-lance teachers like me. They’re small documents that label clearly and succinctly what you do, if not who you are. Mine might say: “Lezlie guides people to the art and the life they were born to create.” Maybe I can call myself an artistic mid-wife. That’s pretty much it, isn’t it? It isn’t a conventional job, nor is it a business endeavor that allows people to grasp quickly what kind of person I am. And that’s the heart of this exploration, when people ask you what you do, at some level, what they’re also asking is who you are. What are you dedicated to? What container do you exist in that holds the values by which you live? And to make things easier for us, we put labels on containers, don’t we? And we’re slightly leery of containers with no label. We often discard them.
So I’m working on this. It’s early in my new phase of life. I’ll get back to you with a snazzy business card.
And how about you? How do you identify yourself these days? Do you find yourself relying an an easy label that props you up in the world and makes you feel good? (As I did at my dinner party.) Or maybe the language you use to describe yourself serves others who need to place you into a category built of their own assumptions and perceptions. How much worth do you put in labels?
Do you claim your deepest identity, or have you relied over the years on a tidy label that doesn’t disrupt conversation too drastically? How often do you say what you are instead of what you do?
Good questions from LifeArt! Studio. I hope I’ve raised your awareness of how we unconsciously use our labels to protect ourselves.
Have an artful day, no matter who you are today!