Shifting Sands of Identity

I suppose I should give some context for this. I went to see the great Neil Gaiman give a talk this weekend. He is one of my very favorite authors as well as one of my most favorite people. Only the tiniest amount of my affection for him spawns from the fact that he is in an open relationship with his wife Amanda Palmer. So much about what he said resonated deeply with me and the person I want to be. It was a lovely mixture of him reading from his book Trigger Warning, telling some stories from his life, and answering some submitted fan questions.

One of his stories he read was a piece he wrote for his friend Ray Bradbury on his 90th (or perhaps it was his 91st) birthday. The story was called “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury.” Gaiman admitted that at the time of writing the piece, he was working through “what was happening” to his close friend Terry Pratchett, who was on the decline from Alzheimer’s. My own grandfather is currently suffering a similar fate. The story was a beautifully simple one about losing chunks of your memory like one loses things to an inconsiderate roommate; you notice most the empty hole where that thing has been, and you hope that all you’ve lost are the things whose holes you’ve bothered to notice.

The story got me thinking about the nature of identity. I think of my child self as a sponge, a sort of proto-me who was tasked with the collection of the chunks that I’d later use to piece together my identity.  As a teenager, I was very self aware of the changes my body and mind were undergoing and the chaos ensuing inside. I remember becoming irrationally upset at a small hiccups. I logically knew that, say, my friend forgetting to call was not a thing to cry over. But cry I did with reckless abandon. Emotions came too strongly and too quickly to really do much about. All the carefully stacked ingredients I’d gathered were swept up in the sandstorm of hormones and reactions and self doubt. It was all I could do to judge myself against the others around me in an attempt to re-orient myself. This, it turns out, didn’t lead to much substance.

Even through college, it was tempting to let yourself be defined by your “one thing.” I could let others see me as the “sorority girl” or the “college radio DJ,” the “tutor of underprivileged students” or the “library worker.” The worst offender was college major. It’s the first question asked in every class, club meeting, and party. And mine changed. Not once or twice either. I just couldn’t figure out my thing. The thing that would sum me up to whatever inquiring mind wished to know me. Even my ethnic name offered an identity that my pale, freckled face and red hair could not fit.

I suppose this is why, when I figured out my bisexuality, I was okay with it being my “thing.” At least for a while. Though it is one simple word and in theory a simple concept, it feels like it envelopes the part of me that can’t quite be pinned down. It’s about finally being comfortable not fitting into the box of heteronormativity or even monosexuality. But it’s not quite right either.

I want a moment to appreciate the labels. Yes, they can be used for bad. Used as a shortcut to “know” how another will act or look. But they can be incredibly validating as well. For me, it was about choosing a label for my identity, but knowing that the label can mean completely different things for different people, and knowing that the label doesn’t define every aspect of your life. It isn’t a shortcut to knowing who I am, though it is woven into my being.

My identity has been feeling more and more like it’s moving under me. Like it’s always in flux. I can look back at the choices I’ve made from even two years ago and feel completely alien to the person who made them. I try to grasp onto any constants I have, but I get that terrifying sink that you get in a dream where you want to run but you just…can’t. Once you’ve figured out the landscape of the dunes, they’re blown into a new configuration, sometimes with some new bits revealed under those same old grains.

And what’s the point of trying all that hard, really, when it can all be ripped from your mind by time or disease or even death? When you’re done chasing the answer through life and the shifting sands underneath your feet has been blown away, what do you have left to define yourself by? Does it matter? Does it matter that you spent your life carefully choosing this label or that to package yourself up in?

Maybe that high school version of me had one thing right. Maybe it does matter how you relate to others. After you’re gone, after all, how will anyone know you if you haven’t told them, through words or through actions? In Gaiman’s story, the protagonist theorizes that God tasks each person with remembering one thing. Each person is in charge of that one bit of knowledge so that nothing is lost. But our man, losing bits of his memory, is worried that he’s gone and forgotten his piece. He remembers around it; he remembers a tale about the burning of books and the importance of the knowledge within. But he just can’t remember that name, the name he knows he’s always had right there amidst that cluster of information. If Bradbury hadn’t gone and written that story in his head or put a title to that book, the name would be all there was to remember (and later, to forget).

Perhaps, then, identity is an action. It lives beneath your skin, but can only be defined by how it works on the world around it. It doesn’t matter who we love, but how we love. The impact on others is all that will be left once our brains stop reminding us of who we’ve decided to be. In all honesty, that’s part of the reason I write this. To remind myself of the person I am at twenty-three. It’s the same reason I journaled throughout my childhood and teenage years, and why I regret not writing anything other than papers in college. If identity is a thing you do, I hope I’m doing it right. I hope that continuing to try to scoop and define and package it on the inside translates to some good on the outside. I guess I’ll just have to keep doing it to find out.