The Ring of Power

I was on the phone when my six-year-old ran into the room, grabbed my hand, and began working my wedding ring off my finger. Once he’d wiggled it free, he looked up at me and grinned conspiratorially then put it on and hid behind the bed.

This has been happening for the past week or so and is a symptom of the Lord of the Rings mania that’s gripped him since we read the books together (and pointedly did not watch the movies). Apparently, my wedding ring is the Ring of Power, and he uses it to turn invisible at bedtime and cleanup time.

When I asked him why it is I don’t turn invisible when I wear it, he said in what I think was supposed to be a British accent, “It only works with its true ownah.”

But I wonder sometimes if my wedding ring really does make me invisible, or at least makes it possible for me to be invisible. We’re past the era of me being “Mrs. Husband’s Name.” My spouse and I both hyphenated our names, each taking the other’s last name and tacking it to our own, but people generally attribute my original last name to him, leaving me essentially invisible name-wise despite the hyphen.

And although I could easily fall back on the “Mrs. Husband’s Name” formality or take my spouse’s last name in a non-hyphenated form, our marriage allows me to be invisible in other ways.

I can let my spouse’s name be the only one on our utility bills and on our mortgage, making me largely invisible to creditors.

As a stay-at-home parent, I am invisible in the work world.

People in some of our social circles see us as such a package deal that they talk to one of us as a representative of both, and because my spouse is taller, louder, male, and more approachable (he smiles more and doesn’t scowl when he’s thinking), he’s usually the one who gets talked to.

Mostly, this is more an asset than a liability. Every time someone asks the question about which superpower you’d prefer—flight, x-ray vision, or invisibility—I always pick invisibility. I prefer to be anonymous most of the time. I prefer to let my words speak for themselves without my name and personality attached. I prefer to be able to leave when I want to and have people walk past me when they’re looking to gossip or engage in political machinations.

I actively do not want to be famous. If I’m known, I want to be quietly known as someone solid, someone who can be depended upon, and as someone who cares more about outcome than about getting credit.

Until my wedding ring became the Ring of Power, it didn’t occur to me that by marrying I’d actually facilitated this invisibility.

I don’t think it works the same way for my spouse. His visibility doesn’t seem affected at all by our marriage. If anything, he’s got more piled onto his identity, carrying me and our kids in addition to his career.

I wonder how this works in same-sex marriages. Is there always an invisible spouse and a visible spouse? Is this a male-female dynamic, or just intrinsic to coupled relationships? Or maybe it only happens in relationships like mine in which one party is happy being invisible.

What do you think? Is there an invisible/visible dynamic in your relationship? If so, to what do you attribute it—individual personality/preference, societal expectations, or something else?

Who Am I?

“Who am I?” I asked myself again and again during the weekend meditation retreat I attended in August.

It was the first time I had been away from my five-year-old son overnight. For two nights I slept in a twin bed in a single dorm room, alone for the first time in nearly a decade.

“Who am I without my children; without my husband?”

For a whole weekend, I had no responsibilities except showing up for my one-hour daily “yogi job” shift, washing dinner dishes or chopping vegetables. With everyone else, I listened to the bells telling us where to go and when, and followed the sound. We were encouraged to seek refuge in the buddha, the dharma, the sangha. I’d been seeking refuge but not in any of those things. For a whole weekend, I was not defined by what I spent my time doing.

“Who am I without my roles: wife, mother, daughter, friend, homeschooler?”

We maintained noble silence, refraining from talking, reading, writing, nonverbal communication, and eye contact until Sunday afternoon. I sat silent in a room with 96 other silent people. I walked the grounds with 96 other silent walkers, silently greeting the same holly leaf every time I returned to the hedge. Pacing slowly across the lawn and back, we looked like disoriented zombies.

“Who am I without my voice?”

I sat in hour after hour of meditation, feeling my presence in the breath tickling the back of my throat, in the movement of my digestive tract. In spite of the pain burning along my spine, I fell asleep sitting up. I had moments-long dreams, strange visions that seemed strangely real, and caught myself before falling over. The breeze from the window raised goosebumps along the left side of my body.

Here I am, I thought. But—

“Who am I?”

In my room, a familiar face looked back at me from the mirror above my sink.

“Who are you?” she asked.

I had no answer.

And that was okay.




The post that helped me actually go to my retreat after I’d signed up for it:

A Writer By Any Other Name

When people ask me, “What do you do?” I get all squirmy inside. I should really come up with a technically true but nevertheless evasive answer, like, “I develop and implement curricula for children learning outside the traditional classroom setting.” Or I could go with, “I read and write reviews about the classics of western literature,” or, “I spend my days repeating tasks only for them to be undone so they can be repeated again.”

Back in my college days and in my early 20’s, I would say with confidence, “I’m a writer.” In our writing classes, we were encouraged to say this as a kind of affirmation. “I am a writer!” And if I didn’t completely believe it, the evidence supported the claim. I wrote every day and then I workshopped my writing with other self-proclaimed writers. I did public readings and published my poetry and prose, if only in the campus literary magazine. The future was ahead of me. Surely I was destined to be published widely and appreciated in my own time.

These days—post-corporate career, post-self employment, post-birth and breastfeeding—I answer with only feigned confidence. “I’m a writer.” The response I used to get was, “Oh? What do you write?” to which I would answer, “Creative nonfiction, mostly personal essays, but I also write short stories and I’m working on a novel.” I could still use this answer because it’s all still true, but now the question is different. It’s changed from, “What do you write?” to “What have you written?”

I’m not sure when or why this shift happened, but I suspect it’s because the wrinkles around my eyes and the silver highlights in my hair mark me as someone who has had ample time to achieve at least some of her youthful ambitions.

It seems a particularly cruel question, but I doubt it’s intended that way. I should, I guess, take it as a compliment. I seem so capable and well-spoken, the questioner just assumes that if they’ve not seen my name on a book cover or in the byline of an article in The New Yorker, it’s the result of their own oversight.

I could just tell them, “I blog,” but I hate to disappoint them. Or perhaps it’s less about disappointing them than admitting that blogging isn’t really what I intended back when I first called myself a writer. It exposes the doubt I feel when I claim that I’m a writer.

But just like in college, the evidence supports my claim. I write every day. I give occasional public readings, primarily in front of my UU congregation. I even publish my writing, albeit in a venue that doesn’t involve getting past editorial gatekeepers.

In her book Writing the Sacred Journey, Elizabeth Andrew refers to writers who write because “writing brings them nearer to the ineffable essence of life.” I write for this reason, and I think this is why I’ve always written. I write for connection. To paraphrase Andrew, I write because it helps me birth myself. I write because I just do. If life tossed me a Robinson Crusoe and I was alone with little hope of ever seeing another human much less signing a book for them, I would still write.

I suppose if I wanted to stifle any follow-up questions about what I do, I could go with, “I write to birth myself.” It’s true, but it’s just not what people think of when someone says, “I’m a writer.” But for me, at least, I think it’s the part that has to come first. If I write from my heart and write the truth—even if it’s fictional—and that leads me to a life that looks more like what people think of as the life of a writer, with book signings and publicity tours and a Wikipedia entry with my name on it, then that’s fantastic.

But if not, I’m still a writer.

Evidence: A pile of completed notebooks. (Not pictured: everything on my hard-drive, nearly 1,000 blog posts (and 100's more on my other blogs, past and present), and dozens of other notebooks.)
Evidence: A pile of completed notebooks. (Not pictured: everything on my hard-drive, nearly 1,000 blog posts (and 100’s more on my other blogs, past and present), and dozens of other notebooks.)

Possession Identity

“Between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine the line is difficult to draw. We feel and act about certain things that are ours very much as we feel and act about ourselves.”

 William James

This is today’s Moment of Happiness from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.

I remember times in my life when my sense of identity was very much tied up with objects.

My first car was a 1983 Volvo 240DL wagon. My parents had bought it new when I was 6 years old and I remembered how huge the backseat had seemed and how smooth the vinyl upholstery was under my legs. I learned to drive on that car (and I taught my husband how to drive stick on it) and it just kind of became mine during my sophomore year of college. That car was blue, and she was boxy. She handled like crap in the snow (rear-wheel drive), and I could fit an entire full-size mattress in the trunk if I put the back seat down. Two friends and I slept in the back when we went to Halloween at Ohio University one year because we were afraid we’d be puked on if we slept in the house where we were staying.  When I sold that car, I cried.

In college, there was a professor who was trying to quit smoking by only buying cigarettes one at a time for a quarter each from the smokers clustered outside the academic buildings before and after classes. One day, I was smoking with a couple of other people before Brit Lit when this professor came out of the building, surveying the scene.

“Ah!” he said when he saw me. “A Camel smoker!”

I traded him a smoke for a quarter and thought to myself, “A Camel smoker…yes, that’s what I am.”

I’ve not smoked in 15 years and it’s been nearly 10 years since I said farewell to that Volvo. I think I’ve loosened my attachment to things in the intervening years, but when I give up clothes or when I consider buying a different car (I’m still driving the car that replaced the Volvo, by the way), I still think, “Who am I if I don’t wear this item, if I don’t drive this car?”

In a slight shift from that, as a mother, I realize I’ve begun to base my identity on my relationship with my children. While one could argue that defining oneself by one’s relationships to living people is perhaps a little healthier than defining oneself by the brand of cigarettes one smokes (for more reasons than one), it still doesn’t take into account who I am on my own (or, for that matter, who my children are separate from me).

Who are we on our own, unattached to people or things? Is this why we cling so tenaciously to possessions and people and social media? Are we afraid of who we’ll meet when we’re all alone in the quiet? Is that what I’m afraid of?

You Don’t Own Me, I Don’t Own Me: Identity and Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me

Look at MeLook at Me by Jennifer Egan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved the beginning of this book, but once she started getting into the “Ordinary People” reality TV/social networking thing, I started to find it boring.

Egan’s style reminds me of Ann Packer to a degree, but this might be just because I read Look at Me immediately after two of Packer’s books. The difference I see with Egan is in the action of the story. Her plots seem to follow a more fanciful direction. The second half of this book actually kind of reminded me of P.K. Dick (not sure if anyone else would see the similarity and I’m not sure I can explain it adequately, or if there’s really much overlap between Egan and P.K. Dick readers, but that’s what “Ordinary People” put me in mind of).

The characters in this story all go through or have gone through a “before and after” kind of experience, several of them more than one. Egan seems to be questioning the very nature of personal identity. What does it mean to each of us to be “me”? Am I identified by how I look, by what I do or have done, by what I own? If one or more of these things changes, am I still “me”?

I also found the public persona/private persona question Egan raises fascinating. If we reveal all of ourselves in a reality TV/blogging/social networking realm (note that this book was published in 2001, before most of that, except reality TV. I agree with other reviewers and am impressed with Egan’s prescience), when do we stop being “me”? On the flip side, if we keep everything about ourselves a secret and jump to another identity as soon as we begin to make a connection with others, do we have any more control of our identities? In the case of both extremes, we can lose ourselves, in one case belonging to everyone else and in the other belonging to no one because we are invisible.

It’s caused me to wonder if I might want to change the nature of the information I share on my blog and social media. When I share personal feelings and details about my life, am I sharing myself? And if so, am I losing myself in the process?

The other question this book left me with: Do people really have that much sex?

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