Posts Tagged ‘identity’

Losing It



It was a tiny percentage, I knew, but still

there was some French royalty somewhere

in my blood. I would spend hours imagining

myself in my proper place: in a long pink dress


and thin gold crown in a castle on a green hillside,

doing needlepoint, no doubt, and nibbling bon bons,

and so when I again asked my mother to tell me about

that part of our heritage, she told me,


It’s so little blood, and you’ve had so many

skinned knees, I’m pretty sure you’ve

bled it all out by now. And I was instantly

less grandiose. That was, perhaps, the first identity


that I was aware of losing. But soon after that,

I was no longer blonde. And soon after that,

I no longer lived in Wisconsin. And soon after that,

I was no longer a Scout. Everything I thought


I knew about myself didn’t last. Ah,

the litany of losses. Those notions of who we are,

how they shed, they spill, they slip off.

As they’re lost, we usually rush to replace them.


I became worker. Lover. Parent. Friend.

We wear them so close, these identities ,

that we no longer see them as separate. We think

they’re who we are. But what if we skinned


not just our knees, but our thoughts,

and let those roles escape? Who would

be left to walk through the field this evening

to see the double rainbow stretched across the east?



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I resist any kind of discourse that anchors itself in identity and proceeds from there. As I said before, I want to get behind categorical distinctions and find and work with what human beings share and how, potentially, people can coexist in a world that is extraordinarily diverse.

            —Michael D. Jackson, “The Politics of Storytelling” in the Harvard Divinity School News



At first we just say flower. How

thrilling it is to name. Then it’s

aster. Begonia. Chrysanthemum.


We spend our childhood learning

to separate one thing from another.

Daffodil. Edelweiss. Fern. We learn


which have five petals, which have six.

We say, “This is a gladiolus, this hyacinth.”

And we fracture the world into separate


identities. Iris. Jasmine. Lavender.

Divorcing the world into singular bits.

And then, when we know how to tell


one thing from another, perhaps

at last we feel the tug to see not

what makes things different, but


what makes things the same. Perhaps

we feel the pleasure that comes

when we start to blur the lines—


and once again everything

is flower, and by everything,

I mean everything.




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I had worn it so long, that mask,

I didn’t notice it no longer fit.

In fact, I didn’t notice I wore it at all.

Every day I woke up wearing the mask.

I wore it all day, then returned to bed wearing

the mask. I don’t even remember putting it on,

what, was it as a child? Slowly, we come

to take habit as truth. Besides, on the outside,

it was pretty enough. Placid and happy.

It was only today I noticed how on the inside,

the mask had hair of snakes, how I was being

surely turned to stone. I did not want

to break the mask. I did not know

what the face beneath it might be.

I was afraid to not like what I saw.

There is a call to be ruthless, our hands

rising to do what must be done,

though some voice we thought

was our own shouts at us to stop.

And there is another voice. Perhaps

you’ve heard it, too. I notice

it’s easier to hear it when the mask

isn’t covering my ears. It’s strange

today to walk down the street.

I don’t know what I might say.

I don’t know what I might do.

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Waking Up Grateful

You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one

—Philip Levine, “Our Valley”

I am not your land. Not your woman, either.
Not your girl, not your scapegoat, not your Juliet.
I can’t be mapped, can’t be trapped, can’t be pinned.
Can’t be bought, can’t be caught, can’t be won.
But here I am, open handed, and here
you are. I don’t know this valley,
though I’ve walked it many times.
Let’s learn it again together. This time on our knees.

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While the moon watcher stands
out on the porch in her towel
and stares at the almost full moon,

the practical one starts to fuss
about how she’ll catch cold with wet hair,
and the list maker is already thinking

of all the things to be done
when she gets back inside,
“Like go check on your kids

to be sure they’re asleep,” says the mother,
and that’s when the laid-back one says,
“Oh relax, they’re fine, drink some wine,”

and the optimist notes what a sparkling
night it is, how the snow in the field
has never, ever been so luminous,

and the pleaser agrees with her
and says, “Never, ever so luminous,
you’re so right, oh it’s beautiful out here,”

at which the budding wise ass says,
“You’ve seen one moon, you’ve seen ’em all,”
and moon watcher almost sticks out her tongue,

but that is not like her, not like her at all,
and she marvels at the impulse, how it seemed
to rise out of nowhere, just like that gorgeous

enormous shining orb. “Oh yes,” says the scientist,
“Did you know that the moon’s surface
has exceptionally low albedo, giving it a reflectance

only slightly brighter than that of worn asphalt,”
and that’s when the reporter jumps in and begins
to take notes. And the little girl says, “There’s a bunny

in there, do you see it, do you see it tilting on its side,”
and the lover, feeling lonely, wishes she had someone
with her to watch the shining moon as it slides

all the way across the visible sky, somehow
never noticing all that company she’s keeping
on this luminous, cold night.

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What Matters

in empty branches
the red-wing blackbirds
chirrup and trill—
is she a woman who is listening to them
if so, she has, for now at least, forgotten

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Do not say she is beautiful.
Say she is the engine, the fuel,
the rubber tires, the race itself.
Say she is the handle of the drawer,
the door’s brass knob, the lock unlocked.

Say she’s the path. The steepest road.
The cold when the sun goes down.
Tell her she is the infinite dark,
the orbiting moon, an eagle,
the relentless wind.

Say she’s galoshes, a garage door, the faint
scent of rain. The barren winter.
The nothing you can’t quite touch.
But do not say she is beautiful.
She’ll come to crave such dross.

Tell her she’s the twisted twig,
the beacon at the bay, the river’s
song when it meets a rock, the fog,
the leaping wild rose that blooms
and thrives any damn where it pleases.

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He Wants to See My Photo ID

I do not tell him that the woman
in the photo, who looks just like me,
only 12 years younger, does not exist.
She is smiling in the way that only
a woman who has not yet had children
can smile. She knows nothing yet
of how desperate she will become,
how she will lie, how she’ll tell the truth,
how she’ll lose her sense of worth and
replace it with, well, it’s impossible to say.
So instead, when he says, “Is this you,”
I say, “Yes, travelling to Chicago today.”

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In a snowstorm, the yaks know to huddle together,
calves in the center. They press the bulk of their bodies so close
to each other that their breath forms a column of visible steam.

Elsewhere, in burrowed colonies, the yellow jackets
work in concert to forage for food, to feed the larvae,
to expand the nest and defend the queen.

It’s hardwired in us, this will to survive. Just look
at the yucca with its cascade of lemony petals
surrounded by tough, sword-shaped leaves.

Just look at you. Just look at me. See how we
like to hide behind our identities—lover,
loner, baker, runner, singer, prayer, biker, child.

As if we could use the list of our interests
and roles as a shield against our greatest fear—
the fear that we don’t know what we are doing here.

So we shout to each other like yodelers—here I am,
this is me, who are you? And we hold up invisible yardsticks
to ourselves, to each other, in an effort to learn our value.

And our egos rise and fall like yoyos in the hands
of a child who’s just learning to play. We think we’re someone.
We fear that we’re not. And what are we doing here anyway?

Is this why some choose solitude? Choose to live
beyond the shoulds and masks? Live like the yeti—
unknowable, unseeable, known only by stories and tracks?

Today, the hummingbirds are gone, and the waterfall is thin
in its plunge. The hours are warm though the sun is low—
and I can’t say that I know what we’re doing here,

but I think it has something to do with noticing the missing birds
and the thin waterfall and the timber in your voice when you tell me
you don’t know who you are. Me neither, friend, but whatever I am

fell in love with the way that the first morning sun today glanced
the frosted grass, and I could see dozens of columns of steam rise across
the whole field before the yellow jackets emerged from their nest.

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Keep pushing me, children.
Find everything I think I know
and tell me why it isn’t true.
Discover what makes me scream
and do it.
Do it again.

I never expected that being a mother
was more about losing my identity
and less about shaping yours.
You already know who you are.
That’s good.
Because someday when you have
your own children, you’ll get
to run into all of your “I would nevers”
and let them shake you.

But there is one thing you must always do.
Brush your teeth.
And then, when it rises up in you,
and only because you want to,
hug me, and tell me
that you love me.

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