When I was in first grade I learned how labels can become identity. This is pretty simple stuff. I just didn’t figure it out until I was 50.
Label – to describe somebody using a particular word or phrase
Identity – the sense of self, providing sameness and continuity in personality over time
At age 6, I won a creative writing and art award and afterward, was encouraged to enter every competition that came along. I became known as the kid who could draw and write. There was no pressure, and especially not from home, but my friends and teachers were on to me. If the bulletin board needed new artwork, or if something needed to be drawn, or someone needed a catchy slogan or poem, I was called upon.
These were labels. They became my identity. I am a writer and artist.
Many times we think of labels in a negative light, but labels can also be good. Having these positive labels gave me a sense of pride and made me want to be my best at “what I was.”
There were lesser known dreams that I was allowed to visit in my young life through some great, and not so great experiences. I wanted to have horses and work with animals. I wanted to dance. I wanted to act. I wanted to be an archeologist.
Our family friends who had a small ranch south of Nashville kept a pony for me. They said it was mine, but I was no fool and figured they told all visiting kids this same story. Still, it was great to have a pony in my life for a while.
When I was 15, I was allowed to work on an archeological site one summer. It only took a few 100 degree days in the scorching sun, no shade, no potty, and the realization that I really did need to know math, for me to decide I shouldn’t follow the archeology dream.
My acting career began in the first grade Christmas play. I can still remember my line:
“My doll is a big doll, with lots of clothes to wear!”
My poor mother spent days and days trying to find clothes to fit that giant doll.
The night of the play, I was awestruck by GSK, when he sang Away in the Manger. I mean, my gosh, the boy knew ALL 27 verses. (Honestly, I think there are only a few, but still!) It was so quiet on stage and in the auditorium, and GSK’s voice was so peaceful and calming.
That was until I dropped my big doll.
I just let her go and she fell, face down on the stage with a noise that threatened the lives of any attendees with cardiac issues. I think 2 kids sitting next to me wet their pants.
You’d think I’d hang it up after that, right? Well, I couldn’t. All those great plays that my parents took me to as a child gave me the fever.
In high school, I was cast in the Sound of Music as a nun. I did my gorilla imitation for the junior play. And for the theater art’s play, I was one of King Henry’s wives.
All was going well until a fly landed on my friend’s upper lip while she was reciting a most serious line. Hard to watch with her nose and mouth twitching like that, and that darn fly just hanging around.Needless to say, none of us playing King Henry’s 6 wives went on to become famous actresses. It was the fly’s fault!
Still not quite giving up, I was cast as an extra in 2 movies being filmed in Nashville. One was such a flop that I can’t remember the name. My role consisted of strolling in front of the camera. I made $25.00 for the day. The next film, I played a groupie in the Coalminer’s Daughter. The highlight was chatting with some actor no one had heard of at the time named Tommy Lee Jones. (Who knew ???) I was there about 12 hours, and if you pause the bus scene, and look very closely, one of those arms in the air is mine.
I took dance lessons for a few years. I quit after the recital at the War Memorial Auditorium where my tap shoe came untied, flew off my foot in mid shuffle-ball-change and landed in someone’s lap on the second row.(Thank God I didn’t kill anyone.)
Keep in mind I had just totally muffed a talent show at my elementary school where I got a bad case of nerves, forgot all but the first segment of my routine, and did my best improvisational move by doing the same steps over and over again until the music stopped.
Well, that was my plan.
Too bad the record got stuck.
This earned me the name, “Twinkle Toes,” a label it took me approximately 2 years to shed.
Thankfully, I had my art and words to fall back on. My classmates asked me to draw things for them. This was in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s so I drew my share of mod flowers, paisleys and zodiac signs. I took up my Dad’s work as a photographer, had my first paid/professional job my senior year of high school, and this also became a part of who I was.
When I was 17, I received my first writing assignment. (It was a review of a Bruce Springsteen concert. Not a bad gig at all!) Fresh out of high school I worked as an artist for a screen printing company by day, while I studied photography by night. For a while I was still photographer for the then, brand new and now defunct Nashville Network. By the time I was married, I was working as a medical photographer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Blood and guts photography…oh my. (I only fainted 2 times, but I’ll save that for another story.)
In between, I’ve taught art and I’ve had various things published – articles, a book, poems, photography for books, album covers and magazines, and I’ve done many photo gigs for record labels.
Still, there have been many jobs along the way that had nothing to do with writing or art or photography. The hardest part of these jobs was feeling like I was losing what I claimed as my identity.
Fast forward. Presently I am working at a fine university again. I came into this job kicking and screaming. I was convinced that the economy would turn, people would once again hire artists and photographers, I’d get another book published, and I would be out of here in a matter of days. Well, the days turned into weeks, then months, and I’ve been here 5 years now. It took me a while, but I finally came to realize that this job does not define me. It is not my identity. It’s not who I am. It’s just what I do for a living. Since I’ve accepted this, I am more at peace. And my job offers me great benefits for which I am very grateful.
I miss my freedom and the freelance lifestyle I was so lucky to have had before. It afforded me to be home with Punky most of the time. As an infant she would nap in the corner of my darkroom while I developed film and made prints.
She went on several photo shoots with me. She was a member of the art camp I taught for a couple of summers. She learned to tip toe around me when I was working on writing projects.
Part of Punky’s story is the fact that she is adopted. Not only adopted, but she’s labeled as mixed and was adopted by 2 white parents. (This labels our family as transracial.) It’s a very large part of her identity, but it’s not who she is. She is so much more, and I know that she knows this. She sings, she dances, she acts, she writes, she is an artist and photographer, she is a great friend to her friends, and she is very, very witty.
What I love about seeing my child go to college and explore the big world is knowing that in these 4 years she will discover things that she didn’t know about herself, and will find interests that she has never thought of before.
I have been Punky’s mom for over 18 years. It is part of who I am. The role has changed over the years of growth and maturity. It started out when she could not help herself and I fed her and bathed her and held her. As her life evolved, so did mine. She needed me less and less as each stage came and went. She needed me in different ways on different days. Eventually, after learning to walk and feed and talk and reason I was only there for support.
And a ride.
Soon, she was driving. Now she is in college, far away. Does she still need me? I’d like to think so. Not on a daily basis, not in the ways she needed me before. Does this mean I have lost my identity as a mother? No. I will always be Punky’s Mom.
We will forever be evolving and growing and finding ourselves and our identity throughout this life. It’s akin to reinventing yourself over and over again. But some things stick forever, like our spirit, our personality, our wit. These are really and truly how we will be remembered. What provides sameness and continuity in personality over time.
Support your loved ones as they find themselves. Enjoy your own journey.