The Double Identity

“You are a citizen of the world, that’s all you are.” –Carrie Fountain

Well, I graduated. Six years is what it took, amidst a plethora of self-doubt, several military moves, a spouse’s deployment, childbirth, an international adoption, and the nitty gritty of daily living. I am very grateful to have attended my commencement ceremony in San Diego last week. I am grateful for the many people who have made this possible, the support of my husband, parents, professors, my thesis mentor, and my friends who cheered me on along the way.

Over the past couple months, I’ve been ruminating over the big question that haunts most graduates’ minds: Now What? Part of the pressure I felt as a new MFA graduate was that in order to feed my writing, I also needed to teach writing, or do some sort of job in the publishing/editing world. I think this pressure started to emerge as a result of reading the bios of other published poets, as it seemed that a vast majority of them taught creative writing in universities. I suppose it’s easy to deduce that in order to be a successful writer, one must also have a job in academia.

Then I came across an informative interview with poet and attorney, Amy Woolard, which was published in The Atlantic. The interview explores what the writing life might look for someone who chooses a day job unrelated to the writing world, and it freed me up to start thinking outside of the box.

One of my favorite contemporary poets, Carrie Fountain, also gave a fantastic interview with The New Orleans Review, in which she discusses a lot of these issues. It’s as though she plucked the thoughts right out of my head:

It’s very hard after you graduate, figuring out who you are, who you were, who you want to be. I think that many of us are still figuring that out, outside the universities where theoretically we would be teaching poetry, teaching writing for the rest of our careers, and publishing books. I’m still trying to figure out what I am. What I am during the day…and what I am at night? Then there are all these other complications–such as, what I am is a mom. And a wife…

So, in some ways it’s easier to define oneself in a creative writing program. But I think what Charles Wright is trying to say is that what really matters is what you do after the reality of things settles in. Because that’s what you gotta do. You gotta keep writing. Wallace Stevens. William Carlos Williams. They weren’t teaching poetry. Their daytime lives belied their identities as master poets…

And that can be valuable. And it doesn’t take away. Your identity as the development person at a nonprofit does not take away from your identity as a poet. It only enriches it. You’re a citizen of the world, that’s all you are. It doesn’t make you any less of a poet that you’re not teaching poetry…What matters is that you sit down and you keep writing. That’s all that matters. 

Over the past month, I’ve been looking for jobs, applying, and interviewing. It’s been a challenging process, mentally and emotionally, to make myself vulnerable to the scrutiny of the real world after camping out under the umbrella of “stay-at-home-mom” and “grad student” for the past six years. How on earth can I market myself? Am I still even an actual human being? (I have actually thought that.) Nothing had knocked the confidence out of me quite like staying home to raise my family, I am sad to say.

Long story short, after much prayer, deliberating, seeking the counsel of friends and family, I decided to return to work as an RN, and I am very thankful to share that I was offered and accepted a job as an operating room nurse at a surgery center close to my home and my children’s schools. I am very excited for what this next chapter will bring as I transition from mom/student to mom/nurse/writer. It’s a double identity, or maybe a triple identity, and I’m learning to live with that in-betweenness.

I have struggled with the belief that in order to be successful at one thing, you need to dedicate every morsel of your energy to just that one thing–to put your eggs in one basket, so to speak–to form and uphold one identity. But we are many things, many selves, and it seems that the relationship between the roles we play exist in a realm beyond our own understanding, or at least, beyond my understanding. What I do know is that my roles as wife, mom, nurse, and writer are all connected, just as all of life is connected, just as the world speaks a common truth through a variety of means and measures. In the end, I am just a citizen of the world, and perhaps it is that simple.

Do you have multiple identities? What are they? How do they relate or connect to each other?

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reaching

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For me, life has been a process of elimination, a process of trying on different identities that didn’t fit before finally returning to one that did. Like a piece of art, you don’t always know who you are until you figure out who you are not.

Perhaps some of us must embark on long detours before we finally return to ourselves. The beautiful thing is that we often return changed, wiser and more mature than before, more confident in who we are meant to be.

I found a few of my old sketchbooks this week. They’ve been hidden in a dark hallway closet since our last move. I dusted them off and sharpened my old charcoal pencils, which still work well after ten years of dormancy. I also came across the sketch above, which I must have drawn sometime in college.

I suppose that the truest things about ourselves have been true along.

Life is a process of reaching out and returning to ourselves, over and over again.

small talk

Our recent move to Virginia has provided numerous opportunities for one of my least favorite things: small talk. Whether it’s meeting people at church, establishing care with a new doctor, attending a gathering with other adoptive families, or chatting with a neighbor down the street, there are those obligatory conversations you get through in order to establish relationship and connection. One of the classic small-talk questions people ask me:

Do you work or are you a stay at home mom?

I typically mention that I stay at home with my kids and that I used to be an operating room nurse in the Air Force. One thing leads to another, and then it comes up that I’m also working on my MFA in Creative Writing.

This is the moment in the conversation when some people begin to look puzzled and make various comments that all communicate a similar message:

Those things don’t fit together. 

These encounters usually leave me feeling like a cluster of fragmented pieces that don’t fit together, a conundrum of opposing and conflicting ambitions and desires. One of my neighbors once responded, “Wow, nursing and creative writing? You must have really strong and opposing parts of your personality.” In between the lines, I have started to wonder if I made a mistake somewhere.

Art has always felt like home to me, whether it’s writing a poem or painting a picture. My sketch pads and journals have been a consistent place of refuge and rejuvenation. Growing up, my spirit felt at rest each time I stepped foot in an art studio, amongst the charcoal and paint chips and still life displays. In college, I toyed with the idea of majoring in studio art, but decided to take the more “practical, reliable, sensible, and noble” route. I chose nursing instead.

I don’t know if this is a generational or a cultural pressure, or perhaps a bit of both, but it seems that there is some unspoken yet pervading idea that choosing a career in the arts is indulgent, impractical, bohemian, and narcissistic. It’s okay to indulge your creative side every once in while, perhaps as a hobby, but to make it your profession is assuming and irresponsible. In the past, I have felt a sense of shame and embarrassment when I tell people that I am studying poetry. I mean, what kind of respectable human being has time to read and write poetry? Aren’t there more important things to be done in the world?

Perhaps I don’t fit into a label, and that might provoke uncomfortable interactions with other people. I am learning to accept this. I have been tempted to replay my decision to become a nurse–to wonder if I should have chosen art instead. And then there are days when I wonder if it’s audacious to think that there’s a place for me in the world of art. At the end of the day, I know it’s a huge freedom and privilege to even have a choice in the matter. Many people don’t.

There are things I desperately miss about being a nurse. I miss being a part of the surgical team, working together with others to bring about a life-changing and tangible improvement in someone’s health. It was meaningful work, and even on the bad days, the hard days, the exhausting days, I could walk away feeling good about that. On the other hand, there was always some part of my mind that nursing failed to engage, and over time, this made me feel depleted and burned out. And, so, here I am, back to pursuing art again.

I don’t know how my different “selves” will fit together in the end. I do believe that God doesn’t waste anything, and at the end of the day, the so-called “opposing” parts of my personality must be there for a reason.

I often like to end my posts with a poem, because, as I mentioned before, there’s a poem for everything. This poet that I want to share with you today has a very prized place in my heart.

Can you think of a writer or an artist that has given you permission to be yourself–someone whose work validates who you are and what you love? I can think of many writers like this, but the one I want to share today is Laura Gilpin.

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Gilpin was a registered nurse and a poet. She is proof that the credentials RN and MFA can be a compatible couple, and she is an inspiration to me. Her book, The Weight of a Soul, has been on my nightstand for months. I take it along with me on errands. I read her poems at stoplights and in waiting rooms. She started out with a BA and MFA and then went back to school to become a nurse. In 1976 she won the Walt Whitman award for her book, The Hocus Pocus of the Universe. She passed away in 2007.

Laura Gilpin reminds me of what can happen when we embrace all of who we are, even the parts that don’t seem to fit together. The next time a new acquaintance makes a remark about how odd and ill-fitting my educational pursuits are, I may just hand them a copy of Gilpin’s book.

It was so hard to choose, but the following poem is one of my favorites. It reminds me of working night shift and walking through the eery, dark, hospital halls towards the blood bank. She captures this moment so well…

The Ritual of Hanging Blood
Laura Gilpin

Two nurses, the ritual requires two nurses
as though the blood is so heavy
it can’t be carried by one
though the bag is small
no bigger than a heart
but flat and dark and viscous
not bright like urine
urine is usually clear and bright, almost sunny
deceptively filled with life’s impurities
but blood is thick and dark and dusky
as though the darkness itself
holds the secret of life
holds the breath of life, is life giving.

I wind through the darkened hallways
to the blood bank, sign my name
beside the patient’s name
as though I am signing for him
in the book of life.

Then I wait for the second nurse.
She holds the blood while I hold the patient’s wrist
read from his name band his name,
which we spell together,
his hospital ID number
which we read aloud in the darkened room.

Whose life is held in this bag?
The blood drips through the tube, drop by drop,
like the original heart still beating
the way life flows through a small cord
between a mother and child.
The blood drips, drop by drop,
like the pulse in his wrist
I reach for in the dark
as the blood merges with his own
becomes his own.
All night I walk in and out of his room,
listening to his heart,
listening to his sleep.