Assembling the pieces of a life

These days, when people ask me what I do, I stumble through an answer.

“Well… right now I homeschool my kids… and for the past five years I’ve been working intensely on learning naturalist skills… and I’m involved in community-building and mentoring… and sometimes organizing events… and I write a lot… although, you know, mostly a blog.  And I feel very busy, all of the time.” It never comes out smoothly.

Recently, I was thrilled when a friend referred to me in a group as a naturalist. I was equally happy – and surprised – when another friend, in response to my comment that before my mid-teens I would have identified myself as an artist, replied, “I still think of you as an artist.”

I reported these two conversations to a third friend, who asked “Well, how DO you identify yourself?”  I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer.

Another young friend once said that he never found career counseling useful because it was always trying to narrow him down, and he felt that becoming an adult was an ongoing processed of broadening, of expansion. I admired his maturity in recognizing that, so many years before I did.

When I was working on my Master’s in Education, seven or so years ago, I wrote a paper that was initially about my learning, but became in many ways about my identity in the world. Recently I thought back to it, and it helped me to realize that what I have now – what is emerging now – is what I asked for then. And to see that uncertainty and self-doubt are the flip side of having the freedom to step back and re-design these parts of my life.

The paper was for a course on adult learning, which was different from any course I had taken before, and possibly the academic course that has had the deepest influence on me, in my own life and in my vision for educating my kids.

We started the course diving into sensory experiences. For the first month, we were asked to conduct an “inquiry” or experiment each week, journal on it, and share our reflections with the class: literary inquiry, musical/sound inquiry, performance/movement inquiry, and visual art inquiry. The goal was to experiment with whatever each of these themes meant to us. Out of this, we committed to choosing an area of inquiry, learning something new – anything – and documenting that learning. And only after we had reflected on our own processes and started working on our own project, did we layer in readings on adult learning theory, much of which is about learning through life events, relationship, community, and personal transformation.

I decided to pursue a visual art project, and after considering art classes of various kinds (oh, the joy!), I came upon a weekend workshop on creating shadow boxes or “mixed media assemblages”, which are something like three-dimensional collages framed inside a small shallow box, often using found objects and images. My first small shadow-box I completed that weekend; I started a second; and as I completed that one and also created a third, I realized that my three pieces could be put together to represent stages in my learning cycle. I decided one stage was missing and created one more piece. Together these little pieces spoke to my experiences of inspiration, influence, community, reflection, introspection, transformation.

A few years later, when I was learning about natural cycles and cycles of learning in another context, it was interesting to look back at my own earlier reflections on this and wonder how I would now reconsider and re-order the stages I came up with then. But what also strikes me now, looking back at the very personal paper I wrote, which was about learning, but also about identity, was how much it helps me now to remember one of my conclusions:

“I think the medium – assemblage – I used for my project aptly represents what I am moving towards. What I want is not a single profession, or title, or job, but a hybrid identity, something assembled or brought together out of the many parts of my previous and current experiences: “writer/ educator/ editor/ artist/ activist/ counselor.”

I might change some of the parts now; in fact, I would add even more of them. But assembling them all together in the same frame is what this picture is about.

And every time someone tells me that in order to pursue what I want I need to commit myself to it fully, I wonder: “Which part?”

Can I break it down into percentages?  Can I give each identity its own day of the week? Take on a different one each month?

No. Life does not work that way at all.

These parts have meaning in relation to each other; together they form a picture of my life. The picture is being assembled, being created, emerging.

It helps me to remember that, whatever our primary occupation(s), we can resist these pressures to narrow ourselves; we can embrace constant learning, multiplicity, and expansion. We can continue to assemble and reassemble all the pieces of ourselves together to create our own particular works of art.


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