person_pin Who Are You?

by Janette Schafer

Published in Issue No. 244 ~ September, 2017

Who are you? What is your name? Who the hell do you think you are? How many times in a life is a person asked these questions, either out of genuine interest, benign conversation, or righteous indignation?

What sort of answers do most people give to these questions? Usually, it’s a response of lists. This is what I do, these are things I like, I love these foods, I hate small dogs, my hobbies include… and on and on and on into a mundane infinity.

What if society were to change the polite paradigm associated with these sorts of questions? What if suddenly it was expected that everyone must answer these questions with honesty and candor? Or what would people say, if even one time, they met someone who genuinely wanted to know who are you? What would I say to such a person? Where would I begin?

I am of glen and jungle, of ethereal mysticism and Amazonian survival, a daughter of both Ireland and Venezuela. My ancestors from generations and centuries past have left their mark on my psyche. I am the foliage and creatures that thrive in the heat and vigor of the outdoors, my roots reaching deep into the primeval earth. I am the Storyteller, the believer in little people, the one who tills the ground as the damp surrounds me and clings to my skin. My hair and eyes are the deep brown of the equator, my skin the pale snow that covers both valley and meadow. My existence is a small part of all who came before me and I am their immortality, their legacy, their offspring, the book which records what they have done and what they will become.

My body houses my soul. This soul is a traveler, crossing over boundaries of geography, learning, centuries, gods and goddesses, mothers, sons, daughters, fathers, light, darkness, ignorance, and regret. As such my personality is a reflection, a series of paradoxes, an amalgam of past life lessons and experiences. I am a Roman centurion with a serving wench in one hand and a leg of mutton in the other, never mastering sacrifice or self-restraint and therefore never bothering with either. Cloistered, holy, and studious, I am a friar who has given up the ways of the flesh in order to serve God. I am the heroic soldier and the cowardly traitor, the devoted wife and the adulterous harlot, the ignorant mob and the wise sage, the atheist and the priest, the survivor and the suicide.

Even the food I eat is a series of contradictions. A hedonist who craves flavor, spice, sweetness and quantity, I am a hot curry that makes the nose run, the herbaceous bite of cilantro, a subtle thyme, rich dark chocolate, a triple-scoop sundae with all the toppings, two chili dogs with extra onions and mustard. If one bite is good, than two bites are better and I want it all and more.

My inner Buddha sees that the body is a temple and wants to treat it as such, feeding both the flesh and the spirit. I make efforts to eat of Mother Earth and her fruit, to avoid the flesh of animals, the chemicals of processing. A supplicant to the outer temple, I worship with vibrant live food, fibrous sprouts and beans, olive oil, fresh herbs, organic fruits and vegetables. My fleshly sanctuary blossoms, my physical and ethereal energies explode, and my chakras spin with color and fire. For a time I am sanctity personified until Demon Indulgence overtakes me and I am slave once more to the senses, in bondage to sights, sounds, smells, and tastes.

I am like the Apostle Paul and continually struggle with the war of flesh and spirit. I do that which I would not, and do not that which I would do. Problem solving eludes me, and too often, I procrastinate, flee or hide like a child. Like Oz’s Dorothy, I wish to be swept away by the tornado, to click together my red heels and whisper, “there’s no place like home, no place like home.” I want to wake up and find that the problems have floated away, that a spoonful of sugar really will make the medicine go down, that my Fairy Godmother will make all things beautiful until the answer is revealed at midnight. Even though troubles have never once vanished, it is easier to pretend for a time that they will.

If I were a deadly sin, it would be sloth. Some people do their best work at the last minute; I do my only work at the last minute. I have largely convinced myself that pre-planning is the death to creativity and that the adrenaline rush of the approaching finish line is the magic pill I need. Each year, a gym membership card rots in my purse after January is over. The alarm clock screams its admonition to get that walk in, make a healthy breakfast, fix my hair up nice, meditate on Kuan Yin, or at least put on a little lipstick. The snooze bar is like that friend in school one always follows after even though it means trouble. It is easier to lose paperwork than to complete it, to buy paper plates and plastic-ware than to wash the dishes, to hand over my taxes to Jackson Hewitt than to look over the IRS instructions and do them myself.

Sometimes I am Don Quixote, and there is no impossible dream, no unbeatable foe. It is these time I love myself the most. I am proudest of those moments where I am able to pull myself up from the mires of self-doubt and self-pity and accomplish more than I thought or knew I could. I think of moving to Pittsburgh to escape an unhealthy relationship, of auditioning for the Friendship Ambassadors and singing across Italy for the better part of the year, of taking on the challenge of working and going to school full time while no longer in the prime of my youth. My internal Sancho defeats the Ogre-Windmill, my Aldonza finds that she is Dulcinea.

Often I am a visionary and I forget that action gives my dreams wings. Projects appeal to me when they are thoughts, ideas, seeds germinating in the womb of the mind. As they become infants, I like the process of nurturing them along, helping them walk, assisting them as they actualize and become a truly living creature. It is the toddler stage where I lose concern, abandoning the fledgling child to the wayside or the arms of another, more interested parent. I still cringe when I think of unfinished writings, friendships that were not all they could have been, jobs where I settled for the middle of the pack, lovers enjoyed once and then forgotten. I have trunks of half-sewn dresses, incomplete needlepoint projects, half-painted canvases. Most of my regrets in life are the could-have-been’s and the never-got-to-be’s.

My romantic adventures are algebraic equations. I have not quite mastered the y of me or the x of someone else. I forget that people are not formulas to be solved. Much effort is spent on figuring out the appropriate numbers, getting the negatives into positives, turning fractions into whole numbers, trying to get all the exponents on one side. I spend a majority of the time worrying about whether or not I can find the right answers instead of enjoying the process.

Love can also make a child of me. I still touch the hot stove to see if it burns. I don’t want that which is the best for me, I was what is sweet, spicy, or exciting. There still resides in me that willful teenager; I want what I cannot or should not have. If I am told that there is danger or I should proceed with caution, I fall before I look to see what will catch me.

The fear that keeps me up at night is not something tangible, like a person or a recurring memory or nightmare, but the thought that no one will hear or understand me. This fear has been both friend and enemy. On one hand, it has been the instrument that has inspired me to write, sing, and create art. On the other, it is why a host never invites me back, why I am always too much of one thing but not enough of another. Rarely myself in groups, I become a comedian whose jokes are too loud, noisy, and inappropriate, a shy wallflower too paralyzed too move, or a supervisor making rules and handing out orders.

Occasionally the real person displays herself. I see the portrait and don’t recognize the face. The picture on the canvas changes with the decor. This individual is somewhere between the loud exhibitionist and the shy intuitive and craves the spotlight and the corner equally.

While there is still much about me that is uncharted territory, it has taken me most of my life to figure out that I am more than the sum total of my experiences. My story and the characters in it are not all there is. My background and origins can define me or I can defy them. I give myself permission to live in that territory between a rock and a basket case. It is a good existence there. I can survive and I can unravel, and either choice is okay.

It is hard to say what lies ahead for me just yet. I am a woman with options. A popular country singer croons about what he will do with his next thirty years. There are so many paths to travel, forks to consider, trails to blaze, and many more roads than what is shown on the map. I know where I am called to go, but I am still learning how to navigate my course. After nearly twenty years of practicing the craft, there is still so very much I have to learn about writing and the writer’s life.

There are still more pieces to the puzzle, more pages to the story. There are many more things I have yet to learn about myself, more lessons to be gleaned from my past. My long introspection with its lists, metaphors, and comparisons is both afterthought and premonition, complete and incomplete. This tells much and nothing of who I am.

Who are you?

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Janette Schafer is a poet, playwright, and opera singer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is a 2017 awardee of the Maenad Fellowship for writing through Chatham University.