BE You: Thoughts on Identity

I have been thinking a lot about identity- how we construct our identities, what and who we use to construct them, and how we reconstruct them as our lives change, whether that change comes by choice or circumstances beyond our control.

It’s no secret that I have never been motivated by money, for better or worse. Despite collecting college credits like baseball cards, a luxury, I have never been so devoted to anything that I wanted to build my identity around a career. Perhaps the path would have been more stable if I had. I don’t know.

I used to be a yoga teacher. I loved it. I was never a yoga celebrity, I hated the thought of photographs and videos, and handstands eluded me for ten years of consistent effort. But I felt accomplished. I was touching people’s lives in some way, I was passionate about giving what I had learned to other aspiring teachers, I cherished the intimate connections I had with my private clients, and I was part of a community in both a local and global sense. I had a place in the world. About 5 or 6 years ago, my hands started to hurt. The arm balances and endless cycles of vinyasa went from being mildly uncomfortable to excruciating. I wanted to hide- not because I feared judgement, but because I sensed a change was coming and I couldn’t bear to admit it to myself. I scaled back my group classes and invested more of my time in teacher training programs, which I was passionate about but demanded less of my body. Private clients became more challenging as they had come to expect a level of practice that I was less and less able to provide; they had insatiable appetites for new and more challenging poses. That aspect of my teaching ended organically- clients moving, schedules changing, priorities shifting- and I was secretly relieved to walk away without revealing what felt like gross inadequacies. Again my focus shifted- to healing yoga. I designed and ran a program for a local hospital that provided yoga and meditation to cancer patients and those living with chronic illness or pain, which seemed appropriate. After about a year, both my body and the universe dealt other betrayals. My neck started to hurt. Even demonstrating simple spinal movement and gentle neck circles would either leave me immobile or with the sensation that someone was holding a match to my back. I pushed through. And then my dad got cancer. Initially, his diagnosis brought me closer to the group. I had a more intimate relationship with the highs and lows of a chronic, perhaps terminal, diagnosis. It made me a better teacher, and I was grateful for the community and their support. During my father’s brief, but grueling remission, he came to that class. When he died, the empty chair and the heaviness of my students’ diagnosis felt crushing to me. I could no longer serve them well, so I handed the program over to someone I knew could. My fondness and deep admiration for them made it the only choice. And I was no longer a yoga teacher.

I used to ride horses. My family owned horses, and though I loved them, riding was never a part of my life. I was lucky to rediscover the joy of riding later on. I took to it quickly, partly because of stubborn persistence and partly because of the level of body awareness that ten years of yoga had afforded me. I am someone who chases the feeling of freedom, sometimes to my own detriment, and you don’t get much closer to freedom than flying through the woods on the back of a horse. The story of my transition away from riding isn’t as long or as dramatic. I couldn’t afford it. Changes in other aspects of my life made it financially impossible to do the kind of riding I wanted to do, and in the back of my mind, I always knew that that money and opportunities would run out; that was okay because, for a brief time, being with horses- riding them, brushing them, sitting in their stalls talking to them, was my greatest joy and source of comfort. And then I no longer rode horses.

Eventually, I replaced the freedom of riding horses with the freedom of riding waves. The universe conspired to help me along, putting just the right people in my path. On a whim, I wandered into a small kayak shop on Emerald Isle and met Lamar. He was, is, ephemeral but I had a deep, unwavering sense that I wanted what he had. He pointed to pictures that hung on the walls of his shop- pictures of whales with mountains looming in the distance, and told us adventure stories like only a true man of the sea could. And that chance encounter changed my path. I came home and signed up for a short tour with an outfitter in Norrie Point without any idea that, again, I was going to get the real-deal. I met Bill and Janice and found them to be the rarest kind of experts- the kind who don’t lose the joy and passion that often exist only when you are at the beginning of something. I took that tour with Bill a thousand times after, and each time it felt new. The seed was planted: I was hopelessly obsessed with water. But I was also hopelessly terrified, sure that I would capsize and drown. There was only one option- find someone who would babysit me while I proved to myself that I could capsize and survive. The rabbit hole of the internet led me to a Meetup group advertising winter pool sessions at a YWCA in Greenwich. I communicated with Dave via email and took an instant liking to him. I walked out onto the pool deck that first day like I was walking the plank. He stood with his back to me, but I knew it was him, and I was immediately struck with the sense that he would be something to me. And he was. His companionship, his passion for paddling, and his uncanny knack of knowing when to be ridiculously patient with me and knowing when to tell me to get to it changed my life. In the end, his confidence in me transformed my own beliefs in what I was capable of. And then I met Robin Read, my first female paddling role model and I thought- she’s badass; I’m going to be that, too. And, finally, I met Matt Kane, who was devoted to my growth as a paddler and expanding my paddling horizons, and then helped me through the process of the heart-breaking transition away from paddling and my ambitions. 

The neck injury that had brewing for years came to a devastating head, again its own story. The short version is that I have spent the last year debilitated. It has cost me community, friendships, jobs, confidence, strength- both physical and emotional, and joy. Essentially, it stripped me of every single thing I used to define who I was. I have mentally survived this only because of my genuine belief that every ending opens a door to something else. We never just get left hung out to dry completely. The trick is that we not spend so much time staring at the closed doors that we miss the opportunities. My new quest is a focus on creating- art, and bags (of course), but mostly a community and a sense of identity that is not so fragile- not so dependent on circumstance. I am still figuring out what that looks like for me, but I know that part of it is connecting with you.

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