These days when someone asks me where I work, I find myself answering in verbs rather than in labels.
“I write,” I say. “I also like to teach and to travel.”
A confused look often slides across their face.
“Oh, so you’re a writer, then. You write for a living?”
I smile. “I write because I enjoy it.” I pause while they scrunch their nose. “Much of what I write,” I continue, “I don’t get paid for — at least, not in U.S. currency. It satisfies my longing to be creative.”
That usually garners a high-browed nod and a quick switch of topics or an end to the awkward conversation. I’m not comfortable with anyone sketching an invisible perimeter around me and boxing me in.
When another person attempts to define me by certain skills I possess or lack, my radar flashes red. I don’t want to be seen through a monochromatic lens. I want to reflect a prism of possibilities.
I was once in a meeting where I volunteered to coordinate an advocacy group. I wanted to do it. The arrangement had been shown to help students overcome personal challenges, especially within their immediate families. A colleague suggested that another person was the “mover and shaker” among us and that he should take the reins … and he practically ripped them from my bleeding hands. I could stir the community into action given the chance, but my role was already defined. I was a teacher and that was that.
Label-makers are everywhere. They don’t just browse the grocery store lanes, they strut the football fields, gawk across crowded rooms, they shake your hand and pretend they know you — pretend they know me. But I’m still getting to know me; how can they?
Labels are like darts. On any given day I may pick one up and sink it into the bulls-eye, but if I toss 10 more, a scattered pattern forms. I know I’m all the darts. I’m the teacher, even without a class of students. The teacher in me is prolific in my interactions throughout the day. I’m a writer, even if no one’s reading me. I’m a dancer, even without an audience. I don’t have to choose just one. I can be them all.
As a child, adults would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up — a doctor, a mother, a ballerina, which was a very popular suggestion for little girls back then. I’d watch the tiny ballerina in my musical jewelry box twist in her pink satin and wish I could dance like her, but I never tried, not because someone told me I couldn’t; I just felt it was a foolish aspiration because I wasn’t tall or, in my mind, coordinated enough.
I labeled myself. I was a non-athlete. I shunned activities that might have been fun just because I mistakenly thought I had to choose a title for myself.
Labels, whether branded onto us by others or ourselves, can become our coffin. Others perceive limits on our abilities and we begin believing them — believing that our talents must fit into the shape they’ve created for us. Meanwhile, our submerged talents die.
Our true boundaries are limitless, as vast as the endless sky above us, as random as the pattern of darts on a board. We create these patterns from our own life experiences, and I am going to continue experimenting with the designs I am creating so that the box people want to put me in doesn’t become my coffin.
Michele Zirkle Marcum is a native of Meigs County and an author. Her column appears each Tuesday.