As a teenager, I never dared to ask myself the question, “Who am I?” I had been taught what to think and what to do. “Find themselves,” my mother would say, shaking her head. “They have too much time to think.” Then she would carry on with her overwhelming household duties. My older brother defied authority, while my younger sister argued. The boat was rocking. I chose to be compliant, for the thought of that boat tipping terrified me.
For thirty years, I busied myself with getting an education, cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, growing vegetables, running a business, and being involved in my community. I didn’t wonder who I was. Unconsciously I had taken my mother’s advice, and gave myself no time to think.
But as in nature, a seed can lie dormant for many seasons before the conditions are right for it to come forth. The question was buried deep beneath layers of “should” and “must”, of “right” and “good”. But blocking questions by keeping busy became more difficult. The seed was swelling. One day I came across a quote by Soren Kierkegaard. He said, “And now, with God’s help, I shall become myself.” When I took those words as my own, the seed germinated.
As the seed coat split, I had to admit that my life was not what I wanted it to be. I had worked hard to be the person I thought was best for my family, but so much was wrong. As my confidence eroded, I let others dictate who I ought to be. By the time I began to take responsibility for my own choices, I had travelled so far from myself that I didn’t know the way home.
I got help. With support and guidance, I made significant changes in my life. There is still a lot I do not know. This I do know.
A stream is constantly moving and changing. There are seasons when it is a mere trickle. Other times it is frozen along the edges, or flooding, or muddy, or even slowly shifting its course in the stream bed. One can only describe the stream as it exists in that moment, and even as it is being described it is moving and changing. So it is with us. I can only describe who I am in this moment, and even as I do, perhaps because I do, I change.
Years ago, if I were asked to describe the stream, I could say I see water flowing down a mountainside. That was it. I could not have told you about the branch sticking up, and how the water that hit it at a certain angle made spray, how the sunlight caught those water droplets and made a shimmering rainbow. I could not have described how the water curved with such grace around a big round rock on the west side of the creek, or about the quiet pool so clear and cold and the trout that swim there at the bottom. I could not have told you because I did not put my attention there.
I pay attention now. I am a student of myself. It is time-consuming work, but from the seed has emerged a plant that stretches to meet the sun even as it digs its roots deeper into the earth.
My daughter is 11 years old. She is growing up in a world very different from mine. I cannot show her the path, but perhaps I can help her find light for her journey by encouraging her to ask that age-old question, “Who am I?”
Margaret Verschuur is a lover of words and wild places, a cozy fire and tin roof sundae ice cream.