Who Am I? Tennis Racquet to Cloud

Who Am I?  Tennis Racquet to Cloud

I am the bird, I am the tree
The earth and sky and I feel free
No time, no after, no before
We all are one, I am no more

by Ellen – Plum Village 1998

 Have you ever tried to answer the question, “Who am I?”

I lived most of my life totally clueless about who or what I am.  And to be honest, I wasn’t really interested in exploring it.  I just wanted to be happy but had no idea what happy really meant.

The first time I gave a thought to the question “Who am I?” was in a communication skills class that I took while getting a master’s degree in 1980 at the age of 32.  The first night of class the professor asked us to draw a symbol of something that we felt best described or represented who we were.  I froze!  “What is it that might possibly describe me best?”  I had never been asked a question like this and I truly had no idea who I was or what I believed or valued.  What then could I draw?  I also knew that whatever I drew would be “wrong.”  My friend, sitting next to me, did not hesitate.  She began drawing immediately.  My mind wandered.  “Well,” I thought, “I play a lot of tennis; I love playing tennis and would play more if I could.”  So that must be it and I drew a tennis racquet.  A tennis racquet!  Who I am is a tennis racquet?

My friend drew a heart!  She said it was because she was “love.” I was in awe.  It had never occurred to me that I could be something like “love.”  I was also impressed that she was so clear, so certain and so quick with her answer.  How could someone know so quickly and assuredly?  What a great thing to be – “love.”  At that time I had no idea what “love” really was but it definitely sounded better than a tennis racquet.

I didn’t know my’self’ let alone my ‘Self’ or even that a ‘self’ or ‘Self’ existed.  I was in shock and I believe now, that in that moment I began an unintentional quest to discover more about “Who am I?”  Those simple moments in life have the possibility of being life-transforming without our realizing it.  That has been true for me.

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For the next several years I explored my‘self’ with varying degrees of intensity.  I came to see that I loved being active, enjoyed my job as a teacher, that I was a leader, and that my history with my family needed to be uncovered and dealt with.  I learned that I am intelligent and learn quickly.  I understood how I like to have my home arranged and what feels good to me in my surroundings.  I naturally do things fast and get things done quickly.  I learned that I loved being in the out-of-doors: hiking, biking and skiing.  I learned what kind of music I like, and I learned more about what I thought and believed.  But was this really “Who I am?”

In 1985 my first husband and I divorced.  With the divorce came a more intense searching for ‘self.’ The search that I had begun in 1980 and my new realizations were part of what had precipitated the divorce.

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A year after the divorce it came to me to change my name.  At the time, my name was Pamela, a name I was never particularly fond of but, of course, my mother loved.  I was very clear that my new name would be “Maggie,” just plain “Maggie.”  It felt so absolutely right, like a coming home.  So what about my last name?  My former husband was remarrying and I had no desire to be the “other Mrs. Marsh” and no interest in changing back to my maiden name.  So what name would I pick?  I wanted something that meant something, something that would link me to my family.  The family member who meant the most to me was my Great Aunt Lucy.  Her maiden name was Carter, which was simple enough.  So I went from “Pamela Marsh” to “Maggie Carter;” with a simple application and a small fee I was a new “me.”  It took friends and family a while to adjust and for me, it was a process of growing into “me” as Maggie – as if I was now my name.  Over the years I noticed how attached I became to my name.  It meant something about my’self’ and I took it very seriously.

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In 1995 I applied for a doctoral program and another opportunity arose for me to describe my’self.’  During the interview, I was asked to list five words that best described me.  “Okay, now I’m ready,” I thought.  “I have words to describe my’self’, I know who I am now!”  With almost no hesitation I rattled off four words which, I believed, would both describe me and convince those asking the question that I was a worthy doctoral candidate.  “I am organized, positive, energetic, determined and… “  I couldn’t come up with a fifth word.  What else would describe me?  Then it came, “smiley.”  This was how many others saw me.  People have frequently described me as someone who smiles.  People smile back at me when I’m not sure I’m even smiling.  I wasn’t convinced of the truth of “smiley” since I have felt more pain than smiles over my many years on this planet.  However, in that moment I decided it must be true since that’s how others viewed me.  My ‘self,’ in part, then, was determined by how others saw me.  But this time, at least, I had, what I felt, was a much better answer than a picture of a tennis racquet!  I knew more about my’self,’ and it felt good believing “I know who I am now.”

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A few years later, during a workshop, the trainer asked us to come up with a single word that would give others in the class a mental image of something that would help them remember who we are.  Again, I felt the panic.  I felt the pressure to come up with something unique that would impress the others in class.  My answer was less than brilliant.  When my turn came I said, “Kinetic because I am always in motion.”  This was true enough.  In those days I rarely sat still and had more energy than I knew what to do with.  But did “kinetic” really describe who I am?  I wasn’t sure.  No one noticed. No one remembered. No one cared. I did.

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For the next 10 years I continued to explore and search for my’self.’  I took a variety of self-improvement workshops; I read just about every book in the self-help section and went into therapy.  I began to uncover the “self” I felt I had lost somewhere along the way.  For the first time in my life, I was feeling like I had an identity, that I knew who I was, what I believed, how I felt and what was important to me.  I began to honor it rather than hide or disown it.  I learned to feel more comfortable in my body.  I was a jock and finally proud of it.  I enjoyed people, but I also found that time alone was crucial and I valued silence.  My mother often said, with an edge in her voice, “You’re just like your father.”  I came to see that she was right.  I was, and it was okay.  My father’s sister was an outdoors type of person, a strong individualist and different than most women of her time.  I liked that maybe I was a little like her.

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After living in Colorado for several years I found myself describing my’self.’ as a “Colorado Girl.”  For me that meant I did all the outdoor things that people come to Colorado for.  I hiked and backpacked all over the gorgeous Rocky Mountains.  I rode mountain bike trails, and did long rides over mountain passes on my road bike.  In the winter I went downhill and cross-country skiing at various ski resorts.  This is me!  This is what I love to do and it must be who I am. Over time I came to see that we often think who we are is what we do, what we wear or what we have.

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In March 1998, when I was 49, my second husband and I began a yearlong journey that would take us around the world.  We traveled with backpacks to places we had both been curious about.  We traveled “close to the ground” and stayed in each place long enough to get a sense of the culture.  My intent for the year was that it would be a spiritual journey; for my husband it was to be an adventure.  I found the adventures, rather than the visits to spiritual centers, was where I would experience the most “enlightenment.”

During our stay in Spain, we spent a month going to language school.  We lived with a family who didn’t speak English.  At school, classes were taught only in Spanish.  It was an immersion in Spanish and my image of my’self’ as a fast learner disintegrated quickly!  I was the dunce of the class and I didn’t take it well.  During class one day I failed dramatically and burst into tears.  I ran out of class, down the stairs, into the streets and because it was raining into the nearest safe haven I could find, the beautiful Nuevo Cathedral.  I sat in a pew sobbing and conversing with God about my inability to learn Spanish as tourists walked by in quiet reverence to the cathedral.  What I had learned about “who I am” and how I had come to see my’self’ was unraveling.  I am not someone who learns quickly.  Experiences such as this continued throughout our journey.

During the 2nd month of our journey we stayed in the Thich Nhat Hanh retreat center, Plum Village, in southern France.  During our stay, a beautiful young woman from Holland, who was a music teacher, shared a song she had written.  We would sing it before Walking Meditation each day.

I am the bird, I am the tree
The earth and sky and I feel free
No time, no after, no before
We all are one, I am no more

 

Over the next several months of the yearlong journey that song stayed with me.  I couldn’t get it out of my head.  Like a Zen koan I would sit with it as question again and again.  I’m still sitting with it. Every time I would come to the words “I am no more” tears would fall.  What did it mean to be “no more” and why was I so emotional about it?  I have since learned that tears are a clue that I am touching the Truth.  What I had read in the spiritual literature was that in order to find out who you really are, you have to find out who you are not, you have to lose your ‘self’, and experience a death.  I was on a journey that would begin to take me into the truth of that.

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The last five years have been the most painful in the quest to know the Truth of my’self.’ The “self” I had come to know and all the things that I have used over the years to describe my‘self’ are continuously falling away.  I wish I could say I have done this with grace and without resistance.  I have not.  It has been an incredibly challenging and painful process that continues.

Being stripped of identity isn’t always fun.  At times it has felt like I’ve been dipped into a vat of furniture refinishing liquid that strips away the old layers.  It leaves me feeling raw, more vulnerable and open.  I have grieved over what “has been lost” and at the same time I no longer wish to have “it” back.  Am I different?  Yes and No.

Everything I thought I was isn’t who I am.  Much of what I once used to take pride in and think of as my’self’ isn’t who I am.  It is like an intricately designed Tibetan mandala sand painting that has been created with love and care, only to be swept away in one swift fearless movement again and again.  What is left?

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I am not Maggie although I still call myself “Maggie.”  I am not a mother, yet there is a beautiful woman I call my “daughter.”  I am not a grandmother, even though there are two lovely children I call my “grandchildren.”  I am not a friend, even though there are countless people I call “friend.”  I still like things to be organized and simple. I have moved several times over the last several years, leaving me with no sense of identity with a location.  Many relationships have fallen away.  I have lost interest in many of the things I used to like to do; I still like to hike and bike but not in the same way as I once did.  I look basically the same, even as the body ages.  I probably act much the same.  Others don’t seem to notice a difference or if they do, they have not said.  Some days I smile more than others and people still smile at me when I least expect it.  I no longer play tennis.  Going slow or following my internal guidance and flow is more my style these days then being “kinetic.”  The lens through which I view the world is more neutral than “positive.” I am more likely to see Reality rather than the fantasy of what I think I would prefer life to be.  My “determination” has taken the biggest beating and is, at the same time, what keeps me going.  Only now it feels more like Love guiding and pulling me rather than me trying to direct the show.  I still get emotional, I still react, and I am still curious about “Who am I?”

I am uncertain as to how to describe my’self’ these days, so I rarely do.  I have little to no interest in my past.  It just doesn’t seem to matter.  I do have a deeper sense of what I am not.  I look in the mirror at times and wonder, “Who are you?  Who are you really?”  I know that whatever I might say will change in the next moment, that whatever I say is not really who I am, that whatever I say means nothing and is not important.  I have come to realize that I am all of what I used to describe as my’self’, and none of it at the same time.  It is as if I had to learn who I was, in order to realize who I am not, in order to realize who I truly am.

When Ramana Maharshi suggested that we sit in the question “Who am I?”  he wasn’t talking about the list of terms I have used over the years.  He didn’t care about any of that; he was interested only in the Truth.  Realizing the Truth of “Who am I?” is what I am interested in as well! It is that knowing that has been unfolding somewhere inside of me for the past several years and continues to unfold.  And still, I notice the fear of “losing it all” leaving me with nothing to hold on to or identify with, groundlessness, uncertainty and unknowing.

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A friend asked me recently what I would draw now if I was asked to draw something that best described me.  I had to sit with it for awhile and what eventually came to me was “no thing” followed by the image of the outline shape of a cloud, a thing without substance and ever changing yet still in the appearance of form.

Perhaps someday my answer will simply be “no thing” not even the outline of a cloud, or perhaps I’ll draw a tennis racquet again, only this time with the knowing that I am “all things.”  I’m curious to see what will unfold as I continue to realize “who I am” at the deepest level, the Truth.

 

I am the bird, I am the tree
The earth and sky and I feel free
No time, no after, no before
We all are one, I am no more

 

 

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