|Mono Print Painting (M. A. Reilly, March 2017)|
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
Stanley Kunitz, The Layers
What's sacred? What definitions of self are unwavering? In Stanley Kunitz's poem, the speaker learns, “Live in the layers,/not on the litter.” I have pondered those two lines for a long time, intrigued by their brevity and bigness. There's considerable wisdom in that bit of advice.
Across the decades, identity layers have been formed and reformed by the attention paid and missed, by pressures and weights, as well as through the many understandings composed while living. Reflection matters. How easy it has been at times to be overly attentive to what rests at the surface, what Kunitz would call the litter. In the last year, I have learned--out of necessity-- to tune my ears to silence and name those deep strengths and earth-bound truths I call my own.
At the center of my identity is the bone-deep belief that I am highly competent--a problem framer. I remember being so surprised after Rob's death when I had trouble doing ordinary acts, like booking a flight. I sat for hours, unmoving, until I realized that I just had to get on with it. And I did.
I also am empathic. When I was writing my dissertation, Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of "I for Myself, Myself for Other" was central to the learning theory I would later compose. The self, as Bakhtin said, is always in dialogue with other. Identity is dialogic--I exist in relationship to others. Even memories that we often think of as private are socially composed. What Bakhtin's writing helped me to learn is that empathy happens in the return to self.
As a child, I came to understand that I was a problem framer and empathic. Later, I refined these understandings through my roles as wife, mother, sister, friend, teacher, artist, business owner, and now widow.
Some years ago I wrote a poem that looked at these beginnings based on George Ella Lyon's poem, "Where I'm From." I wrote it during an exercise in a class. (I suspect you may have your own version too.) The poem means more now then when I wrote it. Then I did not have need of the deep, abiding trust in self that this last year has required. These losses, multiple and shattering, have been costly, even though I realize that I am the better for it.
Like the speaker in Kunitz's poem, as I age, I too have struggled not to stray.
Where I'm from (Based on George Ella Lyons' poem)
I am from blocks of ivory soap of ice wedged between milk bottles in the summer, from the white, gabled home with dark green shutters, so solid against sudden storms. I am from the gnarled Cherry tree, its pale pink blossoms translucent against the wet, black bark. I’m from tinseled trees and stacks of books from Catherine Mary and Robert Emmett. I’m from daily piano scales and two-part Inventions. From Pop who played ragtime, all the time. I’m from “batter up,” and “I was just passin’ the time of day.” From Marches on Washington to “say five Hail Marys,” knowing too well the slim comfort of the confessional-- so dark and thick with secrets. I’m from Stamullen, tucked tight alongside the Irish Sea. From late afternoon tea with those who came back from the war and those who could not give up the ghosts. I am from all of this from the limbs that formed those long afternoons strong in ways I’ve learned to test.
Self portrait, March 2017