A few months ago (maybe a year ago?) I went with some friends to the Blanton Museum of Art. The featured gallery was a Waltercio Caldas installation. This is the kind of stuff he makes:
Total honesty? I had no idea what I was looking at. My friend (who had to write a paper for school) asked me to explain. I pulled out my phone and began Wikepedia-ing. My wiser, less socially awkward friend grabbed one of the grad school kids hired to work security. He was better than Wikipedia (because Wikipedia wouldn’t load and when it did it was in Portugese).
The helpful grad student said a lot of things about Caldas’s work, but the thing I remember most was about this painting:
If you know much about art history you’ll probably recognize it as an ode to another, very, very famous painting, Velasquez’s “Las Meninas”:
The grad student said, “Caldas is interested in how much you can take away from a work of art and have people still recognize it.” He said Caldas asked, “What lines/shapes/colors need to remain for a thing to still be recognizable as what it is?”
I found those words in an old journal this morning. And I couldn’t help but think about identity.
What needs to remain for a thing to still be recognizable as what it is?
The question I’m asking myself this morning is “What are the essential lines and colors of my self?” What parts of me are so self-determining that if they were suddenly removed I would no longer be me?
I have a friend who recently lost the love of her life due to heart surgery complications. And she’s struggling because it’s hard not to see her now-gone husband as an essential line.
I have other friends whose children have finally all gone off to college and their house looks like that empty Velasquez, hardly recognizable.
Other friends have lost jobs, lost their health, moved away from a place they’d called home for decades.
We all go through transitions in life, transitions that threaten to tear apart our perceptions of our selves.
If I’m not a mother, who am I?
If I’m not a teacher? If I’m not financially stable? If I’m not strong?
When we build our identities on shifting sand—it doesn’t matter how good or honorable or fulfilling the sand—we will, again and again, watch the walls of our very selves fall. So that we’ll spend a lifetime in crisis after crisis, always piling up rubble, wondering if that’s all we’ll ever be.
Recently I went through a crisis like that. My daughters will both be school-age this coming fall and that means a lot of questions about what I’ll do when my days open up and my house is quiet. I’d hoped to be making money writing at this point, to be able to transition into more full-time work. But I’m not. And that’s left me feeling untethered, unsure of what I should do and what my future might hold and, even, what sort of person I am.
I had a tearful conversation at Chipotle with my husband while three dozen fellow diners stared. I said I just wasn’t sure about anything. I said I wanted to be sure that I was a writer. Sure that my investment in this work was worthwhile. He said, “You can’t be. And you don’t have to be.” He said, “Do good work now.”
He’s always reminding me of that.
And then that weekend I went to a ladies retreat and we talked about identity and the whole time I was feeling all my questions dissolve as I realized that who I am and what I do are not the same.
I am not a writer. I write.
I am not a stay-at-home mother. I stay at home and mother.
My identity isn’t built on the things I do, the job I have or the way I spend my time—partially, sure, but not essentially. It’s not even fundamentally linked to the people I love, people who may leave or die.
The essential lines and colors of my self were made and are sustained by and in my Creator God.
David says to God in Psalm 139, “You know me.” And I find peace in that.
I have a tattoo on my wrist. It’s the Greek word for poem translated “workmanship” found in Ephesians 2:10:
"For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."
I have it there to remind me that God has plans for me.
The hard part is remembering that the plans are His. That I belong to Him and am under His direction.
Essentially, I am God’s poem. And whatever He writes, He writes. My identity is fully wrapped up in my dependence upon Him and my willingness to be who He calls me to be.
I’m not always sure of the details of that. But I’m sure enough of the big picture. My essential colors are love, joy, peace, patience… My lines are adoption, redemption, holiness, freedom, truth…
I hope that were I stripped of my parts, left like a Waltercio Caldas painting, in my most fundamental state that I’d still be recognizable. That you’d say, “Oh, that’s Jennifer. See the love. See the light. See the mark of God…”