Is Your Work Who You Are?

If you’re anything like me, an ambitious and neurotic New Yorker, it’s likely that your job has pretty much taken over your life, or it’s constantly trying to. Pushing its heavy presence against your weary resolve daily, and you either push back, or give up and let it become not only an expression of your identity, but who you are.

The first question people are usually itching to ask after a name exchange is: “So…what do you do?” And if they don’t, it’s likely because they’re pretending; choosing not to ask in order to minimize its importance. In my 20s and into my mid-30s, when I was climbing the Hollywood ladder, the answer to “What do you do?” was everything, like two dogs sniffing each other’s asses in the dog park. The subtext being, “Who are you? Are you somebody who has value to me? Are you worth further conversation (or moreover, an actual meeting)?

For fourteen years, my identity was determined as “Producer/Screenwriter” (or to my Mom and Dad, “a movie person doing that movie stuff”). So when I left that life, on the heels of my divorce, my identity shattered. I took up producing for an Advertising agency, followed by representing directors for a production company, while writing and creating new work on the side. My identity had changed, but it felt fractured, like a split personality. Today, when people ask me, “What do you do?” there is almost always an imperceptible hesitation. If I’m meeting clients or ad industry folks, “I’m the east coast rep for a production company” is the answer. If I’m at a book reading, a writing conference, or commenting in a private Facebook writers group, I’m an author with an agent, a blogger, and a published essay writer; an artist with demons and moods and anxiety-ridden uncertainty about what comes next.

Which one am I? Which one defines me? Which one reflects the “true me”? writing-freelancer-1

But as my therapist and my husband (that’s two different people by the way, the latter often being both) have repeatedly pointed out, why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t I integrate both personas? Why can’t I be both the sociable businesswomen, and the scattered creative with a bottomless need for the expression of feelings and ideas?

This last month has been laden with shifts and challenges in my job, and when that happens, the writer-me suffers. The writer brain shuts down from work overload, save the little voice that screams out for attention. “Hey! Hey you! Ef you for turning your back on me. Get back here and feed me.” It doesn’t give a hoot what else I have going on, and I’ve given up trying to mute it.

To be honest, I don’t want to. When I heed that voice, I create. And when I create, I’m happier and more productive – in my personal interactions and in my work. A few weeks ago I wrote a TV pilot, a half-hour comedy in the spirit of early divorced Cougel (and boy was she funny. As in, an absurd hot-mess). I didn’t think I had it in me to write in script format again – it’s been almost a decade – but it came back to me in an instant, like my native language. After I finished, I was bopping around Manhattan with boundless energy and positivity, not knowing what to do with myself (It wasn’t pretty on the outside, but it felt pretty on the inside).

And then, a little light bulb went off. The TV show’s setting and some of the characters and experiences – they’re inspired by my advertising life. By the other-me. The advertising person that I was and have been for seven years infuses this me – the writer-me, in subtle but powerful ways. And with the time and distance, I am finally able to look back on that mess of a me with affection and compassion. Because she IS me.

I guess that’s called living. Living a creative life and creating a life that begets creation. Or, as a couple of eminent writers once said:

“We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I’m going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”
― Stephen Fry

“In order to write about life first you must live it.”
― Ernest Hemingway

Sprinting toward the self

I have a reoccurring dream where I’m frantically running to catch a plane to Israel. The dream is vivid and pulsing, as I try to get to the place where my relatives live – a place I’ve been to over thirty times, beginning with summers at my grandparents’ house when I was a child.

The dreams started about three years ago, a few months after I met my Christian boyfriend (now husband) – when things were getting serious. The dreams unfolded as follows:

I’m in a car on the way to the airport and I realize that I forgot my passport at home. I make the car go back to retrieve it, and I miss the flight. And, I’m in the terminal, all checked in and on my way to the gate, where again, I realize my passport is missing. I approach a woman in the duty free shop, a clerk selling chocolates, and begin speaking to her in Hebrew, asking if my dad can fax her a copy of my passport to fax ahead to Tel Aviv. No go.

One evening, while at my parents’ house in New Jersey for Sabbath dinner, I told my Rabbi brother-in-law about these dreams. I was attending the dinner without my boyfriend, not yet ready for him to meet the Fockersteins.

I told my brother-in-law that I assumed the dreams meant I was trying to get to Israel – my safe haven – the place that represents my home and sense of belonging.

He nodded in agreement , but then looked at me with a knowing twinkle in his eye, indicating there was more to it.

“Your missing passport,” he said.” It represents your misplaced Jewish identity.”

“It does?” I asked, bristling from the implication that I’d lost my grip on my Jewishness, even though he was right. Reinforced by the fact that I was in a relationship with a non-Jew.

“Yep,” he replied. “Do you know who has your passport?”

“Uh…no…” I said, my mind going through all the options. Did God have it? Was he testing me? Or, maybe my ex-husband took it! (that was back in my blaming the ex for every feeling phase).

When my husband and I got married, I noticed that the dreams stopped. And a few months later, we planned on going to Israel to celebrate the holiday of Passover with my family. It would be his first time in Israel, and my first time seeing the country from a new perspective, touring the Christian sites and the place of Jesus’s birth. My parents and relatives were excited and embraced our plans with the same wide-eyed excitement that we did. My mother even Googled “Holy Land Christian tours” and forwarded me links.

We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare, passports in hand. I smiled to myself, remembering how just a few months before, I had mentioned to my brother-in-law that the dreams had finally ceased.

“Can you tell me now, who had my passport?” I implored.

“You did,” he said. “You had it the whole time. You just weren’t willing to take it out and use it.”

It made perfect sense. My Jewish identity had been reclaimed; my faith in God and in my religious and ancestral roots restored. It made so much sense it almost felt like a cliché in retrospect. But I was glad I had put that mystery and its anxieties to rest.

Until last week, when the dream came back.

I’m running through the terminal, clutching my passport, but I can’t find the gate: Gate #11. The signs are hidden; the passageways to the gate a narrow labyrinth crowded with people I have to weave around. I rush down stairs as people rush up, like at the subway. This time, my husband is with me. I keep looking back at him, lagging several yards behind me. At 6’6”, he does not charge through crowds. But also, he is burdened by our belongings – carrying all of my baggage (how’s that for a metaphor). So I forge ahead, calling to him, my heart beating. When I finally get to the gate, a steel fortress hidden in a dark corner of the airport, the door is closing. Almost made it, but not quite.

As I explored in my last post, my husband and I are in the process of leaving our one bedroom apartment and its associated life stage (my post-divorce refuge), and moving to a more spacious home – our home, that represents a new life stage we hope to grow (even older) in. It’s no wonder that this dream has resurfaced in a slightly different form. Passport and Jewish identity are intact, but clearly I am sifting through my personal identity as it shifts from a divorcee, a phase I was in for seven years before I met my now husband, to one of a wife and mother.

I am seeking to connect with my self; my personal sense of belonging and comfort, represented by the place I grew up in called Israel. But I keep missing my connection.

But at least I’m getting closer. And hopefully, the next time I have the dream, I will finally arrive at the gate on time, with my husband beside me, and all my identities intact.

And a light carry-on for baggage.