Friday, June 17, 2011

Why Many Is Better Than One

In his book Situatedness: Or, Why We Keep Saying Where We’re Coming From (2002), David Simpson talks about our cultural obsession with identifying ourselves as "azzas." Simpson's own interest in this idea developed through experiences on book tours, when member of his audience would inevitably ask questions that began with "as a": as in "as a Scottish libertarian," or, "as a working-class socialist" (50). In Sullivan’s definition, "Azzas believe that all reason gives way at the stoplight of personal experience. They hold that argument is never anything more than the rationalization of personal experience, and that the most marginal of personal experiences is always the most authentic" (50). Simpson calls "azza" simply "a way of establishing one’s credentials as authoritatively and efficiently as possible."

Ever since I first came across this term, I've been obsessed with the idea of "azzas." While Sullivan holds "azzas" at arms length, not identifying himself with those he studies, I would argue that our culture has long since accepted, even embraced, the "azza." I do it myself, all the time. And because I listen for it, I hear it often, from all echelons of our culture. After all, it's so much easier to make ourselves understood when our audience has some context for us and our beliefs.

Indeed, I disagree with Simpson's implication that "azza" always has to be about declaring some sort of authority over a subject, or one-upping your intended audience. I think an "azza" statement is just as often made to be helpful, or to create a connection, or simply to help define ourselves to strangers.

Which brings me to my ultimate point, which is don't be a single "azza." Now what do I mean by that?

Due to circumstances of career, ambition, and certain phobias regarding commitment, I've done a lot of things by myself. I went to college by myself, in a far away city where I had no connections. I went to Spain by myself. I went to grad school in Britain by myself. I moved to Louisiana and now to Pennsylvania by myself. I've spent a lot of time alone and I've spent a lot of time making awesome friends and I've spent a lot of time leaving those friends and having to start over.

Not that I don't bitch about being lonely. I call my friends and I say, "OMG I'm boooored. OMG I'm going to visit. OMG I want to move."

They listen patiently, and then they tell me what I need to hear: "Everyone needs to pay their dues, and you're one of the happiest people I know. So go read a book or something."

The first part of that sentence is simply a hard fact of life, but the second part always secretly pleases me. The fact is, I am--as far as people can be, and understanding that the nature of "happiness" is a contentious subject--pretty damned happy. And I'm going to tell you my secret.

I refuse to be a single "azza." I've always been leery of joining things: I never wanted to be the president of anything, or really identify myself with things. I was a big theater geek in high school, but then I didn't even try out for our big Senior musical because I just wasn't feeling it anymore. I always liked stuff, and was passionate about stuff, but I never let it define me. I don't think this compulsion, mind you, is entirely based on positive aspects of my personality. I'm sure that a lot of it can be put down to my sheer cussedness, the fact I'm more than a bit weird, and that little commitment-phobia I mentioned earlier.

In the long run, however, a more balanced version of this orneriness has served me well. It's not that I never commit to things, and it's not that I'm not passionate--in fact, it's the complete opposite. I throw myself into everything I do with gusto, and I do things thoroughly and I always try to find enjoyment in them.

What I'm careful never to do, however, is just one thing.

For example, I love being an author. If I were never to write another word, I'd be really gutted. But I'd still have my teaching, and my family, and my traveling, and my friends, and my cooking, and I've always wanted to take up knitting, and I'm currently obsessed with running and zumba, and I really, really want to try swing dancing . . .

I refuse to be defined by anything I do, even the cool things. I'm not just an author. I'm not just a professor. I'm not just a woman. I'm not just from Illinois. I'm not just a closet expatriate forced to live in the middle of America. I'm not just any one thing.

It's probably the age I'm at--right at the beginning of my 30s--but I'm seeing a lot of fall out in the lives of friends and acquaintances who did invest in one idea of themselves, and are now struggling to find meaning in their lives as those investments either fall apart or don't pan out. They're struggling to figure out how to be more than a spouse, once the marriage failed. Or how to accept the idea that their job is just a job. Or how to be more than a parent now that the kids only want them for their car keys. Or how to age gracefully when they were always the Beautiful Youth.

The fact is, all of us will fall. We will fail. We will leave things we thought we loved and be left by those we still do love. We will age and sag. Knees will give out, as will interest, desire, and will.

These losses will leave holes in our lives and in our hearts. But the trick is not to build our lives on any one foundation. Love many things, live for many things, and be open to finding new passions.

We can always take up knitting, and Rachael can teach us. ;-)


Gigi Pandian said...

Nicole, you have said this SO MUCH more eloquently than I ever could! This is such an important lesson in life, and one that's tough to stick to because many people *do* want to shoehorn others into a particular role.

A couple years ago, I thought I should create business cards when I started attending writers conventions. When I asked people for advice about what I should put on the cards, the vast majority said that I should *not* say anything about being a designer and photographer (or anything else) in addition to being a writer. They said it was confusing and that I needed to pick *one.* Needless to say, I was displeased. I weighed the advice, but then decided it was not ME to do things like that.

Perhaps it's the experience of having also been a theater geek in high school -- that interesting intersection of being an outgoing outcast -- that taught me the lesson. If I have to define myself as one thing, I'll say I'm a creative and leave it at that.

Evalyn said...

Nicole, you have defined me more precisely than I every could have done myself. And it's not just an age range - it's who I am. I am 61 and I have always been this way, much to the dismay of my family who worry that I never "settle." As holes appear in my life - things change, interests shift, something sparkely attracts my attention - I turn to something else. As I look behind me I do not see fabric with holes. I see a blanket of lace, shaped by who I was, who I am, and who I will be. I used to crochette, I currently knit, perhaps one day I will tat or embroider. I used to write poetry, now I write romance, maybe someday I will write science fiction. It seems a natural way to live to me.

Nicole Peeler said...

Gigi Pandian: LOL That's a funny metaphor for this idea, I like it. And yes, we need to have many business cards! ;-)

Evalyn: That's great! I definitely don't think living with gusto for lots of things is an age thing, I meant that comment more about being at an age where I suddenly see a lot of fallout--people could coast on one identity through their twenties, but are getting slammed now. ;-) And I love hearing your description of your life, it sounds fabulous! Thanks for commenting!

Rachael Herron said...

Nicole, I'm behind in things, but this is such a lovely, lovely post, and more: thought-provoking. I'm speaking azza writer, you know. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Wow--I *love* this. :) Sorry to be so late in commenting--I've been spending too much time as a mom of teenagers lately. ;)

I'm going to listen for the Azza more in the future. I think one of the problems that I encounter in my life is that my conversations are based on implied Azzas without ever exploring the other connections that might exist.

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