Identities: an alphabet

by Jeff Oaks

There’s an animal one I can’t quite shake and frankly love to feel steal over me sometimes when I’m out walking in the woods, bent over a stream turning over shale for salamanders. There’s still a boy identity who hates to be interrupted from his silences, who likes candy, who may kill me.  I want to say there’s a dog-self, although that would be taking on only the characteristics I like (greater awareness for example) without taking on the burden of the ones I don’t (less life) or can’t imagine, something Jamelle Bouie, in a Slate piece on the recent controversy surrounding Rachel Dolezal, points out and which has now gotten me thinking.  Sometimes an electrical self wakes me up in the middle of the night to look at the moon.  I often think I am female culturally, or do I only lean toward what seems stereotypically female–listening, waiting, being invisible until needed; I trust women so much more than men, having been raised by and saved by women primarily.  In terms of gender-identity, I have never had a strong biological or psychological urge to inhabit another gender than male, so I seem squarely cismale, a word autocorrect wanted to make “dismal”. H is for Hawk is a recent bestseller in which a woman projects onto a bird many things her own self seems unable to maneuver otherwise. What part of the self is hard-wired, is impossible to hide or hood? The homosexual in me knew itself early, I would say.  I, I, I, the mind goes on thinking, as if the self were a vertical stick instead of a dammed stream. A number of people in my neighborhood call me by my dog’s name, and often I feel surprised that my name is legally Jeffrey, but there I am, it is. I have killed innumerable ants, wasps, spiders, centipedes, slugs and some part of myself was glad for it. There is a self who–how can I say this?–enjoys lying. Sometimes I feel the urge to say, “Once, a man did a terrible thing to me.” Or to whisper, “I am not who you think I am.” That self gets so tired of people interrupting or not paying attention; it is hard to nothing to speak of, to be a lacuna. At the same time there’s a firmly middle class self that reminds me of that dream of a safe and liberating retirement everyone around me growing up imagined as the greatest good. Is there a night-self, out of which the vampire is the introvert’s form and the werewolf is the extrovert’s? What about the self who climbed trees because my last name suggests we might have come out of them once?  There’s the poetic self (And is that the same as an identity?) who pesters and delights me with jokes, whispers, incantations for turning one thing into another. I think of most of my selves as queer at the core, even if I don’t dance quite as freely in public anymore. My racial identity is Caucasian, and so hard to hold and see, it being more often called White and hard to tell from the rational, the normal, the insufferably right. Do I have a spiritual self anymore? Not a religious one for sure. I prefer the Buddhist and Taoist and not the rule-bound desert apocalyptics. I prefer Alice Walker’s version of church in The Color Purple, as a place where everyone brings their God, not where reports to one who is Only. There’s a teacherly self who brings home the bacon, who has paid for the car, a house, impossibly it sometimes seems out of a mixture of listening and talking to strangers about words. Some days I forget myself in him. Who am I. Who do the students imagine I am? I mostly love my (is it even my?) unconscious self that often leaves me presents in journals, in scraps of paper I find days later, in dreams where men who are shadows, shadowy, dark, often appear. Of my violences, I must admit there have been some, a self who has surprised and ashamed me at least five times, rising as suddenly through some depth as a shark to attack. I fear him. My writerly self is more professional, a careerist bastard sometimes who mopes about rejections and can’t wait to publish acceptances, who fumes and envies, throws money away on contests whose winners he hates, who is waiting for all the work to pay off with what? What will be enough? Once on a bus in England, eighteen, surrounded by brown faces in that country where I had not expected to be different, I was choked with fear; I had to get off immediately, walking the rest of the way to my destination. What else but a half-conscious xenophobic self?  There’s a self who just yawned at that, bored and ready to sneak away, unable to stay awake when threatened or cornered. There is also that self I call Zero, who is always awake, who keeps one eye always on the nothing to come, who keeps count, who throws dice, calculates odds, whose breathing I hear even at parties, like the filming of ice.