Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Symbolic Acts

Today I have been thinking about the different ways in which a person can characterize their life. The narrative one constructs - that is, the story about your life that you tell - not only shapes and gives meaning to the past and presents a certain version of you to the world, but also gives force to the future.

For example, when I look back, my life appears to have distinct periods that have been shaped by two big factors: where I lived, and the job that I had. The geographic place is important because it relates to or stands for so many other things, such as the people in that place that I spent time with, my daily activities, and my interests and leisure pursuits. The affordances of a place allow or constrain what a person does. When I lived in a snowy place with a ski hill nearby, I skied a lot more than when I lived on the prairies. I pursued art more avidly when I lived in towns with a well- developed art community, and I gardened more when I lived in a house with a suitable yard.

Work takes up close to one third of my waking hours. Therefore much of what I actually do each day, my interactions with people, and my goals and accomplishments are deeply embedded in my work. My work is not just what I do for money. It is very much aligned with my life work and my identity. When I think about striving to have a good life, having good work that I care about certainly is an important part, for me.

Another way of thinking about a life, my life, is by life stage, such as early childhood, being a mother of young children, my first marriage, and so on. Yet another way is by thinking of the network of relationships, and how that network has shifted and expanded at various points in time. Every year when I make a valiant and usually only partly successful attempt to send out Christmas cards, I dig out old Christmas card lists from years past. Looking at those lists and flipping through my ancient address book (yes, it's black, and it hasn't yet been completely superseded by electronic contact lists) always makes me feel sad. So many people that I have moved far away from or lost touch with!

There are themes or strands within these broader kinds of life categories. For example, I could think about my various networks of work colleagues over time. Or, recently, I was thinking of the many ways in which my life has been touched by mental illness, whether of family members, friends, work colleagues, or community members.

Tonight, I was especially thinking about symbolic acts that have been highly significant in my life. Perhaps I am unusually introspective, but throughout my life, I always have been alert to key moments of insight, and have ruminated on these "aha" moments and tried to remember the lessons that have come out of them. Similarly, at life turning points, I often have initiated a symbolic act or ceremony to mark the change or decision. Some of these are the ceremonies common to our most of us in this society: those that accompany births, graduations, weddings, and deaths.

As important as these are, it was the smaller but deeply meaningful personal symbolic acts that I was thinking about. Some I only recognized as important afterwards, and others were intentional. As an example, when I was thirteen, I decided that I was no longer a child. As a child I had a favourite climbing tree. I would often stop and climb this tree on my way home from school or my friend's house. I would sit on a branch way up high in the tree and look down an the world and think about things. At age thirteen, I went to the tree and climbed it one last time. I climbed the tree to say good-bye to my childhood, and good-bye to the tree. I told myself that it would be the last time that I would ever climb that tree because I was leaving such childish things behind. I created this symbolic act as a way to mark my transition to adolescence.

Another example of a symbolic act occurred after the death of my first husband. We had a long rectangular dining room table that we used when guests came over. Typically, he would sit at the head of the table, and I would sit on his left, near the door to the kitchen. For some time, I left that seat at one end of the table empty and continued to sit in my usual spot. And then, at some point in time, I moved into that seat at the head of the table. I did so consciously. I thought: "I am the head of my family, and this is my family, and we will have a good life as a family." It was an act of agency. It shaped my future and my way of thinking about myself and my role as a parent.

As I sat in the crowded airport under dingy fluorescent lights tonight waiting for my flight, I pulled out a pencil and piece of paper and made a list of personal symbolic acts. I looked at my list and thought of the meaning represented by each act, and could see certain themes that crossed over time. The list of symbolic acts represents another kind of framework that characterizes my life.

By the way, I went back to that tree once more when I was visiting my home town in my mid-twenties and climbed it again. I climbed it to say to my thirteen-year-old self: "No, you don't have to give up your childhood passions. Hold on to them. You are never too old for life."

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