The broach: being a person

WIN_20140202_184813I bought a broach today at what they call the weekend market because it’s only on from Friday to Sunday.

Most of the Capital City stays open late–9 pm is a typical closing time. So when I started thinking about broaches this morning, I wasn’t concerned. I went, looked around, left again, thinking I’d come back in the evening.

Except the weekend market closes at five. It was five minutes to when Peter looked at his watch and said, “It’s too late.” Only he kept looking out the window. “There are people still there. Let’s go.” So we went.

The old woman had packed up her broaches, but then took them out again for us after she understood what we wanted. Which was surprisingly not very easy, although I kept pointing to where I would wear it and saying the word for the part of national dress you put it on. A young man–perhaps a grandson–had to translate. Here, the children speak English. Hardly anyone else outside the elite and privileged do.

Although you can’t really see it in the photo, the broach is red and green. It doesn’t exactly match an of my clothes, but I had to have it.

This is not a post about broaches. It is about being a person, and how we signify that. When I put my national dress on for the first time, I felt like a person. With a broach on, I felt even more so. There was a sense of having put on my clothes–as if I had been going out in my underwear until then–because although not all Country X-ers wear broaches, all middle class women of my age do.

It’s the same with national dress. Women in Country X do not wear Western clothes. Maybe they wear them to clean the house in–I have no idea–but they don’t wear them out in the street. And so wearing what they wear made me feel better. Clothes are a part of how most of us signify that we are human. Animals don’t wear them. And maybe that’s why being forced to expose yourself is so humiliating–what is lost is the signifier.

Our displays of gender are also signifiers. Animals have a sex–and being animals so do we. But humans have a gender: we have an identity and social role organized around our sex. In fact, gender is such an important part of being human that it trumps biological sex.

I have mixed feelings about my gender–so mixed that the parts have different genders. There are even a few parts that feel without gender.

And I think my mixed feelings about gender come down to mixed feelings about being human. My experience with other human beings is so horrific I am not always sure I want to be human. Humans are cruel. They torture one another. They kill other living creatures. They are terrible.

There are times when I feel I want no part of any of that. So the broach is not just a broach. It’s about being a woman and it’s also about being human–because women are humans. It’s a way of saying, “Maybe this is okay.”


A choice of problems: looking ahead

I think I have a dog.
I think I have a dog.

I had something to write about, but then I lost it. In the midst of giving the dog a bath and watching the puppies play, the whole thing just disappeared.

I’ve been here a month now. More than a month and I wonder if anything important should have happened by now, because nothing has. Nothing except I learned how to kharata my own bathroom and I think I’ve mastered the Indian Western toilet. (And that is big, believe me.)

Meanwhile, Country X continues to worry me, this land that either does or does not have salt and pepper. (Reports appear to conflict.) But we’ll get back to that.

First, I want to tell you something that popped into my head a couple of days ago: a thought I woke up and said very clearly to myself, so clearly it was like saying it out loud.

“It’s okay that I’m different. We’re all different.”

This is important. Let me explain to you why.

If you’ve never been raised in a cult you may not understand exactly how intense the pressure to conform is. Sir Kenneth is nothing more than a whiner. In comparison to how I was raised, our public schools are absolute hotbeds of dissent and individuality.

Catchwards? Don’t disturb the unity of the church.

Fit in.

Fill your place.

Which means don’t speak up. Occupy whatever role is assigned to you. Don’t make demands. Don’t disagree. Don’t even think your own thoughts.

Planning to spend a year in a country I’ve never even set foot in means trying to imagine how I will feel and what life will be like for me under entirely new circumstances.

Me. And not anyone else.

Given that, self-knowledge is more than half of the equation. But it’s hard. Because as I listen to or read through material that’s intended to prepare us, most of it strikes me as intended for someone else who is really quite unlike me. Someone who, for example, cooks with tarragon. And cares whether Nutella is available.

At those times, I feel a little the way I do watching the foreigners in the enclave—a foreigner among foreigners.

I remember the last time I entered an entirely new culture: I didn’t know anything. It wasn’t much different than what I was doing now. I knew two “dos and don’ts”: don’t touch anyone on the head and don’t point your feet at anyone. There was a packing list. I brought the minimum.

I had never even tried the food before.

My colleagues—fellow students—knew far more than I did. Most were regional studies majors, or religion majors, or had some other definite connection to the country we were in. They knew things. And then what they had to discover what thought they knew was entirely wrong. And this was hard on them.

This was a bad idea. Now I want Nutella. Or at least chocolate. Also, I'm craving pastries stuffed with red bean paste. I need sweets.
This was a bad idea. Now I want Nutella. Or at least chocolate. Also, I’m craving pastries stuffed with red bean paste. I need sweets.

I felt lucky to be so absolutely clueless. I had nothing to be disappointed about.

That attitude of knowing nothing—Beginner’s Mind—that is crucial. Because everything you know or think you know about a far-off culture will have been filtered through the lens of your home culture and so really it is an extension of that culture rather than an entry into something new. Leaving means you also need to leave that lens behind.

This isn’t to say that you will adopt the lens of the new culture either. You will have to create a new lens, one that accommodates both perspectives to at least some extent.

So acculturation is really not about what you know. It’s about your own beliefs, your values, and to some extent your habits and ways of communicating. And it’s not just that you will be around people with ones very different from yours, but that yours will also be different.

I suspect my own lens is somewhat more malleable than most and that that is part of the difference—because, for me, that change in lens is an explicit goal. But I also know that changing the lens is stressful.

Most people deal with this stress by slowing the process down—and that’s where the tarragon comes in, and why people want to know if they can find Nutella. It is why the foreigners here in my lane seem to constitute an enclave. They have created their own culture which is not quite home and not quite Indian and then remained there, without pushing further into anything new.

But I find withdrawal—or even pacing yourself in the process–creates its own stresses. The more you retain your foreignness, the less comfortable others are inviting you into their worlds, which leaves you feeling more isolated and less supported. In addition, remaining more on the fringes of others’ personal lives means you have fewer opportunities to learn about how to communicate effectively and fewer sources to ask about how to do things that are unfamiliar. So, in turn, you find it harder to get things done because you haven’t learned how. Consequently, rather than an identity problem, you have a loneliness problem as well as an effectiveness problem and the result is frustration instead of confusion. And in the end these are really just all problems, aren’t they? None better than any of the others.

And that’s the difference, perhaps. I prefer the identity problem.

Animal, Mammal, Human

Some identities we choose, and some are chosen for us by others.
Some identities we choose, and some are chosen for us by others.

We all have identities, in concentric and overlapping circles. We are who we are because of who we are like, who we are one of, and then only after that because we are who we are ourselves.

We have national identities, racial identities, ethnic and religious identities. We are suburbanites or urbanites or village people (not the band). And then in addition to that members of our professions and our families. We have identities that are really roles: parents (or not), spouses (or single people), friends, offspring, siblings.

We need them. We need to be both ourselves and one of a group. And usually it’s a lot of groups.

Max Abrahms, a terrorism expert from Stanford University, claims that terrorists are not really working towards specific political goals: when terrorist attain their goals, they just find some other reason to exist. Their real purpose is social.

People just want to belong.

To belong, we need to understand what makes us one of a group, what makes us the same, and how we are different. You can’t have a strong identification with a group, even one you really do belong to, if you can’t grasp what makes others in that group tick.

Understanding, or at least thinking you understand, is key.

One of my favorite mammals. (I couldn't get away from cattle altogether.)
One of my favorite mammals. (I couldn’t get away from cattle altogether.)

Half the work of working through trauma is not about the events themselves. It’s about doing what you didn’t have time to do because you were too busy just getting through the day. Among them, sorting out who you are–your identity.

And identity, as I think I’ve made clear, is not just about oneself as an individual. It’s about knowing who you belong with, who is like you, who isn’t.

I only have a little of this worked out.

I know that I am an animal, that I am a mammal, and that I am human. I know that I am a piece of Creation. I have spent enough time trying to understand how we think and behave that I feel I belong (and if you’ve been reading my blog, you’ve been watching this process). I feel I know who and what I belong to.

And it’s actually pretty cool. Whatever their faults, humans are an exquisite species.

bowerbird nestWe make things, for example. As I may have mentioned, I’m housesitting for a friend right now.  I happened to glance at a basket full of jewelry sitting on her dressing this morning. Nothing extravagant, mind you. I’m not talking about rubies and emeralds and diamonds. I mean beaded things, pendants, silver. That sort of thing

Someone made those. That’s what people do.

We make jewelry and furniture and houses and paintings. We play music and tell stories.

Bowerbirds have nothing on us.

Living in Pieces

I’ve worked hard at not letting any of the pieces show. So hard, in fact, I didn’t know they existed.

I do lose time. I don’t know how much. I’m clever with myself. I fill in the gaps with likely sounding stories. Or, I have until recently. Now, I see the gaps.

In the past I might have said I just have a bad memory. I say things and have no recall of it whatsoever. Except that I’ll know when I said it if you remind me of what it was. I’ll know what happened just before and just after. But not at that moment. The last time I clearly recall losing time, I was walking down the street and the next thing I recall, I felt as though I were facing a different direction. I had the sense of having turned a corner. I hadn’t. I was still walking in the same direction. It is very much like falling asleep and waking up again a few minutes later.

I don’t know if I’ve lost only a few minutes here and there, or if there have ever been days. It’s been important to me not to know there were parts of me that were split off, had lives and personalities of their own. It was important to continue to not see them, and to not see the severity of the abuse I grew up with or the extent of the damage I needed to overcome.

It’s amazing what we can go on not seeing when we choose.

So I don’t know degree to which I was ever dissociated. I doubt I will ever know.

I do know I am much less dissociated now. But I also know I still am.

I know because my sense of what seems to constitute my self changes over time, from day to day and from moment to moment. I have thoughts that sometimes seem to belong to me and other times feel foreign. I am integrated enough to know this, to know that my perspective and identity are not fixed and that I find myself occupying different selves at different times.

The conventional wisdom about this is that it protects us from pain. I’m not so convinced. Occupying some of these selves hurts terribly. I am not spared anything when I am in them.

It seems to me it’s much more about maintaining a coherent world view and avoiding a terrifying cognitive dissonance. I say that because these various selves I have all seem to be based on fairly tight structures of logic. More than they seem to be about avoiding pain, they seem to be ways of organizing a senseless and disordered world that operates according to several different, incompatible sets of rules. Having parts appears mainly to be about trying to find pattern and order. In a sense, they are a kind of filing system, with the shells of personality and backstory laid over them.

One of these sets of rules is one in which the strong hurt the weak. Here, emotions are a liability. They cause us to lose control of ourselves, to act impulsively, and to reveal our vulnerabilities. Emotions make us weak.

It is better to be tough, to feel as little as possible, and to focus on planning, action, and goals.

Those are, essentially, the rules of the home I grew up in. They are untenable. You can’t live any kind of decent life by those rules. It’s unbearably lonely. It leaves you without empathy or the ability to connect to anyone–especially not yourself. And it forces you to relentlessly numb your own pain.

You need another part to manage the pain.

Healing for me doesn’t just mean feeling the pain that I have suppressed for so long. It means feeling it in the part that did the suppressing.

My head hurts from it. My heart hurts.


Ghost child. Dorothea Lange. 1936.

I love extended periods of time off.

They provide a chance to do what some might refer to as narcissistic navel-gazing.  I prefer to think of it as therapy.


Meet Ghost.  I did.  Sort of.

It’s difficult, however, because Ghost does not exist, or barely exists.  If you tried to shake her hand, your hand might very well go through her.  Ghost is an invisible child, a child who escapes notice, blends in, does not present with difficult needs or feelings.  Ghost keeps it cool, keeps it together.  Keeps it on the down-low.

Ghost is an ego state.

Well, I think so.  Because I don’t really know what ego states are.  I’ve read about them, but I still don’t get them.  They don’t make any sense to me, and I don’t know if that’s because I’m reading inadequate explanations or if I’m just slightly stupid.  Perhaps both.

What I seem to be able to piece together is that an ego state is a dissociated part of the self, but which lacks the amnesiac barrier of a dissociated identity.  As far as I can tell, it functions in every way as a self functions and it is formed in the same way.

I do not, I should say, have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).  I do, however, have dissociated ego states.  Ghost is one of them.

I’ve worked with a lot of them.  Most of them have nicely collapsed into a more integrated self.  (Thank you, ego states!)  Ghost is a hold-over.  She has not gone away.

I just met her today.  This is what I mean about time off.  I am either becoming psychotic or making tremendous progress.  I vote for progress.

So, that said, let’s talk about identity for a minute.  From what I understand, there are three basic sources of identity.

First, we understand ourselves based on identity-bound behaviors: in other words, through behaviors that have meaning for us or are generally held to have meaning in our larger social world.  If I consistently score well on math tests, I am likely to come to see myself as someone who is good math.  If I keep appointments and show up on time, turn in my homework or fulfill work obligations, I will see myself as responsible.

We also see ourselves as we imagine others see us.  Our imaginations may be wild or accurate, but if I believe everyone adores me, I will start to think of myself as being pretty important.

A third source of identity is our ongoing experience of ourselves.  If I regularly feel energetic, physically active, and wanting connection, I am likely to see myself as an outgoing, lively person.  If I regularly feel sad, pessimistic, and without energy, I am likely to see myself as depressive.

Ghost comes from all three forms of identity, which gives her a surprising solidity.  I am and was dissociative.  I experience much of life as if from the other side of a curtain, and both my own internal experience and the world often feel remote, unreal, or in some way numbed or washed out.  My experience of both myself and everything else is, in a very real way, ghost-like.

That is also how I was seen by important people around me: as someone who did not have real feelings or real preferences.  In a word, I did not count.

It’s interesting, because I’ve spent a lot of years sitting with therapists and telling them in a variety of ways, “I don’t exist, I don’t count, I am not really here.  I am elsewhere.”  And they, in their kindness, have told me that I do exist and I do count.

And again, my experience has not counted.  I am, again, a ghost.

Because I am dissociative and I do have discontinuous ego states, I often find myself difficult to understand.  I don’t always present a continuous image either to others or to myself, and the responses I get back are therefore discontinuous and contradictory.  But what I find interesting is how often what I have said or what I have presented about myself has been the truth–regardless of how puzzling it has been.  When I have said, “I do not exist,” I meant it.

Dissociation is a form of non-existence and is summed up best in the way my child’s mind first constructed: as paper-thin, unreal, ghost-like.  That is how life feels to me from the very inside.

What is also interesting is that to step out of this position of non-existence is to face an acute ontological challenge.  If I exist, then who am I?  If I exist, then I can no longer exist.

Further Reading:

Zaharna, Z.S.  “Self-Shock: The Double-Binding Challenge of Identity.”  (1989)  International Journal of Intercultural Relations.”  Retrieved from:

Suburban Discomfort: Across a Veil of Difference

“Would you feel uncomfortable speaking to a woman in a burqa?”

Woman in burqa protesting.
Source: 8/2/210. See

Two years ago, a diversity trainer asked this of the staff at the suburban, mainly white middle school where I taught.  I think it remains a relevant question.  For me, the question really means–at least for someone from that environment-how well have you managed change?  Are you comfortable?

I’ve been listening to the music of Faudel recently–a French-Algerian known as the Prince of Rai, although his music has drifted increasingly to mainstream French pop.  I am a huge fan of rai, but I am also reminded as I listen to what he has to sing about that Americans aren’t the only ones wrestling with questions of difference and identity.

Just as Faudel must puzzle out what it means to be French-Algerian, and the French must puzzle out what it means to be French in a nation that is now increasingly African and Muslim, we must puzzle out what it means to be American at a time when we are surrounded by difference that is, well, more different than it used to be.

I never did sit down to a parent meeting with a child’s mother in a burqa while I taught at that school, but I did meet a number who wore hijab, and I wonder about that other teacher.  Was she comfortable with the parents of the children in her class?  Was she able to navigate the change?

Hate and Difference

The rise in hate crimes against certain groups in recent years testifies to the idea that we have not as a nation been able to do so, that the change is too great for us to manage.  Some of us are quietly uncomfortable, some of us vocally so, and some of us violently so.

So let’s break down the source of this discomfort.  Let’s try together to make some sense of it.  On the one hand, there’s been a change in the world that I think most people in the United States failed to notice until 9/11 brought it home.  This is a complex change, and not one I’m sure I understand entirely.  However, to take a stab at it, extremism–including various forms of right-wing extremism, and Islamist extremism in particular–is now a serious threat to the safety and security of people around the world.

Though questions remain as to whether the ‘threat’ of the radical right is inflated and whether our fear of violence might be higher than the risk, we should not ignore this fear  (Ramalingam, Vidhya).

This doesn’t mean our hypothetical mother in a burqa is a threat, but it does mean there is a genuine threat out there with which she could be confused.  It also means some people are already more afraid, and therefore more likely to attempt to locate a reasonable source for their fear.


Meanwhile, global hot spots for armed conflicts have shifted away from the conflict zones of the 70s and 80s–Central America, Southeast Asia, Europe–and landed much more squarely in the Middle East and Africa.  Places where smaller conflagrations were already burning are now at a point of explosion.  Naturally, many people who lived in these zones of conflict and its ensuing economic problems fled–in many cases, to foreign powers involved in those conflicts, such as the United States.

Newer immigrants are, I suspect, a little more different from the immigrants who came in earlier generations–and are now more likely to be culturally, religiously, ethnically, linguistically, and sometimes racially different from desendents of the first large wave of immigration from Europe that still makes up much of the country.

Finally, immigration patterns within the United States appear to have changed as well.  Rather than heading towards large cities which have traditionally been home to much of the country’s diversity, many new immigrants are settling in suburbs, small towns, and rural areas–places that offer a quieter lifestyle and a lower cost of living.  The American Dream is now more commonly believed to be in El Segundo and Yorba Linda rather than Los Angeles and New York.

In other words, the difference is not what we’re used to, and it is appearing in places where people are less used to difference.  No wonder it isn’t all going so well.


At the same time, there is rising evidence that suspicion of difference is instinctive–and not just a bad habit or a character flaw.    It’s not just about racism or acquired prejudices, but innate.  We are anxious around people that are unfamiliar to us–the more “other,” the higher the anxiety.  The only real solution is to make the unfamiliar familiar, the worrisome safe.

However, instead, what we often do to cope with our anxieties about what is different, or simply the insecurity of the world, or our frustration at not having our grievances addressed (Ramalingam, 2012), is to retreat into the comfort of identity–especially group identities.  We look for what is most essentially “us” about ourselves, wear it prouder, say it louder, and believe it more firmly (Staub, 1992).

For example, while some of us may be more convinced than ever that the United States is superior in terms of the advancement of the status of women, and by implication, that wearing a burqa is tantamount to accepting sexism and subjugation, others are equally convinced that wearing a burqa represents being an observant and respectful Muslim.  As our discomfort increases, so do the outward markers of identity. We are uncomfortable, and this inevitably gives rise to more we might be uncomfortable about.

Today, I have no solutions.  Only problems.

Works Consulted

Ramalingam, Vidhya.  (2012, February 9).  Europe’s radical right: recognizing and managing the ‘threat.’  Retrieved from

Staub, E.  (1992).  The roots of evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence.  New York: Cambridge University Press.