Going for a walk with the dog in the afternoon is usually a safe activity. Quiet. Just me and my dog. We — Gia (little dog) and I — didn’t think anything of the slightly disheveled, grey-haired guy heading toward us. We moved onto the grass boulevard to the right side of the sidewalk to make room for him to walk by.
He stopped just as he passed my left shoulder, turned around and asked, “Do you have a few minutes?”
I turned to face him.
He continued. “Do you have a few minutes to talk? Under the tree, out of the sun..?”
He had a pen and notepad.
I smiled and said “sure” but did not remove my sunglasses.
In the shade of the tree Gia intuited that we weren’t going anywhere for a while. She circled a spot on the sidewalk a few times and plopped down at my feet and curled up into a tight furball.
I listened as he explained what he was doing. He asked me a few questions and at question three, I removed my sunglasses so that I could make eye contact with him.
Question three was, “what do you do?”
Just like that it came out. Ahead of thought, ahead of filter and inner critic, the word, the declaration flew out of my mouth, through his pen, into his notebook. Sense of safety evaporating.
I didn’t say that I haven’t written a thing in over a year. The last column was published a year ago this month. Parker died a month later. Haven’t written since then.
I didn’t say that my writer self is wrestling with all the other parts of my self (not that a self, per se, exists) to see if there’s any more of anything to write or is it just quiet, silent, time. That space and place between now and then where things happen in the inbetween.
But I said writer out loud. I had to qualify it and added that I’m not working right now. Perhaps he understood the coded message, that I am not writing. Not a thing. Not a word. It isn’t writer’s block, or writer’s blockade. It’s simply not writing.
What do I do? Lots of things. I could have answered other things that would have been true and made me sound interesting. Like, oh, I teach. Or I’m studying. But no. Once a word is spoken, it’s out in the world. It can’t be taken back. Out of my mouth came writer. Like a pirate stepping out blithely from the open mouth of a whale.
What do I do? Writer. I said it. He caught it.
I answered other questions. Gave him my full attention. When all the questions were answered, he checked the spelling of my name, bent down to scratch Gia’s ears, said goodbye and went off to find someone else to interview. I put my sunglasses on and headed off in toward the dog park, contemplating this question asked by the man who stopped me on the street: “what do you do?”
Perhaps my evil alter ego got in the way. There is that DSM-V certified toxic narcissism disorder in my family history, which I thought psychic surgery and duck therapy fixed. Perhaps remnants remain and the right questions posed in the right sequence triggered it?
Perhaps I wanted to project an interesting sort-of-truth because what I do as a woman who’s working life is in transition is too complicated to explain, talk about, even admit to?
And yet…As soon as I opened my mouth, I fell into that trap. Education, parenting, media, our society, our culture. Who I am defined by what I do or don’t do.
A writer who isn’t writing is like a boat hanging out in its dry dock, a yogi not practising asanas, a musician not picking up her instrument, a photographer not using a camera.
Seems I mindlessly bought into doing as an indication of being something, someone who requires a designation that matters. Seems I poured a lot of meaning into a question that has no value except to give a sort of shorthand, a label. A label to convey something about me linked mental models of whatever a writer does. A label that people believe conveys a cogent snapshot of the person who holds the label, writer.
Gia and I got to the dog park and I let her off lead to run around with her canine crew. I picked the label from my mind and let it go.
What do I do? Enough thank you, and you?
If a reporter asked what you do, how would you answer it?