I had a dream last night that I lost my Southern accent, and no one could understand what I was saying. My students stared at me puzzled as if they couldn’t comprehend one word that left my lips. While I don’t necessarily think dreams have definite meaning or contain predictions, I can’t help but notice this particular one comes at a time when I am very much doubting, questioning, and trying to find “my voice.”
I’ve noticed when I teach lately that I pronounce my words differently. Unneeded syllables my Southern accent had added onto vowel sounds are beginning to disappear. I hear myself say, “Upward Facing Dog,” and I make sure to say it like, “Uhpwerd Facin’ Dawg,” the second time. I never thought I was too attached with any sort of Southern identity (God knows there’s plenty to not be that proud of) until I left.
In my yoga teacher training, we did an exercise where we had to make a list of all the things we were: I am a woman, a daughter, a wife, a student, a pet owner, a yogi etc. I remember looking over my list and wondering. Well, does being someone’s wife REALLY make me who I am? If I didn’t practice yoga would I still be me? If I was essentially the same in every other way except for some hormones and genitals, would I be something else? Almost every single one of the things that filled in the sentence, “I am ______.” were temporary conditions. Even the things I identified with most closely like being intelligent or literate could be taken away at any time with a simple head injury.
Anxious? Not all of the time.
Compassionate? Definitely not all of the time.
A friend? Depends on who you ask.
A year and a half ago, I didn’t put, “Southerner” on my list, but as my accent falls away I’m watching myself cling to that identity as well.
You may think, what is the harm in identification with positive things? For example: “I am a good person.” In the simplest explanation, when we attach to a certain identity (good or bad) it is to create a certain feeling. When we believe we are good, we feel good. We create the experience of “being good” without ever fully coming to know who we actually are. Identifying as a Southerner gives me a sense of belonging because I am here in New England. If I identify with belonging to a certain group, it saves me from feeling the pain of feeling ostracized while living in a new place. Southerner is not who I am, it’s a feeling or experience, but really nothing else.
There’s that stomping toddler within that wants to cling to all of our identities. I look over my “I am,” list I made in teacher training, and most of them I can find that they just aren’t true. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to the DMV to get my gender on my driver’s license changed to “ethereal light body.” At the very least I can acknowledge the limitations that these identities can put on me. They inform me how to act, dress, speak, and move my body. All of these things are highly dependent upon the location and time which we live, but have little to do with who and how I am.
In a way I’ve been a woman searching for an identity. Am I that yoga teacher from Arkansas? Am I that lady living in New Hampshire? If my dream were to have any meaning, I think it was telling me that there is a place within me that is beyond geographical location or cultural identification, a place that has more similarities than differences, and a place that’s just a living thing trying its best like every one else.
That’s the place you speak from.