1 EAGLETON NOTES: Who Defines You?

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Friday, 19 July 2013

Who Defines You?

I had a very unusual and interesting morning today.  Just as I was drawing close to Delights (a speciality foods shop with a couple of tables for customers to have coffee and cakes) in Stornoway's North Beach Street a car parked in front of the shop signalled to pull out.  I stopped to let the driver do so and then reversed into the space.  I then went in and, much to my surprise and pleasure there was a table free.  I could have a coffee - their coffee is superb.  I sat down and as I was drinking my coffee and writing a billet doux to a friend I realised that the person at the counter ordering a coffee was someone I had known for nigh on 40 years but not seen in the flesh for many years.  Hugs all round and thus started a coffee binge and a couple of hours catching up.  Interestingly though, because she is so well known as a Gaelic media presenter amongst other things, a number of people who came in for coffee take-aways also ended up spending time at the table.  Therein lies the point of the title to this post.

To go back a step.  When I came to the Island in the mid 70s I was puzzled by the first question everyone (who was local) asked anyone they met.  That question was "How old are you?"  The reason for the question was to establish you in the appropriate year at school so that you could be identified by reference to the questioner's siblings or cousins or some other relative.  In that way could you be defined. The fact that I could not be defined in that way because I had not been brought up on the Island didn't stop the question being asked.

Because of the position I held when I came to the Island and, when I retired from public life, the business I had, I knew a lot of people: many or perhaps most were my age or older.  Some were incomers who have long since left the Island.  Some were locals who have passed on or, like me, retired from the public glare.  They were however the people whose contemporaries I was: they were the people who defined me in public life.  They are no more ergo I am no more.

Thus it was today that when my friend introduced me to each person in turn we had to find a point of reference.  Interestingly as each relationship was explored and discussed it turned out that I knew their fathers.  Scotland is a small place and Lewis is an very small place.  The good Scots saying was used a lot: I kent his faither.

This contrasts with the opposite end of the spectrum to which I have recently been accustomed: being known by the moniker of Gaz's father.  It has happened on a significant number of occasions recently.  Gaz, of course, was brought up from the age of one on the Island: he is an Islander through and through.

Thus are we all in one way or another defined by reference to someone or something else.

21 comments:

  1. There are many folks on my island, who only know me as "Natalie's Mummy," and I guess that's what defines me in those instances.
    I am even known as "Chris's sister" in some circles. Chris was my brother.
    No matter what, I answer to them all, because I know it's me that they mean.

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    1. Virginia you, too, live on an Island but I suspect that one big difference between you and me is that you were born and brought up on the island (I have always assumed that anyway) whereas I was not.

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  2. That type of connecting is done here too. I went from being Junior's girl to Charles' wife to ____'s mom. (Junior was my mom's nickname.) Then after my kids were adult, I finally (to some of my students' parents) became THE Mrs. Ruttan because of many school parents shopped where my oldest son was the grocery store manager. I don't and didn't mind how I was addressed just so I was remembered. And I'm sure that you certainly are, Graham.

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    1. Norma I think that one of the things about life in the public eye (and I don't count teachers in this because they have a special relationship with their pupils and their parents) is that as soon as you cease to be in the role you are, to all intents and purposes, forgotten by all except, perhaps, those with whom you worked. That is why, I think, I am now known by many as Gaz's Dad rather than in my own right. The current generation didn't know me in my professional role because I retired nearly 20 years ago.

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  3. oh so many questions after reading that.
    I hadn't realised you had been on the island quite so long - I am filtering all the information I have acquired from reading for so many years - am i right that you were a lawyer and then went to Lewis, and ran a pottery business? With your wife? and you already had both children when you moved there. What took you there?

    What defines me. I can no longer answer that at all. It reminds me of that cartoon where the wife says to her long time husband - remind me again, which of us doesn't like fish. Past relationships, four children, and being adopted, dealign with my family and a new family. Being single... teaching, my career... I have had to spend a lot of time lately working out what I want to do, who I want to be, even who I really am! Working out what gives me pleasure without putting others needs before my own. I am enjoying being able to do things freely without caring whether it bothers other people or not. Not reckless. Just feeling like giving a middle finger salute occasionally :) I think I am ok. I like myself - I feel relaxed in my own company, perhaps more so than I ever have before. All good progress. I can say that in New Zealand, Maori culture asks you to define yourself by your water and your mountain. I can say that the waters tumbling into the car park in Moulin from the base of Ben Vrakie in Pitlochry hold special fascination for me, and Mt Manaia in Whangarei is my mountain. Seems as good a definition as any :)

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    1. Me first Fiona. I read public administration and then business administration post grad. I did read law both as a degree and at the English bar but abandoned it. My ambition had always been to become a town clerk in some small English country town (hence the need for a law degree) but they were done away with by the reform of local government. I was offered a senior post in the Western isles and took it "for two years". I never left. My wife and I had two children who were aged 1 and 2 when we came to Lewis. My wife and I separated when the children had left school.

      Despite what you say about the complications in your life you still have a career and you teach (and thus create a special relationship with your pupils that most of us never have) and can be defined far more in your own right than many of us. So you may feel that you don't know who you are by reference to others but others know you by reference to yourself. Does that make sense?

      Whilst Maori culture asks one to define ones self by reference to one's water and mountain so far as a reference to 'who' is concerned the fano (or whano) is comparable to what one finds in communities like Lewis as well.

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  4. What a lovely story, Graham. I'm sure in Gaz's eyes, it was always a privilege to be your son.

    What defines me? A very small group of family certainly does. But during my working days, there would be another small group that would remember me, I think in a good way.
    More importantly, how do I define myself? I'm newly trying to figure that out. After recently going on depression meds, I'm realizing that I have been pulling the covers over my own eyes and actions for a long time. Waking up (and I do mean that literally), I want to do better. I would like to define myself with a clear vision, a high standard, and whether anyone else knows it or not, no matter that I thought I was before, be someone that I can be more proud of.

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    1. Thank you Lisa. I would like to think that I never did anything to make him other than proud of his Dad but, of course, one can never be the judge of that in one's self.

      It has always struck me from my reading of all that you have said over the last few years since I've known you in Blogland that you have very high ideals and it surprises me that you are suggesting that you weren't proud of yourself. Are you perhaps setting too high standards for yourself? Not that one shouldn't strive for that but sometimes contentment can be elusive. I wish you well in your efforts. Don't be too hard on yourself though, please.

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  5. That was interesting - and a little bit scary.I feel a sudden urge to go and add another hundred friends on Facebook before I cease to exist. ;) Not much family, no job to define me any more, and my friends rather scattered and knowing me from different contexts. Who am I? - Just now, in the process of selling The House and its contents, I present myself as my father's daughter and my grandfather's granddaughter. Once we've sold the House perhaps I should start thinking of a new identity!

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    1. You've raised a very real issue Monica. I live on a small Island where I have lived for many years and have lived amongst people whom I knew and who knew me. If I had moved away to, say, Glasgow to retire or even back to the city of my birth (where I know absolutely no one) I would have no reference points either. You are still young enough if you were so inclined to start creating reference points but at my age that is a virtual impossibility.

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    2. As someone who worked one side of the Mersey and lived that side his whole life my coming to The Wirral - a massive couple of miles across the Mersey - has left me almost without definition. I commented to Jo the other day that it said something when the people who know me best are the receptionists in the doctor's surtgery and the pharmacist and her staff.

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    3. I think that is one of the things that keeps me on Lewis even though most of my close friends who came to the Island at the same time as I did have left in recent years. Ironically I now have a very strong friend base in New Zealand.

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  6. A realy interesting post, GB. And I suppose that after who defines you comes what defines you (what you do/have done, where you live, what colour/race/political persuasion etc you are/have). I've always thought that if you lived alone on a desert island, and never had contact with the outside world, you wouldn't have much sense of identity at all.

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    1. Yes Frances. I nearly omitted the 'what' from the last sentence of my post because, in reality, the 'what' is far too wide a subject for such a post.

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  7. Interesting. It makes me realise how small Stornoway must be. There is something both reassuring and slightly stifling in that network of people who know you. I think I might feel a great urge to break away and do something outrageous!

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    1. The thing about communities like the Outer Hebrides, Jenny, is that despite it's smallness the people are of two sorts (and this is, of course, an archetypal exaggeration) those who haven't been out of the Island and those who have been everywhere in the world. Of the people who during the morning sat at the table at least three (including me) had lived or worked in New Zealand (for example). My son and the daughter of friends coming to dinner this evening have both travelled the world both for pleasure and with their work. Many people work away from the Island but keep a home on the Island because it is such a good place to live and bring up children. So I think many Islanders have the best of both worlds: the re-assuring comfort of belonging and the adventure of breaking away (and, doubtless doing many outrageous things in the process).

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  8. I'm now the bloke, whom Molly takes for a walk. There are worse ways of being identified.

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  9. Very interesting indeed!
    Having lived most of my life (from when I was six years old) in this town of around 89.000 inhabitants, I am usually not defined by others in connection with relatives or other people, but people either know me (for instance, because we went to school together) or they don't (which is of course true for the majority of those 89.000).
    But when I am in Yorkshire, as I have just been, I am presented to others as "my sister-in-law" or "daughter-in-law" or "Stephen's widow", which is fine by me, because otherwise people would certainly not know how to place me in the context of whoever it is who is introducing me at that particular moment.

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    1. Meike you are fortunate that you have an identity of your own having gone to school in the area where you live. It gives you a sense of belonging to a place that, however much I feel I belong here on Lewis, I can never achieve.

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  10. A very interesting question, GB. For many years I was known as Rob's wife, or Arlene's mother. Then as Arlene grew up and married and moved away, I became defined by my day job, which I loved. Which was both good and bad, because when my boss retired and laid me off, I was totally adrift. It didn't help that my parents and extended family had just reached a point where everything (it seemed) fell upon me to take care of and solve. That went on for nealy ten years. I was exhausted.

    Now, I am still trying to redefine myself in light of my new circumstances. It doesn't help that I've felt a bit of an outsider. For one thing, I was born in Canada, so my early frame of reference is different. When I was about fourteen, I realized that not everyone sees things as I do. This came as a result of an unfortunate remark I made in the presence of someone who took serious umbrage.

    I am also an introvert, though with fairly good coping skills in dealing with the world at large. Yet I still prefer smaller groups and find that two is a very fine number indeed.

    As my mother used to joke, I have no idea what you're going to be when you grow up, Carol! I'm still trying to find out. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    xoxo Carol

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    1. Your comment raises lots of points Carol which makes me realise that your situation is far from simple or clear cut. Finding a point of reference for other people is one thing but finding a point of reference for one's self is infinitely harder. Your words have, in turn, given me much food for thought.

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