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Gazing into Galadriel's Mirror: Identity & Developing a Sense of Self

Today, as part of my duties and genuine interest as a TA for ENG110, I sat in on Sonia Michaels' lecture about identity. However, calling Sonia's class a "lecture" isn't exactly correct. She works tirelessly to find new ways to engage her students, ranging from positing open-ended, thought-provoking questions to the group to researching and sharing recent TED talks and relevant articles. I have very much enjoyed working as a teaching assistant for her so far; from the very beginning, she made me feel welcome and communicated trust in my abilities to her students, which I greatly appreciate and note as a distinct mark of a skilled and thoughtful mentor.

The main focus of her class today was the concept of identity and how one defines their identity, especially compared to the definition of one's personality. It's always striking when we sit back to think about the concepts behind words that we take for granted as rudimentary and mundane. Happiness. Compassion. Love. I don't know if there are two people alive who define each of the aforementioned words in exactly the same way.

Things that were, things that are, and some things that have not yet come to pass

Sonia recommended that her students think about pivotal events in their lives that caused a fundamental shift in their identity/sense of self. As luck would have it, Ellen Beeman and I also had a chat about the importance of reversals in emotionally impactful writing during our independent study session today. These discussions got me thinking about which events in my life have drastically shifted my sense of self, and the following is a short list of some of those events:

  1. My name is Alexandra.

  • As I've discussed before, I had trouble deciding on which name I'd like to be called for many years. For a long time the default was either "Alex" or "whatever you want to call me is fine." The name "Alexandra" has a lot of nicknames, which is fun for everyone…except me. I lacked a sense of self for many reasons, but I eventually realized that deciding on my name was a way to claim a unique, personalized identity for myself.

  • These days, my family and Joel Sitte can call me Lexi, but to everyone else, my name is Alexandra. Once I committed to asking people to call me "Alexandra," I began to feel empowered by the conscious, personal choice. I firmly believe that everyone should be called by their chosen name; I have friends who prefer to go by Panda, Swan, and Bear, and I'm happy to oblige.

  1. I'll be seeing you.

  • I spent 8 wonderful, terrible, magical, depressing, stressful, invigorating, beautiful, suffocating, debilitating years in a relationship with someone I couldn't live with or without. We were both in the process of finding ourselves when we found each other, and even if I look back with rose-colored lenses, I can't deny how utterly toxic we were for each other.

  • We didn't know what we wanted or who we were, and sometimes I cringe when I think about where we each might be now if we hadn't held each other back for so long. But then I remember that I would not have found my way to DigiPen, a future career in the game industry, a job at Microsoft, extremely skilled mentors, or passionate, inspiring colleagues without him. The break-up itself empowered me to seek out new projects, work hard, become more professional, and pursue the things I truly love. As Morrigan said in Dragon Age: Origins (quoting her powerful mother, Flemeth), "Things are the way they are because they could not be any other way."

  • As destructive as the relationship was, I do find myself missing him sometimes. I suppose that this relationship is just one of those major life experiences that people carry with them in silence, carefully cradling the bits of goodness that did find their way through the grimy parts.

  1. Check your privilege.

  • When I served in the domestic Peace Corps, I worked as a services coordinator at a community center for adults experiencing homelessness in the Twin Cities. I was responsible for recruiting doctors, lawyers, VA representatives, and other professionals to provide free services for our clients and for setting up special events at the center to boost morale. During my time there, I organized and was a member of both a string quartet and a bluegrass band that performed regularly at the center and at some shelters throughout Minneapolis. I crafted an Earth Day scavenger hunt that involved 5 hours of solo arts and crafts as well as handwritten instructional scrolls whose edges I burned to give them the appearance and feel of real treasure maps. Despite the grateful send-off I received when my year of service ended, I recall feeling like I didn't do much. But, given the center's strict budget and the feeling of hopelessness that can start to creep into the minds of clients and service providers alike, I suppose I might have helped, in a small way.

  • During my first week on the job, a social worker took all of the new Peace Corps workers on a tour of some of the homeless shelters in downtown Minneapolis. I had volunteered at soup kitchens before, but those excursions were typically only 1-2 hours in duration, and most of the time I didn't interact with the clients. Growing up, I never had to worry about having food or lodging, and I dutifully accompanied my parents to extravagant charity balls for United Way, Wayside Waifs, and local non-profits.

  • This tour completely changed my perspective on homelessness and the need for social reform in the United States. At some shelters, people in need of a place to sleep in the middle of the harsh Minnesota winter had to rely on their luck in a nightly lottery because the shelters didn't have enough space. Anyone who didn't win such a lottery was left with two choices: sleeping in the huge overflow shelter or sleeping outside. While that might seem like an easy choice, many people chose to sleep outside because of the inhumane conditions of the overflow shelter. Each person was issued a 5x2 mat akin to the mats I used for tumbling in middle school gym class. The men were packed tightly into a huge room, covering every single inch of floorspace with a mat. Clients had to contend with foul smells, people constantly stepping over you to get to the bathroom or the exits, and theft was rampant. Women were issued the same small mats, but they slept in hallways on the floors above, shielding their eyes from harsh hallway lights that had to always remain on, night or day.

  • My most vivid memory of my time in the domestic Peace Corps was when I was driving home from this shelter tour. I was completely shaken, barely able to comprehend that people in my country were forced to live in such squalor. During some point in my journey, I spotted a billboard advertising some type of plastic surgery. The financial waste, selfish vanity, and obsession with materialism summed up by that advertisement was more than I could bear after everything I had seen that night; I cried so hard that I had to pull over.

  • That experience made me appreciate the support of my loved ones and pushed me to advocate for and pursue social justice as a rigid part of my identity.

  • I love to communicate. If you're one for horoscopes, I'm a Gemini, the Zodiac sign ruled by Mercury, the god of communication. Prior to my break-up one year ago, I enjoyed using social media, but I didn't see it as a tool to brand and advertise myself. It was a fun way to pass the time (or a way to pass the time, anyway).

  • After my break-up, I made a conscious choice to strive to be more professional in everything that I do. Talented colleagues like sound designer Justin Jacox and technical writer Robert Gervais also inspired me to level up, and so I began to research social media tips and revamp all of my public-facing content. I combed through countless infographics, learning about bizarre metrics like the best time to post on Facebook and the function of a Twitter account. Eventually I realized that I enjoyed this research, and I started to post my findings on my professional Facebook page.

  • My increased activity on social media has led to some amazing opportunities that I would otherwise not have secured. It was because of this quest for knowledge that I was eventually asked to work as the DigiPen PAX 2015 Arcade's Social Media Manager, and I had a great time doing it. I also learned of Sonia's need for a TA via one of her Facebook posts and was one of the first people to volunteer; had I not seen her post until later, she may have selected someone else, and the chance to work with her would have been lost.

  • Because I am always checking my phone and updating my calendar, I also respond to Facebook messages, emails, and text messages very quickly, which I think others appreciate. As soon as someone asks me to do something, I get it done. Have a question? I'll answer it immediately or point you to someone who can. I get an indescribable rush from helping people and feeling "in the know," and so the hours I spend on social media do not seem senseless or wasteful. At this point, I think that most of my friends and acquaintances consider me a social media maven, and I happily accept this unofficial title as part of my identity.

The concept of identity may be difficult to define (don't worry, Sonia; I won't cite Merriam-Webster/Wikipedia), but one's identity is something that everyone should think about sooner rather than later. After my break-up last year, I realized that I had no idea what I liked to do for fun, what my career goals were, or who I wanted to be when I grew up. All I knew was that I needed to start over; there was no other option. Without my 8-year-ex, I didn't have someone telling me what I should like or what kind of person I should be. It was frankly a terrifying experience, but now that I've made it to the other side, I know that I'm where I've always wanted to be. I am a strong, independent, passionate, opinionated, dedicated, professional, communicative, compassionate, and giving woman who would bend over backwards for a student, stay up until the wee hours working on a passion project, and support even acquaintances in their professional and personal pursuits.

I am Alexandra.

Copyright Alexandra Lucas 2015

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