Who you are is what you do.

Or it isn’t.

I’ve wondered about this for a long time. I used to feel sadness about people I knew who had started out wanting to do one thing with their lives and ended up not doing it but doing something else.

Were they different people? Was there loss to mourn?

There’s a song in Sunday in the Park with George called “We Do Not Belong Together.” It’s one of the most poignant songs about the creative process and its effect on relationships I know.

George sings:

I am what I do
Which you knew
Which you always knew
Which I thought you were a part of—

And his lover, Dot, interrupts him:

You are complete, George,
You are your own.
We do not belong together.
You are complete, George,
You all alone.
I am unfinished,
I am diminished
With or without you….

Which is a lie she tells herself to avoid self-discovery, I think, or because her heart is shredded by leaving him. She continues:

No one is you, George….
No one is you and
No one can be,
But no one is me, George,
No one is me.

When I was young and in love with one of the wrongest of boyfriends, I saw this as the Story of Us. He was the one who was complete without me, he was what he did, and I was not — yet I had the presence of mind to come to the same discovery as Dot: Each of us is a unique being.

And each of us does something different. In my family, there are many people who are not at all what they do. My father was someone whose self-identity had little to do with his work life; he worked to support the activities that mattered to him. That always seemed a little sad to me, but I don’t think it was to him.

I spend a lot of time focusing on doing rather than being. Part of that is because I’m fairly uncomfortable with my inner monologue, and most of the time, I’d rather be so busy I don’t have to hear it. For the same reason, I don’t meditate. This can lead to a frantic sense of grasping for accomplishment in the material world, though it can also lead to breakthroughs in my thoughts and my experience of the world. Publishing an unrefined snapshot of my thinking every day, as I’ve been doing since March 11 of this year, is a form of doing that is instructive. I learn so much about myself and the world and my place in it and what happens when I dig down and share the uncertain messy tangles that thread through my brain.

This is doing AS being. This is learning, one of my most beloved activities or states of being. I love epiphany, and I’m most likely to encounter or create it through activity. Doing.

The thing is that I feel like I’m mostly being even when the evidence is that I’m mostly doing. And I use the whole distinction to punish myself for some lack I perceive, some sense of not-enough: not productive enough, not busy enough.

These thoughts are forward in my mind today in part because I met with my sister and the editor of our memoir, the memoir we’ve been working on since before our father died, a memoir of his life and death. We have chosen to turn our path of being in grief to doing as we process our experiences through writing about them. Yet moving forward in this project has becoming harder as Dad’s death gets farther away, and we’re struggling with what that means. Today we discussed taking time away from actively writing, which feels like not doing, and simply being for a while.

Being what, though? If we don’t write, are we writers? If we don’t finish the memoir, are we good daughters?

There’s another related question parallel to this one, a question about hospice and death and palliative care and medical intervention: How can NOT taking action be better care for a dying person than trying to save them? How can deciding to die without further treatment be an action?

Perhaps the reason the answer to my opening question (do or be?) slips around like tiddlywinks is that such discussions about death are so taboo. I feel myself trying to link together a mass of issues and I don’t know if I can spell out the connective tissue:

  • Am I what I do or what I am?
  • Can I do by simply being?
  • How can I help others take care of their loved ones if I don’t finish writing the book that explains why it is healthier to avoid treatment in many cases than to seek hospital care? Can I help others simply by being? Doesn’t being include saying which is a form of doing, and one of the things I’m best at?

Wow, sometimes it takes a while to get to the point. Here is what I know that I didn’t know when I went through a notepad and pulled out something I wrote down a while back and slapped it at the top of a page and started responding: My concern over writing the memoir with my sister is woven of many threads, and the one I’m most interested in tugging on these days is, loosely, communication around health and death.

Last week I had a conversation with someone who suggested that while death is a worthy interest of mine, it may not be the most inspiring place to start attracting people to work with me. I’m sitting with that idea, just as I’m sitting with the idea that it is the ideal place to start, just as I’m sitting with the idea that not writing is a part of the writing process and the fear that once I stop I won’t start again is as real or unreal as the belief that I will be able to start when I am ready.

Boy, I’m glad that I pledged to publish the unpolished grit of my mind every day. Otherwise I’d be forced to coat this until it was smooth and polished, and my time would be so full of doing I wouldn’t be able to give being a chance.

Thanks for listening, my friends. If you ever want to talk, I consider these posts my contribution to a conversation, and I’m dying to hear what you have to say.