Archives for posts with tag: identity

June 10th, 2011, was my last day at work at my last “real” job. I left that job to move cross-country, ending three years of bi-coastal marriage. Had I known I would be less than fully employed three years later, I might not have been so sanguine about relocating.

Those of you who have followed this blog know that I have been looking for work, with varying degrees of  effort, since I have been back in North Carolina. I tried to find a place in my field, and my efforts were met with indifference. Uncertain that I cared to knock myself out to start at the bottom  when I’d left at the top, I looked at new avenues of employment, and my efforts were met with indifference.

I realized that I was most likely part of the problem, and I began to explore the things that were holding me back. I’ve written about some of them, and will continue to do so. There is no such thing as “finished” when it comes to self-awareness and improvement. I got help with my resume, polished my LinkedIn profile, and started joining groups and getting out more.

Last fall, I rededicated myself to finding full-time work. I systematically searched and applied to a range of interesting positions where I felt my skills would transfer. By April of this year, I had made dozens of applications and inquiries, to “stretch” positions, but also to three investigative jobs where I had solid, easily recognized experience.

In mid-May, I was discouraged and despondent, bemoaning the lack of response to anyone I could get to listen. I tried to get a grip. I reminded myself of the adage “Success is what happens right after you don’t give up” and I felt cheesy.

Remarkably, the next day, I got a call. I scheduled an interview. Today, exactly three years after leaving my old job, I am accepting the new one, doing exactly the same thing.

There is another saying: “If you do what you have always done, you will get what you have always gotten.” Sometimes, that is a bad thing. This time it is not. What I will get now is another  opportunity  to be of help to people who need it, to spend my days with like-minded people in service of the same goals, and to know my place in the world again.

Did the resume, the online presence, the introspection and  all the rest help, or was it simply a matter of allowing opportunity to present itself? Either way, I am finally home.


How many of you are familiar with Marlo Thomas? If you are my age, you may recall her as the spunky, spritely Ann Marie in the 1960’s sitcom “That Girl.” ( I wanted to be her.) You kids out there may recognize her as the spokeswoman for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, founded by her late father, the comedian Danny Thomas.

Somewhere between That Girl and St. Jude’s, Ms. Thomas married talk show host Phil Donahue, and more notably, generated the idea for a children’s book and album entitled, “Free to Be You and Me,” which celebrated diversity among all people.

I was too old to be in the target audience for that admirable endeavor, but the catchy title has stayed with me.

I’ve borrowed and adapted it for the title of my Icebreaker Speech this evening, which is:

Free to Be Me and Me

As a child, I learned to view the world simply. There was Good and Bad, Right and Wrong.

Doing what I was told was “Good;”  sassing or talking back, “Bad.” Simple, right? Especially for a kid with a burning need to be “Good.” I tried as hard as I could to be good. It was the only way to be.

There comes a moment in every kid’s life when childhood collides with reality, and shades of gray begin to color a previously black and white world. At some point, we must accept that we will not do everything right, all of the time, no matter how hard we try.

Nobody’s perfect, especially me. This was a tough concept for me to grasp.

Although I like to see myself as a certain sort of person, the reality is, I’m not just one way.

A hard worker, capable of staying on task for hours and producing great results, I am also capable of spending hours online, playing Lexulous with my friends,  filling shopping carts with shoes I will never buy, watching cat videos, and clicking through long slide shows with titles like, “8 Secrets about (the movie) Mean Girls.”

I’m a loyal friend, but very likely to forget your birthday, or worse, buy a gift that sits unwrapped and unmailed in the trunk of my car for months.

A health-oriented individual, I  nonetheless drink 3 cups of coffee each morning, wine nearly every evening, and my exercise routine fluctuates between walking my dog three to six miles five times a week, and sitting on my you-know-what for months, lifting nothing heavier than an ice cream scoop.

Despite a desire to present myself as put-together, I can spend an entire weekend in the same sweatpants, with my hair  doing whatever crazy thing it likes.

I’m the most morbid optimist I know, fretting into the wee small hours, equally certain of impending disaster and that everything will be just fine after all.

You get the picture. Despite my lofty aspirations to be the best, most productive version of myself, I fail. This used to discourage me to a degree that I would give up, and berate myself over every failure. I was just never good enough, smart enough, or anything enough. It’s the kind of faulty world view that leads dieters to eat the whole pack of cookies because they’ve already eaten one. (Not that I would know anything about that…)

It’s easier for me to recognize  and accept  conflicts and contradictions in others than  myself, but I’ve been working on it. If I can forgive you for disappointing me, shouldn’t I extend myself the same courtesy?

I  am serious and earnest, and silly and snarky. I ‘m a shy show-off.  I  dread going to parties, but I’m often among the last to leave.

Back when I was kid, I  wanted  to be a free-spirited single girl like Ann Marie. Today I’ll settle for  being Free to Be Me and Me. I encourage  you to be Free to Be You and You, too.

I have been at my little job for slightly more than a year and a half now. After a month or two of wondering if I was in the right place, I’m comfortable and happy there. The job was probably just demanding enough to keep me from being swallowed by the bad things that were happening in my life when I took it. In retrospect, it is probably just as well I wasn’t trying to establish myself in a full-time, “serious” position while I was dealing with the death of my mother, my dog, and various family health issues. I suspect that my current restlessness is a good sign: my life is calm and stable enough to seriously pursue something bigger.

Here are a few things I’ve learned that I am sure will help me going forward:

I can succeed at something new:  I’ve mastered the infernal computer/register/inventory system, and learned to navigate all four channels of our business. I am producing results comparable to those of two senior colleagues, both of whom have design degrees and have run their own design businesses.

I am not motivated by money: I earn a fraction (a very small fraction) of what I used to. I would make the same amount of money just by showing up, but every day, I put forth my best effort, and continue to challenge myself. The proof of this is that despite having been momentarily stunned and disgusted by my insignificant first “raise” I am still  working hard.

I can simultaneously accept my reality and change it: I had hoped that I might be able to eventually meet all of my needs in this  job. My first review and wage increase showed me that I couldn’t.  It’s just not that kind of job, and I might have known it, had I asked the right questions when I interviewed.  After some reflection, I realized that I enjoyed the job too much to quit, and that I could alleviate my resentment  by simply reducing my availability to four days a week from seven.  Saving Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays for myself gave me a sense of control and  needed structure in my schedule.

I am most successful when I forget myself: Fully focusing on my customers and meeting their needs allows no room for self-consciousness and insecurity, and produces excellent results.

I am not my job title, or my paycheck: I knew that, but it’s good to remember.

My name: Does it matter? I have been called the same thing, more or less, for the last 56 years. I’ve never been satisfied with it, but changing my name  seemed such an extreme thing to do. I was brought up to suffer many greater indignities than that.

My first name starts with “S”. With sibilants at both the start and end of my last name, along with  my  thlight lithp, I have spent awkward decades answering my work phone: “Thith ith Thandra Thmuth” (or so it sounded to me.)

The surname I was born with is somewhat unusual, which caused me no end of angst as a youngster. (A boy named Charles  called me “Sandwich Smooch” all through the 4th grade, to my great chagrin.)

I wished that my last name was Smith. Nothing unusual there, and all I wanted was to blend in. Was it not enough that I was the only kid at school with no dad (it was middle class America in the early ’60s)  taller than the other girls, with curlier hair and weird teeth? Quasimodo had nothing on me; I did not need a strange name too.

Hating my name made me feel guilty.  I was named in honor of my father, whose first name was Sam. He was killed in a car accident when my brother and I were both very young, and I clung to anything that made me feel closer to him, including our shared initials: SLS.

His middle name was Laverne (for a reason I imagine has now been lost to history.) Mercifully, mine is Leigh. I love Leigh, and always have. As a kid, I loved the mysterious and sophisticated spelling. As a pre-teen, I loved the association with the gorgeous Vivien Leigh (we can talk about my Gone With the Wind Obsession some other time.) As a young aspiring professional, I loved the straightforwardness of one clean syllable. Oh, why couldn’t I have been named Leigh?

My mother loved my first name, and was hurt when I changed it from Sandra to Sandie in middle school. She never changed with me. I couldn’t bring myself to go further than that, though I toyed with the idea of using only my first initial and my full middle name for years. It always seemed a little precious though, so I didn’t.

Having come of age in the second wave of feminism, and not marrying until I was in my 30’s, I had no real inclination to assume my husband’s last name. He was fine with that. ( On some level, I think I was also trying to maintain a tie with my mom, and reassure her of our relationship.)

When The Kid came along, I gave changing my last name passing thought, but it never seemed worth the trouble. I also felt that there was a value to letting her see her mom have a singular identity.

Over the last few years, I’ve revisited the question of my name occasionally. “Sandie” seemed so juvenile,  and “Sandra” was someone I did not even know. Leigh, on the other hand, seems to embody who I want to be: simple, competent, and confident.

During the long night last February following the news of my mother’s death, The Kid and I talked and talked. I mentioned that I’d been thinking about assuming the last name she shares with her dad. “Do it, she said, I want you to be a Cadwallader, like us.”

As I learned more about the circumstances surrounding my mom’s passing, and what my brother and his family had been up to, the idea seemed better. I wanted no further connection with those people.

Still I fretted about making the change. What about my Facebook page? What about my resume? My employment records? My Linkedin page? And I realize these are all made up problems. I am not assuming another identity, I am adjusting it.  All of my names will remain with me in some form. I am not trying to be someone else, just who I am now.

I made the changes to my Facebook page last Friday, and rather than feeling anxious about it, I felt relieved. A small step in the right direction. No turning back now. I am who I am.

Good thing, too, since I am making a very small fraction of what I used to earn. I’ve been at my part-time job for four months now, and I have decided that I am enjoying it. Recently, my boss asked me, in a teasing way, “Isn’t this more fun than your old job?” I answered truthfully that they were both very fun, but very different.

The first couple of months were rough; I did not work many hours, and it seemed to me that I was forgetting everything I was being taught between shifts. I was shocked to realize I was finding my “little job” to be so stressful.  I’d been a criminal defense investigator, for crying out loud- going to the projects of San Francisco alone after dark, serving subpoenas on hostile witnesses- I was dealing with people at the worst times of their lives- how in the world was working a few hours a week in retail making me anxious?

I worked in retail off and on during my twenties, and felt I could easily manage it again. I had worked through my questions of whether I could be comfortable in such a controlled environment after the autonomy and responsibility I’d had during the last 25 years of my working life. I realized that I am not defined by my job title or my paycheck, and carefully considered where I might enjoy working. I applied at only two stores: a clothing store and a home furnishing store. My logic was that there was no point working anywhere I would not want to use my discount. This way I could either refurbish my wardrobe or refurnish my house, however slowly.

I did not hear from the clothing store (too bad for you, J.Crew!) I re-entered the time clock world in January. After adjusting to the changes in retail technology (computerized registers and inventory control, walkie-talkies and headsets) and generally getting the hang of things, I am having fun. I realized that a large part of my stress had less to do with the job, and much more to do with not feeling competent at what I was doing. I knew that feeling would pass with time, and it has. I remembered that even a menial task is more fun when attacked with enthusiasm, and made a conscious decision to give what I do my best effort, even if it is polishing shelves of glassware or restocking candles.

I spend about twenty hours a week in a beautiful environment, dealing with people who are about 98% pleasant. Every day is different, and I learn something. I help people improve their living environments. I have a reason to get dressed and somewhere to go. I move around a lot- back and forth across the sales floor, up and down ladders. After decades of working in fields where effort does not always produce observable progress, I am appreciative of something as straightforward as a sales per hour goal. And, to paraphrase Sally Field at the Oscars: “They like me, they really like me!”  In stark contrast to my previous job, the only way I take my work home with me now is in the form of pretty new bedding or  a comfy new sofa.

I know long-term I will want to earn more, and to be more challenged. Whether I find a way to do that within or outside of my present employment remains to be seen. For now, I am quite happy.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (

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