What’s in a Label?

Sailing around Swampscott, Massachusetts, a charming little town nestled fifteen miles up the coast from Boston, I looked out on the water and wondered, “who am I?”  That the thought first occurred to me the summer I lost my job in 1999 was itself a mystery.  Up until then, it was either defined by my place in my family, my relationships, my job, my community, etc.

But none of those existed anymore.  I felt homeless, yet had a three-bedroom home with over an acre of formal gardens on a slanted hillside and a water feature with floating lily pads.  It was not something I wanted to ponder, but I yearned for something simple – a one word descriptor that would immediately put me in context with those around me.

“What do you do?” I was asked in the bar that evening.

The waterfront bar was a shallow, dusty place with low hanging lights that swayed on gold chains attached to the ceiling.  The door was worn in one place where patrons frequently put their greasy hands coming or going.  I might have been the only newcomer in the place.  I ordered a white wine.

“Whatever I want” I replied.

The conversation with the young gentleman lasted over two hours.  Of course what he meant was what do I do to earn a living.  I needed a label it appeared and I was determined not to give him one.  That would have been too intimate.  Too disclosing.

Later that evening I made a list of all the things I “did” and all the labels that I could legitimately own and yet, I did not feel better.  It wasn’t until I remembered a childhood summer at my grandparent’s farm in Tennessee when I picked sun-ripened strawberries that a lesson peeked through.  The berries – juicy, plump and warm from the sun – they didn’t need labels.  Yet everyone who held one in their hand or tasted their luscious sweetness knew precisely what it was.  What it did.  It made you feel better.

I could do the same.  I did not need a label.

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