By J.S. Porter

James Joyce’s fictional character Stephen Dedalus forges his identity in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by writing it. He is a person with a name who goes to a particular class in a particular school which is in a specific town, county and country, and is part of Europe, the world and the universe. He makes a vertical list:

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World
The Universe

Each of us is a set of overlapping circles from the smallest unit – our name – to the largest, the universe, although my limited imagination can’t seem to go comfortably beyond my continent. We’re formed from dust, as the Bible poetically puts it, then return, when our day is done, to dust. (“Life is a rental,” a poet-friend once told me.) Between the rising from the primal mother and the falling back into her, we live within ever-widening geographic gyres.

There are, of course, other ways of constructing one’s identity. You can go African and see yourself within overlapping loops of relationship:

(My mother tells me as a child I liked to say, “Call me John. Just John.”)
4 Emming Court
(Isn’t residence as important as workplace?)
son of Anna and John
brother of Caroline
husband to Cheryl
father of Daniel and Rachel
grandfather of Kaizen, Marshall and Blake
guardian to Dylan (a dog) and a space- sharer with Cosmo (a cat)

In Africa, you are who you’re connected to, who you’re rooted from. The tree is the foundational metaphor. We’re leaves that grow from particular branches which are connected to particular trunks and roots.  I think that I prefer the African way to the Joycean way, although my relational litany sounds dangerously close to an obituary. When we die, we too, even in the West, revert to the tree of connectedness.

Another aspect of identity is to define ourselves by what we do. She’s a bus driver. He’s a carpenter. I’m retired. Most of the time I read, take notes, think, dream, write, take my dog for a walk, take my mother for coffee, drink wine with my wife, watch movies with my daughter, see friends.

“I’m nobody. Who are you?” You can’t beat the words of the American poet Emily Dickinson to put into perspective all our flimsy constructions of identity.

If you can only identity yourself by one word, what would it be? For me: reader. I read, therefore, I am.  I read what my father read (biography, philosophy, theology) and what my friend Mark Garber read (Shakespeare and the poets). I read what my friends write: Susan McCaslin’s poems on Cézanne, Eva Tihanyi’s short fiction in Truth and Other Fictions, B.W. Powe’s stories, essays and poems.

Reading is an intimate act. You take someone else’s words into your body and mind. You’re penetrated by another being, another consciousness, another’s music.

A few summers ago I lived for a time within John Terpstra’s Skin Boat: Acts of Faith & Other Navigations, entering its consciousness, hearing its music—penetrated by its intimacy.

John lives in my city; we frequent some of the same coffee houses (Hamilton is a city of coffee houses as well as waterfalls). He’s a carpenter and a poet. The book takes its title from the early Irish monks, like Brendan (484 – 577 AD), who launched curraghs, “a skeleton of wood covered by a skin of ox-hide,” sometimes with a sail, into the dark and the deep “at the mercy of the wind, waves and current.” The skin boat is John’s undergirding metaphor: we’re all skin boats on a journey; we’re all at the mercy of the wind and the waves.

John wrestles with belief in the book and explores religion “in the sense of religio, a word that has the words ligature, and ligaments, built into it: the living stuff that ties the body’s bones together, allows the bones to move in concert, stops them from rattling.” Skin Boat is a brave book: brave in its conception (can you think of anything more intellectually  daring in our time than making the case for a cosmic Giver?) and brave in its execution (the book is written in a single breath—one meditation, one prayer— without chapters, although there are periodic marks to indicate textual pauses).

Without necessarily intending to, John points to a larger form of identity than geography, family or occupation – the existential reality confronting us all.   A refrain murmurs throughout Skin Boat : “The world looks green to us, but at any moment could tear us to shreds.” We’re all bound for death on this skinboat of earth.  We’re all tethered together as brothers and sisters on the same spacecraft.

When I go, I’d like to be re-reading Skin Boat, open to page 147, where John streams the wisdom of scripture: Go out into the world in peace. Have courage. Hold on to what is good. Return no one evil for evil. Strengthen the faint-hearted. Support the weak and help the suffering. Honour all people. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances.