Real ID

Image shows a lone piñon tree atop a golden-brown sandstone bluff with cloudless sky behind it. Smaller junipers dot the foreground.

The tree stood lookout. It was no protector, no stern, armed guard challenging all comers. Friend or foe? It didn’t judge.

It just stood, tall and alone, on the sandstone bluff overlooking the campground. Standing still, silent, it spoke of change. It pointed out the nuances of sky and wind, interpreted their meaning anew with every shifting cloud. It heralded the present. It did not want you to miss any savor of shape or color, light or shadow, the passage of time, the hum of eternity behind it.

Image shows the tree with a half-circle of puffy, white cloud rising from behind the bluff. The cloud is like a nimbus haloing the tree.

It never looked the same for ten minutes running. A different backdrop gave it new impact every time you saw it. Yet it never changed. It was only, always, ever, eloquently itself.

Image shows the nimbus cloud, now well above the bluff, looming over the tree to the right. A new cloud is rising to take its place.

It is the feature of the landscape I remember more than any other. My fellow campers remarked on it with affection and even awe. It stood so tall in a place of salience, an exclamation point in a landscape of dots.

Because of this tree, I couldn’t take time for granted. It made the world too intriguing in the now. “This moment is new and will never come again,” it said. “Look. Look!”

Image shows the tree at dawn, silhouetted against a sky halfway between nighttime and morning blue. A few pale pink wisps of cloud surround it. In the upper right, a tiny sliver of moon shines.

What part of you stays the same, and what changes when your backdrop alters? When you stand in different lights? Who are you really?

And how does the word you speak in the world change in different contexts?

Image shows the tree amid a few wispy clouds at midday. Above and to the right, a smaller and larger puff of cloud seem to emerge from the tree like a thought balloon.

Living nomadically has made me wonder that anew, but the question of identity has plagued me for a while. We all have images of ourselves and who we are, but I have come to distrust identities that are contingent on circumstances—that can be taken from you when circumstances change. Health, ability, employment, relationships, geography, communities—all those things can change, most of them without our say-so.

We are also given identities without our say-so. Income, gender, physical ability, race, ethnicity, appearance, sexuality, and more all play a part in forming who the world thinks we are. What a productivity-driven culture thinks of me for being disabled, for example, for living nomadically, being middle-aged, or female, or single—relatively little of it jives with truth. But it is still hard not to fall for the distorted image reflected back to us, to separate ourselves from those partial truths to see clearly.

Image shows the tree at midday under a graying sky. The light is harsh and flat, and the tree and bluff both look washed out. Their vibrancy and warmth are gone.

Maybe the quest for identity—who am I really?—is the wrong quest, an endeavor to root ourselves in sand, which cannot nourish or anchor us, rather than soil or stone. Maybe it is wiser to root ourselves in the depths of what we value. Not in the self-image of being people who value certain things, but in the values themselves. Being. Gratitude. Wholeness. The behaviors that grow from them.

Image shows the tree at dawn, silhouetted against a translucent sky that almost shines. Wispy clouds are just beginning to reflect sunlight.

Maybe the point is to find your place of salience. To be so deeply rooted there that you can stand tall and herald this moment’s truth as it shines around you. “Look!” you say.