Column: A search for identity, and reminders of who I am

  • Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 12/19/2020 10:20:16 PM
Modified: 12/19/2020 10:20:14 PM

A few days ago I tore in half the pages of a draft I was working on and tossed them into the wastebasket. I had given myself an actual writing assignment in hopes that it would become a consuming project. The topic was “woods-woman.”

If I could share the wonder of discovery I experienced as I walked on the woodland trails near my new home, I would have accomplished something. There, my husband and I and our dog, Jasper, met interesting people and friendly canines. We visited briefly and the dogs sniffed and smiled. Fall leaves were a delight as they morphed from their summer greens to reds and yellows. The crimson berry cluster of the ground level jack-in-the pulpit pleased me each time I passed it. I was introduced to the gray dogwood, with its small white berries on maroon colored stems, so pretty I picked some to bring inside for the kitchen counter. One morning it had snowed, and my boots left tracks on the shimmering brown leaves as I trudged along.

But too soon as I tried to write, I was defeated. I’ve never really considered myself to be a “woods-woman.” I am a walker who loves being outdoors. I see a lot and I appreciate it. To make more out of my morning walks than that wasn’t working.

With the outbreak in the U.S. of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have lost touch with vital structures and people that help make a day worthwhile; it can be hard to know what to do or how to be. Families managing children at school or at home never bargained for the challenges of routines falling apart as they have. Working from home solves problems and creates them. And gathering on Zoom, whether it’s for work, volunteer meetings, classes, funerals or family events, raises comical questions we’d never before considered, such as which “background” to use.

For me, too, many normal activities are at a standstill. I am no longer a library volunteer, don’t travel, rarely see friends or family, cannot go to New York for museums or concerts.

In all, 2020 is not the year I had hoped it would be.

We plod on, acknowledging fatigue and growing sadness. Looking at my arrested attempt to use a writing exercise to invent myself as woods-woman, I see that effort for what it is. It’s a piece about identity.

Fortunately, with the slow pace of fall, I have had another project well underway, one that has been useful right now. As an inveterate journal writer, I’ve always worried about those entries I’d never want others to see. Thus I took on the sizable task of reading through all of those notebooks and editing out what concerned me. Revisiting difficult moments from my past was unsettling; it was too easy to be pulled back, with the clouds of today already looming low. But reliving moments I had recorded of happy times buoyed my spirits.

As I turned the pages of those notebooks, I saw myself.

In one, part of my collection of “purse journals,” there is a series of addresses in Munich, where our whole family had spent Christmas a few years ago. The first is for a restaurant called Hans Im Gluck, in the neighborhood of our hotel. We would meet for dinner there after our various explorations of Munich during the afternoon. Another is for the location to pick up our rental car to drive to Vienna for New Year’s. I sat with that notebook for a long time, reconnecting to a satisfying family trip. Reliving the ride through Germany and Austria with a young grandson in the car with us. Remembering Vienna as a new destination filled with so much history and beauty. In a Vienna Museum I saw the netsuke that is the title of Edmund de Waal’s book, The Hare with the Amber Eyes. There I was in my journal, the matriarch of a family, a grandmother, a traveler, a museum-goer, a reader, and a keeper of family history.

Another of those small journals reminds me that I am a New Yorker, an identity I have affirmed since my husband and I moved there as newlyweds for graduate school. I love the city and I know it well. Living in Manhattan, I was a student and a teacher. With my husband I became an explorer of territory so rich and diverse, compelling and energizing, that it took but a nanosecond to abandon the idea of ever returning to the Midwest. We started our family in the city. Moving an hour north to find our life’s work, we enlarged our connections but maintained our devotion to Manhattan as well. Now my New York places, like the Metropolitan Museum and the Philharmonic, have limited accessibility. Still, when I connect remotely with them from Vermont, they spark joy.

I am grateful for the small glimpses of my life in former times offered by these old notebooks. They remind me of who I am. But given the stinginess of opportunity right now, it’s not a useless exercise to also look for “supplemental identities.” For the time being, seizing occupations that offer connections and satisfaction is a noble effort. For me, as the holidays approach, I can be creative with activities and gifts; I’ll look forward to being in touch with the family on Zoom.

But as one day leads to another and I put on my jacket to head out to the trails for a morning walk, I also want to consider what it would be like to be known as woods-woman.

Mary K. Otto, formerly of Norwich, lives in Shelburne, Vt. Email her at

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