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Who are you when you're free to be yourself?

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"What about you?" asked the other parent, on the sidelines at karate, having just shared how much she loves sewing. "What is your hobby?"

My inside-voice did a quick stocktaking: that week, I'd been watching mini-documentaries of forest gardens and permaculture success stories. I was still stuck on the idea of the Divine Feminine rising and rebalancing after 5,000 years of exile and wondering whether maybe I need to instigate some kind of circle to help usher it along. But knowing that come Tuesday, my attention could as easily land on how pleasure is at the heart of activism as how personality profiles might help us design our spaces, I paused awkwardly, as if it were a trick question or a job interview that required a perfectly calibrated, although not necessarily honest, response.

Fumbling desperately to make my conversational countermove and keep our pleasantries from becoming awkward, I finally blurted, "Jigsaw puzzles." A fleeting micro-expression rippled across her face. I interpreted that to mean: "That's a strange hobby for an apparently healthy woman living in an active mountain town."

Sigh. How will claiming such geriatric past-times as my defining interest help me ever make friends? As much as I had been tripped up by the word "hobby," I knew that what she was really asking me was, "Who are you, when you're not here on the sidelines of your child's life?"

Good question.

Perhaps this is why Erin Hogue and Vince Emond's slideshow of passionate snowboarders who are also raising babies resonated with so many audience members last month at Uprising—the photo contest and fundraiser held on Feb. 22. How many of us navigate this question every day: who am I, when I'm not doing this care-giving thing that consumes the best part of my time, attention and energy? (Who will I be, out the other side of this?) Who am I, when I'm not being the person everyone else needs me to be?

Courtney Martin, an American author and journalist, wrote a column for On Being (onbeing.org), posing a different kind of inquiry to get to the heart of who we are, one that steps out of the time of right now and all-the-demands and into a more expansive place: What was your first big question? What was the first thing that deeply perplexed you about the world?

She looked at her own family: "My father grew up answering the door for debt collectors and became a bankruptcy lawyer; one could think of his 'first question' as How can I stay safe? My mother was born a wild spirit with a mother obsessed with appropriateness; she jaywalks with a sly smile on her face and loves to point out the elephant in the room because so much of her life has been guided by the question Why not?"

Martin wondered if that question, the one you weren't allowed to ask as a kid, becomes your unconscious compass throughout life. "So many of us didn't get what we needed as children and we spend a lifetime looking for it. But the upside of that initial emptiness is that we create dynamic and beautiful things out of our yearning."

If someone had foretold my future when I was young, I doubt it would have helped me get to here, any more smoothly. I imagine it would be as frustrating and stilted as the Google Maps voice dishing out one tiny direction at a time, just enough to get you to turn right at the lights, but never to really get you oriented. With moments of "recalculating route" chucked in for good measure. Looking back now, though, I can see a faint trail, some continuity, the sticky burrs that kept latching on to me, those threads that endured and sustained my interest.

I've been able to follow this thread of curiosity like the White Rabbit to places I could never have dreamed of and conversations I couldn't have engineered. It has brought me to a sense of deep appreciation for people who are sustained by passions that demand complete immersion. For this new companion, a woman who loves sewing, who makes her sons matching pajamas every Christmas, whose house is full of fabrics and patterns and creative projects just waiting to whir to life beneath her quick fingers.

From working with three-year-olds to working with judges, talking with ecosexuals to primitive technology revivalists to animal communicators, I've always been nudging curiously up against the edges of my world's constructs, my ways of thinking, my social set, asking what shapes their choices?

Maybe, having been guided as a child by sure advice that there is one absolutely correct way to do everything, my question has always been: What are the other possibilities?

Beneath the surface of the roles that consume us—the career, the family, the demands—lies a question. It might be the truest thing that shapes, if we're willing to keep asking.

The Velocity Project: how to slow the f*&k down and still achieve optimum productivity and life happiness.