What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 2:22 NIV)

It is awfully important to know what is and what is not your business. (Gertrude Stein)

What a person desires is unfailing love  . . . (Proverbs 19:22 NIV)

what (pronoun): used to ask for information about someone or something (www.m-w.com)

What is a very versatile question word. In usage it is considered a pronoun, which makes sense because sometimes we use “what” to refer to something, rather than posing a question. (Remember, a pronoun can take the place of a noun.)

From my experience it seems to be the most common question word. We often ask, what is this? What does this mean? What is happening? What is next? What is your favorite this or that? What do you want or need?

When we meet a new person we rarely ask, who are you? But rather, we ask, what do you do? Why, we might ask, is that? In origin, what is closely related to who. Both come from Old English and Latin words that were interchangeable. Both relate to identity. Identifying the characteristics, conditions or concerns of a subject matter is what is implied, when we ask the what questions. When we are investigating the who-ness of someone, even ourselves, it is natural to consult the what-ness of  our existence.

I am not sure I can answer the who question, without telling you the what. Such as, I could tell you that I am a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a friend, a writer, an artist  or a homemaker. While all those influence my who-ness, each role describes what I do, more than who I am.

I could describe myself in terms of qualities, such as, kind, loving and generous. But some days, I am irritable, hateful and mean-spirited. What would be the most accurate way to identify myself? I could draw or paint a self-portrait or take a selfie. (Did you know that on your i-Phone, it tells you how many selfies you have stored? Mine says I have 39!) What is that about? Maybe, how we see ourselves can be a hint to our who-ness. And how we perceive that others see us, too!


See how this question of what, keeps bringing me back to who. Who knew that a question could have so many twists and turns?

Once a month, I teach/facilitate an art class, which is a self-discovery process in disguise. We play with color, try to explain positive and negative space to each other, we glue bits and pieces together to express our created selves. We often ask ourselves questions with journal prompts. One recurring concept that we’ve considered is self-portraiture.

Whether we use a silhouette or a simple sketch or a collage of images and words that describe us, each activity adds layers to our understanding of our self.

This past week, I suggested that we try to make a self-portrait without using a face. What would it look like to gather images and words to “describe” us. This weekend, I took the challenge to heart, and tried a daunting exercise. In The Collage Workshop by Randel Plowman, he suggests that you take a magazine and collect one image or word from each page. I chose a magazine that was about 90 pages. (If you try this at home, you may want to find a very short magazine 🙂

The challenge to find a way to create a unified composition from the various culled material intrigued me and surprised me. I couldn’t glue everything on just one page, so I sorted the images and left the words out. Both pages reflect interests that I have and images that I gravitate towards. One has quite a few chairs. Chairs represent repose and reflection to me. The other side included paintings and photographs of women and some flowers and pops of bright blue. I like both sides, but the side with the chairs felt more like my “self-portrait.” Before this challenge, I came across a phrase in a travel ad. It surprised me how the phrase moved me to tears, when I read it aloud to the art class. To give it proper space in my self-understanding, I glued it to the center of my collage.

“There is a place where there is time enough for everything”
the other side

The challenge was satisfying, and I like how the serendipity of images from a single magazine could express some of who I am, right now. (As I glued images down, I gave myself permission to leave out a few, as well as cover up images with each addition, and I did not use many words.) I did include the word “daily” along with the time phrase on the self-portrait page. Daily, of course, speaks of time in a day to day proportion, which is just enough for me. One day at a time, truly becomes the place where I can experience everything, which that day offers.

On the side with the faces, the words “flowers” and “peaceful visions” surfaced. I enjoy sitting with these visual observations.  I am learning that I don’t need to ask “What does it mean?” as often as I used to do.

What is your experience with “what”?




5 thoughts on “What?

  1. I love collage art…it is a simple reflective go to exercise for me. THis is wonderful and I love the idea of taking one word or image from every page of a magazine for one collage…love this journey and sharing …Thanks, Kel!

    1. Dawn- How true! Collage is a simple way to reflect! And to allow images to speak for our soul, when words fail us…and then I love how collage can reveal words that I forgot that I longed to express.

  2. I love this, Kel. Yes, definitely though what we do isn’t exactly who we are, it is surely related. We can hardly be a who without a what, and even a how. How we do things, individually, is also unique to our own personal self. I love this collage exercise. What a fun idea. I often root through mags and leave many pages untouched. I wonder if I could find something self-representational on each page. Just out of curiosity, what (there’s that word!) magazine did you use? And speaking of what, that is how my brother used to answer the phone when we were growing up–not Hello, but What? Maybe he actually had a better idea, by inviting dialogue as you are now doing!
    Love you and LOVE the collages.
    PS Just got the article. Thank you so much for your trouble!

    1. Lynni- I appreciate your perspective …I hadn’t thought of the how part of the puzzle yet, gives me some more to ponder. I used one of the lovely Victoria magazines you gave me! I love how your brother answered the phone …that could be a whole other blog post…collage is really becoming part of how I express myself…love the dialogue we share here!

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