Sometimes I have had cause to doubt my existence. My name disappears from lists, my address ceases to exist, my phone number falls off the face of the earth*. All, I suppose, acceptable clerical errors with some kind of perfectly irrational explanation.
Blame it on human error, a slip of the finger, a blink of the eye. Or blame it on a computer.
Generally I like filling out forms. It must be due to some childhood deprivation when, in the name of creativity, we were forbidden colouring books. Filling out forms is a kind of bureaucratic paint-by-numbers. It is like doing an examination to which you know all the answers. Well, almost.
Name? That’s easy. Date of birth? I even remember this. Address? Know this one as well.
And so it goes, with the occasional hitch when you’re not sure if under “Ethnicity” you should choose “North European” or “African” or if you should stick to “Other” and hope they don’t ask for specifics, because you can never remember whether it was on your grandmother’s or grandfather’s side where there were rumours of an Indian prince.
The joy of completing a form by hand is that, as with colouring in, you really don’t have to stay between the lines. If the space only allows for two names and you have six, you just write a bit smaller and crawl into the margin if needed. If there are only three lines for the address and you have to fit in room number 7 in unit number 64 in section Wildebeest of estate Ecovillage at number 23 Wilderness Street in Rocktown in province in state in country… A paper form always has some unused blank spaces.
It takes a digital form to really let your existence slip through the lines or at least irrevocably change who you think you are.
The two places I tend to trip up the most are exactly the two that are generally taken to define who we are – name and occupation. Whether right or wrong on the value chart of existential philosophy, these are the tags we use to slot people into the registration list in our heads. Simon – writer. Anna – teacher. Sophie – biologist. Adolf – diesel mechanic.
It is often the essence of people’s stories. It is the questions we want answered at cocktail parties. What is your name? What do you do? Lacking this core knowledge about someone makes us wary and uncomfortable.
But back to the forms.
My name is pretty straightforward. Or should be, if I write it myself. However, depending on the linguistic extraction of others it has been misspelled as Ilze, Ilsa or these days most frequently Isle. Computers have long memories. Once labelled, it sticks.
A surname that includes an inconvenient space is, well, inconvenient as far as digital forms are concerned. They either choose to give me a middle name (Van) or they lump the lot together – Vanstaden.
So already my identity has shifted. Isle Vanstaden. Hmm. Try pronouncing that.
When asking for an occupational identifier, forms can be particularly frustrating. Often, there is an existing list to choose from and all you have to do is tick the box. Sorry, you can only tick ONE box. My eventual choice then depends on such variables as mood, day of the week, the colour of my shoes and to what extent I want to rock the boat.
If there is an option to manually fill in your occupation, it makes it even more interesting. Your creativity is only curtailed by the number of characters (pun not intended) you’re allowed to enter in the available space. Art writer? Poetry surgeon? Gardener specialising in literary anatomy? Serial killer? Only on paper…
And thus I leave you, in my existential confusion, shifting identity as I go along.
* For further reading on this matter, have a look at this Afrikaans account about identity loss, written in South Africa in 2012.