I used to think that knowing yourself meant
never crying. And surely knowing yourself meant always being calm, confident, and
content, and never changing your mind. No weepy calls home would ever be made. No
friendships would ever dissolve. No big unanswered questions would ever linger like
oil on Interstate-5 after a summer rain. I thought such weaknesses would (should?)
be absent from the life of someone who knew herself. I still think this way sometimes.
I wonder how I can have moments of insight— life is a journey, don’t
sweat the small stuff— one day and totally forget them the next day. Recently,
however, I have started to accept that that the practice of knowing myself can be
based on a foundation other than self-criticism.
A few weeks ago someone told me that they didn’t
understand my relationship with my mom, my twin, and my home. It was a crucial moment
for me, and although, as is often the case, the insight I gained was accompanied
by some hurt, I am grateful to this person. My family unit is indeed a little hard
to understand. My mom is a true and interesting friend and reservoir of support,
but I feel a loyalty and duty to her that is not uncomplicated. My brother makes
me feel so happy and whole that sometimes I feel all my other relationships are doomed
to be unfulfilling in comparison. Being close with my mom and my brother is critically
important to me. It is going to be a part of my future and I am thankful that this
is the case. What I realized is that I feel no need to apologize for my attachments
or be modest about the love I get from my family. Yet my ongoing exploration of self
and my dreams for the future are complicated by the reality that my most fundamental
feeling of self is intertwined with these two other people. And to have someone call
that out triggered complicated reactions in me.
It made me think about how I fundamentally approach
choices and challenges in my life. Before I think in timelines, five years, ten
years, fifty years or landmarks, love, career, children, I want to let thrive the
elements of my personality that get brow-beat by my tendency to let anxious thoughts
and pressures (real or imaginary) paralyze me. At this point in life, as I play
with thoughts of my future I am absorbed by trying to practice a new way of knowing
myself. My path to success will be easier if I can be myself without feeling the
pressure of what other people need me to be, or think I should be. This does mean
I want to cut myself from how I affect other people, it just means I want to change
I have a friend from home who recently told
me that to this day she still says to herself, in times of crisis, "what
would Kate do?" This compliment embodies both a dimension of my vision of
success for myself and an example of how I need to change the way I process thoughts
about myself. I’m not particularly close with this friend anymore, but I
am extremely proud that I had a positive and lasting impact on her. I want to continue
to live my life in a way that my love for myself, my values, and my outlook, benefit
not only me and my personal goals but those around me. I want to be someone that
people rely on, confide in, and remember. But I want to be able to hear compliments
and celebrate good things about myself without giving in to the accompanying pressures.
The feeling that I’m eventually going to let someone down. The fear that
someone is going to find out I’m not as smart and charming as I seem. Those
are thoughts that I’d like to weed out. When someone gives me a compliment,
or says they don’t understand something about me, I want to remember that
the most important thing is how I feel about myself. It seems fundamental, simple,
but it is much harder than it seems. I want to navigate success by just shifting
the way I think about choices and events in my life.
I always wanted to be perfect, because my life wasn’t. Then, like now, I desired to be a ton of different things and do them well. I learned to cut scraps and sew clothes for Barbie with aspirations of being a fashion designer. I drew with dreams of being an artist. I entered poetry contest with hopes of being a poet. I did gymnastics to win a gold medal. I wanted to be good at it and I wanted to love it. I never had the concrete doctor, lawyer, and astronaut ambitions. Just wanted to do what I wanted and everyone to shut up about it.
Most third graders don’t know what life is. They aren’t making life decisions. They don’t drive a car, pay the bills, or do the grocery shopping. Most third graders aren’t recognizing a power within themselves. At eight years old, life’s purpose matters very little in the scheme of recess, naps, and getting your way. Twelve years later, if you include me in a sentence categorizing me as “most” I’m afraid I must correct you. The third grade was when I realized that I was most definitely not most. As growing and thinking people, we must understand that realizations don’t have to mean acceptance, and most never mean understanding, at least not initially.
In the third grade, I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to be surrounded by children as smart as I was. I wanted variety, not the same badass kids in my class. I wanted to be heard. I wanted adults to recognize that I could thing for myself. Acknowledge that I had an opinion and I knew what I liked and didn’t like (green peas and mandarin oranges). I wanted to go into the library and pick up a book that I couldn’t finish in ten minutes. And if I did, not be interrupted by some little boy kissing me on the cheek, therefore causing me to put down my book and go across his face with my tiny third grade hand. I wanted to wear biker shorts under the skirts that I didn’t want to wear. I didn’t want to be the smallest person in my class. And I definitely didn’t want to be in ballet anymore.
The change I see in myself as I’ve gotten older is that everything happens when it’s supposed to. At eight, you only know how to ask for things. You don’t understand why you can’t get what you want. You don’t like it. At twenty, things come as they come. They also leave as they please. For the things you cannot change, you deal. For those you can change, you change. Or shut up about it.
At one point
I lived my life according to my own rules, following my own path. No, not a path;
a stream, of water or of air; turbulent, in motion, following no standard formula
of progress, but just going. And somewhere along the way I fell from that stream
and stepped onto an established, well-worn path, paved with the desires and expectations
of countless other women. This path, call it achievement or perfection, grounded
and comforted me, as it gave me clearly defined boundaries and rules at a time in
my life when I was too exhausted to formulate them for myself.
The expectations I held myself to
were not purely goal-oriented or achievement-based. At some point I internalized
the personal characteristics that I felt I needed in order to be "good" or "functional" or "equal." Not
knowing what to say to a friend who called with a problem left me feeling useless
and unsupportive; crying at work (or ever) became a mark of weakness. My creative,
expressive, emotional self that had been "me" for 20+ years was no longer
visible, but I didn’t notice its absence. I saw myself as progressing, maturing,
oblivious to the fact that I was actually restricting and deluding. As my professional
and academic achievements grew, as I racked up promotions and 4.0s and praise from
others, the personal expectations I held myself to tightened, squeezing up and out,
forming blinders that limited my vision further. Life became narrower, and I could
no longer breathe. I was having a crisis of faith in myself.
Where did my new expectations of myself
come from? Was it in trying to understand my father, who lived his entire life comfortably
confined within the structures of the military, the church, the family patriarchy?
Or was it from being exposed to too many televised superwomen: vampire slayers and
CIA double agents and teenage super sleuths, women who seamlessly blended strength
and power and finesse, kicking life’s ass with their fashionable Blahniks?
Coming to Smith was like holding a
magnifying glass to the situation. Living at school, I witnessed first hand the students
whose expectations of themselves created mile-high blinders limiting their vision
only to their idealized path of success, and I started to realize how much life they
weren’t aware of, weren’t open to, and how precious those experiences
had been in my own life. Looking at what was around me allowed me to look inward,
allowed me to see that I had been holding myself to just as many unrealistic and
I’m still working on keeping
this perspective in check, and not allowing myself to feel controlled by grades or
in competition with friends who are "doing it all." I try to remember
that the only expectation I want to have of myself is to keep myself grounded in
my own definitions of success, and I can make these definitions wearing flip flops
if I want.
I’m 22 years old, a
senior in college, on the verge of being let loose in the "real" world
to become a "real" person,
and I’m not certain I want that freedom...When do I definitely start being
an adult? The structure that the education system provided me is gone and I’m
not sure what is supposed to happen and when for the rest of my life.
On the one hand, I really can’t wait until I’m
financially independent and debt free, but on the other, I’m not 6 years old
anymore and owning my own house doesn’t come with a definite time frame. I
can’t count down the days like I did when I got my driver’s license or
when I graduated from high school. Even with a payment plan for my loans I know there
will be setbacks and complications that will alter the course of my indebtedness.
It’s not inconceivable that it could take me 20 years to pay off all the money!
Twenty years?! That is essentially doubling my lifetime and a time frame that I find
hard to grasp. For some reason I can reasonably comprehend the millions of years
it took mammals to evolve, but being 40 years old is a concept much more overwhelming.
So what do I have to look forward to now? How
am I supposed to measure time and achievement? I’ve always met the required
goals and benchmarks, but from here on out, there is no universal reference point
for time and no grand authority to let me know if I’m doing alright. My problem
with this is that for my whole life I’ve been waiting for someone to give
me that certificate stating to the world that I’m a real person capable of
making important, life-altering decisions, specifically of the risky or ballsy
nature. I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to do what I truly think I
want to do without penalty of guilt or shame. You know, that event that happens
and signifies that I am a passionate, intentional, reasonable person to be reckoned
with; the time when life stops being a process and starts fulfilling the Big Plan.
But in reality, there is no one opportunity
or event, there is no Big Plan, there are no decisions that are not potentially
life-altering. There is no universal point of reference, and no grand authority
that will give me a gold star when I make a good choice. Plus, when you really
break it down, every success and failure is relative. Who’s to say that 1,000
little successes over a lifetime don’t equal one big one? An achievement
for one person will not mean the same thing to another. At the end of the day,
I don’t want to let Smith College or my parents or my friends have the final
word on whether or not I can be happy with myself and get a good night’s
sleep (which is probably number one on the list of things I value highly). Everyone
is always going to have an opinion about what I could and should be doing with
my life whether I want to hear it or not, and I know myself well enough to know
that these weighty suggestions affect me a lot and tend to throw things out of
perspective. Do I really agree with my coworker’s father who thinks I should
go into business because it is the new hot field for psychology majors? No, yet
I still spend several days and way too much energy ruling out this possibility.
Some may call it being thorough, but I can’t help but worry that this behavior
is an indicator that a good deal of aimless wandering through careers is ahead
What I have to come to terms with is the fact
that while I don’t exactly know what I want to be, I definitely know some
things that I don’t want to be and those can be pretty powerful in forging
a path. I have some vague ideas about what it is I’m ultimately striving
to do, and I think I just have to have faith that my experiences in the following
years will illuminate some interesting opportunities as I go.
My parents don't know that
I have a girlfriend. It's not for a lack of trying. I tried to tell them over dinner
in May. My father appeared to choke while my mother thought it was a prank I was
pulling on my father. I had tried to tell them before in January when Brokeback
Mountain came out, and
once in late July. Both times my parents revealed prejudices that I wasn't aware
they held, and wish I could hide myself from again. Sometimes I wonder how much they
are hiding my girlfriend from themselves. After all, I lived with her for an entire
summer, in the same room, in the same bed.
It's not like I can come out and say "I'm
gay" as some sort of preface, or a permanent announcement. I don't identify
with that term, or any other term that I've come across to identify sexuality.
They don't seem to fit. I also don't want to hear my parents call it some sort
of phase. So I invented my own term for a while. I am a "Christine-osexual."
It's so hard for me to tell them because I feel
like it's the first time I've actually failed them. They were eventually okay with
the hair, the major, the school, the possible career. I've never gotten a grade
below a B-. I joined crew in an attempt to do something they said I couldn't, but
now I feel like if I'm not in the varsity boat during the spring semester I will
have disappointed them more than myself. They know I'm injured, but that doesn't
stop my mother, the nurse, from discussing how I will be in the "A boat." They
used to do something similar when I focused more on music, but it's faded as I've
stopped auditioning for things.
I'm not sure I can truly be successful until
I stop feeling guilty every time I do something I'm not sure they'll approve of.
I've always had to be the good girl, because "my behavior reflected my parents
and their parenting skills." I'm sure my parents made this comment because
my brother and I fought constantly when we were younger, but it haunts me to this
day. Not to mention that I've always been compared to two of my cousins, Lydia
(four months older) and Gretchen (one month older). When Lydia went through her
rebellious teen years, I was upheld as the "good" kid. With Gretchen,
it was trickier. We lived closer together, and we participated in many of the same
activities (graduating top ten in our class, played instruments, currently play
Div. III sports and attend women's colleges). I was constantly hearing our parents
discuss how "wonderful" their daughters were, when really they were trying
to say which one was better. All this competition has led me to believe that I
somehow have to uphold my family's honor: I'm so close to being even with Gretchen,
but every failure leads me closer to Lydia, which means being a "bad" girl
and letting my family down.
I wish I could escape from these expectations
and ideas but I'm not sure I really can. I'm not even sure these expectations are
even really what my parents are thinking. They could be something I've made up
based on years of accumulated offhand comments and actions. I just wish they weren't
stifling me so much.
There was a girl…let’s name her Cornelia. Cornelia had a ‘difficult’ childhood. But she was really smart. Or so everyone told her. Cornelia was always juggling. She had some many things that went on from day to day that she never knew which way was up. So one day Cornelia figures out how she can make the craziness stop. Cornelia creates a compass. This compass tells her where she needs to go all the time. It’s a pretty simple compass (because Cornelia put magnets underneath) that only ever pointed in two directions. When ever Cornelia needed to make a decision she pulled out her compass and it told her where to go. Cornelia decorated her compass with gold and gems. She protected it, carrying it around in a small pouch at her side so that it could never be lost. She never showed anyone her compass. It was her special secret.
After a long time the compass and the pouch disappeared into Cornelia’s body. It traveled up her stomach into her lungs and snuggled into the crook of her heart. Cornelia loved her compass so much it became a part of her heart. And she was happy to have it close to her. Years passed. When Cornelia stopped seeing her compass, she forgot about it. And she walked around all day not even realizing when it helped her make her decisions. Sometimes she turned left when she was thinking of going right. Sometime she turned right when she was thinking of going left. After several years Cornelia started to get worried, because lately she was always turning right and she couldn’t seem to make herself stop. So Cornelia went to the doctor to find out what was wrong. The doctor leaned down to listen to her heart and jumped back in surprise.
“What is that?” She exclaimed.
Cornelia giggled, “Oh, that’s just my compass.”
“Well that’s your problem,” said the doctor. “You’ve got a compass where your heart should be. You can’t follow your heart and it’s making you confused.”
Cornelia was very surprised to hear this. Her compass had helped her for so long and she had treasured it. How could it be a bad thing? She asked the doctor what could she do and the doctor said they would have to take out the compass. But Cornelia was afraid. If the compass was her heart then how would she live once the doctors removed it? She left the doctors office and didn’t return for months and months. She went right a lot when she wanted to go left, but she pretended not to notice. One day she saw a little girl. The girl was like Cornelia when she was young, except totally different in every way. And by the girl’s side Cornelia saw a mysterious little pouch.
She walked up to the girl and asked, “What is in your pouch?”
The girl nervously replied, “Nothing.”
Cornelia smiled. She wouldn’t have told a grown up about her compass either. “Are you sure it’s not a compass? A super special compass”
The girl shyly nodded her head.
“I have a compass too.”
The girl looked Cornelia up and down. “I don’t see your pouch.”
Cornelia sighed. “That’s the problem. I used it too much and it disappeared inside my stomach.”
The girl stared at Cornelia’s stomach curiously. Cornelia continued, “It’s not there anymore though. It moved up and became my heart.”
The girl smiled now. “You’re lucky, that’s a lot easier then pulling the compass out of your pouch all the time. How did you do it?”
Cornelia paused. She had left the doctor all those months ago knowing that her heart-compass was not good for. But she had been to afraid to do anything about it. What should she tell this little girl?
“Its not that great,” Cornelia told the girl. “When my compass was in a pouch I could choose when to look at it. Now I have to do whatever it tells me.”
“Like with parents?” The girl asked.
Cornelia laughed. “Yeah like with parents.”
The girl hugged Cornelia. “I’m sorry. That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.”
“That’s why you have to careful with your compass. You don’t want to end up like me!”
“No ma’am, I don’t!” The girl blushed. “I mean—“
Cornelia laughed. “No you’re right.”
Then the girl checked her watch. “Oh no, I’m going to get home late and my mom will be mad at me.”
The girl left then, running towards her home. As she turned the corner Cornelia saw the girl slip the pouch from her side and put it in her backpack.
And for the first time in years Cornelia smiled. And not because her compass told her to.