I never was very ambitious. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an artist for awhile. But I figured out that having no idea what to draw or paint when looking at a blank piece of paper was probably a critical drawback. I was pretty much interested in every subject that came my way, with math and physics being the only ones that didn’t light my furnace. I spent a lot of time reading books. I also liked talking about politics. I enjoyed riding in the car with my dad, listening to news radio and hearing what he had to say about Mayor Daley and local officials like Ben Adamowski. I used to put people like that on my lists of friends and crushes, which usually changed on a daily basis.
I felt pretty weird, at least in comparison to lots of the kids around me. My family lived in a neighborhood which was populated by a diverse mix, but as a young teenager, I mostly noticed that we couldn’t afford the clothes and lifestyles of the “coolest kids.” No overnight camps, Gant shirts or Weejun shoes for me. It was hard to be an outsider looking in on that world. How to fit became my most pressing question.
My family had moved from Sioux City, Iowa to Chicago when I was seven. I was put in first grade, though I’d already completed it, but I assume that small town school was considered less than adequate. A few weeks into the school year, a teacher showed up and said I was done in my class and moved me to second grade. The year after that I did three semesters in two. Same thing happened in sixth and seventh grade. I felt so afraid. I didn’t know where I belonged. Each time I felt settled, I was in a new space.
My older brother and sister were having a hard time. I could tell they felt like imposters. Changing cities and schools in adolescence is so challenging. I knew they were sad and uncomfortable. I was trying to figure out how to avoid that and just be ok. But what to do about the uncontrolled changes? Where did I really belong? How about the people I called the clothes police? The ones who said, “where are your dress shoes,” on picture day? I didn’t have dress shoes. So I said I forgot it was picture day. When I wore the puke green ribbon sweater with the maroon skirt and a girl said, “that doesn’t match,” I replied, “It does now.” Aha. I’d found my angle. I would embrace the role of being different. And I’d make it charming, funny, entertaining. I’d squash the fear of being an outsider, push away that square peg in the round hole feeling. I wrestled internally. I was the wrong size, I had the wrong clothes, but I’d be the right friend and develop some strong armor to get by. And it worked. I figured out how to maneuver my way through my teen years, planning strategies, cultivating friendships, even getting elected treasurer of student council. I was the puppet master instead of the misfit. Pretty repugnant but successful.
When I went to college, I was barely 17. I had no idea what I was doing or what I wanted to do, but I was sure of one thing. I wanted to shed the persona I’d developed to survive high school and be just me. Whoever that was. Just me. A genuine, authentic self. I kept a magic suit of mental armor to protect myself from unexpected assaults, but I turned inward, trying to figure out who I was. It’s a task that takes a long time. Trying to understand what you want rather than what others expect is a lengthy process. The layers of behavior and attitudes that take years to acquire have to be examined and dissected – a confusing process. Often a lonely one. Finding my voice was easy on the surface because I had a lot of language. Years of reading gave me access to a bottomless reservoir for creating one-liners and developing a stinging wit. But there was more to authenticity than word games. Everyone can remember the things they wished they’d been able to say during particularly tough moments. They usually came hours later, in the shower, where red-faced and fuming, all the should’ves arrive, like pieces of lost baggage at the airport. I peeled away at my insides, walking through an interior landscape with boulders and rocks that needed peeking under and shoving aside. Through my 20’s and 30’s, I clambered around in there, looking for my real voice, my real heart and perhaps most importantly, my real principles. And over time, I began to realize that what came out of my mouth was starting to be integrated with what was in me. I stopped feeling a disparity between my internal and external lives. I had become authentic, although I periodically wondered if I was really me and not a fraud. Those masks we wear are hard to discard.
Eventually I felt I had arrived. Living in a place where I was all me all the time. In a bad spot, I had access to my most real self. I became my trusted ally. Authenticity helps make you fearless. The certainty of self-knowledge is what we have left when our lives convulse. When the unexpected happens, when the people we love die, authenticity helps in going forward into the opaque that was once translucent. I’m not going to give up this hard fought self I’ve become in my life. I’m still flexible and can grow but I have a true center. No matter what happens, I’m truly mine. To this day I don’t know exactly what I want to be, but I like who I am. That’s something.