29 January 2012

Who am I and where did I come from?

In my last post, Liv brought up an interesting point.

I think stepping outside of the box you grew up in has to be one of the toughest but most rewarding things that a person can do--it takes a bit of courage most of us don't even possess... and a way of thinking that feels unnatural.

I don't know who you were when you first lived in Kentucky, but you've made me curious to know which 'roots' you've hung on to... The person you have chosen to become has to have in some way emerged from the person you were, no? Your lust for adventure and experience... is that from your dad? Your upbringing? Your community? What about your intuition for how to make food taste good? Your sense of humor? My vote for your next post: You suggest that who you are now is a result of rejecting all that you were then... But my gut tells me that if I met you 25 years ago, there would be elements of the same Liz that I see now... What HASN'T changed (other than your wonderful accent)? That's my question.

I do suggest that I rejected everything from my past and have carved out this new and improved D from a fresh block of marble. We all know that ain't exactly so. So I'll attempt some context if only to make Liv happy. But I want you to understand, Liv. You haven't asked an easy, short-blog-post question.

In my family, I am most like my oldest brother. The one in jail. My mother, a trained therapist today, has labeled my brother and I narcissists. The way she hisses it, there is no doubt that I should somehow be ashamed of myself. With all the people I know who are crippled by a lack of self-esteem, I'll take narcissism over self-doubt any day. According to my mother, the difference between my brother and myself today is that I am "just" a narcissist, but my brother has narcissistic personality disorder. I have to disagree. I don't believe my brother has fragile self-esteem. It doesn't matter what label you put on it, it was obvious very early that as as opinionated, vocal children and teenagers, our personalities weren't highly valued.

My brother is actually quite entertaining. He is a master storyteller. He can captivate your attention for hours. I think he would have made a compelling actor. Or comedian. He does great impressions of famous people. I can't tell a story to save my life, but I like to discuss ideas. I like to bounce around alternative explanations. I like to explore concepts, turn them over, see what's buried in the dirt beneath them. But to this day, if either my brother or I try to discuss something among our family we are regularly chastised for "getting on our soapboxes", which was simply a polite way of wishing we'd shut up. It didn't matter (and still doesn't) that I did my homework before I spoke, that I wasn't reciting opinion, but rather basing my discussion on an educated perspective. According to my sister, my sole objective was to be "right". It became obvious to me that I was talking to the wrong people.

So part of who I am and who my brother is arises from the unstoppable overlay of our rather strong personalities--a personality type not inherited from either of our parents.

My father was practical. Reserved. Methodical. Calculating. Thoughtful. He did nothing spontaneously. We didn't go on vacations because we were saving for college educations. We didn't get new shoes until the old ones had holes in them. We didn't get fashionable clothing. His favorite store was K Mart. I don't recall going out to dinner with my family unless we were traveling and mealtime came when we were on the road. I don't recall eating at McDonald's until I was in junior high school. My father's mark on our family was restraint. He thought yellow mustard was an exotic spice. I probably needed restraint more than most. So I credit my father with the lack of interest I take in fashion and the trappings of status. I place no value on designer names. I shop at Goodwill. I buy generic. To me a car is a tool that gets me from point A to point B and a home is place where I hang my hat at night. The one thing my father did value was his home. He valued it even more so than I do.

My mother was a stay-at-home mom. She cooked all our meals, did our laundry, kept the house in reasonable shape. She stayed out of way for the most part. My mother was, and remains, a terrible cook. She makes, no kidding, the same 4 dishes every week. The spices in her cabinet have been there more than 20 years. The vanilla extract has solids on the bottom of the jar. You can't get the lid off the cinnamon. I didn't grow up in a household that valued flavor. So to answer that question, Liv, I learned to cook when I first moved to Chicago and began to sample the world's cuisines. I instantly fell in love. With everything. And I wanted it more than just when my pocketbook would allow an evening out. I cannot credit anyone in my family for my love of culinary adventure.

But other hints of me were present in my childhood. When I was growing up, I saw myself bigger than the dreams my parents laid out for me. I was going to be an Olympic swimmer. A famous author. An actor on television. I was going to be BIG. I don't think that anymore. I do think that teaching gives me an outlet that is useful for my personality. I like talking about ideas. I am something of a performer. I suppose in my classroom, I'm big. I think a lot of people might be uncomfortable admitting that they want to be the center of attention. I'm not really. Why hide the obvious? If I told you I was a humble, reluctant teacher and that I didn't like being the center of attention, no one who knows me would believe me anyway. I believe it is simply good sense to use one's strengths to their best advantage. Teaching allows me to make good use of the strengths of a "narcissist" personality.

The town I grew up in was tired. It was grey. The streets were dirty with soot that fell from the stacks of the coke plant. Never once in the dreams of my childhood did I think of staying in that town and settling down. I wanted to live in the wilderness of Colorado, somewhere so far out they had to air drop in toilet paper. I wanted to live off my wits. I wanted adventure. I wanted to learn to surf. I wanted to ride dune buggies in big sand. I wanted to go to Europe and see the Eiffel Tower. I wanted do things that no one could possibly do in eastern Kentucky. I didn't want to live a small life. I wanted out and the sooner the better.

I'm honestly not sure what my parents thought of my dreams. They listened politely. They didn't discourage me. They didn't encourage me either. They would say generic things like, "You can be anything you want to be" but they never seemed to tell me that I had to plan to do those things. I think they assumed I'd quit dreaming one day and face reality. Maybe they didn't know what to say.

I had great parents. Don't get me wrong. My father made me proud. My mother worked hard to make us good people. But I simply think they didn't know how to deal with someone like me (and maybe my brother, too) who were so different from themselves. I didn't bother to ask to do most things I really, really wanted to do because I knew the answer was no. No, I wouldn't be allowed to get a mini-bike. I wouldn't be allowed to order sea monkeys from the back of the comic book. I wouldn't be encouraged to try out for cheerleader. Just because.

I was actually amazed when I was allowed to join the swim team. And it was my mother who encouraged that. Maybe she knew I needed a way to channel my energy. Maybe she was just too tired to say no. But I became a swimmer and from the fourth grade into high school, swimming was my life. My adventure was planning for how I was going to win Olympic medals. I read books about Donna de Varona. I watched Mark Spitz and dreamed. Oh, how I dreamed.

I credit swimming for teaching me loads that I've brought with me to adulthood. In swimming I learned self-discipline. I learned to entertain myself. I learned the value of hard work. I learned how to win humbly and lose with grace. I learned to push myself. I learned to accept my limits. I credit my parents for schlepping me to meets in towns two hours away on weekends when I'm sure they'd rather be relaxing. For laying out the money on suits and goggles and warmups so I could pursue all this. I credit them for not being too involved. They stayed out of my way. They didn't micromanage. They were just as supportive as I needed them to be and that was honestly very little.

I once asked my mother why they doted so on my sister. I asked her why I never seemed to elicit that sense of concern in them. My mother told me frankly, "You never seemed to need any help." My parents largely left me alone.

To this day, it is difficult for me to look at who I am and say I got this from my dad and that from my mom. As adverse as my parents were to risk taking, I do thank them for guiding me into activities that worked well for me. Were a good fit. Taught me life lessons. I thank them for not belittling my dreams. I think I am a better, more practical, more charitable person because of the role models they were.

The adventurer in my family was my great-grandfather and that I will save for another post.

28 January 2012

On Not Getting the Job (aka On Why I Can't Go Home Again)

For the past 7 months, I've been living with my sister in Kentucky. I got a nice professional position at a local university about two hours from the town where I grew up. I am closer to my family. I should be happy, right?

Wrong. I'm miserable.

Well, maybe that's overstating it. I'm not miserable. I'm uncomfortable. I'm uneasy here. And the reason for this generalized ajada? I feel oppressed. I feel this intense pressure that I haven't felt since I was 17 and bursting at the seams to get the hell out.

I had reservations about accepting this job. Not because of the job itself. It represented a great opportunity for me. It has been a great opportunity for me. I had reservations about moving back to Kentucky. Who are we kidding? For years now, I've had reservations about visiting Kentucky.

Forget for the moment that I moved in with my sister with whom I have an uneasy relationship. Despite our major differences, we have managed fairly well living together.

So what really is the problem? People know me here. People who haven't seen me in 30 years. People who remember me only from how I was in high school. People, most often, who never moved away. People who haven't had the same breadth of life experiences that I have. People who never lived outside the box they were born into. They haven't tried new things. They settled into predictable patterns. They found no need to explore themselves, to examine their beliefs, or to even just try something new for the sheer enjoyment of it. When I look at some of those lives, I think how grossly inappropriate it would have been for me to have settled for that.

If there is a truth in my life it is this: I was not meant for the ordinary.

And because I didn't settle and I braved the world outside Kentucky, I have grown into the adult I am today. And I'm not a damn thing like I was back in high school. I can't even remember who that girl was. The most unfortunate part about it is this. Even if you managed to break free, the vision that your family and friends had of you remains intact. They still have these expectations. They still think they maintain this power to shape me. They think, quite honestly, that by trying to shame me, I'll behave in a manner they find acceptable. It seems harsh to say that, but that is how families work. At least, that is how my family works. My family wasn't there to see me grow and they refuse to acknowledge my growth. They are stuck with this vision of someone who doesn't exist.

I'm not going to argue this point, really, because while some might disagree, what I have just described is a truth in my life. Your's may be different. But my family exerted a lot of pressure to conform to their ideals, and those ideals were involved avoiding risk in any aspect of life. Whether it was socially speaking, financially speaking. Hell, as a family, we didn't even try new recipes. My family taught me strict adherence to community standards. In a word, that environment was oppressive. It was perhaps even more oppressive than high school, where the pressure to conform is intense.

So my family continues to attempt to apply guilt, shame, and overt pressure to force me to be someone I'm not. Do they do it maliciously? Of course not. But they do it. To the rest of the world in my home town, I'm still that high school person. They liked that person. They want that person back. I have lived in distant contact with those friends and my family for 30 years. We talk on the phone. We've seen each other 2-3 times a year. At holidays. On the occasional trip home. But for the most part, my adult life has been lived independent of my early influences and their influence waned long ago.

I think one of the reasons that being young is so hard is that we are awakening to the possibilities that life offers, but living in a situation where other people have more power over what we are, what we do, what ideas we feel comfortable expressing, what things we see, who we are exposed to than we do ourselves. When like to say that the young are discovering themselves, but they are doing so cloaked in the morality of their families. What kid hasn't heard that standard parental phrase, "Not while you're living under my roof"? Who we become is shaped, to a large extent, by the expectations of our families. If we remain in close contact with our families, that vision of who we are becomes ingrained. And that was true for me, right up until the moment that my ex-husband tried to kill me.

All bets were off after that. I decided that every day was a gift, and I was living for me and no one else.

I celebrate the day of my divorce each year. I call it my Independence Day. It was a day that changed my life forever.

I think I am extraordinarily lucky then to have moved away from my family early. I think had I not moved away early, I might have sought my refuge in them. I might have found comfort in becoming that person they expected. Thankfully, I didn't. Instead, I questioned everything that my life had become. I asked myself whether or not it fit my vision of myself. Did it fit the way I wanted to live my life?

Those were questions that were extraordinarily foreign to me at the time, and I became drunk with the possibilities. If I was really free, then the whole world was open to me. Since I was 39 years old, I began to put my own mark on my life.

And I will not look back. I will not allow others to influence who I am and who I want to become.

If Kentucky makes me uneasy, I will not live in Kentucky.

They will not offer me a permanent position here. They may have done me one of the greatest favors of my life.