I’ve been here before, but it still feels new. Slowly packing my boxes as I prepare to leave the place I call “home.” It’s the end of an era, I guess. Finishing college and making this move is a game changer.
I’ve been here before, of course I have. My mind immediately jumps to five years ago, when I took off for University. It’s a familiar story: By the end of high school, I had messily carved a suburban teenage “self” out of high school essays, basement parties, and bad attempts at French cuisine. The time had come to challenge that identity. So I moved to the City (mine was Ottawa; my friends scattered all over). I remember leaving my parents’ house in 2010, taking pictures off the walls as my younger brother prepared to take over the space. The process of packing up your old life, even if you’re truly ready for it, is necessarily emotional. It was emotional then, and it is emotional now.
It’s good emotional, for the most part: I’m excited, I’m ready. My family and career and soul will all be better for this. I sat down with a friend from first year yesterday and just vomited out all the cool stuff I want to do with my life: “I want to make this website! I want to make that app! I want to run this Twitter account! I want to make education better! I want a dog and a house and a panini press!”
It’s time to challenge the identity again. That’s how I see these big moves. I’m attracted to the idea of putting myself in a new environment and seeing how my outlook and personality change…and how they stay the same. “Finding myself in college” wasn’t about “doing new stuff” (though that was cool, too). It was aboutfiguring out what parts of my identity were who I was, and which parts were just a product of where I was. Would I still like History when I left the guidance of my high school teachers? (Yes, it turned out, I fell even more desperately in love). Would I still adore my high school friends after a few years in a new place? (We had a wicked party last month, actually). Would I hold on to my lack of religious beliefs, my relationship, my bad habits? (No, no, and I’m sure I’ve traded them in for some more).
The move helped me. It didn’t save me, it wasn’t a one-size-fits-all “solution.” It just helped, for the same reason travelling or “trying something new” helps. It’s powerful to see that there is more out there. And it’s powerful to see how you respond to that. Embracing new space can show you what sticks when you shift the environmental factors—the social pressure, the family dynamics, all that. Whether you love the new place or hate it, the whole experience can give you a much more solid grasp on who you are and what you want.
And what I want now is to move forward with my life, which means leaving Ottawa. It means reclaiming a Southern Ontario “self” (this time as a job-seeking big kid) and shedding some of the capital city student life. Just some of it. I’ll still be me, of course. But with this move, I’m hoping I will get a better idea of what that means.
I’ve reached the point in my life where most of the “firsts” have come and gone. My emotional life is currently a mishmash of seconds, of thirds.
Last week, my best friend and I sat on my second bed, in my third apartment. We were laughing over our middle school journals, pages of smeared gel pen filled with trite “firsts.” We empathized and rolled our eyes at the little girls we used to be, before we even knew each other. Back when we were doing everything for the first time. Back when it seemed like the first time was all there was.
The world is bigger now, I guess.
Nothing is a first anymore, not even our friendship. We’re happy, we’re close, and it’s awesome. But it’s certainly no first. I met her in adulthood, after all. My trial-and-error timeline was already well on its way by the time we joined hands.
Firsts are important, sure, but I think we sometimes downplay our seconds, thirds, fourths. Maybe it’s because they’re less of a learning experience and more of an experience, period; they can rock your world, but they don’t rock your worldview. They just happen, they just are. I’ve put together a bed before, signed a lease, called a girlfriend in hysterics. Caring and craving and crying are officially somewhat-familiar territory. Circumstances will change, but I am at least aware of my basic emotional range. When big things happen again (and we all know they will) I will have an emotional compass established, a moderate understanding of how I respond to these things.
Perhaps that makes them seem like less profound follow-ups. But that can’t be true, it can’t. The fact that we even get second chances is incredible. We can hurt, and love, and be passionately interested with our whole selves. It can feel massive and real. But when things end, if they end, we get second chances. We can give ourselves permission to continue the story. We can move forward, we can try again. And again. And again. We can tire ourselves out so fully, yet still have more to give the next day.
That’s amazing. We get to fail, and life still goes on.
I think that’s worth recognizing, don’t you?
So here’s to the seconds, thirds, and fourths. The feelings we’re kinda-sorta familiar with. The stuff that happens after we learn from our mistakes. The ones we meet a little further down the timeline.
Because anything that reminds us of our personal capacity for resurrection? That’s pretty awesome in my books.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my makeup habits a lot.
Why do I wear this stuff? How I justify hauling a “mask” of sorts around town? What am I trying to prove? What am I trying to hide?
While sometimes the answer is “Um, obviously you’re trying to hide that pimple, Shauna,” I have realized that these questions as a whole are flawed. My makeup isn’t really a mask.
Growing up, my mother rarely wore makeup. She was a low-maintenance country girl and, perhaps more importantly, she had four little people to look after. I was the oldest of these, and the only girl.
On very special occasions, my mother would unleash the mystical cosmetics bag. I would watch, fascinated, as she expertly curled her lashes and powdered her face with whatever-that-stuff-was. She would share her eye shadow with me (just a little bit, just for fun) and I would giggle as I buried my little feet in her size-8 shoes.
Dress up was one of my favourite games.
My day-to-day makeup free momma was no more or less beautiful than the date night version, and she was certainly no more or less my momma. Still, I really dug the special-occasions grooming process. I loved watching my mother ceremonially draw on her face before leaving us with the babysitter. Once, in one of my most embarrassing moments ever, I even stole red nail polish from my her bathroom and tried to use it as lipstick.
(Wait. Let’s just take a moment to reflect on how stupid that was.)
Fast forward through a few face paint faux pas and the turtleneck-centric middle school years, and I found myself in the dress up big leagues. High school meant my choices were endless and personal. It also meant that the factors influencing those choices were complicated. I had more self to express, more peers to please, more categories and clothes and I finally got my ears pierced.
So I shaved my head, then dyed my hair brown for awhile. I went through everything from au naturel months, to questionably bold colours, earthy tones, pinkish glows, red lipsticks. I wore cowboy boots. I wore sneakers. I wore huge hoop earrings and tiny necklaces. I stole (borrowed?) my mother’s nail polish once again, and actually managed to finally use it right.
This was dress up. This was the same game my mother played when she got ready for a night on the town. The same game I played as a giggly little kid, stumbling around in mom’s shoes with 20 different barrettes falling out of my hair.
…and it’s the game I play now, as I try on my third outfit and rush through my current eyeliner-infused routine each morning.
And so the questions follow:
Why do I keep playing this game? Am I trying to be something I’m not?
Actually, as I look back on my life, it appears to be quite the opposite: Dress up isn’t about denying who I am. It is a part of who I am.
Is part of the motive to look pretty? Of course it is. I felt pretty in my twenty barrettes when I was five, in my vintage earrings and cowboy boots at 16, and in my big-kid makeup yesterday. No, I don’t believe I owe it to anyone to be consistently attractive (though for some people that’s a thing, and it shouldn’t be). I just believe that feeling pretty feels good. I work really freakin’ hard to be beautiful on the inside (not sure if that’s a weird/vain thing to say), so sometimes it’s nice to feel like my face is a part of that.
Do I try to look pretty for other people sometimes? Of course I do (‘sup, hormones?). But I also try to act nice and be funnier and listen better. Highlighting your best qualities isn’t a bad thing. And getting your game face on (literally) isn’t a bad thing either, not really.
Dress up doesn’t have to be about changing who we are. It can be about expressing and highlighting who we are, where we are, how we are. We just have to own the game.
You’re allowed to wear whatever makes you most comfortable. If that means sweat pants (helloooo Thursday night Netflix!), then great. If that means covering blemishes and highlighting features with a so-called mask of colours and chemicals, then cool.
As for me? Well, I’m just going to stick with what dress up means to me today: Reddish lipstick, blue jeans, and unmatching socks.
This is the first year I can say, with 100% honesty, that I am not excited about Christmas presents.
But I am excited. I’m up at 5 am with a tinsel-tinted adrenaline rush, and I feel like I should explain why.
– – –
I’m excited for a big family breakfast. For cheesy Christmas specials on DVD. For rum and eggnog at 12:00 sharp. I’m all warm and fuzzy about the fact the family dog is sharing my makeshift mattress on mom’s office floor and that’s cool, puppy, my feet can hang off the bed. Really.
I can’t wait to see little Mikey’s new haircut with bedhead. I will probably force a selfie upon him, if it’s particularly magnificent. And my father will probably photobomb it, because he’s hyped. We’re all hyped. We’re buzzing with the unspoken amazement that this year, finally, we’re all happy and healthy for the holidays.
I’m excited for the tacky, blurry photo evidence.
I’m excited about the snow, now that it’s not threatening my commute home. About a real day off. About my new discovery that singing a loud, off-key version of “Wrecking Ball” on my ukelele can pretty much persuade my brothers to do anything I want because“SHAUNA. STOP. PLEASE.”
I’m excited for the beautiful weirdness of love looking like a family sitting around a souped-up tree. I look forward to trading symbols of “I CARE ABOUT YOU AND YOUR INTERESTS,” I suppose. But that’s all they are. They’re symbols this year, and not particularly necessary ones. They’re excuses to hug people and to appreciate people, and that’s all. That’s all.
I’m excited for the hugs, too.
I don’t have too many expectations for Christmas 2013. I’m sure our poorly-mixed drinks will spill, often. People will disappear for naps, cutting well-intended board games off prematurely. There will be chipped nail polish, CDs that skip, and burnt food (because our oven is a menace). The zoo that is our family home–four kids, one dog, two hamsters, a bird, a snake, and an open door policy–will need tending to.
And, as always, I’m going suggest that we read the biblicalversion of the Christmas story. And everyone is going to agree that this is an okay idea, I guess, but it’s not going to happen because we’re a little busy laughing right now.
And that’s okay, too, because we’ll write our own version.
We will tell it through awful puns and funny faces, through unseemly snapshots and battle cries of “YOU’RE SO ANNOYING” and “THAT’S SO AWESOME.” It’s the story about what happens when perfect love pays a visit to an imperfect world, and we’ll tell it. We always do.
“What should I be when I grow up?” she asked, crossing her ankles and looking at me hopefully.
I smiled at the question. She smiled back.
“I dun’no, mom. What do you want to be?”
My mother asks this question every now and then, in different forms. I always like when she does. It’s sweet, and it’s vulnerable, and it makes me feel like we really aren’t so different.
We are different, of course. She’s an employed, secure, middle aged woman; I’m brand new to the big girl scene. She’s rocking the house/husband/kids/dog combo while I bounce between internships, roommates, and take out in the fridge. Maybe that’s why it’s nice to have something so simple and juvenile in common: Neither of us can see the future. Neither of us “know” what we want to “be” when we “grow up.”
I remember the first time she shared this.I was young, still under the impression that “my parents have everything together all the time!” (even if I liked to disagree with them some). I was sitting on my mother’s office floor with a Fisher Price boom box, interviewing her onto a blank tape. “When you were a kid,” I asked, putting on my best TV voice. “What did you want to be when you growed up?”
She laughed. “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.”
At first, this terrified me. What do you mean you don’t know yet? Will you ever know? Will anybody ever know?
Answer: Probably not.
[Insert prepubescent panic here.]
As I get older, however, that answer feels less and less scary. At this point, it’s practically comforting. “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” Of course you don’t. Of course I don’t. Look at those loaded words, momma, look: “know,” “want,” “be,” and *shudder* “grow up.”
A few days after the conversation with my mother, I turned the “want” “be” “grow up” question loose on a 7 year old friend of mine, a bubbly little girl who had stayed late to help me clean up the Sunday school classroom.
“I dun’no what I wanna be,” She responded, then shot me a goofy smile. “Something where I can sit in a hot tub and relax with my friends sometimes.”
I briefly thought about responding with something moralistic; ‘Oh honey,it shouldn’t be about material things.’ Maybe I should bring Jesus into it somehow, because that’s what a Sunday school teacher is supposed to do, right? But honestly, Jesus didn’t say much about 7 year olds who think hot tubs are kinda cool (which they are). So I just smiled back at her. “Maybe you could sell hot tubs for a living, huh?”
“Hey, yeah! Lots of people buy hot tubs. My mom has one.”
“You wanna be like your mom when you grow up?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, she has a hot tub.”
“Awesome. In that case, I want to be like your mom when I grow up, too.”
It wasn’t the deepest conversation, but it made me think back to my own mother; beside me on the couch, half watching TV, crossing her ankles and asking me what she should be when she grows up. We all have little moments like that, I think–whether we’re 7 years old kids, 20 something college students, middle aged mommas, maybe even as we trek through the much later years. Wondering what comes next. Working through what we do, but optimistically unsure of where we are going.
Maybe we never “know.” Maybe the process of figuring “it” out can take a whole lifetime or longer.
I was sitting on the train; alone in my section, as far as I could see. I had given up wrestling with the strings, and was resting my head on a soft area of my backpack. An older woman came by, saw the instrument and asked if I wouldn’t play a song. “It’s super out of tune,” I explained, sitting up and fiddling uselessly with the knobs. “My little brother got a hold of it.”
That was a lie. My little brother hadn’t touched the uke. The screechy, stringy sound was entirely my fault–I had tried to tune it by ear in Toronto, and failed miserably. But, oh ego, I didn’t want to admit that. “Maybe I’ll just get the musician to help me tune it when she’s done her set, if she knows how.”
“The musician?” The lady asked. I smiled and explained. Along with wine tastings and trivia-filled talks, Via Rail hosts Canadian musicians who perform shows throughout the commute. My train had enlisted a retired postwoman from Kingston, Ontario who played folksy guitar.
I found the musician sitting in the “Activity Car” after her set, and approached her cautiously. “‘Scuze me. Can I ask you something, maybe?” As if she could say no. As if we weren’t stuck on a train together for two days.
“I have this ukelele, with me, I’m trying to tune,” I stumbled, repeating the lie about my brother. “Do you know what notes the strings are supposed to be?”
She looked confused. “Oh! Um, well, the bottom string is an A, and…hold on.” She dug into the seat beside her, pulling out her own small ukelele case.
“I could bring it here, if that’s easier?” I offered. “It’s just in my car, back there.”
She nodded in my direction. I power-walked to my seat, snatching the pale brown uke. I gave it a quick strum–wow, that is really, embarrassingly bad. Like, I can’t believe I’m even going to show this to someone bad. I braced myself for condescension, the way I do when I’m going to the dentist and haven’t really been flossing, or when I go for a haircut with major split ends.
“Oh, wow, this IS out of tune,” she said, twisting the strings into sanity. I sheepishly agreed and apologized because, well, that’s what you do when someone smarter than you shakes their head and tells you what you already know. She just laughed at me. “No, I mean, it’s fine, it’s just really out of tune. It happens.” She finished screwing a few knobs and handed the uke back to me. I exhaled, relieved to have a working instrument. I strummed a C, then a G, then an A. In response, the musician produced her own ukelele–the same type as mine, a Mahalo, but hers was green. She picked a few strings. “Wanna jam?” She asked.
Shit. I DID want to, of course, but now I really had to paint myself amateur. When I told her I was new to the insturment–really, really new–she smiled at my insecurity once again. “So then, you want to learn something?”
And so we sat, for thirty minutes (probably longer), patiently strumming through folk songs. She sketched out chord diagrams and we played and replayed. I finally mastered “Home on the Range.” We hi-fived.
“You know, George Harrison always traveled with two ukeleles.” She said. “He would just hand one to someone in an airport, or something, and they would play. Can you imagine that, being that person, doing this kind of thing with George Harrison?” She grinned, satisfied that we were somehow part of a great tradition. Later, I would hear her recount our lesson to another passenger and cite the same Beatles story.
Beautiful meals, on board wine tastings, champagne and h’ors d’oeuvres, live entertainment, and now a free music lesson…that train ride was the real deal. Most of this was because I was traveling in “sleeper class,” which is a big step up from “economy class.”
When I told her about my trip, my friend Caitlin all but demanded that I travel in sleeper class, because “Shauna, it’s SO worth it.” I refused at first, my budget was too tight, but there was a sale and the trip from Toronto to Winnipeg included two overnights, so I splurged for that portion of the trip. I’m riding Economy the rest of my trip (en route to Saskatoon as I write this!), and it’s more than fine. Still, “sleeper class” was a serious experience.
When we reached Winnipeg, I really didn’t want to get off of the train. I was having way too much fun aboard, and the city outside looked dingy and construction site-esque. I struggled to find a Tim Horton’s upon arrival (somehow, I thought it would be easy), and struggled more to find a place which sold bus tickets. Finally, I made my way to the bus–I was staying with a woman from Couchsurfing, whose house was about a 10 minute ride from downtown.
I sat myself down at an empty seat near the back. The bus was nearly full, and it wasn’t long before someone sat down next to me: a young boy, maybe a year or two my junior, with sharp aboriginal features and faded brown skin. He struck up a conversation by showing me his hand, which had scabs all over the knuckles: “See this?” He grinned. “Don’t drink and drive. Not any vehicle.”
“Oh. Dear. Ouch.” I threw him a polite smile, then looked out the window as the bus tumbled down a rough-looking Main Street.
“Yeah, yesterday was a shitty day for me,” He continued, clearly wanting a conversation. I motioned politely to his hand.
“Because of your accident?”
“No, no, that was last week. Yesterday, I was about to smoke a bowl, right, and I had it all packed and everything, right, and then, like, I just dropped my bong right there on the floor,” He mimed the accident.
“Oh. No. That…sucks. Was it expensive?” I had no idea what else to say. The woman across the way shot me a look; you aren’t from around here, are you?
“Naw, it was maybe like 30 bucks but like man, I was about to smoke a bowl and then–” He acted out the accident again. I watched as others on the bus nodded sympathetically, and tried to nod the same way. Unfortunately, I am a terrible actress.
“Well, I guess, I mean, that gives you an excuse to buy a new one?” I offered. The world’s most house wife-y response to a broken bong.
He shrugged. “Guess, but it sucked. Where you from?” At this point I was pretty sure this kid was high, or drunk, or something. Even through his haze, he could tell that I was no local.
“Ottawa,” I said, then quickly added. “I’ve been here before, though. Visiting a family friend. Just busing to her house.” The lie slid off my tongue and covered me uncomfortably, like a heavy invisible armour. I hate lying. Between the uke story and this, I was up to two falsehoods in one day. I contented myself that this was just a safety precaution, that didn’t want to publicly proclaim my vulnerability. The woman across the way finally spoke up.
“Well, be careful ’round here. Like, y’shouldn’t go walking down Main Street by yourself any time of day, especially at night.” She said. I looked out the window at the street in question. Her advice was pretty self evident. “Winnipeg isn’t the most dangerous city in Canada anymore, but like, I’m pregnant right? So I’m still pretty nervous walking down the street after I babysit my niece.”
I wanted to congratulate her on her pregnancy, or thank her for her local insight, but instead I just sat there looking like a frightened kitten. I pounced off the bus like one, too, scurrying towards the street my host lived on. I saw the street sign and turned.
Houses. Pretty little houses. Cut grass. Laughing children.
You guys, I have never been so excited to see suburbs. It was ridiculous.
A French couple opened the door upon my arrival. They were staying under the same roof–live in travel buddies!–and had actually been on the same train as me. The host had left a note and snacks for the three of us in the kitchen. My room was cosy and comfortable. I felt safe. And when you’re traveling around, talking to strangers, STAYING with strangers, and sleeping on a different air mattress every other night…feeling safe is something you never take for granted.
You don’t take showers for granted, either. And you certainly don’t take live-in travel buddies or beautiful, free-spirited hosts for granted. Getting clean and walking about was just about all I did in Winnipeg, but I was fine with that (most of the time, anyways).
Now for a series of confusing images which sum up my time in Winnipeg:
I never did fall in love with Manitoba. This sucked more than it should’ve, mostly because I have silly expectations and want Canada to be magical and beautiful and happy all the time. Sometimes, though, it’s just real. Or weird. Or even a little dangerous.
But I wanted to see all of Canada, even the STI ad campaigns and rough streets and suburbs and shopping malls. And it’s nice to know that, no matter where I seem to go in this country, no matter how comfortable (or uncomfortable) the place, I always seem to find somewhere to temporarily call home. For that, I am incredibly grateful.
It was 2011. I suppose that wasn’t so long ago, really, but it feels like forever now.
I was sitting in the basement of a local Unitarian Universalist Church, surrounded by regular attendees. I hadn’t been to any kind of worship in at least a decade, and felt like a fetus surrounded by middle aged church goers. I watched as the Minister passed around markers, telling us to “draw our spiritual journey.”
(I realize this may seem strange, but trust me–it’s business as usual at the UU.)
I drew and labeled tentatively across the page. When we finished, I partnered up with the woman across from me to go over the designs. She showed off her intricate, curving pathway–marriage, born again Christianity, yoga, Wicca, kids. It was a beautiful timeline, and I smiled back at her story as she scanned my drawing curiously.
I hadn’t drawn a timeline.
I had drawn a tree.
A group show-and-tell circled around the room. One by one, everyone began revealing their timeline. Curves, corners, arrows, paths, this-thus-that. Even the Minister illustrated his journey with thick, chronological lines.
And there I was, with my frizzy short hair and limited life experience, clutching an image of twisted branches while everyone poured out their major life events.
On some level, it probably had to do with my age. When the Minister said “spiritual journey,” all my young mind could think of were moments and relationships, good meals and great ideas, quiet places and loud families. These were the things that made God seem just a liiiittle closer than usual. So I drew roots. Branches to represent friendships, leaves to represent moments. Some of the leaves were falling off of their perch; others were growing flowers. Text and little hearts explained (or refused to explain) what it all meant.
Basically, it was hyper-symbolic. It was not so simple –> as –> this.
And maybe it was a little strange, maybe it wasn’t quite what the Minister was looking for, but…I was proud of my tree. I liked the openness. There were “big life” events on the tree, of course, markers of birth/death/love/war. But there were other things, too. The tree represented my life as a work-in-progress, with multiple facets. One big, bright leaf reflected a long, peaceful silence I shared with a close friend. Another represented the first time I got absolutely engrossed watching a play.
The tree let those things matter.
Looking back, my favourite thing about the tree is that it was strong, but not rigid. It was alive.Parts could grow, or break and fall right off, and it would all be natural. As a young person, that was important. I think it might stay important as I get older.
(It’s also possible that I’m just kind of a hippie. Feel free to raise an eyebrow.)
By nature, timelines present our memory and our identity as rigid. They present our lives as one big story, instead of millions of imperfect experiences. I don’t know if that’s fair. I don’t think we should restrict our identity to the things that “count” as milestones. We aren’t necessarily tragic heroes with a beginning-middle-end. Nor are we self-aware folks on a direct journey through life. “That was a really hard time in my life,” or “That was the happiest I’ve ever been.”
Too simple. That’s just too simple. We aren’t timelines. We can’t stop at chronology. I don’t want to compartmentalize your life, or my life, not like that.
Yes, yes, I realize all this might sound odd coming from a History student.
Let me be clear: Timelining is a great way to establish context. It’s not a crime to treat events as “things that took place,” or even to consider people as empty, reactive vessels that “things happened to” at first. I absolutely devour the nothing-but-chronological unfolding of the world through the lens of time.
But I also don’t, and can’t, stop there.
Even in History, reality often comes in trees. Family trees, for example. Essay outlines. Complex international relations maps.
We have to branch out. Timelines are great at telling base, simple stories…but they’re not so great at telling the whole truth.
And when it comes to our own identity, our own History, we deserve the Truth. We deserve to represent ourselves as more than a timeline–more than what happens to us, and certainly more than a few life events that people have decided are “important.”
Maybe, just maybe, we could use the wisdom of trees to start looking at that.
(I know, I know. Hippie alert, part two. You can raise your other eyebrow.)
As I walked down the neon city streets on Thursday night, the words ‘How DID I get here?’ went through my head. And they stayed there. And repeated themselves, over and over and over.
I don’t have a lot of clear, I-can-see-the-words-in-my-head thoughts, but these words were bold–big letters dripping with disbelief (sans serif letters, for you typography geeks).
‘How DID I get here?’
It wasn’t the defeated kind of ‘Ungh, HOW did I get here?.’ I know how that kind goes. That kind is behind the way-too-long minutes (hours?) spent sitting barefoot on the bed, ‘oh, I don’t even know. Maybe I should read a book or move to a different country or something.’ That kind has seen me walking uncomfortably to the edge of nowhere (which I have yet to find, by the way), face buried in cheap sunglasses. That kind powers searches for nearest place where it feels okay to cry out “Um, God? Hi. Can you or your kid or someone who knows what they’re doing please take it from here?”
No, on Thursday it was nothing like that.
But it wasn’t the excited ‘WOW, How did I get here?,’ either. I have had a few of those moments recently. When Sex, Lies, and Storytime started spinning around the internet and loading up with comments, I literally ran into the bathroom and freaked out in front of the mirror: “Ohmygod. Am I actually a writer now? I’m a writer now. People are reading what I write.” (<< that is the toned-down, less embarrassing version.). Two weeks ago, I was sitting in my little DC room, practicing guitar and keeping up with some internship work, when I was suddenly overwhelmed by the power of music and ‘Wow!’ the fact that I was a part of it. I felt lucky. I felt good. ‘How did I get here?’
Thursday night was fun, but it wasn’t profoundly exciting. Nor was it profoundly upsetting. It was ‘How DID I get here?,’ a mix of amazement and…confusion, I think. Not good confusion or bad confusion, just the genuine I need to place this moment somewhere in my brain. Where do I place it? Where does it fit?
The thought wouldn’t budge.
‘How DID I get here?’
I haven’t faced those words a whole lot these last few years. I used to play the ‘How DID I get here?’ game all the time–when growing pains meet the travel bug, you rarely know completely where you are, how you got there, or what to think about it. But the last few years, I have just been living in Ottawa. Ottawa, which feels so strongly like Home. I never really had to consider my life there through the disbelief lens. It was just “adjusting,” and then “adjusted.” There were times I felt a little lost in what my life looked like, but I knew exactly how I got there. And I knew exactly where I was going.
Except, I didn’t. Because it turns out, I was going to the United States. I just never knew it.
I didn’t know I was going to end up in Washington DC….I still don’t understand quite how I ended up here, really. I know I applied for a few internships. I know I got a position at the Smithsonian. My days are spent in an office across from the National Mall. I eat breakfast every morning. By 5 pm, I have usually overdone Diet Coke and brainpower. My Saturdays are spent at the Holocaust Museum. My Sundays are spent spiritually addressing the fact my Saturdays are spent at the Holocaust Museum (easier said than done, but it’s important for me to be there).
It’s not a particularly mind-boggling lifestyle, but I can’t quite figure out how it ended up being my lifestyle.
I guess I’m asking you, then…Do those words (or something similar) ever go through your head? Do you ever go hunting for a comprehensive narrative as to why-how-why your life is what it is?
Here’s my theory: Most lives don’t fit into any sort of beginning-middle-end box. Even if they do, most of us are probably just hanging out in the “middle” looking for reasons and analyzing our lives like it’s the “end”. And most people don’t quite fit where they are, at least not all the time.
I think a lot of us look for timelines and reasons why-how-why when really, it’s not supposed to make sense. Not as much sense as we would like it to make, that is. And so I go back to this, as I always do:
“You are where you were always going, and the shape of home is under your fingernails.” – from the poem Transient by Al Purdy
I have wanted to write about this for a long time. I have so much to say about it. The problem is that I don’t have any stories about it– not that I am willing to share, at least. The world belongs to people who have the best stories. Sexual liberation belongs to women who are willing to stand up and say “I have sex! I have this much sex with this many people, and it’s okay!” or “I dress like this, so take that society!” Purity, modesty, and all that is pro-Virgin power comes from personal testimonies and Conservatively told bible stories.
And then there’s me.
Of course, I admire people who do tell their stories. They have changed my life, and the world really does belong to them. Stories have a neat way of improving social consciousness, evolving into full-blown movements. [Insert Pokemon evolution joke here?].
Me, I really don’t have a story that will change your life. I could probably make you laugh, but ultimately I’m not willing to share whether I’ve said Yes or No–certainly, I’m not telling the internet, nor my parents, nor most people I know. That doesn’t make me ashamed, by the way. I am fully comfortable with my sexuality. And I’m fully comfortable with keeping it to myself.
But since stories run the show, I will tell you the stories I know.
I know stories about women saying Yes, and it being a big problem. I know stories about women saying No, and it being a big problem. I know stories about misogyny disguised as miscommunication. I also know stories of miscommunication disguised as misogyny–God bless the little boys who receive mixed messages and lowered bars from society every day.
I know stories about people ashamed of what they have done, because that big bully “Society” told them they ought to be. Then there the people ashamed of what they haven’t done. There’s also shame in the couldn’t do, wouldn’t do–or, God forbid, like to do.
Oh, and there’s shame in what people don’t like to do, too. Sometimes, the don’t likes meet the likes and they confuse and shame each other. Fun, right?
I know stories about women who proudly wear the title “sexually liberated” because, well, they have a lot of sex and they want to own it and good for them. I know stories about women who are “sexually liberated,” or “sex positive,” but don’t have a lot of sex at all. I have heard tall tales from people who pretend they have more sex than they actually do, because they want to be part of the conversation. And then, of course, there are heartbreaking stories from folks who pretend they have less sex than they actually do, because that’s what is acceptable.
To make matters more confusing, these stories can all belong to the same person. Whether you’re in a Eucharist line or a picket line, chances are your sexual history is more definitive of who you are as a person than it should be.
Yes, I know stories. And so many of these stories make want to run up and give their keepers a big hug and say “It’s okay! You’re okay! You aren’t broken.”
Everyone is just trying to figure their shit out. If sexuality was sensible, reasonable, formulated, and mundane, then it wouldn’t be so friggin’ funny. And it is funny. It’s ridiculous. It’s romantic. It’s silly.
Welcome to human relationships, friends–they’re weird. When people take their clothes off, they get even weirder. So no, they don’t need your judgement. They need love, they need information. Please leave the close-mindedness at the door.
Oh, yes, there are serious things involved in sexuality: Health. Pregnancy. HIV. Disease. Emotional well-being. Rape. Consent. And we’re awfully good at confusing people about the serious parts by making up stupid rules about the ridiculous parts. These things need to be discussed honestly, but we keep loading them down with arbitrary social standards. Why? Do we really need to make sex more emotionally loaded and confusing?
Here’s what we need to do: Care about the stories. Let them speak. Respect the storytellers. Share your own stories, if you want to. And whatever your story is, however different it is than someone elses, whatever you choose to do with it: You aren’t broken.
You’re just another person with a story and a body, and no matter what, those two things belong to you and you alone.