For most of my life, I’ve gone into various situations and felt troubled that I was different from everybody else.
For instance, let’s take this story of the shoes. In seventh grade, my aunt gave me a pair of hand-me-down, rust-colored pink shoes with leaf-engravings on the side and holes that showed my foot-skin. (I don’t think I’m explaining these very well.) They had skinny pink laces and smooth wooden soles. I loved them, and I excitedly wore them to school. But all day I got looks from the other kids as they noticed my unusual shoes. As I packed books at my locker, or walked down the hall, it seemed like my peers were judging me, squinting, making sour faces. I felt like Big Bird in a world where Sesame Street never existed.
I never wore those shoes again, even though I looked longingly at them in my closet. Instead, I dressed in men’s long-sleeved shirts, selecting only the drabbest of colors: navy blue, black, gray.
For years now, as I’ve traveled from one job to another, as I’ve explored the dating world, as I’ve popped into various religious practices and traditions, I feel like I’ve been wearing weird pink shoes. At family parties, I’ve stood by the peach-mango salsa, the only woman wearing lipstick, gazing blankly around at my aunts, uncles, and cousins, not knowing what to talk about. (This is why I usually try to bring wine.) At my office, I’ve sat in front of the two monitors in my cubicle, wishing I could be satisfied and invigorated by color-coded spreadsheets and tracking logs and “strategy-mapping.” I’ve sat in therapists’ offices, or visited shamans, or gone to intuitive healers and acupuncturists, the same question underlying all of my rumination: Am I crazy? Am I normal? Who am I?
Is it okay to be me?
When I went through my divorce several years ago, I was constantly struggling with this question of identity. I had already wrestled with my sense of self when it came to career. After years of teaching English, of calling myself a “teacher,” I switched to a role as an editor at a Quaker magazine. I loved the work and felt invigorated to discover a new part of myself, a new talent I didn’t know I had. I shopped for new clothes—blazers, skinny jeans, flats—even dreamed about the clothes I wanted to buy to fit what I thought was my true personality.
And then I lost that job. (The guys there were really shady.) I was so disheartened, so hurt. So I enrolled in my yoga studio’s 9-month yoga teacher-training course. I read Buddhist texts and learned pranayama and meditation and asana. I was also writing a novel. Now, I was a “writer,” an “editor,” a “teacher,” a “yogi,” and of course, the one constant in my life, a “mom.”
That’s a lot of titles.
At the end of 2014, my marriage fell apart. I had no job. I had no husband. I began to see my kids only half the time. I was at the precipice of a whole new life, and I had no friggin’ idea what I was supposed to do, who I was supposed to be. I had followed the rules. I had tried hard at everything. And yet there were no guarantees of success, no promises that life was going to get easier, no assurances that I had done anything right.
That effing sucked.
Still, the the question that kept rising within me was, “Well, who am I now?”
I didn’t know, anymore, what label applied to me. I didn’t know where I was going to end up or live. I didn’t know who I was going to meet or become partnered with, if anybody. I didn’t know when things were going to happen, when my life was going to finally “take off.” And I didn’t know how it was going to come together. The only thing I knew was that I had wonderful people in my life—people at my Quaker meeting or in my yoga group, friends, family members—and my faith. I kept doing yoga. I kept meditating. I took what God offered to me one breadcrumb at a time. First, I got by with spousal support. Then, when that ended, I got financial help from my Quaker meeting. Next, I got a one-month job, and after that, pulled a couple of classes together that got me through the fall, before I was able to find full-time work.
Four years later, I’m still wrestling with the question, “Who am I now?” but in a different way. On one level, I can look at the past few years as though God has put me through the wringer. No job, no man, three kids who I can see only half the time? Moving out of my house into an apartment with very old carpeting? Thanks, Buddy. Great work.
Or, I can view it as though I’ve learned some tough but valuable spiritual lessons.
I don’t have labels that easily define me anymore. I don’t have a lot of things. But through my trials—which kind of don’t seem to want to end?—I discover deeper and deeper parts of myself. I know me, now, better than I ever did. I have an inner compass that doesn’t get shaken due to what others think, or what my family structure looks like, or what religious tradition I’m drawn to, or how well I perform at my day-job.
That compass is a gift no one can ever buy with money.
So who am I, regardless of what I have, or what I lose?
I am strong. I am loving. I am kind.
I am creative. I am brave.
I never stop searching for meaning.
And, despite the fact that I wish I could somehow solve this great big puzzle called life, I keep getting up. I keep trying.
I’m learning all the time.