Friday, October 7, 2011

Learning to Love

Most of my childhood was wondrous-full of magic, joy, and adventure… then I started junior high school.  The mix of 6th through 9th grade transformed my world into a horrible reality of bullies, lost friendships, and lunch period spent at a table by myself. I’m not sure whose brilliant idea it was to mix preteens ages 10 and 11 with 15-year-olds, but let me tell you it was living hell. One boy used to endlessly torment me, slapping me aside from the face each day by my locker, knocking my books from my hands, daring me to do something about it. Teachers walked by pretending not to notice until one day I had had enough and tore after the kid swearing that if I got a hold of him I’d kill him.  Fortunately for him, his shirt tore in my grasp and a teacher finally noticed that I was running in the hall. After that day he never bullied me again but socially, things didn't start to make a turn for the better until the new school was finally completed in time for my 9th-grade year.

High school offered various social activities that allowed me to “belong.” I entered into the Honors program, joined Swing Choir & Concert Choir, the track and soccer teams, Students Working Against Tobacco, Students Against Drunk Driving, and Students With a Testimony (a pre-school bible study). From these groups, I managed to find a handful of friends, but many times I still felt like an outcast. Different is never very popular when you are young and I suppose my tastes were far from those of my peers.  I collected antique books, listened to Celtic music, grew herb gardens, took botany as an elective, started stockpiling items for my future house, and adorned retro aprons as I practiced recipes in the kitchen.  My favorite television series was Tales from Avonlea, a turn of the century inspired show about a family on a farm in a Victorian town. I didn’t smoke, do drugs, curse, or drink and the idea of my friends having sex and risking teenage pregnancy and STDs just freaked me out. 

With high school ending and the idea of a party university not at all appealing to me, I knew I would once again need to find a way to fit in. So during college, I joined the church choir, hiked, and white water rafted, boated, attended conferences, and online chatted. I continued to live at home and worked evenings after classes in the local library's children's department. I admit that growing up and staying in a small town has its limitations and with nearly every person I knew away at large universities I once again found it difficult to belong. 

One day, I was watching Grease, and it occurred to me that Sandy seemed to find happiness at the end of the film by totally transforming herself.  Could I find a way to belong if I did the same?  To my surprise shortly after, I got invited to an island party with a bunch of people from high school.  To be included was exciting but that soon faded. Urine filled breezes caught me in the face when some very drunk guys tried to see who could put out the campfire from the top of the pine trees.  I got eaten by mosquitoes and ended up holding people’s drinks all night because I was the only one they trusted not to put anything disgusting in them while they used the bathroom.  After this experience and two more like it, I decided Grease’s message was backward and there was nothing wrong with being “Sandra Dee.”

So I switched tactics and seriously considered becoming Amish. After all, high school classmates had called me an Amish-wannabee.  As far as I could see, their lives seemed pretty awesome: best jams and baked goods in the WORLD, gorgeous homes, resourceful, and hardworking. But after researching it I discovered I would have to sever all ties with my family and well…that just wasn't ok with me.   

Then I went white water rafting and became inspired by this especially gorgeous guide who traveled the world on his motorcycle, lived in a Yurt, and explored the Amazon Rainforest for almost a year with remote natives. Meeting Casey made me want to try a bohemian lifestyle too.  I seriously considered joining an organic hippie commune and living off the land, making cheese from goats that we milked. When that month-long brainstorm was over I longed for a wild world adventure backpacking it across Asia or South America. Or maybe I could get a teaching job in a remote village and educate native children in the mountains of Tibet. Backpacking it across a foreign country and riding elephants through the jungle sounded exciting.

My mom saw that her worst fears and (as I later found out) nightmares were starting to come true.  She knew that if I left for that dream I might be gone for good.  Instead, she encouraged me to travel in short spirited adventures in American friendly countries. I ended up traveling all over the United States, England, and Italy.  Each trip brought with it its own adventures, independence, and slowly satisfied my hunger for wild world wanderings. 

Before I knew it, I found myself graduated from college and teaching.  I loved my job and truly felt like I was making a difference but at the end of the day, I still felt there was a missing piece in me, something that made me less together than others my age. All my friends seemed to be getting married, buying homes, and settling down. There were no husband prospects in my life at that time but if I bought a place of my own I might feel more accomplished. So I saved and purchased a house.  For the first time I felt like an established adult... but the isolation of living alone quickly set in. I felt like a widow trying to adapt to the loss of a husband I never had.  I prayed that there would be someone, anyone out there that would validate my worth as a person and end my loneliness. 

Church single’s groups, Christian dating sites, and E- Harmony all resulted in failure to find THE ONE. What was my problem? Dating appeared to work for everyone but me. Why couldn't I find someone to love too? Someone who would love me for me.  It was after some serious soul searching and prayer that I realized I was looking in all the wrong places to find self-contentment.  True happiness didn’t rely on whom I dated and if I was hoping that marriage would wash away all my problems I was seriously mistaken.  I wouldn't be happy because of the people I was friends with.  I wouldn't find happiness because of the parties I attended, where I traveled, rested my head at night, and especially not by changing myself into something I'm not. God loved me just the way I was. I was slowly learning that it was OK to be me, even if the popular culture of the world didn't think that was cool or correct. My prayers changed their focus. This time I prayed that God would help me learn to cast aside my world driven feelings of inadequacy and truly love myself as He did. 

When I completely gave up trying to change, embraced myself for who I was, and let God take care of the rest, I started to feel whole again. I resumed gardening workshops and joined The Rare Fruit and Nut Club in my area. I fully embraced my "nerdiness" and delighted in my science topic research, teaching myth buster lessons about porphyria while dressed in the full vampire costume. I planted a garden and adopted a Chihuahua who curbed my loneliness and brought new energy to my home. Soon after, Michael re-entered my life.  Michael was and is such a good man and he and I shared so many of the same ideas, interests, and desires for our life. Within a year we were married and a couple months later we were ecstatic to discover we were going to be parents.

It’s astounding to wake up and realize that the things we had fought so desperately to acquire or experience aren't all that important anymore.  My yearning for a wild world journey left the day my eldest daughter, Jenna, was born- instead, my family became my ultimate adventure. In place of Amazon boat rides, I anticipate first steps, first words, and dream of the women my girls will become one day.  

At times it is still uncomfortable to think back to those turbulent days in my adolescence when I was struggling to find myself. Just as dawn’s light overcomes the darkness, those memories slowly fade with the passing of each year.  I’d like to think that if I traveled back in time and showed Jamie 10 years ago what she’d have one day, her heart would be comforted. In my youth, I was looking for a chance to belong, be myself, and be loved for it. But all along the missing piece, I was so desperate to find turned out to be love for myself. 

People may think it’s strange that I rock out to Journey while I bake brownies one minute and then harvest mint to bagpipes and Irish fiddle the next. It may be odd to prefer vintage consignment shop finds to designer labels and Coach Purses. Pop culture might find it bizarre that I love a night of grandma’s Sunday dinner, bedtime stories with my girls, and a movie with my husband instead of doing the bar scene like others my age.  You know what? That is just fine with me. As someone once told me, I have an old soul. I think that is pretty darn cool in its own right. I am uniquely me and though it may not make me popular, I know that I can rest my head at night with the comfort that I am true to myself. 

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