On Divorce

I’m still not a fan of suitcases. As a few of my friends have excitedly packed their bags to travel abroad this summer, I’ve hardly been able to keep from grimacing. Don’t get me wrong, I love to travel  – it’s just that I spent fourteen years of my life living out of a suitcase.

I’m aware, in the same way that I’m aware of fairytales, that amicable divorces exist. It’s just that my parents don’t have one. Throughout multiple instances with the police, a detailed and extensive divorce decree, and weekly Sunday tradeoffs at 7pm, it has always been clear that my parents absolutely hate each other.

I could never explore all of the things about my parent’s situation that were difficult for me as a child. I don’t believe that even years of reflection could shed light on all aspects of those years of my life. But there are a few things, even though I’m now on the other side of it all, that still stick with me in a way that influences my daily life. The dislike suitcases is one of them.

When I was in the 8th grade, my grandmother bought me a set of them. They were a deep blue, bordering on navy, with wheels that turned every which way so that I could steer them more easily out of the house… down the sidewalk… into the car… out of the car… into the other car… out again… and back up into another, different house. Physical strength has never been my strong suit, but I’ll be damned if I don’t know how to lift a suitcase.

I recall what a magnificent present my luggage was. Having suitcases, of course, was better than not having them. It meant I could take back and forth the clothing I loved most. I could have my toiletries, the books I was reading, someplace to store my phone charger. I could have a little, tiny, packable world that stayed mercifully and blissfully the same.

Even the novelty of that wore off, eventually. I came to resent the blue bags, in a way – maybe even blame them. I insisted upon unpacking each Sunday night, mere hours after I’d packed the first time, and putting everything neatly in my dresser drawers. It wouldn’t stay that way for long, but it was better than keeping everything packed in a suitcase. I wanted to live somewhere. To belong.

My parents divorced when I was four. In many ways, I’m proud of them. They would have been miserable otherwise, and I think things would have been a lot worse for everyone. But there will always be a fraction of me that wishes things had been different.

I don’t remember a single instance in which I’ve seen my parents touch each other in real life. I’ve seen them yell mean things at each other across the Kroger parking lot, and slam the door in each other’s faces, and threaten to take each other to court… but never touch. I own one photograph, a present from my grandmother, in which my mother is resting her head affectionately on my father’s knee. They were barely older than I am now when that photo was taken. It was a different lifetime, with different people playing their parts. I cherish that photo, although I don’t really know why. That world doesn’t exist for me, and never will.

And, for two very valid reasons, I wouldn’t really want it to exist, anyhow. My baby half-siblings are six and three years old, and if my parents had chosen differently, they would never have been born. When people frown at the mention of divorce and call my family a broken one, I can’t help but ask them how that doesn’t fit into the “plan” they laud over me. If divorce is a sin… are my siblings sinful? Are they not supposed to have existed? It all becomes very existential.

My mom often expresses that she wishes she could have given me a different father. When I remind her that I’m only who I am because I come from both of them, she disagrees. She seems convinced that somehow, the person I am today would have found another way to exist even if I had a different dad. I know she means well, and I try not to take offense, but the person I am right now is a product of both of my upbringings, both of my houses, and both of my families.

There have been times of my life when I’ve tried to deny that. Divorce has a singular way of making you feel as if you might actually be two people. You follow two different sets of rules, communicate in two totally different ways, and present yourself in two distinct manners. I’ve never wanted that for myself. I’ve always longed to be me, just me, without any of the confusion of constant change and those damnable suitcases.

I’m still trying to figure out how to strike a balance between those two halves of myself. I hate that I feel the need to pick a side – a version of myself. When my parents say horrible things about each other, and damn each other’s qualities to hell, I can’t help but recognize those parts of them in myself. I possess a lot of traits that my mother hates in my father, and vice versa. At more than one time in my life, I’ve felt like that must mean they hate me, too.

When I was 18, I made a choice to live in only one house. I no longer pack those suitcases and move my life from one place to another because a divorce decree tells me so. My happiness, my stability, is more important than a piece of paper and my parent’s pride.

Nonetheless, the real-world consequences on the person I am today are hard to ignore. As my friends take their own suitcases and study abroad, I am petrified by fear. I don’t want to pack another damned suitcase, even as much as I want to see all those beautiful places. I don’t want to feel like I don’t have a home, like I’m driftwood unable to settle. I want to feel stable, secure, and peaceful. My boyfriend, adventurous soul that he is, is not a settler. Where his head hits the pillow at night is of little consequence to him, as long as he can wake up to something new and exciting and beautiful. I want so, so badly to join him on those adventures. I want to be a ‘free spirit’ like my friends, who have spent their days this summer in Spain, Italy, Denmark, Ireland, and Germany. But those suitcases are sitting in my closet, gathering dust.

My ultimate goal is equilibrium. I strive every day for understanding and compassion – to see life through my parent’s eyes as they will never be able to see it through mine. I like the thought that in a way, I can reconcile them – not as the people they are, but as the person can be. I can bring the two halves to peace, inside myself.

Next week, I’m meeting with a study abroad advisor at my university to see about going abroad in the fall of 2018. That will give me time, I think, to reconcile all these scattered pieces, dust off my suitcases, and become reacquainted. I have my eye on a few different programs. I’ve considered Seville, Spain, a few locations in England, and one in Ireland. I’m making a list of places I want to travel in the months leading up to my program. There are so many monuments I want to see, so many cities I want to visit. My boyfriend will likely join me for a while, or I might meet up with a few friends along the way.

Sometimes, I think the best medicine for what you’re afraid of is experience. Eventually, with enough practice and a lot of patience, I think this body I’m in could be home enough for me. In between the places I visit throughout my lifetime, my suitcases can live in a dusty closet where they belong. And if I ever take them out and pack them, it will be because want to go somewhere. I like the principle of that very, very much.

On My Calling

When my high school choir teacher told me that I’d never have a ‘solo voice’, I gave up singing.

There have been times in my life when I’ve resented her for such harsh criticism, but mostly, I wonder what would have happened if I’d handled that criticism differently. Some days I wish I’d laughed in her face. Other days I just wish that I could have turned her discouraging words into the motivation I needed to succeed and improve. But I didn’t. College rolled around and I just… stopped pursuing it.

Solo singing isn’t the only thing I’ve given up on. When I was told that I’m too tall to make a decent ballerina, I quit dancing. And a few years later, my violin instructor told me I didn’t have the dedication to become a truly talented violinist, so I stopped taking those lessons, too. The time commitment and the criticism didn’t seem worth my effort or attention. If I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t good enough. And that was that.

This probably says a lot of things about me –  maybe that I’m easily discouraged, that I put too much confidence in what my superiors say to me, or that I don’t have enough faith in myself. I’ve certainly embodied each of those statements many times in my life. Sometimes I wish that I had given more of my energy toward improving certain skills. If I hadn’t quit dancing 12 years ago, where would I be today? Maybe I could have become a doctor, if only I’d paid more attention in elementary school math class. Ultimately, asking myself those things is futile. The criticism came, and I responded to it – by calling it quits.

Often, I think of what a little encouragement from my instructors could have done for me. If I’d been told that hours of practice would make me a good ballerina, would I have done it? If I had been encouraged to practice the violin more frequently, would I have been inspired to listen? Each time I mull over these questions, I arrive at the same conclusion: probably not.

The thing is, those people were all right about me.

It’s not that they honed in on some inherent inability of mine to become a world-renowned ballerina, because that’s absurd. I could have done it, if I’d wanted to. The truth of the matter is that I didn’t.

When each of those three women told me that I couldn’t excel in their fields, I gave up. I made their words true by deciding that it wasn’t worth it to perfect the skills it would take to succeed. If my instructors were testing me, as I’ve often thought they were, I definitely failed. They said I didn’t have what it would take, and I agreed. Confirming their judgments of me is what made those assumptions a reality. Self-fulfilling prophecy and the like. If any of those activities had been right for me, I know without a doubt that I would have responded differently.

In the weeks (months?) since my first post on this blog, as I’ve tried to think of something to share with you, I’ve been considering my career as a writer. Although brief (spanning only two years), the time that I’ve been working as a journalist has been the most rewarding, challenging, and fascinating time of my life. Writing is more than just a career choice or a pass-time, for me. It’s my most prolific form of expression, my most reliable means of therapy, and my favorite thing about myself.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been criticized.

In the spring of my senior year of high school, two months into my internship at the magazine for which I currently work, I was given my first writing assignment. I did little in the weeks leading up to my deadline besides carefully compose each and every sentence of those 350 words. I submitted the story to my boss and waited anxiously to see it appear in the magazine.

It didn’t.

I was having a particularly horrible day about a week later, when my boss approached me and asked me to meet with him in his office. “We pride ourselves on being a publication with excellent writing and photography,” he began, and my heart sank.

“Your writing,” he said without further preamble, “was really not good.”

He had printed a copy of my article, and pointed out to me the things I had done wrong. By the time he was finished, that piece of paper was practically shredded with quick little pen marks. Delete a sentence here. Replace a word there. This is too subjective. Where’s the substance?

I’ve always been quick to cry, even if I’m not really all that upset, so when my boss emerged from his office a few minutes later, he found me sniffling through tears. “How are you today?” he asked, looking wisely over his glasses and a mug of fresh coffee.

I told him that I wasn’t having the greatest day, courtesy of high school and, well, him. He nodded knowingly, “Most people spend the rest of their lives trying to get over the things that happen to them in high school.” He cracked open a fortune cookie from his lunch as we talked and examined the wisdom it gave him critically. I was reminded vividly of Albus Dumbledore eating lemon drops. “As for the rest,” he said. “I think that I got your fortune by mistake.”

You will succeed at whatever you wish, it said.

Encouragement from a boss, or mentor, or instructor, goes a long way. It helps offset the harsh words of criticism that are necessary to turn a mediocre singer, dancer, or writer, into a great one. But even that encouragement isn’t everything.

You have to want it.

Even today, I am by no means a great writer. Honing and perfecting a skill is a lifetime undertaking. It requires determination, self-reflection, and resilience. I realize this. And even though I’ve been devastated by criticism, I’m only more determined to become a better writer. I suppose you could say that I’ve found my calling.

I’m learning every day. Each time I submit a story to the magazine, my editor sits me down to discuss what I could have done differently. There are usually a lot of suggestions. Sometimes, I’m asked to rewrite a few sections that didn’t quite make the mark. Sometimes, I barely recognize the story I wrote after it goes through editing. Every once in a while, I’m told I did a really great job. That’s particularly rewarding. Right now, in this moment, I’m not a great writer. But I’m happy to continue on in the hopes that someday, I could be.

On Success and Happiness

Like many other American college students, I’ve spent the last few years of my life preoccupied with becoming both ‘successful’ and ‘happy’. I’ve worked two jobs that I not only love but that also look stellar on a resume. I’ve taken at least 16 credit hours per semester and pursued not one but two minors. And when the email came saying that I made the Dean’s List, I proudly notified no fewer than 15 people individually. At family reunions, I don’t have to dread questions like, ‘What’s your major?’, ‘Where do you see yourself going after college?’, or ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ because I have excellent, scripted answers to each of them. Between my iPhone, my Apple Watch, and my MacBook, I am constantly connected and aware of everything that’s going on. My life is polished, prolific, perfect. And honestly? I hate it.

I hate the way I sound in that paragraph – so pretentious and shallow. I hate that I am preoccupied with resumes and appearances and perfection. I hate that ‘success’ has come to mean killing myself with 16-hour days and sleepless nights and quick 15-minute bathroom breakdowns because my schedule can only afford 15 minutes of weakness. I’m tired and, recently, I’m sick. My mind and my body can’t handle what it’s taken to become ‘successful’ as a 20-year-old college student. My only comfort has been the steadily climbing digits in my bank account. At least, I tell myself, I have something to show for it allAt least I’m getting somewhere.

But after a recent unfortunate occurrence involving my bursar bill that rapidly relieved me of my savings, I find myself without anything to fall back on. I did not handle the situation with grace. I spent about two-and-a-half hours crying and much longer feeling worthless. I’ve done everything right. I’ve been on my ‘work grind’, I’ve put in the extra hours, I’ve paid my dues. Why have I been doing this, I’ve been asking myself, if nothing has come of it? 

The people in my life – who are wonderful, by the way – had some words of wisdom. My mom told me that I’ve been living very comfortably, and if my savings are a bit depleted, at least I’m not wanting for anything. My boyfriend told me that he was proud of me because ‘most people our age wouldn’t have even had that money in savings’. My best friends assured me that there’s plenty more money to be earned, and I’ll have more in no time. Yet, I still felt worthless, and vulnerable, and small. As I was curled up in bed at the end of that night, thinking about how I had to wake up in 6 short hours for another 16-hour day, I felt the most hopeless that I have in a long time.

I don’t know when I became this person, because I didn’t used to be so obsessed with material gain. But I think it comes down to something more than enjoying the occasional manicure or chai tea latte. It’s a matter of security, not vanity, that has me so obsessed with making money.

Venturing out into the real world is intimidating, to say the very least. Car payments and phone bills and mortgages and taxes and a hundred other potential obligations are all looming over my head, because I’m obsessed with someday.

Today, I live comfortably. I have everything I need and a little left over for savings and Sunday brunch. But it’s not enough, and it will never be enough, until I can find another way to feel safe. Because that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? Working 16-hour days when you don’t really need to is about having enough tucked away so that if something happens – if you lose the people or circumstances you’ve been relying on – you can rely on yourself instead. This experience has taught me that I have a lot of trust issues, especially when it comes to trusting myself. I’m scared of the whole world around me because I don’t know if I can do it. Succeed. Be happy. Make a life for myself. And that fear has turned me into something I like even less than the idea of failing: a workaholic, perfectionist, control freak. This is not the person I set out to be, which leaves me stuck on the greatest quarter-life crisis of all: Who am I?

I’ve always envied people who seem so comfortable not being perfect. You know the type – wind-swept beauties who knock over their cup of coffee and somehow still look adorable, rumpled college students just climbing out of bed for class with a wry smile, and careless free spirits who seem so effortlessly joyful. Even before I was so overwhelmed, I was never that person. I’ve never been a free spirit because I’m too bound by guilt, and worry, and responsibility to ever really let loose. I’m proud of my talent for organization and the things I’ve accomplished, but part of me has always wanted to be a little more spontaneous; a little more wild.

Growing up, my mom always made it clear that my health is the most important thing. Some days, she’d tell me, we just need to stop and take care of our bodies and our souls. Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, I’m thinking that I probably should have listened to her a little more carefully.

I’m working on a serious attitude adjustment. Everything I’d saved in two years is gone, and that’s still a bitter pill to swallow, but I’ve realized that money is a fickle thing. My friends – my family – are not. They will always be here for me, and I want to learn to be here for myself. I want to redefine ‘success’ to mean something that’s not only manageable, but that actually enriches my life. I do believe it’s possible to be successful and happy, just not like this. On the other side of this, I think that if you’re taking steps every day of your life to get a little bit closer to the best possible version of yourself, you’re successful. There isn’t anything more than that. Not anything that can’t disappear in a single afternoon, anyway.

So now, with a lighter bank account and a much lighter burden to carry, I’ve decided on some changes to make.

When my junior year of college starts in the fall, I will only be working one job. I’m taking fewer classes, and more manageable ones at that. I’m going to put myself first, and listen to my body when it tells me I need to stop and rest. I’ll do things that are good for my body and soul, like resume my yoga practice and stop binge-eating m&ms (maybe). I’ll start attacking anxieties at the source instead of burying them under a few dollars an hour. And if relatives ask me questions during the holidays, I’m not going to feel ashamed to tell them that I’m doing a lot less, and I’m really looking forward to it.

It sounds like your typical run-of-the-mill resolution but this, for me, is different. I miss being happy. The people I know today might describe me as a lot of things, but joyful would not be one of them. I know the person I want to be is in here somewhere. The only thing it’s going to take to find her is mustering the courage to look inward and say, ‘Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Sophie. Who the hell are you?’