This past weekend I parked my dangerously pale, post-menopausally (yeah, I know that wasn’t a word until right now) plump body in a beach chair and began to read, the ocean generously drowning out the sound of any distractions.
The late 80’s brought me a lot of things, among them a devilishly elusive college degree and a pack of the world’s finest girlfriends. There are five of us women who have carried each other through the darkest valleys and toasted each other’s happiest moments. We have a vault stacked to the very tip top with the most delicious secrets and stories. I could whip a couple of those stories or secrets out and cause some eyebrow raising and pearl clutching, trust me on that. My chosen sisters laugh with me, cry with me, love me despite the many reasons I’m not loveable, and have this uncanny way of blessing me in the most unexpected ways. One of those blessings arrived this recent Mother’s Day when a member of the Fabulous Five sent me Viola Davis’ new book, “Finding Me.”
Only six pages in Viola Davis recounts a conversation she had with Will Smith on the set of Suicide Squad. He asked her who she was. She responded indignantly, questioning what he meant, and stated that she knew who she was. He pressed her, asking again, “No, who are you?” He elaborated by telling her that he would always be that fifteen-year-old boy whose girlfriend broke up with him. (Which opens up a whole other conversation, does it not? But let’s stay on topic.) He then asked again, “Who are you?’
I stopped reading. Stopped reading and dog-eared the page. I needed to think about that. I mean, who am I? It’s easy to list adjectives. I’m a mother and a rescuer. I love Charles Barkley, cellos, formal dresses, and the Dallas Cowboys. I’m baffled by people who pay money to make the muffler of a depreciating asset louder and I can’t sleep past 7 am. That’s information about me, but that’s not who I am.
There are events in life that define us. Sometimes it’s a series of events. In all likelihood, for most of us, it’s some kind of trauma. A careless label by a teacher or a loving parent, cruel words from a wounded classmate, or the loss of a friend or loved one. Maybe we grew up with limited resources, had a learning disability, or were raised by a single parent. Those moments crystallize and tell us a story about ourselves. We grab onto that new identity and drag it with us through childhood, pack it up and haul it off to college or to our first job as an adult, and let it silently and surreptitiously govern our lives. When that story is negative, we begin to expend precious energy to hide this part of ourselves that makes us feel unlovable or unworthy. It’s exhausting; mentally, physically and emotionally.
I didn’t have to do too much soul-searching. I knew pretty quickly who I was. I was the kid who never could excel. The one who lacked the drive and focus to make everyone proud. The underachiever. My parents endured an endless cycle of meetings with teachers and administrators who pointed to my standardized test scores and said, “She tests really well. She should be making better grades” or “She talks too much in class and instead of paying attention during math, she hides library books and reads.” I was the kid that makes a parent grit their teeth and say bad words. I had all of the ability and none of the focus. I sailed through elementary school and early middle school, but as the course work demanded more from me in the form of homework and projects, I balked. When I did turn assignments in, they were late and I rarely applied myself. Most of my work was, shall we say, half-assed.
Why? Even now, I don’t really know. I’m sure today I would have been diagnosed ADHD. All I know is that my brain was in 100 places all at once. I might start writing that paper on Hawaii but then realize South America is just east of Hawaii and, oh my, what about the Andes mountains? What animals live there? At bedtime, i was swimming in a sea of Encyclopedia Britannica, my paper wasn’t finished and I knew more about bespectacled bears and alpacas than a wildlife conservationist. Upside? I’m a delightful, sarcastic, fountain of useless information. You definitely want me on your Trivial Pursuit team. The downside? As a smart underachiever you realize pretty quickly that your parents are going to spend more than one school year gazing dreamily at those kids racking up all of the end-of-the-year awards. My testing placed me in advanced classes, but I couldn’t harness my brain power in a way that allowed me to deliver the goods. The guilt was overwhelming but the shame was worse. Shame, after all, is that awareness that you just don’t measure up. How did I cope? The way any kid does. I pretended not to care but my self-confidence plummeted. After a while I just settled into my underachiever role. I began to put my energy into things that didn’t require a great deal of mental focus. Things like parties, concerts, friendships, and boys…very cute ones. Upside? I’ve seen some great shows, collected some of the most talented, interesting, and accomplished friends, and attended parties of legend. Downside? I can list my notable achievements on the side of a nickel.
I went off to college and dragged my neon-flashing underachiever identity with me. Changed my major…many times. So many times, I could possibly have been a pretty impressive freshman advisor by year three. Made a .9 one semester because if I had gone to the trouble to withdraw and take a hard look at myself, it would appear that I cared. And if I cared and still couldn’t do it, then I would be a confirmed failure. I bartended, partied, drank tequila frequently, which shockingly didn’t seem to help anything, and took a break from school. Then, I re-enrolled with my declared major as Business. Go ahead, you can laugh. I can’t hear you. It was like eating sawdust and watching paint dry, simultaneously. Through sheer dumb luck, I enrolled in an Introduction to Poetry Writing class. The professor, who ended up being a favorite of mine, was feeling charitable and took the time to tell me, in the nicest way possible, I was a dumbass but I could write. The needle on my self-confidence meter moved up a little. Hey, I’m failing miserably at life, but I’m marginally good at stringing words together. It’s something, right?
Wherever you are, Dr. Pat Bizzaro, my parents thank you for your role in my final change of major and their brief moment in the sun, smiling broadly, while I accepted my degree. I thank you for seeing beyond my lackluster classroom attendance, as well as my complete absence of self-awareness, and pushing me to be more. In that experience, I fell in love with the pursuit of knowledge. Hell, I would spend the rest of my life enrolled in a university if I had an extra $70,000 lying around.
How did I get it together? I have no idea. Maturity, I’m sure, had something to do with it. I was far more immature than the people around me realized. Being a good communicator is polite language for being a good bullshitter. And we can’t discount the willingness of the wise professor to deliver a little kick in the ass and some encouraging words at just the right time. That was huge. Maybe those things coupled with the realization that there is no pause button for life was a winning combination.
Or maybe it was simply that I was able to stumble around cluelessly and without an audience, until the universe delivered a mentor, my pre-frontal cortex developed, and I found my footing. Most of my peers had moved on in different directions, they were saying “I do” and popping out babies, but I didn’t have a front row seat to all of their accomplishments. I wasn’t measuring myself against anyone else’s six-figure salary, 3500 square foot completely remodeled starter home, or impossibly perfect European vacation.
I had the luxury of bouncing off of (many…sharp) obstacles until I finally got it right. I wasn’t constantly reminded how far behind I was, didn’t feel the need for self-flagellation, or find myself drowning in my shortcomings. I was able to fall on my ass, learn a lesson, get up and dust off without an audience. That period in time allowed me to learn more about what I was made of, find direction, and meet some of the most influential people in my life. People I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It was hard then, but it scares me to think how I would have struggled to navigate that period of my life in today’s world.
Our kids don’t have the gift of failure without an audience. There’s no stepping back and figuring things out without feeling like the whole world is watching and, more importantly, judging. The pressure must be incredible. Social media, and the technology it employs, even with all of its downfalls and known negative impact on mental health, is incredibly hard for kids to abandon. To do so is to isolate themselves. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. In many ways, every single day is a performance. Every day there’s an underlying concern about how the world perceives you. Am I good looking enough? Am I achieving enough? Does my home measure up? What about my career?
In the end, I moved on relatively unscathed, if you don’t count the compound-interest I missed out on due to the late start on my retirement account. Are there times I still see myself as the one who just doesn’t measure up? You bet there are, but having the time and grace to mature and the freedom to flounder meant that story didn’t end up derailing me. I didn’t find myself overwhelmed by anxiety and drowning in depression. Instead, I found friendships that lasted a lifetime and I found myself. I am still her, you know, the underachiever, but the lights have burned out on my flashing neon, underachiever sign and I love myself despite the imperfections. It’s a choice, love. It’s a decision, not a feeling. Choose love. Especially, when it comes to you. Because, how can you possibly give love if you can’t accept it from yourself?
I watch from 35 years down the road and I wonder, “What happens to the kids like me now?” The underachievers, the screwups, the kids who lack structure, the ones who struggle to follow the prescribed path. The ones who don’t just think outside the box but wonder what the box is made of and what kind of music the guy who assembled it at the plant likes to listen to. How will that kid who just can’t quite get their act together navigate the world now? Will they find tolerance, time, and a place to grow into themselves and out of their difficult beginnings?
How will they answer the question, “Who are you?”
While we’re on the subject, tell me, who are you? I would love to know.