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It was June, 2001, and it was the first time I had ever felt strong, independent, and capable. Not that my family hadn’t encouraged me to explore my personality. For the better part of seventeen years they had patiently supported my every weird, geeky, alternative, freakish whim, at least the ones I felt comfortable enough to speak about. Here, though, in downtown Nashville, was the first time I was given the reigns of those whims, and I was using it to wander aimlessly. My clothes were way too black and way too hot for June in Tennessee. My self-confidence was an illusion, and my body image issues had no concern for the fact that I might die of heat stroke if I ventured out of my comfort zone of body cloaking drapes. I was, to sum it up, awkward.
I’ve told the story of what came next a few times. I met a boy and his tribe. I made friends with a group of Rainbow Gathering kids and street gypsies, and the experience changed my life and how I would choose to live and love for the rest of it. I would find the courage to follow my heart.
Don’t worry, I’m not telling that story again; I’m honouring the woman who made it possible.
Mrs Judith Flannery. Mrs Flannery throughout my high school career. Judy thereafter.
Mrs Flannery was my college counselor, and her presence lit up Holy Names High School like a Christmas tree. She was always smiling, always encouraging, and always finding new ways to inspire the swarms of girls that filled the halls of the nook of a school perched in the Oakland Hills. To our class in particular, she was the embodiment of Spirit, and even on my darkest days I couldn’t help but smile when she spoke to me.
My senior year a close friend and I convinced Mrs Flannery to agree to be the voice of reason and eyes of supervision on a trip to a week-long country music festival in Nashville. To our astonishment, she agreed. Not only did she agree, but she got excited! It was settled. We got our parental permission and made our plans, and a week after graduation we boarded a plane to Nashville.
I was slightly startled when Mrs Flannery suggested that first day that we each explore for a while in whatever way we wished before meeting for dinner. This was how “adults” took vacation, and I had never been an “adult” on a vacation. Where would I go? What would I do?
Then it dawned on me. Anything I wanted.
The introvert in me smiled to herself. The latent explorer in me leapt with joy. We were free!
At dinner I told Judy about my encounter with the cute street kid selling hot dogs in the parking lot, fully expecting a lecture or tighter reins. Instead, her response was, “Well, why don’t you go? You have a room key. Just call me if you’re not going to be there when I wake up.”
Really? I had never been trusted not to get myself killed in my life! In retrospect, I may not have been proving that by following a group of strangers around Nashville at all hours of the night, but I returned unscathed each and every time, so Judy continued to encourage my little tryst in Music City. She even looked the other way when they snuck into one of the concerts we attended. They were charming. Even Judy was enchanted, or at least tolerant enough to act like it.
The day we left Nashville I trekked downtown alone to say my goodbyes. The trip home was quiet and bittersweet, and even I had no idea what I was carrying back with me that day. A sense of purpose. A sense of self. A confidence. An awakened heart and spirit. Judy didn’t need to. She never asked. She simply sat next to me at the airport and hugged me for as long as it took for me not to feel lost. As she had done for the previous 4 years, she made everything seem like something I would not only survive, but really live through.
We kept in sporadic touch over the years. Facebook can be a blessing that way. I was always happy to tell Judy how my life was going, and she always had some words of support or wisdom and a bright, cheery story to tell me. I know things weren’t always sunshine and flower in Judy’s world, but you would never know it. It was inspiring.
I write this today because the friend with whom I took that trip informed me last week that Judy had passed away.
Before I could message back, she added, “the first thing I thought about was our trip to Nashville”.
I was touched with an unexpected sadness, but overwhelmed by the feeling of how blessed I was to have known Judy and how grateful I am that she was a part of my life. Without her, who knows how I would have been introduced to my soul.
Thank you, Judy. From the bottom of my inspired, free, open heart.
You always remember a first. The first kiss. The first “I love you”. The first time you get stuck in a window trying to sneak out to meet someone. Ian was my first, not that first, but a lot of others. We met fresh off my high from my encounter in Nashville, and while I felt invincible I felt utterly unworthy.
A friend and I had tickets to Warped Tour, and we planned a weekend adventure around it with a group of other friends. I hadn’t planned on boys, but there they were, my friend’s boyfriend and his roommate freshly arrived from Los Angeles. Whether it was just because he was the only available male in a sea of females, because it was clear I was to keep his distracted in order to give my friend and her boy some alone time, or because there was genuine chemistry, I was drawn to him immediately. It took me a full day to get up the nerve to look directly into his lapis blue eyes, but as soon as I did I felt the urge to retreat, sure he’d reject me outright.
Unfortunately, that feeling was mutual, and we each spent an entire party pretending it was no big deal being ignored by the other. Finally, possessed by the spirit of panic and desperation in a room full of strangers, I touched him. It was some lame remark about how the lines of this shirt travelled in different directions, but I traced my fingers along the lines on his shoulders, and it worked. His lips were on mine, and I was stunned! We started making out, committing the grievous error of being the first couple to do so at a party, but by the time we came up for air everyone was doing it. At the end of the night, we would be caught with our pants off in the backseat of my friend’s boyfriend’s Honda Civic.
The night before their return to Los Angeles we were locked safely in my friend’s overprotective mom’s clutches while the boys slept up the driveway in the guesthouse. My spirit was crushed, and my awakened teen libido sensed it was losing precious time. At 17, I had never had to hide or sneak around anything, but here I was, concocting a plan to get us in to that guesthouse. Unfortunately, even at 17 I was not a slender girl, and while my friend shimmied gracefully through the living room window, I dangled helplessly while she tried not to wake her parents by laughing at the fat girl stuck in their window. I still have bruises of embarrassment on my ego for having to wiggle my way into a bush, but mortification is an excellent motivator.
My true test came that night. We were nestled in the bathroom of the guesthouse after being driven from the living room by what would scar our memories as a swarm of bees. Would he be that first? I could see no reason why not, except for the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to tell him he would be. Thinking back, almost anything would have been better than my actual first time, but at that moment I was terrified to tell this boy I had never as much as seen a man naked in real life. As we parted ways the next day I kicked myself for cock blocking myself, fairly sure I’d never speak to him again.
To my surprise, I did, and I got to add a few more firsts to my list. He was the first person I’d voluntarily talk on the phone with after my mother’s death, the first person to call me his girlfriend, and the first AOL screen name to ever set off butterflies inside me. He also got to be the first guy my dad ever pursued down our driveway as he tried to sneak out one morning after he’d driven 300 miles just to sleep next to me. I had made him sleep in the living room, because I still hadn’t told him I was a virgin. It was that event that caused him to rethink our relationship. To this day he has no idea why I was as skittish as I was around him. I simply had no experience or understanding.
The lessons from my relationship with Ian were numerous. It taught me to go for something I want and to enjoy the moments that are made available to me. It taught me how to silently dislodge myself from a window. It taught me to be ok with an ending, as it was my first real heartbreak. It set a precedent of forming a friendship with exes, but it also taught me to let it go if that’s clearly not what’s happening. You see, while he was friendly when I made the gesture, there was no friend in him. I wasted a lot of time trying to hold on to a friend I didn’t have. The biggest lesson this relationship taught me was to be honest with the people I’m dating. If his reaction to me being so inexperienced had been bad he still would have left me. At least he might have understood my behaviour a little better. I had to learn over the years to be open and honest in relationships. I owe it to my partners and to myself, because if they can’t accept me how I am it won’t last anyway.
For the first, we will start with the one before the first. It’s a story you’ve read before if you’ve been following long enough or been brave enough to go back far enough to find it.
He was a road warrior, early 20’s, with a street name I refused to call him and a real name I had to sneak out of him like a pickpocket. I was 17, even less socially inept and more self-conscious than I am today, and either brazen or stupid depending on which side of a body bag this particular adventure landed me on. After graduation a friend and I took a trip to Nashville for the biggest Country Music Festival around at the time, and by the end of day one he had already upstaged Kenny Chesney in my mind.
I couldn’t tell you now if he was as cute as my memories have made him since then or if my attraction was based on the fact that he looked at me like he adored me and spoke to me like no one ever had. You see, at 17 years old I had not had a guy as much as ask me for my number or a dance as I awkwardly tried to act as if it were no big deal to be ignored. But here I was, on my own in a strange city, and not just one, but a handful of guys were there bending over backwards to make me feel like the Gypsy queen of Nashville. We danced in the streets in the rain. We spent a night in the back of someone’s pickup singing American Pie. He introduced me to one of my favourite drinks, SoCo and Diet Coke, and I saw my first insulin pump. We snuck him in to a concert or two, and he helped me gather the nerve to go in to a store that sold souvenirs, fudge, and bullwhips. I smuggled him into my hotel room where he was my first kiss, then I chickened out when he tried to do anything more than kiss me.
The experience in Nashville taught me a few things besides how to be thankful in retrospect that my body was never found floating in the river.
First, it taught me to come out of my shell and believe that I am a fun, interesting, attractive woman. I mean, if I could keep anyone’s attention as a gothy, inexperienced, SAT obsessed teenager afraid to show the world anything about herself in fears of being rejected, imagine what I’m capable of now when I let down those same self-defense shields. Had I never had a chance to learn to disarm them before the decimating traumas I experienced in college, I may never have done so. Who would I have become?
Second, it taught me to live in the moment and not in the fear, to take chances and live life instead of just surviving it. I left Nashville knowing I’d never see him again, and it didn’t make the experience any less valid or wonderful. It simply was what it was meant to be, and it shook me from that societal training that tells a girl that every man she feels anything for has to be there forever. My only regret from the trip was that I let fear hold me back from experiencing him in all the ways I’d wanted to.
I waited a long time to open up to the world and all it had to offer me. While I occasionally wonder what became of the first man to ever give me a chance and the others who each made me feel worthy in his own way, my experience in Nashville was just what I needed. I have no negative parting to soil the memory of my first kiss. Instead, I have a fantastic story and a bullwhip that came with a pound of fudge.
I found myself speaking with an old friend very early this morning whom I haven’t seen on a regular basis since I was 21. At the time, in my mind, I was a struggling college dropout. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, I was working a frantic entry level job at the mall and trying to sell my art on the side, and I constantly wondered where my next meal was coming from. Basically, it was a less adult version of what I’m doing now. I was wildly taken aback when this friend told me that he still talks about me and who I was then, but in his version I’m a girl with a passion doing what I love and making it happen. His words to me?
Experience is what it is, and its powerful. Don’t let anyone put it down. You’ve done the hard work before. Now this stuff is just how you present most of it
I begin to wonder now if that’s the key. With the matured focus and extra information and resources I have now, is that the missing piece, and I’ve had it all along? It seems so simple, yet I’ve overlooked it because somewhere since then I lost sight of the dream to focus on the “methods” and “plans”. Sure there’s merit to all that, but none of it means anything if the passion for that work doesn’t show when I give myself to the world.
Somewhere towards the end of that line of conversation he gave me this:
Don’t throw yourself into what needs to be. Throw yourself into what can be
Suddenly it all made sense. I finished my NaNoWriMo project because it was something I was capable of doing every single day. If I approach these other goals with that same concept and add in the passion I once had for life and creativity I could be unstoppable.
I remember why I kept myself around this friend so much at a time in my life when I was depressed, suicidal, mostly friendless, and ready to give up my dreams for a bucket of bad decisions. Not only was he always there to make me smile and feel like I had some fight left in me, but he reminded me why I fought to begin with. That power makes me who I am. The good, the bad, the frustrating, it’s all a part of who I am, and it makes me one hell of a fighter.
I remember very little about her aside from the fact that she was not the sister I had asked Santa for. I was an only child, but not in the “only child syndrome way. I was quiet, self-entertaining, and very protective of my privacy. Still, I had always wanted a sister to share my life with. Then my mom started dating Russ, who just happened to have a daughter my age. I was ecstatic. Finally, I would have a sister! Unfortunately, what I got was Chassey.
In addition to the fact that she came as part of a package with her father, who was loud, rude, verbally abusive, and constantly trying to intimidate me behind my mother’s back, Chassey had all the grace of a llama with a bag over its head. She was bratty and had absolutely no respect for me or my things. At seven this bothered me extremely, because I was a very reserved child who took very good care of things I knew we couldn’t easily replace.
Every time Chassey spent the night she had to sleep in my bed. I’d lay there all night unable to sleep through her snoring and farting in my bed, that’s right, farting in my bed! When she was awake it was worse. Because she wouldn’t do her homework on her own I was forced out of my quiet room and my brand new desk to sit with her at the kitchen table while she whined and kicked me under the table. I quickly learned to hide anything important to me because she dumped a whole cup of water all over my coveted Disney Princess watercolor book. That was the final straw. No one messed with my Disney Princesses!
I can’t say I was sad when my mom broke up with Russ. I also can’t say that I ever wished for a sister again. Instead I learned to love the fact that I could choose my family and surround myself with sisters, brothers, and all kinds of others. It is this change of perspective that has directed me to treat my close friends like family, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In the past few weeks there have been more suicides in the young LGBT community than I can count on one hand. As a teacher, a mother, a member of the queer community, and a citizen of the country that is doing nothing to protect these young people from harassment, abuse, and humiliation, I find this trend unacceptable on a violently angry level. We’re talking the type of anger that makes my pupils twitch and my hands shake. These kids, like many in our community, were treated in ways that would make anyone feel helpless and hopeless, especially at a point in their lives where they are vividly aware of their differences and want nothing more than to be accepted.
All across the country gay adolescents are told they’re just confused, that they’re broken or sick, and that they should be ashamed of how they feel, think, and love. At best they are ignored by their parents, but often they are punished, chastised, or beaten. They are cast away, kicked out of their homes, and shunned by their families. Their spiritual leaders tell t hem they’re damned, their peers ostracize or bully them, and there is generally little to no support or protection from schools or the community.
But what about those of us who could help them? What about those of us who have been in their shoes and could guide them through one of the most trying and confusing points in their lives? We’re kept away from them in hopes they’ll grow out of it and in fear that we’ll encourage them to be themselves. Instead of being seen as a support system or valuable resource, queer adults are considered a detriment in a youth’s life. Why is this ok? At what point do we stop telling our children they can be anything they want to be when they grow up and giving them the mentors and environment to nurture whatever that might entail? When do we instead start limiting and judging them? More importantly, why is any of this treatment allowed to happen? Why were these young people pushed to a point at such a young age that they felt it would never get better?
In his September 22 article Dan Savage speaks of how the first of the recently publicized suicides touched him. Like many of us he was heartbroken. Like many of us he has been where these kids were and are today. Like many of us he knows that something needs to be done. It’s time the people who can give these young people a little hope stopped being stuck in a closet and spoke out to them.
“Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids?”, he says. “We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don’t have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better. We can reach these kids.”
So, Dan and his partner made a video. Then they made a channel on YouTube and encouraged members of the community to make and post their own videos to encourage these kids and share our stories to show that it does get better. To find the instructions and post your own video, you can go to youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject . As soon as I figure out how to use the camcorder function on my new smartphone I’ll be posting my own. If I can get over my technophobia and do this, you should all be making videos!
My life as a bisexual teen (and at the time there was only gay or bisexual in my world…no pansexuals, homoflexibles, heteroflexibles or otherwise) was fairly quiet. I kept it that way purposefully. It had its rough moments, but for the most part I’ve forgotten the trappings. Yes, I was in the San Francisco Bay Area, but that’s not always as free-thinking and forward as it sounds. I went to an all girls catholic school, and had several strikes against me already. I had friends who knew I was pagan, but it wasn’t until I was extremely close that I admitted to my sexuality.
I knew at a very early age I loved everyone equally, but never expressed any of it. I was told it was a phase, that I just didn’t know how to express my feelings towards friends, and that I’d get over it someday. My mother passed before I could try to talk to her about it, and the rest of my family was all about not making waves. My confusion and fear caused me to withdraw completely. I didn’t go on dates. I didn’t socialize much. I didn’t have my first kiss until I was almost eighteen, and that one defining moment started a revolution inside me. I could no longer be quiet.
I can’t imagine my life being any different. It took moving to Philadelphia, a place most consider a lot more conservative that Berkeley, CA, to find “my people”. I am never ashamed to talk about my husband and my girlfriend. I am never ashamed to be poly, pagan, or pansexual. I wish nothing more for these young people than to know how good life can be when you find where you belong. We owe them that optimism as people who have laid the path.
Today begins LGBT History Month, and what better way to start than with each of our own personal histories. Those who came before us gave us a wonderful foundation, and we have built the beginnings of a wonderful world, but these kids are the ones who will be in charge of finishing the job. We need to invest in them the pride and freedom we know is possible. Our goal isn’t just for them to survive, but to live. Like a good bra, we must not just support but uplift.
This is my promise to the queer youth of America…You can always come to me. You can share with me. You can talk to me. You can be safe with me. You have all my love, support, and optimism. You have my arms for hugging and my shoulder for crying. I will help in whatever ways I can, and I will never abandon you. I will never stop trying to show you that it does get better if you can promise me that you’ll never give up being you.
Fourteen years ago I lost my best friend, my mother. I immediately felt guilty for all the things I had not done. I was sure I missed an “I love you” somewhere, sure she was mad at me for not visiting her in the hospital, sure I could have somehow been a better child. I went through all the stages of grief at once. I was angry with her for leaving me, but I was sure at times she wasn’t dead and that she’d come back to get me at any minute. I kept a packed bag just in case we had to run. I avoided all memories of her as sick or weak, and instead envisioned her as a secret agent forced to fake her own death. When I wasn’t blaming myself I blamed my stepfather, who was on a different drug every week and stealing from her on a regular basis. I tried to bargain with every deity I could think of. I promised to be a better daughter. I wanted to make sure I had done everything I could to make her come back. I was sure that if she were alive my room had been bugged by whatever government entity had taken her from me.
I went through all the stages established by the Kubler-Ross model, and I acknowledged in my logical brain that they were all happening in my psyche. I knew she was dead. I knew she wasn’t coming back. I knew it was silly, but I was a child. I was a child who had made most of the decisions for her own mother’s funeral because no one else seemed capable. I was a child who had not cried at that funeral, and refused to let anyone see me cry at all, because I didn’t want to seem fragile. I didn’t want anyone to worry about me.
Some people simply believed I was not allowing myself to grieve, but children process things differently than adults do. I had a lot of adjusting to do. Not only had I lost my mother right before my thirteenth birthday, but I had lost my home, my spiritual guidance, and anything familiar in my life. I moved in with my father and his parents, who did everything they could to make the transition smooth, but it was still a drastic change. To top it all off I hit puberty that summer. I had hit the time in my life when a girl needs her mother the most, and for the first time in my life I didn’t have one.
Children not only process things differently, but they develop their own way of coping with and understanding tragedy or loss. I did what I had always done. I made myself busy. I dug myself into school and extracurricular activities. I got a job. I made it impossible to have any alone time in my head. Unfortunately, my thoughts are a force to be reckoned with. Eventually all the feelings and thoughts I was trying to avoid caught up with me. It was the day I found out one of my best friends had killed himself. A week later a friend of mine’s mother lost her battle with cancer. A week after that I lost my mind in the midst of a computer malfunction that resulted in writing the same paper five times and having it rejected because I could not get it to print properly.
It is during these times when we develop the skills that will carry us through life in one piece. After a full day of wandering around in a cloud, I cleared my head and began to put the pieces back together. I started writing, something that has gotten me through every time I think I just can’t go any further. I also pulled my friends around me, and even though the years have parted us they were my strongest asset at the time. I taught myself to actually deal with loss instead of running from it with fantasies or aversion. I learned to face my emotions head on, to embrace them, and to let them happen.
Sometimes I still have moments of survivor guilt. My mother sacrificed her health and her very being for me. She gave me everything she could, and I can only hope I was worth it. I’m learning to accept that this life was her gift to me. Who I am was her gift to me. Her faith in me and her encouragement to believe in myself are things that will never die. This year I’m having a rougher time than I have in the last several years. There’s a lot of stress in my life, and there have been a lot of close calls and personal losses in the past year. I have been planning a wedding, a time generally spent with excitement between a bride and her mother. There have been times when I have simply wanted my mommy. I know it won’t defeat me. It might not make me the most pleasant person to be around for a few days, but I know the people who matter most to me won’t judge or mock me for it. They know the storm will pass, and the old sunny Autumn will be back soon.
And I will be back….soon.
I was G-chatting with a friend from elementary school today, and he mentioned that he had no idea who any of us was at that age since no one has reached who they are now that young. He’s right and he’s wrong. In some ways, we are never “who we are”. We are constantly evolving, learning, and growing into ourselves. It is true that we start to develop personality traits that we carry throughout our lives, but when? Are we born with some of these thing? Are they learned and encouraged by our environment and the people in our lives? Do they come from experiences and life lessons? The simple answer is yes. All these elements add to who we are in some way, but if some of them didn’t exist would we really be any different at our cores? At what age do these things really start to shape who we are?
I like to think of the personality traits we posses as children as words. When toddlers first learn words, that’s all they are. They have a meaning, but they stand alone. As we grow older we start to string these words together to make phrases, and eventually sentences. This is much like how we start to build ourselves into the people we will become. We collect bits and pieces of ourselves as we grown, and eventually we can fit them together like a puzzle to make a complete picture. I was the same person I am today when I was in elementary school. I just didn’t know how to express it without being told I was wrong or different.
This is where the second half of our conversation comes into play.
In the 80’s there were two kinds of children. Normal, healthy children, and broken children. In my schools the only kids anybody bothered to worry about were children of divorced parents. They were considered the highest risk children in our community. It wasn’t that abused, neglected, molested, or troubled children didn’t exist, because we did. We were simply not acknowledged because no one wanted to admit we existed in our community. Instead we were convinced there was something wrong with us. We were taught we were wrong and bad. We were hushed, and we stayed hushed because we believed it was our fault. We were bad children. We were separated from the other kids and sent to institutions for cases when we really just needed a mentor or a support system.
It is in how we managed to deal with our issues ourselves that we began to become who we are today. Some of us simply stopped growing and have either become co-dependent or misanthropic as adults, not knowing how to cope with real life. Some pulled together and created their own support systems and families, encouraging each other to strive and grow. Me? I got dark, but I never completely let the shadows consume me. I buried myself in school and let a few close friends enter my life.
I was lucky early on in the aspect that for the formative years I had my mother to guide and encourage me. She knew I was different. She knew I knew things kids weren’t supposed to know at my age. She also knew that none of this had to be a bad thing. I still had trouble, but she kept me from shutting down completely. Then she died. I was 12 years old. Being a teenage girl trying to figure herself out is hard enough without having just lost the only resource she ever had.
I had no idea who I was when I went into the eighth grade. I was one of a handful of pagans I knew, I was a diabetic, I was bisexual, and I was “that weird girl”. I was dark, sarcastic, morbid, and a little too honest with people. I had all of three friends, but I never felt alone.
In high school I saw a few of those children I had grown up with lose their fights with themselves. I still had no idea how to adequately express who I felt I was inside, but I was learning. I was still being told over and over again by adults around me that I needed to “be myself”, but none of them really knew what that meant any more than I did. Then I graduated and had the summer that really solidified the woman I was becoming. I had new experiences I would have never dreamed I could have. For once in my life I was calling the shots in my life, and it felt good. It felt right.
When I moved to Philadelphia I met a group of people who would, over the years, become my family. They are my brothers and my sisters, and sometimes my conscience and my foundation. They have gotten me through more hard times than I care to admit, and without them I’m not sure I would have made it through the past nine years. They have never judged me or told me I was broken. Instead, they have seen the potential I have to be who I want to be instead of what the negative experiences in my life had the opportunity to make me. They have seen the person I am when you strip all those things away and look at my core.
When I left Drexel I knew it would change me. I was no longer “the student”. I was now a real adult. I needed a job. I need a place to live. I needed to be able to take care of myself. I was also pregnant, which meant I no longer had time to worry about who I was or what I wanted. I needed to be “the responsible adult” and “the single mother” all while dealing with what ultimately constituted date rape, a mental collapse, and the fact that I had just walked away from the only future I had ever known. I was this woman for three months. Then I miscarried, and I was no longer even that. I felt like no one. I felt empty. I felt more than alone. I had no idea who I was.
It was then that I started to become the person I am when I cease to be myself. I went through a few renditions. I went through a slut phase, a tortured artist phase, a lonely wanderer phase. I was a girlfriend, a fiance, a mistress. At many of these turns I was told I was wrong. I was still being told, after all those years, that I was broken and inadequate. Still, in the end of all these things, I was me, and it dawned on me I didn’t have to worry anymore about it being wrong. I was who I was, and no thing, no one, and no moment was going to change that. It was then that I started living my life to my standards. I had jobs I loved. I met people I could not live without. I loved indiscriminately.
Not long after that I met Hubby, who not only encouraged me to express every aspect of myself but loved me for it. For years I was convinced I was broken, but the last three with him have shown me that there was never anything wrong with me. My mom had it right all along. She’s been gone for fourteen years, but her lessons are still coming thorough loud and clear. I will never again let society tell me who to be, who to love, or who my family can be. I will not let the world tell me I’m stupid, ugly, or unlovable. I will not let them tell me the way I think, act, or express myself is obscene or unacceptable. I will never again feel like an abomination.
Do I still have broken moments? Of course I do. Will I let them run my life? Never again.
So, my question for you, my friends, is this: Who are you when you cease to be you? Think about it.
My sister-in-law just got a new job in New York City and has been going through all the emotions that come with relocating. When you’re in college it seems that even if you leave home it isn’t a permanent arrangement. Your home, your room, all the things that make you feel comfortable and secure stay pretty much the same. When you leave school for a weekend or a vacation you’re going Home. When you move for a job or a spouse it’s a big step. For the first time you are leaving Home to make a new place for yourself. It’s scary. It’s unpredictable. It’s a change you can’t take back.
I left home just a week after the attacks on September 11, 2001 on one of the first days of normal operation at SFO. I had no idea at the time what to expect. I had been to Philadelphia twice. I was scared, excited, and nervous, but I was ready for the new start I thought I was getting. I was moving 3,000 miles away from home.
At that time they took everything you had packed out of your suitcase, plugged in all the electronics, and opened all your toiletries. Since I had packed most of my worldly belongings in two slightly overweight suitcases, this took more time that anyone leaves themselves at the airport these days. I had also puzzle packed very carefully, and anything returned to the wrong spot in the suitcase would inevitably upset the entire system. I was also not allowed to touch anything, which meant I couldn’t help the poor agent staring at my bag like a disassembled jet engine trying to figure out how it went back together. She eventually got it all repacked as best she could and sent me on my way.
I grew more and more anxious as we approached security. This was it. They couldn’t go to the gate with me. I was on my own. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream, I wanted to jump up and down until the feelings inside me abated, but I did none of these things. I hugged my family and prepared to leave them behind, but just before I did my father squeezed me tight and said, “remember, you can always come back”. I have seen tears in my father’s eyes twice in my life, and that moment was one of them.
My gate was full of eerie silence where I was used to families getting their last moments in with departing loved ones. For the first time since deciding to move so far for college I second guessed myself. What was I doing? In all honesty I knew exactly what I was doing. I was doing what I’ve done my entire life. I was taking a big jump just to see how it felt. Inside I was terrified and exhilarated and hoping to all that’s sacred I didn’t fall. For a few moments though, as my jump reached that point where everything pauses for a second and becomes clear, I thought about everything I was leaving behind and everything I was headed towards in Philadelphia. I knew I was making the right decision for me, but it didn’t make it any less terrifying.
Landing in Philadelphia brought me new hurdles. The friend I had arranged to pick me up never showed, and I didn’t have any idea where to tell the taxi to take me. He followed the line of cars and parents helping their sons and daughters get settled into their dorms, and eventually we found where I was supposed to go to register. I was on my own from there, quite literally, with two fifty-something pound bags, a guitar, and a full framed backpack. I must have looked ridiculous. After much dragging, kicking, and pulling I found my room, which was of course on the top floor of a building with no elevators, and set out to explore.
At some point I found the one friend I had made at orientation, and immediately everything seemed better. I was once again confident that I had made the right choice. While my college experience may not have reached its full potential or been everything I had hoped it would be I have never regretted having it. The friends I met and the bonds I forged that still hold strong today are worth far more than any of the negative memories I have of the six months I was in college. Would I rather have finished or had the opportunity to make better decisions? Of course, but this is my path. There’s no turning back now.
This very topic came up discussing our wedding guest list with Hubby’s parents. His stepfather doesn’t understand why we would invite so many more friends than extended family. How do you explain to someone who has never left home that these people are family. These are the people who have supported me and cared for me. They’ve laughed and celebrated with me. They’ve comforted me and given me advice. This is what makes this Home no matter where I go in life. I will always have a family and a home in California. My family will always love me, and I know I always have a place with them. That’s where my roots start, but they bloom in Pennsylvania. I will always be a California girl, but this is my home, too.
Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again. The secret is that you never really leave it in the first place.
Many great stories start with, “So, there’s this guy” or, “You see there’s this girl”. A few start with “there’s this guy and this girl” but that’s a whole different blog article. If I have one piece of advice for my daughters someday it will be the same advice my 90-something year old grandmother gave me when I left for college. “Be safe, but have fun.”It seems a lot of emphasis is put on life-long commitment. One has to accept that not every relationship will flourish and last forever. Does that mean we should avoid them altogether and miss what could be a wonderful experience while it lasts? Absolutely not. Some of my most life altering experiences have lasted a week, a night, or a few days, and I have no regrets other than occasionally worrying too much about seeming inexperienced to fully enjoy the moment.
One such story happened the summer I graduated from high school. I tell this story in three parts, and I tell it to honor the coming season. I also tell it because I believe everyone should have a story about “that summer”. Mine starts with, “So, there’s this guy…”
I was on a trip to Nashville with a friend for a country music festival. We’d planned for months, and a few days after graduation we boarded a plane from SFO towards what we were sure would be the trip of a lifetime. The first day there we eventually split up for some solo exploration, and I turned my mission towards the acquisition of a cowboy hat. You wouldn’t think that would take you longer than a quick breath in the Country Music Capital of the world, but you don’t know my head. It happens to be freakishly small. I exhausted the salespeople at three different stores before they referred me to a children’s rodeo store nearby.
Deflated and defeated I wandered through downtown Nashville until I found a hot dog vendor selling cold soda from a cooler in a parking lot. After a quick lecture about soda and wearing black in the heat and humidity he smiled at me and struck up a conversation. I was dumbfounded. Until that moment no guy had ever voluntarily talked to me. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but at seventeen years old I had never even given a guy my phone number. No dates, no kisses. My own prom date was a friend and never even danced with me. Who was this stranger and why would he be interested in my in a city full of summering cowgirls? We talked until I had to meet my friend and our chaperone for dinner and met that night after he had packed away his cart.
He called himself Fiend, but I heard him once refer to himself as John on a call home. He was 25, had wondered from Virginia to Alaska and back, and had wound up in Nashville just prior to my arrival. There he had met Russ, the guy who ran the valet lot where the cart was parked, and Jason, who gave temporary tattoos to drunk people all night. He was sleeping in the key shed in the parking lot and used what little money he had to enjoy the world around him. He also had a tattoo and the most captivating eyes and smile I had ever seen. What more could teenage me ask for? I knew right away that these guys were the reason I was in Nashville.
That night he showed me the building in which the hot dog cart lived. It was full of random country music paraphernalia, cardboard stand-ups, and neon signs well past their time. Then took me to a bar where I saw the first insulin pump I had ever seen. I don’t remember his name, but he was another street kid spending his summer in downtown Nashville. I was driven to my hotel that night in the back of a pick-up truck with a bunch of extremely comfortable people singing “Hotel California”. I was hooked. In the next several days I would meet a wonderful group of guys who would not only change my opinion of myself but my view of the world, none of which would I see or hear from after that week but none of whom will I ever forget.
Hardly did I pay for my own meals or drinks, and I saw more of Nashville than I would have crammed in a convention hall with a horde of autograph crazed country music fans. One day Fiend and I went to a hole-in-the-wall jazz club and danced for hours. Another day Jason and I danced in the street newly deserted by the falling rain. Once the rain had cleared we walked, dripping wet, into an Italian restaurant for lunch where they tried to dry us with table napkins. As a group we played pool and enjoyed the summer sun together. One-on-one Fiend and I had a chance to walk the trip between downtown, the stadium where the nightly concerts were held, and my hotel just talking and exploring one another.
My last day in Nashville he accompanied me to my room where we cuddled and watched TV. Then he kissed me, and there it was. My first kiss. We stayed there for a while, and I never went further. He wanted to, but I was scared he’d know I had never even been kissed before that day, so I backed off. Had I been less afraid of my chaperone’s return to pack up ship for the next day’s departure maybe I would have told him everything and let him make the call. This would be a running theme permeating my entire summer. My inexperience, my resistance to admit I was so out of the loop, and my eagerness to learn. That night I had a second chance, but I let an of-handed remark set off the explosion already brewing inside me. I didn’t want to leave, but I couldn’t stay. I was out of money, out of time, and he needed to take care of himself. He had an actual place to stay, and I couldn’t ask him to turn that down. He had decided to settle in Nashville for a while and was starting the next day as a line cook at Hooters. I wanted to stay, but I couldn’t. It was time to say goodbye.
The next morning I made one last pilgrimage downtown for a final hug. I knew I’d never see him again, but I gave him my email address anyway. We hugged and went our separate ways. I got one email from he and Russ that summer, just after my birthday, but never heard from any of them again. In a way, maybe that’s the better option. This way he can be immortalized as who he was to me that summer. He will always be my first kiss untainted by heartbreak or a falling out. He will always have a place very close to my heart, not just because he was the first to touch and accept it for what it was but how he changed the way I lived my life from then on. I was no longer afraid of new adventures. I was no longer afraid to live my life instead of constantly questioning how I was living it. That handful of summer is channeled still today. If you’re still out there, Fiend, thank you.