The universe speaks to me in books. I know it is easy to say that people select the “right” book for them or are receptive to them based on current circumstances. It is also common to read the same book that in different moments brings forth to your consciousness what you need to read in order to analyze your current situation. Still, I maintain my ground. This collection has both inspired me to travel far, as well as helped me to return.
These newest guides pick up the path laid down by a book from my childhood. Anne Shirley asks her reader, “Which would you rather be? Divinely beautiful, dazzlingly clever or angelically good?” It could be accidental destiny or more intentional subconscious, but those words and thousands of others have walked across diaries, letters, essays, research projects, manuals, children’s stories, songs. Some wrinkled, some wet, some kept, some buried. So quickly they disappear, a sweet, uncaptured, unrepeatable, irrefutable melody. Worthy of being remembered such a song? I don’t know, but even with Anne’s borrowed words, the desire to sing my own is to me now, worth somewhat more.
I gave a beautiful journal away and one came back to me. I took that as a sign that I was supposed to begin. It’s hard to write in ones that are pretty, new and even elegant. It makes me think the words inside should be better, permanent words, not maybes. I spent so much time staring out windows with thoughts and words to dream on, school buses, airplanes, pickup trucks. So, this time I’ll write them down, all of them, these words and their permanence as long forgotten dreams or goals ignored. And right now, I need a goal, says my friend Nancy, “a real goal, the stars kind.”
Birth to college, booksmarts, marked my life. I was “dazzlingly clever”, quick to engage with adults and studious from my mother’s first reading lessons. I do not know exactly when books became less sentimental, old photographs of my memories and more the trophies of my success, opportunities but also requirements written on each page. I opened books, and it is as if old friends spoke to me, a voice advising me that marked a sure path, a planned path, for meaning in my life.
I have always had high expectations of myself. I acknowledged in writing my biggest fear in 8th grade Spanish class, one word, failure. I was valedictorian, voted most likely to succeed. I craved success and felt comfortable, and still uncomfortable at the same time, in my ability to control it. Achievement was the one thing I could always control. Yet, no achievement really satisfied. Each one was too temporal, fraught with the worry of when and how would the next one occur, and worse, what would happen if it never did. Worst of all, my self-worth was tied to it, even though I could not clearly visualize the applications of my hard work. What must that be like? To know so surely your sole purpose. I suspect now, it may be just as trapping (or liberating) as having no idea.
If being the best was unsatisfying, perhaps I could try being the “best” for someone or something else, a higher purpose that could give me agency, push me onward. I remember sitting in the grocery store parking lot after a day in the classroom, feeling like I was not enough to help my bilingual students my first year teaching, or maybe it was that helping my students here in the United States was not enough for me. I sat for ten minutes, maybe fifteen in my car against the curb with the envelope in my hand. Fear in my breath, wrapped round my stomach because of a few pieces of paper I would drop in the mailbox. This application to Peace Corps began ten years of personal and professional relationships related to primarily education development work in Guatemala.
I poured my heart into years far away from my family. My life became anorexic from the majority of my American life’s interests and activities. Admittedly many of those activities existed because I was trying to maintain the status of “dazzling clever”. “It’s okay,” I justified. “Losing myself was the ‘right’ thing to do as a one coming from so much in a place with so little.” I filled my days, but they were not mine. I ignored unfulfilled responsibilities and broken experiences from coworkers and “friends”. I valued their existence over my own. I made excuses for them, and tried as hard as I could to change who I was to resemble what made sense to them. I held myself in to empower the recipients of the programs. I gave away activities at work I thrived doing by teaching someone else to do them. I gave away pieces of myself I treasured, because I wanted others to love themselves more through their own recognition of these traits in themselves. I wanted to be anyone else, anyone else, but me, because I wasn’t me, anymore.
Walls echoed. Rooms ached. More often than not, the enjoyment in eating my favorite lemon, cilantro potato salad for lunch was accompanied with whispering to my dog. ”You shouldn’t be here. Neither of us should be here.” I could only shed the savior discourse by leaving, as if to say I can never “save” you. I can only save myself. It wasn’t goodbye to a job, not really to a place either, more an acceptance of transition, a self confidence that caused me to no longer seek my own value for myself, outside myself. I recognized the damage done by defining myself by being for others what I believed, or was conditioned to believe, “they “are not for themselves. I confronted something that felt like failure, but it needed to be over. I didn’t stop because I thought my actions inherently bad, but I did stop because I considered the intent behind my actions as not unquestioningly good for me.
I thought “Divinely Beautiful” would be the first section, a shallow disappointment I would rise above. Anne lamented her physical appearance. For her it was the red hair; for me, it was most likely mediocrity at something I couldn’t control. Still, life will do you favors anyway. Books spoke to me again, and I spoke to myself. Somehow while writing this essay, I listened. The March day I arrived home, it seemed imagination turned a corner. Looking back, I was more tired than I thought when I stepped off a plane to surround myself with the familiar once again. I came home to no job, to no friends, except the Facebook kind, but I came home to myself. There in that moment, scattered around, in front, behind, part of past, present and future, were all the “I did have. I do have. I might have. I won’t have.” s. You can linger in a moment whose promise has shattered, but you cannot stay. It pushes you. You push yourself, forward. You can crawl, limp, drag your foot behind. But you have to walk, even if you fall, because everything seems out of reach until you’re closer, and then, it isn’t.
Nothing happens that isn’t supposed to. Really? Nothing happens that isn’t supposed to? Really. It may seem that my sudden rebound in general well being is too immediate, almost false somehow, as if I am imagining it. I assure you; I am. I catch myself interacting with coworkers, chatting at the gym, buying shoes, and do not recognize the woman I see. I by no means think I am done. I know that the little things that I choose to matter only make me feel good because I let them, every day, and because I plan to maintain the other pieces that will help balance life. Imagination is a good thing.
Now I feel like I work less, suffer less, and still give more. First, I write for my newborn niece, far away, in Tel Aviv. There is much she could know about me, and those words now seem worth telling. I write for my father, the story he asked from me, my dog a sea captain pressing his face diligently to the wind. More importantly, I write for me, words to read over again, to appreciate, to love. How wondrous a gift, to have expressed such effort for myself, the reader alone.
So, it is a trick question, this musing of Anne Shirley, dazzlingly clever, angelically good, or divinely beautiful. I suppose this is natural. It is a girl’s question. She couldn’t know yet that divinely beautiful is a balance of the other two. She never needs to choose. I don’t plan to either. In half lives, sometimes we find whole truths. Beauty is a most brilliant contradiction.