Most small children know exactly what they want out of life.
They want to paint, sing, play, save animals or invent things. These aspirations are totally unfiltered, and radiate from a raw gut instinct that tells them what they are here to do.
I was no different, and one of my childhood loves was to write.
When I was four or five and experimenting with the new-found ability to form sentences and paragraphs, I wrote my first book, The Adventures of Little Kitty. Quite a page turner. I went on to write an assortment of other stories with animal protagonists throughout my elementary school career.
I recently found and reread some of those stories, and I’m amazed at how honest the writing is. The voice evolves from blunt and unassuming at five to sarcastic at eight, and then a bit more intellectual at 10. All of the stories were written from my heart, and I remember loving them. As I child I never wrote something and then thought “This is profoundly stupid”. I just wrote. And loved it.
It was around middle school that I stopped writing.
Well, I still journaled. And of course wrote the obligatory academic papers. But my personal writing became strictly private, even secret. No more stories. I no longer wanted to share my writing with the world as I did when I was younger. At eight I had actually written the names of pretend publishers on the backs of my self-created books. I was ready to share with everyone and anyone who would give me the time of day. That desire died quickly as I left childhood behind.
My voice became increasingly stifled throughout high school, and even into my early twenties. Encounter after encounter with the world around me seemed to confirm that what I had to say was irrelevant. Odd even. And not a cool, “emo” kind of odd. The kind of odd that results in sitting alone at lunch. So I shut my imaginative world down quickly. I tried to be what I thought I needed to be to survive.
I eventually found myself mid-twenties and at a loss for what I wanted to do with my life. I had tried so hard to tick off all the boxes of what other people told me I should have. Good grades, social life, boyfriends, play sports, be beautiful. Few of those came without a good amount of clumsy, drawn-out bargaining between the universe and I.
Now faced with the weightiness of the rest of my life before me, I realized that I had strayed so far from my natural impulses that I didn’t even know where to begin making the huge decisions at hand.
I loved college and I loved my friends and I loved my family. It wasn’t that I was unhappy. But my focus was 100 percent outward. What did people want from me? How could I avoid disappointing them? How could I control their view of me? I flailed about trying to please everyone and completely shutting down my inner voice. By that point it had become so dim that it wasn’t very difficult to do.
I wondered about things like money and status and style and how I could get them. Things that didn’t come naturally to me, and really didn’t even matter to me, apart from knowing how much they mattered to other people. I wanted love and friendship and more love, and I thought that I had to earn it.
Well, when intuition is ignored for long enough, a breaking point is sure to follow. Mine came at the disastrous end of a relationship that I had allowed to define me, three years of working various jobs I didn’t care about, and the foundational cracking of some of my most important friend and family loves.
I had just barely become a teacher by this point, my first step back toward the academic world I loved. And in something near reckless abandon, I signed a contract with an international school, and moved across the world to Indonesia.
Three things were important about this move. One was that I went alone. Another was that I went purely because I wanted to, not because I thought anyone else wanted me to. And the third was that it turned out to be hard.
My life there cut me down to size in every way possible. I was lonely, uncomfortable, lost and humbled, and was forced to sit with all those feelings, by myself. The layers of bullshit that I had been accepting and armoring myself with since my teens weren’t just peeled back, they were ripped from me like a hurricane uprooting trees.
I began to see myself clearly for the first time in a long time. With brutal honesty, and a vague affection, like stumbling upon a place that I knew I had been before, a long time ago. It had never gone away. It had only been buried, and silenced by the burial.
My first few months in Indonesia leveled me to a pile of dust, and from there I began to build myself back up. I understood why this had to happen. All the pain, pretense and self-doubt that I had brought with me had to be dug out. I needed a clean slate, and I got one.
Sitting on the cool tile floor of a tiny house in a dusty town, somewhere on the west coast of Java, I caught sight of myself.
As the months passed, I made friends and worked and had adventures, and my new life gradually eased into a rhythmic flow. It became easier, but wasn’t quite the same as it had been before.
I found myself blurting out my thoughts in the middle of conversations, even when they were contentious. It was wonderfully awkward. More miraculous that that, I actually knew what my thoughts were. The more I fell in step with my own mind, the more I saw people begin to divide into groups of those who did or didn’t like me. And I began to accept that.
Accept people not liking me? Who the hell was this new girl?
She actually wasn’t new. She had been around for a long time, waiting for me to be ready to return to her.
When I did, something else happened. I started to write again.
My writing evolved from private journals, to blogs that I thought about sharing, to blogs that I actually did share. I received a multitude of reactions to my blogs, some that made me smile till my face hurt, and some that made me want to delete everything. But I kept writing. Eventually, characters and plot lines began to surface, and then, for the first time since fifth grade, I was writing stories again. It felt like the most instinctual thing in the world.
I’ll admit, I judged them harshly and censored them with the force of acquired habit, but at least I was putting words on paper.
I wrote and taught and traveled and came home and left again and lived, lived, lived. I did much of it alone. And I stumbled upon volumes and volumes of genuine love, the likes of which the chasing-controlling-pleasing me had never dared to imagine.
I remember being fresh out of college and driving to my first “real” job, something in an office that required multi-tasking and strong organizational skills. I felt so restless and sad and frustrated all at the same time. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was too deep into the expectations of the world, too far removed from my own heart, to even understand what I wanted.
Several years later and a few oceans away, I finally found that dreamy kid who used to sit up in trees and vehemently fill notebooks with her words. She didn’t define herself as a writer, or student, or teacher, or friend, or girlfriend, or daughter, or any other one thing. She was simply herself, and she had no shortage of hope for her life.
I am certainly not as free as she was, but I am learning how to be.
Thank God she’s so patient with me.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: via Flickr