The other day, I finished a solitary hike on a sweltering summer afternoon and came upon a couple of coworkers. As I was peeling off my gear, I felt compelled to comment that I had worn my work nametag to give me “an excuse for looking like such an idiot”. I motioned to my big hat, worn clothes, hand lens, and binoculars. My sweat-soaked pack was still on my back.
I was met with looks of confusion. One’s reply was to assure me that I did not at all look like an idiot.
Their reactions gave me pause. Why did I say that? What point was I making about myself? Later, I looked up the word and its synonyms to try to understand:
Idiot. Fool. Clown. Loon.
Nerd was on the list, too. I’ve said before that I’m proud to be a nerd. But it was the above chain of words that spoke to me in a coldly true way. When I said it, I was wearing functional clothes and carrying field tools at a 400+ acre nature park. Why was I so “foolish” from my perspective?
After looking at that list of words, it hit me. All of these words paint a picture of someone who “everybody else” is staring at as being excessively silly- or worse. Why would I feel that? For decades, I’ve been like what Shakespeare wrote of in Macbeth: a poor player upon a stage, fretting. Alone. That’s the big key.
I have walked through this life very much on the edges. Pretending I’m fine.
I grew up fairly isolated. My pastimes were solitary: reading, drawing, thinking. I made friends, but just a few. I tried to blend into the background and please the adults. If I felt a streak of rebellion upon occasion, I recall fits of frustration and anger and a public display or two, but for the most part, I kept it all hidden and on the inside.
Sometimes I wonder if I absorbed that grade school mantra “you can be anything you want to be...if you try” in a really unhealthy way. Real growth is achieved by networks of people supporting and challenging you in productive ways. You've defeated yourself before you've even tried if you think you have to do something perfectly or not at all...and if you have few people around showing you that there’s always a process, that everyone makes mistakes, and perhaps there are ingenious tricks to achieve one’s goals. They give you hope to go on trying.
I did receive one bit of advice before college that I reaped huge benefits from. Someone told me to introduce myself to the professors in my chosen major as soon as classes started and ask them for a job. Get your face in front of them, they said. Ridiculously enough, I don’t recall who gave me that advice. I wish I did because I would thank them for that seed that grew and grew over the intervening years.
"Get your face in front of them." The best and hardest advice.
I was super excited to purchase steel-toed boots and waders for my first environmental job after I graduated. I tried so hard. I bought tons of books. I worked countless unpaid hours at home, trying to become something: a botanist. But I had no real mentors. No one had my professional back to walk me through the challenges. At the first office Christmas party I attended, a company leader didn’t applaud my efforts. He said to my husband (we’d been married 7 months), “Now I can see why you married her!”. I was wearing a dress. I failed to process things like that in a constructive way.
What I am and what I should be. It’s been a lifetime battle.
I’m not alone in that, I know. Others have fewer resources to rely on and way more critical eyes. Now I see that. Being and becoming: it’s part of the trip. That’s a tough thing to sell to someone who deeply believed they had to be “good” and to whom the social definitions of “good” didn’t make much sense.
I’ve written quite a bit on how I have felt myself evolving out of that illusion. But clearly, I still need a lot to practice if I’m still calling myself names. In the last 15 years, I’ve met some amazing mentors who have helped me see today more clearly, look back with different eyes and look ahead with better lenses. Old and learned habits die hard, though. New wounds lead to setbacks. I still have to keep pushing myself to participate in the bigger picture, away from the “safety” of the edges.
Clearly, I haven’t fully accepted that I have found a place and community of others to drop those feelings of separation and to really be the “me” I’ve dreamed of. I can do this. I can be this. With others. A whole bunch of others. I need them and they need me.
Others need me. That’s a foreign concept to
From that truth, I am compelled to consider the multitudes on the edges- those feeling dangerously out on those edges because they’ve been pushed there. They exist on the fringes where they fear for their lives. I need to ask myself what can I do to help them draw closer? What can I do to help others feel safe enough to be closer? To understand that they deserve to be closer? I hope to do what I can in the coming years to begin answering these questions with actions. Writing and posting this is a start.
I firmly believe we are all stronger together. Everyone needs to feel supportive connections beyond self and to experience the benefits of being, working, and living together. Everyone.