I’ll be honest. I’ve had more than one conversation in the past few months about how I am a sensitive person. They weren’t, for the most part, people telling me how great it is to be sensitive. I’ve often been told I’m sensitive like it’s a bad thing.
I’ll own it, though. Sensitive comes from the Latin sentire, or feel. And I feel things.
I also allow myself to be vulnerable. Or at least, I try. Vulnerable comes from the Latin vulnus, or wound.
I feel wounds.
I may be sensitive by nature, but I am vulnerable by choice. And I think everyone should strive for more vulnerability.
Seven years ago today I graduated with my undergraduate degree. I was living in Boulder, Colorado in university-owned apartments at the bottom of campus called Smiley Court. I rode my bike uphill to the main campus in first gear, dripping in sweat, for classes. I coasted back down the hill to my home with nothing but forward momentum, sometimes barely keeping control I was going so fast , and I was usually helmet-less. .This is not the kind of vulnerable I advocate for.
My mom had, a year earlier, jumped off a bridge in a suicide attempt. My last year of college was spent living two lives: the student who tried to blend in while learning about foreign policy and allowing herself dreams of changing the world, and the daughter who drove 6 hours every other weekend to the state mental hospital to visit her mentally ill mother, going through metal detectors, speaking to social workers and doctors (though, in all honestly, my husband and dad did much of that, as I tend to get angsty with authority figures).
For anyone who knows me, this isn’t news. It’s just my story. I graduated college, we all moved to North Dakota, and lived happily ever. Right?
Vulnerable stems from the word wound, but its modern definition is: the state of being open to injury, or appearing as if you are. It might be emotional, like admitting that you’re in love with someone who might only like you as a friend, or it can be literal, like the vulnerability of a soccer goal that’s unprotected by any defensive players. (Vocabularly.com)
You see, I didn’t want to be vulnerable. Not then. I just wanted to make things tidy, and help my parents get moved to this utopia I’d created in my head: Fargo, North Dakota. I thought it would be everything they needed, and my husband Alex and I could move to Washington, D.C. after spending a summer helping them get settled in and, to be honest, me fulfulling my need to mother my parents. But we’d taken a road trip to D.C. to check out our future. I saw myself walking those streets, changing the world.
Then my mom had emergency bowel surgery late that summer, and we didn’t move.
Okay, one more year would be okay. We put in our notice on our apartment the next May, and moved everything to my parents’ garage.
Then my mom got respiratory distress and was hospitalized in the ICU for a few scary days before being sent home with orders to live a different, healthier, life.
We didn’t move. Another year would be okay, just to make sure everything was okay. Okay?
I slowly felt my dreams changing. Like John Mayer sang in Born and Raised, ‘I’ve still got dreams…they’re not the same…they don’t fly as high as they used to.’
My husband and I had a baby. I decided to go back to school to be teacher instead of a politician. It seemed Fargo was our destiny. I believed in destiny, after all.
Back when we’d all moved from Colorado to North Dakota, it was me convincing both my mom and dad it would all we’d hoped for and more. I remember signing my mom out of the state mental hospital after a long year. She had no money, no possessions. She loved Colorado. She loved it so much. But I had lived in Colorado since 7th grade and it was just another boring state to me.
“North Dakota is where you belong, mom,” I said, and she protested that it was a stupid idea but I was stubborn and she had no leverage.
I didn’t realize how emotionally vulnerable it is to move. I had expectations, and vague memories of my younger years in Fargo. When these didn’t pan out, I grew mad at North Dakota. I didn’t WANT to be vulnerable.
I felt stuck, though. The perfect solution – the only solution- was a temporary move. It was the only way to do something good for Alex and I without sacrificing too much time away from helping my dad care for my mom.
And so in 2013, we made a purposeful, vulnerable decision. We moved to Scotland for one year, dates set. My husband’s family was there, and our son got to know his other grandmother, his cousins, etc.
When I stepped into my new classroom in Scotland, I recognized the buzz I got from new experiences. From exposing myself, emotionally. I guess I always knew this, but it was during this year abroad (where everything seemed condensed- our flat, my quickly-forged friendships, my writing) where I felt I was really able to look at my husband and son clearly. From a distance, everything in the USA seemed clearer, as well.
It’s always a risk to lay yourself out there. I think I learned to be purposefully vulnerable, and not just sensitive, when I was in Scotland that year.
And while my blog often speaks of authenticity, I think being vulnerable is an important part of that. It leaves you open to being hurt. It leaves you open to fail. But it also leaves you open to great things, new things, better things.
The only way to know…. is to be vulnerable.
I think social media (and I’m a fan, I am) encourages us to hide our vulnerability. I try not to. I do, on a quite regular basis, have old friends contact me to ask if everything is ‘okay’ for me? (And if this is you, I actually really appreciate it and I love people showing they care). When this happens I wonder if I’m being *too* visibly vulnerable. But that quickly passes as I realize it’s actually a bit like a pat on that back that I am doing it right – being authentic, being vulnerable.
I think ‘real life’ also encourages us to hide our vulnerability or not seek it out. No one wants to be seen as weak, right? No one wants to look like they’re floundering.
But it’s no secret I am a flounderer. And I don’t mind floundering for a bit, as long as my family is safe.
This summer, my husband, son and I are moving back to Colorado Springs. After seven years of trying to make North Dakota work for us, we just know the life we want for ourselves and our son Alistair lies elsewhere. It’s nothing against North Dakota. I’m like Josh Duhamel. I will wear shirts that say Fargo and go on the TODAY Show and talk about how wonderful it is, if they want me.
Because…if you have what you need here, North Dakota can be nice. If you have a house (not a tiny apartment) — to get you through the cold winters with a space to run and play — the winters can be okay. If you have auto-start on your car, you don’t HAVE to freeze. If you have ‘toys’ for summer – a boat, heck, a paddle board – and a place to go, summers can be lovely. The people ARE as nice as everyone says, as a general rule. I’ve found great community within my church and within a local mom’s group. If you have your people here, North Dakota can be great.
But we don’t have a house, a paddle board, a lake, auto-start or a clan. Our ‘people’ move a lot (thanks, friends, for always moving away -ha-), the family we ARE in touch with in this area don’t live close to us at all (except my dad, but he is part of ‘we’ , my immediate family) and the magical life we envisioned for my mom never happened. (She’s in Minnesota’s mental health system, which, for the record, isn’t any better than Colorado’s….)
So, we are returning to Colorado in stages this summer. I find Colorado to be MY roots and they are Alex’s American roots. The details are tedious, but by summer’s end, me, Alistair, Alex, my dad AND my mom should all be back in Colorado.
My mom, who kept telling us over and over as we drove through the midwest to bring her up to North Dakota, ‘This is a bad idea!’ is not going to be left behind. She’s under a psychiatric commitment until September, but essentially lives in a central Minneapolis slum nursing home. I’ve never seen anything like it in Colorado. The housing couldn’t be worse than where she is, so it seems like a good time to bring her back to where she raised me. (She has two sisters in the Minneapolis area who are very, very good at visiting her and being there for her, but they are the same sisters who used to visit us in Colorado, so same difference, more or less). Most importantly, it ‘s my mom’s ‘dream’ to return to Colorado.
And if we can make dreams come true….we should.
Life goes in cycles.
I’m goin’ back to my roots.
I think this blog post goes under YAGE.
See ya later, Fargo. Hello, graduation, teaching, and a fresh start…..again.
Since this blog was mainly autobiographical , I’d suggest this TED Talk for an actual expert opinion on being vulnerable:
“What makes you light up?” my therapeutic healing yoga instructor asked as we melted into the mat, nothing more than fleeting thoughts and deep breathing. Semi-meditative, we welcomed flashes of feelings instead of the usual focus of a mantra.
Alistair exuberant, Alex laughing, my parents hugging, Weasley’s run in an open park. Susan’s arm link and brisk walk. Fi’s knowing smile on the top deck of a Lothian bus. Walking out to my sister standing in my living room and seeing a missing piece of myself staring back at me.
These were all people; this was all love.
“Try not to think of relationships,” she’d urged previously. “Try to think of the feeling- the physical feeling of lighting up.”
The acceleration of a plane taking off, cold feet in hot water, walking into a classroom, the opening sequence of a film, the full-body vibration of live music, the initial crack and smell of a new hardback, hands in Alistair’s thick hair, hands on Alex’s rough cheek, being squeezed in a full embrace, the texture of a scone, the tapping flow of the keyboard, the rush of a roller coaster, the reverence of personal prayer.
As the exercise ended, we took out our journals.What did our feelings tell us? What makes us light up?
I wrote with ease, with the assuredness of being self-aware. Upon reflection, almost smugness. Knowing oneself and knowing oneself well was something I was oh-so good at. I studied philosophy for fun. I’d taken that existentialism class through the Open University just because I’m the type of person who knows what I don’t know or what I’ll never know. You know.
1- People with whom I share love — a short list, but whatever, suckers who don’t like me. ( I let them go; see past blog posts. )
2- Travel. Obviously. That’s my thing. Novelty, exploration, adventure, etc. Finding a good airfare- ding- that lights me up big time. Getting lost in big cities- almost as fun as finding the place.
3- Film. Obviously. That’s my other thing. Everyone knows I’m, like, obsessed.
4- God (He is first, but came to mind fourth — keeping it real here)
The rest- water, music, reading, writing, physical touch, adrenaline, contemplation.
Yep, that was me. I wrote in my journal and listened as the instructor told us to seek the things that light us up. It would make us happy.
Doing things you like makes you happy.
This class, held in a strip mall yoga studio in a new sub-division, sent me all of the good feelings a person likes. Assurance. Hope. Confidence. I even drove away with a certificate when the month was over- hey, I could teach this if I wanted to.
Half a year has passed.
I’m not as smug anymore. I know what lights me up…the same things that lit me up before. I haven’t changed. Because people don’t change, not really, not ever. I’m still working on the same things I started working on when I started blogging. I’ll probably work on them forever. I can make positive change in my circumstances, but changing me, and changing what makes me who I am, will never change. Probably not.
This new chapter, the one where I accept I don’t know it all, is scary. But since I love novelty, it’s also kind of fun.
The same platitudes pass over and over again through my life, on a loop. Maybe everyone hears them.
Changes begins with you.
You’re the only person responsible for your actions.
You never know unless you try.
The first step is the hardest.
People never change.
Change is possible, if you really want it.
One small step in the right direction is better than no step at all.
I have an inkling they’re all true. Just like when my mom used to say to me, “These are the best years of your life but you just don’t know it yet,” when I was a carefree young adult. I dismissed it; my immediate needs outweighed thinking about adulthood. But now I see, it was the truth. It’s all probably true. The things older people tell us on rotation.
And I…..I don’t know shit. None of us really do.
We just need to know what lights us up, and keep at it.
In 2003, internet cafes were a thing. So were calling cards and phone booths – sorry, phone boxes.
As a nineteen year-old American living in Edinburgh, reaching home to Colorado involved purchasing a phone card from the newsagents and finding an open telephone box. You know, the red ones everyone gets excited about.
Only once you were in one and the door closed, you’d wish to be anywhere else. They smelled of urine, and that’s if you were lucky. After dialing about 100 different numerals by way of categories, pin numbers, etc, you’d sigh with relief (but inhale reluctantly)as you waited over a static-filled line for the endless ringing and ultimate, ‘Hello’ (from the other side).
This is how I told my parents I was engaged to Alex. I stood in a disgusting phone box in the Grassmarket hoping my credit didn’t run out as I plunged into the rather shocking news I was getting married to my Scottish boyfriend of five months, the one they’d never met. And then it was, “Oh, no, it just told me I had one minute!” And then a beep, and then “Hello? Hello? Oh, I ran out of credit.”
And in a week, repeat.
Internet cafes were better for speaking to my friends in Colorado. Brevity was the key, however, as time ticked away. Here is an actual email I sent (all names omitted):
09/29/03 at 11:23 AM
Hi ——-! I miss you too! But I hate —- and I hope leads a long and miserable life! Shoot, im almost out of time on my internet cafe, so i should go, but I will write to you soon! i have an address now, I got a flat with 3 flatmates, and I am still looking for a job!
Send me a letter, and I ll send you a man in a kilt (not really,lol…I could try)
My life in four lines: Gossip, I moved, quick quip, ttfn!
Internet cafes, calling cards, soup in a cup, drink specials and being out until 4 am just about summed up the first part of my life in Scotland.
Something else was a thing for me back in 2003, as well: establishing who I was outside of my parents’ home. My best friend and I were on our own for the first time. Baptism by fire, you could say. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Just, fire in general. It was hot, alluring and potentially dangerous.
But I LOVED it.
So much so, that when I settled in Edinburgh in 2004 on a fiance and then marriage visa, Scotland slowly grew into the land where I learned how to be an adult. How to pay bills, rent flats, look for jobs, navigate relationships, and make my own decisions for the first time ever.
It is home to me because I lived there, but also because of who I became there.
The castles, the scenery and the history were amazing, but secondary to things such as going with my best friend to Pound Stretchers to buy linens for the first time in my life. Or having Alex carry me over the threshold of our hundred year-old tenement apartment.
We’ve moved between Scotland and the USA numerous times: I’ve lived in the United Kingdom under five different types of visas ( BUNAC, fiance, limited leave to remain: marriage, and two separate student visas. )
Maybe it sounds strange; I don’t care at all.
You can’t choose where your heart calls you (though you can supress it). And my heart led me to Scotland, which led me to Alex, which led our son, Alistair.
With Alistair’s dual citizenship, I feel even more tied to the place which I love.
When Alistair turned two, surrounded by his Scottish grandmother, uncle, aunt, cousins and friends, I made a wish it wouldn’t be his only birthday spent in Scotland. I can look back on videos and see where Alistair first learned to talk in Edinburgh…with a Scottish accent. His first friends were in Scotland -Winston and Alex – his little soft-play mates, fellow pebble tossers, play-group goers, and hand-holding buggy buddies as we walked up the street. He won’t remember those tender moments, but I’ll never forget them.
From simple streets, less than glamorous flats, days in and out of menial jobs to stressful universities and suburbia…and countless bedtime routines with Iggle Piggle and ‘cleaning your teeth,’ the years have passed and adulthood has blossomed.
I’ve known Edinburgh single and partying.
I’ve known Edinburgh as the place where I fell in love and got married.
I’ve known Scotland as my first train ride, my first time abroad..most of my travel firsts.
I’ve known Edinburgh as a mom going to playgroup.
I’ve known Edinburgh as a graduate student spending all day in the library.
I’ve known Edinburgh as my home, where half of my family and friends reside.
I think the place where you ‘learn to adult’ will always be a home. I think the place where you have your first child will always be a home.
I think the place you find love will also always be home, and if you love the place as well….then you are doubly lucky.
Your predecessor haunted me. It followed me for months:
It screamed at me from writing homework – reflections and recollections and every single unanswered everything in my real life or fake life or would-be life or could-be life or should-be life or might-be life; it deafened me to new sounds.
I walked through Scotland’s haze with a ringing in my ears and a coffin in my back pocket.
The drama pronounced itself in both circumstance and surroundings: I lived out my grown-up dream of a creative writing degree in the city just a decade before I’d lived out mygrowing-up dream.
I pushed my toddler in a pram down the same roads I’d drunkenly stumbled through in the past. I came home in the evening to diapers and literary theory and a husband who’d just a decade before been sweeping me off my feet but now collected the dust of our stagnant relationship.
Panic overtook me in the most privileged guise imaginable; a married white woman, mother to a healthy child, living in a European capital to pursue an arts degree, was having a case of existential malaise over the loss of a number, of a decade, of time.
I freaking loved my 20’s.
But then 30 came, and it went. And with it, the crisis.
Because 31, you taught me more than any other year of my life. I’ve never felt more like ME than any other year of my life.
Yes. I loved the freedom of my 20’s, the laughter, the chaos, and the possibility. But yes, the burden of unfulfilled potential still haunts me. The weight of choice still keeps me up at night. I often wonder how anyone sleeps, knowing the impact of each minute gesture. The power of our choices.
But 31, you’ve taught me those aspects of my personality aren’t a crisis, but the state of my soul, regardless of age.
The state of my soul has never been been more grounded in reality. In clarity. In understanding.
My 20’s were fun, but I lived in world of black and white. Eithers and ors. Nothings or everythings. Certainties.
Turning 30 wobbled me, spun me around on my axis, and landed me in a position where everything is a shade of grey.
And I’m fine with that, now.
I get it.
Life is colorful, but it’s never black or white.
The water of life is murky, and seldom clear, but refreshing nonetheless.
31, you’ve shown me I know who I am. What I’ll never be. And who I’ll always be (for better or worse).
I rarely walked down Balcarres Street in the daylight. The number 23 bus took me directly to my Edinburgh flat.
The night buses dropped me off on Morningside Road, a main thoroughfare, though still shuttered and empty after nightfall (save a few pubs).
The 10 minute walk from Morningside Road was dark and residential. Pavement wound past a graveyard and adjacent to a mental hospital. Just up the hill sat the old asylum turned college, now an abandoned, wooded campus frequented during the day by hikers. But at night, blackness.
As my family’s year abroad neared an end and I prepared to finish my degree, I’d walk down this road with earbuds in and music loud. It took away much of the creepiness. John Mayer’s Paradise Valley is one of the albums of my Year of Writing Creatively (the other being, in all seriousness, Katy Perry’s Prism).
Mayer’s song “On the Way Home” resonated with me, especially with our Scottish adventure coming to an end. A sample lyric reads:
“The summer’s over, this town is closing. They’re waving people out of the ocean. We had the feeling like we were floating. We never noticed where time was going. Do you remember when we first got here? The days were longer; the nights were hot here. Now, it’s September; the engine’s started. You’re empty-handed and heavy-hearted. But just remember on the way home…. That you were never meant to feel alone. It takes a little while, but you’ll be fine: Another good time coming down the line.”
I’d climb up to our fourth floor flat and turn off the music…eventually.
I cried when I said goodbye to every place which made our/my time there…home. They were never big things- the university campus, the church building, the friends I’d made – which brought out the tears. My tears were in the details of home.
The Morningside Parish playgroup. ( I’d never park Alistair’s buggy in the foyer again.Sob.)
I’m a nocturnal being. I come alive at night once everyone else is asleep in their beds, or laying around looking at their phones in the dark. I come alive, but it just happens to be I’m usually sitting alone in my living room.
This can be a good and bad thing. Night is when I do most of my writing (even evidenced by the timing of my blog posts, which are, admittedly, unplanned rambles most of the time). Night is when I act on whims (such as applying to graduate school and subsequently moving with my family to Scotland to study creative writing).*
*We didn’t move at night. I just apply for things at night.
The darkness also brings out nostalgia. This tendency is also well documented on my blog. But before this blog, there was another one. Some readers my age may remember…. LiveJournal. A good half-decade of my life is documented within its pages, the rambles and dramas of a teenager with a phone line and AOL.
I sometimes lurk back there in the wee hours, taking a look at what I was doing on this day in a certain year. Laughing at myself. Cringing. Struggling to remember what on earth I was going on about.
Tonight I looked at ten years ago, in 2005.
I worked at a daycare in Scotland and was taking an Open University course in Existentialism, which helped form my love of the particular branch of philosophy. Ten years ago, I was contemplating this passage from Nietzche in my journal:
“How, if some day or night a demon were to sneak after you into your loneliest and loneliness and say to you…..
‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immeasurably small or great in life must return to you-all in the same succession and sequence…the eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over, and you with it…how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life and to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
A decade ago, at 21, I thought I knew it all. My entry reads as smug in my recollection of life, as if two decades of breath brought with it the wisdom of the ages. I thought yes, I’d love to live my entire life over again, Nietzche. That’s how happy I am with it. Ha.
Much changes between 21 and 31. I don’t approach this proposition with the same confidence I did back then, on the cusp of adulthood and with zero responsibilities but my own daily happiness.
I love to reminiscence on those feelings, but the jolt I felt reading this tonight reminded me I should try to live my life with the same fervor I lived life ten years ago. So that if I were, as Nietzche proposed, forced to relive my entire life over and over again…I would have tried for my joy to outweigh any languishing, to seek laughter over tears, and to find happiness in the present.
Having this reminder laid on my soul tonight brought up many emotions, and most of them good.
We should all strive to live lives we can be proud of; but those lives are made up of days, and those days are made up of moments.
And if we had to live those moments over and over again, wouldn’t we want to enjoy them?