Confession: I’ve spent years — decades, actually — trying to change myself. Seriously. I have done it all, and I always go all in.
First example, I bought the whole J Crew line over Christmas break sophomore year at boarding school — even the lilac twinset and the navy shift.
Anyone who really knows me knows my soul has no business wearing lilac, or navy. My soul is black and white and red and sepia, like a newspaper.
Second example, I smoked enough pot in college to subdue a Great White.
Marijuana numbs so effectively, doesn’t it? It puts prison-glass between you and the world, and when everything is detached and soft and silly, you don’t even really have to pick up the hand-held phone and connect. You can say very little and feel very little and just tune out, or get gratefully lost at a concert, in a museum, or a ski documentary, or even just in a pile of old photos. See? I get the draw, and I’m not judging. It can be great, but for me it mostly muted.
During this college haze, I fell head over heels for a tall, dark-haired Strong Silent Type — a super-hot hockey- and lacrosse-playing artist (I know). We took some drugs and listened to all the coolest music and had an astounding amount of sex.
He wanted a cool girl, a chick who looked effortlessly beautiful, who was the perfect amount of chill and witty, and most of all who didn’t really need anything but a stiff drink, a long toke, and to get busy on the regular. I rose — or rather, erased — to that challenge. In hindsight, it feels like a different life. At the time, I felt like I belonged to someone. I liked that he always called the shots. I was in the passenger’s seat of my own life, oceans away from all of my constant feelings.
The trouble was that I was leaving for an entire year abroad in Italy, and this time I really would be oceans away. There would be no weed and no boyfriend — only me, and all those feels. What was left was a fractured identity in a foreign country. I was a fish out of water on the inside and on the outside. The world came crashing down on me hard.
In some ways, Italy was so refreshing. Stereotypically, Italians feel everything and talk about everything. There were times when I thought, ‘Holy hell! These are my people!’ And yet, I had allowed those muscles of observation and empathy to atrophy. My EQ was out of shape; the smallest challenges would leave me gasping for air.
I lost weight (antithetical, because ITALY), and I read and slept a lot. I distinctly remember Lady Chatterley’s Lover, trying to connect to the country just outside the window from the safety of my tiny bedroom. I could see Italy, but I didn’t feel it; I couldn’t. I was mostly scared and lonely. I pretty much wasted the first six weeks there.
But Grazie Dio: a pair of miraculous things happened; two soulmates appeared simultaneously. One, of course, was my mother. No surprise there — she is My Person. She came to visit and to salve.
The other was a fellow study-abroad student in my program, who turned out to be in Florence for the year as well. She was a tiny Italian-American hippy from Colby College who I fell for almost instantly. I still remember what she was wearing the day we met — a grey tube top, a jean maxi skirt, and blue-and-grey vintage New Balance sneakers. Her thick brown hair was pulled back in an incredibly high ponytail that hung halfway down her back. (Remember, this was the height of Gwen Stefani’s fronting No Doubt.)
Ours was not a romantic love, but a meeting of the minds. We were the type of friends who could talk all day and all night, and who listened to a discman at the same time, each with one earphone, heads never more than six inches apart. We talked about everything and shared our histories — pretty much birth to present day — weaving books, music, wine, and chocolate throughout.
We listened to Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and Sublime, and — after we became roommates in the second semester — woke each morning in our room in Alda and Ovidio’s house with long two-litre bottles of acqua naturale and succulent oranges in our beds, sustenance for the morning.
Our twin beds were arranged in a right angle with our heads together, and — while still in repose — we planned our days loosely, determining each day to ‘take care of each other and be easy with ourselves.’ We would actually say that out loud, like a sacred oath.
I’m still not entirely sure she’s not an angel here on earth. I haven’t seen her since her wedding twoish years ago in New York City, but we FaceTime. We have a shorthand we will never lose, and I think of her almost daily.
With her, I did not have to dull myself. Thankfully, in the Mediterranean, dulling oneself is not encouraged.
Now, nearly twenty years later, I believe that that was the lesson of that brief vita italiana. It is the same message of the tagline in my blog, and the lesson it’s taken me the longest to learn: You do not have to set yourself on fire to keep others warm. It is beloved Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’ opener: You do not have to be good, and closer: Announcing your place in the family of things. My place is my own and my truth is irrefutable.
This is that truth: I cannot change who I am, despite my best efforts. (As you know, I’ve given it the old college try and then some.)
This may seem obvious, but it’s taken me nearly half my life to figure this out and then to actually believe it.
Imagine my initial disappointment! So many years of effort to become someone else, only to find that no makeover, no contraband, and no lusty tryst can erase the indelible red ‘E-is-for-Emotional’ that marks me. It is simply my way, whether I like it or not.
To be quite honest, the constant barrage of acute observations and deep feelings I live with is a total pain in the ass. Almost daily, it inconveniences me, it stresses me out, it embarrasses me; there is a lot of crying in the car. And yet, there is hope.
First off, I discovered these cylindrical tissue boxes that sit perfectly in the cupholders of your car — total game-changer. More importantly, I (re)discovered writing, and poetry, and random open mic nights and lovingly competitive storytelling to a group of strangers.
And I’m beginning to feel less like a freak. In my head, I am soul sisters with Glennon and Abby, Brené and Liz Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, and even Lady O herself, all public celebrators of vulnerability and authenticity and courage. Simply hearing these voices in the zeitgeist make me feel wildly less alone.
In fact, if ever being hyper-emotive and a bit crazy was going to get hip, it’s now. Maybe I was just twenty years ahead of the trend. A thought-leader, if you will. Ha. But I digress; my point here was to try and save some prickly little feeler from squandering some valuable time and from some very painful heartache.
And so, dear friend, a dispatch from my decades of fieldwork on our behalf: You are who you are. There are all sorts of children’s books that will tell you that you are unique and perfect as you are, so I’ll spare us that corollary. I’ll stick to my own script, and I’ll say it again for posterity: YOU ARE WHO YOU ARE, and the sooner you can claim yourself, the better off you’ll be.
I believe the soul is like a fingerprint and it’s pretty much set from the get-go. There are values and beliefs, rituals and habits, and preferences and proclivities that lay atop it, but the foundation is set in stone; it is our DNA, which I think of as Does Not Alter.
Maybe science will correct the faulty pieces, but the scaffolding is strong. Please, take it from me — it is a lot easier to build upon your real foundation than it is to create an earthquake, only to see it still sitting there when the dust clears, holding strong right where it was.
Let’s end with a return to Italy. There are many brilliant Italian proverbs (more below!), but this is one of my favorites: Chi si volta, e chi si gira, sempre a casa va a finire. The literal translation is ‘No matter where you go, or where you turn, you will always end up at home.’
This is true if you forget your phone — nobody knows how to get anywhere anymore — and it’s true too of our internal GPS, our Gloriously Predictable Soul — our very own factory reset.
I took a lot of detours over the years trying to outrun, outwit, and outmaneuver my tender heart. It never worked; I always ended up unhealthy, unhappy, and unfulfilled. In the last couple of years, I have fought like hell to accept my true nature. And each time I do, each time let the tears flow all the way to the leather seats, I feel more at home in myself. I am not all the way there yet, but I can see it in the distance, and I am finding my way back.
The Beth List – Some Choice Italian Proverbs
- Breve orazione penetra.
English equivalent: Short prayers reach heaven.
- Ciò che Dio fa è ben fatto.
English equivalent: Each day brings it own bread.
Meaning: Try not to worry so much about the future.
- È meglio cader dalla finestra che dal tetto.
Translation: It’s better to fall from the window than from the roof.
English equivalent: Choose the lesser of two evils.
- Egli e mal sordo che non vuol udire.
English equivalent: None so deaf as those who will not hear.
- Finché c’è vita c’è speranza.
Translation: “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”