It was probably around seventh grade that I first remember teachers pounding the “Be Yourself” drum. Hard. I remember thinking that it was weird to make Be Yourself number one on the junior high agenda when numbers 2 through 12 had to do with where to sit, where to eat, what to say, how to act and how to dress. Now, at the advanced age of 50, I find the idea of self-actualization is still loaded with conflicting signals and internal confusion which has grown even more complex since my husband died.
In spite of how the print version of Bo Stern may read, I am often a study in internal contradictions. My desire to grow old gracefully is often at war with my determination to stop the effects of time. My need for independence fights with my longing for companionship. My certainty of purpose and calling gets caught in a choke hold of insecurity and inadequacy. My introverted longings for privacy clash with my desire for public acceptance and approval. My seriously opinionated personality wrestles with my desire to keep the peace, stay in my corner, be liked.
Behind each one of these statements are stories of moments when I was too small, too proud, too insecure, too hesitant, too terrified to be true to my realest self. In fact, it’s sometimes been difficult to identify my realest self as she was always so intertwined with the person and personality of Steve Stern. Being his was the one immutable fact of my identity for 30 years, and I’m so thankful for that and for his influence on my life. But five years of illness began the untangling process and then widowhood, which sometimes seems like a guillotine, chopping off all I remember about myself in one fell swoop, though in fact, it was several gradual swoops.
So ten months later, I am still unmasking and unmaking. Not that anything was inherently bad in who I was, and not that anything is inherently better now – but the best I can be is me. For instance, I have always felt an obligation to you, dear readers, to be as hopeful and positive as possible. I like being that – it feels good to me to think that way. But I’m beginning to recognize the signs when the desire to be hopeful slips into pretending things are better than they are. I’m seeing that my revulsion to being viewed as a tragedy sometimes make me push, push, push my best self forward, hiding the scared, frustrated seventh grader away in the locker room until she can get her crap together.
I guess what it boils down to is a cold-water-in-the-face awareness that I worry too much about what people think of me, my family and our story. And while I will always feel protective of my kids, I have also grown protective of my image and that, I’m discovering, keeps me paralyzed and unhealthily self-focused. But the times, they are a changin’. I feel it. I hear the wind blowing in the tree tops, calling me out to a bigger, broader, braver life. I feel my heart moving toward the adventure of authenticity in a whole new way. And it’s admittedly scary, because I’m not sure who will or won’t like the real me when she comes out of hiding, but even that feels a little awesome, you know? Finally being willing to relinquish whatever control I thought I had over other people’s opinions is like taking this huge chore off my to-do list.
The past few years? Wow. They’ve been hellish. But I’m getting to know the girl emerging from the wreckage. And I think I like her.
And I’m not editing this. Because it’s how I really feel.
And I love you.