Before I moved back in with the Olds, I set some ground rules. The first one concerned my future:
Any and all advice from them on what I would do next, including careers and schooling, was forbidden.
This sounds harsh. But it was necessary. So far, I had followed most of their advice* about major decisions my entire life, almost never stopping to differentiate between what they thought was best and what I wanted. Most of the time, this was fine. It is just that the Olds used to be more normal. They have never wanted to stand out from the crowd. They were able to fit in to society pretty easily. (They are past this now. Whether this is for good or for ill, I cannot say. I just know that it is often disturbing and always hilarious.)
I, on the other hand, have never been someone who just slips into the crowd. Whether I like it or not, I stand out. I’m not sure that I stand out for necessarily positive reasons. But I do, no matter how hard I try to fade in. A therapist once told me I should be proud of that and that it meant I was powerful and charismatic. “Powerful” and “charismatic” were not qualities that helped me succeed in many areas of life, starting with getting kicked out of the Girl Scouts at age 10, and most recently, being kicked out of a church.
Since I admired and respected them as well as loved them, I always listened to the Olds first and myself later. Which was why I was 41 and about to move back in with them. I had failed at pretty much everything I had tried to do, and I kept having the sneaking suspicion that most of the things I had tried to do, were not really what I’d wanted to do anyway. This did not make my failure any less painful; instead it made it worse. I felt stupid for trying things I had never wanted anyway, but that I thought I was supposed to want, like being a homeowner. Most homeowners do things like make improvements to their homes on a regular basis. Some of them even enjoy it. There are libraries of books and entire TV networks devoted to those people. I could not remember to buy lightbulbs, let alone paint walls and replace furnace filters.
At 41, I finally understood that I should have listened to my 18 year old self about what I really wanted, and where my talents were. I sang, acted, played the piano, played the cello at an almost professional level, and had been sewing and creating things since I could hold a needle. I intended to go to Indiana University in my home town, where I knew I could continue doing all of those things, especially playing the cello and acting, while I was in college.
But the Olds convinced me to apply to the Seven Sisters, the Ivy League, and many other exclusive schools. So, I did, mostly under protest. It never occurred to me that I would attend any of them until the day that I walked on to Vassar’s campus on a whirlwind college trip to visit Vassar, Smith, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard. Bryn Mawr was too small. Barnard’s main appeal was the city. The dorm rooms were smaller than my closet at home. Smith was my first choice until I got there. The campus wasn’t as beautiful as IU, and, no one had on Smith t-shirts or sweatshirts. That might seem silly, but growing up only in college towns means that you notice things like that when they aren’t there.
Vassar was the last school we visited. I stepped out of the car behind Main Building, looked around, felt the strangest sense of deja vu, and burst into tears. That was the moment I realized I would not be staying in my hometown, and that I was actually going away to school. There are very few things in the world that have ever made me believe in fate. Stepping on the campus that day at Vassar is one of them. It was the most beautiful campus I had ever seen, and my standards are high. And every second or third student was wearing an oversized grey sweatshirt with VASSAR emblazoned across the front.
[I know now, that’s because they were all out of clean clothes. Many students would simply buy a new shirt in the Vassar store rather than do laundry if possible. Many students. I have heard. Friends of friends. And such. Fine. I graduated with about 14 Vassar t shirts and at least 8 Vassar sweatshirts. Whatever. I didn’t have to buy a grad school wardrobe.]
When I started college that fall, something happened that I hadn’t expected: I fit in. That was the first and probably only time in my life where I was no more outspoken or weird than anyone else. Here were all of the other brilliant drama nerds and musicians and kids from high school who gave no fucks about being valedictorian but many fucks about alternative music, reading Kerouac, developing countries, and being vegan. I settled in and made friends and got involved in campus life, and I was shocked when I realized I would have to graduate and go back to the real world.
At Vassar, I quit singing, because I didn’t make it into an a capella group the first time I auditioned. After two or three plays, I stopped auditioning for because I was tired of playing old women and witches. I had classmates who were already models and actresses. Competing with them for roles was too much for my shaky self esteem. And I dropped my cello lessons after the second one where the teacher informed me that my technique was “all wrong! You must forget EVERYTHING and start from the beginning again!” Since my cello teacher since the 5th grade was a college professor in the IU music school, I knew that this man was full of seven kinds of shit. It did not even occur to me until years later that he probably said that to everyone, and especially to undergraduates who had already studied at one of the greatest music schools in the world. I never would have lasted through the semester with him anyway, because he favored a kind of florid, over-vibrato’d playing style that made me feel like giggling.
I never took a studio art class, because I knew my drawing was laughable and there were no fiber arts classes offered. I had a small sewing basket in my dorm rom closet, with some dolls in various states of creation in it, but I rarely took it out, and even when I did, it was in secret. Only two or three people even knew I could sew.
So, by the time I graduated four years later, I no longer did any of the things that had defined me for the first 18 years of my life. College is a great place to try new things, and I certainly did that. Some of those things are best not mentioned, but that does not make them any less valuable. I discovered political activism, and I worked on a feminist newspaper. I hope there are no surviving copies of it from 1988-1991 other than the ones locked in my ancient filing cabinet. It is not that I am not proud of much of my work on it. It’s just that I took my insufferably self-righteous self so seriously that it hurts to remember it.
The biggest mistake I made at Vassar, though, was thinking that I had a future in the halls of academe. I decided I would get my PhD in history and become a professor. Like one of the Olds. This was a noble goal, and one to which I was fantastically ill-suited. I would go on to waste a good five years pursuing this degree, and then, as a last resort, I found myself in library school. Like the other Old.
I loved Vassar. And I did love parts of being a librarian. But the parts I loved about Vassar had very little to do with academics, and everything to do with political action, event planning, and getting in trouble. Good and necessary trouble, to paraphrase Congressman John Lewis. But trouble. And the thing I loved about being a librarian was helping people find books to read. But being a librarian is all about working in committees and getting along with people, which I am sure is common at most jobs, and I am not particularly good at either.
I was unsuited to both academia and the library profession because of one key reason: I cannot keep my damn mouth shut. Tenure would have eluded me permanently. And there are stereotypes about librarians being mousy and quiet for a reason. I knew that my future career plans would have to take my actual skills and my true personality into consideration, and for that reason, I could not listen to the Olds, because what if I continued to listen to them and not myself?
I was already lacking anything but the most basic human instincts to sleep(all of the time) and eat (when reminded). I could not decide what to have for breakfast. My idea of getting dressed sometimes meant putting on a cleaner shirt over the one I’d had on for three days. I was in no state to make any decisions, and I knew I might take their advice because it was easier. Their suggestions before I moved back had all been well intentioned, but all of them, I knew, would lead me back to the same feeling of having failed at absolutely everything, with no desire to go forward or wash my hair ever again.
I was not going to finish the PhD I never should have started. I was not going to attend nursing school–seriously. Had the Olds been paying NO attention?? My god, if I could not keep from pissing off library directors, how in the world would I be able to work under medical doctors? I would have been impaled on an IV pole my first day of school. I was not going to get a master’s in education and become a school librarian, because I had already tried that in library school and decided that seeing one teacher slam a 12 year old up against a locker as hard as he could was enough. Plus becoming a school librarian now is as useful as learning to operate an electric typewriter. Except there are probably more electric typewriters still around.
My sense of humor, which had sustained me through even the worst times before, had all but disappeared. So even jokes about McDonald’s hiring or working in a gas station were not acceptable, because I could not tell if they were jokes, and even if they were, I would then realize that I would screw those things up beyond repair too. This part of the rule was violated a few times, until it was clear that I meant it as evidenced by the fact that I would cry for three days after any such facetious suggestion.
With the first ground rule in place, I was able to move in. Others were to come, but that one was the most serious, and the most important.
*Well, there were exceptions. I’m not going to discuss those now. Or maybe ever. I need to research the statute of limitations for some stuff first.