Mindlessly reading Us Weekly this past weekend, I saw that Katie Holmes recently said that she felt she was coming into her own. I’m not a fan of Katie’s, but I am happy she extracted herself and Suri from the freaky grip of Scientology, and if coming into her own helped her do so, I say hat’s off!
Despite the vacuous inspiration, I have subsequently found myself thinking a lot about the events and periods in my own life which have ushered in or facilitated growth. As if our lives are ladders we climb to reach self-actualization, the rungs represent critical junctures without which we couldn’t progress nearly as well. Some feel further apart than others, and it seems incomprehensible that we’ll reach the next in any reasonable amount of time; others are splintery and weak, the utilization of them unpleasant –even painful- and we hope to move on from then quickly though such is not always meant to be.
I thought back to college, certain my years at Northwestern were the first big watershed event that put me on the right path to really coming into my own. I was so ill-prepared academically, so incorrect about what I thought I wanted to study and be, so unready for my first big heartbreak, so unaware of how good my undergraduate years would ultimately be for me. What I was -due to youth, naivete, the amazing people who surrounded me, the foundation my parents had provided me- was open. High school was not a place or time I enjoyed much, and when I got to college, I realized how much I’d needed a new context, a chance to start over as ME rather than the girl I’d been. Although Northwestern was so tough, its challenge is what pushed me towards a greater understanding of myself and who I wanted to become. I learned not to shy from a challenge but to run with it, daring it to hold me back. I learned that cool is such an insanely arbitrary term that encompasses most anything that is sincere, well-considered, kind, and so forth. I learned that sometimes you have to fail and disappoint yourself and others to learn how to really value what’s important and get serious. I learned what truly great friends are, how amazing sisterhoods of women can be, how horrible heartbreak can feel, how invigorating it feels to be truly engaged in studies that resonate deep in your being.
And though I was still so young and unformed when I graduated, I did have a core that was crystallizing: I had a sense of what I believed, what I stood for, what I would and wouldn’t accept in relationships (both romantic and platonic), who I was. I also graduated with the first real love of my life, a man I would have married had he asked but who I am now so thankful, didn’t. Our break-up was the springboard into the next crucible of my life: my years in New York. I moved to NY suddenly and with little serious thought. I was young, newly single, desperate to get out of Chicago (away from him), and while at a conference for work, I met an executive at a NY-based education marketing firm and convinced him to hire me despite my having NO experience in marketing. He turned out to be a psychotic boss who was also an ego-maniacal, lying alcoholic, but the firm did pay my moving expenses and I was in the Big Apple.
New York is magical, but I would be lying if I said anything other than that my first year there was one of the hardest of my life. I lived with the sister of my ex (it wasn’t as weird as it sounds) and a pothead who ordered weed like it was pizza and once broke our toilet bowl in half. I still don’t know how he managed that, but I do know that running from 85th and York to 94th and 3rd to pee at a friend’s apartment seemed like a hellish eternity. The floor of our 5th story walk-up was so slanted that the freezer door flew and remained open if you shut the front door too forcefully. It was a shitty railroad-style apartment, and I set up camp in the living room with only a “curtain” separating me from the oaf-like pothead. My sense of self was shaky; looking back on that year now almost scares me. I was floundering. The confidence I’d worked so hard for in college swung around me wildly, tantalizingly close but always out of reach. I remember trying to grab hold of so many things -anything- I thought might help ground and define me, but that year was one I just had to get through. I was on my own, but I never felt secure. A few months after starting work at the marketing firm, an undeniably toxic situation, Iknew I had to leave. With the help of a former colleague, I secured a job at Columbia and gratefully left behind the second, rotten rung of my ladder.
Columbia was a haven. My colleagues there are, to this day, some of the people who mean most to me in the world. I fully credit one with inspiring me to start Em-i-lis; without his hilarious prodding, I never would have done it, maybe never even have thought to. I credit another with showing me how to be a strong wife and partner- you can and should and must expect from your significant other just as much as you put into your relationship. Another challenged my insistence that I didn’t have some degree of disordered eating; she’d experienced it and cared enough about me to say, “hey, I see what’s going on. Stop! I’ll help in any way you need.” And on and on. Their love came at me from all angles, and I healed in so many ways.
During those years, New York became just as important to me. To this day, I still feel energized in NY in a way I don’t anywhere else in the US. My last apartment was a small studio, but it was all mine. Its rent ate up 51% of my income which no financial advisor would suggest is close to optimal, but I had to have my own space, had to know I could. I loved that apartment despite it being a 4th floor walk-up with a creepy basement. I was so flipping independent, and it was amazing.
I remember walking home one December night, tipsy as could be having just been happily out with friends. I passed a bodega with a small Christmas tree lot next door, and although I was dressed in a skirt and heels, I decided that I simply must have a mid-sized Christmas tree. Of course, I also needed a stand, so ended up dragging both back home, through the snowy streets, up all the stairs and through the heavy door. That tree signified so much, especially because –as I realized in retrospect- it never occurred to me NOT to buy it. It never crossed my mind that it might be heavy, or cumbersome, or that I was a single woman in heels schlepping it home at some late hour on a random night. That I didn’t question anything meant everything, and I think that’s when I knew that I was always going to be pretty much OK.
Despite my adoration for NY, I realized after several years that I needed to leave. This critically important third rung was wearing thin. It was hard feeling so financially strapped all the time, and I was coming to think that the city’s dating scene just wasn’t conducive to meeting someone I’d want to marry (I had always wanted to be married with kids). I was starting to feel cynical, and I missed being near family. And then I met Tom.
To be continued…