“[The world] believes exactly what you tell it—through the words you use to describe yourself, the actions you take to care for yourself, and the choices you make to express yourself. Tell the world you are one-of-a-kind creation who came here to experience wonder and spread joy. Expect to be accommodated.” – Victoria Moran
Her question was so simple, so ordinary, and yet it surprised me. Why?
After pushing an unwieldy stroller through a muddy playground, I’d settled my kids and myself onto a picnic bench with a friend and a handful of new faces. My friend introduced me around the table, and as I spooned pureed chili into my daughter’s eager mouth, one new face yanked me from my focus and set the tone for the rest of my day.
“So, Natalie, what are your interests?”
Surprised (and surprised that I was surprised), I stumbled over an initial response, thanking her for asking such a considerate question. I felt immediately excited that she’d asked. Overcome with happiness, I told her about the recent resurrection of writing in my life and my rejuvenated commitment to striking a balance between exercising my own personal passions and being a stay at home mom. They were two very important parts of my life, I explained. A substantial conversation about art, writing, parenting, and identity ensued, and I found that I had a lot in common with this woman, both in mindset and our life journeys.
It was a delightful conversation, and it called for careful contemplation.
I suppose on the surface, the question’s effect on me might be obvious. Anyone with kids can probably relate to the fact that conversations with other parents – particularly while on the playground – generally revolve around the kids. So clearly, it was refreshing to talk about something other than the kids, and her question was timely, considering the momentum I’d been feeling this summer.
But her timeliness uncovered the deeper meaning, I think. This question, and the conversation that followed (which, by the way, included a discussion of her own passions, too) got me thinking about identity – our sense of it and our presentation of it, as it pertains to military spouses in particular but I’m sure to countless others, too. No doubt all you military spouses out there know the roll-your-eyes feeling of having to provide your husband’s social security number before you can get ANYTHING done, the lost-in-the-fray confusion as you navigate a world with its own language, its own rules. We move – a LOT – and we adjust. We don’t have much continuity of our circumstances, and so it can be easy to lose continuity of Self.
My experience in the park reminded me of a leadership conference I attended with my husband in 2008. I was part of a spouses’ seminar with about twenty other women averaging in their late 20s. Before we began our first seminar, we each stood up to introduce ourselves. I recall a sense of annoyance as I watched each woman stand up and say something like, “I’m Mary Jones. We’re stationed at Travis Air Force Base, and my husband is a Captain. He flies C5s and is the Operations Officer.” End scene.
I remember with perfect clarity thinking, what about YOU?
What’s your line of work? Are you a stay at home mom? What did you major in in college? What are your talents? Hobbies? What do you like best about your assignment?
And before you jump to conclusions, this wasn’t a reaction from an uber-feminist fire in my gut. This wasn’t a “forget your man, own yourself, Woman!” rage. This was simple frustration with a situation that I came to notice frequently: military spouses identifying themselves according to whatever their active duty spouse does.
It was also an observation of a state of mind that later, in one way or another, I’d fall victim to myself.
As my world came to focus almost completely on my kids, I became someone who – most of the time – identified myself according to my kids’ stages in life.
It’s important to be clear that I don’t dismiss a mother praising her kids’ developments, venting stress from sleepless nights or bouts with misbehavior, sharing funny kid stories, unloading feelings of confusion about a particular stage in the hopes of benefitting from other mothers’ sage advice. Nor do I dismiss a spouse’s pride in her husband’s work and success. I love talking about my kids, and I’m proud as I can be of my husband; he works hard and earns respect and accolades, and I feel genuinely happy for him in all of it. This is all good; it’s all part of a blessed life.
But what I came to find out this summer is that a lack of attention to and expression of my own personal pleasures left me feeling down, irritable, placeless. Somewhere along the way – probably during a sleepless night or as a result of the walking, talking 4:30 a.m. alarm clock known as my son – I left the things that make me “me” stuffed in the bottom of the closet amidst still-unpacked boxes and bags. I’ll get to all that later. And later never comes, not even when we move again.
I needed to resurrect my passions, and I needed to talk about them.
When I graduated from high school, my senior quote was by Langston Hughes: “Hold fast to dreams/ for if dreams die/ life is a broken-winged bird/ that cannot fly.” I remember choosing that quote with a youthful, dreamy optimism, envisioning a life as a great writer, one who reflected on the very soul of living and whose work became part of the literary canon. Literary canon aspirations aside, my dreams for myself never vanished, and to this day they still make up the person I am.
Dreams of all sizes begin with a talent, a skill, an attitude, an effort, a will. They are the part of you that distinguishes you from everyone else in the entire world. They are the part of you that drew your significant other into your life. They are the part of you that made your employer say, “You’re hired.” They are the part of you that your kids will use to describe you. They are you.
It took the warmth and kindness of an ordinary question to remind me of the importance of not only paying attention to the gifts and talents that have been a part of me for decades, but also – and perhaps more importantly – giving them an opportunity and a space to flourish… and then standing up and saying, “This is what I do.” No matter what stage of life I’m in – a stay at home mom, a military wife, a working woman, a retired golden girl living the high-life in my condo in Hawaii (it’ll happen!) – it’s important, it’s crucial that I give life to my talents.
No one will ever know the threads of “me” if I never stand up and tell the group about them, if I never weave them into my life’s tapestry. And I’ll never know what that tapestry might look like if I don’t get to work on it.