Thirty-one years ago I was deep in the throes of a big decision. I was in the middle of choosing where to go to college. My father was REALLY REALLY excited about the fact that I was getting ready for this step, I suspect at least in part because I was the last of four that he had promised financial support for; his light at the end of the financial obligation tunnel. As part of his excitement, a journey was planned. We would take a tour of some of the top contenders for my attendance. He and my stepmom would drive me all over the place so I could see some of these places in person rather than just rely on the glossy pics (in brochure form because there were no websites yet – WHAT?!).
Dad’s excitement was through the roof. The poor man wanted to see me excited about college so badly. He also wanted to return himself, something I thought he was joking about but I now know he actually did desire and was just waiting to need to make a little less money. We hopped in the car, bags packed for a several day sojourn. I don’t remember how we chose the places we would actually visit in person. I do know that we decided we would visit a great aunt as part of the trip and that at some point her location became part of the calculus, but I’m sure it wasn’t the only factor.
A route was planned. Bags were packed. We hopped in an early model SUV and headed out for the great unknown, Dad’s enthusiasm erupting in pronouncements about the wonders of fast food (he was serious) and the joy of the open road. Looking back now I think it sounds really fun. But I was 17, and he was driving me crazy. I solemnly donned the headphones attached to a Discman that Dad had thoughtfully brought along (it played CDs and you could take it with you – gently). Barbara Streisand’s Broadway album stood between me and the barrage of excitement.
We visited schools. We visited private schools (women in pearls and skirts on Monday morning, no I’m not making that up). We visited public schools (SO big, so many people). We drove past the school in NYC that I wanted to see and Dad pointed at the jersey wall with graffiti all over it: “There it is. There’s New York; isn’t it beautiful?” Not his finest moment, but understandable given a whole separate story that is for another time. We toured campuses and asked questions (at least he did). I just kept feeling my way through. “Nope, I don’t feel right here. Nope, not here either. I wouldn’t fit in here. I clearly don’t belong there.” The whole trip was pretty disheartening for me, but allowed Dad to choose his preferred school.
After that trip I was invited to visit a small liberal arts college for a weekend. I would stay in a dorm with a host student, get to see campus life through her experience, really get the feel for the place. I excitedly signed up for the weekend. And when I went to this school, this historic institution that espoused all of my values AND was a great school for music on top of everything else, I looked around and thought: “I think I could fit in here.” And then I kept looking around. And over the weekend a sense of unease developed. I noticed that here at this liberal bastion, there was an overwhelming sameness. It was a sameness that I enjoyed more, but a sameness nonetheless. I joked when I got home that I just KNEW someone had penny loafers in their closet that they were too afraid to wear.
All of this searching for a place where I could belong ended up with me feeling pretty sure there was no place that I could belong. Ultimately the choice about college had a lot more to do with my father than with me. And I sort of spreadsheeted my way through it rather than feeling that I knew where I wanted or needed to be.
The truth was that what I was seeking so desperately was a place where I felt accepted, a place where I felt like I belonged. I wanted to fit in and still be myself AND (because I am complex) I wanted to know that I could change and STILL fit in and be myself. I was looking for some kind of super flexible wildly accommodating Nirvana as an education experience. I had a great college experience, but it wasn’t that. And more importantly it didn’t teach me the thing that I most needed to know then and for many years after.
I didn’t know that I would never find a place that felt like belonging until I allowed it. I would never find a place where I believed I fit in until I was able to know and accept the parts of me that felt so ill-suited for so many corners of my world. I would never find a group of people in which everything I thought or did or said would be okay – like ever – and that that would be alright because I could still know I was okay. I just kept looking for the right room to be in instead of just deciding I was already right wherever I was.
It was a mistake I made in other arenas, and I suspect I still do it from time to time, forgetting that I really am okay, pretty wonderful in fact, regardless of my reception in a particular space – digital or otherwise. I start to seek out that external validation, that confirmation, the folks who seem most like me. And that’s okay. It’s good to have a home to return to when we are weary and depleted, a place to fill our cups so we can take all of the best of who we are out into those larger spaces so we can be the lighthouses for everyone who’s still out there searching for the right place.
If that’s you, if you keep opening doors, trying to find that room, I want to tell you something.
You are okay.
You are enough.
You are, in fact, quite miraculous.
And I love you.