I began feeling it in early August, when I woke up one morning and noticed the air had sharpened. It was cool for the first time in weeks. The sun had risen nearly 20 minutes earlier, and I sat on the front porch looking up. Above me, a wash of clouds had marbleized milk-white over a piercing blue dome of sky. I had on my summer robe, which is thin like a tee-shirt, and my legs were cold, because it wasn't long enough to cover them.
In the stillness of that late-summer morning, a quiet anxiety was present as I sensed that the pulse of my world had begun to shift. At the heart of this anxiety was an awareness, honed by years of repetition, of what I could expect in the weeks to come. I knew that the pace around me was about to quicken, that time would take on more of a structured quality, that all at once, everyone would have somewhere to be. Where we had spent these last weeks with our guards down, wrapped in that sense of ease that comes with having nothing to do, soon the whistle would blow, cold and shrill, and we would all go scurrying to line up single file. But there was more.
Every year, the act of going back to school stirs up feelings of sorrow that have been buried in me for years, a kind of residue from my childhood. The presence of these feelings is muffled, and yet I'm certain that somewhere, warehoused in the caverns of memory, they remain frozen in time, as alive as ever. Going to school, for me, was a wrenching experience. I enjoyed learning, was good at it even, but from a very young age -- 5 or 6 -- I felt the mark of social estrangement. I felt different, and it was clear from the way others treated me that I was different, though to this day, I still can't pinpoint why this was so.
I used to think that it was appearance that made me different; with my thick, kinky hair and my plumpish stature, I hardly looked like any of my peers. So I, as a young girl, would toss pennies into park fountains, I would step over breaks in the sidewalk in precisely the right pattern, all so that I might be granted one wish: that I would wake up the following morning not as myself but as somebody else, one of those silky-haired willowy girls whom the wind threatened to blow over.
I can see now, from the vantage of time, that it probably wasn't my physicality so much as my sensitivity that set me apart, my intricate wiring, the way I have always had a tendency to go right to the core of things, to approach life and people with a kind of intensity. But I focused on the physical component because I was lonely, and I truly believed it to be my ticket out of the dark well. And to some degree it was, because eventually I did succeed at looking more like everyone else. I learned what a calorie was and how to count them. I learned to manipulate my hair with product. I became an expert at blending into surfaces, and for a time, this external acceptance was enough to make me happy.
Grade school is where I received my first lesson in what it means to disappear, to become entirely other-focused, a people pleaser, a chameleon. While I waited in line for my turn at tether ball and foursquare, I also asked for the first time that fatal question: How can I change to make you like me?
I don't have many regrets; disappointment over what could have been has never been a part of my nature. There are some days, though, when the thought enters my mind that it would have been nice if I'd been more protective of myself from the beginning. Because this effort of discovering who I am, underneath the muck and the gloss, has been hard. After you've spent a good portion of your life focused outward, it's not so easy to make the journey inward. The unexplored self feels sealed up, impenetrable. There are communication barriers that one must deal with. The language of the discarded heart has an infantile quality. It's hard to make out. There are plenty of single-syllable sounds, no clear sentences. So I find myself like an archaeologist, slowly digging up the bones. But, thankfully, the bones are like diamonds, they glimmer, and each piece leads me to another, and another.
I sit here now on my daughter's unmade bed, my favorite place to write these days. I love that I can still feel the warmth of her body on these crumpled sheets, smell the smell of her sleep. Last week, all three of my children headed off for their first days of school. Every year, I am swept away by the beauty inherent in these beginnings, the gradual unfolding of their lives. And yet there is undeniably sorrow here, too, one that is completely detached from my children and their experiences, a sorrow all my own. And, every year, I'm not sure what to make of it, the way the sharp edge of my pain brushes up against the softness of their bright-eyed youth.
I often feel an urgency to communicate to them that the simple truth of who they are will always be enough. That they must take great pains to fully inhabit the walls of their own lives and not someone else's, even if their own walls seem to them small, odd, ordinary. They must learn to recognize the voice of their intuition. Give their feelings room to breathe. That contrary to what the world will try to convince them of, life isn't about winning people over, or even the pursuit of greatness. Life is about sinking into tenderness. It's about learning to bend, to fall. It's time and again learning how to open yourself like a new flower to the give and take of love.
This post originally appeared on Nourished Mom