Same Kind of Different: A Love No Line Could Divide

By Kindergarten, I knew I wasn’t like all the other little girls.

For starters, in preschool I’d chosen the name Joplin for my favorite stuffed animal. Yes, like Janis. Apparently because the individual who looked after me was a huge fan … and I was a fan of hers. Things only got more interesting from there. Around the same time, I also began to idolize Michael Jackson, in all his many manifestations, and Maria von Trapp, specifically as depicted by Julie Andrews in 1965’s film, The Sound of Music.

Ask my parents and they’ll tell you that I gave rousing performances as each persona, trying desperately to make sense of a world that allowed more room for one than the others along the spectrum of social acceptability.

Ask me now, as an adult, and I will tell you how much it saddens me that so much change is still needed. For too long, we’ve prioritized party politics and pop culture over actual people — their actual lives; their actual loves; their many successes, celebrations, and failures.

This is a social norm I hope we learn to explore with honest continuity — rather than, say, pretending to confront it every few years, before conveniently forgetting about it until someone else (and there will always be someone else!) demands that we don’t. How much stagnates between election cycles! How much we age! How little gets changed! This has always troubled me.

But back to the relative innocence of childhood.

As a young girl, I also loved playing with Barbies and other dolls. I imagined their date nights and home-making adventures with as much gusto as their many successful careers. This became even more fun as my sisters came along, although we often fought about who got to be which princess or occupy which room in the doll house we eventually acquired. You know, what siblings do. The difference is, we processed those behaviors beyond rules about sharing.

No eye-rolling, please. That detail is critically important.

After all, to be a child is to play, but to play is to prepare for life ahead. Most of us just aren’t trained to see it that way from the beginning. By some bizarre happenstance, we were. And in this, borrowing from the literary giant that is Flannery O’Connor, we were (and I was) “made odd” from the very beginning.

***

Come to think of it, playing with dolls was about the extent of my “normative” girlish childhood. Dolls weren’t really what got my heart pounding anyway. No, that took sets of other kinds — more specifically, trains and cars. Anything that evoked movement.

The idea that nothing had to stay the way it was, where its was, forever? That was what I wanted. And so my parents, to the best of their ability, learned to provide.

Thank God they did.

My parents’ decision to indulge these peculiarities probably saved my life in more ways than one. You see, whether or not they intended it, my childhood taught me a valuable lesson: not only is movement possible, but actually, with careful maneuvering, it can take place at great speed and to great effect.

As a result, any time I’ve needed to live through or make great changes, I’ve felt equipped — or more terrifyingly, destined — to handle them. Just don’t let the romance of that idea lull you into believing that my life’s been easy. Because it hasn’t, not even at the start.

You see, growing up down South, in a culture that prized stasis and tradition over almost everything else, I was made to feel like an outsider from the minute I consciously set foot in the systems that, ironically, were meant to help me grow. And that — there’s just no other way to say it — really sucked.

***

Let’s be clear: in any culture, one is only ever meant to take up as much space as they’ve been pre-allotted. Anything beyond that line is a threat to society — or, as some say, “the system” — and must therefore be snuffed out, hushed up, or otherwise encouraged to “fit in.”

This is not news to anyone watching the news, or who’s made even a beginner’s study of history or life in general. What might be less apparent is that these struggles are not uniquely Southern. As such, the solutions that we work towards must come from within and outside the South. Not a popular truth, but a truth nonetheless.

That said, I grew up below the Mason-Dixon Line, so that is where my story must be rooted. Mine is the story of an odd little girl who grew up in a culture that didn’t exactly welcome odd little girls.

“Ok,” you might be wondering, “then what, exactly, are odd little girls supposed to do?”

The answer is that they must grow up. And they grow up a lot faster than some of their peers. Why? Because they have no other choice. Society allows nothing else. To be quite frank, choosing to preserve their individuality comes at a steep price: “otherization,” or the process by which one is made an outsider.

That happens at such a young age?,” some of you are wondering. “How?

Simple. By bringing one’s odd brand of existence to one’s routine attention, usually in the hopes of “helping” one conform. And so it went that, sometimes by peers who didn’t know better, sometimes by peers who did, and worst of all, sometimes by adults who had absolutely no excuse for their transgressive behavior, this happened to me. Routinely.

I’m not in the business of holding grudges, so I’ve long forgiven each person. But I feel that readers should know: with each “helpful suggestion,” I was made to feel like some part of me wasn’t acceptable, couldn’t be allowed to continue, wasn’t something that anyone would want. I began to question every part of myself as I searched for a reason — any reason — to be enough, just as I was. And the longer that struggle went on, the harder those reasons became to find.

Which part of me, exactly, was unworthy? I honestly could not understand. Being a “Type A” extrovert in my natural state, not knowing quickly became more hurtful than the transgressions themselves. You can imagine the myriad ways this affected my life, but what ultimately matters is that in the end, my spirit won out over the closed-minded, elitist, suffocating culture that tried to tamp it down. And I’m proud to say that I’m largely the same person today that I was then. Just older and braver.

***

Thankfully, I’ve never had to do life alone. To this day I am surrounded by oddballs — some of whom I’m honored to call lifelong friends. In this way I have been profoundly blessed. But I’d be lying if I said that a pack of amazing friends was enough. It never would be. How could it? Especially because women are socialized to prepare for and pursue romantic relationships from sinfully young ages …

Now, I can already feel some folks wondering, but yes. When the appropriate age came, I went on to have crushes upon crushes upon crushes. All of them male, all of them hopelessly gorgeous, all of them absolutely not interested in me. It would be a long time before the opposite sex realized this oddball had something to offer. And so the understanding of my young girlhood proved correct.

In fairness, asking pubescent males to make a choice like me was asking a lot. Not because of me — at least not completely — but because that’s just how growing up works. I was exactly the opposite of everything they chased, for crying out loud. And you don’t even have to get to the part that includes Michael Jackson and Maria von Trapp to know that. It’s actually much, much simpler.

I had what I’d been told was a masculine name. I had a voice — and I wasn’t afraid to use it. I preferred running down garden paths and library halls to conspicuously chasing male attention. And I was definitely not interested in being owned, something I understood to be inherent in the entire business of coupling.

Exactly none of that screamed pick me. But this isn’t a sob story. It’s more of a slow-burning, coming-to-love piece. The kind where the heroine gets to save herself first. The kind where, no matter the love interest, the location, or the changes that get thrown her way, she makes herself whole. The kind where her whole humanity eventually recognizes the whole humanity of another, and together they form the most unique of couples: two wholly in love partners.

I don’t know who’s been keeping track, but those kinds of love stories rarely begin with, “Once upon a time, there was a little girl who had as many suitors as she ever wanted or needed, and probably a few more after that …”

Long story short, in the time I spent waiting for someone to love me for who I was, I learned that I could be that person for myself. And from that place, I grew into my power. I loved my non-traditional beauty. I loved my wild spirit. I loved my freedom. And eventually, whether or not others loved it, I loved myself enough for ten lifetimes’ worth of lovers. It just broke my heart to do it.

***

Getting to that place was really important, because it’s where my story — or at least, the part that’s worth telling — really begins. See, the interesting thing about being an outsider is that once you learn to accept yourself, all of a sudden you have this immense capacity to spot and address other forms of outsiderhood. Eventually, what bothers the hearts and minds of these souls — however different they may be — begins to really bother you. And from that place, with the right set of social supports, together you can do amazing things.

I’ve yet to do something truly noteworthy, but I also firmly believe in encouraging others to own their journeys towards whatever greatness they achieve, and that’s what this essay is about.

Have there been struggles on my journey, both independently and on the path to love? Yes. But have there also been beautiful moments of change and growth? Absolutely. These moments are just complicated by a certain push-pull towards acceptance that only outsiders fully understand.

The issue with being a recovering outsider (always oddball) is that for every inch of inclusion you earn for yourself, you are less likely to want to compromise your place. Think about it.

To this day, my deepest desire is for community, connection, and inclusion. It is my most selfish collection of wants. But balancing these out? An irrepressible, unceasing call to make the world more inclusive for others.

As both an oddball and a human, it’s my responsibility to extend my hand back out to those still struggling to reach the step I’m on, the place I’m in, so that together we might do more than climb every *BLEEPING* day of our lives.

Lofty? Yes. Necessary? You bet.

This isn’t to say I will succeed, or that my attempts have been anywhere near sufficient, but simply that I cannot survive without trying. Even though I frequently tire from my efforts to balance what can feel like two opposing identities, I know that deep down, I am here to move through this struggle, and that this struggle is my purpose.

I also can’t go any further without owning that I didn’t have the words to accurately name my calling until very recently. I had only a dreadful, increasingly generalized feeling of fear. Fear of myself. Fear of having to answer my call alone. Fear of others. Fear of the world into which we are born and by which we are handed a frightening imperative: live.

That kind of fear.

Still, in the face of that fear, I began setting the stage for what would ultimately become my raison d’être: supporting norm-shattering, movement-based progress, starting with accepting my odd little self, and hoping that someone, someday would have the strength to join me in laboring forward together.

But wait! That’s just love! And isn’t love what we all want?

You’re right. In wanting love, I was exactly like all the other little girls, and like every human who enters this mess of earthbound activity we call life. Because no matter our identities or preferences, with the critical distinction that they are non-violent, is love not what it means to live?

Little me could have told us that. I’d venture to guess that most little others could, too. The trouble is, somewhere after playing dress up, we’re taught to forget. It happens in loads of insidious ways. Noticing these ways is what’s made me odd. And while for the longest time I didn’t think my “brand of odd” had a match, as luck would have it, it did.

***

Rewind to childhood.

While I was busy playing my way through some of society’s harshest divisions, the man who would become my husband was roughly 600 miles away taking verbal blows in the schoolyard for being precisely the kind of person I was afraid didn’t exist.

Like me, his early childhood years were largely happy ones, though getting older taught him many hard lessons about individuality and standing up for what is right and good. Already, he was preparing himself to be set apart, to live in a future that many of our peers weren’t ready to see or accept: that only the different become truly great.

When I hear him recount stories from his youth, I am reminded how very similar we’ve been from the start. Refined by the process of refusing to unquestioningly assimilate into a culture that isn’t always accepting, we’ve been individually toughened and collectively softened to the needs of those around us. This shared set of experiences and worldview is a large part of what makes our relationship successful, more than a decade later.

Of course, we’re also very different. I am an extrovert of a native Southerner, thanks to parents who made the auspicious choice to relocate there in the years before my birth. And he, an introverted, native New Yorker, has more generational, geographic, and philosophical ties to the surrounding area than I ever thought possible.

I generally dislike reductivist takes, but suffice it to say that most people are genuinely shocked that we work. Hell, some days we’re pretty shocked, too. After all, ours is a story of making it despite the odds (and, let’s be serious, also ourselves). Curious about what that means? Keep reading.

Deep in the aughts, a college mixer brought us together. But what kept us together? Being of shared, singular mind. Which is to say, by the time we’d arrived at college, we both knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were there for one reason and one reason only: to prepare for law school.

Everything we did was in service of that goal. The rest — including our relationship — was lovely, semi-permanent filler. Why? Because folks with ambitions like ours simply can’t afford to get distracted by anything or anyone. Not even someone with the same un-distractable plans.

And boy, did we have plans …

After graduation, he would enroll in whatever Ivy League school accepted him, before beginning his career in New York. And I would probably land somewhere like the University of Virginia before doing what all Good Southern Girls do … get married and pretend to have a career until I got pregnant (Kidding! Of course I would keep working after babies!). The world’s opportunities would only open up from there.

As far as we were concerned, that all would’ve been more than deserved.

It’s just that life had been making plans, too …

Those who know us know that our lives didn’t turn out that way. At the end of the day, it was me who gained acceptance to an Ivy League program — though it was for a degree in education rather than law, and though I ultimately chose to go elsewhere. And while my husband did eventually become a Manhattan attorney, this was only after attending law school in my hometown, discovering his passion for pursuing justice in financial markets, and becoming the quiet hero he is today.

That’s right, neither of us ended up where we thought we would — up to and including ending up together. Still, this spring — a writer and a lawyer, a New Yorker and a North Carolinian — we celebrated six blissful years of marriage. All because we met, sure … but perhaps more pointedly, because we finally realized the key to our shared happiness.

We’re the same kind of different.

And you don’t just go throwing that kind of love away.

Even if it spoils all your plans.

Even if you stop making plans at all.

That actually sounds pretty good to me.

To the next six(ty), love.

March 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Picks!

Dear friends who’ve chosen to join this journey, hello! I’m so glad you’re here.

The first month of this reading group will focus on the topic(s) of love and marriage — recognizing fully that they are not necessarily the same thing, or even remotely close to it, in either direction.

March is Women’s History Month, so I chose two female authors I was not previously familiar with for us to read. They are:

Lisa Taddeo, Three Women (2019, Avid Reader Press)

and

Molly Millwood, To Have and to Hold: Motherhood, Marriage, and the Modern Dilemma (2019, Harper Wave)

Both are works of nonfiction. I’ve already started Taddeo and let me just go ahead and say this — it’s not for the meek. However, it gives me much to be thankful for in my personal life and lots of food for thought more globally speaking. Besides, a challenging read is a good one as far as I’m concerned.

I don’t want to belabor these announcement posts any more than you want them belabored, so that’s all for today. Feel free to find the title (or both!) you’d like to read this month at your favorite bookseller, library, or audiobook purveyor. Let’s meet back here in the last week of March for our reflections — and to see what next month’s topic might be.

I look forward to seeing what we learn together.

The Surprising Power of Pinterest

Pinterest is my favorite (anti)social media platform. I love to vision, to collect, to create. And I love to revision, recollect, and recreate. Pinning allows me to do what I do best: be in progress. And with that approach, the applications are truly endless.

These days, I use it mostly for home inspiration and visioning our lives forward. Those of you who’ve followed me on this or previous journeys know that Husband and I live partly between two worlds. We dream of living fully in both of them. A predicament. We aren’t there yet, and may not be for awhile, but until then, Pinterest allows us to move closer in spirit. And I don’t just mean toward our goals.

Husband and I are first-time homeowners. A couple years back, we bought a beautiful “fixer” in a place many people would love to live. The neighborhood is super-established and actually, I’m still shocked they let us buy here, because it’s one of those places where families spend generations in the same home.

When we closed, we knew we had years — maybe even decades — of work ahead of us. It was a challenge we took on fully and with love. In the relatively short time since, it’s already seen some massive changes. The house breathes again and with each project, it grows stronger. That brings our hearts such joy. But the process hasn’t always been easy.

For as much as Husband and I are well-suited, we are also very, very different. I’m the extrovert to his introvert. I’m the free spirit to his rule seeker. I’m the explorer to his homebody. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. Still, building a home together — especially when you approach it as restorative like we do — can be challenging.

We have all the difficult time, budget and style discussions most couples do. But we have them twice over, once for our lives in his home and once for our lives in mine. Finding balance is really hard, and as we’ve discovered, so is moving from the theoretical to the concrete. They don’t teach you about home renovation or how to build the perfect bi-state lifestyle in school or in pre-cana.

Lucky for us, Pinterest helps fill the gap. It allows us to daydream, search, and ultimately plan for the lives we want to construct, in a process that’s as healthy and iterative as our actual lives. The importance of that gift cannot be overstated. Sure, we have these big, sometimes impossible-feeling dreams, but with a little help from crowdsourcing and my love for organization, we’re beginning to find that some of those dreams are (dare I say it?) becoming a reality. In celebration of that milestone, I offer this ode to Pinterest and the joy-filled life it helps us build together. Here we go. Pinterest, thanks for giving us the push we needed to:

(1) Replace pining with pinning. For the longest time, I had zero faith that we could afford to build a life in New York. Then we found our neighborhood and our house found us. Part of that was our stellar realtor, and part of that was my by-then obsessive pinning. Before we knew what we were looking for, Pinterest helped us narrow our list of “must haves” and “nice ifs” down to something manageable. The result was really close to the place we call home.

Recently, we outgrew unflattering pining of another variety. As we started to feel that familiar itch, it was reassuring to know that we could replace the pine with a pin … or two … or, I believe, 55. But who’s counting? In all seriousness, no matter where this road takes us, with any luck we’ll end up just as happy, in a completely different way, in the not-too-distant future.

(2) Build on tradition for the modern age. Our home was built a hundred years ago — really. That was part of what drew us to the house. Two other families, and three generations, called it home before us, and in some ways it showed. Lime green paint from the ’70s? Check. All over the house? Check. Early 1900s tile adhered directly to plaster walls in the bathroom, with no hope for removal except by professionals? Check.

Needless to say, we have some work to do. But we don’t want to lose the character and charm of our home in the process. So, keep the picture railing and vaulted ceilings? You bet. Pick neutrals that are both easy on the eye and get the historical stamp of approval? Of course.

We aren’t rolling in dough, so we won’t be hiring an interior designer, but we absolutely can pin away to our hearts’ content. Things like paint colors, period pieces, and old blueprints for similarly-styled Dutch colonials? They’re all there, alongside plans for the renovated kitchen, bathrooms, and garage we hope to one day have. Part of the joy in owning an older home is adding your page to its long history of style. But in our case, first we needed to ….

(3) Arrive at a common style. I tend to be more casual and minimalist. Husband tends to favor things more formal and traditional. When we first got married, we lived in this insanely small apartment in the city and there wasn’t much to argue about, because not much would fit in the space.  When we bought our house, that changed.

Suddenly, as we started to fill rooms, it became clear that we weren’t on the same page. Trips to the store or online shopping weren’t fun, they were torturous for both of us. Part of that was the struggle to imagine individual pieces in rooms with barely anything else in them. And part of that was that we didn’t want to admit we weren’t seeing eye-to-eye.

When we’d had enough of that charade, Pinterest was there for us yet again. I pinned things I thought I’d like, things I thought he’d like, and led weekly reviews each Sunday. Over brunch and every single show on the Food Network, we kept what worked and culled what didn’t. And guess what? A style emerged. I think designers call it “contemporary coastal.” We call it a miracle.

I recognize that Pinterest didn’t do this for us. However, it made our process of home-making a lot easier than it would’ve been otherwise. Checking to see if something  meshes with the vibe? Yep, we did that. Searching for an image of something your loving partner can’t quite visualize in the space? Yep, we did that. Wishing we had done so before rushing out to buy something that ultimately didn’t work? Yep, we did that too.

While all this was going on — and yes, it was a lot — Husband and I didn’t even realize that something else, something far more important was happening. Sure, we respectfully refreshed the house, but we also refreshed our relationship. Our marriage was strong beforehand, but this process taught us how much more learning and growing we could do together. Frankly? That’s what marriage is about. Did we need that reminder? Hell yes.

Now, nearly two years, hundreds of pins, and what feels like endless home improvement projects later, we sit in our living room and enjoy each other’s company, taking in the progress we’ve made. And while one of us occasionally asks how we’ve managed to do it all, by the time Sunday rolls around, we both remember. The secret to making home is right beside us, and has been all along. It’s us, with a little help from Pinterest.