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.

A Writer, After Many Drafts

Episode art by Hayden Barnes.

I could tell you that I write because it was the first dream I had. That even as a child, I knew what — or rather, who — I wanted to be. That I spent all my free time in the library, reading words of others aloud to myself, in case one day I might need to read my own. I could tell you that I write because I always knew I would.

Or I could tell you the truth.

While those statements are all true, passing them off as my origin story would be taking the easy way out. The truth is that I write because, after several other ill-fitting careers, I have no other choice. I write because I must. And that is the story worth telling.

Not a Teacher

You could say that I write because I don’t teach.

Sure, I received my master’s degree from a top-tier school of education. And I even taught for a short time after graduation. But in the long run, I wasn’t a teacher.

Why?

Because I had a smart mouth. Because I was more progressive than the field or my district would have liked — and neither my kids nor I had the time to wait for stragglers. Because I realized that most of the issues that drove me to teach were, in fact, best addressed outside the classroom.

And besides, the world could do without yet another token educator — a well-schooled, well-meaning white female just asking to be burned out before she ran the risk of making any real change.

Let’s be clear: it’s not like I thought I was better than the profession. Some of the best humans and effective change agents I know are teachers. The world is much stronger for their existence. But I was a bad fit among their ranks. Like, a really bad fit, and the reasons are simple and clear.

What are they?

I get too personally invested. I obsess over little details when teaching is, in many ways, about the larger picture. I am unwilling to do something just because someone in a position of power says I have to — especially if we know that it’s the wrong thing to do. And I hate, with a capital H, administrative work. So, for as much as my strengths told me I wasn’t a teacher, so too did my weaknesses. Self-awareness, dear readers, is a powerful thing.

That’s something I learned while teaching.

Not a Program Coordinator

So maybe I was a program coordinator?

Those who’ve ever done office work just started laughing because they already know the secret I’m about to share: “coordination” and “administration” are exactly the same thing. One role just gets paid a lot more to (here’s the kicker) take credit for the work of the other.

You should know that things like this never fly long in my books. And I mean business when it comes to setting the world right. But here’s the issue: for whatever limited power I had, there was simply too much corporate structure above me to change it.

I know that’s the case in many jobs. That’s why we’re talking about it.

While we’re talking, know what else is?

The unavoidable pressure to (at least once in your career) decide whether you’ll be a self-serving ladder-climber … or someone who does the right thing. The finer details of this pressure largely depend upon your chosen field, but no matter your field, it is nearly impossible to attempt both and live to tell the tale. At least not without considerable privilege.

Luckily, I had some.

Still, even working for an amazing boss, at an organization I would have died on a hill for at the time, not-for-profit America started to rub me the very-much-wrong way. Less because of the work itself — after all, I’d been working on issues that really mattered to me — and more because of how the larger system worked.

Practically speaking, you should know that non-profit culture is driven as much by self-preservation as it is by mission. And it has to be. But as we’ve just discussed, that kind of culture can also result in some less-than-just situations — starting with which organizations and programs are allowed to survive in the first place.

To make it very plain, non-profits rely on the generosity of donations — both to finance getting their work off the ground, and also to sustain it beyond a single tax or giving year. Many struggle to make it even that far, which is a shame.

Beyond the obvious, the problem then becomes that committing to any level of community engagement requires keeping financial backers — whether of the individual, institutional, or governmental varieties — happy. And that means doing your work to their liking, even if your goals are not fully aligned, or else risk not being able to do it at all.

Enter my real problems.

Without a personal background in fundraising, or a team that could help me do this well, my job very often became convincing others — including key internal stakeholders — that the program I coordinated should continue to exist at the capacity to which I’d been asked to help it grow. In case anyone is curious, that was exhausting, unsustainable work. And I was just blindly committed enough to stick it out anyway.

Not a Fundraiser

Then a series of fortuitous changes happened in my life. First, my then-fiance took a job in another state, hundreds of miles away. Second, I married that man, which made my relocation — job and otherwise — imperative. And third, when it came time to actually find a new job, I couldn’t have asked for an easier landing.

My process went something like this: I wasn’t a teacher because I needed to do community-based work. So then I was a program coordinator. But I wasn’t that either, because I became too bothered by the prevalence of good work being put at-risk by dwindling funds. So where did that leave me?

If you’ve been keeping track, you might have deciphered that the next logical step was to become a fundraiser. And not two minutes later, that’s exactly what I did.

While you’re probably not surprised to see that I’m no longer fundraising either, I’ll bet the reason why will command some attention. See, it turns out that fundraising isn’t that dissimilar to being a teacher or program coordinator. And at least for me, that was not a good thing.

Ask any honest member of this community and they’ll tell you: being a fundraiser means you wear many hats, and while that is sometimes sold in interviews as “the ability to immerse yourself in cross-functional work,” or other sexy-sounding “opportunities for growth,” most fundraisers will also tell you that this actually means you’re going to be held accountable for a lot of things you probably shouldn’t be, and appreciated for very little of what you should.

Put another way, what I expected and what I got from working in this field were two very different things. While I’d hoped to build an understanding of how programmatic sustainability gets built, what I ended up with instead was a firm grasp of the reality that, more often than not, sustainability was the furthest thing from a fundraiser’s purview.

Please hear me: this is not the result of some gross professional failing. Most fundraisers are simply too busy saving the immediate day — every day — to earn the privilege of concerning themselves with anything future-minded. Once I understood this limited framework, it was only a matter of time before I started to doubt my happiness within it. Spoiler alert: that didn’t take long.

Not Sure, No Way |or| A Woman Remembers a Conference

See, what I was starting to realize — very uncomfortably at that — was that I was meant for other things. Trying to squeeze myself into a traditional career path had not only done me no favors, it was also entirely useless. Like jamming square pegs into round holes, it would never work. I’d just exhaust myself trying.

And so it was that I became very depressed.

Thankfully, I took a cold-water slap to the face soon thereafter, in the form of a complete and total stranger.

To this day, I wish I’d gotten her name.

Dear Stranger, on the very much off-chance you’re reading this essay, then thank you for changing my life — professional and otherwise.

Now, for the rest of you, the climax of today’s story goes like this:

One weekend, less than a year into my Terrible Mistake, I managed to rouse myself enough to attend a cross-industry conference for people who communicate for a living. The hope was that I’d eventually be able to talk my way into another career. And at that point, I knew I needed one.

What I didn’t know was just how right I’d be.

As the conference came to an end, a woman approached me with a look on her face that told me — before her words ever could — that she intended to set me straight. Ordinarily, I might have stopped her. But depression is a mysterious force that causes people to do all sorts of unlikely things, and so I entertained her sermon.

“Look,” she said, “I don’t know you. But I know you’ve got a story to tell, and when you’re ready to share, the world better listen.”

I was floored. Terrified. Speechless.

Instead of anything elegant, the only response I could muster was a surface-level statement of appreciation. She’d literally scared all the other words right out of me. Without much else to say, we promptly said our goodbyes and I let her walk ahead of me towards her next destination. Then I walked as fast as I could in the direction of home — and whatever absurd future she’d been moved enough to foretell.

A Writer

Do you want to know the best part about deciding to make your own way? Once you reach that place, action becomes much, much easier. There is simply no room for complacency, fear, or defeat.

While those emotions may occasionally surface — especially if you’re working in a field that aims to support justice — what eventually drives you forward is the realization that change isn’t possible if you give up in the first place. And from that place, action tends to be what follows.

So, fear of my own voice? Gone.

Fear of speaking truth? Gone.

Fear of success? Gone.

And replacing those fears? A deep and abiding sense of peace, knowing that I’d no longer be working to support others’ missions … while doing everything possible to ignore my own.

This isn’t to say that my journey on this new path has been easy or even entirely clear. My lord! It took two more years beyond that life-changing conversation for me to save up enough funds, gain some much-needed practice, and liberate myself from the realm of the American workforce — just as a start.

But that start? That was three years, two blogs, and a manuscript ago. And just like that — damn — the library-loving little girl was right.

Mine is the story of a writer.