It was the first day of 4th grade. Being no longer home-schooled, I put on my uniform and walked the beautiful stone stairs to my new school. I made my way to my classroom, I felt so big and so proud. Somewhere, somehow in those first few weeks I met COMPARISON. This is not something I was familiar with. We had friends when I was home-schooled, we were very active and did a lot together but we also had a similar circle. Our parents had similar values.
Suddenly there were all these new values—Spice Girls, flared jeans, Bonne-Bell lip balm and boys. People wanted to know why my lips were so red, my hair so big, my clothes so different. All of 4th grade was that. A big belly ache. Sleepless nights on the bathroom floor puking (later we discovered a dairy allergy), late arrivals to school, and so it went. I didn't do well, lots of bad grades, so that meant Summer school. Thankfully I wasn't alone. The family I home-schooled with also had a daughter, she went to my new school too, she was older and wiser and taught me about halter tops, kissing boys and straighteners. 5th grade would be better. I would be smarter, cooler, and now I knew about the Backstreet Boys. Slowly I designed and built my first mask because it was the only way I was going to survive inside this beautiful school.
I left private school for public school, it was the same. A new group of "popular kids." These girls wore clothes from Hollister and Abercrombie. They had AIM and belly shirts. Knowing my experience at my first school included a mean girl who pushed my face into a drinking fountain and a group of popular boys who teased me relentlessly, my teacher and mom suggested I meet new people, maybe find a new lunch table. So I did. Learning to like what that group liked, learning to fit in. Hugging boys even though I hated it because that is what you do.
High School came, I made my mom drop me off extra early so I could run in and hide my violin in the orchestra room before mingling with my friends in the hall. Obviously you can't be cool with a violin, even if you've been playing it since you were 7. I met a girl and quickly began to admire her. She was beautiful, kind, funny and welcoming. We got trampled our first year, but we survived because she had older siblings who knew the ropes of being cool. I continued to develop my mask. I surfed from group to group all throughout high school. I would take bits of "coolness" from everyone, and kept some values like sobriety and virginity, but I had lost sight of the rest. Did I like mini-skirts? Skinny jeans? Heals? Chucks? I didn't know. I was just doing my best to fit in.
By now I was well-versed in the art of masquerades. I could easily change my girl-friend-of-a-jock mask to my violin-playing-orchestra mask. I spent hours of time researching on iTunes so the new boy I liked would think I was cool. I liked this new mask so I wore it for awhile. Playing games, manipulating, and hiding. Blending in well.
College started different. I felt a foot-hold of bravery. I was a new kid again. Everyone I knew went away to bigger schools and I stayed home. I worked a lot and studied a lot. I spent a semester in the Caribbean. I made new friends from all over the country. I tested new limits. I'm sure I wore masks, but I felt more myself than before. Fitting in was the answer, I would be happy if I fit in.
The first time I started removing any semblance of layers I was 21. Cale and I had recently started dating and were recovering from a break up. I had gone to California to visit my friend from high school, the girl I admired. She had the sweetest boyfriend, coolest friends and most amazing life. I was sure I was missing something, something was wrong with me and Cale. Our life was not nearly as wonderful as theirs. (Another conclusion drawn with Comparison.) So I picked a fight, said things I didn't mean and we spent a weekend apart. I cried a lot. He made me wait a week before we got back together. It was traumatizing. I knew then and there I never wanted to do that again. So yes, we were recovering. At that time I was still living at home with my parents. My mom and I fought a lot, mostly because I was disrespectful. Cale and I fought a lot, mostly because I was afraid. That time was filled discord and anger, very little happiness. One day I was working, Cale had texted me and said he bought a plane ticket to California, he and his friends would be leaving for a week or so that summer. I'm sure I responded in some snippy angry way. I was surprised, this was the first time I'd heard of interest in the trip and now it was happening. I know it upset me. I was blinded by what I assume is rage. My hands shook, tears clouded my eyes. I went into my mom's office (we worked at the same school). I looked at her and said "I need Miles' number". A quick rewind, Miles was our family's counselor. At that time, my whole family, excluding me, had seen him. I refused my mom's offer to see him once by saying "No! I am not seeing your fucking therapist."
With my tail between my legs I called him. We met once, then twice, then so many times I can't count. We started breaking down walls, pulling off masks. We started digging into me. Talking to Cale got easier, "When you make that joke, I feel defensive, are you criticizing me or is that really a joke?" "It's a joke." he would say. "I am afraid you don't love me." "If I say I love you, I mean I love you," he would comfort. I was being vulnerable, I was letting him in. I was taking off the masks that felt so good. I was removing the games and the manipulation. I was learning to trust.
Surely that meant I was fixed! At 23 I had figured out the secret. Communication, truth, and vulnerability made me invincible.
Then I graduated college, turned down a full time teaching job, and started working at a coffee shop. (Comparison came with me.) It was in a fancy part of town. The customers drove really nice cars, had huge diamond rings, and name-brand-everything. Suddenly I was 10 again, and 16 again and wearing a mask...still.
A girl I worked with had a rich boyfriend, he spoiled her well. The women around me had rich husbands and spent their time sipping coffee, browsing clothing racks and enjoying yoga. My family had different values (a.k.a. Goodwill, homemade coffee, and yard work). My family had a quiet little house with squeaky wood floors and small closets. My family had Hondas and they weren't from 2013. Did I grow up happy? Were these women happier? Surely being well cared-for financially would make a person happy. Would Cale ever drive a BMW? Would we ever live in a big home? Would we ever travel to Florida 3 times a year for fun? Would we attend charity events? Would I ever get a designer bag?
"Is your hair really that curly" a male customer shouted at me through the drive-thru window. "Yup, it's a disaster, so annoying" I said back. "No! It's amazing! My girls WISH their hair was like that. You should always wear your hair like that!" So I struck him a deal, one month of curly-haired Cordelia. Then I would report back to him and tell him how it felt.
At first it felt weird. I felt dirty every day, like I hadn't finished getting ready. I made sure my outfits were extra cute to compensate. Halfway through I was invited on a girls trip to Colorado and Utah with my mom and her cousins. "It's a hiking trip, you can't wear makeup or straighten your hair or bring dresses."
"Duh, mom, I can do this..."
So off we went. 5-7 hour hikes in the sun, sweat, air, and ahh space. SO MUCH SPACE. The most memorable moment was standing hidden from our family, my cousin and I screamed to nowhere, "THANK YOU!!!" because when standing in a golden arch it's the only thought you can have. (Later we discovered my mom was convinced it was our cry for help as we fell to our death.)
We returned home and I reported, "I like my curly hair, it's easier, and simple."
I hopped in a car and zipped off to NYC. My first time of course. Full glam, all expenses paid, bachelorette weekend with one of my dearest friends, the girl I admired. She was marrying her sweet boyfriend. It was true love.
The vast contrast of the two back-to-back trips was very clear. The girl I was in Utah was not the girl I was in NYC. In Utah I was simple, sweaty, and spent little money, little energy fitting in and lots of energy yelling thank you to the mountains. I didn't focus too much on comparison. The girl I was in NYC lived in comparison, lusted over the newest Lululemon (still have a problem with that) slipped through the shadows of skyscrapers to find the patch of green, the heaven of Central Park. I dreamed of a penthouse-living, fancy-car-driving and designer-handbag-carrying life. Oh it would be lovely, but would it make me happy? Which girl would I be? Should I be? Which girl AM I? Neither girl would be any better than the other. Neither choice would make me a better person, but one choice would make me, my soul, happy. I just didn't know which.
"New York is the most amazing place, isn't it? Don't you want to live there?"
"I think I preferred the awe of the mountains to the awe of the skyscrapers. I think I prefer curly hair to straight and I think I'll keep my Honda." I said to a friend while recapping my adventures.
And so started the process of removing, uncovering and being Cordelia.
"Draw your mask. What would it look like? What colors would it have? Then, what does it do? Why do you have it?" my teacher instructed. I had decided to become a yoga teacher. I was in training.
It was black and simple. "Because it blends in well, it's not fancy or scary, it's just simple and clean," I explained. I wear it every day, to every event. It matches everything. Small talk is easy, surface relationships simple, I can talk about anything you want. I've spent years perfecting the art of fitting in. Of being what you need me to be so you will like me, so you will love me. Except do you really love me? Do you even know me? Am I even myself with you? Is myself good enough? "I wear it because I don't think I am good enough." Then tears. I found it. 10-year-old Cordelia sitting there, being seen in a puddle of tears, of 15 years of hurt, 15 years of comparison. I wasn't good enough.
"I want to be brave, and playful, yes! That will make it easier to be myself. If I am playful I will be brave. I will be light-hearted."
It became my mission, every time someone did something that hurt my pride, I'd laugh. It was only pride. Every time I started saying I liked something because someone else liked it, I stopped. Every time comparison showed up, I excused it. What is good for her, it isn't good for me. She is her, she needs him. I am me, I need Cale. Let's stop here for a second. It should be know that when I first met Cale it was shortly after I had lived in the Caribbean. When I lived there I didn't wear make up and my hair was curly every day. Cale asked me once why my hair was never curly anymore. He liked it better that way. I should have known then. This guy had been around for 5 years and year 1 he decided he liked me without my mask.
We got engaged.
Yoga teacher training continued. Each session I learned something new about myself. I felt more and more brave and more and more playful. I was changing, I was showing people me, I was coming out of hiding. I was amazing. Surely this was it! I was walking around mask-free, showing people me!
"Hey Cord, I wanted to share something with you. In January when we were home, Sarah and I got married." -a text message from my brother.
I felt my back hit the wall I was standing next to and slowly I slid down to the floor. My hands were shaky, tears filled my eyes. I'm not entirely sure where this feeling is coming from but it very closely resembles the feeling I had when Cale texted me that he was going to California.
Later I discovered I was the last in my family to find out, by weeks. I had been with them all and no one told me. They were afraid of my reaction. So here is my reaction: "No, they are too young." Followed by, "what are they doing?" Which lead me to, "they are doing it wrong." I stopped there, were they really doing it wrong? Was I really mad that he married Sarah? What was I really feeling? I was hurt, that I was the last to find out. I felt excluded, like I didn't fit in. I felt like the little kid you want to protect, not like the brave, playful girl I was trying to be. I felt betrayed. I swallowed my hurt, and slowly started to soften my walls. This would be okay, we each travel life differently and I am, not right nor am I perfect. Sarah will be a lovely sister, I've always wanted a sister.
"I think we should invite Sarah with us to Chicago to look at your dress, it will be fun, a girls day!" suggests my mom. This was the final straw, Sarah was hanging out with MY mom, MY grandma at MY house in MY life and no, she was not coming along. Of course my ever-wise mom mentioned this seemed slightly selfish. I left in a rage and that conversation ended. Sitting on my couch later that night, crying my 10 millionth tear, I called my mom. I had come to the conclusion that I really liked Sarah, that I wanted her to be in our family but there was a whole other part of me that just couldn't accept it. My thoughts said yes and no very loudly and my judgment felt fuzzy. My mom kindly said, "Maybe you should call Miles."
I sat in his chair, a place that felt so familiar to me, and told him, "but I thought I worked this all out, I haven't come back here in years because everything was fine. I am engaged, I am in teacher training, I am happy . . . most of the time." So we started again, removing old ideas, uncovering layers of hurt and discovering Cordelia.
The hurt travels back to 1993, Chandler is born.
LOVE FROM mom+ dad+ grandma + grandpa + uncle = lots of love for Cordelia
but what happens when you add another person to the equation?
LOVE FROM mom + dad+ grandma + grandpa + uncle ÷ Cordelia + Chandler = less love for Cordelia
And so it was born, the idea that as our family got bigger, the love was divided among everyone. I had the same feeling of fear when my uncle got married and they had their first kid. Now my grandma's love was going to be divided 3 times instead of 2, which I had come to understand. I can recall 4 other times where I was filled with fear that our family was running out of love, it was spread too thin.
What I discovered, while talking with Miles, is that when Cale and I were first dating, I had the same fears, that if he want to California with his friends, I was losing parts of his love but after restructuring the way I was thinking about our relationship I had come to realize that the time we spent with our friends did not divide our love but actually multiplied our love. I never applied this thinking to our family.
LOVE FROM mom + dad+ grandma + uncle + aunt + a slew of cousins + Cale + Cord + Chan + Sarah x by everyone actually = more love for everyone!
In the past, the ending of teacher training and my new revelations from my time with Miles would have had me believing that I had it tackled. At 26 I had it all figured out. If I was brave and playful, if I communicated, told the truth, and was vulnerable, if I walked through life feeling full, that would make me perfect. But of course, now I know better. There is no way to have it all figured out. Absolutely impossible. Life changes so quickly.
I often think of people like blocks of clay. When we are born into the world, our families start to mold the clay into a shape. Then they send us to school and friends start to add their ideas into the shape, leaving you with new perspectives. Then we venture into the world and society leaves its impressions on it. Slowly this clay block is shaping into an adult. Each experience, each loss, each addition, each idea, adds its imprint into our shape. We mold closer and closer to the center of the block. Sometimes something tragic happens and we lose parts of the creation we are molding. Sometimes people spill water and we have to reshape parts that were once detailed but we are always there molding, shaping, and reshaping the person we are.
Nothing is permanent, everything is temporary. I have chipped away enough of what society and people have put on me to discover that it feels better for me to think of love as multiplication than division. It feels better for me to speak to people than to shut them out. It feels better for me to be bravely myself without a mask than it did to blend in. It feels better to me to live in a modest apartment, in a small town, while I drive my little Honda, with curly hair and my simple black leather bag.
Yes, comparison is there, it's something society spills on me often, yes the feeling of not being good enough creeps up, yes there are times when I selfishly think of love as a division problem. But I said it before, nothing is permanent. Now I KNOW those feelings as they creep in. Now I know how to react to them. Now I know when I put my black mask on to talk to people. Now I know when I am feeling fearful that there isn't enough love for me.
So here I sit, chipping away at my clay statue, wiping away society as many times as I need to, reminding myself to love and serve others, reminding me there is always enough time and love and money and space for everyone to exist, that no one will bump into me and break me. I continue to mold and to uncover and to discover. I continue to be Cordelia, the version of her that I know, right now.