Halloween, 1980-something (photo by Bob Hendrick)
Like, Oh My Gawd!
Middle school. You remember the trends, fads and fashion of your time, I am sure. In the eighties, it was valley girls and Duran Duran. Later Bon Jovi and U2 became prevalent, mixed in with some alternative music from the Smiths or Morrissey (feeling angst and misunderstood). As a teenager, hormonal and carrying around the chip of terminal uniqueness, those feelings were real. I remember feeling deeply sad and there were times I didn’t want to live, because I was struggling. I remember “cutting” before it was known. I was trying to figure out the world and my place in it among my peers who were also attempting to do the same. We were in the dark, sharing a flashlight and a torn map. Possibly the one from Goonies. We were looking for treasure but found ourselves coming up empty.
Navigating the teen years was like walking a tight rope of being different enough to be slightly admired (or popular) and being the same as everyone else to “fit in” with your chosen clique. It was a full-time job. This left me little time for schoolwork. And let’s face it, being social was way more fun than math or science. Around this time, I was diagnosed with a learning disability. If I was given the diagnosis today, I believe it would be in the category of dyslexia. In the eighties, they didn’t know enough or have the diagnostic tools to tease this out in my case. I lacked confidence and made poor choices as I felt powerless. I remember making patterns on academic placement tests, as there was no way in hell I was going to finish on time and to be honest, it didn’t hold my attention. Maybe I also had a touch of ADD? When you reach a “certain age,” you can self-diagnose. Regardless of my current playfulness around what could have been part of my academic story, the truth is, I struggled in school for a long time. My friends will tell you, I spent weeks upon weeks grounded for my report cards…this interfered with my social calendar, making no one happy.
This image of the middle-school valley girl made me laugh. God, do I love her. I choose this one because of the purple eyeshadow. Make-up was a chore even in those days when it was part of the uniform. It never really was “me,” as it felt like I was wearing someone else. And wasn’t that the point of those years? Trying on different clothes and personas, while fumbling through the thick haze of Liz Claiborne or Polo cologne? It was like being backstage in the theatre costume department, only we preformed improv in front of school social circles, during lunch in the cafeteria and roaming down stuffy hallways. I looked at the media (magnified by a thousand for teens today) for information of how to act and who to be. Molly Ringwald. If I had red hair, it would have been my greatest joy. But, alas, not a red head. Full disclosure, in the photograph above, I had red hair, but it was from a can…remember spray hair color? And, as an added bonus, it totally rubbed off on everything you owned prior to rinsing down the drain the next morning. My pillowcase was never quite the same.
Fitting in was an illusion. Finding my self-worth in others who were trying to do the same, was like going on a wild-goose chase. Growing up in a high school where the student population showed very little diversity and had substantial financial means didn’t help matters. I outwardly hated the popular kids, but secretly wanted to be one of them. Instead I chose to hop from clique to clique, not really aligning myself with any one group. I had my best friends of course, and on weekends I spent much of my time with kids from other towns. A protestant church youth group in Kingston and later, with a group of teens in Marshfield. Many of us were “outsiders,” in some way or another. But as teens, aren’t we all? We made mistakes, acted out our best and worst roles, and in the process found shards of who we wanted to be.
I spent decades looking for others for approval. I was detached from my spirit. I didn’t understand how to listen. To deeply listen to what my soul was calling out for. I dismissed, delayed and sometimes shoved my inner voice down because it wasn’t part of the landscape of what was socially acceptable. I hadn’t learned how to “check-in” with myself, or to discern was what was right specifically for me. More importantly, I didn’t understand until my forties, how to become a sovereign being. Independent and self-governing. Maybe sovereignty comes with experience, meditation and lots of psychotherapy. A compass is only good if you know how to read it and have faith in the direction it is sending you.
“When you know better, you do better.”
As I time travel backward to these years of searching to find my identity, I send her BIG love. I see my younger self with kind eyes and remember the pain of becoming. Of trying to grow into someone I wasn’t. I wasn’t Molly Ringwald, in fairness I was more like Duckie, but even still, I was neither. I was Nicole. The years of costume changes were necessary, because they got me here. I began to understand who I wasn’t which helped me find a pathway to who I wanted to be. Through the years I have allowed my fingers to let go of the tattered, worn map and instead have began to rely on an inner compass. To find my flow and not look so much at what others are doing. I understand the vastness we possess, and it is our responsibility to discover who we are and who we are destined to be.
What wisdom do I have to tell the middle school valley girl today?
Be kind and forgive yourself. Know you are not the clothes you wear, or the labels people give you. The answers you seek want to be found. Listen to your heart. Your head will spin scenarios, but it’s your heart who whispers your deepest truth. Laugh often and dream deeply. Find joy and wonder and follow them. Boldly and bravely shut off the world and attend to the small one within. Cultivate curiosity and breathe into the expansion of your soul.
With a deep sigh, I surrender this snippet of wisdom to my younger self. I pause to admire her beauty and courage. I grasp these threads of insight and weave them forward. I honor the continuum of my past as I curate my present and look towards the future. We are never fully realized; we are forever a work in progress.