As a child of the middle-class suburbs, I struggle with an overwhelming desire to be regular. To have appropriate things, just like everyone else’s. To wear the right clothes, just like everyone else’s. In school, I was always a little too bookish to be quite popular, and a little too into organized activities to be cool. I was a goodie two shoes with a desperate hidden desire to be that girl in the Seventeen magazine back-to-school makeover, who left in May all frumpy and came back in September looking like the mall threw up all over her. Suburban teen perfection.
I spent a lot of time trying to explain to my mother that I could only wear whatever brand everyone I perceived as popular wore, that everything I had was all wrong. I consider it another mark in the book for my mother’s sainthood that she managed not to throttle me twice daily while I wept over my perfectly nice department store clothes because they didn’t scream BENETTON or EXPRESS or whatever the cheerleaders had decided was all the rage.
Thankfully, I went away to college and was assigned a roommate who just didn’t care about appropriate things. She was too busy saving to go study elephants in Africa and tromping through the woods with her boyfriend who made cool furniture from tree trunks and vines. Then, persuaded by a lean, glamorous student who rode my bus every day in a leopard faux-fur coat, I gave up the world of English lit to become a theatre major. All bets on appropriate were off.
As you might imagine, my parents were a little confused when I returned to visit no longer brand-obsessed, with burgundy hair, and wearing a satin smoking jacket with combat boots. To their credit, they kept up the tuition payments and just let it go… with the occasional “Don’t you think your hair is a little… dark?” Pictures verify that they were right about that one.
No longer in the suburbs, I had friends from cities, gay friends, friends who outdrank me, friends with quirky dreams, and friends who just didn’t see the point in appropriateness altogether. I found my tribe. But deep, back in the suburbs of my brain, I wondered how hard it would be to make a life that didn’t necessarily look like everyone else I grew up with. At the time, I was too young to dwell on it and figured that it would all work itself out.
Now that 15 years have gone by, I have learned things almost never just work themselves out. They take work. And when you’re busy making a life that doesn’t look like the ones of people you know, they take a lot of intentional design. For instance, moving 14 hours from my friends and family to Pittsburgh was not the most “appropriate” decision. They thought I was crazy. My youngest sister still does ten years later. But, it was the right decision for me. It’s a quirky city full of artsy types and start-ups and beautiful old architecture, and happens to be the home of my dearest friend, BC, my family away from home. We’re planning a family of our own. It’s a place where I have figured out a way to be me without looking over my shoulder to see if it looks like what everyone else is doing.
I call home to update the folks on life and mumble my way through their questions about when I will buy a car, why I don’t rush out to replace my TV on credit, and my Dad’s loving exhortation to “dream bigger” when I go on about a tiny house of my dreams. They love me. They just don’t get it.
My middle sister, the Hippie, who smoked enough pot in high school to fuel three Grateful Dead cover bands, somehow ended up the most appropriate of us all. After eleven years, she married her high school sweetheart. His family sprang for a Lexus and a McMansion as wedding gifts. She teaches pre-school, my brother-in-law has a decent-paying sales job, they go to the lake on weekends. They have my niece, Butterbean, who has more appropriate baby things than you can imagine and a wardrobe rivalling Paris Hilton’s. And to cap it all off, my sister is funny as hell and one of the kindest, least judgy people I’ve ever met. It stings, I tell you.
There are days, to be sure, when I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to just do things the way everyone else does. To wait to have a kid until I meet someone who loves me enough to marry me (even at the ancient age of 33), to buy a McMansion instead of the quirky Victorian I dream of, to move to a suburb, to shop malls more and local less, etc. There’s nothing wrong with any of the appropriate things- I know plenty of people who are comfortable and happiest with some or all of them. My sister is one of them. They found their fit. But for me, it feels like a straitjacket, and the harder I try to do it “right,” the more awkward I look and less I enjoy my life.
So, when I stumbled on this magnet, I snapped it up and threw it up front and center on my refrigerator.
Maybe it’s silly to be inspired by refrigerator magnets, but when I start to wonder where the heck I got off track, I need the reminder. Or maybe, my inspirational magnet is the most appropriate thing I own. Food for thought.