My parents recently moved 15 minutes away from us (cue angelic chorus). Part of this process involved packing up the house in Virginia where they’d lived for 27 years.
In no way are my parents hoarders — they’re far too neat for that — but they’re not quick to throw things out. When something breaks in my house, for instance (and things break here every day), we usually toss it and think, Yay! Less stuff! My parents would fix it. This is because they’re frugal, but also because they have an emotional attachment to certain things. They remember who gave them the gravy boat, and exactly where and when they bought the bookcase. They save papers for historical and nostalgic purposes. They keep careful records of their granddaughters’ vital statistics at every check-up.
But their new house in Vermont is smaller than their former house in Virginia.
So, when it came time for my parents to load the truck, they offloaded several large boxes on me. The contents of these boxes included school papers, report cards and test scores, artwork, compositions, awards, and photos — stretching back as far as preschool.
I’m an only child, so you can just imagine.
And that’s how I found myself sitting on the kitchen floor several naptimes in a row, sorting through records of my past.
Most of this was dull (programs of all the science fairs in which I’d participated, academic award certificates), or embarrassingly awful. My seventh grade English teacher was either a saint or a masochist, because she had her students keep a running poetry journal throughout the year. Nobody should have to go back and read the poems they wrote in middle school. I bet even Shakespeare turned out maudlin, self-centered treacle when he was twelve. My own efforts were just as dreadful as you’d expect — but even worse were my personal journals, especially those I kept while I was reading the collected works of L.M. Montgomery (you can tell because I refer to my parents as “Mother” and “Father”).
But some of what I found in those boxes was fascinating — and surprising. And I think it applies to more than just myself.
1. My strengths have always been my strengths. It’s difficult for me to discuss what I’m good at, because — along with topics like money and icky feelings — I grew up believing that talking about one’s successes was rude. BUT, in those boxes was clear evidence that I’ve always loved writing. Not only that, but (middle school poetry aside), I’ve always been pretty good at writing. My teachers said so, year after year. I won awards (like First Place for Humor in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards). Re-reading my creative writing projects, many of them painstakingly illustrated (I wasn’t bad at art, either), I almost wept at the amount of time I’d invested when I could have been playing Donkey Kong. A career test, taken in my teens, revealed that my two top career fields would be the “Communication or Caring Professions.” I was a college writing tutor, and developed and taught a nonfiction writing course with a friend our senior year.
2. My weaknesses have always been my weaknesses. “Anxiety” is a word that comes up repeatedly: in personality assessments throughout school, in notes from my parents’ discussions with counselors, and even in my autobiographical writing. A psychologist whom I saw a couple of times in fourth grade even gave me a diagnosis: “Overanxious Disorder of Childhood with minor depressive features.” Holy Cow! Doesn’t that just about sum us all up?!? Also, I cared a little too much about what other people thought. I concluded a six-page autobiography from sixth grade with: “If you got bored during the last part of this, I don’t blame you.” My mother, in notes from a discussion with a counselor, wrote, “To help define what Faith would like to be. She has no image of that girl. Just what Mom & Dad want her to be.” Holy Cow!
3. I had absolutely no clue about either my strengths or my weaknesses. I’ve always considered myself to be relatively self-aware, yet all evidence points to the contrary. I had all the information, I just didn’t apply it.
Despite everything that should have encouraged me to focus on writing and the arts, I consistently said, year after year, that I wanted to be a lawyer. My father is a lawyer, and I suppose it’s common to begin with the desire to follow a parent’s career path. My career aspirations did change in high school, when I started doing well at science fairs; then I decided that I’d be a biologist, which is what I told prospective colleges. Not surprisingly, I dropped that idea after one year of college biology.
More seriously: that anxiety. Despite having been diagnosed as overanxious, despite writing my college admissions essay on how I’d overcome crippling anxiety in the past, I continued to struggle with crippling anxiety, perfectionism, people-pleasing, and overall lack of identity for the next decade. (And those things still rear their ugly heads when I get off-kilter to this day).
All of which leads me to this: I think we always are who we are. Certainly our experiences shape us in crucial ways, but we’re all born predisposed to a set of strengths and weaknesses that stick with us for life. This doesn’t mean that we can’t change; obviously the point is to dial up the strengths and dial back the weaknesses. But change requires self-awareness.
Which leads to one more thing: I think, somewhere between toddlerhood and adulthood, most of us tend to forget who we are. We suffer setbacks and traumas, we try to conform to who we think our parents, friends, or the culture want us to be, we read too much L.M. Montgomery and start adopting her voice. We ignore all the signs, and take a wide detour around our true selves.
It’s nice to believe, decades after those papers were filed away, that maybe I’m finally starting to zero in on who I am — which is who I was all along. It’s confirmation that, as a parent, a big part of my job is to help my daughters accurately identify their own strengths and weaknesses; to help them know who they are and be the Best Them they can be. So that they don’t find themselves sitting among the file boxes decades hence, wondering, Why didn’t I pay attention?