Unapologetically You

© Noelle Kraft Photography

© Noelle Kraft Photography

Everyone at some point (or points) in their life goes through a period of re-evaluation. This time is characterized by bouts of self-reflection and critical examination of your deepest thoughts and desires. I, so far, have had exactly three such occurrences.

The first is a rather mundane story. It occurred toward the end of my senior year of high school in the view of an impending graduation. I struggled with the same questions everyone does: Who am I? What am I supposed to be? Did I choose the right university? Is it okay that I want to take a year off before I further my degree? I did take a year off, and to this day I don’t regret it. I heard a lot of the mildly irritating comment, “You know most people who take a year off don’t usually go back to school, right?” However, despite these words ringing in my ears, I never doubted my decision. After all, I know myself best.

The second period of revelation came about during the winter break of my sophomore year of college. It had been about five months since my mother passed away and I was, as anyone would be, feeling lost, confused, and sad. Up until that point I had struggled through college. I tried several different majors to no avail and the added burden of knowing I was running out of general electives was weighing on my mind. I spent the month and a half or so that I was home from school between semesters in deep thought. What am I supposed to do? What would make me happy? I discovered things about myself that I had never known before and still stick with me, all because I took the time to think. I ended up returning for spring semester with a smile on my face and conviction in my heart. The first moment I got I declared psychology as my major and loved it. Is it what I’m doing now? No, but I wouldn’t take it back.

The past few months I have been working through my third stretch of self-discovery. Many people get a little blue during the winter months, but piling on additional stressors this year made it particularly unforgiving for me. Those of you plagued with anxiety will know how dangerous it is to be left alone with your own thoughts, especially during times of mental and emotional strain. It’s something that is difficult to understand if you do not suffer from anxiety, but if one bad little thought enters your mind and you don’t have something to distract you it will begin to fester. The more you think about it the more your mind will begin to blow it out of proportion. Eventually you will know that what you are thinking is crazy and unrealistic, but you can’t make the thoughts go away. The more you try to handle it yourself, the worse it gets. At one point my encumbered mind was so overwhelmed it drove me to cry myself to sleep every night for a week. Of course, I couldn’t tell anyone this. I have the bad habit of pushing people away when I need them the most. I knew that friends would help me feel better, but when I’m upset I’m less likely to talk to people. I don’t even give them the chance to make me smile or laugh, though I know everyone in my life would be more than happy to do so.

But then one day it was gone. All the anxiety and stress and depression I had been fighting left me in one liberating exhale that I still can’t explain. It was like a movie when the rain suddenly stops and the clouds clear away to reveal the bright sunlight. A few days later it tried to creep back in, but with all of the strength I could muster I refused to allow it to consume my mind again. I don’t know what suddenly caused the storms to dispel and I may never will. But if I had to guess, I would say a person. The right person walking into your life at the right time and saying all of the things you never knew you needed to hear can have a stronger impact than either of you realize. The person may never know what they did for me: their words reached me when no one else’s could. They didn’t know I was suffering emotionally and weren’t intentionally trying to brighten my spirits, they were just being themselves and for whatever reason it was exactly what I needed. I could never see them again and still I will never forget them.

Today was the best I’ve felt since December. I hiked with a friend and enjoyed the warmer weather, something so simple but for some reason today was soulful. Today I felt so unapologetically me. Are things perfect? No. But I can handle it. I’ve proven to myself many times that I’m strong and can conquer life’s curve balls. I’m not sure why I ever doubted that.

So here is my advice for the oncoming spring: Be completely, whole-heartedly, and unapologetically you. Help others, live and breathe your passions, smile, and find what makes waking up in the morning worth it.

Advertisements

To my ever after, with love

As young girls we develop the fantasy in our minds that we are one day going to meet our Prince Charming and in a split second everything will change. It will be that moment when the cosmos shifts and all of the stars align, forming a bright and shining arrow that points to our future. Maybe it will be at a party, maybe in class, maybe in a coffee shop. No matter where the place our eyes will meet from across the room and suddenly the haze that enveloped us our entire lives will be lifted. We will know, right there in that coffee shop, that we have found the one. You will get up out of your chair, walk over with a dashing smile, and say something so witty and charming that I will have no choice but to love you. We will have a first date, a second, a third. We will become engaged and married and have a family. It will be our happily ever after. You, my Knight in shining armor. Me, your Damsel. Most of us have had this fantasy in some capacity, yes?

How silly to think love worked that way.

Do I believe in love at first sight? Yes, to a point. Do I believe in soul mates? Yes, in some way. Do I believe that love is really that easy? No, not in the slightest. It’s actually a shame when you really think about it, that our childhood imagination can be so easily demolished by learning the reality of things. The day I realized that love wouldn’t be so easy it nearly ruined me. It is so hard to stay positive when there is an emptiness in your heart that tells you every day that you are ready to love and care for someone, and to be loved and cared for in return. Now here I am, several years later and still inexperienced in its ways. One thing that has changed, though, is that where originally it felt hopeless it no longer does. No, it won’t be easy. I may not fall in love for a year, or two, or ten, but I can anxiously await the day you walk into my life. That one day, that one moment, when our lives will change forever before we’ve even noticed. However, I’m not going to lie, some days that emptiness in my heart burns a little more than usual. Some days I miss you so much and I don’t even know you yet.

The day I find you, my ever after, will be the happiest day of my life. I may not know it for a year, or two, or ten, but the first moment that I see you will be forever imprinted on my heart. And that moment when we finally look at each other with smiles full of love is what keeps me going. I can’t wait to meet you, my ever after. I can’t wait to hear your voice, touch your hair, and feel your arms around me. I can’t wait to wake up early to surprise you with breakfast, cuddle with you on the couch when you’ve had a bad day, and find new and wonderful places for us by going on drives to nowhere. I can’t wait for you to tease me, push my buttons, and drive me crazy. Most of all, I can’t wait to love you.

Until that day comes, I am trying so hard to become the woman you deserve. Through my pursuit of love I have already learned so much, but I know that there is always room to learn more. I’m not going to be perfect, not like you. I might be angry sometimes over things that aren’t your fault. I might silently cry and let my stubbornness prevent me from telling you what is wrong. I might become jealous when I shouldn’t be or expect more from you than is fair when life is weighing me down. I just pray that through all of this you will still have a place in your heart for me, and know that if you have a place in mine then you will have it forever. I promise, my love for you will burn more passionately than you can imagine. I won’t love you to the moon and back. No, I will love you to every star in the universe, until the end of days when the last one fades to dust. And when I fade, when my life is extinguished, I will lay my hands over my heart so you know that even though I am gone my love for you will live forever. I promise that if you are good to me, I will be just as good to you. I will love you when you are angry at me for things that aren’t my fault. I will love you when your stubbornness prevents you from telling me what is wrong. I will love you when you have no reason to be jealous, and I will love you when life is weighing you down and you expect more from me than I can give. I know our love will be hard. Some days we might want to quit. Some days I may push you to the edge or you may push me. Knowing this, most of all I promise that I will never give up on you. If I give you my love, it is yours until the end of time.

My ever after. I await the day I can finally know you. Or maybe I already do…

Where I See Purple, You See Blue

Perception is a funny thing. It varies so much that it is possible no one ever views anything exactly the same way as anyone else. Where one person sees a cloud in the shape of a sailboat, another might see it in the shape of a puppy or a flower. Two people from two different cultures can look at the exact same color and where one will see purple, the other will see blue. What’s right for one can be wrong for another, and what’s tasty to you may be unsatisfying for me. Perception is born out of the accumulation of experience, and since even twin siblings can encounter different challenges from the moment they are born I hope it is safe to say that that no two perceptions are alike.

This includes our perceptions of other people.

You are walking down a busy city street. Car horns are blaring as soon as lights turn green and citizens bustle around you hurriedly trying to make it to their meetings and lunch dates. The air smells of car fumes and the occasional tree sits up against the edge of the sidewalk to add some color to the grey urban scheme. Every piece of the scenery, every person around you, it has a purpose that you unconsciously take in as you stay true to your long strides toward your destination. But then you pass a man. He sits alone on the sidewalk, his dark eyes weary from a long life and his back pressed against the brick wall of the apartment complex behind him. A gray, scraggly beard falls from his chin, and his clothes are torn and old. Beside him is a tin can, filled with a couple dollars and a few quarters from passerby. He says nothing, and is too tired to raise his eyes and look at the countless people who stroll by without paying him mind.

In the split second it takes you to decide whether or not to add to the collection in the tin can, you will have already made a hundred perceptions about this man. Is he poor? Homeless? Lazy? Unlucky? A drug addict? An alcoholic? Disabled? All of the above? Or none? What is his age? Is the money for himself or someone else? Is he going to use it for food? Surely he could find a job, can’t he? The list goes on and on, and all of the questions are answered in the blink of an eye. Your conclusion drawn from these questions is what will make you decide whether or not to give this man money, and you answer all of them without even asking his name. That is how the human mind works. It is amazing and terrifying, the things we can assume about other people in the time it takes to snap our fingers. Not only that, every conclusion that you make before you either keep walking or drop a dollar is the result of past experience. Every person’s answer to these questions will be different because no two people are the same. Some will give money, but many also won’t, and the reasons they have for doing one or the other will all slightly differ from each other.

To get my point across, this was a more extreme example of the powers of perception. Even more incredible than this though is your perceptions of yourself and how they can differ from others. No on knows you better than you, right? Maybe, but maybe not. In the past where I have seen myself as being helpful, others have seen me as a brown-nose. In the present where I see myself as being selfish, other people furrow their brows and ask me what on Earth I’m talking about. You can spend your whole like identifying yourself one way, and then in that split second someone else can shatter those perceptions. Or something else can happen, they can become even stronger than they were before. That’s the thing about perceptions:  they are stubborn and ours have to be the right ones. I’m pretty? Yeah, okay, no one ever said that until I lost weight. I’m talented? Sure, because this one drawing out of 50 turned out decent. I’m smart? Right, ask my brothers that and they will tell you a different story. I am the daughter of Aristotle and Plato. I like facts, and the facts say that I am not as pretty as her, or as talented as them, or as smart as him. You could be the smartest, most beautiful, and most talented person that God ever had the joy of creating, but if you don’t believe it yourself then it isn’t really true, is it?

I’m not writing this for sympathy. I don’t want replies that say, “But you ARE beautiful and talented and blah blah blah.” They only thing that will get is a polite “thank you” while I go on and continue to see myself my way. No, I’m writing this because even though I don’t think I am the smartest, the most beautiful, or the most talented, I still like myself. I didn’t always, but I learned to, and when I learned to I started to like others as well and I started to see more beauty in the world around me. Perceptions of your world start with your perceptions of you, and you can’t love others until you learn to love yourself.

So where you see a crier, I see sensitivity. Where you see a weak girl, I see a strong woman. Where you see purple, I see blue.

When One Door Closes…

There’s something incredible that happens as you get older. At first aging may seem like a cage that gets smaller each time you pass another year, trapping you in the prison of shortening time and making you feel suffocated. To an extent this feeling never completely goes away, but with the oncoming of maturity also comes emotional liberation.

As children we are not ready for this experience. Childhood is meant for fun and exploration, naivete and learning our limits, and discovering the differences between right and wrong. The journey to this feeling of freedom begins in our adolescence at the first moment we start wondering what other people are thinking when they look at us. In its youth, this feeling seems like a fairytale. Around the time a pre-teen sets out on the awkward road of physical changes and self-discovery they are entirely self-centered and obsessed with fitting in. There are some people who may refute this, and to an extent everyone’s experience is subjective, but at the same time every person has the deeply-rooted need to be liked. As a teenager this need is your world. It isn’t anyone’s fault, it is a right of passage and a burden we must carry as we make our way to adulthood. You will say things that you don’t believe in order to make your friends like you, hold your tongue to avoid “tattling” on people that you want to fit in with, set aside activities that seem childish or uncool, and at some point you will say those words that every parent dreads hearing, “I don’t tell you everything that happens in my life anymore.”

Everyone hates this stage. Siblings, parents, strangers in the mall, and probably even you. I’ll admit that I think back to my teenage years sometimes and roll my eyes at myself. However, things start to change a little bit around the age of 18. Instead of wanting to fit in, you want good company. You desire to surround yourself with people that you like so that you have the option of actually being yourself. You are finishing high school and moving onward to college (or work, etc.) and maybe subconsciously you start to realize that the high school drama that you used to keep yourself in the center of now begins to feel like a waste of time and energy? You break out the classic Disney movies and reminisce about your childhood, then the next day at school aren’t afraid to say to your friends, “I watched The Lion King last night for the first time in years, I cried so hard!” Somewhere along the line the word No becomes okay to say if you are protecting your own well-being, and while your parents might still be embarrassing on some level you are starting to feel like enough of an adult to talk to them as an equal.

The next four years or so welcome forth affective autonomy. Your life changes drastically after high school whether you go to college or not:  more freedom, new friends, more responsibility, etc. There comes a moment amongst all of this change and turmoil where you realize that you no longer care. I don’t mean this in a bad way, rather I mean that the idea that others are always watching and judging you no longer bears a weight on your mind. You begin to do things you want to do because you want to do them. You start to learn and appreciate new things, make friends with incredible people you never imagined meeting, and when you get dressed in the morning you put on clothes that make you feel good rather than clothes that will make others like you. Your relationships turn into quality friendships, and you start to understand that petty drama and fake personalities are not something that you have time or space for. It is along with all of this that you also begin to feel that quality really is better than quantity, and that you will be a happier person in the long run by allowing people in your life that you want there and ignoring those that poison your mind.

This is the path I’ve traveled over the last 10 years of my life. Now when I think back to my awkward teen years I sigh and wonder why it was ever worth it for me to care so much. I’ve learned that it’s okay that I like both shopping and football, baking and playing The Legend of Zelda, doing my hair and bing-watching Netflix in my pjs while eating cookies out of my TARDIS cookie jar, and being girly around some people and nerdy around others. Even more amazing is that this liberation gives you the energy to learn things about yourself you never even thought about before. For instance, only recently did I realize how picky I am about the people I let into my life. I can tell within couple minutes of talking to someone for the first time whether a friendship with them is a good idea, and if I decide that I want a person around I will fight to keep their friendship and I will give them everything I can. This revelation is something that I never would have come across when I was 16, but learning about it now has allowed me to strengthen preexisting and new relationships.

There is a point to this whole story. As a teenager your eyesight is so narrow it seems like high school is all there is and ever will be. After you leave you realize how big and amazing the world really is, and how worth it it is to get through those difficult years so you have the opportunity to make your reality something wonderful. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by good people in middle school and high school that made it a relatively good experience for me, but there are other people who aren’t so lucky. Those people are who I am talking to today. High school isn’t everything. Whatever else it is that is holding you down isn’t everything. The world is so much bigger, so much wilder and so much more invigorating. Maybe it is hard now, but it gets better, and after are you are free from those chains you have the ability to make your life what you want it to be. I waited longer than I would have wanted to to make this realization, don’t make the same mistake. Think about this now. Revisit old hobbies, make a list of new things you want to try and places you want to go, have all of this ready so the day you feel that door open you can step through with a smile make the most of it.

Counting Stars

I was 21 years old the first time that I touched the stars. Up until that summer I had seen writers talk about the feeling of insignificance you experience when gazing up at the vastness of the universe, but it wasn’t an idea that I understood or even believed existed. That is, until the night that I really slowed down and looked.

The year leading up to this had been the worst year of my life. Depression and anxiety were commonplace, and every time a person cocked their head and asked me, “How are you doing? How’s the family?” I grew a little more angry. Comforting hugs were brutal reminders that I was thought of as a porcelain vase, ready to shatter with the slightest nudge and in need of constant protecting. I hated being babied, I hated help, and all I wanted was to be left alone. I was immensely relieved when my dad told us that we were going to our family cabins up in Canada that summer. Our cabins are quiet and away from the world. They are nestled in the woods in a cozy part of Ontario and sit up against one of the bluest lakes you can hope find. It smells of wood and pine and gives you the chance to run away from the hot summers and enjoy the cooler temperatures that grace the north. There is no cell phone service, no telemarketers, it is perfection for those with a quiet soul and a book.

Despite my relief I was, of course, somewhat miserable. I was happy to have time away from home, happy to be out of the hot weather, happy to have my camera with me, but there are always those nagging thoughts in the back of your mind that say “Your mom isn’t here,” “You’re not allowed to be happy,” and my personal favorite destroyer of self-esteem, “You are a horrible daughter.” No matter how much you try to ignore them, they are always there. Even now I know that they are filed away somewhere deep in the back of my mind, waiting for just the right amount of anxiety to be stirred up that they can hammer in the spike that crumbles the wall I am always rebuilding.

In-between these awful thoughts I did remember the reason I was most excited to go to Canada that year:  a meteor shower. It had been rare that I had seen shooting stars, and having the chance to view a meteor shower further north with less light pollution and clearer skies had me excited. It was chilly that night. I wore a pair of sweatpants over my pjs and the warmest hoodie that I had with me and trekked outside. Everyone else was inside or sleeping so I was on my own, which is exactly how I wanted it. The lights from the living room faded the closer I got to the boathouse, and were non-existent by the time I laid myself down on the dock. If you can imagine, this wasn’t one of the fancier new floating docks that you usually see. It was the old fashion kind with splintery wood and four long metal rods to plant the dock into the ground. Still, it was comfortable and I was happy for a little time to myself.

Nothing happens when you first look skyward. You expect it to be this sudden inspiration that causes your eyes to glow as you recognize your place in the world, but it isn’t. I laid there on the dock still and silent for I don’t know how long, my eyes searching the immense black canvas looming over me. A few meteors passed that caused me to smile, but the more you search the sky the more overwhelming it becomes. There were more stars than I had ever seen in my life. I was looking at the arms of the Milky Way stretching long over my head – millions and millions of miles long but I was seeing at them with my own eyes. The more you shift your gaze, the more you begin to realize how grand the night really is. It covered me in an intense dome, and the longer I tried to take it all in the clearer it became that I couldn’t. My heart started to pound harder in my chest, the world around me vanished, and a feeling of panic that I wasn’t expecting washed over me. I was terrified. In a universe so big how could my life, my problems, possibly matter? I know this sounds cliche, and maybe you are even rolling your eyes thinking that I’m just being silly. Believe me, I get it, I was one of those people. It is a feeling too intense to describe. It is real and, I won’t sugar-coat it, it is very scary. That feeling of insignificance is one of the most horrifying things that I have ever experienced in my life. I cried on that dock, silently, still too mesmerized by this terrifying expanse to move.

But then something changes. Somewhere in the experience a feeling of calmness washes over you. My breathing slowed, my tears stopped, and my soul warmed. The immensity before you can easily provoke fear if you allow it, as I did, but after the initial fear fades away all you are left with is its majesty. It is beautiful and it is yours. Never again will you look on that same sky, and in that moment it is as if it was created just for you. I felt myself slowly break free of the chains in my mind that kept me from soaring through the stars. That was heaven, it had to be, and for a split second I knew my mom was looking on that same sky and smiling.

You might be hoping at this point for a “happily ever after” ending. Maybe I saw the error in my ways and decided live each day like it was my last? I’m sorry to disappoint you with a flat “no.” Life doesn’t work that way in my experience. I am after all inherently me. I am high-strung and timid, I don’t know how to be very assertive, I take time to place my trust in new people, I complain (a lot, sometimes too much) and, most importantly, I am human. I make mistakes and I attempt to right my wrongs. I have my good days and my bad days. I put my faith in the wrong people and sometimes expect too much for all that I give. Still, through all of this, I have my sky. In the end the meteor shower didn’t matter very much, but rather the memory of those stars. I carry them in my heart every day, and when I find a spare moment to remember them they greet me with open arms as I lay on the dock.

Life is fast, both day-to-day and long term. I often get caught up in the busy world and forget that there are bigger things going on around me, which is why having that experience to look back on is so important. Maybe we really are insignificant specs in the universe, but it is a universe created for us. Every night those stars are in the sky, and every night millions of people ignore them. I have no doubt that if every person took one night to touch the stars their lives would look very different to them.

My Dock, Under My Sky

Do what you love, and love what you do

I’ve been asked quite a few times, “What do you do to keep yourself from going crazy?”  My answer to this question is always the same:  “Hobbies.”  After this, the conversation continues in the same way no matter who I am talking to:

“Is there anything you do that makes you feel really at peace with yourself and makes you forget about everything else?”

“No.”

“Everyone has something, you should try to find what works for you.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

This is very simple advice and is easier said than done, but the point that I try to make when a friend asks me this question is deeper.  When I feel overwhelmed with life’s challenges, the only thing that I have found I can do is to escape the stress by diving into activities that make me forget the world.  I’m fortunate to have found more than one such pastime.  Photography may be my favorite, because there is nothing more calming to me than grabbing my camera and walking out into nature (though in times when I am feeling more irritated than overwhelmed it helps more to sit myself in front of my Playstation for a few hours instead).  Passions like these are important.  How are you supposed to enjoy life when you dwell on the negatives?  When you find something that you do for yourself and love so profoundly, it makes life worth all of the irritants.

I’m not saying that you should drop several hundred dollars on a camera and trek out in to the woods, but it is important for you to have something that makes the world stop turning for a few hours, or even just a few minutes.  If you feel as though you do not have a passion that does this for you then maybe you are lucky, because this means you have the universe at your finger tips waiting to be explored.  You never know what it could be that your soul is drawn to, so try everything.  Try cooking, try writing, try running, try carpentry, try playing an instrument, try volunteering, try anything you can think of.  Try everything you’ve always wanted to try and everything that you have never considered.  Not only will you learn more about yourself on the journey, but it is rewarding to find the passion that allows your soul to silence your mind.  When you learn how to let go of your stressors and fill your time with things that move you, you will become a happier person who is more in love with life and with yourself than you thought you could be.  This is my promise to you.