The first time anyone said to me, ‘Just be yourself!’ I was in grade nine at Sir Maurice Roche Catholic School. The sisters who taught there were not like other nun teachers who, I’ve heard, were often strict and mean. These ladies were kind, encouraging and hip. (Do people still say hip? I really don’t care.) In our religion classes we didn’t talk much about God. Instead, we listened to the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, deciphering songs like ‘The Sounds of Silence’ or ‘I Just Gotta Get a Message to You,’ by the Bee Gees. I wasn’t much help in these instances. I’m a writer who doesn’t ever get the theme of a song or a story. I’m too literal. Remember those questions on English exams? “Compare and contrast the themes of the novel.” I’m having heart palpitations just writing this down.
Anyway. I remember having a rather confidential talk with Sister Jobin about feeling different from everyone else. I know now that every fifteen year old perceives their place in the universe in pretty much the same way I did. She gave me her time and attention and left me with these parting words: Just be yourself.
Now, I don’t know if you, dear reader, remember being that age, but the last thing you ever want to be is yourself. Yourself is the problem. Yourself, with the funny hair cut (mom, please…a better hairdresser!) Yourself with a complete inability to read the room and know who were the sheep, and who were the wolves. You found out the minute they grabbed you by the throat and wrestled you to the floor. Not literally, of course. But often, it could feel like your throat was being ripped out. It certainly left me feeling voiceless.
So, no. The last thing I wanted to be was myself. However. The great thing about growing older is that the more distance you put between the teenage you and your current self, the less you give a…let’s just use the word shit, here. I wonder how many of you actually noticed the gradual unwrapping of your true personhood. It’s like one of those reality shows where they give you a new wardrobe and a bit of plastic surgery, only you don’t even need that. You just need the perspective of time to discover who you really are in order to be yourself.
Even in your twenties, you buy into what other people think you should enjoy. Like long walks on the beach. I used to say, “Oh, I love a long walk on the beach!’ And I meant it, because I’d only gone for short walks, and I was young and spry. Now that I’m older, I like long walks on the beach as long as I’m right beside the water and the sand is hard. Otherwise, the sand makes me feel like I’m decrepit, even though I’m not.
Other illusions I used to have were the usual cheesy love song activities. Like in the Pina Colada song. ‘Do you like Pina Coladas?’ Well, yes. Doesn’t everybody? ”Getting caught in the rain?” No, not particularly. Not without an umbrella or a good raincoat. Then, I love it. Otherwise, rain, rain, go away. There’s the words, ‘I am not into health food, I am into champagne.’ Well, I love two organic eggs on a bed of kale, so that answers that. And champagne makes me fall down whenever I’m in England, so no.
Yet another part of the song says, ‘If you like making love at midnight, in the dunes of the cape, I’m the love that you’ve looked for, write to me and escape.’ People, if you’ve ever made love on a sandy beach, you already know the truth about that one. Because that sand gets everywhere. You find it days later in the strangest places. Clarence and I both agreed that we’d been fooled into thinking it was romantic when really, it was its own kind of awful. So, no.
I like being myself, now. And I’m at the age where I feel perfectly comfortable telling people what I like and don’t like. I’m not at the old lady stage where I’ve lost my filter and have started blurting things without thinking. (Well, only occasionally.) But for the most part, I like being me. I’m comfortable in my own company. I rarely get lonely, maybe because I’m a writer and have a whole cast of characters who keep me company all the time. And I mean ALL the time. But that’s a whole other blog.
The thing is, Sister Jobin was right. The people I know who were themselves as teenagers, like my husband, made everyone else feel comfortable. But even if I time traveled and had a quick conversation with that version of me, I know I wouldn’t believe it. It wasn’t just that I was clueless about how teenagers behaved. It was my deep feelings of inadequacy that led me to those long talks with the nuns who probably worked to bury their yawns behind their weary hands. Now that I’m older, I’ve realized that that is a part of the human story. At least, the story of teenagers.
Now, I am always myself. Sometimes I have to have a little self talk before I go out. I say things like, ‘Don’t be afraid to rein it in.’ Or, ‘Nobody else wants to talk about books all night. You’re not at book club.’ But these are just small courtesies. Otherwise, I’m just me.
In case you’re not convinced, and you need a better pep talk about just being yourself, here’s a little something from the movie, Just Friends.