My First Self: How I Lost Her and Why I Need Her Back

“[R]emember who you were when you first arrived, and reclaim the gift of true self.” – Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

“What a Long time it can take to become the person one has always been! How often in the process we mask ourselves in faces that are not our own.– Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

***

I probably met Solange on that first day we moved into the big house on the corner–the one with the spoked iron fence, and the wrought-iron-covered windows, unimportant details as far as a five-year-old little girl is concerned. Solange was a stringy-haired, feisty, outgoing girl that lived in the apartment complex across the street. I never recall that girl wearing a frown on her face.

Solange was my constant childhood companion. We lived out our innocence in a continuous tennis match between her house and mine. I had toys, and a baby doll that ate and pooped; she had a TV.  At my house, we delighted ourselves in sweet American cakes; at hers, we celebrated tea time. At my house, we trampled through my endless yard and climbed sweet-smelling fruit trees. At her apartment complex, we ran long hallways, and rang doorbells, swiftly escaping to suffocate our giggles under concrete stairwells. We played pretend, ran down sand dunes, visited her grandma, brushed each other’s hair, sang along with our favorite TV shows, and had countless summertime sleepovers.

Solange was my first.

She was the first to teach me how to live with complete abandon.

Alongside her, I learned how to be a friend. I learned how to share, how to fight and make up, how to be a part of someone else’s family, and how to welcome one into my very own.

Solange’s friendship taught me the joy of being myself and never doubting that I was enough. I learned what it was to be loved by someone who had the choice not to. There was no malice, gossip, or jealousies; the only kind of fights we had were quickly stifled by an “I’m sorry” and a hug. I believe she inadvertently drew out of me the first version of who I truly was outside of my own family. She brought out the best in me. I was happy, loved, and satisfied with life.

She was my first.

And when we were in third grade, Solange moved away, also becoming my first real goodbye.

It was my first ugly cry, with real crocodile tears and inconsolable nights. It was the first time I woke up to a bed filled with crumpled up tissues. This was the first time in my life when loss became so deep and real that it was marked by a constant bitterness in my mouth, and a knot in my throat that didn’t go away for weeks. She was my first heartbreak.

After her departure there were others in my life who took her place. Marcela, Paula, Rocío, Claudio, Jeff, and Charla, to name a few. They continued to hone my life with true friendship and unconditional love. We walked to school together, cooked together, sunbathed, listened to music, danced, sang, cried, and laughed–oh how we laughed! Although loss was a reality to which I had already been introduced, I was still young enough to trust my heart and my vulnerabilities to these precious souls. I didn’t question who I was, nor did I question who they were. They were in my life, and I loved them for it.  

But at the age of 17, I moved away from my home, from my country, and loss followed me. Soon, even new friendships seemed to keep sliding through my fingers, and ultimately I experienced my greatest loss in life when my mom passed away. I was only 30 years old.

With Solange’s departure, I may have defensively built a small wall around myself. But at that age, I never would have been strong enough, nor smart enough, to build one so high that I could not jump over it. But after I moved away from home, and life continued to show me the reality of pains and losses, and once they settled into my soul, I slowly began to hide my vulnerabilities, and lost the ability to love with spontaneity and freedom.

I traded my innocence for knowledge and soon realized that bars on windows and wrought-iron fences are to keep bad people out. I learned that friends can hurt you, deeply. I learned that families aren’t perfect, people you love leave and die, and beloved pets die too. People all around us experience profound pain, they cry, and hurt themselves when the ache is more than they can bear. I learned that loss would follow me (as it does all of us) for the rest of my life. The more these realities continued to add up, the more I learned to use the mortar of pain and self-pity to build a brick wall of self-protection.

With time, the wall got tall. I let the love of my life in, but still insecurity and fear settled in. I would never again allow an abundant life or other people to fully enter my gates. I didn’t want to ever be left wounded and lonely again.

On the one hand, I stood behind my wall to isolate myself from others, while on the other I cowered in my corner trying to create a new self that desperately wanted and needed others. I searched for a new identity thinking that what was left of me was not enough. I had left most of my first self behind when I moved away from home because I didn’t find it reasonable to bring her along. (She would not fit in.) All that was left of me was the nostalgia of that great girl I once knew.

I spent all of those lonely years loathing myself for who I had become. The new self didn’t fit in either. I was a woman that had no idea how to be an American, a mother, a sister, a daughter, or a friend. I lived in jealous admiration of everyone around me. I tried to imitate them all so that perhaps, someone, someday, would jealously admire me.

It is hard to live out who you really are in solitary places. And it wears down on the soul to wander in the desert land without a home where the heart is never at peace. Because so much of who we are is developed and played out in community, with our families, and with the Solanges and Marcelas of our lives.

I need to reclaim those parts of myself that know how to embrace love, and be willing to take the risks of friendship and loss. I want to be the girl that Solange taught to live and love with complete abandon. I want to be the one Jeff adored, the one whose company Marcela craved, the one that trusted Paula with a whole heart, the one that never questioned loyalty or devotion. That girl was vibrant; she knew what she liked and what she didn’t like, and was comfortable living out who she was, and who she wasn’t.

The essence of who that girl was is still around. My husband fell in love with her and knows how to bring out the best in her; my dad still delights in her and doesn’t miss an opportunity to tell her so; and the rest of my family knows how to find and enjoy her company. But she has spent most of her days behind a cloud, on a foggy day.

I must reclaim my first self.

In the past few years, through the gentle healing hands of Christ, I have slowly been letting go of that perfect self I tried so desperately to create. Instead of trying to be a perfect mosaic of all of the best bits and pieces of those whom I was trying to imitate, I have been kindly rescuing my true self. I’m learning to trust God in who he made me to be: the beautiful one that was woven in my mother’s womb; the one that knows how to love, how to be a true friend, how to share, how to fight and make up; but mostly, the one who knows that she is enough. I believe that Christ is teaching me to be happy, feel loved, and be satisfied with life.

***

This is a story of grace and healing. One of many. You probably have felt, or need to feel the healing hand of Jesus too. Stay with me. Tomorrow, I will be sharing with you a (weird) story of someone else who was healed by the hands of Jesus, and how this man’s story mirrors my own.

4 comments

  1. Absolutely beautiful. What a wonderful way of expressing so many emotions. I love you and am so glad that Mike found you. ..what a treasure.

  2. Oh, Susan! How I admired you as my neighbor! To me you were the cool mom who wasn’t afraid to be different. You and Mike weren’t afraid to go against the grain and raise chickens and bees and have a “farm” in the city. I am so glad that we got to be neighbors even if only for a short while. You are a great writer too…such a way with words!

  3. That was one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read, Susan! You have also found your true writing voice. I hope you keep at it! I am cheering you on!! xoxo

  4. I love you too Susan!

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