I believe we are born the people we were always meant to be. Whether or not we remain that person over the course of our lifetime, that’s another thing. But I believe our true self is always the same.
When I was five years old I was a flower girl, along with another little girl my age. There is a picture of the two of us as we started our trip down the aisle. In the photo the other girl wore a perfect smile, she was poised and proper, she was holding her basket of petals with grace and she was not at all daunted by the ogling eyes of the crowd. Standing beside her was me, the exact opposite of the put-together image she exuded. I was a scraggly mess, my hair was already unkempt and my dress looked like I had been doing cartwheels while wearing it. I was dragging my basket behind me, and in my eyes was the unmistakable look of someone who wanted out from that crowd. Looking at that photo, even as a young child, I could easily see that there was a difference between us. No one had to say it but the message was clear: Maria equalled mess.
I was always the one with the hair sticking out in all directions. Clothes went onto my body clean and pressed, but were lopsided and dirty before I even left my room. Whenever someone in my family tells a story about me as a kid, undoubtedly I’m being someone they shake their heads at. I was wild, had crazy ideas, and an artistic flair that my practical family didn’t know what to do with. Maria equalled confusion.
I tried, at various points in my teenage years, to dress with style or learn about makeup, but I was always more comfortable wearing cargo pants and hoodies. On the soul level I always felt like I was swaggering between what was normal and what was me; what felt acceptable generally, and what felt acceptable for myself. Maria equalled limbo.
For me, life is a series of paths put together in various intertwining shapes and forms. Sometimes we go off path, and when we do, the question always remains,–somewhere, ringing deep in our bones–Will we find our way back to the path where we belong?
In my early twenties, I worked at an art gallery. We had a volunteer that would come every Sunday afternoon and take ownership of the jewellery counter in the gallery’s shop. She was in her seventies, always wore a skirt and heels, and was never without her hair pinned and her makeup on. Her name was Margaret, and she was a sophisticated old broad.
I grew to love Margaret. She had outlived both her husband and son and had kept on living, with spunk and determination. She was always regaling us young girls with stories about her bus rides up to the casino and weekend vacation tours. She was a free and proud woman.
Around the time when I left the art gallery for other adventures, she invited me out for lunch. Over roasted chicken she told me about her many pursuers, and about how little she was interested in any of them. She listed off her upcoming trips, the extent of which put my own social life to shame. She spoke about her life, she spoke about the future, she reminded me to fully be myself.
That was the last time I would ever see Margaret, but as I left her that day I was filled with a goal, a lifelong determination, to heed Margaret’s message. To shine, to be okay with my crazy, to show my wild, to not give a shit about the opinions of others. I knew that I could never be as elegant as Margaret, but I could grow into a Red Hat Society kind of old lady and that was good enough for me.
If we were each a tree, the branches would be the complications, the distractions, the judgments and the pressures that can alter the course of our lives. The older we get, the more forks we find in our branches. But all branches lead back to the tree’s base, the core of the tree, the centre of its strength. I think that the older women get, the more they align with that core. The more they align, the more they want to align. Also, the less they care about dropping a branch or two along the way. While I was mixed up in the branches, Margaret was standing solidly at the base of her own tree.
The path where we belong is not about the what we do. It’s about the who we are. It’s the little girl you wrote to in your first-ever journal. It’s the teenager who went against her parents’ wishes when choosing her university major. It’s how you feel when you find your step and walk with purpose.The who you are is the person you say good-bye to each night, once the kids are asleep and the lights have gone out, and you’re free to breathe.
The who I am has stayed consistent throughout my life. There were certainly times when I chose a wrong path, a path that moved me away from my core. Maybe it was that time I didn’t speak up, or that friend I stood by when I shouldn’t have, or that feeling I got from my family about my choices, or how I felt judged when I was at my most vulnerable. Maybe it was that boyfriend or not trusting my instincts or that choice I made that I now regret. But, ultimately, I always come back to me. I try hard to listen to the inner voice that calls me forward. I try hard to pay attention to how I feel along the way. I try hard to remember Margaret and how she taught me what it feels like to be free. I try hard to remember myself, my wild, my artsy, my crazy, my messy, my scraggly, and all of the me that’s been there since day one. When I remember that person, it becomes easier to get back to her.
Maria equals the sum of all my parts. Unequivocally, entirely, undeniably. Like Margaret, when I stand at the base of my tree–strong, proud, firm and unwavering–I am also my most free. Although I may still buy myself a red hat when I’m fifty.