“Don’t think you’re on the right road just because it’s a well-beaten path.” ~Unknown
Growing up in Appalachia, women always had grace, class, and sweet iced tea in the refrigerator for unexpected visitors. They smiled when called ma’am or darling and kept an immaculate home.
Many Appalachian women also abided by two rules: It’s impolite to say no, and (my mother’s favorite adage), be as nice as you possibly can and everyone will realize you’re the better person.
For me, this translated as always say yes and play nice. I thought this equated to being compassionate and sensitive.
You’re stranded on the side of the road four hours away during an ice storm? I’ll get you. You want to be intimate on the first date? I don’t want you to dislike me, so okay. You think I’m hateful, unworthy, and a crybaby? You’re probably right.
Yet, I played nice for so long that laughter turned to appeasement, confidence turned to harassment and verbal abuse, kindness turned to obligation.
As I allowed others to treat me unkindly and without respect, somewhere living soulfully became nonexistent. I always thought that I kept everyone at arm’s length with a smile on my face because I didn’t want to be hurt.
In reality, I was so angry at myself for those specific moments of being run over that I willingly began playing the victim.
It became easier to sabotage myself and continue down that road than to work hard and become a strong, outspoken, and vivacious woman again, which wouldn’t unfold until years later when I spent the night in the middle of nowhere.
In 2009, I left my Appalachian roots behind and hightailed it to the West Coast. But there was an unexpected pit stop in Marfa, Texas, population 2,000, where I changed courses forever.
Splitting the long drives cross-country, my fiancé slept as I descended onto this plateau of immeasurable prairie grass hemmed by stately mountains.
The sunset was hypnotic—a brilliant rust so unfamiliar as it slipped off the horizon. There was nowhere to hide. I was breathless and exposed.
Sitting by the motel pool in the dead of winter, the urge to cry was unbearable, but I didn’t know what to tell my fiancé, so I fought it. I was enraged, and diverted my attention to blogging, drinking, eating, and sleeping, but in a one-horse town on a Monday night, the only people for miles are nuns.
I had to look at me.
I couldn’t remember the last time that I was truly happy and laughed genuinely. Once again, I was angry that I had deprived myself of that. Then a flood of memories came back when I was strong, truthful, confident, and beautiful.
Those traits were still there. I may have disappeared into my own twilight hour, but I finally heard myself, standing alone watching the Marfa mystery lights with a thermos of bourbon, amidst tumbleweeds and dust devils. Never in my life had the physical moment connected so intensely with the spiritual.
I left the next morning exhausted.
Once the cross-country journey ended in San Francisco, I didn’t know how to be nice to my fiancé for two months because my only thought was, “Who am I?” I was paralyzed. I spent every day huddled on the floor between the bed and the wall pouring over job ads, trying to find anything that would give me a role to fill. I had no idea how to be myself.
That moment of clarity in the desert ultimately led to rediscovery, which was uncomfortable. I wasn’t leaving the apartment because all I had was myself, and I didn’t know or trust that person. And one day, I rode a bus and ate alone for the first time in my life…terrified.
My year in San Francisco became the most humble year of my life. My clothes didn’t even fill one dresser. I went from corporate guru to stocking the fridge in a law office.
As cliché as it sounds, taking the unpaved back road on this journey and abandoning the familiar was liberating.
My clothes fit better. I was glowing. My fiancé and I scraped by, but we were living in a gorgeous Edwardian apartment, eating amazing yet simple meals.
Indulgence was a scoop of ice cream or a good beer. Date nights were no longer extravagant dinners in ties and dresses but walks to the park after work to find my fiancé on a blanket reading. Then, we would wander across the city for hours until we decided to call it a night.
Nothing was judged or expected that year, and everything was appreciated.
I knew that it would be hard for me not to fall into old habits once I moved back to Virginia. I am a yes man again, and the anger toward myself builds each day. I feel as though I scattered pieces of myself across the country, my heart in San Francisco, my freedom in Marfa, but that’s not true.
I know that I am capable of practicing kindness toward myself and others while being authentic. I wrote to a friend that I met in Marfa after reading Baron Baptiste’s Journey into Power:
“I’ve been reading this book for a yoga workshop, and there was a passage about releasing yourself from the lies of everyday life that define you, and that you may not like who you really are at first, but at least it’s true. I was so sad because I realized that’s what happened the first time I was in Marfa.
I finally saw myself for the first time in many years and was mad at who I had allowed myself to become. At the same time, I was so happy and even scared to find ‘me.’ I think I’m longing for the day to come back or at least searching for way to bring a piece of Marfa here!”
How do I make it a point to live authentically? Being immersed in a yoga teacher training program has taught me a lot of techniques. Here a few rules I abide by for an authentic life:
1. Tell someone you appreciate them every day.
It doesn’t matter if it’s the drugstore cashier, my husband, or the dog; reciprocate kindness with kindness and acknowledgment.
2. Stop trying to win the Oscar.
Essentially, stop playing roles. The first question people ask in the D.C. area is, “What do you do?” My answer is, “Hi. I’m Julie,” which usually prompts, “Yeah, but what do you do?”
My next answer is, “Well, today I took the dog for a walk and had a nice nap.” I’ve stopped being the consultant, the dog owner, the victim, or the gardener and started just being Julie.
3. Get rid of the baggage.
Once a month, I go through every closet and donate items I haven’t worn or used in awhile. We tend to live excessively, and it’s liberating to not let material possessions define you.
Even if I only have five minutes, I pull into the parking garage at work, fold my legs in the driver’s seat, and close my eyes. Dropping the day’s to-do list allows me to focus on the now.
5. Stay connected with genuine friends.
Real friends will be honest with how you land. I’ve started having regular check-ins with friends that will speak honestly about the energy I emit.
By the way, my friend replied to that email:
“You will find a piece of Marfa if it is within you now.”
It is here, deep within my chest. It radiates soothing sunlight and power. It is beautiful and it shines.
Photo by katiaromanova