vulnerable path

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Fitting in, falling down, and finding true friends

Define Journey.  In simplest terms, it means to go on a trip; to travel from one place to another.  The purpose of this seems clear.  But how do we define a spiritual journey?  And what is its purpose?  I believe we undertake spiritual journeys when we try to understand our choices and our emotions.  This is a life-long process.  Spiritual journeys serve to help us develop character, strengthen our faith, learn new things, bounce back stronger from adversity, and step out of our comfort zone.

I love that Girl Scouts has created “Journeys” for girls and young women to help them work through their feelings, develop strong values, and make good choices. We didn’t have “Journeys” when I was in Girl Scouts. But I’m thrilled as an adult to be bringing these programs to my own daughter and her Girl Scout sisters.  This year, we are taking a Journey called aMAZE.  It’s about navigating the twists and turns of friendship and how to deal with peer pressure, stereotypes, jealousy, gossip, and all those kinds of things that get in the way of having healthy relationships.

This got me thinking about my own Journey through friendships.  Here’s my story.

I attended the most rural elementary school in my district.  Most of my classmates lived far away from me in the countryside.  I did not have friends who lived right next door.  I couldn’t walk to their houses.  So I was a bit of a loner and had to find ways to entertain myself after school.  I spent a lot of time outdoors, climbing trees and wandering around the woods and fields behind my house.  I used my imagination and created my own world in my backyard.  I had a tree house.  It was named the Blue Goose.  I played with my dog and my cat.  When I did socialize with friends, it was through church, or Girl Scout meetings, or making special play dates to go to a friend’s house.  I don’t remember ever feeling like I didn’t fit in with my elementary classmates and friends.

All that changed on the first day of seventh grade. My rural classmates and I were merged in with kids from two other elementary schools that were in more suburban neighborhoods.  It was culture shock.  I was mortified.  I looked nothing like any of these kids.  I didn’t dress like them, talk like them, or act like them.

seventhgrade_editedI was barely off the school bus that first day when I began to rebel against everything my parents were providing for me. Because, all of a sudden, I was keenly aware that I did not fit in.  I was not going to be accepted by anyone if I showed up again wearing knee socks with a skirt.  (Yes, that’s a photo of me from the first day of seventh grade.  And that’s my dog, Skamper.)

I wanted a Farrah Faucet hair style. But I had a, um, I’m not sure what you’d call that!  I wanted designer jeans with fancy embroidery on the back pockets.  The kind like Brooke Shields modelled.  But I didn’t own a pair of jeans at all.  My mother sewed most of my clothing by hand.  My personal style was just not going to change overnight.  So I had to accept my plight.  I had to deal with it.

Two of the most popular girls in school were in my class. Compared to these girls, I saw myself as a big nerd.  I desperately wanted to fit in with them.  So my strategy was to befriend these girls.  I was somewhat successful – accepted, maybe, but not really one of them.  They were not mean to me; I wasn’t bullied by them.  Eventually, I did become better friends with one of them and hung out with her outside of school a few times.

But I was friends with the nerdy kids too. The geeky, awkward, not so pretty, not so skinny ones.  I could relate to this.  I treated them the same way I treated anyone else.  I managed somehow to get along with just about everybody.

Yet, like most teens, I kept trying to fit in somewhere. I was never really sure where that was for me.  I wasn’t a cheerleader, I didn’t play sports, and I didn’t play an instrument in the band.  My high school years were a battle ground of social standings – I was standing in one place and aspiring to another.  I never really felt like I made any progress.  I didn’t have any real strong friendships in high school.  Because I never got too close to anyone, I wasn’t betrayed by anyone.  All that would change soon enough.

I couldn’t wait to go off to college. I wanted new freedom and the chance to make new friends.  And a college dormitory is certainly a good place to get to know people.  That’s where I met Maura.  She was the most outgoing, crazy, fun person I had ever met.  She was beautiful too.  And she had a girlfriend, as in female intimate partner.  But I didn’t judge.  She was a free-spirited art student.  I was an uptight English major.  We were yin and yang.  We rented neighboring apartments in the same building downtown.  We hung out all the time, cooking meals together and partying.  I idolized her.  To me, her life was perfect.  She had great clothes, and she let me borrow them.  She was always happy.  Things always went well for her.  And she spread this effervescent energy everywhere she went.

Eventually, her same sex relationship ended.  And I introduced her to my boyfriend’s brother, Bill.  They fell madly in love with each other.  I was so happy for her!  I imagined us graduating from college, getting engaged to our boyfriends, and becoming sisters-in-law someday.  The future was bright.

After graduation, Maura moved in with Bill. But my relationship became long-distance — like, over-seas long distance.  My boyfriend moved to London to start a branch of his family’s business. I spent almost a year racking up expensive phone bills, trying to keep our relationship going.  Then I quit my job, packed up everything I owned, stuffed it into my parents’ garage, and flew to London to be with him.  But we were still doomed.  We never got engaged.  I moved back home with Mom and Dad.  He broke up with me right after Christmas.

I was distraught. I had no idea what to do with myself.  I would come home from work each day and curl up in my room and cry.  My poor Mother did not know how to console me.  I could have used some comfort and reassurance from Maura.  But I didn’t get that.  Instead, she made it clear that she needed to choose her man over our friendship.  She was planning her wedding.  It would be too uncomfortable to have me around now that my relationship with her future brother-in-law had ended.

I’m not sure which one of them hurt me more. Now, I knew betrayal.

So, here’s what I learned on my journey, and what I hope my daughter learns too.  Good friend don’t need to be pretty, or popular, or have cool clothes you can borrow.  It doesn’t matter what sport she plays or what grades she earns.  She doesn’t have to be your Facebook friend or Instagram follower.  You can probably count a lifetime of true friends on one hand.  She is rare and precious.  She gets you.  She likes you in spite of yourself.  But the most important thing I hope my daughter learns is that she needs to BE the kind of friend she wants to have.

Eventually your friends will prove themselves to you.  You won’t know your true friends from the fun times.  You will know them when they are still standing next to you during the bad times.  A good friend will prop you up, lend a shoulder, and be a good listener.  She is the one who will say, “Hey, I get it.  This sucks.  But I am here for you and we’ll get through it.”

© Vulnerable Path, 2014

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