One spring day, young Heidi climbed up the kitchen stepladder, reached into the back of the cabinet and located what appeared to be a luscious chunk of chocolate. Now, growing up in a house filled with dieters, I knew it was more likely I’d find Bert and Ernie playing Mahjong in that cabinet than candy. Still, it sure looked like chocolate. I held the square to my nose and sniffed, teasing myself with anticipation. Peeling back the waxy wrapper I gazed at my treasure, licked my lips, and went in for that first divine bite. Two seconds later of course, I spit out the unsweetened Baker’s chocolate with dismay.
Life is rarely what we expect it to be, is it?
A few weeks back I wrote a post about the time line of pivotal events that led me to writing. But I left one thing out. That is the moment I seemed destined to never become a writer.
Orientation week, my freshman year of college, while the rest of the flock herded happily to and from events with their BFF-for-right-now alongside them, my roommate had not shown up. I was a nervous umbilical chord looking for someplace to plug myself in. In the midst of my panic I had to take a standardized test to determine my placement level for freshman English. (Never was a big fan of the standardized test.) I still remember staring out the window most of the time worrying about my lack of roommate, and wondering what kind of whack job in the housing office had placed me–introverted girl from the suburbs–in the most infamous of campus party dorms. (There’d been fires, not to mention death in that dorm people, I mean seriously.) I’m not even sure I finished the test.
Suffice it to say I ended up in remedial freshman English. We had a primer with one-page assignments in it, and every week I dutifully handed them in receiving A++’s on each one. A few months before that test I was in my third year of honors English, writing a research paper comparing Kafka’s Metamorphosis to Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Now, all of a sudden, I wasn’t even allowed to read a book, or write a story.
I wish I could tell you I stormed into the dean’s office and insisted they’d misplaced me. Sadly, that is not how the story goes. Instead, every day, I watched the students across the hall in regular freshman English pull out novels for discussion as my self-confidence unraveled. They had defined me as “less than” and I believed them. I imagined the whole world of writing and literature was off limits to me, opting to pursue anthropology, philosophy and religion instead.
I don’t regret studying those subjects, incidentally, and finding out what made cultures, groups, and individuals tick. Certainly studying the human condition from different perspectives has informed my writing as well.
Life is strange, isn’t it? How I wish I could go back and tell my younger self to say something. I won’t lie to you. I still carry shards of that girl with me, the one who believes the negative definitions of others. But I am much better equipped to care for her now, to empathize with her fears, and yet still summon the strength to keep moving forward.
Remember the little girl with her sticky, bitter-chocolate-covered fingers? While it’s true I learned a lesson that day not to stick odd foodstuffs in my mouth without asking someone first, the experience also impacted my mind. I got curious about baking. That unsweetened stuff wasn’t chocolate, but it sure smelled like it. It had chocolate potential.
So perhaps I wasn’t supposed to become the person I am back then? The fact is I write powerful words now, words that never could have come out of me at age twenty or thirty, even. And the life skills I’ve learned will help me negotiate and promote on my behalf in ways I never could have in the beginning. You see, I remember that young girl with no voice, and I’m determined to speak for her now.
How about you? Has anyone ever pigeonholed your abilities and gotten in the way of your chocolate potential? Talk to me about it.
Holy gravy, Heidi, you and I are star-crossed. I mean it.
Your tale rings so true for me. (I was convinced that your ‘looks-like-a-chocolate’ would turn out to be a laxative! HA!) but I too remember reaching for the baker’s variety at the age of four or five then spitting it out, convinced my parents had it in for me and were deliberately poisoning our household’s small ration of treats.
I remember, years later in high school, feeling similar angst, oppression and weighty helplessness to do anything about it. Sitting in regular English class while friends across town at the ‘richer’ high school had access to advanced classes, to film editing, suites of twenty high-end computers for graphic design and video production. The slow erosion of confidence toward underlying bitterness because I was limited by geography and simply HAD to attend this school because of where I lived and who my parents were.
I remember all of my peers constantly swapping classes and dropping and picking up because they didn’t like their desk, their text book, their teacher. I remember putting up with it all, watching it transpire, and thinking, “When I get into the real world, THAT’s when I’ll speak up and make changes.”
Well, for me things turned around by university when I met someone who would become a solid friend. He taught me that lines on the highway were just ideas, not prison bars. He ignited from merely a spark, the idea in me that I am the master of my fate. I am the ONLY master of it. The only, the only, the only. And to rely on norms and expectations is just the process of living an empty life.
Thank you for sharing such a personal part of you journey. May I say that it saddened me a little? But may I also say that it makes me happy to think of it now, even moments later…because, in a way, it has added to who you are.
And I like who you are.
I am so moved by what you’ve said, I can hardly find the words to express it. Thank you so much for telling me about your history as well, Jason. We are all more than the sum of our parts, aren’t we? The good, the bad, the ugly, the exquisite. All those life experiences inform who we are. If only it were possible to have distance on events while they’re occurring. But I guess that’s just not the way life works. Yes, this particular moment in my life was a bit sad, and my perception that I was not good enough, even sadder. But then there are moments like this one, where I am honored with words from a writer I respect. And that ain’t bad friend. No, that ain’t bad at all.
This post is amazing and I am going to leave you an obnoxiously long response…but probably not until tomorrow because I don’t have time right now but I have a lot to share.
(I know. How exciting, right?)
Until then, I will tweet this and then formulate my response.
And maybe go eat some milk chocolate. Just because…
Thank you my dear. So glad you enjoyed. And yes, it is exciting. 🙂
All my life I’ve had teachers actively discouraging me from becoming a fiction writer. They didn’t think I had the talent. But sometimes discouragement is encouragement and a winding road the straightest path. Happy you found your voice.
It’s just horrible to think of a teacher telling you not to pursue your passion. It is just the antithesis of education.
Thanks for your wise words. And I am glad that you ignored the fools who told you you didn’t have any talent.
Loved the story but the picture of you with the fortune cookie photoshopped on is priceless. (That is you isn’t it?)
Yes, brother dear, that is me! 🙂 Glad you liked the post.
This was a very powerful post and while I teared up reading it, I can feel the conviction of your words, “I’m determined to speak for her now.” It’s hard to look back and say what if, because we are a product of our journey (both good and bad).
When I was 18 and looking at colleges, my dad DRAGGED me around to look at schools. I didn’t wan’t to spend hours in the car with my dad and I didn’t want to consider colleges. The idea of more school was giving me hives, even though it was all my friends could talk about. Suprisingly, one of the schools he dragged me to caught my imagination. Sometime while we were there, I got excited about college. And, I finally got up the nerve to speak my mind and mention that I wanted to study fine art. We got a lovely tour of the art department, and I got to meet a few of the freshman students. It felt right and I wanted to be one of them.
My dad said two things to me when we got in the car. #1 – there’s no way we can afford this school (ahh, then why did you drag me here?), and #2 – you can’t study art because you will never make a living at it.
The tragedy is that I allowed him to make that decision for me. I went to a state school as far away as I could get from my family and quit after two years because I didn’t want to be there. It took me two more years to go back to school for business, where I earned my degree and promptly got a job I hated. I started teaching myself design programs in my spare time and eleven years after I hung my head in the backseat of that car on our way home from the college of my dreams, I got a job as a graphic designer.
I often wonder who I would be if I had gone to the private school, but the friends and experiences I had at state school prepared me for the life I’m living now. I also wish I could go back and tell that girl to speak her mind without fear. To make herself be heard.
It took me eight years to start writing (it’s always been a dream of mine), but I’m ready now, and I’m not sure I was ready before. I’m finally ready to be heard.
Thank you so much for sharing this all with me. I’m honored that you did. Yes the whole “you can’t do this cause you’ll never make a living at it” theme is something I can also really relate to. I went into advertising after school because it was a way to be creative and still make money. But it was the most stressful thing imaginable at times, and I spent so much time helping other people realize their creative visions that I barely remembered how to focus on my own. I am so glad you explore your art and writing now. Well done! I’m so glad you came by for a visit, and that the post had meaning for you. Come back again. 🙂
Beautiful post, Heidi!
Strange how those “less thans” shape us – I know I still struggle with mine. And, I swear, I had an almost identical experience with baker’s chocolate! 🙂
Thank you Glinda. I’m so glad you liked the post. I suppose it falls under the title “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”?
Apparently children throughout the world have fallen for the unsweetened chocolate trick. lol Could it be all our parents were secretly snickering on the sidelines? 🙂
So I’m back…
I had to go out of town.
But now I’m home and I just read your post again and it comes down to this line for me:
“Life is rarely what we expect it to be, is it?”
I beat myself up all the time right for not following through with my writing goals when I was younger. Sure I am FINALLY living my dream, but now I’m 42.
I can’t stop wondering what I could have accomplished if I’d actually finished the novel I started when I was 32?
Or if I’d tried publishing some short stories in my twenties?
So I love the perspective you offer here: That I am the writer I am today because of what has happened to me in the past two decades…
Therefore, instead of looking back with regret, I should work on moving forward and giving voice to what’s in me now.
Otherwise, I’ll be 52 and still not published. (Even then, I think I’ll keep writing.
Especially if there are others out there like you who continue to inspire me…)
So thanks for this, Heidi.
And your words do have power.
I think I should have named this post, “Please people I admire & respect leave me messages that make me cry”. Yeah, that about covers it. I am with you about all of it. I constantly bash myself on the head about how I should have started all of this sooner. But if I really take a hard look at who I was back then, I have to admit the complexities of age and life experience inform everything I do now, including the writing. Which is not to say I don’t obsess about being too old to do it all, believe me, I do.
I am honored that I inspire you. Thank you so much for leaving me such an honest and beautiful message my lovely friend. xo
PS: No one would believe you are a day over 32.
I’m starting to think you should write a memoir because slipping into your point of view is always such a pleasure.
Unlike some writers who are so full of talent and gems of greatness, I’m a writer who needs to plug away methodically to get anything on the paper of merit. The thing is that I’m really a teacher posing as a writer and it kind of made me sad that your teachers did not embrace you as the odd little flower I’m sure you were. Shame on them! I would have dowsed you with Miracle Grow and stuck in out in the sun. Seriously.
But, did you need them? No. You’ve found your powerful voice and you kick some writing ass. Really, that’s what’s important.
Oh yeah, before I forget- I too embraced the unsweetened chocolate for about two seconds and went a killer party school. I must say, that too was a learning experience.
All the best,
Everyone is just determined to make me cry on this post. 🙂 Julie! Can I tell you how much I love being called an odd little flower? Makes me gleeful.
What a lovely message, thank you. I will tell you I did have some incredible teachers in high school that probably influence me to this day. And my writing teacher/mentor who had taught at Brown that I met after college was wonderful as well. But yes, it is a sad comment on the school system when something like that happens.
I find writing what I suppose is narrative non-fiction (?) challenging. Didn’t really know I could do it at all prior to this blog. Don’t I have to do something with my life in order to justify writing a memoir about it? lol
But I’m so glad you enjoy the posts.
It is funny that everyone ate the unsweetened chocolate as a kid. I never knew it was such a right of passage. 🙂
Thanks so much for stopping by.
I just discovered your blog. I love it and I’m looking forward to browsing through the archives.
My story is similar to yours in a backwards kind of way. I was the one who made myself “less than”. I always loved to write, but was very shy and lacking in self-confidence.
In high school, I was the youngest student in advanced comp. I had a great teacher, one of those that all the kids liked and respected. Nobody, including the teacher paid much attention to me. We got an assignment to “redefine your self-editor”, the voice inside your head that “edits/criticizes” your writing. It was a complicated project, but I really got into it, especially the journal we kept. We had to write everything that came into our heads without editing anything. Remember teenage girl thoughts? I wrote them ALL without editing anything.
I was so surprised when I got an A+ on it. I’ll never forget the teacher’s comments: “You are very talented. Why have you been hiding your light under the bushel?” He had a new respect for me after that and it showed. That gave me a new respect for myself. I wish I could remember his name.
Sometimes I can feel the “old” self-editor trying to take over again, but thanks to that assignment (and the teacher), it’s easy to get her back under control.
Thanks for the post,
Hi Dawne. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing this story with me. I’m so glad that in this particular instance the assignment and the teacher ended up encouraging you to continue writing. Glad you enjoyed the post and my blog. Stop by anytime. 🙂
I actually thought this was going to be about ex-lax! But this post was all about my heart and not my colon. It was like reading about my issues through your experiences. I think of you as sharp as glass, but it all makes more sense when I read that you “still carry shards of that girl with me, the one who believes the negative definitions of others. But I am much better equipped to care for her now, to empathize with her fears, and yet still summon the strength to keep moving forward.”
I love being entertained, and I come here because nobody does it quite like you, Heidi. But this time it was more about therapy (for my heart) and less about laughing my butt off (aka my colon).
This post was pure gold. Thank you Madame Paradox.
Oh Mauri, such kind words. You folks are *killing* Madame Paradox 😉 (Yes, I refer to myself in the third person, it’s one of my special gifts.) It’s not always easy to talk about things I wish I’d done differently. Or about the parts of myself that still struggle with things. But having friends who leave comments like this, really make me feel loved & supported in the online gumbo. Thanks so much for your message, I truly appreciate it.
I’ve been vexed with the “good opinions of other people” lately, and I don’t know why. I’ve benefited from feedback that hurt at first, and then had to acknowledge was true, but this has been feedback I think is inaccurate and unfair from people who have no way of knowing. I hope whatever this phase is passes soon. This isn’t about the writing but about my abilities as a manager.
People are encouraging my returning to private practice by saying it’s the right path for me because I wasn’t good at the job I devoted 80 hours a week to for years. I don’t know what is wrong with people sometimes (the truth is, I was doing the job of five people so there was always something not getting attended to).
Of course, with the writing you have billions of comments and my most recent post has none because you are brilliant and I’m boring and I always feel inadequate about the writing, but keep doing it anyway. I guess because it’s what I wanted to do ever since I was five.
Yes, I’m one who was discouraged from writing from a very young age and was excrutiatingly shy. I tried to do stand-up comedy when I was 21 and people always tell me how funny I am. I get asked if I’ve ever done improv, etc., but I was wracked with shyness and couldn’t handle the stage fright. I wrote and stuck things in a drawer. I didn’t major in English because I was told I would starve.
My husband had dsylexia and couldn’t read until he was twelve. They told his mom he was “retarded” but she didn’t believe them and didn’t tell him, which is good. But, he was in the public school system and knew he couldn’t read and the others could. He became a welder and when his arm was torn up by a machine and he needed an alternate career he went to college, in spite of his dyslexia and now is a CPA. I’m still in awe of that.
I moved away from home when I was sixteen and my parents let me and did not ask where I was going. There were no tours to college campuses. My sister didn’t complete high school and neither did my niece. Somehow, I returned to school when I was 25 and didn’t want to keep cocktail waitressing and completed graduate school.
I don’t know why we have come as far as we have given our backgrounds. Thanks for the post. I always enjoy and relate to your writing.
P.S. Have you considered becoming a therapist/writer? You have a knack for making people spill out all their stuff.
I’m not going to leave a long comment, because everyone else has said all the things I would say. Indeed they have done so most eloquently. I love this post and find myself in it too.
Bravo for seeing the “chocolate potential” and for sharing your stories here.