July 5, 2015, my car packed full, I set out for a city I’d seen only in pictures, to a place where no one would know my name. I had no job waiting for me, no safety net, only the promise of a bedroom in a home of someone I’d only spoken to over the phone on a street that no one, including me, believed could be real. When I pulled into my new Memory Lane driveway and walked wearily on legs unsteady from the hours of driving to the backyard complete with nine large garden beds, two koi fish ponds, a long deck, and a hammock strung between two trees I was sure that I must be dreaming.
This reinvention of self has been years in the making.
Three years ago I was driving straight down a one-lane highway toward the predictable future. I’d been married to my high school sweetheart for five years and finally settling into my new career as high school English teacher in the same town where I had grown up. I was saving to buy a home not far from my birthplace where I’d settle and live happily ever after in “normal” semi-suburbia bliss.
I’d taken on the role of wife for so long that, when my marriage ended, I didn’t know who I was anymore. For the first time in my life I was living alone, making decisions for myself, not having to cater my every action and reaction to another living being.
In time, the real me began to emerge from beneath the layers of conditioning.
I began to travel at every opportunity that I could. Beginning first with a retreat in sunny Big Sur, California, then, not speaking a word of Spanish, traveling solo to Peru. I remember so clearly the feeling that came over me while standing in line in the airport to reenter the United States– an overwhelming feeling of unbelonging. I spent the remainder of the summer post-Peru researching over-seas service work, but none of it seemed to sit right and so I returned to work in the same high school I’d been teaching in for another year.
The following summer I took a road trip across the United States, saw 26 states in 29 days hoping to find a place to call home, but again I returned in August, went on living in the same apartment, working the same job, feeling myself becoming more and more disconnected.
I decided that this year would be different. I’d rip the rug out from beneath myself. Take a blind leap without a safety net to catch me. I gave notice at the apartment I’d lived in faithfully for five years, packed all of the belongings I could not sell into storage, and piled only the necessities into my car– a long black trunk filled with my writings, clothes, a handful of books, and Boris my Russian Tortoise– and set out to begin again.
In November, while telling a co-worker about my wanderlust and desire to find a new place to call home, he suggested that I’d like Asheville, North Carolina. I searched for the city in Google images and fell in love with the mountain views, the beauty of the trees in the fall, nature not far from a busy downtown area. In the months to come at least half a dozen other people would tell me I should move to Asheville– none of them related, many of them strangers. I thought that was as good a sign as any that I should leap and hope that a net would appear.
Having stripped all else away– friends, family, home, work– my true self began to shine through brighter than ever before. In this place where no one knew my name I was free to be me, to let my hair down, to explore, and reinvent myself.
Last Friday night I found my way, alone, to a weekly drum circle in the city park. Moved by the deep, rhythmic beating I abandoned my place sitting side saddle on a rock at the back by the stage and found my way to the front to the open area where most just milled around and a few swayed to the beats. Almost instantly it began to downpour and nearly all the drummers rose and ran to find cover, but enough stayed behind to keep the music going. I found myself standing with just four others willing to weather the rain and with the sudden space we all began to dance– wild, expansive, soul stretching movements to the beat of the drums. I felt watchful eyes on me, saw the flash from camera phones and continued to move more freely than before.
There was no one around to recognize me, no fear of being spotted by students or interrupted by others and what did it matter if I was being recorded and shared by social media savvy onlookers? I was happy, so happy to just be me. There’s nothing more freeing than to be alone in a crowd without fear of recognition.
Without even realizing it, we hold on to expectations of ourselves and others. All who know me have a certain idea already about who I am and how I’ll act and what is expected or appropriate. It wasn’t until the move that I realized how many unspoken rules I had written for myself to obey. From minor things like never wearing sandals or shorts in public to bigger things like allowing labels like teacher or daughter or sister or wife or friend or relative to define me. I’d been holding myself hostage in whatever boundaries these boxes of relation had draw around me. Suddenly, without all the lines and restrictions, I found myself holding a paintbrush before a blank canvas, having all the colors in the world to paint with to redesign this landscape that I call life. To listen in to the small voice inside that is the true me, once a whisper, now singing loud and clear saying this, this is what you will do, this is who you really are. And the painting that is emerging before me is more beautiful than I could ever have planned.
Who am I and where am I going? For now and hopefully for a good long while to come I’m the anonymous woman who stands up in a crowd and isn’t afraid to be herself– to dance, to sing, to stare full on into the eyes of strangers, smile and say, “Hi, I’m Carmela,” and know that that phrase carries with it nothing from the past and only holds what is here, now in the present.