The summer after I graduated from high school, I worked at a Texas Roadhouse. While my friends quit their part-time jobs and packed their cars for college, I stayed behind, claiming that I was “choosing” to take a year off to live at home and save money. The reality was that we didn’t have money for college after the 2008 recession.
There’s something about staying home from college when all your friends leave, how summer bleeds into fall bleeds into winter. Time is strange when you’ve been following a school calendar your entire life. Suddenly, seven am meant nothing. No homeroom bell or geometry teacher was waiting to wake me up with equations. There was only silence in my parents’ basement, dirty dishes clattering in the sink at my part-time restaurant job.
My shifts finished around eleven, sometimes ten if it was a weeknight. After refilling ketchup bottles and cashing out my tips, I’d drive home, the street lights usually all green, wide open for my faded LeBaron to cruise on through. The house was dark by the time I parked in the driveway, Mom upstairs sleeping, my siblings in their rooms, Dad in his recliner watching reruns of Cheers.
My routine was always the same: peel the bbq-stained shirt from my body, scrub the smell of butter from my skin, stand under hot streams of water, welcoming in the silence, the steam. Then I’d make a cup of coffee, turn on relaxing music, light the candles on the dresser, and pull paintbrushes from the drawer.
I wasn’t an artist—I never could draw or paint very well—but I painted my feelings on the bedroom walls, my prayers too, and the words that I had scribbled on journal pages or dreamed about tattooing on my body. Mantras and scriptures and song lyrics, personal anthems and manifestations about my future, about where I hoped to be and go someday. The words helped me get through. They helped me find a semblance of security during that strange period when you’re hovering between girl and woman.
It’s silly thinking back on it now, the strange season of feeling lost and content at the same time. My purpose was the same every day: work at the restaurant, paint more words. Yet somehow, the monotony made me feel like the truest version of myself. In those late hours, I felt entirely sure of who I was and where I was going, even if I had no clear plan for whatever came next. When my mind was quiet and my hands were tracing thin lines with ink, I wasn’t pretending to be someone else or wearing a mask to conceal my feelings; I was leaning into my reality; I was leaning into me.
So many times I’ve lost myself—to the money, to the work, to the constant pull to be more, to be better. I can always tell because I forget to breathe. I live in my chest where everything feels tight and I don’t recognize the words coming out of my mouth, they taste gritty and bitter, they don’t sound like me.
Do you ever see a photo of yourself and think Who is that? There are times when I see pictures and I know exactly who the woman is staring at the camera. I feel close to her, like she’s familiar. But then there are other times when I have to do a double-take because I don’t recognize the version of myself in the frame. I don’t know the person staring back at me in the mirror.
I imagine losing yourself is probably something that happens from time to time, something to be expected as we do this journey called life and make decisions along the way. It’s inevitable that we’ll take turns that are not true to who we are. It doesn’t mean they are the wrong turns, maybe they aren’t meant for us though.
Yet we still take them. We make the turn because it’s alluring or because we lose touch with ourselves and forget about the girl who loved to paint words, who felt so sure of herself. The voice that tells us otherwise is silenced for some reason or another. It’s easy to do this when the world is such a loud place, to follow the trails that lead elsewhere, to places we have no interest in going.
On the contrary, I also think that we have to lose ourselves to find ourselves again, and there is something so beautiful about that act, about the remembering, about the moment when it clicks and you get to say, I’m off track. This isn’t me anymore. We wouldn’t get to have those moments if we were always doing it right.
Maybe then, the right trail isn’t the right trail at all but just the one we want to be on most of the time. But the other trails—the distracting ones—are meaningful still because they help us remember that, while there are a million different routes out there, there is only one meant for us, one that leads us back to ourselves, back to home.
I’ll end with this: Years ago, my husband and I were backpacking to a famous overlook in Norway and we followed the wrong path. For miles, we walked until we realized we were in a valley of houses, which wasn’t right because we were supposed to be headed up toward a mountain where we planned to camp for the night. It was so late already; we’d been one of the last few hikers to start the trailhead at just past four—the sun is almost eternal that far north. But we’d overestimated how easy the trail would be to follow and missed our turn. The walking was easy, and we were lost in conversation.
We had to backtrack for miles, then ascend for a few more to reach our destination. As it grew later, fog billowed around us and the dirt path turned to snow. It was cold and windy, and I only wanted to be back in the valley again, walking where it was easy and where we could see life and light happening inside the houses. But that wasn’t the right path.
When we finally reached the top, we set up our tent for the night and my husband attempted to create a small fire on our gas stove to heat water for noodles. We huddled in our tent, sipping noodle broth, wondering what was around us. The fog was so thick, and you couldn’t see more than a few steps in any direction.
In the morning, we woke to silence, the wind gone and a soft layer of clouds coating the sky. You could see everything: the surrounding peaks, the fjords jetting out in every direction. It was perfect and all of the moments of wandering from the night earlier seemed to no longer matter. Or actually, they mattered more because they had led us there. We had found the path, the way up to the mountain, and maybe the way back to ourselves. However you choose to see it, we were exactly where we were supposed to be.
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Wow! That last picture is stunning! <3
loved this 🤍 thanks for sharing!