I know who I can’t be now. I also know I have something to offer. I don’t crave success, but I crave usefulness. And I crave someone who can help guide me. But the more I think about trekking into the great unknown—to be that iconoclast forging beyond charted territory—I know there are no guides.
Julia Child’s kitchen is on display at the Smithsonian in D.C. It’s a grand place, with a place for everything and everything in its place. If you look closely, you’ll see that the countertops are taller than your standard kitchen because Julia Child was six feet, two inches, and her husband built the kitchen to fit her and not the other way around.
But imagine the standard real estate agent, straight out of HGTV, advising Julia and her husband. “That’s a great idea,” she would say, “But it won’t help with resale. There aren’t a lot of six-foot-two, avid cooks who are going to buy this house.”
We live in a world of standardization; of lowering the bar to the needs and abilities of the middle; of speaking to the majority; and of telling innovators what can’t be done because it’s never been or because no one is ready for it. We’re told to wait, slow down, and be practical.
I only became innovative to survive. In some ways, many things were tailored for me, but not everything. I was a gifted Mexican girl with multiple sensitivities and parents who didn’t know the first thing about how to raise me. They recognized that I was smart, so they shoehorned me into activities and a career field that was for smart people and that was a measure of success. I tried with all my might to fit in. This giant, brilliant brain was constantly trying, failing, lamenting, and trying again. But it rarely worked, and I ended up directing all that frustration inward and hating every molecule in my body.
And then the most beautiful thing happened. At the age of thirty-six, I’d become an utter failure. I’d lost my career. I was diagnosed with mental illness, then with autism. Then a divorce. Then no friends. Then failing at two other career attempts.
People stopped caring about me. They judged me a failure by all the standard markers. I’d tried every solution but proved ill-adapted for all of them, despite being brilliant. I stopped flailing, ready to drown. If they had long stopped waiting for me to save myself, I was actively trying to make sure I could never be saved. Suicide was the best way for me to take control of the situation. But even at suicide, I failed.
As Red says in The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” I came to a reckoning with myself—if I’m stuck on this planet for a while, I might as well try a solution I haven’t tried yet. I couldn’t continue to suffer so profoundly. It was a sentence worse than death.I found a life coach, and I got a therapist. Between the three of us, we broke me down and built me up a million times stronger—similar to what I’ve only heard described as positive disintegration. How? They challenged everything I thought I knew to be true. For every “I can’t!” they came back with, “Why not?” Done enough times over all my closely held beliefs, it broke my mind enough to keep it open. And then I began confronting every problem I had in new ways.
I looked for ways to make my life easier and end the struggle of trying to fit into a world that wasn’t made with me in mind. Before I knew it (not an exaggeration), I was a kinder, stronger, and more curious person. I had a sense of who my integral self was. And I wanted to fight for that person I’d discovered.
People noticed. I hadn’t advertised it. But it must have been obvious. I started receiving positive feedback on these changes, which informed my subsequent growth. From the outside, all this seems easy. It was not. It was painful and required a lot of energy. It required a great deal of painful sitting, figuratively, with the people I’d hurt and who had hurt me. Some days, the one thing that got me through the pain was the knowledge that it wouldn’t hurt forever—because nothing in the past ever had or could.
Here’s where I acknowledge my privilege: I’d gotten a very nice divorce settlement, which I invested to pay for my living expenses. This allowed me to spend entire days just working on me, which was and is a full-time job. When I was going through my divorce, I hated myself way more than my ex did. But I fought tooth and nail—if not for who I was then, then for the glimmer of hope for the future Vene who might actually amount to something. It was the first of many things I’d do right.
So here we are today. I’m not perfect. But I’m also not so self-loathing that my misery is a transmittable disease. What now?
I went to the SENG conference looking for answers. Find a mentor? Check. Accept my gifts/burdens? Check. Devote life to creativity? Check. Be a mentor? Check.
To get here, I had to smash a lot of idols and walk against the tide of human nature. I had to break ties with social conventions and those who cannot see past them. I had to survive people calling me crazy, weird, zany, kooky, unrealistic, or contrarian. I isolated myself from mainstream jobs. In giving myself the right to be the most me I can be, I had to close doors to normal possibilities. I had to slam them, lock the door behind me, and cement the opening.
I know who I can’t be now. I also know I have something to offer. I don’t crave success, but I crave usefulness. And I crave someone who can help guide me. But the more I think about trekking into the great unknown—to be that iconoclast forging beyond charted territory—I know there are no guides. It feels a bit daunting and lonely. But if I have anything going for me, it’s that my instincts have gotten me this far. I just need to trust them going forward.
There has to be a reason all this came together—not for me, but for someone else. The existential angst nags at me constantly. I have inklings of what I can do, and I sit with the discomfort of knowing how unconventional they are. Part of me wishes I were a nun in a convent, my earthly needs taken care of while I ponder the bigger questions in life. But my mind is informed by corporal experiences: sex, music, foods, and sunshine.
Part of me says: everyone else has figured it out, why don’t you? Then I remind myself that the idea is patently false, and, even if it were true, it’s still not a reason why I should. Or maybe I already do, and I’m just not aware of it yet. Maybe I’m the useless piece of metal that finds its way to Titan in Kurt Vonnegut’s, Sirens Of Titan, and my uselessness is only determined when it suddenly becomes the most useful thing of all in the right hands.
Until then, if I’m going to be alive on this planet for a while, I might as well enjoy it and stop apologizing for figuring out my problems in novel ways. Nothing innovative ever got done by worrying about what others thought. Lest we forget, the word revolutionary only became imbued with meaning because Copernicus dared to exclaim that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not the other way around. It’s about time for a new revolution.