The Places Where I Came From

I was driving home today and an idea for an engaging blog post came to mind. I considered making a note in my phone to remember but chose not to because 1) I was driving and 2) it was such a good idea, and so relevant, I wouldn’t possibly forget.

Well…I forgot.

I know it had something to do with family, and geographic locations, and my 30 Before 30 list, but I can’t seem to make the connection right now. So what you’re getting instead is a smattering of those. Maybe by the end I’ll tie it together…

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For people who’ve met me relatively recently – meaning pretty much everyone I’ve met in the last 5 months since I moved to NJ – I appear to be “from Long Island” because that’s the answer to the usual “so where did you move here from?” question I’m asked. It’s not that I don’t want to elaborate, but I sometimes feel like it would be impossible to try to explain where I’m really from in a linear fashion. Hint: it’s not Long Island. I did spend the longest time in one apartment as an adult in LI, which is an achievement for one with nomadic bones like mine, but my personality wasn’t really shaped there.

I did most of my growing up in the deep South – Georgia and North Carolina, to be exact. Yet I can clearly remember a time in my life when I was nearly fired from a new job because I told the caller “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Southern, may I put you on hold and find someone who does?”

I wasn’t born in the South.

I was born about as far away as you can get, in Maine. I lived in the same house until I went to college, in a small rural area where we had a small farm with chickens, rabbits, horses, cats, and dogs.

For many years I was embarrassed of where I came from. I felt like it made me poor, or “country,” or unworldly. I went to college in Westchester County, New York – a beautiful upscale suburban area just outside Manhattan – and realized how sheltered I’d been in Maine. Looking back on my time in college I wish I’d taken more risks. I wish I hadn’t been so afraid of where I came from, or what others thought of that, or what it meant for my future. Newsflash: your past does not dictate who YOU are. Sometimes I feel like I’m STILL learning that lesson, nearly 15 years later.

I got my first apartment in Boston. It didn’t last long, but I learned a lot from the experience…most especially that if I could survive the cutthroat September 1st move-in-date in the Boston rental market, I’d probably be okay as an adult. I’ve lived independently since then.

Here’s the potentially-confusing linear progress my life has made:

Maine > Westchester County, NY > Boston > Westchester County, NY > Cape Cod, MA > Westchester County, NY > North Carolina > Georgia > Long Island > New Jersey

Granted, the Westchester days were all between the ages of 18-23: the college years. I transferred out (and subsequently returned) and spent months away, but I graduated on time from the college at which I started. The big moves slowed down after a while, but I moved – if I remember correctly – 12 times in 10 years. Even in NC and GA, I usually moved apartments when my lease ran out. I once owned a home and sold it and don’t plan to get on that train again anytime soon.

All of these physical locations have helped shape me in some way. Right now, of course, eating farm-grown local food is en vogue and more people are heeding the marketing call to get outside. I grew up in an area in which I could be outside all the time. I did multi-day backpacking trips in the Maine wilderness – including portions of the AT – before I graduated high school. I climbed trees in my backyard and rode a snowmobile to school. Hell, I even ran to – and from – school on those quiet rural roads sometimes. I spent more money than I’m proud of on a quality Pendleton flannel shirt that looks suspiciously like the one I’m wearing in my 6th grade class picture. What’s old is new again. I’m actually kind of proud to be “from Maine” these days.

That in-between time – my time in the South – is a little harder to explain to new acquaintances. I did a lot of growing up there, and learned how to take care of myself in ways I probably never would have needed to do had I stayed in the Northeast. I was there from ages 23-28. At first, I refused to utter the word “y’all” and I couldn’t stand having conversations with older people who pronounced my name with more than two syllables. I didn’t understand football and moonshine wasn’t something you actually got in an unmarked jug from this guy who knew a guy. Now, however, my Southern accent comes out en force when I’m in standstill traffic (“what are y’all doin’?”) or I’ve had a drink. Every time a rendition of “Georgia On My Mind” comes on the radio – which is pretty often since I listen to the jazz station – I can’t help but smile and sing along, thinking of that sweet, slower-paced life I once lived. I’m actually kind of proud to be a little bit Southern too.

I’ve struggled with feeling like an imposter in my own life – like I’d managed to “Gatsby” myself somehow and create who I am, despite whatever my background may have been. However, I’ve learned that’s…actually what you’re supposed to do. Circumstances shouldn’t dictate who YOU are as a person. Your choices do. I CHOOSE to backpack, cycle, sing, write, be a vegetarian, travel, explore. Would I make the same choices had I been born into different circumstances? I don’t know. I don’t know if I would be the same strong person with the same pull to the outdoors if I didn’t spend my childhood outside. I don’t know if I would be so easily adaptable in unfamiliar situations if I hadn’t been thrown into a whole bunch of them in rapid succession. I don’t know if I would appreciate how fantastic it is to have a peaceful place of my own if I hadn’t lived with some really difficult people. I don’t know if I would value sleep and quiet time so much if I hadn’t spent so many late nights gigging in a rock band or wondering how I was going to pay the bills.

Choosing your own path is not being fake if it’s genuine. It takes a really long time to get to know yourself. I just finished Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” which resonated deeply with me. It can be really hard to “Be Sarah” sometimes, but at the core, whatever it is that makes me who I am is what will make me happiest. And if that means embracing the bit and pieces that shaped who I am, that’s great – regardless of who anyone else may expect me to be. As the Hebrew on my wrist reads – loosely translated – “If I am not myself, who is me?” Not what I know, not where I’m from, not what I do. But who I AM. Choosing my own path, being Sarah, being ME, is the best way to honor the experiences who shaped me into who I am.

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