Cold showers

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Tintagel, England (photo by Rebecca Gale)

Tonight I had the unpleasant experience of getting in the shower, patiently waiting for it to warm up before I stepped into its deluge completely, but then over the course of my shampoo and condition session, the water grew increasingly frigid. I don’t know if someone was running the washing machine or taking a shower unbeknownst to me or if the universe just hates me today, but I was not particularly thrilled by this unexpected surprise, especially being the cold-blooded being that I am.

As I shivered my way through the rest of my hair care routine (it takes a lot of conditioner to upkeep these luscious locks), my mind wandered to the more metaphorical times I’ve been left in the cold, in particular in relationships.

Today, I was walking past several places where this summer I felt particularly hurt or betrayed by a man, and it brought the frustration that has been simmering periodically below the surface of my psyche to a boiling point. Yet, I can’t shake the hope that maybe he’ll change his mind and see my worth…Well, not just see it, but value it.

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Tintagel, England (photo by Rebecca Gale)

I thought about how unfair it is that I still pity and worry about the well-being of this man and others who haven’t treated me particularly attentively over the years. I even pray for their well-being sometimes. I pride myself on being a caring, empathetic person; it’s part of my identity and I would hate to cut that part out of myself, but sometimes I do feel like I’m the butt of a joke, left shivering in a cold shower while someone basks in the warmth of a nice steamy one.

I pour out into others’ lives, take initiative to get to know them and pursue and keep up a relationship with them, but when I step back to see if they will return the favor, it’s radio silence. I do dumb (albeit adorable) shit like studying in the library every day because it was the best place I could be sure to run into the guy I liked freshman year, but who returns the favor (except for a couple creeps.)

It gets discouraging after a while when you feel like you’re the one doing most of the heavy lifting in relationships. It makes you wonder whether you’re just bothering people, whether anyone wants you. I know people are probably just busy and preoccupied with their own issues, but I can’t help thinking that if they cared and I was a priority, that shit would be something they would want to share with me, or at least wouldn’t be enough to keep them from checking in.

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Tintagel, England (Photo by Rebecca Gale)

I don’t know why I’m writing this, except that I’m sure someone out there knows exactly what I mean. And who knows, maybe it will inspire someone to send a simple text to an old friend and ask what’s up. It’s as easy as that. Letting people know you care. Asking how they are. Being honest about how you’re doing. It’s almost stupid how much we could help by just doing little shit like that.

I’m sick of being out alone in the cold sometimes. But I guess I’ll go dive into some blankets and try and warm myself up.

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Tintagel, England (photo by Rebecca Gale)

 

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Feeling Stupid.

I’ve experienced quite a lot of feeling dumb these past few months. It’s a pretty awful way to feel and has a tendency to make us shut down and not want to try any more for fear we’ll look more stupid.

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Glen Echo Park, Maryland (photo by Rebecca Gale)

Yesterday, I was working in the historic house that I am volunteering in as an intern this fall. It was my sixth day in the house and unfortunately the nature of working at such a busy museum is that most of your training is on-the-job, and it can be hard to get proper training even then because the house can be so busy that other staff members are talking to visitors most of the day so you don’t get a chance to ask questions or receive instruction.

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Glen Echo Park, Maryland (photo by Rebecca Gale)

Well, yesterday was busy, but I found myself being told over and over, “No, we don’t do that. This is the right way.” I was already tired out from having worked in the house two days before that and was going into the day with a “just make it till closing time” attitude because of the physical and mental fatigue. Being told I was wrong over and over did not help my emotional state improve too much, as you might imagine.

This summer, I participated in a program where I and five other undergrads learned about antiques in New England. While I love history and museums, I quickly found out that I knew relatively little about the subjects we were covering, namely furniture, art, and New England, especially in comparison with some of my esteemed colleagues. I frequently felt dumb, inferior, belittled, and less valued in comparison to my peers because I didn’t know all the answers.

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Glen Echo Park, Maryland (photo by Rebecca Gale)

I often found myself giving a wrong answer in a seminar session or biting my tongue on saying something because I was afraid of being wrong again and finding out I did have the right answers. Both situations made me feel equally stupid. When I found out some people questioned why I was in the program because of my ignorance, I was enraged but also insecure because they’re critique had hit on the inferiority I had been nursing over the course of the program.

 

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Glen Echo Park, Maryland (photo by Rebecca Gale)

 

Now, in both cases – this summer and yesterday – nothing was my fault. I just hadn’t received the training or come in contact with the knowledge I needed to do those things. And why should I know which cutting board is meant for pastry or what era a slat back chair falls into? Those are both pieces of very specialized knowledge that few people have the chance to be taught. Plus, both instances were supposed to be learning experiences, not examinations where I proved what I learned. All of life is a learning experience, yet we expect people to know how to do everything and live life right from the get go.

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Glen Echo Park, Maryland (photo by Rebecca Gale)

Knowledge and experience are happy accidents the majority of the time; what some people might call a blessing and others a privilege. Don’t get too down on yourself about not knowing things, and don’t be so hard on others. Maybe we all need to extend more grace to each other for our mistakes.

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Glen Echo Park, Maryland (photo by Rebecca Gale)

Lastly, I feel stupid because I keep developing romantic feelings for men who turn out not be be equally interested in me. I feel stupid that I’ve done this again. I feel inferior that people have come to just assume and expect that I’m single. I feel disappointed that the same scenario keeps playing out over and over and that I keep being duped. It seems like I should know better by now. But we can’t be so hard on ourselves. I feel like a failure, but none of this is my fault. And better to fail because you love than because of hate or neglect.

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Glen Echo Park, Maryland (photo by Rebecca Gale)

Maybe I need to stop framing my life in terms of mistakes and focus on accomplishments and growth. We are so much more than our mistakes. We should learn from them, yes, but we shouldn’t look at other people or ourselves just in the shadow of the things we don’t know or have done wrong. We label people constantly with the ways we’ve perceived they have lapsed – addict, crazy, failure, stupid, needy, slut. We turn adjectives into nouns and use them to write people off and box them into that mistake they’ve made.

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Glen Echo Park, Maryland (photo by Rebecca Gale)

You are not stupid. You are not a screw up. You have persevered. You have made it this far. You have accomplished. You do not have to be defined by your past or your mistakes or what you don’t know or haven’t done. You can find help. You can learn. You can grow. You can rise from the ashes of whatever haunts you in your past.

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Glen Echo Park, Maryland (photo by Rebecca Gale)

Song of the day

When friendships fade

Something I’ve struggled to learn over the past two or three years is that relationships have life cycles. Sometimes they thrive, sometimes they die. Sometimes that death is a violent murder, but most of the time it is a slow fade from existence, brought on by neglect. When you move somewhere new, people often forget to keep in touch, which can really hurt. Even if you are able to keep up, the relationship really isn’t the same.

This can especially be a struggle after graduating and leaving college and going from living with your friends every day to living across the country from all of them. Some people may continue to call you up, but many will fade out of your life, not even answering texts or letting you do all the work of a friendship. This can be really difficult to deal with, and sometimes it means the end of friendship, though sometimes a relationship can unexpectedly spring back to life again.

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Reproduction tea bowl and saucer, Small House, Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts (photo by Rebecca Gale)

I used to get really upset about relationships fading out because the other person got too busy or seemed to lose interest and wasn’t investing the same amount of effort into communicating as I was. I took that personally, thinking that the other person didn’t like me or want to be with me. I spent a lot of time in therapy processing through the hurt I felt because people didn’t seem interested in keeping up a relationship with me, especially after I transferred out of the first college I attended.

During that time, I struggled with a lot of frustration over my own needs and expectations for relationships not being met. Why didn’t people care enough to check in on me? Why did people pretend like nothing had happened when we did talk, when they knew full well I had left in large part because I was struggling with depression? Couldn’t they say they were sorry I was struggling or express some kind of sympathy instead of just joking around?

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Small House, Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts (photo by Rebecca Gale)

Eventually, I stopped attempting to continue having a relationship with many people who didn’t seem invested, cutting back to only a couple people who would ask how I was and be real about their own lives, making for a meaningful, two-sided friendship. At first, my cutting other people off was because I was angry, but then it evolved more to be about protecting myself emotionally. It’s pretty emotionally depleting to keep contacting a person and have them be apathetic about talking to you. I especially felt frustrated when I would share something personal about my own life and the person would say nothing or would just respond with something superficial.

I feel like vulnerability is sort of a currency; when you are open with someone, it helps them to feel more comfortable being open with you. But if you keep being open and they never reciprocate, you just feel embarrassed and almost disrespected because that person 1) is forcing you to do all the work of building the friendship, 2) doesn’t trust you enough to open up, and 3) isn’t invested enough in the relationship to open up more to deepen the relationship. I know that may not be entirely true and that some people struggle to be open or to vocalize their feelings, but I’m just saying that it can feel that way if you’re the one being open.

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Center Meetinghouse, Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts (photo by Rebecca Gale)

I’m still working on it, but in the past few months, I’ve started accepting more and more that relationships have their own cycles, just like anything else in life. Sometimes you’re really close, other times you’re not…it depends on life circumstances – whether you’re together or apart geographically, whether you’re busy, whether you are both going through similar events in life, how people’s emotional and physical health is, etc. It can be really hard to have a friendship that brings you a lot of joy and that you really cherish fade, but relationships change form and nature throughout their lifetime.

Sometimes you may have to be the one who carries a relationship, initiating all the conversations, checking in on the person, scheduling face-to-face meetings, etc. I know that can get tiring and frustrating and emotionally draining – it can even make you feel like people don’t want you. But ask yourself if the relationship is still meaningful and enriching to you. Notice I didn’t say that it still benefits you, because I don’t think relationships should be all about getting something out of it; sometimes you stick with people through difficult things because you love them, even though it’s draining to you.

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Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts (photo by Rebecca Gale)

But I think we all know deep down which relationships are ones where part of us would die if it died and which are ones where we know it’s just been one-sided all along. Sometimes it might be worth it to just let go of the relationship for a time; stop initiating communication, though respond if they reach out. If you’ve repeatedly reached out to a person and not had them respond, it’s time to take a break, for your own sake.

In these situations, I think it’s good to be mindful of whether that person is just going through something where they don’t have the capacity to reach out to you, but you can usually tell that they’re happy and grateful when you reach out to them at least. If that’s not the case, maybe it’s time to let go for a while. Or if the two of you aren’t even close enough that you know what’s going on that’s making it hard for them to keep in touch, maybe that’s another good indicator that it’s not worth continuing to empty yourself out to keep the relationship going.

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Asa Knight store, Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts (photo by Rebecca Gale)

There are times when relationships end; someone cuts you off or you have a fight or communication just isn’t reciprocated. This can be unspeakably tough. You might even go through a process of grieving the relationship, even if we don’t typically associate grief with friendships ending. But it can be extremely helpful just to acknowledge that, yes, you did lose something – and someone – you valued and, yes, there are hard feelings that come with that. Those feelings need to be acknowledged and processed through in order to heal and let go. It might even be worth seeing a counselor about or using a hobby – exercise, writing, painting, etc. – to work through your emotions and give yourself time alone to process things.

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Bellows in the Asa Knight store, Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts (photo by Rebecca Gale)

Oftentimes we deny ourselves the chance to acknowledge that something is difficult or we push negative feelings to the back of our heads, telling ourselves to remain positive or that it’s not a big deal. This can just perpetuate the hurt they cause. Even just acknowledging something hurt or is hard can help though. If you’re going through a friendship ending or even being not as close as you’d like, take this as your permission to hurt a little over that. Take time to reflect on the good times you had with that person, but also give yourself the dignity you deserve by refusing to blame yourself, spend hours wondering what went wrong, being bitter, or continuing to pursue the relationship if the other person isn’t interested.

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Bullard Tavern, Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts (photo by Rebecca Gale)

Better times will come (hopefully.) And you always have the company of the best person in the world – yourself 😉

Chapter Two

Today was better than other days. It’s good to get out, even if it’s hard to get yourself out there. I’ve been exhausted, struggling to adjust to my new sleep schedule, but I’ve been trying to force myself to go out and have mini-trips when I can.

Recently has featured Slater Mill, MA; Hartford, CT; Wellesley, MA; Brimfield, MA, and Sturbridge, MA, along with all the places along the way where I inevitably take a wrong tour and end up accidentally enjoying the scenic New England countryside. But I digress. Let me get to my “thank you” of today:

Today I’m thankful for people.

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Sturbridge, Massachusetts (photo by Rebecca Gale)

I’m honestly not usually thankful for people…They’re alternately annoying, frustrating, disappointing, and hurtful. Sometimes they’re all of those at once. I have trouble connecting with most people – I very rarely feel like I fit in anywhere. I’m an introvert and I definitely love my alone time, pondering life. Yet I long for meaningful friendships and relationships where I can be myself and know I’m supported.

The past couple weeks I’ve had some small moments where people I met warmed my heart, which gave me some joy to keep enduring. I started my second week of work yesterday and I had to spend about an hour helping shepherd some first graders around a museum. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past week and a half, it’s that kindergarteners and first graders are strange creatures. I sometimes question if they’re really even human.

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But as frustrating as the kids were at times (why won’t you listen to me when I tell you not to pick up fistfuls of the dirt on the road that animals regularly walk and poop in?), there was one little girl who, from the moment I joined the group, kept looking up at me like I was really cool (I’m not) and telling me random crap about her life in the most endearing way. She was quirky, and I like quirky people. I felt a little sad for her because I could tell even at 6 she was a bit of an outsider. Another little girl asked the person next to her if she could switch seats with them so she could sit next to me. This warmed my heart too. It’s nice to have a moment where you feel kind of cool.

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I found a frog in the marsh! Sometimes you have to kiss a few to find a prince.

To dust off our knees and stand back up to adult level, here’s a more comical misadventure of mine. A week ago, I was at Guitar Center looking for a new guitar with a pickup. I struck up a conversation with the staff member waiting on me, an attractive guy who seemed to be a few years older than me…and what can I say – I like older guys. I stayed probably over half an hour and he kept coming back and checking on me. The cynic in me said he just wanted the sale but the hopeless romantic in me wondered if he appreciated the unexpected visit of a young, fairly attractive woman who could talk acoustic guitars.

In the end, I had to leave before I could make a decision, so he gave me a card with his contact info on it before I left. Over the course of the hour-long ride home, I grew increasingly excited about the possibilities I began to imagine. I started to psych myself up, deciding I was going to ask this guy out. It was time I went on a proper date and he seemed normal and the other relationship I had pinned my hopes on seems to not be working out. I don’t mind asking a guy out. I know my girl friends tell me men don’t like to be pursued, but I know the kind of person I want so why not try and at least drop hints about your interest if not straight up initiate.

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My imagination runs away when it comes to relationships. I should probably move into this tiny fairy house and sequester myself from the world while I’m still ahead. (Sturbridge, Mass.)

When I got home, I decided to Google the guy before I got in touch. Lo and behold, I search the phone number he gave me, and it was the store telephone. I realized it was probably a business transaction. I laughed at my own silliness and inability to read whether men are interested in me. I felt a bit let down but a bit relieved. I don’t know if I could go on a date with someone who I didn’t know well. But people I don’t know well don’t seem interested in going on dates with me. All the same, the story is funny and I was humbled and I’m still glad to have met the guy.

But to balance out that slightly embarrassing interaction, two days ago I went to a CVS and as I was taking my bag from the cashier he told me as politely as possible, “You know, you’re really cute.” I was so surprised, I was flustered, but mostly extremely flattered and, honestly, a bit touched. I don’t think a guy has ever told me I’m cute before. I appreciate that guy’s bravery in complimenting me…I wouldn’t have had the guts to compliment a stranger, but it made my day.

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A single, unexpected, small gesture can leave you smiling with wonder. (Sturbridge, Mass.; Rebecca Gale)

People can hurt you and they can bring you unexpected joy that is like nothing else you’ll experience in life. Oftentimes the same person can bring you both. We can laugh with friends one week and complain about how they never call the next. Relationships ebb and flow and cycle; I’ve noticed people will get wrapped up in certain relationships and let their friendship with me fall to the wayside and then one day they will pick things back up with me again because their life situation or perspective changes. It used to irritate me to no end – I felt disrespected and neglected.

But with time I’ve come to accept that to some extent that’s just human nature. And when people need me, I’ll be here to listen and to try my best to empathize. I sometimes wish I had more people to do that for me, but at least I have been blessed with an incredible mother who consistently does that for me and has modeled what it is to be a compassionate, self-sacrificing, accepting human being. I value that above all else.

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The man who consumes my thoughts and heart these days…He has brought me so much joy over the past months. But also some pain. Disappointment, disillusionment, confusion, hurt – then a reconciliation that deepened our relationship beyond what I could have ever anticipated, shifting things from us being acquaintances to friends. Those conversations were invariably previous to me, as difficult as they were, because they were real and honest and I felt like he trusted and regarded me well enough that he was willing to open up. I didn’t take that lightly. It meant the world to me.

But it’s hard when you then feel like subsequently the person has shut you back out of your life after they let you be privy to their hurts and struggles. Because you’re then invested and you care and you are concerned, sometimes even worried. But you don’t want to press them for answers, yet you wonder what’s going on in their life. You want to be an encouragement but don’t know how to bridge the gap. You’re willing to pour yourself out, but you want to have at least a little indication that the person is receptive to your pursuits of a relationship.

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I’m sure lots of good memories were made here and it meant a lot to the family who once used it. Now it just looks like a dump to whoever comes by and peeks in. But it can always be fixed up again. Renewal of a relationship can be even sweeter.

Relationships are messy. And confusing. I’ve expended a lot of emotional energy and angst worrying over them the past several years. Sometimes it’s tempting to wish someone had never even been a part of your life because the hurt is so deep, the loneliness without them such a gaping hole that aches and yawns like an empty cave, making life appear that it will merely stretch into darkness from here on without them.

But I wouldn’t trade most of my relationships even if it meant I wouldn’t have some of the scars on my heart and body that I do. I learned, I grew. I keep learning. And even though you have to let go of people sometimes for your own emotional well-being, sometimes they come back.

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Sturbridge, Massachusetts – Sturbridge Treks trail (Rebecca Gale)

It’s easy to rewrite history to make a relationship all good or all bad to help yourself move towards whatever goal you have in mind – convincing yourself the person was all awful so you can break up or telling yourself that he’s perfect so you can push down those red flags that keep coming up when you daydream about finally kissing. I’m guilty of both. Maybe that’s part of the process of, well, processing a relationship. But I think the goal of a healthy acceptance of a relationship in your past is appreciation of the beautiful and acknowledgement of the ugly.

Sometimes people surprise me, even when I’m reeling from the ways other people have disappointed me.

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Still walking. Step by step. I don’t know how I’m going to make it sometimes, but I’ve felt that way many times before and I’m still here.

Well, that just sounds dumb…

Hi. My name is Rebecca Gale and I like to study old scrapbooks.

I’m pretty embarrassed about that…I feel self-conscious every time I have to bring it up. But I can’t seem to let go of my desire to look at these musty collections of random crap that I once described as “compressed trash bins.” They’re so strange and personal and cryptic and beautiful. They tell stories of people who didn’t get to invent gunpowder or write a best-selling novel or marry someone famous.

I love untangling those stories from the web of junk pasted onto crumbling paper and literally letting them see the light of day again. I love the sense of fulfillment that comes from giving voice to someone who has been overlooked. I love the fun discoveries that come when you open an envelope and find a love affair or a half-eaten cookie, the layers and layers of meaning, the little mysteries that will never be solved.

Beyond that, I think a little part of me is afraid that I’ll never make it into the history textbooks either, so I like to think maybe one day someone will open up the acid free archival boxes containing my own carefully constructed creations and give them a second glance. I like the thought of giving forgotten people a second life, a chance for their stories and secrets to see the light of day. Because I, too, one day will probably just be a box collecting dust on the shelf of some historical society shelf (if I’m lucky enough to even end up there.)

I know my reasons for loving scrapbooks are legitimate. I firmly believe deep down that they are treasure troves of historical knowledge worthy of attention and study. But I’m still embarrassed to admit I like researching something as girly, messy, silly and sentimental as scrapbooks, something associated with $7.99/pack Martha Stewart stickers, middle-aged moms, and glitter. Even using the term “research” to refer to them seems like a stretch. When I try to describe why I think they’re important to other people, I just get bashful and tongue-tied.

I was talking recently with my professor about how easy it is to feel insecure as a student. This summer, I participated in a fellowship program, learning about material culture studies, something I’m passionate about, but quickly realized I knew much less about than I thought. I spent a lot of the summer grappling with self-doubt, feeling dumb because I gave a wrong answer in a seminar or frustrated because I didn’t speak up when I did know the answer. I felt inferior to my colleagues who had a much more extensive knowledge of decorative arts and art history. I even occasionally felt angry, perceiving that I was belittled or underappreciated. (As a side note, I also think my teeth got even more crooked this summer, and I’d like someone to please contact my middle school orthodontist and demand a complete refund at this point.)

As I shared all this with my professor, I tried to counter-balance some of my ranting with the lessons I had learned along the way, in spite of how frustrated I had sometimes been. Mostly I was thankful for the clarity that the program brought to some of my goals for future study and my career. But at one point I also mentioned to her that maybe it was good for me to realize that I need to start finding value of my own academic abilities and scholarly worth within myself, rather than relying on external affirmation or letting myself be swayed by situations not going as I hoped or people criticizing my efforts.

My professor responded to this by telling about how she herself up until recently had constantly questioned her ability as an academic, all through the process of getting her PhD and even afterwards as she worked on writing a book. Then suddenly she realized that if she was passionate about her topic, others would see its value too. It was amazing to me that someone so obviously intelligent and capable, working in a legitimate, established, respected field of research could feel so insecure. But the more I get to know people, the more I realize that something most humans have in common is insecurity.

I’ve come across a lot of cocky people, especially in academics, who are constantly trying to name drop or network or make clear that they know just what or who it is you’re talking about. As annoyed as I get with these people, on a certain level, I feel bad for them, because I think that they’re the most insecure of us all. I could be wrong, but I think the constant efforts to prove themselves to people, even when nobody has asked them to, stem from some some need deep down to impress, which in turn comes from a fear that they are not enough.

I’ve been guilty of bragging and trying to prove myself too though most of the time my insecurity manifests itself as timidity or silent self-doubt. Either way it isn’t healthy. Insecurity in any form, about anything, eats away at us and distracts us from dedicating ourselves to whatever work or cause is our purpose in life. We drop classes, don’t turn in applications, put projects away in drawers, keep quiet instead of engaging in exploration of a topic, play it safe when we should take risks, don’t ask questions for fear of seeming ignorant, and don’t speak up for our cause or passion for fear of judgment, thus minimizing the impact we could have on the world.

Own your cause. Pursue your passion. Talk back to your doubt. Let go – bit by bit – of your insecurity. Move forward in spite of your anxiety. Speak out in spite of the fear of judgment. Continue to speak even when judgment – or perhaps worse, silence – comes. You were given certain interests and loves for a reason, so you could bring awareness to them. Unfortunately, not everyone will see the importance of your passion because not everyone is passionate about the same thing.

And sadly some people, because of their insecurity, feel the need to put down others’ passions in an attempt to validate their own. This is awful behavior, but also probably the sign that they are, deep down, a broken human being with their own self-doubt. But look for the people who are what Anne of Green Gables (another love of mine I’m always ashamed to admit) called “kindred spirits” – those who share your love. Or those who are allies, who can appreciate and support you and your love, even if it’s not theirs personally.

Cultivate relationships with those people. Take a risk and open up to them when you experience doubt about your work or even your value and ability as an academic. This is an act of strength that any good friend will respect you for and be happy to tell you not to be ridiculous, you are one of the smartest people they know, etc. And do the world a favor by being an ally, even to those who love something you just can’t get excited about, listening to their point of view, giving their work your time and attention, and letting them know that you respect their work and encouraging them to continue to pursue their passion.

Whoever you are, wherever you study, whatever you love, go for it. Do the best work that you can do. Practice articulating why what you love is worth studying. Write or speak about it for a non-academic audience to gain experience communicating your topic’s importance to the layman (no offense to non-academics – you are normal and wonderful.)

Love what you love and your passion will shine through as you speak and write about it. Others will be convinced and made to appreciate it too. Maybe not everyone, but some people. There is great power in doing work well and in doing what it is you were meant to do. Someone was meant to bring light to your topic, and that person may very well be you.

My name is Rebecca Gale, and I really love scrapbooks. (And, yes, I do make them too, okay.)

People Need other People

Yesterday I was on my way home when I walked past an older man who often sits on a bench on Main Street, taking in the ambiance, I guess. I’ve talked to him a couple times before, so I slowed down and said him, asking how he was. He inquired about my own life and I told him I was writing a research paper which was taking up most of my time at the moment.

He spoke some encouraging words about being able to finish and asked me what my plans for after the summer were. I hemmed and hawed, explaining I was in the middle of trying to figure something out; the subject has been weighing on my mind lately. He abruptly interjected, “You know, you’ve got personality. And that means you’re going to go far.”

I scrambled for words to thank him for such an unexpected compliment. Being a shy person, usually personality is the last term people use to describe me. People who have only met me a few times tend to assume I’m a placid doormat with a kind soul and a quiet voice, which may be true, but I always get frustrated that people don’t get to see the witty side of me, the side that loves dancing and singing along to the radio, making off-color jokes and doing impersonations and complaining about people I don’t like. Here was this man I had talked to for maybe five minutes of my entire life saying I had personality.

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Oxford, England…Different bench, different place, different people, but same idea, y’know. (Photo by author)

He went on to explain that hardly any other young people stopped and talked to him or even say hi. And then he told me about his own years of running the hockey rink at the local school, how he would keep an eye on people and notice when they were upset. How he knew one boy had diabetic seizures and called an ambulance because the kid didn’t look well and ended up saving his life.

How another time he saw a student sitting in the bleachers looking pensive and went up and asked what was wrong. The boy said his parents were getting divorced and he didn’t know who to stay with. This man drove the boy that weekend to talk to both of his parents and figure out what to do. I bet plenty of people assumed the kids at this place had so much money they didn’t need any other help, but those kids were just as needy as anyone else.

The school is going to name a room in the new hockey rink after this man. His hands shake and he has chronic migraines now. He can’t fly anymore because of an aneurysm in his neck. He told me he was afraid soon he’d have to stop driving on his own. We’re all frail and limited in what we can do. I’m sure at a ritzy prep school nobody thought much of the hockey rink manager, but as I stood there listening to his stories, I was struck by what a legacy he had left, beyond just a name above a door. He has left an imprint on a constellation of lives. I swear during the ten minutes I stood there, at least three people must have driven past and waved to him.

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Oxford England. I appreciate people who sit and enjoy the ambiance of a place. (Photo by author)

At the very least, this man brightened my day. Most of my summer here, I’ve felt inferior. I’ve felt bad for being the person who doesn’t have the next ten years mapped out. I’ve hated how quietly I talk and how awkward I am. How much I suck at networking because I get socially anxious and overwhelmed. Someone telling me I’m gonna go far and have personality? Thank you. I needed that.

I don’t know if I’ll do anything great in life or work at Sotheby’s like one of this guy’s former students, but I hope I can do what he has done – keep an eye out for people who are hurting and go out of my way to help them through whatever is going on. I don’t know if that will actually help me in my career the way this man suggested, but either way, people matter more than my LinkedIn profile. I’d rather leave this world knowing I helped people feel listened to than knowing that they knew what my name is. People need other people, and people need to know that someone is in their corner.

Humble pie

Working and studying in the field of history, I’ve slowly realized how important it is to approach the process of creating history with a healthy dose of humility. I guess that’s true of any area of study, actually, but I’ll stick with history for now. It’s a field where it can be very easy to fall into the mindset of trying to impress people with your knowledge, put forward a confident face, and emphasize what you do know, glossing over what you don’t. People may think this will get them a job – and maybe it will – but ultimately the ability to be a historian comes in the moments where you know that you don’t know…instead you have to find out.

Beyond that, you need to have a gratefulness for the people around you who make it possible for you to do your work – the business people in your museum, the custodians, the people whose history you capitalize on. You have to be willing to sometimes say, “I don’t know…Can you tell me more?” As I’ve been working on this fellowship, it’s been tough to step outside of my comfort bubble and share half-formed thoughts or guess at the use of bits of ceramics sitting on a table in front of me. I’ve felt stupid. Then I’ve realized that this is not about knowing everything, it’s about being willing to learn. And to learn, you have to take risks and sometimes end up humbled.

You have to listen as much as you talk. You have to be willing to sit and listen to long stories and source the public for their knowledge, because ultimately you’re telling this story for them and from their past. You can’t have the attitude that you’re above people because at the end of the day you depend on them. Historians only exist because there are people to write history about, and we need to have a sense of gratefulness to and appreciation for those people who we use to create our academic and professional careers. Writing my senior thesis was humbling in that I realized that the paper was not about me impressing my peers or a grad school program – it was about bringing to light and giving a voice to people who previously didn’t have one, letting them be as much a part of the historical narrative as the famous people who have dominated it for so long.

I guess I wish we approached history the way I wish we approached parties: instead of showing off and getting wrapped up in peacocking and telling our own stories, we would better serve the world by seeking out those not included in the conversation and asking them to share their own experiences. We should realize it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to do what we do – there are so many factors that have enabled us to be doing whatever we are doing. Not everyone gets the chance to pursue their passion as a career. Lots of amateur historians and history lovers who by some turn of fate or another didn’t get to pursue a career in history would love to be where we are, delving into archives and seeing behind the scenes.

I was humbled the other day to see a comment from a community member on a photo of my fellowship class asking whether the program accepts people 55 and older. It made me realize that while I’ve been whining about my schedule, other people would be more than happy to take my place. Since then, it’s reminded me to be grateful for the chance to be here. When working in and studying history are exasperating, I wish we would remember how privileged we are. And I wish we would remember how many people have stories we still need to tell.

One foot in front of the other

The entire car ride up here, I felt my stomach churning with anxiety, my chest tightening with every thought of the unknown that lay ahead. By the time the car turned onto Main Street, I had tears in my eyes from the stress and I thought I was going to blow chunks.

Once we pulled into the small gravel lot though, it was time for action. The next few minutes were a blur of new faces and signing papers and trying to think of something clever to say but drawing a complete blank. I took the keys and said thank you and hopped back into my parents’ car to drive to my new summer lodgings, a weathered, wood-paneled addition onto the back of a brick Federalist house, bookending the finish of a tree-lined street.

My excitement picked up as I ran up and down the stairs, exploring the nooks and crannies of my new home and deciding which room to pick. We hauled my obscene amount of newly purchased professional clothes and bags of tattered “I guess these are still nice enough” shoes into the spacious, if a bit run-down, room. Then my parents suggested we go for a walk through the historic district before they said good-bye for the night.

As we headed back down the road, underneath the shade of the trees, I turned to my mom and said I missed her and dad already. My stomach squeezed at the thought of going back to have a proper conversation with my new co-workers. I’m not famous for talking well in groups, and while I’ve made vast improvements in my social anxiety, the pressure of making a good impression on people I need to get along well with for nine weeks was a bit overwhelming.

But somehow, I hugged my parents, and went to have an awkward but interesting conversation with my newfound colleagues. Little did I know I would be laughing until I cried with some of them, swapping stories about crushes, and staying up way too late for recent college students who now have to wake up at 7:30am.

First weeks are always incredibly stressful, especially if you’re an already anxious person; meeting people whose names you can’t remember, navigating new relationships, figuring out how to answer all the “nice to meet you” questions. Even worse is hearing the laundry list of assignments, rules, and protocol and wondering how on earth you’re going to accomplish this all without crying yourself to sleep every night. This week was no different, but I was incredibly blessed to be able to connect with the people around me like I’ve never been able to do before. This meant that, while my chest still felt like caving in at times, I was able to stretch myself rather than just feeling completely overwhelmed and defeated. I guess the following is a stream-of-consciousness collection of lessons I’ve been learning over the start of this journey:

Other people are stressed too. I tend to assume that because I struggle with anxiety, I’m the only one who’s having a tough time, but that’s not true. People might only give you little glimpses of it, but if you pay attention, or maybe just even put yourself in their shoes, you might realize that other people are overwhelmed too. It can be helpful to be understanding and cut people a break, and to feel less alone, like you’re the only one struggling. Similarly, I think sometimes you need to open up and let people know you’re overwhelmed – nothing major, but just a bit of honesty with someone who you think might understand. You might receive an obnoxious pat reply, you might get some encouragement, you might find you’re not alone. But it’s good to be genuine. In my opinion, people can’t hate genuine. And it does more good than pretending you’re superior to others.

Stretching yourself to your limits is terrifying, but it really does help you to grow.

Don’t approach life trying to prove yourself to other people, but be humble and willing to ask about what you don’t know and remember how much we all have left to learn. Classmate and colleagues can sometimes, admittedly, feel like competition, but we’re all here to learn from one another. We all bring unique experiences and backgrounds to the table, so it’s worth learning from each other rather than, a) beating ourselves up for not knowing enough, or b) dropping names and dates to prove we’re hot stuff.

It’s not about being the best, but doing the best you can.

At the end of the day, whatever work you do isn’t about furthering your career, but rather contributing to your field, and ultimately to the world. Approaching work with this kind of attitude is humbling, and can help take the pressure of impressing people off of projects and let us reconnect with the joy of doing what we’re passionate about.

It’s okay to be a quiet person. Some times this week, I’ve felt guilty for not talking enough or not volunteering an answer because I was too nervous or not being able to think of something to ask a person I found myself standing next to. I’ve felt bad for having a quiet voice that gets talked over instead of commanding attention, for being tentative instead of self-assured. But then I contrast my experience with the self-assured people who seem to have it all together with the down-to-earth, vulnerable, relatable people who connect with you without pretenses, and I realize that, while it’s always good to continue pushing myself to be less tentative and fearful, I don’t need to be ashamed of being someone who listens more than she talks. We need people like that in the world to create safe havens where we can be ourselves, not be judged, and feel understood and comfortable.

And I have to cut myself some slack some times…we can’t do everything perfectly. If I don’t say much at a meal, that’s okay. I’m not one for small talk; I’d rather have a one-on-one or small group conversation where we really get to know each other or come up with inside jokes or really, genuinely laugh until I cry…the kind of laugh where you look ridiculous but are in such good company you don’t even care because you know they won’t judge you.

Even when I make “mistakes,” what matters is that I’m trying. I’m stretching myself a little further every day to overcome fear, push through anxiety, and dismiss hesitancy. While other people, myself included, may only see my shortcomings compared to an ideal of gregariousness and forthrightness, I know how far I’ve come. They don’t know that I used to never speak in class. They don’t know that two years ago, I considered quitting college. It’s easy to let shame darken our hearts because of societal stigma or bad reactions we’ve gotten in the past. Celebrate the obstacles you have overcome; let them remind you of the strength you have built and the mileage you have traveled to get to this place. The things that have cut you up inside (or perhaps even out) and left you broken have given your a story, made you wiser, stronger, more loving. The world needs broken people to pour love out into lives of others. I supposed there’s a time and place for a confident facade, but more and more I wish we made more room for an honest conversation.

More importantly, I firmly believe that, as cheesy as it sounds, empathy and humility can make a big difference in communities, relationships, group dynamics, and our lives if we let them. If we’re vulnerable, we can have deeper, more satisfying relationships, but we have to open up if we want others to see who we are so they can love us. We have to be present if we want to make connections that make an experience rich and fulfilling.

Girl talk.

Last week, I was expressing my discouragement over the immaturity of the men I interact with to a mentor of mine and was met with advice I’ve heard time and again, “While you’re waiting for a good guy, invest in your female friendships.” I completely see the merit in saying this, but I also stand by my reply to this woman: “Yeah, well the problem is that those are pretty crappy too.” Those words have continued to ring true in my life since I spoke them, so I figured I would share some of my brewing thoughts on the subject, as intimidating as it is so broach such a personal – and political – subject, where it’s so easy to say one wrong thing and set all of social media ablaze.

As much as I’ve agonized over the poor treatment I’ve received at the hands of men over the past few years, I would say that the hurt I’ve experienced at the hands of female friends has been equally, if not more, devastating. I spend a good chunk of my time lamenting with other women about the lameness of guys — how on and off again their affection is, how judgmental and condescending they can be, and how they can fixate on another woman who isn’t as good of a person as you. But if I think about it, I’ve experienced all these same types of betrayals by many of my female friends as well.

As what I predict might one day be called a Third Wave of Feminism has exploded in the past several months, it’s been interesting to see how some women I know will post photos at marches and then cut me down in a text a few weeks later. I’m a big believer in the mantra that “actions speak louder than words” — as much as I love words and the power of written language, if your actions contradict your fine phrases, your declarations really mean nothing. I’ve seen a lot of what my sister dubbed “Instagram Feminism” in the past months; women who make a show of decrying institutional injustice, but return to real life, if you will, the next day and cut down, ignore, and mistreat their fellow woman. What is especially baffling to me is when women pour their efforts and energy into the men in their life at the neglect – or even expense – of supporting their female friends and coworkers.

I’m not one to say that I’m super happy to be a woman or anything — I’ve had my period too many times for that. But I will say there is something special when you get together and really bond over the shared experience of the uniqueness of the female life cycle (including a good complaining session about the menstrual cycle.) We all have some common ground in terms of our experience and outlook on life that men will never understand. I think there’s something really beautiful that happens when we come together and open up about our hearts and lives and embrace and support one another through the unique trials and triumphs of womanhood, helping each other find our way and our identity as our own perspectives shift and the world around us evolves.

I know I’m as guilty as anyone of the aforementioned critiques. I’ve never been much into politics, and I’m guessing some women I know have judged me at one point or another for not marching or sharing op-eds on social media or ranting about the news. I’ve had my share of anger about the comings and goings of this election cycle and its aftermath, but I’ve ultimately decided that it’s not worth risking my mental health to get worked up about things I feel I have no control over. I’m not judging others who do, but I will say I’ve found more fulfillment in looking around me and seeing the individual needs of the people in my own life and doing what small things I can to try and support them.

I can do even more in this regard, but I think this is how change happens — little actions and words of encouragement. Asking people to meals. Forming small groups of friends to create solidarity to support one another in the face of both larger political and cultural trends as well as the “small” barrages of life. I’ve experienced some tough crap in my life, and it’s only been made worse when my fellow women have not stood by me, or have even judged and mocked me.

I’m not saying you have to be best friends with every woman you meet; you should evaluate people based on their character and actions and break off friendships that are more toxic than uplifting. But if you call yourself a feminist (or even if you don’t), take time to consider how well your actions and attitudes align with that label. Think about how you can better support other women. If we believe that we are not treated fairly by society, then we need to be the first ones to set the tone by treating one another with respect, appreciation, sacrificial kindness, attentiveness, and dignity.

How to be a Better Human: Food for Thought About Friendship

This is a longer version of a post I wrote for “Around the Grove,” the student blog of the Unviersities at Shady Grove. I’m also considering writing a series of posts called “How to be a Better Human” with my unsolicited advice about being a kinder, more compassionate member of human society who gives back, and this will be a precursor to that.

If you’ve logged onto your Facebook recently, you might have noticed that Facebook is celebrating their “birthday” with a holiday they created called “Friend Day.” Now, personally, I don’t have a great track record with having good friendships in the last few years, so I thought it might be interesting to reflect a bit on friendship in my first blog post this spring semester. A lot of people say, after all, that the friendships you make in college are part of what makes your experience so meaningful. The flip side of this, of course, is that bad friendships or a lack of strong friendships can make a college experience really difficult.

The beginning of the semester tends to be a time when people have friendship on their minds: getting to see friends from last semester again, trying to make new friends if you just transferred, meeting new people in your classes, etc. I figured I would offer a few unsolicited pieces of advice that I’ve learned from experience of the years on the subject, particularly as they relate to starting back at school:

  1. Be open to making new friends (even if you’re a senior.) I’ve heard seniors tell friends they don’t want to bother with meeting new people because they’re about to leave anyways. You never know when great opportunities will come your way, and you might be surprised how many friends will drop out of your life once you move on to a new place. So be careful about writing people off or closing yourself off to the potential of forging new friendships. If you’re not a senior, it can be easy to get comfortable with your friend group and neglect making new friends. There are lots of interesting people in the world who are worth getting to know and who might expand your horizons and enrich your life.
  2. Be open to being friends with people you wouldn’t normally hang out with. Some of the most unexpected people have ended up being my best, most loyal friends over the years, so don’t write people off as not your type too quickly. Also, be aware that some people take a longer time to warm up to people and open up to others and show their true personality (like yours truly!) We all have a tendency to be attracted to the loudest person in the room, but consider trying to get to know the quiet people on the periphery; I’ve come to learn they can make great friends and have a lot to offer (though maybe I’m a little biased!)
  3. Welcome new students. All of us undergrads at USG have experienced being a transfer student. Maybe it went well for you or maybe it was really lonely and stressful. Either way, have some empathy for those who are just arriving and welcome them: introduce yourself, include them in conversation, and just be open to getting to know them. It’s sadly not unheard of for some people to look down on newbies, but we’ve all been the new person…Do you really want to be the jerk who forms a clique and excludes others?
  4. Cut off toxic friendships. This doesn’t directly relate to school life, but I think new years and fresh beginnings can be a great reminder to clean out toxic habits, thoughts, and people from our lives. A lot of us at USG have moved from other schools or places, and I’m sure many have experienced the frustration of friendships we cherished fizzling out. It’s helpful to remember that some relationships are just meant for a certain part of our lives; people come and go. If someone isn’t invested in you and prioritizing your friendship at the same level that you are and you find yourself more hurt than uplifted by that relationship maybe it’s time to let go.
  5. Even though you’re busy, remember to let people know you’re invested in them. Nothing kills a relationship like an unresponsive friend. So even though you have a lot on your plate, remember to take a moment here and there to do these things for friends and loved ones:
    1. Ask them how they’re doing
    2. Tell them why you appreciate them
    3. Leave them a note or send an encouraging text
    4. Let them know you are thinking of them
    5. Respond to their emails, texts, etc. in a timely manner (or let them know you will get back when you have the time)
  6. Respect others’ points of view and be a good listener. Obviously, our political and social climate right now is very tense and full of harsh words. As a community of scholars, I think it’s crucial for us to continue to respect the opinions of others, listen to their point of view, and try to be understanding rather than just dismissing or insulting whatever we don’t agree with. A lot of people feel powerless right now, but, as corny as it sounds, I think the communities we create in the little worlds we each inhabit can have ripple effects into the world around us. And we can make a huge impact on the people around us – for better or for worse – in our daily interactions.

Well, with that, I think I’ve said more than my fair share, but I hope that you all will enter this semester open to new relationships and that you’ll be able to find some kindred spirits to brighten your life among the swamp of papers, projects, and textbook readings!

Best of luck with this new semester!