Reality Check

January 20th, 2017

I was watching “Reality Bites” a few days ago. As I binged on ’90s nostalgia — and reminisced about the days when Ethan Hawke’s dirty-sexy Troy Dyer was my ultimate man-crush — I was struck by a quote from Winona Ryder’s character, Lelaina. “I was really going to be somebody by the time I was 23.”

When I watched this movie for the first time in the ’90s, I’m sure I had the same thought. And it begs the question: What does it mean to truly be “somebody?”

Since the point of a blog is to share honest, raw and sometimes ridiculous thoughts, there’s something I have to admit. I have no idea who I am. Or if, indeed, I am “somebody.”

I feel like over the years I have reinvented myself more times than Coke, the Catholic Church and Madonna put together. (I still do my best to put the New Coke years behind me.)

When I was a child, I dreamed of being … something. But I am not quite sure what that something was. I just knew I wanted to be someone people looked up to. Someone kind. Someone cool. Someone inspiring. Someone others would aspire to be.

Growing up in a small town in Wisconsin, I had two choices: stay and embrace the John Mellencamp-style Americana or go and find something different. I chose to go.

Although I love my birthplace with the kind of adornment you might feel for a favorite pair of old, ripped jeans (comfortable but only worn for painting your bedroom or when you’re PMSing), I could never imagine making a life there. It’s a little too close for comfort.

So I went off to college, and decided to become a journalist. And I did all those things you were supposed to do to end up the managing editor of a city newspaper or a lifestyle writer for a women’s magazine. I had five internships. I was the Editor in Chief of the college newspaper. I wrote. I drank. I had an endless string of meaningless relationships. I wrote some more.

Then I met my future husband and moved to the city — Milwaukee. (How big it seemed at the time, and how small it feels after 17 years. But that’s another column.)

By all accounts, I was somebody by the age of 25. I was the managing/fashion editor of a city magazine. And I was that somebody for a decade. Completely defined by my career.

In that time, my marriage ended. But I had my career. Friends came and went. I had my career. My grandfather, who raised me, lost his battle with cancer. I had my career. I moved, I dated, I ate, I drank, I slept. I had my career. It was utterly impossible to separate myself from the persona I had become.

Then one day, I quit my job, and I wondered, “Now who will I be?” After nearly five years, I still don’t know if I have fully recovered from the jarring experience of having to find a new way to define myself.

I’m 39 years old (or as I like to say, almost 40. Don’t ask me why). And suddenly I have no idea who I am. I have a new career that allows me to work from home, travel and spend most of my days focusing on my love of fashion. But I don’t want that to define me, either. I don’t want to enter the same vicious cycle of “what I do is who I am.”

So, what is it that defines us? Is it our careers? (We sure try to make it that.)

Our marriages? (Oh hell.)

Our children? (Do dogs count?)

Our number of Instagram followers? (Considering Fox News has 1 million, I hope not.)

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s our ability to reinvent ourselves — even when we have no idea who or what we are becoming. Maybe it isn’t being that elusive “somebody” after all that is the key to happiness. Maybe it is just allowing ourselves to be.

As humans, we always seem to find a way to move on. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But the point is, we do move on. We change. We readjust.

Lelaina wasn’t wrong to expect to be somebody by the age of 23. She had goals. She worked hard to achieve them (even by 90s Diet Coke-slugging, chain-smoking, Gap-shopping standards). She already was someone but spent too much time focusing on her career — or lack thereof — to see it. We are all somebody. Even if we have no idea who that it is. And maybe that’s OK.

The good news is we have an entire lifetime to grow; to define ourselves by our actions and thoughts rather than our careers, possessions and failures. And in the end, become whoever the hell we want to be.

(Photo by Matthew Haas Photography)