Who I Could Have Been

I’m eleven. I’m at my grandparents’ house. After a full plate of steaming rice and choresht, I wander to the only (small) shelf of English books at their home. I chance upon an old textbook my uncle tucked into their bookcase years ago, after finishing some Intro to Psych course at community college. I’m sure it has not been opened since.

Abnormal Psychology

Behavioral Psychology

Biopsychology

Cognitive Psychology

Developmental Psychology

This branch of psychology looks at development throughout the lifespan, from childhood to adulthood. The scientific study of human development seeks to understand and explain how and why people change throughout life.

I read the definition over and over again until it sunk in.

Cha-ching.

Something shifted inside. …To understand and explain how and why people change throughout life. This read so… Right. Understanding what makes people tick…. This would be my life’s calling. This!

After that chance discovery, I knew with confidence what I would be one day – a psychologist. I would help people. I would have the keys to the mystery of how we become who we are and why some things hurt more than others… There was no looking back. I volunteered with developmentally disabled young adults in high school. On the first day of college, I spoke to my Mentor about how to get into graduate school. I was laser focused. And after four years, a number of prestigious research opportunities and a 3.8 GPA, I was 21 years old in a PhD program in Clinical Psychology. If Facebook was around then, you’d see a selfie of me, funky vintage clothes and all, with the hashtag #imadeit.

I. Knew. What. I. Was. Going. To. Do. With. My. Life. There was no mystery. I was elated.

That certainty was so intoxicating. I remember sitting at a Shabbos table, incredibly adept at chit-chat after years of being the perennial Shabbos guest (going to boarding school at age 14 will do that). Inevitably, talk turned to “So what are you girls doing with yourselves?”  While others fiddled, the confidence I had in telling people my lifelong goals was apparent.  “I’m in a Doctorate program in clinical psychology,” “I’m going to be a psychologist.” It wasn’t arrogance. It was security. A sense that I could breathe. A sense that my soul’s path was obvious- and understood.

After I finished my first year of graduate school, I went to Israel for the summer. Toward the end of my trip, I found myself in a small community on the water, on a beach nestled between two mountains. I stayed there for a bit. Maybe it was the stillness. Maybe it was the energy… But I started feeling things I never had before. A certain creative courage crept up inside of me, completely daring and unreserved. I wanted to paint. I wanted to draw. I wanted to talk new ideas for gadgets that had never been built before… I wanted to create. And it didn’t stop with that valley of butterflies and blessings. On my trip back to the States, I started photographing things. My feet in their Old Navy flip flops, the peeling pedicure after weeks of traveling. My reflection in the airplane’s window, clouds seen through my face. Hands. Eyes. Smiles. Whatever I could, as long as it was close up.

And then, I decided to take a year off graduate school. I had every intention of going back – after all, I was going to be a psychologist – but I wanted a break. All this certainty was getting to me.

For a year, I worked at a mental health clinic – but I did other things, too. I took a photography course and began shooting small events. I started dabbling in video. I worked as a mentor for at-risk (I hate that term) teens in my local Jewish community, facilitating workshops that combined Jewish textual learning and artistic expression. I explored.

The next summer, I went back to Israel. This time, I brought my violin with me. The same violin I picked up at age 17, wanting to find an instrument that I could play. The same violin I held in my right hand as I walked into the dorm on my first day of college, wearing my mother’s tan leather trench coat, hoping I’d make a friend. The violin I barely played but was always visible in my bedroom, a symbol for something I did not yet know.

I carried that violin throughout that trip in Israel, part of a group of young adults who had come to the Land to learn and volunteer. And while some would jam at night, I was scared to open my violin’s case. I did not play… Until our last night of the program. I learnt a couple chords to a R’ Shlomo Carlebach song. On a whim, I agreed to play the song on my violin, accompanying the Havdalah prayer after Shabbos. Standing on a rooftop in the holy city of Tzfat, stars shining in the sky, a cool breeze swept over me. Stillness. Anticipation. Surrounded by 50 people, I brought my violin to my chin, ready.

I started to play. After every note, my heart constricted more. I could not release myself from the self-consciousness. I just wanted it to flow, so bad. I wanted it to be effortless, to express the song of my identity in flowing notes and beautiful sound, entering the hearts of every person who stood there that night, their eyes fixated on me… But it didn’t. It felt so labored. Hard.

After I finished the piece, I quickly returned to the hostel room, violin in hand. Alone, I started to cry. In all the years of certainty, in the confidence of knowing what I wanted to do with my life, I had thrust myself into this unknown space. A space of questions, of riddles, of stories and mystery. The unknown. And I was scared. So, so scared. I felt like an impostor in a world where fakes could be sniffed out from miles away, a cheap knock-off on a rack of couture creations, each more exquisite than the next… Who was I fooling? But somehow, somehow, it felt so deep. And real.

I did not go back to graduate school.

Sometimes the things we do that stretch us so profoundly on the inside, that make us fidget and squirm, that challenge our core, are actually expressions of our deepest selves – the ones we are destined to become.

I can’t tell you anymore who I am or where I am going. I don’t have a neat career path or a simple, catch-all word that holds all of me. And at times, I still feel like a master impostor. All I can say with confidence is that I’m open to surprises. That I love to be stretched. That life is an adventure. Complex. Paradoxical… And that we are born to connect – and create.

Artist. Writer. Educator. Wife. Mother – For me, these are aspirations…not definitions.

Cha-ching.