I spy with my little eye… flower shaped fairy lights, which are the only source of light in the room, and also the most peaceful corner of the house, illuminating the binding covers of the books on the wooden IKEA shelf. They all lay there, forgotten, like The Outsider, the book I bought at the airport in August and left unfinished, my paper agenda, in which I haven’t written since October 1st, my Simple Diary, a gift I haven’t opened in a while. It’s a game I usually play, this one. I lay on my bedroom’s floor and let my mind take me elsewhere.
Laying there, my thoughts transported me to a chilly early afternoon. Sitting on a bench in front of the university, my best friend was looking for a lead on her article. She is a third year Journalism student, just like me, and so of course, I understood and felt her struggles. As usual, we talked it through: the pros, the cons, the time, the quality, cracking a joke once in a while. At the point, she told me the words which stuck me between what I thought I should pursue and what I was supposed to pursue in my career. She went something like “next time, I’ll write some silly thing on arts and that’s it!” and it started haunting me, even if those words were not even slightly referred to me.
When I tell people I am a journalist, they automatically ask me about politics. They switch the small talk from “it’s so cold outside, isn’t it?” to “so what’s your take on Brexit?” assuming that all I do all day is read noir news and engage in politics. And I get it, they probably imagine me at a tiny desk in a white cubicle popping my eyes out in front of a screen, writing about whatever goes on in the world that day. They never think I might travel and write about art, or photograph places, or film people.
You see, I fear many things in life, like dogs, for example, they terrify me. I fear screams, I fear loneliness, I fear talking to strangers on the phone and I fear the man that walks past me on the high street when I get home from work on Friday nights at 10 pm. And I know to fear all these things. What I did not know, until I laid down on my bedroom floor and played “I spy with my little eye” and let my mind get through all this train of thought, is that I also fear insecurity.
Of course, I felt insecure about the jeans I was wearing last Tuesday, or about how the boy who kissed me on his uncomfortable couch took me for granted, but I never felt this way about my career. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve changed my mind many times: from being a teacher with terrible teaching skills, to being a ballerina, a flight attendant and a writer, a photographer, a filmmaker, a journalist, a graphic designer, a web designer, a journalist, a filmmaker, a documentary filmmaker – in this order.
And yet, something stuck and reminded me about that the pressure of fitting in, and making sure I am becoming the version people expect me to, goes way back. Back to when I was a child in school, getting a low grade for a creative project was a sad week and getting a sticker for my clean calligraphy was a happy moment, vanishing away too quickly. But where has this feeling started? Was is in university? High school? Or way back? That’s when I also realised that I wished they would have taught me in school that even the smallest idea is worth.
At 10.18pm, sitting on a train to Lisbon, from Oeiras, her hometown, Marta Maria Marqueswas on her way to her night-shift job. Restless, and angry at how the others were about to sleep while her “day” just started, she was ready to make a phone call that, she hoped, will help her calm down. She was also the main reason why I was laying on the bedroom floor. I was waiting for her call.
She called right when my mind was going something like “so what if your ideas are not political, or environmental, you should probably pursue that lead but maybe you should document yourself more about politics, you are about to get a degree in journalism, damn it, but you are so interested in people and other stuff” and at that point the phone rang in my hand and I’ve never been happier to pick up a phone call.
Finishing her studies a year ago, Marta moved back to Portugal after living in London for 3 years. She studied Fashion Design at Middlesex University, has a passion for the Italian language (and Italian food), is great at distant relationships and even better at holiday planning. Meeting her two years ago changed my perspective on many things. For one, I learned that a shift can get lighter while working with a friend. Shark movies are great. Losing control once in a while is a must. And most importantly, “if you’re not positive, what are you?”
You have to know that she is the kind of person who has it all figured out: scheduling is her mantra. She knows what she loves, she knows what she hates, and she certainly knows what she wants. So when I asked her what she wished she had learned in school, her answer surprised me.
She went something like this:
“I wished that someone had told me that life after graduation it’s not a race where we all need to follow some strict path of consecutive wins. Failure doesn’t mean you missed the game in life. It’s a crucial skill, hard one to learn though. We need to learn that we should all fail, we need to fail once, and we need to fail better again and again until we hit our goals. I think I left school without understanding how important the concept of failure is.”
The day after I woke up still hang up on how things would have been different if they would have thought not to doubt myself: it kept bouncing back into my thoughts like a ping pong ball; while getting out the front door, getting down the stairs, walking seven minutes to the station, sitting on the Northern line and then sitting on the Victoria line on the way to work, until I bumped into Albena Kostadinova.
Albena comes from a small town in Bulgaria, and she fell in love with her husband many years ago on a summer solo trip in the US. She journals almost every day at dawn to “discover herself better,” she says, and her lips are always tinted of bright red lipstick. She’s kind, and always calm.
She starts with “Oh baby, many things” like she thought about it before, but never had the opportunity to say it out loud. “Mainly how to take care of yourself,” she said raising her voice as the Victoria line carriage’s noise was getting louder, “[both] physically and mindfully. Let’s say how to know yourself and to learn how to accept yourself.
I think it is very important for me that they teach you that from a young age. That everybody is different, and the things that are… this helped me the most in my life. When I accepted myself and learned how to take care of myself, this helped me with everything: my relationships, with my friendships, in my [career], in every part of my life.”
And so we smiled at each other, like two old friends who just shared a secret only they know about.
As time passes, we are mainly tested on the skills we already have and there isn’t much time to learn anymore. Between deadlines, projects, social life, future expectations, it’s our time to prove what we’re worth. There isn’t much space for doubts or insecurities when you’re trying to make it in the world. This is what I was thinking of as I watched my mother taking her makeup off in the bathroom that night. My brother next to her, impatient to brush his teeth and watch another half an hour of television before bed, was telling her about some play happening in school the next couple of weeks. Just that she wasn’t really listening, as she was looking right at me from the squared bathroom mirror, leaning on the door, still lost in my mind.
Most families have discussions at the kitchen table, but mine is different. Our talks happen with one by the bathroom sink and another leaning on the opened door, and occasionally, a third person, usually my father, shouting his opinion from the hallway. And this also where and how this talk happened.
As I told her what was bothering me, she turns around to look straight at me.
“[I wished for someone] to have guided us so we’d know what to do with our future, to guide us on what path to take based on our skills and tell us “see, you have these qualities, and you should develop them more by practising this and this, and you’ll make it” you know? To consider us [one by one].”
Hugging my brother she continues with “For example, if you’re a sensitive kid, to show you the strength within that sensitivity. Look at where it comes from, and most importantly, show you that it is alright to be that way.
And those words made my nine-year-old brother’s eyes fill up with tears.
So I ran back to my room, and I let my mind flow, and my fingertips type, telling you the story on the bedroom floor. From my insecurities, going all the way to Marta’s fear of failure, to Albena’s acceptances, and my mother’s wish for guidance, I finally let my guard down, and as I wrote about the past days, I realised there is no point in pressuring ourselves for pleasing other’s expectations. Insecurities come from the will of pleasing others’ views, as well as fear of failure and not being able to accept ourselves. Does it all trace back to what we haven’t been able to learn in school because too occupied with getting the higher grade or that was just something worth teaching in class? I don’t know. All do I know is that a simple question like “what do you wish you had learned in school?” raised reflections the people I know have never had the courage to say out loud. So what do you?