Words by Mariah Anne Agee
Eight-year-old me is sitting in the back of our rusty station wagon with my forehead pressed against the cool window. The leaves blur around the bends as I daydream about starting school next week. I wonder if the other kids will like me. I wonder if I’ll change. I look down at my hands, shaking while the car bounces over Michigan potholes, and I’m suddenly struck with a twinge of out-of-body panic. What does it mean to be “me”? And is it different from the way others experience their own identity?
Identity is hardly a tangible concept. That contemplative moment forced me to realize this at perhaps too young of an age. I have always been fascinated by the unique worlds within others, always open and ready to be enveloped in the beauty that can inevitably be found there. But using so much energy in this way can be dangerous. Without intentional self-awareness, this dreamy detachment from oneself can leave emptiness in the wake of being alone. It’s taken almost my entire life to realize the existential anxiety that entered me by means of that grandiose childhood realization has far from disappeared. Until very recently, it dictated my half-hearted decisions, my controlling relationships, and my almost complete ignorance of my own identity. It’s with this new awareness that I’ve decided to nurture myself in the same way that I do others, to tend to the dusty corners of my soul and decorate them with love. It’s not always easy, but I’m on a lifelong quest to grow into my own identity and never again lose myself in someone else’s world.
Nobody can cherish a soul the way that the self can, and we all deserve to be cherished. Nurturing your own identity for the sake of only yourself is a complex balance between silliness and seriousness. It means embracing your quirks while never suffocating your passions. It means learning to walk away from anything that doesn’t help you grow. This was the first serious step in my most recent transformation - I made the painfully rewarding decision to leave a four-year stagnant relationship. It was a relationship that had been founded on giving much more than I received, and while I knew that from the start, I didn’t have enough self-respect to care. My double shift work weeks flew by while I gave him everything. I rode the bus while he took my car. I waited on the side of the busy street for him to come back for me after his fury of road rage passed. And, by my own will, I always wound up back in that passenger seat because I am patient and forgiving. I loved the potential that I saw in him more than I cared to love myself, and this was my own mistake.
Before this long relationship, there was a lifetime of other unhealthy friendships and flings, all founded on my fascination with the identity of others more than care for my own. It’s so easy to let your heart and body be used and abused when you’re blinded by the loveliness you see in the intricacies of other people, when you’re too trusting, too generous, and a little naïve. Now, I fight to regain the parts of me that I lost in this constant struggle. When I feel like I’m losing the battle, I remind myself that, “I am for me,” and I feel a little more at peace. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever thought, but after spending so much time living for others, it’s also the most freeing. Mary Oliver may have said this all best with a graceful line from her poem, Wild Geese, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
When I entered into a new, healthy relationship two years ago, I did so as a more complete person than ever before. He’s going back to college, I’m working to fuel my creativity, and we come home from long work days to fill each other with joy and laughter. We made a promise to find ourselves together, and we encourage each other to fulfill this mission with a kind of love that I had never known was possible. It’s the kind of love that you’re only able to give after learning to love yourself. It is founded in care, openness, support, kindness, endless fascination, and respect. I am a better partner because I love myself, and I will continue to grow and bloom into my vivid, ever-refining identity.
Mariah Anne Agee is a record-spinning, cupcake-eating old soul from the forests of Northern Michigan. She studied writing and environmental science at Grand Valley State University, and now lives and works in Grand Rapids as a writer and lover of nature, art, poetry, and travel. She is passionate about building community and celebrating creativity in daily life.