To Thine Own Self Be True . . .
Besides boys and drinking, in college I studied literature. Yet, sadly I have to admit that my knowledge of Shakespeare goes about as far as Mel Gibson’s Hamlet to that one hit wonder from the early 90’s by his sister’s name. However, I am absolutely gaga for the Bard. Or, at least I am supposed to be— a bookish girl who always loved words tends to make heroes and saints out of all writers, even the ones of which she is not entirely familiar. Then about four years ago, I fell even deeper for Shakespeare when I ran smack into him in Brooklyn. Rather, I ran into some of his words. Although they were written about four hundred years ago, that day their appearance on an engraved sterling ring in a bohemian flea market seemed to come in a rather timely fashion. “To thine own self be true” read the inscription. “Damn Skippy!” I thought, did a mental fist pump, plucked the ring up and scurried back to Manhattan to continue loosing myself amongst the many people.
I was in New York for the soul purpose finding myself, trying to figure out what in the world I was going to do with my life, and sometimes the best way to do that is to lose yourself for a few days. I needed to go to a place where no one knew me, where no one needed something from me and where I was free to pound the pavement and scour the subway searching for answers. I had just turned thirty, my student loan bills were pouring in and every day I went into my office I felt as if I was spooning out a small portion of my soul. My son was now almost a year old, and his father and I’s relationship was not going to get better. It was so diseased that it really just needed to be put down in a humane way. But—I didn’t have the balls, I was too terrified of the “what if’s” to see what was right in front of my face.
As I wandered from burrow to burrow and NYC whizzed by me in a blur my vision started to focus and it became apparent to me that my dreams had shifted into a nightmare. I could no longer afford to press the snooze bar on my life and wait for things to get better, I had to push past my inertia and indecision and actually do something to wake up. When I saw Shakespeare’s words on the ring, I didn’t stop for too long to think about what they meant. I simply thought, “This is fate in a flea market telling you to get your sorry ass out of this pathetic relationship and get on with your life.”
So that’s what I did. I went back to Atlanta and instead of tactfully putting my relationship to sleep; it turned out to be more of a “shooting a lame horse” incident that went terribly array. I proceeded to go through one of the worst “divorces” and custody battles imaginable. Although, to talk about divorce as being something better or worse than you could have imagined is somewhat pointless. No matter how many people we know who have lived through them, how many sickeningly simplistic movies have been made about them, or how many times we have heard the staggering number that is the divorce rate, really there is nothing neither real nor imagined, that can prepare you for the reality of a divorce.
A divorce is two people who were once so in love that they could see their futures in each other’s eyes and who now can no longer look each other in the eye. Divorce is when a stranger comes into a courtroom, wearing a robe and a grim smile, and proceeds to divvy up your life with the precession of a surgeon and a scalpel. Divorce is when bailiffs and court employees herd you through the system as if you are one of many because you are literally one of many. You might as well be assigned a number. Instead of Jones v. Smith, the tittle of your case should be: 1407b v 2356a, because you are now a cow in a large herd, a number, a statistic. Your life is no longer “personal.” And guess who got you here? You and the former love of your life. I don’t care what anyone says about amicable divorces. There is no such thing. Divorce is insanely heartbreaking no matter what the particular details of you and your ex’s relationship were. No matter how happy you are to see his broke-down ass go, it always hurts when they hammer the final nail into the coffin of what was once your greatest dream.
And while I lived through that nightmare, I wore my flea market fate on my finger and would stare down at those words making them mean whatever I needed them to mean that day:
To thine own self be true. Yes- I can face this bully of a man in court.
To thine own self be . . . yes, I can survive the pity filled looks from the other moms at school and show my face in front of the many acquaintances who had “heard” my story.
To thine own self . . . yes, even though all I want to do is crawl in bed and sleep until it all goes away, I can muster up the energy to be present for my son.
To thine own . . . yes, I can start to believe in love again.
And eventually, that nightmare passed and somewhere along the way I tossed the Shakespeare ring in my jewelry box and hadn’t thought of it much until yesterday while doing a little organizing. I came across it my heart stopped for a second. “to thine own self be true” it whispered and I stopped what I was doing, left the little piles of neatly folded shirts and stacked papers, wandered over to my desk where I proceeded to do a little Google research and read about what other people think the words mean. The line is from Hamlet and is spoken by a father, Polonius, to his son who is about to take off and do some traveling, the proverbial “finding himself” trip. What preceded this famous statement was mostly a fathers lecture on how his son better not lose his ass financially and that he better damn well avoid slutty women. So, for many it’s hard to believe that the phrase, “To thine own self be true” was intended to have quite the same introspective, feel good meaning we have attached to it. But, I had to wonder, did it matter what other people thought about the words? Did it even matter what the Bard himself meant by these words when he put them in the mouth of Polonius? Not really, to me they were my battle cry, and my fortune to read.
When boiled down to their most basic and least poetic meaning, I take the words on my ring to mean: “Know who you are, cus the more you know yourself the less likely you are to screw yourself over.”
When dispensing relationship advice people have a habit of saying, “Listen to yourself, just follow your gut.” If you are one of those people, please, go ahead and punch yourself now. How can someone listen to themselves when they don’t know what they the hell they are saying?? In order to follow your gut you have to know which one is yours. Knowing yourself, as it were in my case, turned out to be more difficult than I would have imagined. I was always confusing who I thought I was supposed to be and who others wanted me to be with who I actually was. In most cases when I should have been “listening to myself” there were so many conflicting voices going on in my head I felt like a Schizophrenic.
Had I known myself back then I would have known to pay attention to the voice inside my head that said, “Um, this shit ain’t right!” When my ex brought me leftovers from his dinner out as a consolation for not taking me with him, or when the day I was moving into his apartment he went out with his guy friends looking like a character from “Night at the Roxbury.” If I had known myself then perhaps I would have trusted myself when after watching my ex miss the entire third inning of a baseball game because he had to take a pretzel back to a stadium concession stand based on principle, I thought: “This guy is impossible to please!”
So now, at thirty-something I am finally getting around to being true to myself, to feeling my gut, to picking out my voice in the crowd, and to knowing myself. And sometimes, it’s not all that pretty. Am I always blowing love and sunshine? Hardly. But I can thank Shakespeare in part for this: I won’t ever have any dreams blow up in my face or my hopes perish before my very eyes again because now a days I deal in reality, a nitty, gritty, true to myself reality and that is better than a dream—it’s true to life. y
And . . . to lighten all this introspection up: